DAW SUMMING COMPARISON

Welcome to the first Blue Grotto Blog. For today’s post, I wanted to investigate for myself claims that I have heard on many occasions: “I heard a set of stems in DAW A and then those same stems in DAW B and DAW B sounded noticeably better.” Being a cynic, I never trust those kinds of demonstrations especially when the developer of DAW B is the one performing them! Of course they want you to think DAW B sounds better. So I decided to do my own comparison (there are many others available on the web, but I wanted to know for myself).

Back In My Day…

A little bit of background on me: I grew up on Cubase. It was my first DAW but at some point I had to use Pro Tools at work so I mostly used that for a number of years. When I came to Nashville, I initially decided to use PT since it is the ‘Nashville way’ and ‘everybody uses it’ but I eventually grew frustrated with it (and with Avid’s relentless and expensive upgrades) and now use both Cubase and PT (depending on the kind of session), but almost all of my mixing is done in Cubase. Thus, the 3 DAWs included in this test are Cubase Pro 8.5, Pro Tools HD 10 and Pro Tools 12.

I am not doing this test to try to convert anyone away from any DAW. As I write this, I have not yet done the actual experiment. I know that most engineers are understandably hesitant to switch DAWs. Most use the DAW they first learnt or oftentimes, the one that is most compatible with most other studios and engineers (Pro Tools). And I will freely admit that even if I discover that Pro Tools sounds better, I would probably continue to mix in Cubase because I find it easier and quicker to mix in and with fewer hassles. At the end of the day, the end user doesn’t notice a difference – they just want a great song, performed and presented in a compelling way.

The Nuts and Bolts

To do this experiment, I took a song that I recorded and mixed in Cubase 8.5. The session is at 96kHz 24bit with the stereo pan law at -3dB. Using Cubase’s handy channel batch export feature, I exported every single track individually (in 1 pass) with all their processing, automation and panning into stereo files (57 in total, 1 for each track). I then pulled those files into each DAW (including back into Cubase), added my bus compressor (the same plugin with the same settings) and bounced the mix out. So this is a test of summing only – I did no panning in the individual DAWs as all panning was included in the original tracks used.

Some Time Passes…

The results are in and here is what we have: I’m almost disappointed because they sound almost identical. I would have loved a euphoric moment of the heavens opening up with audial goodness. But alas, they’re very close to each other. Interestingly, the Pro Tools 10 and 12 mixes are exact replicas. I don’t know if this should surprise me – I had imagined that with Pro Tools 12 being a complete ‘rewrite’ of the engine that there would be some kind of difference.

I was hoping to try and describe the differences between the bounces, but there is nothing definitive. Just when I think I notice a trend, it changes, like my brain is starting to hear things that aren’t there. Perhaps the Cubase mix sounds a touch more open right up top but nothing drastic. I imagine that with computer processing being so powerful these days, that the math of summing on all DAWs should eventually be fairly identical if they aren’t already (we are just adding ones and zeros after all).

If you want to listen for yourself, I have uploaded the full-res WAV files so you can make up your own mind. Please let me know in the comments section which one (if any) you prefer or other tests you might find interesting.

Happy mixing in whatever DAW you choose!

SONG CREDITS:
Cold (written by Ben Johnson / Anelda Spence)
Performed by Track 45
Produced by Ben Johnson and Sean Spence
Engineered, mixed and mastered by Sean Spence at the Blue Grotto