Sound Quality: Live versus Logic

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As a lot of people know, I tend to frequent a lot of various music-related forums throughout the day.  Every now and then (approximately every 18 minutes) I end up running into a thread discussing which DAW sounds better.  Or as some people like to say, which DAW has the best sounding “Summing Engine”.  Now, I’ve looked into this in the past and posted my results about it, but there’s new people getting into music production every day, so it’s time to revisit the topic I think.

Originally I had planned to do a huge, comprehensive test among all of the latest DAWs I could get my hands on.  But, I’m super busy with the mastering business lately, and realistically I don’t have the time to learn the intricacies of each DAW to make sure that I’m doing the test as fairly as possible.  And besides, the test is easy enough for anyone to run on their own.  So I’m only going to focus on the two DAWs I know and use the most (which also happen have to most heated debates on inherent sound quality), Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro.

So for this comparison I’m going to be using Apple Logic Pro v9.1.5 in 32bit mode, and Ableton Live v8.2.6.  The basic premise of the test is pretty simple, I’ll use the same set of audio stems in each application, and then compare the rendered results.  For those of you who’d like to use these same stems in your own DAW of choice, you can download all the 24bit stems here:

http://tarekith.com/assets/SoundQuality/LogicLiveStems.zip

Because I don’t have time at the moment to write new material for a test like this, I just used some stems from one of my recent songs.  I kept the stems at 17 bars to keep the file sizes smaller, with a short click at the very beginning to assist in lining up the files for comparison later on.  I did run the test on song-length stems as well, and got the same results as with these shorter files, for those that are curious.

Step one was to import all the stems into Logic, and lower each track fader to be exactly -3dB. (Command+Click on each image below to view it larger in a new Tab)

Next I made sure to change Logic’s pan law to “-3dB (Compensated)” in the project settings.  This way Logic is using the same pan law that Ableton Live uses (Live does not allow you to change the pan law).

After that I bounced all of the stems into a single stereo 24bit wav file.

Now to do the same in Ableton Live.  First step is to drag all of the stems into Live, MAKE SURE WARPING IS OFF, and then lower all of Live’s volume faders to -3dB.  It’s important in Live to actually type the exact value you want for the value faders.  Many people don’t realize this, but Live’s faders only show a resolution of one decimal place, but can actually be slightly different if you drag them with the mouse or use a MIDI controller.  For instance, if you drag them with the mouse they might really be set to -3.045dB, even though they show -3dB.  For day to day use this is no issue at all, but I want to make sure the volumes are identical to what I set in Logic.

Then I Exported the stems from Live into a single stereo 24bit wav file just like before.

Now the fun part.  The first thing I wanted to do is just listen to these two files and see if I could hear an obvious difference.  I dragged them both into Live (again making sure warping was off) and assigned a MIDI controller to mute one track while soloing the other.  This way I could instantly toggle between them with one button press.

Normally I’d get my wife to help me by toggling these while I wasn’t looking, so that the observations are done blind.  However she was watching Amazing Race on TV, so I had to just turn off the computer screen and do it manually a bunch of times without keeping count of how often I pressed the button. Not the most scientific, but regardless I could hear no difference between the two files anyway.  This was done at multiple volume levels with my monitors as well.

You can listen to the files yourself here:

http://tarekith.com/assets/SoundQuality/LiveTestFile.wav

http://tarekith.com/assets/SoundQuality/LogicTestFile.wav

Right click and choose “Save As” to download these to your computer if you want, and remember the little click you hear at the start of both files was intentional.

After that, I opened both files up Audiofile Engineering’s Wave Editor, and ran an audio analysis on them both.  You can see those results here:

As you can see, the results are identical.  Note that even though the “Selection Only” option is checked in the Analysis Window, the entire audio file was selected in both cases when I ran the analysis.

The final test was the infamous phase-cancellation test I’m sure many of you have seen mentioned before.  To perform this, I dragged both rendered files into Logic, used a Logic Gain plug-in on one of them to invert it’s phase, and then compared the combined output when both were played at the same time.  I used Logic metering, as well as Sonalksis’s Free-G plug in meter for greater resolution (and it’s free so other’s can use it for their own testing).  As you can see, when the phase of one of the files was inverted, the files COMPLETELY cancelled each other out.  I also repeated this test in Live using a Utility plug-in to invert the phase of one track, and got the same results.

