Why I moved from Ableton Live to Presonus Studio One

I’ve been using Ableton Live for more than a decade, and last month I decided to get fresh air and move to Presonus Studio One 3.5. I’ll try to clearly explain my motivations and the benefits (and drawbacks, for the sack of transparency!)

Initial decision was not very rational

Well, actually, the story starts with hardware. My philosophy when making music is to use the computer as little as possible. I was then looking for a hardware controller able to efficiently control (…) my DAW without using keyboard or mouse, and without looking at the screen if I don’t need to. I had a preference for motorized faders to quickly jump from track to track without thinking about current level before moving the fader accordingly. The “wisiwig” approach works fine for music: What I See Is What I Get! (should we say, … what I hear?) I had opportunity to try different solutions for hours (thanks Rock’oN Tokyo for your patience) and I eventually came back home with a Faderport 8 from Presonus.

Presonus Faderport 8

While this controller worked fine in Ableton Live, the synergy with Studio One was amazing. Sounds obvious since this comes from the same manufacturer, but they could have done this wrong. Oh, and Presonus actually shipped Faderport 8 with a version of Studio One Artist. At this moment, I spent some hours (days…) on Studio One, having a deeper look at the differences, to determine if it was worth the migration just to get the most out from the Faderport 8.

As you might guess, I not only answered “yes” to this question, but I also realized that the philosophy behind Studio One was absolutely a good fit with my way of producing electronic music. Presonus put a lot of effort on ergonomics, allowing the smoothest possible workflow, so that producers can spend time making music, not using software, switching between different views, configuring sound paths, etc. This clearly resonated in my head as:

Come on, any reason not to use Studio One?

You get it: I decided to dive into SO’s world. Now, my turn to give you some arguments and advanced facts that could make you consider Studio One as an option.

The obvious change: one window

Ableton Live’s users know for sure that one of the outstanding particularities of the software remains in its double-layout: arrangement, and session. While it’s definitely awesome to work with samples, building live sessions and playing your performances as LEGO bricks, I always thought this property was not especially suitable to construct more personal sounds.

Building an Ableton Live performance

I don’t say this is especially incompatible either. But time has proved that I don’t use this feature. I want to (1) record my gears, (2) process them a little bit, (3) take time to destroy/re-arrange some parts, and voilà! I want to spend time in these 3 main disciplines, not registering samples and arranging them with an exponential number of possibilities. I don’t even want to be tempted to do so.

With Studio One and its focus on workflow and ergonomics, I found a companion that perfectly runs my steps (1), (2) and (3). Ask me if I would use a similar workflow and tool to prepare a live performance, and sure I’ll answer “no”. But first things first: I want to produce tracks with my gears and my DAW.

Ableton Live, session view

Working with dual-screens setup can help with both tools. Ableton Live can then display the 2 modes at once, but honestly I still prefer the Presonus layouts, which are more flexible: one screen for the console (not console + clips), one for the arrangement. Or one for console+arrangement, the other one for plugins.

The cute: rainbow colors

We’re all fan of customization, right? Taking the time to choose your colors accordingly for anything, to improve efficiency, recognizing instruments and parts more easily, or just for the pleasure to make it colorful. I’m using colors. Red for kick/drums, yellow for hi-hats, orange for toms, blue for bass, lime for acid bass lines, etc. Now what’s the difference? I always felt like colors where under-effective in Live. You can see them if you want to get the color, but it’s not 100% unconscious.

Ableton Live, allowing unrelated color-schemes between clips and tracks

Moreover, I always hated the automated color management strategies, leading to unrelated things, and still allowing weird schemes with clips colors unrelated to the track’s one. Is that intuitive? Not for me. And, again, I don’t want to waste my time re-coloring every piece of music.

In Studio One, first, the color scheme looks a bit more extended, and at least it offers more pleasant colors set, from my point of view.

Pick up a color for your track….

