On June 18th, 2019, an Avid employee and moderator of the Avid Pro Tools Users group on Facebook announced a heads up of pricing changes to the Pro Tools product lineup. It later was also shared on Avid’s DUC board. This move has angered many people, driven others to rage, and others left not knowing quite how to proceed.
I do have to say that Avid’s decisions, noted in the image shared by Avid below, have disappointed me to the point where after a year of small updates I know at least I myself am making plans to switch DAWs and cease any commercial support of Avid via my purchases and renewals and also my advocating the AAX plugin ecosystem. If this sounds familiar or you feel you might be in the same boat, please read on.
So where does that leave me and the many others like those on Gearslutz or on other social media platforms who have voiced displeasure at Avid’s pricing decisions and seeking alternatives? Thankfully in a really good place that will ultimately probably affect many of us for the better!
What To Expect Leaving Pro Tools Behind?
Did you know that low limited I/O and channel counts are a unique Pro Tools-ism? If you’re just now investigating alternate DAWs, you might be looking for these stats on competing products and coming up short. Historically, Digidesign (now Avid) sold hardware DSPs that had hard voice/channel limits that weirdly found their way into the Pro Tools Native platform. Avid has recently even started selling “voice packs” that increase these entirely arbitrary limits in their Pro Tools Ultimate product. If you move to another DAW, you are expected to largely be able to add as many tracks and I/O count as your system can handle and not an arbitrary amount as decided by Avid.
While these specific benefits are huge, they have been around for some time. So why hasn’t the pro or prosumer market adopted 3rd party platforms en masse long ago? This is largely due to the value that Pro Tools shines in that other DAWs for the most part lack: Hardware accelerated digital sound processing. Anyone who has ever used an Accel or HDX based Pro Tools environment has no doubt fallen in love with the low latency that Pro Tools offers.
However, the days of Avid being the only DAW vendor offering low latency recording environments ended several years ago with the advent of 3rd party DSP solutions and Thunderbolt audio interfaces. Companies such as Universal Audio have been provided hardware accelerated plugin architecture for quite a while now. Even better? They function perfectly in a wide variety of DAW platforms instead of being tied down bottom up to a single vendor. Additionally, with Thunderbolt audio interfaces, we even have better access to low latency recording that under certain circumstances beats Avid’s offering. The cons to these great offerings of the last several years come at the cost of their very design: in not being a top down solution from a single vendor building the hardware and software, it is largely left to users to build our their environments based on their needs and abilities rather than a team of QA engineers. While some might see this as a total con, I would actually refer to it as simply an alternative a la the difference between building your own studio PC or purchasing a Mac, albeitly without as many variations leading to possible issues.
Therefore in leaving Avid’s Pro Tools, you’re actually much more free to pursue products that fit you in a much better suited capacity, but from multiple vendors.
A Literal Plethora of Pro Tools Alternatives
Aside from the top down pros and cons of Avid’s offering, let’s take a moment to focus on popular alternatives to Pro Tools and Pro Tools Ultimate itself: other DAWs. I’ve used several DAWs over the years. As an electronic musician, we have a bit more freedom in our recording and writing environments. For some DAWs, I found they functioned really well in Rewire mode for Pro Tools and used them as additional writing tools. Over the past years, I’ve used Pro Tools extensively but I’ve also used Presonus Studio One, Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live, Propellerheads Reason, and Apple Logic Pro X in the past. While I won’t be doing full reviews of each in this blog post (perhaps in the future though), I wanted to share my experiences with them in the context of a Pro Tools user who might be looking for an alternative to invest in. At the very least, hopefully I leave you with a basic overview of each. In each of the listings below, I’m going to be focusing on the highest tier versions of the product and not the feature-restricted entry versions. The prices listed below reflect these versions of the product.
MOTU Digital Performer (Sweetwater) – $499, $395*
This is the one DAW I’ve always meant to investigate more. You may not hear about it in circles that chiefly revolve around Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Logic Pro X, but it’s been around about as long as I’ve been alive. So what does Digital Performer have to offer that the other choices do not? While I don’t have a lot of personal experience and am looking at giving it a thorough hands on, on paper this DAW calls out to me.
