Newcomers to the world of audio will undoubtedly come across two of the most popular DAWs on the market. Pro Tools and Ableton are premiere pieces of software, fit with tools for recording, editing, mixing, and master. While both are fully realized pieces of audio software, they couldn’t be further apart in terms of intended purpose.
We’re going to break down the differences between Pro Tools and Ableton, showing which piece of software is aimed at who and why. Additionally, we’ll show you where each piece of software excels, and where it falls behind.
Avid’s Pro Tools is the standard DAW for any major recording studio in the world. While contenders like Logic and Cubase have knocked in dominance a bit, Pro Tools remains largely the most used DAW today.
Back in 1983, two University of California graduates formed a company called Digidrums, with the intention of creating EPROM microchips for the E-MU Drumulator drum machine. These chips changed the stock sounds of the unit, with everything from pop to heavy metal samples.
A short two years later, the company rebranded into Digidesign, creating the first-ever Mac-based sample editing software. It was called Sound Designer and retailed at a price of $995 for the Macintosh system.
Another four years passed and Sound Tools was released, the first attempt from Digidesign to create a software-based direct-to-disk recording solution. The Mac’s capabilities weren’t up to snuff, with only 8-bit AD/DA conversion at the time.
Digidesign set out to create the first-ever 16-bit AD converter, using DSP acceleration to the next stress the computer’s CPU. Eventually, this leads to the release of Pro Tools in 1991, a hardware-software hybrid that retailed at nearly $6,000.
Much has changed in the last 27 years, with more budget-friendly options hitting the market in the Pro Tools line. Nonetheless, its history is very enlightening in identifying who Pro Tools is for. As the name implies, the DAW is targeted at professionals who need the best of the best when recording.
The DSP acceleration (now only seen in Pro Tools HD systems) allows engineers to record live must, fit with plugins, with incredibly low latency. It’s expensive but intended to run as the best of the best.
What Pro Tools Is Good at?
Pro Tools excels most at recording and mixing. The software is completely designed around this idea, with shortcuts for plugins, playlisting, extensive automation features, and DSP acceleration to boot.
Let’s start with recording. A native Pro Tools system can record up to 32 tracks at 48kHz simultaneously, while an HD system can take up to 256. This headway is a live feed is ideal for studios looking to record live instruments with multiple different sources.
Other features like automatic delay compensation, QuickPunch, and playlisting help with that. Each feature builds directly towards ensuring you can record music without too many hiccups, all while retaining multiple versions for later selection.
Editing is quite good, too. Pro Tools features multiple different editing tools like Beat Detective and Elastic Audio. Both of these tools, again, are aimed at live recordings, meant to tighten up a drum performance or adjust the timing of a guitar track, for example.
Moving down the line, mixing is excellent with Pro Tools as well. While the native AAX plugin format is a bit annoying to dance around, it’s hard to deny just how easy it is to mix with Pro Tools.
Support for an unlimited amount of busses, intelligent routing options, and simple shortcuts for saving or copying plugin settings are all pluses on this front. Additionally, nearly any parameter of a plugin can be automated in real-time or with the pen tools.
Combine that together, and Pro Tools is good a traditional recordings. DAW is a bit too general of a term, so we’d classify Pro Tools as a piece of recording software. It’s meant to record multi-track, high fidelity audio, and provide enough follow-through for editing and mixing.
What Pro Tools Is Bad at?
For all the areas Pro Tools excels, it falls short in others. The live recording aspect is the strongest part of this DAW, with powerful editing and mixing tools to back it up. However, using it for nearly any other purpose is clunky at best.
Particularly, this is true with midi editing. Even recording-centric DAWs like Cubase run circles are Pro Tools’ midi system. You get a simple piano roll to input notes and that’s it. If you’re, for instance, programming drums, the roll is unusable without a serious learning curve.
Layering sample is quite a problem, too. While adding any audio track is simple enough, Pro Tools doesn’t cater to the sampling market. You’ll have to tutor up each sample individually and drag it into place.
Creating music within the software is the weakest point of Pro Tools. Midi editing is horrible, sampling sucks, and manipulating audio or virtual instruments is a clunky experience. It’s possible to do all of these, but you’d be far better suited with another piece of software.
Ableton, or Ableton Live as it’s officially called, has a far shorter history than Pro Tools. The popular DAW is a bit over a decade old but has managed to take quite a firm hold in the electronic music community.
It first arrived on the audio scene in 2001, with the official title of “Live”. It was developed by the Berlin-based software company Ableton with the purpose of bringing a software front to live performances.
