DAW and plug-in picks from the professionals

As the heated debate on the subject of DAWs continues, four audio professionals reveal the software they can’t live without.

The DAW market has reached saturation point as competitors desperately try to outmuscle each other to become the industry standard. As this struggle pushes software to become more and more homogenous, it can be difficult to find the right package for you. We have assembled four experts to help guide your choice; Ian Palmer, sound designer and dubbing mixer at Gorilla Group TV; Ryan McCambridge, audio engineer, producer and programmer; Romesh Dodangoda (pictured), producer/mixer at Long Wave Recording and Katie Tavini, producer and mixing/mastering engineer.

What do you look for in a DAW?

Ian: As I have been a sound editor and dubbing mixer over the years, I look for a DAW that is good at both. I need something that will be quick and efficient. It means I only need one piece of software to be able to work.

Ryan: I have been using a DAW professionally for over 15 years. The most important thing for me is reliability. A lack of reliability costs money and time, which for me is non-negotiable. I also appreciate a DAW with a logical and efficient workflow, because that ultimately allows me to work faster and more efficiently.

Katie: In a DAW, I mainly use stability. Having a system that runs smoothly with your DAW is a must too, as there’s nothing worse than losing work because of crashing, or a DAW running slowly when you’re in the middle of a session with loads of cool ideas to try out.

Which DAW(s) do you rely on most, and why?

Ian: I use Pro Tools. I think it’s very good at both editing and mixing; it’s not perfect but it has been a great tool over the years. I also use it as it’s the industry standard. The ability for me to edit dialogue and send that session to be mixed is invaluable. That also enables me to work in any company without having to learn any new software,

Ryan: I primarily use Pro Tools 11; I find it to be the most logical for those of us that came from linear formats. It can do almost anything you need it to but it doesn’t ever ‘auto-magically’ do it for you. I want flexibility but I want absolute control over that flexibility. The moment a DAW starts making assumptions for me, I have a problem with it.

On bigger sessions, Pro Tools HD is a must. I use native Pro Tools a lot but I wouldn’t want to track a band live off the floor without HD; it’s the only platform that I know of that can get you there with the necessary stability.

I’m enjoying Logic for MIDI-based projects. It generally seems to handle virtual instruments better than Pro Tools.

Romesh: I use Steinberg Nuendo V6. As work got more hectic, I had to find a system that I could comfortably mix in the box; I needed to be able to do recalls fast and open multiple projects quickly. I have everything set up in a way that I can spend less time looking at the DAW and more time focusing on the music.

Katie: For recording projects, I mostly use Pro Tools and Cubase. I have two different versions of Cubase – version 1.1 and version 5. I think for any audio engineer it’s important to know Pro Tools as it’s completely industry standard. The main reason I still use Cubase 1.1 is because, for MIDI, it’s solid as a rock.

How would you describe the rate at which DAWs have been improving over the past few years?

Ian: I actually think sometimes DAWs don’t progress quickly enough. The addition of Clip Gain to Pro Tools has speeded up my workflow greatly. Why did such a simple feature that has been requested for many years take so long to arrive?

I do think that with hardware improvements, DAWs have continuously got better. I personally find new features easy to use as they are built into a pre-existing GUI and workflow that is solidly established.

Romesh: The demand on the DAW has increased as more people rely on it now, so I think it’s important that there are improvements made. The DAW has become the centre of a lot of people’s workflow.

Katie: Pro Tools 11 and Cubase 5 are my go-to DAWs for audio. Cubase 7 has a lot of really useful updates, and it’s a lot more user friendly than Cubase 5, but I have found it to be less reliable, which is why I’m happy staying slightly old school.

Are there now too many updates? Do you find it hard to keep up with them all?

Ian: I find updates a little frustrating. Not in themselves, but when you have to organise lots of different software to do one little upgrade. The combination of OSX, Waves and Pro Tools has been a fairly precarious path to upgrade on at times.

Romesh: If my system is stable, then I usually won’t update it for a while as I don’t have a lot of time to be troubleshooting if I have a lot of sessions I need to work on. If it starts altering the way you work and it means you have to adjust to fit the DAW, then it can become a problem.

Katie: As long as a DAW does the job you need it to, there’s not really much point in upgrading. There doesn’t seem much point in upgrading each year just for one or two extra features which you might spend a couple of days learning and then never use.

Do you agree that some DAWs are becoming too similar to one another? Should companies be doing more to set themselves apart?

Ian: I guess that a combination of the two is a good balance. If I went into the Nuendo environment, for example, I would have to learn where things are and what they are labeled, new icons etc. But the basic structure of a DAW is standard just like a mixing desk is. A bus might be called an Aux or a Group track but they perform the same job.

Ryan: To me, great tools are the ones that empower you, which usually is a product of your connection to them. Most DAWs have the same features and do the same things but each of them feel a bit different. I think people should use whichever DAW makes the most sense to them and the way they think. Ultimately, someone’s comfort with a DAW will far outweigh the advantages of the very minor nuances between the different platforms.

Romesh: I think a lot of the DAWs out there have applications that they are really good for and that make them stand out. Nuendo for me is great because it is great all round for tracking, mixing and also working with video. Its great that there is choice out there so users can find something that suits their workflow and what they are looking to do with it.

Katie: I think manufacturers are trying to go for an all-in-one package. It’s more noticeable with things like PreSonus Studio One’s ability to generate DDP files. It’s basically a DAW that you can record, mix and then master in. Home studios are everywhere, and I think companies are trying to use that to their advantage.

Are you a big plug-in user? Do you have any favourites?

Ian: I love plug-ins and couldn’t live with out them. I use them extensively when I edit and mix. My favourite editing plug-in has to be iZotope’s RX4. It’s just so powerful for cleaning up production sound. I really like the addition of the Dialogue DeNoiser component. Useful if you cannot find some suitable noise for the DeNoiser to Learn.

?For mixing I love the Renaissance plug-ins by Waves. The UI is simple and easy to use, plus they sound good. I use the REQ and RComp on all my Dialogue tracks as my go to plug-ins for Television mixing.

Ryan: Universal Audio has really cornered the market on emulations. Every one of its plug-ins has a distinct flavour, which often isn’t the case with plug-ins. The AMS RMX16 has a sound that was so prevalent in the 80s and it’s incredible when a plug-in can emulate the hardware so accurately that you’re instantly able to recreate that era. Their entire plug-in line is incredible.

For me, McDSP is my go to for everything else. They are incredibly forward-thinking with their plug-ins. They make them so feature-rich that they’re unparalleled in the amount of control that they offer. Also, often the problem with plug-ins is that they fall apart if pushed too hard, but McDSP are musical even at extremes. CompressorBank, FilterBank, and the NF575 Noise Filter make it into every mix that I do.

Romesh: I tend to use a lot of analogue equipment for tracking so when the audio hits the DAW, there is not a lot I need to do to the sound. However, if I do go to plug-ins, I’m a big fan of Universal Audio. They sound great!

Katie: I’m not a heavy plug-in user, but my go-to’s are Sonnox EQ, dynamics and limiter, and the Brainworx Digital V2. I love how transparent and natural sounding Sonnox plug-ins are, and I love the M/S processing on the BXV2.