If you’re a producer, songwriter, or engineer, there’s likely not a single piece of your studio setup that you’ll analyze more than your DAW. Any major DAW has all the tools a skilled artist needs to execute their creative vision. Still, there’s invariably only one question that comes up within a few minutes of striking up a conversation with a fellow producer for the first time: “So, what do you produce on?”
With the DAW being such a critical part of a producer’s workflow, we’re naturally hesitant to switch programs; having done so a few times in my career—from FL Studio, to Logic, and later to Ableton Live—I know firsthand the learning curve that awaits any artist changing their program of choice.
As a result, starting a new DAW from scratch, as PreSonus has done over the past decade with Studio One, is no easy task. Getting producers to switch is only half of the battle: creating a codebase that can legitimately rival the features of programs like Cubase and Logic, which have been around for roughly 30 years, is no small feat.
And yet, despite the uphill battle any new entrant to the DAW marketplace faces, there’s no denying that Studio One appears to be gaining some real momentum, particularly with the releases of Studio One 4.5 and 4.6. The program comes up more and more when I talk to fellow producers and engineers, and a quick scan of YouTube and forums like Gearslutz and KVR indicate a highly loyal and vocal fanbase.
While I’d briefly messed around with demos of earlier versions of Studio One, a glance at the PreSonus website made me realize their team has been hard at work—really hard at work, apparently—since I’d last experimented with the DAW. On paper, Studio One hasn’t just caught up with the traditional major players but appears to have surpassed them with some genuinely novel features tailored towards all phases of the creative process, and my curiosity was piqued.
In this review, we’ll take an in-depth look at Studio One to see what all the hype is about and see how the program stacks up against other options in the ever more competitive DAW ecosystem.
As is standard with most DAW’s these days, PreSonus offers several versions of Studio One—Studio One Prime (Free), Studio One Artist ($99), and Studio One Professional ($399)—each with a different price point and feature set depending on your needs. For this review, we’ll mostly be discussing Studio One Professional, which is the version I was provided for testing. All versions of Studio One are available for both MacOS and Windows, offering some nice flexibility compared to DAW’s restricted to a single platform like Sonar and Logic.
Downloading and authorizing Studio One is a simple and straightforward process: create an account on PreSonus’ website, download your purchased version (or a demo), and log in to your account when prompted within the application on Mac or Windows. PreSonus gets some major points here for not using a hardware dongle, which in my opinion, is an unfortunate method of copy protection for something as critical as a DAW. I’ve recently had some major issues with my iLok software on OS X, and it occurred to me that while I can stop using a particular compressor or EQ until I get the issue sorted out, I simply wouldn’t be able to work on sessions if my DAW was tied to such a licensing system.
Opening Studio One for the first time reveals an interface that takes some clear inspiration from Steinberg’s flagship Cubase software, albeit with a much more pleasing GUI and flexible window system. Similar to Cubase, Studio One tracks are primarily controlled via the Inspector modal on the left-hand side of the screen, offering a relatively streamlined way to manage most of your vital parameters in one place.
As I began browsing around both the GUI and Studio One’s preferences panel, one thing became immediately clear: this is a highly customizable DAW. Wisely, it seems PreSonus realized they would need to offer the best of many other programs to convince users to switch, and many of the program’s customizations allow you to make the DAW behave more like your previous app of choice. If you can’t live without Pro Tools’ click anywhere in arrangement to play, Studio One can enable that with a simple toggle; likewise, many aspects of the arrangement and mixer windows offer a lot of flexibility that can adapt to your preferred workflow.
Lastly, as incredible as it is that in 2020 I even need to call this out, it’s worth noting that all versions of Studio One—even the free Prime version—offer unlimited audio and MIDI tracks. This is a far more user-friendly approach than some other DAW manufacturers take, and if you’re just starting and looking for a highly capable program at a friendly price point, give Studio One a serious look.
As I noted in the introduction here, we’ve reached a point where just about any DAW in 2020 offers the tools you need to create, record, and mix a stellar record. Studio One does provide some genuine and novel advances in even the most mundane aspects of music creation, which I’ll cover shortly. Still, I primarily want to focus on what PreSonus is doing to offer artists unique tools that other programs simply can’t match. Ultimately, the role of a DAW should be to offer a producer every tool possible to express their creative vision, and Studio One 4.6 does this exceptionally well.
