Why I’m Using Two DAWs to Make One Track

I’ve used many different DAWs in my 20 years of making electronic music.

These days I mainly use two different ones: Ableton Live and Pro Tools. It often confuses people to hear I am actually using both DAWs to work on the same piece of music.

I get asked about why and how I do that sometimes, so here’s a few words about the process (thanks to Matt for bringing it up last week).

The Quick Answer

I like to split each project into two different phases: the creative phase and the final mix phase.

I like to create in Ableton Live and mix in Pro Tools. I don’t always do this, but most of the time I find it’s beneficial to go out of Ableton Live for the final mix.

Why not just do both phases in Live? There are two main reasons:

1. I think Ableton Live is lacking some robust mixing and editing functionality. On the other hand, robust mixing and editing is precisely what Pro Tools excels in.

2. Committing to audio and switching DAWs for the final mix refreshes my perspective and helps me stay more objective.

Let me elaborate on these points.


Pushing for the Last 10%

Disclaimer: At the time of writing this, we are at Ableton Live 9.6 and I have high hopes for improvements taking place with Live 10.

I love Ableton Live for making music. I’ve been using it for a few years now. I’m now armed with the excellent Push 2 controller as well, and I’m having more fun than ever before when making music.

With Live it’s quick and easy to get ideas down, to experiment and to work with the arrangement. All of that is just great. I couldn’t be happier when it comes to that stuff.

It’s not all golden however. I switched from Logic to Live about three years ago. Since then  I have often felt like it’s difficult to get my mixdowns to sound rock solid and exactly how I want them. It was always hard to pinpoint what it is exactly, but at the last stages of a project it often feels like there is something missing. The sound of the mix just isn’t coming together as well as I think it should.

This has gotten better as I’ve gotten used to Live throughout years. But I still often feel that I’m unable to get the last 10% of the mix right when finalising a project in Live.

I didn’t have that problem in Logic. It just happened so that I would more often naturally drift to a point where I felt things are sounding like they should.

There’s been a lot of talk online about things like differences in summing and sound quality between Live and other DAWs. There could be some truth to that, but I am not sure if differences exist anymore to a relevant extent. There’s definitely some placebo involved also.

I’m inclined to think that at the moment for me it’s mainly an issue with workflow and available features and functionality rather than anything else.

What I know for sure is that in any case this two-DAW approach works very well for me. It brings me good results and that is what counts.

There are times when things do come together nicely in Live and I don’t feel the need to take the extra step of moving into Pro Tools for the final mix.

Moving to a different DAW when you are very close to nailing the mix inevitably shakes the delicate balance of the mix and can make it worse in the end. It has happened to me a few times. I try to be aware of that.

But whenever I end up having problems and get stuck with the mix in Live, I will take it to Pro Tools. This has proven to be a great solution for me.


Shortcomings in Ableton Live

For me Live’s shortcoming as a serious mixing environment mainly comes down to a lack of dedicated mixer view. There are many other things where Pro Tools has the upper hand too. But the lack of proper mixer view in Live is the big one for me.

I want to be able to see and operate an overview of the entire mix with all of the plugins visible at once. Right now in Live we have to activate a track in order to see what plugins it’s holding. That slows things down a lot and clouds our mental overview of the session.

I know there is an experimental workaround, but it’s buggy and limited. I would much rather have a third view added to the existing Session and Arrangement views: a solid mixer view where you would have an overview of the entire session and where you can quickly organize things and operate on groups of plugins, for example by adding/removing/bypassing plugins on several tracks at once.

Pro Tools Mix Window

The mix window in Pro Tools

Logic also has a decent mixer view. Since Logic is what I had be using for 10 years, I first began taking the mix to Logic once I felt I had taken a project as far as I could in Live. But I knew Pro Tools would be even better.  After demoing Pro Tools for a bit I knew there was no going back. So I took the plunge and invested in it.

PT is built from the ground up for working with audio (but can also do MIDI and virtual instruments if needed), and their long history in that department shows.


Here are some of the other shortcomings I feel Live has compared to Pro Tools:

I like how in Pro Tools you can set up the layout of your session in any way you like. In Live you are tied to having the master and return channels fixed at the right side of the screen.