Being primary someone that works with MIDI controlled synthesizers, samplers and effects devices, I’ve always felt many of the DAWs on the market have fallen short with regard to external instruments in the hype of AAX/VST/AU effects/instruments. Whether you’ve never let your outboard gear go or are raiding Reverb.com and eBay for now-cheap gear from your favorite bygone eras, outboard gear for me at least plays a large role within my productions. Digital Performer, to me, based on talks with some other DP users and reading commentary on forums seems like a MIDI guy’s or girl’s DAW. Take Ableton Live, for instance. Awesome sampler, great sample manipulation, even a fairly straight forward I/O configuration setup. But no SysEx support? The heck? MOTU’s Digital Performer looks like the gold standard, right up there at least if not beyond Steinberg’s Cubase, when it comes to its MIDI engine implementation and workflow.
A fairly common criticism I hear about DP is that virtual instruments take up two tracks, one MIDI and one Instrument tracks that outputs audio. This is quite a bit different from working with virtual instruments in other DAWs where when you load a virtual instrument and write MIDI on that track while audio also plays from the track. What some might call a criticism I believe is people not appreciating the consistency of Digital Performer. I LOVE this concept. I love it with a passion. What this means is working with virtual instruments and outboard instruments is completely consistent, no longer requiring a mental checklist of configuring multi-timbral MIDI instruments when adding one to the project.
And I believe this type of common critique is just one example is the biggest crux MOTU faces: People simply can’t distinguish from uncommon albeit better workflow implementations with their own common experiences. I have my suspicions that I’m going to love Digital Performer quite a lot. For my specific purposes, it represents my perfect Avid Pro Tools replacement: mature development and application, hardware and software integration from the same vendor, excellent MIDI features, and a stable of extremely talented fellow users to share experiences with.
After reviewing several years worth of posts and corresponding release notes of various DP releases over time, MOTU seems very much like a company insistent on not chasing fads but rather focuses on real improvements for its users and well baked feature request implementations. Too often, especially in some DAWs listed in this post and Avid’s Pro Tools, it feels like a feature request turned upgrade feature was simply half assed with the expectation that people would go ahead and pay for the upgrade now while updates would be released that polished the implementation. This seems to be the antithesis of MOTU software development, which is very refreshing. Long term DP users like those found on Gearslutz and MOTUnation (unaffiliated with MOTU the company) seem very happy with their solution. It’s quite a bit different from the groans and murmurs you’ll hear elsewhere. Very sharp.
And this development methodology doesn’t preclude DP getting rather large feature implementations. In the most recent release, version 10, DP gained a whole new view that takes inspiration from Ableton Live and like that found in new products like the Akai Force via the Clips Window, opening up a whole new world of methods not just for composition but for live performances as well.
I’ll be reporting my experiences with Digital Performer in another blog post in more detail, zeroing in on workflows coming from Pro Tools and working with external outboard gear in the context of electronic music.
*If you are coming from another DAW, be sure to check out MOTU’s competitive upgrades which allow you to trade in your license for a competitors DAW in exchange for a $100 discount.
Apple Logic X (Apple Mac App Store) – $199.99
Apple has perhaps the most numerous feature set translations and commitment to excellence for anyone seeking to get off the Avid train and seek greener but similar pastures. After acquiring eMagic and all of its assets quite a long time ago, Apple has poured resources into its DAW and ecosystem. Both the market and third party vendors have responded in kind with virtually any type of hardware or software being very nearly guaranteed to work within Logic, something that I never quite had with Avid’s Pro Tools.
Not only just investing in their acquired DAW, Apple has continued to provide excellent support to bring Logic into the future by acquiring other companies to pad the feature set of Logic such as when it recently acquired Camel Audio and repackaged all software into a Logic update for free for every Logic Pro X customer. Now, that’s something really special that is unique to Apple so let’s contemplate on Apple’s position in the DAW-verse: Apple essentially uses Logic Pro X as a loss leader to sell more Macintosh hardware. Since the first release of Logic Pro X, every single point release since (and there have been many) have been released for free to all existing customers. These updates aren’t anemic in nature and only existing to seemingly provide bullet points on a release notes pamplet either. Apple has continued to modernize and optimize Logic Pro X to the point where if you’re on a Mac, you really should be considering Logic first.
