It’s been nearly a decade since we published a review of the original version of Studio One [Tape Op #76]. Over the years, the DAW’s feature set has grown significantly, and, impressively, it remains one of the most streamlined audio applications in terms of its user experience. Two of our veteran contributing writers recently switched to Studio One for music recording and mixing. Previously, Dana Gumbiner relied primarily on Pro Tools [#126] in the studio and at home, while he also served as our resident expert on Ableton Live (which he continues to use for electronic music production and stage performance). Meanwhile, John Hong recorded, mixed, and mastered on his Windows laptop using Cakewalk [#126]. We invited both writers to tell us about their experiences with Studio One 4.5 Professional. –AH
JH: I started using recording software, namely Cakewalk [Tape Op #126], in 1992 – roughly the same year I started using AutoCAD for architecture. For this reason, I can’t help making parallel comparisons between the two. Cakewalk was my musician’s version of AutoCAD. Where the latter made digital drafting available to the masses, the former allowed me to move from tape to digital within the ubiquitous Windows OS. Both programs were game changers for obvious reasons, but as software development goes, new products like Studio One don’t just move the game forward in a linear way, they leapfrog several steps ahead.
To take the analogy further, mid-2000s software during the dreaded Windows Vista era became the equivalent of ‘80s gas guzzlers. Programs like AutoCAD and Cakewalk, with one foot shackled to the analog conceptual world, became bloated to accommodate new functions within old form. Even as I moved on from AutoCAD, I stuck with Cakewalk through habit for many years, appreciating its incremental improvements, but realizing that its long-lived legacy was exactly its Achilles heel. Compounding its glitches that would munch away at a golden performance, its attempt to bridge legacy and new functionality resulted in inane shortcuts; a split-second slip of the finger would force me into hours of tinkering to recall a mis-toggled function or hidden window. The end result was a dread for experimenting, and I would only fire up the program when the song was mostly written.
Who knows if Studio One will also have to deal with a weighed-down legacy interface in 2024 when it turns 15, but for now, it’s a welcome leapfrog improvement in so many ways. To put it simply, with much fewer mouse clicks and keystrokes, far less CPU load, and no momentum-robbing crashes, I can get to the point of writing and working more creatively. Meanwhile, its deceptively minimal "flat" interface is intuitive enough to jump right in. Of course, there are many deep, expert-level layers, which may require a search online, but Studio One’s enthusiastic community makes finding these features easy.
DG: After being an active user of Pro Tools for more than 15 years, I’d been searching for a replacement DAW – one that I can quickly and intuitively record and mix in, and most importantly, that is fast on the editing side of the fence. I won’t get too deep into why I’m feeling a bit done with Pro Tools, but my issues with the platform align with all of the common complaints in the user communities – instability, arcane subscription fees, sluggish development, seemingly unempathetic support. Change is good, right? In this instance, yes! After spending some time with Studio One 4.5 Professional, I feel like I’ve found a new "home DAW" – one that doesn’t just replace Pro Tools for me, but makes recording and mixing feel freshly creative and super-efficient.
For me, there are several factors that not only made the transition from Pro Tools to Studio One a no-brainer, but actually opened up new uses as a go-to DAW. Some of these factors and features overlap slightly with my other favorite applications, like Ableton Live [Tape Op #126], but many stand apart on their own innovative digital legs.
A crucial element of making the transition smooth is that all of the primary Pro Tools keyboard shortcuts can be mapped to Studio One via a series of included mappings. (Mapping schemes are also included for Cubase, Logic, and Cakewalk.) Over time, I’ve created a sort of hybrid keyboard shortcut mapping that utilizes my Pro Tools muscle memory but also takes advantage of Studio One’s efficiencies. Although I found Studio One intuitive, the manual helped me to unlock some of its more in-depth features. Even better are all of the helpful (free!) online resources, including YouTube channels like Studio One Expert and Marcus Huyskens Music.
Three tiers of the DAW are available: Studio One Professional, Artist, and Prime (the latter being free). Even the full-bling Professional version is affordable, plus crossgrade pricing is available. PreSonus has great free support, too. The interface is pleasing to the eyeballs, and all of the fonts and graphics used are retina-level nice. Everything is super-customizable, with a fantastic macro engine, tabbed plug-in windows, and a full-featured plug-in manager with the ability to organize/show/hide your third-party plug-ins. One of my favorite features in Studio One Professional is seamless Melodyne integration via ARA, which means that you don’t have to wrestle with the roundtrip export/import workflow typical of Melodyne use in other applications. I can select an audio waveform and hit Cmd+M to analyze and/or alter pitches non-destructively (and instantly).
