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Music

FL Studio vs. Ableton Live - Battle of the Audio Engines

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Debates on the Internet

"They all sound the same. In sane, sensible, real-world practice there is no measurable difference between them."

Ableton Live and FL Studio
Battle of the DAW prorgams, Live and FL Studio side by side / Picture by author

On the Internet there are hundreds of topics debating the rendering and mixing engines of the various DAW softwares. If you ask people which one is better or which one to choose many votes for the one they use. 

Some say "You shouldn't use FL Studio, it sounds awful!" or "Pro Tools is king, it has the best mixing engine." or "The latest engine of Ableton is superior to the older ones.

More Quotes on the Subject

Sayings from the Cakewalk "Techniques" forum.

Internet forums
Different values / Picture by author

"This is a crazy question, because there is not supposed to be the answer that I'm about to give... which is: sure there is. The reason I use Sonar is mainly due to the sound, which to my ears is clear, clean, focused, detailed and perfect for pop - rock type music."

"I'm pretty sure that you were fooled by the vol / gain level this is very tricky!"

"To my ears Samplitude has the best sounding audio engine around..."

"I perceive differences in how the two programs handle the sound. Neither is bad sounding, just different characteristics stand out in Audition that are not standing out in Sonar."

The Underlying Math and Audio Quality Aspect of DAWs

In the past audio engines used fewer bits for calculating math operations for all digital signal processing and sound generation. However nowadays software companies need to use the highest practically possible bit depth to stay current, which is 64-bit float.

Math equation
Maths can be hard in digital signal processing / Wikipedia

"Given the bit depth of most modern engines though (32 fixed, 48 fixed, 64 float), the likelihood of a difference of one bit on a given sample is going to be pretty low."

Basic Thinking

My suspicion and thinking is that basically all the latest DAW programs are the same in basic mixing capabilities. 

Maybe if there is some difference it should be so minimal that it can't be heard or only in phase cancellation tests or maybe less than -70 to -90 decibels. So I'll explore this topic.

Conceptual thinking steps
Suspicion about the final result / Picture by author

Recipe for Testing

I used these tools for checking out the situation:

  • Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit)
  • Ableton Suite 9.1 (64-bit)
  • Image Line FL Studio Producer Edition 11.1.1 (64-bit)
  • Sony Sound Forge Pro 10 (32-bit)
  • premade music with 4 multi tracks (beat, loop1, loop2, bass)

Beat

The beat has got a big bass drum, a snare drum, and two different hihats (also different in rhythm) in a house style section. I selected this loop from a sample pack.

Loop1 and Loop2

The loop1 and loop2 tracks are latin style house drum loops panned hard left and hard right. The instruments used are hihats, claps and congas and bongos. These are from a sample pack as well.




Bass

Bass patch
This is the bass preset used for the bass / Ableton Analog / Picture by author

The bass comes from a Ableton synth called Analog (using two VCOs programmed with a saw wave and square wave an octave apart, also a slight vibrato and LP24 low pass filter), and it also features a Utility module for monoifying (zero percent) it and finally a Compressor module for sidechaining it to the beat track. 

The bass notes are programmed in Ableton piano roll from the C-minor scale (G1, G#1, A#1, C2, G1, G#1, D#1, F1).

Mixing Settings

Mixing settings
Default settings for mixing / Picture by author

Important points to note here:

  • no plugins on master buss
  • no plugins on instrument channels
  • default volume 0 dB or 100% on all the channels
  • no automation

Render Settings

I used these render settings:

  • rendered track: master track
  • file type: WAV
  • sample rate: 44.1 kHz
  • bit depth: 24 bits
  • dither options: no dithering

Render From Live

This is the export from Live.


Ableton Suite using the stems
Ableton Suite arrangement view with the stems

Render From FL Studio

This is the export from FL Studio.


FL Studio showing the stems
FL Studio playlist view with all the tracks

Phase Cancellation

Finally the phase cancellation test. The picture shows the source files before cancellation.

Using Sound Forge Pro for phase cancelling
This is how the waveforms look before the phase cancellation / Screenshot by author

After phase cancellation

This is how the mix sounds after collapsing.

Encoding the Examples to Mp3

For making the compressed version I used

Reading Tip: Image Line's Page on Audio Myths and DAW Wars

I strongly recommend reading the complete Image Line's help page on the debate and phenomenon.

DSP chip
A digital signal processor chip found in a guitar effects unit / Wikipedia / Mataresephotos / CC BY 3.0

Topics include:

  • transparency and audio quality
  • the psychology of sound
  • importance of loudness matching
  • mixing decisions
  • mixing interpolation
  • render settings
  • plugin behaviours vs. source wav files
  • marketing issues
  • the 5 second A/B blind testing

"The world is full of marketing departments trying to convince you that equipment and specifications can substitute for talent & hard work. This is not true, the 'performance' transcends the medium every time. The performance includes musicianship, vocals, orchestration, arrangement and the mixing decisions. These are all under your control and have little to do with the DAW software you use or plugins you have."

Conclusion

In this tutorial I set out to find the difference of the mixing engines. I used Ableton Live, FL Studio and Sony Sound Forge Pro and a multi track music. 

First, I rendered the mix in Ableton then FL Studio and then made a phase cancellation test in Sound Forge. The cancellation was perfect so there were no differences. 

There are no differences when:

  • no stock plugins used
  • no automation used
  • no warping used

There can be differences when:

  • stock plugins used
  • automation used
  • different warping used
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