And once you’ve made your choice, the color is visually applied to the whole track, making it “unconsciously” perceived in your workflow and mental efforts.

and get something you can really see.

The Faderport can display the tracks color accordingly in Studio One, not in Live [1]. Don’t need more to make me happy. This change is one of my favorite, since colors are the kind of facilities you’re using everyday, without even realizing how they could improve the process, reducing cognitive efforts.

[1] You could argue that some other controls could support this feature. Probably. But I bought a Faderport 8, and was decided to get the most from it.

The shortcut: quick look at your FX

In Ableton, sometimes I feel like I need to restrict the number of VST on a track not because of performances, but because of ergonomics. With a track embedding more than 4 FX, chances are very high that you’ll have to scroll horizontally to see (1) what are the defined and active plugins, (2) see their current settings. Sometimes, I created some racks just for this purpose. Studio One exposes a nice “stack” of VST added to the track, and instead of loading the whole window, you can quickly enable small previsualisations. And they’re interactive: you can actually play with some settings straight from this window. I have to admit it’s not always easy, considering relatively small sizes.

Next to the console’s track, visualize and interact with your FX

The convenient: usable plugins list

Another point related to the interface and plugins is the plugin list itself. Studio One allows you to create thumbnails for the different plugins, so that it might be a bit easier and comfortable to find one specific FX in a list. Thumbnails are already generated for Presonus plugins but you will have to generate them for third-party plugins (don’t worry, this is pretty easy). Obviously, it’s not mandatory and you can decide to hide them if you think they disturb readability.

Plugin thumbnails

I also need to say I really appreciated Presonus developers took the time to implement “hide” feature so that you can dismiss some plugins. Particularly useful if you don’t need, for example, both mono and stereo version of a plugin. Moreover, Studio One allows you to display the list from different perspective: flat, per vendor, per type (VST/AU…) or per folder. The latter actually refers to the categories: distortion, reverb, etc. I really wonder why Ableton never implemented such “trivial” features.

The stereo: mid/side mix

This one is not very obvious, but I wanted to mention it anyway. When using Studio One for your everyday’s tasks (NB: not like making coffee, wash the dishes or taking a shower), you can feel it has been designed for convenient mid/side mixes. It’s not a nightmare to deal with M/S in Ableton Live, and I always feel comfortable using softwares, but it’s even smarter and more efficient in Studio One to use any plugin with mid/side effects, as you can see in the following video to use EQ in M/S mode.

The subjective: better sounding plugins

Well, “better sounding” is subjective, right? I think I’ve been bored by Live native VST. The good thing is, when I was adding a delay, a reverb, a compressor, I perfectly knew how they’ll sound. However, this didn’t encourage my creative process over time. The first time I launched a reverb and delay in Studio One, I was completely astonished by the resulting sound. And since most of them (at least the Presonus plugins) are correctly configured for the Faderport 8, this is perfect (actually, almost perfect, because jumping from a “bank parameters” to another is not that trivial as I’m writing this. But managing a parametric EQ is perfectly feasible, and it’s a real pleasure to not use the mouse for such as recurring task. You don’t even have to look at any screen, as you would have to with an Ableton Push controller).

Anyway, I really enjoyed native plugins, they’re definitely high-quality and thoughtfully designed. So far there is nothing I did with Ableton Live I cannot reproduce in Studio One. As I’m writing this, I could even mention some kind of “killer features”. For example, it’s far, far more trivial to sidechain compressors from any kind of source signal.

The mind blowing: changes are stimulating

Definitely a personal argument, even if I tend to think it’s true for everyone of us. Changes stimulate creativity. Loose your marks. Starts with a fresh mind, fresh ideas. There is absolutely no similarity with your previous track/album, not even your DAW. I felt highly motivated and stimulated when I opened Studio One, realized it was worth a try, and decided to learn more. Configure my own shortcuts, color schemes, user preferences, and so on. Obviously, there is no direct impact on your sound, but if you have to spend time with a computer while making music, why not making this time more juicy?

