Choosing an Audio Platform

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in July 2007, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Two questions perenially surface in the world of pro audio:

1. Why are Macs dominant in pro audio, when Windows has such overwhelming market share?

2. Should I get a Mac or PC for recording?

In almost every case, these religious wars between Mac and PC advocates become full-scale jihadist movements, and the real answers to these important questions get lost in the fray.

And these are important questions.

Question 1 is important because, when we understand why the market looks as it does, it will better inform our decisionmaking.  If you’re serious about recording, the choices you make in gear selection are truly important.  Especially when choosing the platform you will use for recording.

Question 2 is important because, more than any other purchase you make, your choice of DAW software and hardware will really lock you in to a solution.  At my studio we have hundreds of mixing projects online at a time.  Changing workstation software would literally be harder than moving the studio phyiscally across the country.

So lets look at these questions, and answer them soberly.

Question 1: Why are Macs dominant?

Although PCs have recently been making inroads into bigger recording studios, Macs are still the de facto standard in pro audio.  There are a few key reasons for this.

Early Adoption

1. Hardware Platform: Macs made a better platform, at least at first.  Audio recording in the early days really was rocket science.  Trust me, I was there.  In the early days of DAWs, we PC guys had hell on our hands wringing through IRQ and DMA conflicts, getting 3rd party SCSI drives to play fair, getting high-end audio drivers that were compatible with this BIOS and that video card, etc..  By contrast, the relatively homogenous makeup of Macs meant that a lot of compatibility problems didn’t occur, so developers preferred this platform and produced the best tools on it, leading to…

2. Toolset:  Back in the early 1990s, before Cubase, and when Cakewalk was a DOS based MIDI-only program, there were really sophisticated (for the time) GUI based recording apps on Mac like ProTools and StudioVision (I was a StudioVision user).  Macs had it going on, so early adopters went there.  This included pretty much every pro studio that saw the benefit and future of DAW recording.  These days, there is no technical advantage to being on a Mac.  In fact, some PC audio platforms outperfom popular Mac platforms in certain areas.  But in the early days, the Mac had an overwhelming advantage, and locked up the early adopters which included pretty much all the big studios.

Demand

3. Brand Recognition:  ProTools is Mac.  Yes, there’s ProTools on the PC, but it basically exists so that PC users will get it and decide to switch to a Mac for a better ProTools experience.  And ProTools is the “industry standard” for better or worse.  It’s the DAW you’re going to find in the biggest studios.  And musicians who know NOTHING about recording know this term.  It’s synonymous with DAW recording.  So a significant percentage of newbies gravitate to Pro Tools because it’s a trusted brand name.  And a significant number of studios gravitate to ProTools because their clients ask for it (because it’s a trusted brand name).  And if you’re going to run Pro Tools, you’d be crazy to choose a PC to run it.  ProTools is Mac.

4. Video Post: Advertising and video post makes up a very large chunk of the money spent in the audio recording business.  The video post-production industry is practically 100% Mac (for the same reasons described in #1 and #2).  And if you have a pro audio studio, chances are that you’re getting a reasonable percentage of your income from post-production.  So if you’re doing a lot of sound for video, there are compelling reasons to be on a Mac.  These folks exchange projects on hard disks left and right, and in markets (like Dallas) everyone is always swapping these drives and expects compatibility.  At Pleasantry Lane (my studio) we do very little post-production work, so we do not have this need.  But it was a choice we made from the outset, and if we wanted to get into serious video post, we’d be screwed.

Editor’s Note: After printing this article, a number of readers protested about my assertions that video post and ProTools are Mac-centric.  A few facts are in order.  In 2002, these assertions were 100% true.  As of 2007, some things have changed, but not overwhelmingly so.  Avid, formerly a Mac-only solution, is now both Mac and PC, and seems to be moving more toward PC.  However, a lot of existing Avid installations are still Mac, and Final Cut Pro (Mac) is increasingly popular.  According to some published statistics, FCP is now the leading video post application.  Anecdotally, a lot of video work in Dallas seems to have switched from Avid to FCP, staying on Mac.  As for ProTools, I belittled ProTools PC in the article.  My experience is that ProTools seems to work better on Mac.  ProTools PC is a solid platform and it is true that a number of ProTools studios prefer the PC platform.  However, since most of the pro studios early-adopted the Mac platform, most are staying with that platform for ProTools.  It is my experience that the biggest studios still run ProTools (or Logic) on Mac.