This means they are bit for bit identical.

So, the results of this test show that Ableton Live and Apple Logic Pro produce exactly the same thing when you export a mixdown.

Everything else being equal.

That is the key point that people need to take away from this test, everything else being equal.  This test only shows that at their core, these two applications combine multiple tracks into a stereo wav file in exactly the same way, nothing else.  There are dozens of other aspects of each program that can affect the final audio quality of your mixdowns, and since there is no way to do a fair comparison of those, I’m not even going to bother trying.

For instance, both programs offer different time-stretching algorithms (Warping versus Flex-Time).  They both come with plug-ins (and presets) that designed and sound vastly different from each other.  They both handle things like automation data differently.  Just a few examples of places other than the supposed “summing engine” where what you do, and how you use each program, can impact the final sound of your productions.

I’m sure what I’ve done here won’t end the debate over which DAW sounds the best, but I do hope that in some small way it shifts the discussion to the aspects that truly make a measureable difference.  As I’ve shown here, if there is a difference in sound quality, it’s not in the way they combine multiple tracks into the final end result.

——————-

If anyone finds a flaw in my testing, or just wants to continue the debate, please feel free to discuss this in the comments section below.  Please don’t ask me to test other DAWs , I’ve provided the exact files I’ve used if you’re really that curious about it.  By all means feel free to post the results of any testing you do though, as I’m sure other people are curious as well.

——————-

UPDATE 12-06-2011

Well, it took awhile but the flood gates have opened about my Live versus Logic sound quality test that I just posted.  Some people have raised some good points about ways I could have modified the test to include other parameters, so I’ve gone back and done a few things differently as sort of a round two.   I also wanted to clarify a few questions that seem to keep popping up on different forums again and again.

First and foremost though, I wish people would have not just skimmed the article and actually read my conclusions.  I am NOT saying that Live and Logic ALWAYS sound the same.  The point of this test was to isolate one specific area for comparison, and show how at the core, the way these two programs combine multiple audio tracks into a stereo wav file is the same.  That’s it.

Like I stated in the original post, there’s a LOT of other areas where there will likely be difference in sound quality.  Instead of getting mad at me for not doing all the work for you, it would be great if people instead tested some of this on their own and said “hey look, here’s one area where I can reliable show a difference in signals”.

 

Anyway, here’s some other things I looked at over the last day, and some clarifications on the test itself:

– A few people mentioned that they hear the differences most notably with recorded instruments.  The guitar in this test was recorded live, it’s a Parker Dragonfly using a combination of the piezo and mag pickups, through a Pod HD500 and then into an RME Fireface400.

– Some people have questioned whether the soundcard I use (see above) could have any impact on the signals in the test.  Short answer is no, the soundcard doesn’t factor in at all until after the DAW has done it’s thing and that signal is trying to get out of your computer.  Or if your song sucks, maybe the signal is ashamed and is trying to stay in your computer, I don’t know.

– Other people wanted to know if perhaps the test would turn out differently if I use more than 9 audio tracks.  So I duplicated the tracks in each DAW many times, and added some other random loops from my collection as well (to rule out it just being these audio files that this was happening with).  In total, I used 80 stereo tracks, exported, and still got total cancellation when comparing the two.

– This last test was one of the most interesting.  Someone had suggested using the same 3rd party plug ins in both DAWs, and seeing if that had any impact on whether or not they cancel (or sound).  So I used a combination of Fabfilter Pro-L, DMG eQuality, Voxengo MSED and Polysquasher, and PSP Xenon, placed randomly across the different tracks (yet the same tracks in both DAWs).  Some were placed one after the other in series on the same track, others were solo by themselves on a single track.

Interestingly, when I compared these two results, they did NOT cancel, barely at all in fact.  As I dug into this some more, it seems that the Voxengo and PSP plugs were the primary cause, as once I removed these the signals almost cancelled.  Summed they were inaudible, but I was still seeing some very small signal around -96dB on the Free-G meter.  This gave me an AHA! moment though, when I realized this looked a lot like a dither signal.  Sure enough, I had forgotten that I had dithering enabled by default in Pro-L.  Once this was turned off, the two signals cancelled completely.

So, I’m really not sure what kind of conclusions one can draw at this point about this, other than some of the differences in this part of the test seemed to be down to the plug ins themselves.  Perhaps they report their latency differently, or have some sort of random processing happening as part of the way they work internally, I really don’t know.