Starting life much like some other DAWs where MIDI features were its bread and butter with audio features coming much later, Logic Pro X not only has perhaps one of the most comprehensive MIDI workflows of any DAW on the market, but the audio features are near second to none as well.
Keep in mind that I’m not an engineer recording other bands, I’m not running a studio for other bands, I’m a recording artist who records and mixes my own electronic music. Logic Pro X integrates not only software instruments and effects in a very clear, very Pro Tools-esque manner, but also integrates with external MIDI instruments and external audio paths for outboard gear all in a very consistent and easy to comprehend and perform manner.
While some features might not be completely represented from Pro Tools with a 1:1 analogue, Logic can’t be ignored as a bonafide EDM powerhouse. And if you are a mixing engineer or running a studio, Logic Pro X from my estimates truly does represent the #2 alternative for that famed “industry standard”. Popular with bands recording themselves, film and television composters, EDM artists and singer songwriters, Logic Pro X I believe represents a solid transition target for anyone fleeing the recent tyranny of Avid. For $199, it’s at the very least worth checking out. I’ve owned Logic Pro X for many years and while I haven’t (yet) started and finished a project within it, I have used it to write initial stems, melodies, and arrangements, all to great joy. With the wealth of plugins available and its solid mixing paradigm, there’s really no reason I can’t finish songs within this DAW and only simply preferred mixing stems in Pro Tools previously.
Presonus Studio One – (Sweetwater) – $399.95
Presonus Studio One represents, in my opinion, the easiest transition away from Pro Tools. Attacking on all fronts, Presonus has upped their game and has challenged Avid’s once great foothold over the industry by providing software, low latency audio interfaces, and mixing desk controllers. As such, they have continued to consistently drain away Pro Tools users that have previously given their no faith vote in Avid management and are becoming increasingly efficient at it.
Where Studio One shines I believe is its emphasis on the audio side of things. While it possesses a very strong MIDI workflow (that’s improving with each release), it is making a transition for any Pro Tools user easier than the majority of the competition.
Its development started long after many of the other options listed in this blog, but Presonus has turned this into its advantage by being able to design it from the get go with modern features and avoiding the mistakes and fizzled out trends of yesteryear. With a good amount of developers coming from Steinberg to Presonus, their previous work on Nuendo has given Presonus an enormous amount of talent that are put to good use.
Updates are where Studio One really shines. Major versions are now around $149 while the initial purchase of the Professional edition is $400. You might say, well that $149 beats Avid’s new upgrade price of $199 but it’s still not as good as the $99 fee we had previously. And you’re right to a degree, but Presonus upgrade path includes the much loved “.5” releases that contain just as many new features for that major version as its initial release completely free. So essentially you’re getting several years worth of upgrades for $149. And they aren’t skimpy features. Just check out the promotional material for the most recent Studio One 4.5 release.
Studio One’s centerpiece feature has to be its workflow. As I mentioned before they got to skip over dealing with legacy designs by jumping into the DAW market late in the game. And they seem to be targeting Pro Tools users specifically with audio and mixing workflows. Small things like allowing operators to modify hardware pre-amp values per channel and endlessly configurable short cut modifications will make anyone’s life easier.
It’s my opinion that the vast majority of Pro Tools users should give Presonus Studio One Professional a shot when getting off the Avid wheel of uncertainty because the vast majority of Pro Tools operators aren’t using Pro Tools as artists but as engineering personnel. While Studio One excels for these workflows, it also doesn’t preclude musicians who are using Studio One as their primary DAW for compositions and exploratory song creation so it’s a good option for all crowds.
