If you’re like me, you use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) program to record your music. And like me, you occasionally visit various forums and blogs to aid with troubleshooting or operational support of your DAW. And if you do, I’m sure you’ve come across the oft-posted thread wherein someone opines that the DAW program you’re using “sucks!”
For me, I’m a big fan of the Steinberg program Cubase. Therefore, I’m always amused when I see someone post, “Cubase sucks!” Well, if it does, why is it the most popular DAW on the planet? Artists like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Accept, Erran Baron Cohen, Hans Zimmer, Kraftwerk, Meshuggah, and countless others rely on Cubase (and its post-production variant, Nuendo) to produce their creative endeavors. So I’m here to tell you: If Cubase sucks, then Pro Tools, Studio One, Reaper, Logic, Sonar, DP, Live, Reason, et al, also suck. That is, unless you add the magic ingredient. (If I’ve piqued your interest, read on.)
Cubase is an extremely popular and capable DAW, but does it prove that a bad workman blames his tools?
The magic ingredient
Back in 1999 I was working for Alesis during the heydays of the ADAT. I had the great fortune to present an ADAT clinic with multi-Grammy winning producer, Francis Buckley (Alanis Morrisette, Quincy Jones, LL Cool J, Aerosmith, etc.). He was demonstrating the ADAT M20 to an audience of 400 on a balmy Albuquerque evening. He was in the middle of describing how the ADAT (at that time) made his workflow easier and his productions sound better, when suddenly someone stood up and shouted, “Hey man, I’ve listened to that ADAT and I think it sounds like s#&t!” Francis, being the consummate professional that he is, calmly and thoughtfully replied, “You know what? You’re right. The ADAT does sound like s#&t. So does the (Tascam) DA-88, a Studer 2-inch 16-track, Pro Tools; they all sound like s#&t. That is, until you record a good song on one.” As the stunned crowd applauded and Mr. Bad Manners sheepishly sat down, I committed the experience to memory so that I could fully analyze the wisdom of Francis’ profound statement.
Does an ADAT make a good song sound better or not?
The fact is people like music for the music rather than the technology used to create it. For example, Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ recordings (The Ronettes, The Crystals, Ike and Tina Turner, etc.) were produced on (Ampex 300 and 350) 3-track open-reel recorders and usually in mono. Most of The Beatles later recordings were done on 4-track open-reel decks. The Bruce Springsteen hit record Nebraska was recorded by Bruce alone in his house on a (Tascam Portastudio) 4-track cassette recorder. Now I’ll be the first to admit that in the time it has taken to write this article, those artists, along with those in today’s Billboard Top 10 charts and recorded using contemporary DAW technology, will have sold more records than I will in my lifetime. I’m not happy about that. That’s simply reality. If your reality is weighted towards the ‘units sold’ category, then I’m jealous.
The DAW Sucks test
Now I’d like you to indulge me in this experiment: Take a moment and think about a popular song or tune that you truly don’t like. I mean the one that makes you cringe while you frantically reach to change the channel or hit the ‘skip’ button. (Not to insult the composer nor his success but, for me I’m thinking of Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet.) Are you thinking of that song? Do you hear it in your head? Do you hate me for doing this to you yet?
Well let’s say you found out that song, the one you passionately detest, was recorded on your favorite DAW recording software or recording technology. Now do you like it? Is it suddenly more pleasing to listen to? Do you become rapturous as the sound tickles your eardrums? Because I’m absolutely certain that your opinion of the song has not changed. It still sucks, right? Well that’s my point: How a song was recorded or what it was recorded on makes little difference to you or me and certainly won’t make any difference to the person who does like the song. The magic ingredient I mentioned before is (using the DAW of your choice, insert drum roll here) a good song. Plus, it’s important to remember that even though you might be the only one who likes it, that’s enough to qualify it as a good song.
So like a lot of people, I use Cubase and get a lot done with it. For me, I make a living producing, mixing, and mastering music as well as writing books and making tutorial videos on Cubase. There are a lot of other artists making hit records using Cubase. At the same time, there are a myriad of other great programs and recording technologies that allow all of us to manifest our musical creativity. Instead of saying ‘Cubase is great and all others suck’, I prefer to realize that there are many paths to audio nirvana. We are lucky and spoiled rotten to live in a time when the recording studio exists in our laptops, where creativity is not stifled by the lack of affordable recording facilities, and when the Internet allows us to share our art with the world and bypass record company executives. These are magical times, so keep the music flowing, for it, unlike the technology, is what matters.
Now if you’ll excuse me, Margaritaville just came on the radio and I don’t care if it was recorded on Cubase, Pro Tools, a Studer or what have you, I’m changing the channel.