 

Anyway, the long and short of all this is that all this testing was never meant to be a definitive statement about which DAW ultimately sounds better, or which people should prefer.  I’ve gotten a lot of surprisingly hateful emails from people calling me an “Ableton Fan Boy” (is that an insult?) among many other not so nice things.  At the end of the day yes, I do like Ableton Live for many things, but it’s only one of many tools at my disposal.

For instance, when clients send me mixdowns to work on, I don’t use Live unless they ask me to, I always reach for Logic first.  It’s faster for this type of work, has better automation functions, and quite frankly I like the way it’s plug ins sound better and how quickly I can add an EQ to a channel if I need to. (far from perfect though, Logic has been buggy as shit since OSX Lion came out).

As always I’m sure people will draw their own conclusions no matter what I say, but I do ask that instead of sending me nasty emails or message, maybe try instead to offer something more constructive to the conversation than “You must have tomatos in your ears!”.

——————-

UPDATE 12-13-2011

Well, it turns out a flaw has been found that invalidates my test.  In attempt to use measurement tools that others could also obtain for free, it’s been pointed out to me that the low-level resolution of the Free-G metering plug in was not sufficient to capture all of the audio signal.  An Ableton Forum user has brought to my attention that the last 3 bits of the null-test signal (the signal below -126dBFS) are in fact not bit for bit identical.

How much affect this has on the audible difference between the two signals is debatable (and I’m sure people will), but I have to withdraw my conclusion that Live and Logic produce bit for bit identical audio files given the conditions above.  My apologies for not being more thorough in my testing, you can now go back to arguing about which DAW sounds better 🙂

  1. Doug Hayman12-05-2011

    If we can then call that “myth busted”, that they are conclusively both the same what are your thoughts on analog summing versus summed in the box? Watched part of the Alan Parson’s 3-DVD set where he calibrates with test tones to get the same levels some stems either sent to the master bus or, through an analog mixer and back into a DAW then plays them for us to compare and via my TV to speakers don’t know if I have the ears and/or gear to know if what sounded better/different from the other.

  2. Kevin12-05-2011

    very interesting man. how do you see the future use of propellerhead reason and how that compares to logic and live? I’ve been using it for years and love it but everyone seems to be going exclusively logic or live nowadays and i’m wondering if maybe the quality of reason isn’t up to par anymore?

  3. Michael Reynolds12-05-2011

    Joke! Joke!

    Well done sir. That makes me feel good about my choice to stick to Live for mixdown on my next batch of projects.

  4. dgx12-05-2011

    Hello,
    Do you think it will produce the same results if you increase the number of tracks? Lets say something about [20~32] tracks.

    best regards

  5. digital_steve12-05-2011

    Good read, good info.
    All things being equal is, as you say, the key.
    I mastered a release for a netlabel in Mackie Tracktion 2; no one noticed anything abhorrent about the audio and no one questioned what DAW it’s done in.

    The most important pieces of equipment everyone owns is a brain and a set of ears. Use your ears to critically listen and your brain to interpret what is needed/not needed for your sound given the limitations of your mixing/mastering environment.
    Let’s face it… not all of us can invest the money and time to make their little studio acoustically perfect.

    ps – look after your ears youngsters… i’m only 30 but didn’t look after mine enough. If you have doubts about your hearing, see an audioligist and have a test. You even get a little graph to show where your hearing dips across the audio spectrum… another useful bit of information for mixing.

    pps – tinnitus sucks.

  6. Tarekith12-05-2011

    Doug – Honestly the whole analog versus digital summing thing is something I think people try and categorized the wrong way. It’s like saying blue is better than red. Two flavors of the same thing, and people are equally entitled to prefer one over the other. I wouldn’t say either is neccesarily better.

    Kevin – I don’t think anything is wrong with Reason in terms of sound quality, though in some respects it’s not really fair to compare it with other DAWs anyway. It’s a collection of synths and samplers, not a digital audio workstation per se. That said, I’m sure there’s been many professional releases using just Reason and no one has ever complained about the sound quality.

    dgx – I don’t think it would make any difference.