Switching Cost

5. Nail in the coffin: Because of the reasons listed above, by the late 1990s, pretty much every pro studio had some kind of Mac system in-house for their DAW.  Mac users have high loyalty to their system (with good reason, because Macs are, as a rule, a well-engineered product).  But most importantly, once you select a DAW platform and get a substantial amount of material in process, it is amazingly difficult to change to a different tool.  So even if WhizzoProAudio built a new DAW application for the PC that was just hands-down the best thing ever, it is unlikely that any existing user would switch to it, because the work would be overwhelming.  It would be easier to relocate my studio to India than to switch recording platforms.  Literally.

This last reason is hard to overstate.  I can easily switch out any component in my studio.  I can swap soundcards.  I can replace my entire front-end of mics and preamps and compressors with about one day of mechanical work.  I can switch out my computer for a new model in a day or so.  I can even switch other audio applications like my CD burning application, my softsynths, and even some audio plugins with relative ease.

But I have over a hundred active projects in progress at any given time.  Switching from one audio app to another would be an amazing amount of work.  In fact, if I just had to switch applications, what I would have to do is run dual systems, with all new projects being done on the new system, and the old system remaining to handle the old projects until they were all done.  This would take over a year for some of my clients.

This would be do-able if all I wanted to do was run a different application on the same computer, like switching from Nuendo to Sonar on a PC.  But if I wanted to switch from Nuendo on a PC to Logic on a Mac, then somehow I would have to easly be able to run BOTH a PC and Mac DAW at the same time in the same studio.  How can I do that when everything is tied into my PC soundcard?  To switch from an old project on the PC to a new project on a Mac would literally require repatching my studio.  It could be done with some patchbays, some KVM switches, and a lot of toil… but, my God, what a freaking headache.  I cannot imagine any benefit I’d get from switching computer platforms that would in any way justify this effort.

So, if you’re doing much work on your DAW, you just get totally married to it.  Therefore, selecting wisely early on is a good idea, because odds are that you’ll be using the same platform for years.

So now that we understand the market forces driving Mac dominance in our market, we are better able to understand why we ought to choose a particular recording platform.

Question 2: Should I get a Mac or PC for recording?

This question is always put to me.  In general, I recharacterize this question as “how should I go about selecting a platform for recording.”

The typical Best Practice Answer is, “select your preferred software application, then select the hardware that best support it.”  If you think Logic is the best audio program for you, then you need a Mac.  If you think Sonar is the bomb, then you need a PC.  And, to a large degree, this is the correct way to choose an audio platform.  However, it misses some key decisionmaking points.

A. Do you plan on doing professional video or post-production work?  If so, then choosing a PC platform may be a very limiting decision.  You will probably be called upon to do work that will require a Mac.  Moreover, it’s just been my experience that video guys are rabidly pro-Mac.  You will simply lose all credibility from using a PC.  I’ve been doing DAW-based recording since 1992 on both Macs and PCs and I am the Editor-in-Chief of the original online magazine for DAW recording.  Nevertheless, when I’m hanging with video guys, and they find out that I run a PC DAW in my studio, they look at me like I’m a little girl.  I can hear them thinking, “isn’t that cute?”  If sound-for-video was part of my career path, then I’d be stupid to select a PC platform.  Sorry, but that’s just the way it is, at least for now.

B. Do you plan on swapping projects back and forth with a creative partner?  Then you should consider setting up identical systems.  This can be a great way to work, but the setups have to be identical.  If the other person is already working in one environment, you need to conform to that platform, or vice versa.