JH: Also included with Studio One 4 Professional is a great bundle of virtual instruments, like the acclaimed Impact XT and Sample One XT. With that said, I will admit that I was initially disappointed with the quantity (or lack thereof) of bundled effects. Where the equivalent Roland version of Cakewalk Producer came with over 60 effects, Studio One Professional comes with just over 40. But the key, as I quickly learned, is what can be done with these – not how many there are – which speaks to Studio One’s overall philosophy of doing more with less. While it’s old news to be able to curate your effects by type or vendor, Studio One also has a pull-down menu from each mixer module’s insert where you can drop in some very well-designed chains tailored for drums, vocals, guitars, etc. When testing out different EQ and compression settings, or even reverb environments, this is a big time-saver instead of starting from the ground up.
Even more interesting is that Studio One’s channel editor is a convenient graphical interface. Here you can drag and drop effect orders or even insert multiple signal-chain splits to put effects in parallel. The most obvious application might be parallel processing using multiple compressors, but it’s also easy to set up multiband compression, for example, where you can select a parallel routing by frequency. (The other two split modes are normal or by channel.) You can also use effects splitting for a myriad of other creative uses, such as pushing a guitar signal into two different amp plug-ins, resulting in a really sophisticated sound from a single source.
DG: I appreciate that drag and drop support is extensive throughout the mix and arrange views. For example, dragging the insert header in any track will copy over that track’s complete plug-in chain. Creating sends is as easy as dragging a plug-in from the browser to the Send section of the mix panel, which automatically creates both the send and return channels. Same principles apply to sidechained plug-ins – any plug-in with a sidechain assignment to it will carry that allocation over to whichever track it is drag and dropped. There are tons of clever time-savers like this throughout the software.
JH: Meanwhile, the incorporation of Macro Controls takes the efficiency factor to 11; instead of painstakingly having to double-click an effect to individually adjust it, you can map the most relevant parameters of any effect into the knobs and buttons of a single control panel. I thought I would miss the CPU-busting Nomad Factory analog compressors that came with Cakewalk, but with Studio One’s routing options at my fingertips, I can more easily and flexibly dial up much better options.
MIDI editing is also intuitive and full of useful shortcuts. Individual or groups of notes can be edited on the fly, with variations of holding down Ctrl/Alt, or hovering over a parameter and spinning the mouse wheel. The Paint Brush tool has an assortment of different functionalities, including a fantastic Photoshop-like Transform that allows you to sketch in crescendos or decrescendos. There are also plenty of macros that can perform multiple functions at once, with Humanize being the most revolutionary, as it has allowed me to flip my inefficient workflow around 180 degrees. As I am admittedly "tape-era old-skool," I would spend an inordinate amount of time programming drums organically through a MIDI keyboard controller to avoid that quantized sound. Now, I just robotically input the data into the grid and copy whole sections, but then Humanize the notes to add some spookily real "feel" (or "error," if you prefer) to the performance. I still can’t get over the idea that I’m cheating, but just as I recently abandoned my temperamental tube guitar amps, I’m willing to let Studio One’s smart algorithm do its thing if it buys me several hours to make a better song.
DG: I’m impressed with the depth of the MIDI implementation, which is as robust as Ableton Live in many areas. I like the inclusion of the Chord Track, which becomes a powerful way to audition new progressions and arrangements when paired with Studio One’s built-in time and pitch–shifting and Scratch Pad features. There’s a circle-of-fifths tool to help with harmonic editing and experimentation, which makes me feel like I want to drop all of my unfinished songs into a Studio One project and get to work.
JH: Speaking of songwriting, Studio One is continuing to blow my mind with how powerfully it simplifies the songwriting process through the Arranger Track and Pads. The functionality of these tools is so essential and easy, I wonder why it took so long for a company to invent them. You can simply paint over sections of your song to define composition blocks. Studio One automatically smart-names these as intro, verse, chorus, etc. Although you can change the names any time, mostly they end up being right. You can then drag, resize, and edit these blocks as the ideas develop. Most importantly, Arranger seamlessly interfaces with the Scratch Pad. Instead of having to save multiple versions of a song (or lose an idea in Ctrl-Z purgatory), you can open up a sidebar and non-destructively play around with different compositions without affecting your original Arranger track. When you arrive at a sketch you like, you then drag it to the Arranger or replace an existing section altogether. It doesn’t matter if there’s a combination of MIDI notes or sound events – the workflow is fluid.