The Pro Tools way of freely setting up different kinds of mix groups would also be welcome in Live. Especially with larger sessions. The current grouping function in Live is really just routing. Routing and mix groups should exist separately.

I would also like to see improvements in the audio editing workflow. Live does a lot of things well there, but there is also a lot to learn from Pro Tools in that department.

For a long time I’ve also been wishing for better channel metering. The new combined Peak/RMS metering in Live is just great and a big step into the right direction. It shows that Ableton are paying attention to user’s needs. Now we just need adjustable metering scales (again a feature Pro Tools has) and we’re great when it comes to channel metering.

There would be many more things to list, but it doesn’t serve the purpose of this post to go into it any further. To put it simple:

For me Pro Tools is currently competing in it’s own league when it comes to robust mixing workflow and editing features.

Let’s now take a closer look at the second reason for my two-DAW-approach.


Maintaining Perspective

I began using my two-DAW-approach purely because of the reasons stated before. But since I started doing it I have discovered something interesting.

The acts of committing to audio at the end of the creative phase and switching to a different program to finish the mix are helping me to see and hear the project with a clearer and refreshed mind.

It brings back some of the objectivity that inevitably gets lost on the way when working on the same piece of music for hours or days.

Starting the final mix from a clean slate stops me from fiddling with irrelevant stuff. And it allows me to make better decisions and helps figure out what the project really needs to make it sound better.

Knowing that there will be a dedicated time and place for tweaking the fine details helps me in the creative phase of the project. I don’t as easily get stuck micromanaging details when I really should be focusing on musical ideas and the big picture.

It can be very powerful. Try it out. You don’t necessarily have to use two different DAWs to experience many of these benefits either. You can simply bounce all tracks to audio and start a fresh session for the final mix.


The Takeaway

There is one final and very important consideration to bring forth here.

I wrote this post to illustrate my personal workflow. I didn’t write it because I think everyone should do things the same way. My way of doing things might not work out for you at all.

Your workflow should depend on your personality. This post simply states what works for me at this moment. I don’t even know if I will still be doing things the same way a year from now.

The bottom line is you should find your own way of doing things. Explore different ideas. Evolve what is already working for you. Go with what feels right (as opposed to what someone says).

DAWs are nothing but tools. They all have strong and weak points. It’s up to you to discover what tools work for you best.

If you found this post interesting, you might like to know that I have been working on an ebook about my mixing process. It will include a lot of practical stuff, but also talk about concepts behind my mixing and music making philosophy.

Let me know in the comments if you have any further questions.

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  • Slope

    Sounds Logic(al) mate

  • CSi

    Hi Ilpo, great thoughts, as usual! I own Live and Sonar X3 and for some time now, i was wondering how to achieve exactly what you described- Live for Composing etc and Sonar for Mixing (to incorporate the ProChannel etc.)?!
    So what is your exact workflow: do you bounce all Tracks in Live to Audio and Import them in the other DAW or do you use ReWire; or even another method? I was wondering how i could make this process as hassle-free as possible…
    Nevertheless, thanx for this great article!
    Greetings from Austria, Frederick

    • I export all tracks as audio. Having audio files to work with (instead of ReWire) has many benefits for me.

      1. Hopping between two DAWs using ReWire is a hassle.
      2. Having two DAWs open requires more CPU & RAM.
      3. Having audio allows me to have exact visuals of the waveform for working on timing and edits.
      4. Committing to audio stops me from fiddling with the musical ideas when I really shouldn’t anymore.
      5. I can always go back to Live to change and re-render something if I want to.

      So to summarize, I like to keep it simple and hassle free too and bouncing audio stems does that for me.

      • CSi

        Thanks a lot for your insight, this is something i will definitely try!

  • Lz Sentelle

    As it has been explained to me by an extremely capable, professional software guy who is, also an exceptional audio engineer, the Pro Tools mix engine is not so great. According to my source, mixing in-the-box in Tools is not the way to go. You need a nice console if, you wish to mix in PT according to my friend…I’ve always liked working in PT. I especially like the AudioSuite feature however, if, we are going to be working entirely in-the-box, I’d much rather use Logic.