One of Studio One’s standout features—and one that, in my opinion, puts the program well ahead of most DAW’s at the moment—is the most advanced Melodyne ARA integration available anywhere. Melodyne has long been one of my most-used studio tools, and not just for vocal correction: it’s one of the most underrated sound design tools around and is often capable of mangling and reworking complex, polyphonic sounds in a way no other plugin can. Despite Melodyne’s stellar capabilities, there’s usually a disconnect when using it in other DAW’s. You typically have to load up the plugin, playback the region(s) of audio you want to manipulate, and then bounce the resulting audio, which can be a bit of a workflow killer, especially in a session where you’re under pressure to make things happen quickly. In Studio One, by contrast, Melodyne is instantly available on any audio track right in the arrange window, making Melodyne manipulation of anything in your session as easy and quick as editing audio or MIDI.
Using Studio One, I found myself using Melodyne far more often than I do in other DAW’s, often with excellent results. It’s a genuine step up over what just about every other DAW offers at the moment. In my experience, Melodyne is still a ways ahead of the native imitations that companies like Apple and Steinberg have created. Put simply, having this level of access to Melodyne right in the arrange window is a game-changer. Studio One Professional also includes Melodyne Essential, offering a pretty compelling value, in my opinion.
Another absolute standout feature from my testing of Studio One is Harmonic Editing, which is an incredibly powerful tool for both songwriters and producers. Using Studio One’s Chord Track, Harmonic Editing allows you to change the harmonic content of every track in your session—yes, both MIDI and audio—in realtime. Let’s say, for example, that your chorus section has three chord parts—a bassline, a guitar riff playing a drone note or other harmonic content in a I, V, vi, IV progression (original, I know)—and you decide you need to spice things up a bit by substituting a ii chord for your vi. In most DAW’s, this becomes a bit of an involved process. You’ll need to find your substitute chords or your new progression on one instrument, and then edit all of the accompanying tracks to match the new progression—and this is assuming you still have everything in MIDI, which you may not.
In Studio One, making these adjustments are as simple as editing a single Chord Track. Since all tracks in your session (with harmonic editing enabled) derive their harmonic content from this single track, S1 will adjust the content of all tracks set to Follow Chords, in realtime, as you experiment with new chords or voicings. In practice, this opens up a lot of creative possibilities, as it allows you to freely experiment with chord substitutions, alternate voicings, and different progressions with very minimal editing.
I was skeptical that Harmonic Editing would work as smoothly as advertised, but PreSonus has nailed it with this one. Each instrument type (bass, chord, harmony) adapted to the new chords I was adding seamlessly, with no weird voicing errors or other glitches. Again, and without wanting to throw the term ‘game-changer’ around too lightly, this is a big deal, especially for songwriter/producer teams. This is a unique tool that can open up a lot of possibilities, particularly in long sessions where redoing a substantial number of MIDI tracks would be overly time-consuming.
Likewise, I found Studio One’s Mix FX feature to be another genuinely novel tool that makes most other DAW’s audio summing look like something from a past era. The crux of Mix FX is simple; much of the magic of analog consoles comes from the interaction between adjacent channels in a mixer (crosstalk), and most DAW’s do nothing to emulate this powerful feature of the analog domain. While the past decade has seen a slew of plugins aimed at replicating many aspects of analog console summing, most fail to do so as limitations of popular plugin formats (VST/ AU/AAX) do not enable inter-channel crosstalk.
Using the MixFX Console Shaper plugin, Studio One allows you to dial in a fully variable amount of inter-channel crosstalk, in addition to analog-style drive and noise. Again, I have to admit that I was skeptical here—I thought this would be more of a gimmick than a useful feature—but after mixing my next single in S1 4.6, MixFX is something I don’t want to mix without ever again. MixFX’s crosstalk and drive features added a substantial and immediately noticeable sense of depth and width to my mix and rearranging mixer channels (which changes which channels bleed into others via crosstalk) impacted the mix much in the way it would on a real analog console.
One caveat I would note here: MixFX processing is bypassed if you export stems from an S1 mix session, rather than a stereo mix down. I’d recommend not using this feature unless you’re planning to print your mix to a stereo file, as removing it when printing stems will suck a lot of life out of the mix. This limitation aside, PreSonus is really onto something special with MixFX, and engineers and producers alike would be wise to give it a spin.
Another feature deserving of praise is the way Audio I/O buffers function in Studio One. While this might not seem like the most exciting topic to discuss, it’s one that impacts every artist in just about every session. In most other DAW’s, you typically have to raise your I/O Buffer Size as your project becomes more complex (higher buffer sizes offer increased processing power in return for increased I/O latency), but this is often a frustrating exercise as it can make latency bothersome, mainly when recording MIDI parts.
Studio One approaches this differently from any other DAW I’ve tried; S1 4.6 allows you to set your session at your interface’s maximum buffer size for maximum processing power, while also pushing MIDI recording through a low latency I/O buffer, for optimum responsiveness and feel. In practice, this meant I was able to push my session buffer to 2048 Samples—a setting that makes most other DAW’s unusably slow—while recording MIDI with a 32 sample buffer, offering sub-perceptible latency below 5ms. In my sessions, this translated into a much more usable DAW, particularly as my sessions become more laden with VST’s and effects.
