There is no such thing as a perfect program. Although it would be nice to have all of your needs covered by a seamless, rock-solid program without any drawbacks, even the best DAW’s have flaws that can be improved with new features. Two of the most popular audio programs on the market, Ableton Live and Pro Tools, are widely considered some of the top DAW’s in the industry.
Both Ableton and Pro Tools are powerful, upper-level audio editing programs that work with MIDI, manipulate audio clips, host plugins, and export in a variety of formats.
However, while both Pro Tools and Ableton can essentially do the same thing, there are certain tasks each program was specifically designed to do well. This also means that there are some functions that are a breeze in one program, but very frustrating or impossible in the other.
That said, both programs are extremely effective tools for audio engineers and musicians. No matter the DAW, it is your skill, expertise and musical ear that have the biggest impact on the quality of the files that you export from your computer.
Let’s compare some of the strengths and drawbacks of each program, and then figure out which DAW will best suit your needs.
Ableton Live is widely praised for its minimal visual layout, plug-and-play ability, and unique interface. There are very few external windows that bog down your view of the session, and most of what you need can be quickly accessed in a list.
There is plenty of user customization; custom shortcuts, color-coding, custom menus, and complete control of MIDI mappings are all core functions of Ableton Live.
While other programs might require several button clicks & menus for basic tasks, Ableton Live can quickly access Automation and Quantization with a few keystrokes.
All of these features make Ableton Live a very efficient program to work with. The customization can cut back on time-wasting clicks, and let you work on what you really need.
The virtual instruments and synthesizers in Ableton are also a blast to work with. The Wavetable Synth, a brand new addition to Ableton 10, is a particularly feature-packed synth with endless possibilities.
Ableton is also a very reliable program. If you need to make any changes to your audio interface or your driver settings, you don’t need to restart your session. In fact, it can be useful to tweak driver settings mid-session until you find a perfect balance of latency and stability. If you need move from one audio interface or MIDI device to another, it doesn’t pose a problem to your workflow.
However, one of the biggest advantages to Ableton’s workflow is a feature that is completely unique to Ableton Live: the separate Session & Arrangement Views. While Arrangement View presents the visual layout in a traditional way, with the tracks displayed horizontally, Session View is a unique working mode that displays vertical tracks and a large grid of launchable audio loops. This provides producers a rapid-fire means of experimentation and composition. All you need to do is click on a clip in the grid, and you can stop, play, or record a loop for instant playback.
Since the input and outputs for the tracks are flexible, Session View is also an effective tool for live performance. Pre-recorded clips can be time-warped, quantized, or modified on the fly, and launched during performance. For DJ’s or bands playing with a backing tracks, this is an essential feature that makes Ableton Live a must-have.
Ableton Live Session View
Ableton Live can edit audio waveforms, but it lacks a few key features that would significantly improve its mixing efficiency. While Ableton 10 makes navigation and editing a little easier, the waveform editing capabilities are still an aspect that can be much improved.
For instance, Ableton Live does not have a destructive audio processing tool. Pro Tools is equipped with the Audio Suite tool, which allows you to make destructive edits on specific segments of a clip, or the entire clip. This saves you from loading CPU-intensive plugins and frees up your session for other purposes.
For podcast editors, who need to make destructive edits on vocal speech in order to correct mistakes, breaths, and pops, Ableton Live lags behind in efficiency. A possible workaround is to freeze the tracks, and then copy over the selected clip portion onto a new track, but this is a tedious method if there are multiple edits needed.
Additionally, it is a little trickier to make precision edits in Ableton Live, compared to Pro Tools. There is no way to zoom in on the waveform alone. The track size can be adjusted, but not the waveform.
However, there has been improvement between older versions of Ableton and Ableton 10. Ableton 10 allows for very quick automation editing via a dedicated automation mode, accessible with the ‘A’ key. You can also quickly crossfade audio clips in arrangement view and adjust the length of the curve. Previously, Ableton lacked these useful features.
Generally, the weaker points of Ableton Live tend to be the stronger points of Pro Tools, and vice versa.
One of the biggest strengths of Pro Tools is the powerful set of precision audio editing tools. Whether it is quickly navigating across a timeline with markers, or zooming on the waveform to the smallest part, Pro Tools is aptly equipped.
As previously mentioned, the Audio Suite tool makes Pro Tools an attractive option for mixing engineers who need to make a quick edit on a clip segment without loading an entire plugin.
The different audio clip grabbing options are also a useful feature. The core modes (shuffle, spot, grid, and slip) all make different aspects of audio manipulation a bit easier.
For power users and film editors, Pro Tools HD provides a powerful set of additional tools, including 7.1 Dolby Surround tracks, the option to connect to the HDX interface, and a greatly expanded track count.
One of the biggest strengths for Pro Tools is the universal usage among professionals. The vast majority of major recording studios in the world operate with Pro Tools. If you are an audio engineer, and you need to transfer a mix to another studio, you can simply save your session, copy your files, and your mix will open up exactly as it did before.
