studio one 4.5 professional review
I started using recording software, namely Cakewalk, in 1992 roughly around the same time I started using AutoCAD to draw architecture. For this reason, I can’t help make 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 environment. 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-2000’s software during the dreaded Windows Vista era became the equivalent of 1980s 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, through habit I stuck with Cakewalk through the 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 of experimenting. 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 leap-frog forward in so many ways. To put it simply, with much fewer mouse clicks and key-strokes and much less CPU load, I can get to the point of writing and working more creatively. Gone are any graphic-card-clogging ‘friendly’ Windows Vista style transitions (not sure why some programs still insist on this). The zippy way it draws waveforms and opens tabs without any fancy fading just plain works and feels like precise no-frills coding. Meanwhile, its deceptively minimal ‘flat’ interface is intuitive enough to jump right in. Of course, there are many deep expert-level layers that you’ll need to search online for, but Studio One’s enthusiastic community makes finding these features easy.
About my computer as it might be relevant to others thinking about switching over to S1.4 (Studio One 4): I use a 4-year old Razer Blade ‘gaming’ laptop with a 2.4ghz i7 processor, 16gb of RAM, and an SSD drive. Even though that’s average or slightly below today’s music hardware standards, S1.4 has been running with nary a glitch. Installation was super easy with one installer from the PreSonus site, especially in this era where ironically you have to download a separate piece of software to install your software. One thing to note is that I’ve gone through 2 major windows updates since using S1, and I’ve never had to painstakingly re-install and/or contact customer support because of some re-registration glitch post-update. (Are you listening XLN Audio/Addictive Drums)? Along with S1, there are great bundled instruments, like the acclaimed Impact and Sample One, but for this review, I’ll stick to the core program and plugins.
Speaking of plugins, here as an analogy that speaks to S1’s overall philosophy of doing more with less. At first, I was slightly disappointed with the quantity (or lack thereof) of bundled effects: Where the equivalent Roland version of Cakewalk Producer came with over 60 effects, S1.4 Pro comes with just over 40. But the key, as I quickly learned, is what can be done with these not how many there are. While it’s old-news to be able to curate your effects by type or vendor, S1 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 S1’s channel editor is a super 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 applications for this is for functions like 3-band compression where you can select a parallel routing by frequency modes (the other 2 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 2 totally different amp plugins resulting in a really sophisticated sound from a single source. Finally, the incorporation of ‘macro controls,’ tops off the efficiency factor: 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 one rack-mount looking control panel. I thought I would miss the CPU-busting Nomad Factory analog compressors that came with Cakewalk, but with S1’s routing options at my fingertips, I can more easily and flexibly dial up much better options.
As I mentioned, the above example is just one of many of the ways S1 provides a ‘no duh, this should be obvious,’ breakthrough for work-flow. Too many to list here, I’ll just mention some of my favorites: First, while track folders are old news, S1’s added 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 ‘bussed’ 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 the 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, S1 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 as its own complete track at the top level at all times instead of distributed in fragments within individual takes below.
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 cntrl and/or 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 box’ 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 in that is 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 keyboard midi 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 personal ‘error’ 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 S1’s smart algorithm do its thing if it buys me several hours to make a better song.
Speaking of song-writing, while the above examples are about dealing with recorded or midi content, S1 is continuing to blow my mind with how powerfully it simplifies the song-writing process through the Arranger Track and Scratch Pads. The functionality of these tools are 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. S1 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 cntrl+z purgatory), you can open up a side-bar and non-destructively play around with different compositions without affecting your original Arranger track. When you get 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.
As an all-in-one-box solution, S1 also has two modes: Song and Project. The Song mode is obvious, but an easy way to think of Project mode is a mastering environment where you can pull in final mixes for an album or EP. Philosophically, I deeply appreciate this nod to the old-skool where songs can be conceived as a collection that holds together sonically. An initial test run of its great metering, frequency analysis, and phasing visualizations based on several industry standards revealed a bunch of mastering mistakes in my previous tunes. You also have insert effects at the song, master, and post-fader stages to dial up song-based or project-based EQs and effects. Among many other functions, editing tools allow the slicing up of a continuous live set into separate songs. And of course you can add all the necessary meta-data to your tracks before exporting the final files. Being able to instantly toggle between Song and Project modes seamlessly connects the creative processes of mixing and mastering.
Before closing out this review, I want to mention S1’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 in suspended disbelief that software monitoring can actually work this well. Through some mojo-magick, your plugins can become part of the monitor mix as long as the vendor designed them with less than 3ms latency. One potential glitch was that the option to enable Green Z was unavailable with my Roland or Yamaha USB devices no matter how I adjusted the buffers or block sizes. As soon as I installed PreSonus’s Universal Control driver however after purchasing the Studio 2|6 USB interface, the option immediately appeared for all my devices. I’m not sure if this is just a bug within my setup, but for those that might get frustrated with the same issue, you can download the UC app free from the PreSonus website.
One of my favorite guitar amp plugins, Overloud’s TH3, worked brilliantly through Green Z. Where previously I couldn’t simultaneously run a virtual drum instrument like Addictive Drums without first bouncing it to audio due to latency issues, now I can easily monitor TH3 while my software drumkit 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 song-writing work-flow. The secondary benefit is 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, punch-in recording where you hear a portion of the previous take is not possible (visiting the web, it seems many are having this dilemma). For those that might bang their head against the wall for an hour like I did, a ‘no-duh’ workaround is to create a dummy track just for Green Z monitoring while turning off monitoring on the actual tracks that are armed for recording.
To use one last architectural trope, ‘god is in the details,’ after using S1 for a couple months now, I realize how much effort the program designers at PreSonus put in to really enhance the creative work-flow at the detail level. Its 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 disappear and allow us to focus on the music. On the other hand, S1 has a world of options for advanced users and it’s an enjoyable process going deep into S1’s myriad of functions step by step. Actually, instead of ‘step’ I should use the word ‘leapfrog’ because as I write this review I am delving into the option of creating custom macro buttons that will allow me to perform several functions at once.