    • There are so many opinions out there about that stuff. From a technical standpoint I am not qualified to participate in that discussion. It’s good to have debate as I’m sure it pushes the developers forward. In practice though, I’ve had great results mixing in both Logic and Pro Tools. I think we are now at a point where the quality of the end result depends much more on how you work, as well as what possibilities your tools allow.

    • Devin Kloos

      I am a software engineer and a hardcore audio guy and I don’t agree with this at all. A few years ago you might have been able to argue that you need outboard gear to achieve a truly pro mix but I just don’t think this is true anymore. Hardware modeling plug-ins are good enough now to where you are able to now achieve better and more consistent mixes with software only. With tracking you still want the best hardware possible of course.

      Andrew Scheps (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele, Metallica, Jay Z, etc…) talks about this alot. He is now 100% in the box and talks about this on Pensado’s Place #218. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zc1dJg3Uzs I am definitely going to have to side with him on this one.

  • Ilpo, thanks for the detailed article! I’m not a super experienced mixer, and have only used Ableton, so this is a good new perspective for me. Can you explain more what you mean by “The current grouping function in Live is really just routing. Routing and mix groups should exist separately.”? I’d like to understand what you mean here, by the difference between mix groups and routing. Thanks!

    • Good question.

      In Pro Tools groups actually have nothing to do with where the audio from each channel goes. Groups are used to control the functions on the tracks.

      So audio from a track can be routed anywhere, and then you can set up mix/edit groups for controlling several tracks at the same time.

      For example, you can choose to group the solo+mute buttons and volume faders on all your drum tracks for example. Or you can group editing functions for all backing vocal tracks, so that you can perform the same editing work on several tracks at once. The groups can be quickly switched on and off according to what is needed in each situation.

      If you want to see this in action, here’s a video:

  • Sebastian

    I wholeheartedly agree on Live’s mixer shortcomings. A lot of good valid points to take note of here, Live 10 fingers crossed!!!

  • Woody Cuban B Poulard

    Its funny that you post your workflow this week because I have just changed mine 3 days ago to a very similar setup. I go out from Ableton to my outboard gear and then back into Protools. I definitely realized a massive difference in sound quality after changing this.

    • Nice – what outboard are you going through? It is something I have been considering as well. But so far I’ve stayed in the box (I still have some outboard from old times but it hasn’t been used in years).

      • Woody Cuban B Poulard

        Right now I’m outputting Ableton through my Motu Ultralite converters into a patchbay. From there I have the ability to patch to my Foote P3S (which is a Stereo Compressor often said to be a Swiss Army Knife), a Audioarts 4200A fully parametric stereo EQ, a Hairball Audio 1176 Clone, an Ensoniq DP4 Effects Unit, 2xNeve 1081 preamp/EQ Clones, 2xFMR audio RNC stereo compressors, a Speck 4Band EQ and lastly a Aphex Dominator 2 Limiter. All this goes back into protools through a Mytek 8X192 Converter. I also Monitor through this converter.

  • zsoltttt

    Funny, I am having a similar workflow. First ‘DAW’ consists of only outboard gear, including sequencers, no computers. Then at some point I bounce every track to audio, and continue in Logic.

  • Cimm

    Question to all of you that use 2 daws…. how far do you go into DAW 1? Will you use reverb and eq etc etc… or will you uses eq and do the reverb and other fx at the mixdown process… or is the mixdown process in daw 2 purely balance ? Please let me know as its something i’ve been wondering for some time.

    • I go as far I possibly can in Ableton Live and then refine that as much as I can in Pro Tools. I will typically do the heavy lifting in Live and then for the final mix it comes down to fine tuning the EQ, dynamics, timing, automation, levels, things like that.