Speaking of VST’s and effects, I’d also be remiss not to mention Studio One’s Track Transform (freeze) function, which is leaps and bounds better than what most other DAW’s offer. Unlike other DAW’s, freezing a MIDI track in S1 4.6 is a highly flexible process; Studio One will convert the MIDI track to audio, with the full audio processing chain printed, and completely clear the CPU and RAM load of those plugins from the session. The real magic, however, happens when you start manipulating frozen tracks. In Studio One, any track you’ve converted to “Realtime Audio” can be rolled back to MIDI at any time, and the MIDI will reflect any changes to the audio clips you’ve made in arrangement.
If, for example, you freeze and print a 4 bar chord progression to Realtime Audio, then chop up that audio and rearrange the chords, and then convert that audio track back to its pre-freeze state, the MIDI clip will reflect the rearranging you’ve done while the track was frozen. In practice, S1 4.6 can blur the lines between audio and MIDI to an extent I haven’t seen in another program, and if you’re like me, and work with lots of MIDI tracks and plugins, it’s an incredible step up from what you’re likely used to.
S1’s MIDI editing is also vastly improved compared to earlier iterations of the program, and I was editing MIDI just as quickly as I’m accustomed to in Ableton Live within a matter of hours. For the engineers and more mix-inclined producers, Studio One’s mixer is a dream to work in, with a highly intuitive and flexible layout, powerful options for showing and hiding track types, easy automation, VCA grouping, and precise metering.
Studio One’s included plugins are on par with any other major DAW I’ve tried, and the multiband compressor is particularly nice. Pipeline XT offers the easiest approach to working with the outboard gear I’ve found anywhere, complete with a built-in image holder, which will store a photo of your outboard gear’s settings natively in your session for easier recall. PreSonus’ Fat Channel plugins, albeit an additional add-on to S1, are well done and offer convincing emulations of many famous analog signal processors with a minimal CPU hit and zero latency. While more and more DAW’s are beginning to offer native emulations of vintage analog gear, I don’t think I’ve seen such a wide range of analog models anywhere else. PreSonus has modeled all of the classics you’d expect, including not-so-hard to decipher clones of Fairchild, Summit Audio, and Neve gear.
S1 4.6 also offers a major revamp of PreSonus’ Ampire amp simulation, featuring circuit-level recreations of legendary amps, cabs, and pedals. They all sound great, and the pedals, in particular, are a lot of fun to play around with on synths and vocals for more extreme effects. Although it still seems to be in its early days, S1 4.6 also features a major update to Exchange, Studio One’s connected community where users can share and download patches, groove templates, macros, and more. S1 is an extremely flexible DAW - it’s Macros feature, which enables custom scripts for chains of frequently used commands, is a prime example of this—and Exchange is the kind of forward-thinking functionality I wish more DAW’s were implementing.
Overall, it was quite hard to find flaws with Studio One. I do think PreSonus can likely make further refinements to the program’s CPU efficiency, as I found S1 4.6 wasn’t quite as adept at smoothly handling very high plugin count sessions as some other DAW’s I’ve mixed on. Additionally, while the DAW is a lot of fun to work in, it’s still not quite as effortless and quick to navigate with the keyboard (and not a mouse) as some others. Knowing how crucial this is to a lot of my friends and collaborators working on other DAW’s, I hope to see some additional improvements here in future versions.
PreSonus has done a remarkable job crafting a highly-capable DAW over the past decade with Studio One, and the app’s 4.6 release offers a host of powerful new features for producers, engineers, and songwriters alike. While the adage “Jack of all trades, master of none” is often accurate when it comes to Pro Audio software, Studio One is the rare exception that excels at just about any studio task you can dream up.
Far more than just catching up to more established DAW’s, Studio One now offers genuine advancements over many of its competitors, with innovative features such as advanced ARA support, Mix FX, and Harmonic Editing. Studio One has become a central part of my studio sessions, and I’d highly recommend you give it a try if you’re in the market for a new DAW in 2020.
- Pushes the boundaries of what typical DAW’s are capable of
- Mix FX is stellar — you won’t want to mix without it after trying
- Harmonic Editing is immensely powerful, and a songwriter’s dream
- The best Melodyne ARA support I’ve found anywhere
- Sleek, logical interface
- Budget-friendly price points available without track restrictions
- Pipeline XT makes working with outboard gear vastly easier
- Excellent mixer with advanced VCA grouping and clear, precise metering
- CPU efficiency could still be improved a bit.
- Mouse-less navigation could be improved.
- Missing Retroactive MIDI Record or similar feature offered by most other DAW’s.