VST Footprints (CPU Usage)

I read several times that Studio One was better handling tons of VST, so I decided to make a quick comparison to see if we can get more concrete data.

On my Macbook (MBP 2016, MacOS 10.12.4, Intel i5 @ 2.9 GHz, 16 GB RAM) I did the following benchmark: new project in both tools, with 32 stereo tracks, each with:

  • compressor (attack=0,01ms, ratio=inf, release=50ms)
  • reverb (high-quality, decay=1.2s, predelay=2.50ms, size=100.00)
  • Parametric EQ (7 bands, with different filters)
  • Ping-pong delay (feedback=60%, tempo-synced)
  • Sending everything to 2 FX bus (reverb + delay)
  • A sample in wav format

I configured nothing special in both tools to get a quick preview of their raw performances. If you think I missed something that really needs to be set, or if you think it’s worth writing more details about this benchmarks (settings, etc), please let me know.

First, let’s run our benchmark track in Ableton, testing both 44.1/16 and 96/24 configurations to see the impacts.

Native plugins, 44100 Hz / 16 bits
Native plugins, 96000 Hz / 24 bits
Ableton Live, Native plugins, 96000 Hz / 24 bits

Meanwhile, in Studio One, I got the following results:

Studio One, Native plugins, 96000 Hz / 24 bits
Studio One, Native plugins, 96000 Hz / 24 bits

So, looks like this assumption was not true. At least with native VST. However, you might have noticed the number of threads is also different. So There as some clues that the multi-threading strategy differs between these competitors. Since it can take time to investigate and provide insightful conclusions, I won’t dig deeper right now and this will be the purpose of a future post. As of today, just remember there is no clear winner.

The worst thing: No VST support, by default

Wait, wait, don’t leave! It’s true that the Artist version of Studio One doesn’t support third-party VSTs/AU/AAX. Definitely a big miss from Presonus team. But you can still buy an add-on ($50) to enable this feature. In my case, since I got the Artist version for free, I considered buying this pretty easily but I can understand some of you rather consider the Pro version (with many additional sweets, as you’ll see later).

I can deal with this: Poor instruments

In Ableton Live, Operator is awesome. Simple, efficient, nice sounding. There is nothing similar in Studio One, as far as I know. This point is a recurring argument, but this hasn’t been a problem at all for me. Since 100% of my sounds come from hardware or (sometimes) samples, I don’t even remember the last time I opened a virtual instrument. Probably a decade ago, when I was studying and discovering sound synthesis. Every time i’m travelling, I’m thinking “oh, I should get/buy some VST to be able to produce with my computer only”, but it never happened. And since I got some Pocket Operators and Patchblocks, I’m not sure this is going to happen.

Final question: What about Pro Version?

Well, while being more expensive, obviously, the Pro version is the one that is supposed to be compared to the Suite Edition of Ableton Live. This Pro version “offers” numbers of nice additions: arrangement track and scratch pads are my favorite. You can organize your track by arrangement parts (intro / coda / outro, etc.) and you can then re-arrange everything in a convenient way. Scratchpad is an amazing idea allowing you to record some drafts as you’re going, and deal with them with thoughtful ergonomics. In term of sound, you will love the 64 bits audio engine and consoles emulations. Maybe I’ll consider this upgrade later on. So far, still excited to learn more about Studio One!

UPDATE (September 26th, 2017): Arranger track is now available in the Prime and Artist version. What a nice gift from Presonus!

Enjoyed this?

Feel free to send me your concerns, talk about your own workflow, and see if Studio One could be a great fit. There is a free version available on Presonus website.

And for those who wonder, I also considered Logic. But once again, and this will be my conclusion, the focus on ergonomics, the efforts on audio rendering and the synergy with an outstanding controller — Faderport 8 — have been decisive criteria.