In addition to the software, consider that Presonus is the only vendor that offers very low latency Thunderbolt powered audio interfaces in the form of their Quantum product line that hold up to HDX cards at a fraction of the price as well as mixers that double as audio interfaces such as the new Studio Live 64S. Strip away anything resembling arbitrary channel and I/O limits and one might find one kicking themselves for not switching to Studio One sooner.
Ableton Live Suite (Sweetwater) – $749.00
I know many artists that primarily use Pro Tools and we all seem to have another application to handle drum programming, sample manipulation and core arrangement tasks that get piped into Pro Tools either via Rewire channels or by exporting stems to import into Pro Tools later. Ableton’s Live DAW is commonly held up as the go to sketchpad chocked full of features that is nearly universally preferred among electronic artists.
The program is known in some circles for being extremely popular especially in the realm of live performances, but over time Ableton Live has been slowly built up into a very scalable and functional DAW in its own right. There are two main modes in Ableton Live that split emphasis on live performance and a more traditional DAW workflow named Session (live performance) and Arrangement (composition and arrangement). Ableton Live, especially in recent versions, has very little holding it back from being a suitable DAW for EDM workflows. It recently gained VST3 support opening a whole new world of plugins such as Roland Cloud and has very mature hardware controller support in the form of Ableton’s own Push 2 and third party vendors such as Akai’s APC product line.
One area I wouldn’t recommend Ableton Live is large scale multi-channel recording for bands that don’t focus on beat mapped production or mixing engineers or studio owners looking for something that can act as a scalable one size fits all solution. If you’re recording electronic music, however, you should really own Ableton Live. If not to use as your primary DAW, then at the very least for use in Rewire mode in whatever DAW you end up replacing Pro Tools with. The sampler features alone make it easy to replace the best of the best from the likes of Akai and Native Instruments. Recording bands and you’ll quickly run into situations where the DAW has obviously not been built for that task set.
As far as upgrade costs, Live releases tend to have extremely long multi-year lifespans. While each upgrade is $299, you’ll be running on that version with many, many feature additions over several years.
Steinberg Cubase (Sweetwater, zZounds, AMS) – $579.99
Cubase is a monstrously deep program with options and considerations inherent in its design that go back literally decades. Famous among electronic artists for its amazing MIDI features and audio tracking capabilities, if you’re leaving Avid’s Pro Tools and have a MIDI-heavy environment controlling many external MIDI devices or are adamant about having a fully featured and well thought out MIDI editor, then you’ll feel right at home with this DAW. The mixer, complete with VCA options in mixer channels, makes a mostly suitable replacement for your Pro Tools mixing experience.
Upgrade prices between versions are very fair and reward users that invest in the Cubase platform (rather than increase renewals 101% like Avid is now doing) by reducing upgrade costs for users that have updated to the more recent versions.
Steinberg as a company absolutely loves its users regardless of their role or use cases. Starting out as an obscure MIDI editor, the charm of the company hasn’t left and even survived in flying colors following the purchase of Steinberg by Yamaha who has consistently invested in all product lines and brought it into entirely new industries.
It is notable to when talking about Cubase that the company that develops it also developed the plug-in formats of VST, VST2 and VST3 which except for Apple’s Logic Pro X, is the competitor of Avid’s own AAX platform.
I wouldn’t call Cubase a drop in replacement for Pro Tools. In fact, I wouldn’t saw that about any of the DAWs in this blog post. However, feature for feature, Steinberg’s Cubase provides perhaps the most beneficial transition path out of Pro Tools land. You might have to relearn some of your common workflows, but you’ll be rewarded with ease of use and quality of life improvements in doing so.
Upgrade costs range from $50 to $100 between versions, but Steinberg won’t leave you out in the cold and take your blanket if you don’t re-up for the last version or last several versions. Steinberg has several sales throughout the year and I got my upgrade for $50 during a sale for Cubase 10 Pro.
Steinberg Nuendo (Sweetwater) – $999.99
Nuendo is without a doubt a great Pro Tools Ultimate killer that’s been waiting in the wings for years. Imagine all of the great feature sets of Cubase, but with extra finesse and love giving to workflows for a whole myraid of extra markets ranging from post-production to composition to video game audio development to surround mixing to Yamaha-powered mixing desk compatibility. This is Nuendo!
