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"All DAW's sound alike" and other wisdom of the Internet

Starship Krupa

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I realize that I may be kicking a hornet's nest here, and if I were a mean enough guy, I would just state that it makes no sense to believe that all DAW's sound alike and then wait for people to disagree with me and then say why.

However, whenever I see this stated in online forums (and it's never challenged), I roll my eyes so hard that it rearranges my mic locker. The person stating it sometimes says "it's been proven." It would be nice, we kinda all want it to be true, it would be one less thing to worry/obsess about. But under a little examination, it's just not even possible. I'm not a software engineer, although I have worked as a QA engineer at some large companies. The following is merely based on my considering what is likely and what is possible.

First off, let's examine the methodology of what such "proof" might be. The only thing I can think of that would serve as objective proof would be to take an audio file, import it into the DAW, then without adding any effects or panning or mixing it with anything, render it back out to a lossless format and do a bit-to-bit or audio summing comparison. Anything else would introduce listener subjectivity. If there have been tests of summing engines, I am not aware of them, but the issues I bring up may also apply to those.

Now if that's the criterion for proof of sounding alike, which, BTW, not all DAW's can even do once their engines have to up or down sample (don't worry, Cakewalk's engine handles it like a champ), then it's an operation that uses the DAW in a way that nobody actually does in real life. So the "proof" proves that they all sound alike as long as you don't do anything but import and export audio files without doing anything to them.

In the actual world of using DAW's, and for the sake of my illustration I'll just talk about audio, a DAW has to do so much more with audio than that. And each operation has to be handled in a way that will affect the way it sounds. How could it not? The decisions that the algorithm makes, the panning, the way plug-ins are applied (Cakewalk has its own 2X upsampling!), how it's sent to the rendering CODEC, the way all of this is combined together to create a mix at the end. The potential for a difference between playback quality and render quality. We may not be hearing the same quality from playback that the rendering engine applies. How the engine handles clipping. Does it have its own high and low-pass filtering? DC blocking? Do they contribute to possible non-linearity? These and so many more are issues and choices that must be faced by DAW developers, and they are not all going to make the same choices.

One would have to believe that every software development team for every DAW has made the same decisions about all of these things for "all DAW's sound the same" to be true. And I just don't believe that, as a matter of fact I think it's impossible.

MAGIX, makers of Sequoia, Samplitude, and Music Maker (freeware DAW said to be popular in Europe) made a big deal with their last releases about having reworked their engine so that it "sounded better," and that they had applied the changes all across the product line, from Sequoia all the way down to Music Maker. I'm very curious what they did, but somebody thought there was room for improvement.

So, am I off-base here? Am I not considering something crucial? If so, I welcome the trip to school. I'd love to believe that all DAW's sound the same. It would go against the empirical evidence my ears give me, but I'm open to opposing viewpoints.

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8 hours ago, Starship Krupa said:

So, am I off-base here?

Not at all!

There is an additional point in respect to the coding: Most things are not that easy that you can just write 1 single code statement, no, you have to program a whole bunch of code and believe me, there are so many ways to do the same thing in code. Even if you use library code, so are the call sequence and parameters essential for the results! And of course the libary and programming language that you choose! Also the logical order of your processing is extremely relevant, because many calculations have some sort of "clipping".

To cut a long story short: It is 100 percent certain that such complicated things like audio processing have different results by different developers!

But whether the difference is really perceptible is another question!!! (My sense of hearing is so bad nowadays!)

Edited by marled
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It's also not just about audio files, I've found that different DAW's seem to make certain VSTi's sound different or better than others. At least they do to my ears. They also can have different latency capability when playing through a midi keyboard. Responsiveness also contributes to a better or worse perceived sound. I notice it more when I start layering more complex midi sounds, mixing pianos and synths etc. None of these differences are necessarily better or worse but to be honest, the DAW's sound quite different to me when I do this.

Mixcraft sounds "grainy" which is good for dirtier sounds, Cakewalk sounds "analog", deeper and  thicker, good for making VST instruments more "live". Harrison mixbus takes that same sound to another level. Cubase sounds "clinical" can be very clean and revealing, which is good for mixing. Protools sounds "boxy", like the high and low end have had cuts automatically applied, I don't really use protools much though, I don't find it good for midi.

These are all probably exaggerated descriptions, just what it sounds like to me.


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The reason this subject is such a tail chaser is because it is both a yes and no answer....all depending. All things being equal means all things ARE equal. "If" all things were always equal we wouldn't be having this discussion.

The question has been shot down here repeatedly whenever it comes up as really inconsequential due to the similarity of audio engines in DAWS and the way they work. People who suggest otherwise are often seen as lacking some important fact by those who accept the status quo answer. I was one of those guys who was convinced  there was no real difference and that any acceptance of a  difference was always due to  a placebo effect. "If" everything was always equal I would still think I was correct, however DAWs are not ever the same. We don't have just one generic DAW sound from all DAWs.  Perceptions vary and maybe only subjective generalizations apply. I haven't ever heard out of your ears so I don't know what you hear.

Even small differences mean not everything is the same. DAW makers tread a fine line here because most people want to take full responsibility for the sound they sculpt in their DAW. Any DAW maker admitting a difference, either intentional or unintentional could drive those away unless  it has a perceived complimentary  quality the user likes. In many cases the differences are seen as so munuscle  as to not be worth mentioning. In most cases I would agree with that statement only because you can take that "sound" whatever it is and change it. 

Often the WAY we use DAWs changes the sound for us as well. We are getting a different sound because we are working in different ways with a slightly different interface. It would be nigh impossible to trade GUIs to test the placebo effect unless you never did anything in the DAW. 

Lately my answer has been YES they do sound different "if" you take into account additions besides simply the audio engine.

I think Cakewalk has a more overt up front sound. Not harsh, but not soft either...leaning towards detail . Don't forget the Pro Channel adds something to the sound in it.

By contrast I hear Studio One as being slightly softer. Not that you can't make it sound identical to Cakewalk with a few tweaks and plugins. Mixes I make in it usually don't need as much top end rolled off.

Mixcraft was a very "in your face"  DAW. Like many DAWs all channels are initially at 0db but for some reason it came off as hotter than most to me. I would say almost harsh. The new Mixcraft Pro 9 seems a little better.

Ableton seems closer to Studio One. My theory is they lit some of the mixing buss up with something to "smooth" things out in that same way as Studio One. A secret sauce of some kind. Something buried in the code.

Nothing in any of them is overt enough to make me not use it because the differences are so small you could easily overcome them with a few tweaks. I do tend to generally mix more "up front' when using Cakewalk. I can't say why. One reason might be the ProChannel is adding some minimal effect even when empty.

Edited by Starise
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At 66 my hearing is probably not keen enough to discern any differences between DAWs.   To me, they all sound good (or at least good for what I am trying to achieve.)

The more significant (and harder to measure) difference is in the psycho-acoustic realm.   I can listen to something I did last night and think it was great and tomorrow it just sounds so-so.   I guess that would apply not to just my creations, but to any music - my state of mind has more to do with my reaction than any purely technical aspect.


Edited by Michael A.D.
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The steering on my vehicles are all different, some oversteer more, tire size is different, and speed variation is unique to each. Ironically, I adapt and drive them all without issues. Not much different for most things in life... if you can achieve the end goal/product with the tools you have available, you win (best to leave it there, since that is what matters most).

Digital analysis (i.e., computers) is an Achilles's heel in some respects... thinking more and doing less is not always the best trade-off. "Analysis paralysis" is a proven method to keep competition at bay.

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