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Mac vs. PC: Shootout at the DAW Corral
by Erik Jay

I ran across this guy on Craigslist – I’ll call him Pete – who was having a problem with clicks and pops in his audio. Pete didn’t describe the problem any more than that, but listed his hardware and software.

He was recording on a pretty new PC, a nice Athlon unit with a big hard drive and an M-Audio Audiophile 24/96 PCI interface. The software he was using was CoolEdit Pro 2, an outdated application that became Adobe Audition in 2003.

I’d seen stranger set-ups than that working smoothly, so I asked him the usual questions about his power conditioning, input clipping, all that. He wrote back that he’d done all that basic troubleshooting and just couldn’t figure it out. What he said last was interesting. “If I can’t solve this,” said Pete, “I think I’m going to go ahead and get a Mac. They just seem a lot more stable for recording.”

Old News and New Views

I would like to interpret Pete’s nonchalant attitude about his OS and hardware as being further proof that the “Mac vs. PC wars” are over. It would have taken a rare freethinking guy or gal to consider switching their PC for a Mac (or vice versa) 10 years ago. But now? Sure, there are still Mac Mavens and PC Partisans, but for the most part, members of the recordist community just want to get the job done, and whatever works best is going to win their loyalty.

Now, I was living in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s and saw a Macintosh 128K prototype before it went to market. When it did debut, propelled by that Orwellian TV spot during the 1984 Super Bowl broadcast, it brought a different approach (the GUI, Graphical User Interface) and a different architecture, too.

The Mac introduced a number of features that allowed it to play nice with musicians, from acronyms like GUI and WYSIWYG to DSP (integrated Digital Signal Processing). All of the astonishing progress of the 1980s and early 1990s came together in one Mac, the 1991 Quadra 600AV. It featured digital audio I/O, S-video and NTSC video I/O, 8MB RAM (expandable to 68MB), a 230MB hard drive and a 32-bit AT&T DSP chip. It was powered by a then-blazing 25MHZ 68040 processor.

The Age of Critical Mass

The early 1990s saw the advent of digital recording, and Macs mature enough to be of use to serious (professional) recordists. For whatever reasons, the other “media” computers like the Amiga and Atari never caught on sufficiently to survive. So digital recording matured as a discipline with most adopters settling on either the Mac or the PC as platform of choice.

Pete, to take the present example, is still using Syntrillium Software’s CoolEdit program, but it hasn’t been supported since 2003. Adobe morphed it into Audition, a capable recording app with just a small cohort of users. It is interesting to note, though, that Pete isn’t considering using another PC program, like Cakewalk Home Studio or Sonar. He wants to switch horses.

The Future Is Now

Truth be told, he doesn’t have to. Cakewalk has an all-pro, kick-butt program in Sonar. I know a singer who worked on a few of the Ray Charles duet recordings, and she reported that the late, great Mr. Charles was a vocal fan of the software. Cakewalk has a large contingent of very happy users – and it’s a program for the Partisans, as it runs only on Windows.

Sonar has total surround sound capability (5.1 and 7.1) with support for all common SMPTE formats, frame sizes and rates. The application’s Active Controller Technology (ACT) remaps the parameters of MIDI controllers or surfaces on the fly and supports such devices as the CM Labs MotorMix. The ACT MIDI Controller plug-in is configurable with devices from Peavey, JL Cooper and Kenton that can use generic MIDI commands.

Sonar can take full advantage of XP-64 and VISTA-64 with its 64-bit audio engine and 64-bit mixer. With Sonar and its lighter-weight cousins Home Studio and Home Studio XL, you are solidly ensconced in the PC world of DirectX for effects – if you want to be, that is. VST, Steinberg’s cross-platform plug-in, is also supported, for those Sonar users who can live with technology that also lives with Apple users.

The Mac-Only Apps

The first pro-level sequencing program I used was Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Performer. It wasn’t even Digital Performer yet (in 1991) when Dan Humann, bass legend Stanley Clarke’s engineer, gave it to me as a Christmas present. It introduced yet another plug-in format (MAS, or MOTU Audio System), and remains a Mac-only application to this day.

Mac supporters weren’t sure whether to cheer or not, when OS X was launched, at the introduction of yet another plug-in format, Audio Units, but things are starting to settle down after a few years of mystery and miscues. Apple bought Logic during this period, and it soon became a Mac-only program, too.

On the Apple side of the studio today, a number of DAWs command allegiance. The Mac-only Logic and Digital Performer are well represented, but the cross-platformers like ProTools, Cubase, Ableton Live, and Mackie’s Tracktion all have their supporters, too. (Garageband is not a full-fledged DAW, so we’ll leave it in the “audio scratchpad” category.)

On the PC side, Cakewalk products share shelf space and fans with other PC-only apps like FL Studio XL (the old Fruityloops), Acoustica’s Mixcraft and n-Track from Fasoft. Popular cross-platform programs are, again, ProTools, Cubase, Live and Tracktion.

What to Do: An Embarrassment of Riches

There is no good reason to buy into the “Mac vs. PC” attitude, because whatever OS you are most comfortable with, whatever environment you can make stable and responsive to your particular needs, is the one you should use.

What about all those dll problems, Registry gremlins and viruses on the PC? Well, what about the Core Audio issues, 10.5.2 Leopard upgrade missteps and Unix permissions poultergeists on the Mac?

One is tempted to say, “Pick your poison,” but that is far too negative a prescription for the situation. The fact is, most people get most of the recording and mixing performance they want and need, most of the time, from their chosen DAW. If they didn’t, they’d be using something else. If you’ve tested things in your own trenches and have arrived at a (relatively) stable, high quality way of recording and mixing on your Mac or PC, then by all means, stick with what works.

You will want to experiment with other tools sometimes, and that’s fine and dandy. You will have to follow at least a cautious upgrade path whatever OS you use and whatever DAW you own, and you can’t “halt the flow of time” by keeping an old PC with CoolEdit or a Quadra660AV with OS 9.2.2. You will have to balance stability and usefulness with the need to upgrade hardware and software, but you won’t have to abandon either platform anytime soon.

And, of course, you could always do what many of us do – run both Macs and PCs, and get the best of both worlds.

Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site,, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.

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