While Cubase will do just fine for your average electronic musician recording and writing their own music, Nuendo goes to 11 in all other realms usually associated with Pro Tools Ultimate. Surround mixing is something that has long been locked to Pro Tools users behind the Ultimate’s larger fee and hardware requirements, but it comes freely in Nuendo. In fact, many post and media production studios have abandoned Pro Tools long ago to base their productions on Steinberg’s top of the line DAW.
Better still, while Avid is increasing prices and seemingly punishing long term perpetual license owners, Steinberg has made much effort to give the power of its platform to ordinary users as well as larger production houses. This is what I like to see: large companies that know their customers make their revenue and treating them right and appreciating them. Rewarding Steinberg ecosystem end users, Nuendo was recently given a drastic price decrease from nearly $2k down to $999.99. Crossgrades from existing Cubase users are available. Steinberg seems intent on a mission to be as inclusive and helpful to its users as possible which to me is a breath of fresh air after years of Avid.
In Closing: Further Considerations
Remember how at the beginning of this blog post I talked about there being the factor of Avid providing a top down solution that made it hard to compare other competing products to? Again, this works in your favor and now I’ll explain that further.
It’s only relatively recently that Avid has allowed users to use third party audio interfaces. Either through DigiLink or on native Core Audio sound systems, the experience was nonetheless needlessly and unreasonably nerfed in both versions of Pro Tools, regular and Ultimate. These limitations such as a max or 32 I/O was obviously meant to drive users to seek out their next stage in the product line up, the HDX card solution in conjunction with Pro Tools Ultimate. And if prices weren’t abrasive to home project studio and self-recording bands I would have been happy to ride up that ladder because the software is without a doubt very great. And that’s the shocking part of the last nail for me: I love Pro Tools. I like it’s design, I like it’s work flow, and despite claims to the contrary, its MIDI capabilities were very comprehensive. But I don’t like AVID. One can make all sorts of arguments (and I’ve seen plenty of straw men already out on the forums and social media) that the price hike is inconsequential if you use Pro Tools for a living or its central to your creative endeavors. However, that doesn’t take into account reading between the lines and anticipating future product prices changes based on the actions of AVID in the past: AVID seems to want to shed its project studio and non-professional customer base and shift their larger customers over to subscription models. They claim this is what the industry is leading to and is what people want, but I disagree. In some cases, subscriptions make sense. I’m an ardent supporter of Roland Cloud. But for the DAW, no. I’m not renting my DAW, whatever I’m using for that project.
But this opens up the curious among who are looking at cutting Pro Tools out of our lives to these amazing alternative options, and not only that, we get to pick and choose how we deploy and use our collection of solutions. If there’s any talk of abandoning Pro Tools, especially when institutional investments like HDX, HD Native, Avid Artist Mix, S3 or S6 control surfaces or Avid Pro Tools Docks are involved, we must consider alternatives as collections of solutions because we’re necessarily moving away at that point from a single solution from a single vendor. What does this mean exactly? Magic. We can pick and choose which tools fit our work flow best. Do you want a massive amount of Thunderbolt-based low latency input and output ports to use a large amount of outboard gear or record from many sources at once? Grab yourself one of Presonus’ Quantum 4848 and laugh heartily at AVID’s needless limit on channel I/O (even in their Ultimate version). Want to get Neve transformers on your audio interface? Grab one of Steinberg’s UR-RT interfaces and you’re already going above and beyond what AVID is offering on the Pro Tools side. Mix and match, there are no real wrong answers, just a return to seeking the latest scuttlebutt on the latest and best combinations of software and hardware.
While consistency and one stop solution shopping have kept many of us locked in our usage of Pro Tools, I myself plan to fully explore Steinberg’s Nuendo 10 platform in conjunction with my Presonus Quantum audio interface and later add DSP-powered effects processing with Universal Audio‘s UAD platform.
The sky is the limit and AVID has just invited many of us to more fully explore this amazing wild west of an AVID-free product and services horizon.