  7. Jestermgee12-05-2011

    Ah, cool. So what you are saying is Ableton really is the best (now that the issue of sound quality is out of the way) 🙂

  8. Michael Reynolds12-06-2011

    Re: Reason, a perfect example of how there really isn’t a “Reason sound” anymore is that Logistics (and I think Nu:Tone to a lesser extent) use Reason, and it sounds so good that Logistics is quoted as saying that TeeBee (noted audiophile) swore he was using analog (hardware) synths and was surprised to find out it was Reason.

  9. Tarekith12-06-2011

    Added some new comments to the end of the original post, along with some new testing I did based on reader suggestions.

  10. Greenhouse12-07-2011

    – A few people mentioned that they hear the differences most notably with recorded instruments. The guitar in this test was recorded live, it’s a Parker Dragonfly using a combination of the piezo and mag pickups, through a Pod HD500 and then into an RME Fireface400.

    was there a difference in result?

  11. Tarekith12-14-2011

    UPDATE 12-13-2011

    Well, it turns out a flaw has been found that invalidates my test. In attempt to use measurement tools that others could also obtain for free, it’s been pointed out to me that the low-level resolution of the Free-G metering plug in was not sufficient to capture all of the audio signal. An Ableton Forum user has brought to my attention that the last 3 bits of the null-test signal (the signal below -126dBFS) are in fact not bit for bit identical.

    How much affect this has on the audible difference between the two signals is debatable (and I’m sure people will), but I have to withdraw my conclusion that Live and Logic produce bit for bit identical audio files given the conditions above. My apologies for not being more thorough in my testing, you can now go back to arguing about which DAW sounds better 🙂

  12. SkyMakai12-14-2011

    Good on you for following up on this. An interesting read none the less. Thanks!

  13. Tarekith12-14-2011

    Yeah, it’s never easy saying “Oops, I was wrong”, but sometimes you have to 🙂 FWIW, I still don’t think this has any audible effect on the comparison.

  14. acoustics physics04-04-2012

    I simply could not leave your website prior to suggesting that I really loved the standard information an individual supply to your visitors? Is going to be again continuously to check up on new posts

  15. Just a reminder06-30-2012

    People seem to forget that both programs are driven by CORE AUDIO and the CPU’s are doing MATH to sum the digital info. That means the programs are, as far as the computer is concerned, the same. With today’s reliable technology, zeroes and one’s will not differ from machine to machine, or program to program and that is all that our music is comprised of.

    Phase mis-cancellations could possibly be attributed to signal latency through the plug-ins and how each DAW is written to process that plug in.

    Marketing and misguided popular opinion affects musicians and producers way more than it should.

  16. Per Boysen09-27-2012

    That was an excellent test and write-up! I guess few would have imagined different results from play audio playback but you could make Part 2 of this test when performing some mixing work with each platform’s native plugins. That would be REALLY interesting because that is the way we actually use DAWs. One could imagine some specific tasks like for example isolating and rolling off a given number of dBs with each platform’s EQ or setting up a kick/bass ducker compression side-chain on both DAWs using the same kick and bass track audio files.

  17. Dub Above All Official10-24-2012

    Im very glad I read this! ableton never disappoints, have you guys seen the leaked Ableton 9 video?? It looks very good, but there is a new DAW coming out called Bitwig that is looking really good aswell, maybe even better than ableton

  18. Peter12-29-2012

    Hey, this is great, thanks for doing this.
    I honestly believe ableton’s live playback sounds fairly shit compared to its own render results – and logic is easier to mix well for this reason.
    Also I don’t understand it but I have exported loops that sound great from logic, really phat and open. Then opened them in ableton, chosen Hi Q and all of that, unwrapped etc., and they have sounded shit – like completely different, ‘closed in’ or what have you. I didn’t ‘re-render’ it to check. Maybe it’s its Audio playback engine?
    Regardless, I’m glad your test proves the render quality is the same. I honestly believe that the playback differences then are still black and white, but again that’s my ears.
    Cheers again for putting this up.

  19. Tim Engelhardt04-05-2013

    Hi, cool idea.

    But, I think the overall sound quality can’t be assessed as the same, just because the mixdowns sound the same. The actual thing is, Logic sounds much more analytically while doing something (not rendering!!) than Live. Logic is just more accurate! Still, the mixdown sounds the same. But in Logic you always have the urge to change something Live didn’t show up because of its crappy (it’s really crappy in comparison to Logic) sound-engine..