The above examples are just some of many ways Studio One provides a "no duh, this should be obvious" breakthrough for workflow. There are too many to continue describing them here, so I’ll just quickly mention a few more of my favorites. First, while track folders are old news, Studio One’s additional functionality of being able to right-click a bunch of tracks and immediately create a bus for them is a fast way to simplify and save on multiple instances of effects. A folder for these bused tracks can then act as a "parent" (if you so choose) to control the volume and pan of the bus, rather than having to fiddle with each track separately. Secondly, instead of having to add whole automation tracks to add a splash effect in one location, event-based drag and drop allows you to add them to just one clip while having options for the effects’ tails. Thirdly, take-lane recording and editing are rock-solid simple and hugely time-efficient. Where Cakewalk couldn’t deal with selecting a portion of a take over the "seam" of previously selected takes, resulting in more and more fragments, Studio One can automatically (and magically) mend these seams by dragging over an entire portion of a take. Moreover, several steps are saved because the combined takes appear together as a complete track in the top lane at all times, instead of distributed in fragments within individual lanes below.
DG: Earlier versions of Studio One offered many useful organizational features, including the ability to create nested folders of tracks (similar to Live), but lacked the grouping features I had become accustomed to in Pro Tools. Studio One 4.5’s take on groups is so much better, with customizable track grouping that works precisely like Pro Tools (if you want it to). Many of these new features in version 4.5 are a direct result of user feedback, which highlights an important point: PreSonus seems to listen to their user base. Every release (even free dot releases) seems to include a significant majority of well-integrated user requests – not just bolt-on hacks but thoughtfully implemented designs. And this latter point is why I’m likely to remain loyal to this platform well into the future – because it feels like it was built by creatives who genuinely care about creating.
Importantly, the raw performance of the application and the included plug-ins are exceptional. Studio One is stable as hell, and virtual instrument performance is a vast improvement over Pro Tools. Separate buffers for playback and recording mean I’m not wasting time changing my audio buffer settings when I switch from low-latency tracking to CPU-taxing mixing (or back again when the drummer wants to overdub a shaker part).
JH: Speaking of tracking, I want to mention Studio One’s Native Low-latency plug-in Monitoring (or what has been nicknamed "Green Z"). Maybe I’m saving the best for last, because I’m still in a kind of suspended disbelief that software monitoring can actually work this well. Through some mojo-magic, your plug-ins can become part of the monitor mix as long as the vendor designed them with less than 3 ms latency. One potential glitch was that the option to enable Green Z was initially unavailable with my Roland or Yamaha USB devices, no matter how I adjusted the buffers or block sizes. As soon as I installed the PreSonus Universal Control driver after purchasing the PreSonus Studio 2|6 USB interface, however, the option immediately appeared for all my devices.
One of my favorite guitar amp plug-ins, Overloud TH3, worked brilliantly through Green Z. Previously, I was unable to simultaneously run a virtual drum instrument like Addictive Drums, without first rendering it to an audio track, due to latency issues; but now, I can easily monitor TH3 with near-zero latency, while my software drum kit is playing. This allows me to keep editing the drum MIDI data while developing the guitar parts and sound. In this way, the solid performance of Green Z is probably one of the biggest time-savers within my songwriting workflow. The secondary benefit is that low-latency monitoring allows you to converge the creative process of adding effects while recording the performance, instead of waiting until playback. A little hurdle, however, is that with Green Z enabled, tape-style punch-in recording, where you hear a portion of the previous take, is not possible. A simple workaround is to create a dummy track just for Green Z monitoring, while turning off monitoring on the actual tracks that are armed for overdubbing.
To use one last architectural trope, "God is in the details," and after using Studio One for a year now, I know how much effort the program designers at PreSonus put into really enhancing the creative workflow at the detail level. Studio One’s intuitive design allows you to jump right in; within a few sessions, its basic functions become second nature, which is the ultimate goal of any great piece of software – to become transparent so we can focus on the task at hand. Moreover, Studio One has a world of options for advanced users, and it’s an enjoyable process going deep into its myriad of functions.