  • 0=0

    bitwig ha

    • 0=0

      although fun of clip based sequencing with a very nice mixing environment. (i know i know..ableton i’m sure has it’s perks for you)

  • ManyFold

    Hello Ilpo,

    I tried this workflow . Doing most of the job with ableton live and mixing with presonus studio one 3 ( i really love the mixing part ) . It’s was ok but i had hard time to decide how far to go with Live , Should i use return and bounce them aswell , should i have any plugin on the master bus, should i use my virtual channel on the mixdown or in Live etc etc ..
    I ended to do like you , go as far as possible and bounce everything , with all return channel , master bus plugins etc .
    Mixing was more a refine , eq , automation some dynamique works than a “real” mixdown, and i must say that the best part of this workflow was the mindset , to switch from one to another is very good. And for sure to have a nice mixer with ( it’s my opinion ) a better sounding could help ^^
    I really hope ableton will work on the mixer section some day .

    • Hi,
      Yeah – I have actually just switched from Pro Tools to using Studio One 3 as well. It’s very good!

      • ManyFold

        I almost switch completely to Studio One because it have a similar rack system like Live but not as easy to use in my opinion . And the stock plugins and instruments are not as good as Live as far as i tested them . But it’s a really good product the mixer and editing features are awesome. So yes Live + Studio One is the perfect combo for me so far .

        • Have you tried using Live as ReWire slave with Studio One? It’s pretty cool. Push 2 doesn’t seem to work then though, which is a huge bummer!! Otherwise I would be able to pretty much stay inside Studio One while creating stuff with Push.

  • ˪ . poole ˙ ˺

    I’ve been routing to an external digital console which I have found focuses my perpsective on the spectral balance and stereo image of the music as opposed to staring into the screen. Some would look at the mixer I’m using and proclaim it preposterous to go from 32 bit to 24 bit with analog conversion between, but dialing in the trim controls and faders allows me to gain stage with a confidence Live’s meters never gave me. There’s still much to be learned to improve the mixes, but I’m not second guessing what I hear based on what the screen shows.

    • Cool – yes indeed I would argue the technical audio quality doesn’t mean much if you’re not comfortable with how the method feels like intuitively. It needs to work the other way around. Workflow first, then think about what you can do to the technical quality.

  • Juan Pablo De Lucca

    im thinking of turning from live to PT at the mixing stage.. i just cant decide wether to bounce dry tracks or with the reverb and eq done in live as part of the compositional process… i mean, you mold the sound during the composition process as wel… just cant make my mind on it… i guess if i hand my mix to someone else, he would rather have a reference and the clean tracks, but if i do the mix, i wouldnt like to work twice… any insights or procedures?

    • ManyFold

      When it comes to mixing stage I bounce all tracks with effects eq etc …
      As this is part of the creative process.
      Then mixing is about eq to make all things sounds good together , dynamic fix when needed, automation and spatial placement left right front back etc …
      Starting your mix with a dry version of each track is a big waste of time and you’ll loose a lot of creative works
      That’s the way I see things

      • Agreed, and this is my approach as well most of the time when it comes to insert effects. I don’t tend to bounce send effects because I often end up making changes to the arrangement and timing in the final mix stage. So I prefer to redo my sends in the final mix project.

        But as far as bouncing with insert FX goes, I just bounce wet. Should I need to go back for a dry version of something I can always dig back in to the original files and get that.

        The exception is if I feel completely stuck with something and am not happy with how it’s sounding at all. That is when I feel a “full reset” (bouncing everything dry and moving to a different DAW to mix) is often beneficial.

  • Ryan Blackett

    Recently did a post on my indecision between Ableton and Logic Pro in relation to this article… https://ryanblackett.wordpress.com/2016/11/01/why-i-cant-decide-between-ableton-and-logic-pro-workflow-techniques/

  • Ed Lewis

    I do exactly the same thing, write in Cubase, bounce it all to audio at -18 dB and then import it into Pro Tools to mix. I come from a traditional recording background where this happens all the time, you track the band and then mix it once tracking is done so it makes far more sense to me.

    The main thing that bugs me about Cubase is you can’t have mono instrument tracks, I tend to pan say kick fully left, snare fully right and then export the stereo track. When I get it into Pro Tools I then split to mono. I like this method of working for the reasons in the article, it is nice too that all my tracks are at -18 dB, properly gain staged when the mixing phase begins.