  20. Mano K.04-20-2013

    Well, the problem here that I see is that you dragged them back to Ableton, so then again you are playing with abletons engine. so basically you just canceled the true quality of the logic file.
    You should have done the play back in a neutral software such as winamp or itunes or anything like that. So for me this test does not prove anything.
    just giving the other side of the coin.

    G.

  21. aristidesfl05-15-2013

    Sound / Music perception at the level of detail we are talking about is a very subjective experience. The difference you guys are experiencing might come only from the look of interface and other values your brain has associated with Logic / Live, while the sound entering your ears might be exactly the same.

    Nevertheless, the playback engine argument seems to be valid, but easy to test. Just play back the same mix in both DAW, route them bothe into some other recording software, and then compare the recordings.

  22. aristidesfl05-15-2013

    If the files don’t cancel out the next step would be to make proper ABX and see if you can actually distinguish the recordings. If not, then it doesn’t make a difference.

    If you can distinguish the recordings, time to another blind test to decide which recording you prefer.

    Without proper testing, even if the sounds are different, there is no way to know which one is actually better, because there are many other factors contributing to the placebo effect.

    • Tarekith05-15-2013

      I think regardless of the details of the comparisons from a technical level, it’s the ABX listening test that really shows just how close (identical?) the results are.

  23. Mike Goodwin05-23-2013

    A great read! Thank you very much for your time and effort. I think it is very interesting that they are not exactly the same.

  24. KCB06-22-2013

    Thanks for this great read and nice to see some one take the time to make the test, I appreciate it.

    l though I have to respectfully disagree with your results when it comes to my ears, maybe I’m crazy.

    I still play around and seem to get a sharper louder sound out of Live, and I often speak with plenty of engineers who also agree.. although dosent make it right.

    Wave editor assessments are one thing, but can I offer the scenario of tv commercials, in Australia I’ve been producing tvc audio since the 90s (both advertising, music, bands and EDM) and it was always a trend to master our audio the loudest as possible, which soon was restricted here to -10dB which was no big deal, I was still capable of creating a louder spot at -10 than others at -10.

    Assessment of audio and its frequencies run through an application like Wave Editor is probably not accurate as real world results, in my opinion I still believe such assessments differ to what we actually hear, as much as I’d love to trust Wave Editor.

    So as it stands word wide, TV watch dogs have noticed that while tv commercials are capped equally some engineers are banging out louder spots and now we have new laws that bypass the limited -10dB law as kinda useless, and now we’re forced to cp at -24 LUFS using a lug in like, say http://www.waves.com/content.aspx?id=11884

    In a session recording the band Jet (an Australian band, probably not known overseas) I was recording on my PTHD with a C24 all in the box sounded fine compared to a lot of the old school gear in comparison …any how im falling asleep at my computer its 5:13am and I cant see the words and swaying off topic.

    I’d love to a test using this plug in above on all 3, ableton, logic and PT. Hopefully one day I can be kind enough to share my thoughts back with you, for debate hahaha

  25. mike07-19-2013

    this answers a big FAQ. and is a great thing to know too.

  26. Nicola08-06-2013

    what i wonder most is the quality of the internal synths, i have both logic/ableton and i love how logic synths sound, the ones of live instead sound a bit like a toy but it may be my impression

    • Tarekith08-06-2013

      Personally I think a lot of it is just because Logic has better presets by default. For quick and easy sounds it’s generally faster to find what you need. Once you start sculpting from scratch though, I personally find the Live stuff easier to dive in deep with.

  27. sina08-08-2013

    well done, very accurate.

    thanks for the time you spent on it. I’ve always had the feeling that logic sounds “clearer”. but i guess its some sort of ear-placebo.

  28. santi10-04-2013

    That’s science talking, dudes. Accurate, precise, no bullshit. Thanks to the researcher for the effort. !

  29. Frank10-07-2013

    I’ve compared playback with a VERMONA kick lancet (analog bass instrument) and in logic it sounds way better, but that’s my opinion. I am using a RME fireface 400. I think for recording instruments logic is the right DAW, but I am really curious what is causing the difference… And what’s the case if you rewire ableton to logic? Anyone tested this? Thanks for this test!

  30. sasa02-26-2014

    it makes no sense to re-load both files in ableton for comparsion.
    as they´re running both trough abletons summing algorythm.. there will be no difference at all.
    thank you for your efforts.. but please do the comparsion in wavelab or in some other system.
    thats my 2 cents 🙂

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