C. If you haven’t been forced into a decision by (A) or (B), then in my opinion you can be agnostic as to choice of hardware – you have flexibility.  The next question for you is: do you already possess computer skills with one or another platform?  Then choose software that works on the platform you already have and know.  Owning a computer-based DAW is always a job that requires good care and feeding of the computer, whether it’s a Mac or a PC.  If you already know your way around a PC and have good PC maintenance skills, but not a Mac, then there’s no reason to face the learning curve and cost of switching to another platform or maintaining two different kinds of computers.

It’s often suggested that, even if you’re a hobbyist, then it’s a good idea to work in ProTools because you can take your mixes to a pro studio and have an experienced engineer mix them.  But in reality, there are real problems with this approach that mitigate the benefit:

Compatibility: Chances are good that, even from one ProTools system to another, there will be compatibility problems.  In the studios I work with, it’s very common to upgrade very slowly.  So odds are good that, as a hobbyist, you’ll be on a later version of the software than a lot of bigger studios.  But more importantly, in order for your mixes to be truly portable, the place you’re going has to have all the same 3rd party plugins you’re using, and typically, they need to be the same version.  This never happens.

Workflow: Even if your mixes were truly portable, and you had exactly the same setup as the studio, the odds are really good that the engineer will want to start at ground zero anyway.  When I’m mixing a project that someone else tracked, I always want to start with raw, un-EQed, uneffected tracks, so I know what I’m working with.  So I start by removing all the plugins, zeroing all the faders and pan knobs, and removing any bus routing.  So at that point, you might as well have just brought me the raw tracks on a CD and let me import them into any DAW platform.  It’s virtually no benefit for you and I to have the same audio editor.

Therefore, if you are a musician and don’t plan on doing audio-for-video, then you can truly safely work on either a Mac or a PC.  I’ve been running a PC-based professional recording studio for over a decade, and it has almost never been a drawback to be on a PC.  I’ve mixed several projects that were tracked in ProTools, because we can exchange OMF files, which makes the audio (but not the plugins) portable from Mac to PC and back.

Choosing a Company

There will always be times when one platform or another will have a cool gee-whiz factor, or struggle with certain problems.  When Microsoft went to Windows XP, a lot of PC DAW users had to wring out the issues the new OS created.  Likewise, when Mac went to OSX, this created a number of headaches for Mac DAW users.  Early on, Macs had a huge feature advantage versus similar PC platforms.  These days, there are PC platforms with significant advantages to popular Mac platforms.

Do not select an audio application because it has some nifty bell or whistle, or some esoteric advantage like 384MHz sampling rates, 128 bit depth, support for some whizbang control surface you don’t own, surround mixing when you’ll be working in stereo, or any other feature that doesn’t directly contribute to getting the job done.  Choose an application because it supports your work style and has the features you truly require, and select applications from companies that have been around a while and seem to offer a stable product with good support.

You’re going to be using this application for years, and it will be hard to change.  So you’re not just picking a program, you’re getting married to a company.  Choose a company with a reputation for a stable product and great support.  The company should have good support staff, a popular support forum with seasoned pros hanging out there, and some established longevity in the market.  Over time, these will be much more important to you than some feature de jour.

As a case in point, let me pick on Sonic Foundry.  Back in the day, Sonic Foundry was the audio leader with applications like CD Architect and Sound Forge.  These were two of the first truly “pro” quality apps for audio on the PC.  And Sonic Foundry had a great team of great developers.  When Vegas was introduced, a number of people, myself included, were wowwed by the amazingly productive experience this app created.  They truly innovated the audio editing experience.  And ACID likewise was an amazing innovation.

However, Sonic Foundry had their eyes set on video production, not audio.  Vegas was transformed into a video editing platform.  Support for audio waned.  And then, Sonic Foundry’s software line was sold to Sony.  If you built a studio around Vegas and weren’t interested in video, then you were sorely disappointed.  By contrast, tools like Digital Performer, Nuendo, Logic, and Sonar are dedicated to deliving the best audio production experience possible.  If you chose one of those tools, you’re still very well supported.  So remember: in the long run, the company is far more important than the features.

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