If you care about compatibility and consistency, Pro Tools is a good base to work from.
Pro Tools Edit Window
As the industry standard for mixing and mastering engineers, Pro Tools also has a massive support network. The Avid forums are filled with plenty of users who are intimately familiar with troubleshooting the program. Often, I would refer to these forums when trying to learn the program; it would help me overcome both my lack of knowledge and any bugs that occurred within my system.
Even though Pro Tools is very developed, there are still bugs that happen in the program. Thankfully, the team at Avid has recognized this and included an automatic recovery system. Even if you forget to save your session, there is a pretty good chance that all of your information is perfectly backed up in a file. There have been numerous occasions while working in Ableton and other programs where I have spent a significant amount of time on a project, only to have all of my work disappear in an unexpected disaster. While this has happened in Pro Tools, I am always able to recover what I need.
Even though Pro Tools is a generally stable program, it lacks the ease of Ableton Live’s plug-and-play ability. There are no custom shortcuts or MIDI mappings, and you can only use controllers that are designed to work with Pro Tools. If there is a problem with your audio interface, it can prevent the program from starting, and any changes made during your session forces it to close.
While the layout of Pro Tools is sleek and professional looking, I am never able to produce music or compose as fast as I am in Ableton. Whenever I am looking to start a new composition session, I tend to gravitate towards Ableton as my choice for experimenting. I know that it will open without hassle. I know that I can be creative without worrying about audio setup, or drivers, or MIDI.
As far as virtual instruments & plugins go, both of the programs have quality, usable sounds. Xpand!2 has a wide selection of keyboards, synthesizers, and other instruments. Ableton Live Suite has more samples, electric sounds, drums, and even orchestral instruments. If I were to give one program the edge in VST’s, it would be Ableton, because it features a wider variety of sounds and has several software synthesizers including a Wavetable synth.
That said, Xpand!2 has some remarkably good sounds, and there is no reason why you can’t be successful with the stock sounds in Pro Tools.
Xpand!2 in Pro Tools
However, for producers or composers looking to write a lot of sample-based music, a dedicated library from East West or Native Instruments would greatly enhance your sound possibilities. Both libraries are good, but you would most likely need to supplement your library with extensively-sampled sounds from a standalone library.
Both Ableton and Pro Tools have a selection of quality plugins. Ableton has much more in terms of MIDI plugins and applications. Pro Tools has a very large library of plugins that are included stock with Pro Tools HD and available as a subscription for $5/month. This includes realistically modelled vintage compressor & EQ effects that imitate the LA-2A, Pultec, and others. While not as detailed as the Universal Audio effects (then again, what is?) the Pro Tools plugin bundle is an incredible value and should have you set in terms of mixing.
My favorite effects from Pro Tools are the Air effects, included in all versions. There are some really interesting stereo separation, chorus, and modulation effects. The reverb is certainly nothing to write home about. You will certainly need a good aftermarket reverb plugin if you plan to mix in Pro Tools.
In Ableton, my favorite effect by far is the Convolution Reverb as part of the Max for Live setup. The Convolution Reverb is a beautifully crafted, highly-usable plugin that sounds natural on any source. My favorite setting is the Bright Plate, which adds a layer of richness to vocals that is difficult to replicate. While it does consume a lot of processing power, it is by far the best reverb setting I have seen stock in a DAW.
In the end, there is no perfect DAW. Whether or not you use Pro Tools or Ableton Live, your success will ultimately be determined by your listening ability, your skills, and how you present your music to the world. Coming in at similar prices ($599 for Pro Tools Standard and $750 for Ableton Live 10), there is little difference in value between the programs.
Consider Pro Tools If you:
- Record and Mix music professionally
- Work with Film, TV, or surround sound
- Edit Podcasts and dialog
- Import sheet music for virtual playback
- Work with other engineers frequently
Pro Tools might be a good choice for you. The selection of precision editing tools, the reliability, and the industry standard factor will help you achieve your targeted goals more efficiently than Ableton. You can have piece of mind knowing that your session will transfer to other studios, and that is safely stored.
Consider Ableton If you :
- Compose or produce music professionally
- Work with MIDI frequently
- Use digital synths and VST’s
- Perform with backing tracks
- Need a product you can take on the road without worrying about stability
- Need a seamless, quick workflow
Ableton might be a good fit for you. It is unparalleled in live performance, it has a natural, speedy workflow, and can seamlessly incorporate new MIDI and audio devices in a plug-and-play manner. If you care about being able to create new music quickly & unhindered by yourself, Ableton’s user interface and efficient workflow will greatly aid your production process.
An alternative solution? Use both.
If you do quite a bit of recording and mixing, but you also are involved in music production, both programs will suit your needs in a special way depending on your application. As for myself, I often switch back and forth between Pro Tools and Ableton. I know that Pro Tools is a rock-solid mastering platform, and I know that Ableton will help my creative process thrive.
However, both programs are top-of-the line, flagship DAW’s, and both programs would make a perfect working environment to build a studio around.