The software functioned in two separate workspaces. Users could choose either Session view or Arrange view. The former showed a mixer, with a grid-based representation of all clips included in your live set. The latter showed a traditional DAW timeline, allowing you to change arrangements and piece together new clips.
This approach quickly caught on in the electronic community as it delivered exactly what producers needed to perform live. Performers could quickly queue up a sample and manipulate them in real-time, using the software like a DJ would use disks.
Since that preliminary stage, Live has grown into a much more developed DAW. The software now hosts VST plugins, has full support for midi sequencing, and can even record live sources. This came over the first few years of the software’s lifespan.
What also came was the first virtual instrument package. With the release of version 3 in 2003, Live included Impulse, an eight-part drum sampler, and Simpler, a melodic sampler. Midi sequencing opened up, but so did midi effects, meaning you could drag an effect onto the track and manipulate it in real-time.
What Ableton Is Good at?
The Live moniker is very telling for what this piece of kit excels at. In a performance setting, it’s second to none, bringing all features an electronic performer could want. From sampling to warping, Ableton has the performer covered.
There are a number of mixing (used in this case as a synonym for blending) and beat-matching features. This is huge for DJs as it brings the classic mix-matching of tracks to the digital world. Set up your clips and scenes and then trigger them when the time calls for it.
You also get the automatic temp analysis feature. It estimates the speed of all your tracks and attempts to tempo sync them in real-time. Sometimes it misses, yes, so serious performers need to do a bit of setup beforehand, but it’s a great feature when out in front of a crowd.
The most impressive part of Ableton, though, is its warping feature. Warping audio, that is changing the speed without affecting pitch, is not a new concept, but Ableton Live handles it with such ease that it must be noted.
You first identify the temp and warp points, or beat markers, on an audio clip. After that’s done, you can quickly quantize beats, apply swing, or change the tempo entirely, all in real-time. There are multiple different algorithms as well, so you can experiment to find the right sound for a particular clip.
However, Live is more than just performance software. You can go pretty deep in arrange mode to create new sounds, mash together sequences, or even craft your own midi arrangements.
What Ableton Is Bad at?
Like Pro Tools, Ableton is bad at just about everything else that it isn’t good at. The software excels on the digital sequencing and performance front but is just horrible for nearly any other audio purpose.
Recording with Ableton is a nightmare. The software is designed to lay samples, so trying to record any live audio into it is clunky at best. It can be done, and those familiar with the software will have no problem harnessing the power, but Live certainly isn’t set up to handle that sort of load.
That’s not the only problem, either. While manipulating audio is the software’s expertise, editing, particularly multi-track editing, is simply impossible. There are no tools like Beat Detective to quantize multiple, live recordings and, while you can certainly try, unwanted artifacts is almost a certainty.
VST support is now part of the software, so you can use your favorite mixing plugins as well as virtual instruments. The process isn’t horrible, as using the plugin is the same as in any other DAW.
However, loading it up is a hassle. The software isn’t designed for mixing and mastering, so quickly finding plugins, writing automation with the parameters, and copying settings is a bit too much for the software to handle with ease.
Which One Should I Get?
Hopefully, you’ve seen a line through the descriptions of each of these pieces of software. They are polar opposites of each other, providing two unique looks at the world of audio production. Knowing what you want to do is the first step in choosing which is for you.
Pro Tools is an industry standard for recording and mixing. It features all the tools you need to record live audio, editing it to taste, mix it, and polish with a master. Additionally, Avid’s new cloud collaboration opens up the possibility to sync projects with other engineers around the world.
If you’re in the market to create recordings, Pro Tools is for you. It has all the tools you need to create fantastic sounding, traditional music. While midi sequencing is often part of that, Pro Tools doesn’t excel in this area. It’s not completely broken, but it’s not ideal.
Which brings up Ableton Live. Where Pro Tools falls short, Ableton excels. Midi sequencing is the best here, and laying samples is commonplace. The fantastic suite of time and pitch manipulation tools makes it ideal for taking a piece of audio and sculpting it into something new.
If you work 100% in the box, meaning you rely solely on software to create music, it’s hard not to suggest Ableton. The software is intuitive on that front and provides enough flexibility to translate into a live setting.
Pro Tools and Ableton both have made quite an impact on the audio industry. However, each made its mark for a different reason. While neither software is good for everything, both excel in their intended areas.
While we did point out some cons throughout this comparison, don’t take that to mean that Pro Tools or Ableton are bad. They certainly aren’t. Both pieces of software are excellent in the correct context, and this is no DAW on the market that can cover all the bases.
The choice, ultimately, is up to you, so which one are you going with? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.