In the current age of music production, we have virtually endless tools at our disposal. It’s overwhelming when you’re just starting out because you want to set foot on the so-called ‘correct’ path. In regards to DAWs, everybody has an opinion on which is best, and it really all comes down to what they know how to use the best. Surely you’ve heard an Ableton vs Pro Tools debate at some point, and while they’re two very different DAWs, it’s helpful to see how they stack up next to one another.
Ableton vs Pro Tools: Simplified
Both Ableton and Pro Tools are comprehensive, pro-level DAWs programs that handle MIDI, feature advanced audio editing capabilities, host proprietary and third-party plugins, and bounce/export in all standard formats.
With either, you can record, edit, mix, and master audio/MIDI. You can essentially achieve the same end result using Ableton or Pro Tools, but how you get there is what separates the two. For example, each program was designed to do execute certain tasks very well. This inherently means that some functions are effortless in one, but difficult or even impossible in the other.
In any case, both Ableton and Pro Tools are effective tools for engineers, producers, and musicians. Regardless of DAW, it all comes down to skill level and creativity which influences what comes out of your software. Much of how you choose a DAW is personal preference, and what you plan to do with the given software.
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Ableton Live is often the go-to choice for electronic music producers. Over the years, it has garnered attention for its streamlined visual layout, ‘plug-and-play’ ability, and unique interface. There aren’t many external windows to restrict view of the session, and most of what you need can be quickly accessed in a list to the left side of the interface — samples, effects, etc. are all there at your fingertips.
Plus, Ableton offers a ton of user customization, including custom shortcuts, color-coding, custom menus, and complete control of MIDI mappings. These are the basic core functions of Ableton Live.
It excels at MIDI programming and editing, which makes it such a prime choice for hip-hop/pop/EDM/etc. producers. For example, you can quickly access Automation and Quantization settings with just few keystrokes. Some DAWs make you jump through hoops (i.e., multiple menus) just to access these pretty basic functions.
Ableton is also a stable, reliable DAW. For instance, if you need to make any changes to your audio interface settings, you don’t have to restart the session. Sometimes you need to adjust driver settings mid-session until you find that balance of latency and processing power. Plus, if you need to swap out interfaces or MIDI devices, you can do that while keeping the project open.
Session & Arrangement Views
Totally unique to Ableton are the separate Session & Arrangement Views. Arrangement lays out the session in the traditional way, with the tracks displayed horizontally across the timeline. Session View is a mode that displays vertical tracks alongside a grid of audio loops.
This gives producers a quick way of experimenting and composing on the fly. You just click on a clip in the grid, and you can stop, play, or record a loop for playback. This makes Session View a great tool for live performance. Clips can be manipulated and launched during a show.
This is where the Ableton vs Pro Tools debate really gets its legs, because Ableton can edit audio waveforms, but it lacks key features that would improve its mixing efficiency. Waveform editing could certainly use improvements.
Ableton Live doesn’t have a destructive editing tool like Pro Tools’ Audio Suite. Destructive editing lets you print effects directly onto a clip, so you don’t have create a new track and load CPU-intensive plugins for every creative effect you want to use.
Precise edits can be tough in Ableton Live too. You can’t zoom in on the waveform alone — just adjust the size of the track.
When it comes to Ableton vs Pro Tools, the former’s weak points tend to be the latter’s strong points. Pro Tools remains the industry-leading DAW for engineers and mixers due in part to its powerful precision editing tools, and it’s fast, intuitive capabilities for recording and comping takes.
For instance, Pro Tools’s ridiculous number of keyboard shortcuts make tracking, editing, and mixing fast and efficient in ways that Ableton isn’t. One really simple example is that you can start Record in Pro Tools by pressing 3 on the numeric keypad of a full-sized keyboard. It’s located in an easy-to-reach spot for fast punching ability. Record in Ableton is F9…
Plus, Audio Suite alone makes Pro Tools an excellent option for mixers who like to make quick edits on a clip without creating a new track, dragging the clip down, and loading an entire plugin. That’s just one tiny advantage Pro Tools has over Ableton, but then again, the two are really designed for different things.
Perhaps the biggest strength for Pro Tools is the fact that it’s universal in the professional world. The majority of recording studios around the globe center around Pro Tools rigs. So if you’re an engineer, and you work out of multiple studios, you can drag your Pro Tools sessions around on a hard drive and open them up anywhere. Even though any studio worth its salt should have options for its clientele, the same can’t always be said for Ableton.
Stability and Customization
Pro Tools is a fairly stable program, but it has its quirks for sure. For example, if there’s a problem with your interface, it can actually prevent the program from starting at all. (If you run into that problem, reboot Pro Tools holding the N key and it’ll open up hardware settings.) On top of that, any changes made to, say, buffer size, for you to close and reload the session.
Finally, the Pro Tools layout is excellent for recording, editing, and mixing, but MIDI functionality and production is clunky. It simply doesn’t have the same ability as Ableton to lay down an arrangement quickly and easily.
Ableton vs Pro Tools: Conclusion
The biggest differences between Ableton and Pro Tools come down to user intent. Sure, you can achieve roughly the same outcome with either, but their primary strengths are totally different.
Ableton is undoubtedly marketed to electronic music producers, so it has a ton of useful features for doing just that — producing electronic music using MIDI.
Pro Tools, on the other hand, is geared toward engineers and mixers who need powerful tracking, editing, and mixing capabilities. If you’re certain about how you intend to use your DAW, then hopefully the choice has been made much clearer!