The latest version of PreSonus's flagship DAW is the best yet, says Chris Lyth
Studio One from PreSonus has been steadily accruing praise among professionals since its inception around 10 years ago. In that time, the DAW has evolved from being a solid recording and mixing platform to a fully fledged production environment, gradually adding more compositional and creative tools geared towards the producer/composer.
Version 5 has recently been unveiled and represents a major update, with many of the new innovations based on specific requests from users. Three versions of the software are available, ranging from the free Studio One 5 Prime, via Studio One 5 Artist at £85, to Studio One 5 Professional, which will set you back £344.
Having been intrigued for a while, I decided to put Studio One through its paces with electronic music production firmly in mind. Do note that the review below is of the Professional edition, so some of the features mentioned may not be available in the more affordable versions.
All about the workflow
It was quickly evident that Studio One has been coded superbly, the focus being to create a comprehensive production platform with a fast, articulate workflow.
This new version adds simple but powerful functions such as Extended Mixer Scenes, which allow multiple snapshots of mixer parameters – perhaps the best invention since the wheel. In a nutshell, you can now save and recall as many mix variations as you like, all within the same project. Want a mix with the vocal and kick 3db louder? Or a mix without the lead vocal? No problem, just save each version as a scene and recall it as and when needed.
Navigating busy mixes with high track counts is a breeze thanks to Studio One’s intuitive user interface. Features such as folder grouping and mix bus assignment are simple and intuitive, and within a few clicks you can have your channels packed away in a folder and onto a dedicated bus, which is great if you just want to work on the drums, for example. The new Aux channel function is for incorporating external hardware such as synths and FX units, allowing you to route in and out to your favourite outboard processors without fuss or drama.
An ingenious user request that will likely be used in every session is Clip Gain Envelopes. This allows an almost forensic level of automation detail on the gain levels of audio clips. On both a practical and creative level, the ability to draw in volume envelopes so precisely is an absolute game changer, which seriously enhances the speed and accuracy of the mixing process. It almost makes using compression for pure level correction feel positively arcane! Taming sharp transients, laser-accurate volume swells and dynamic stutter effects are easily achievable alongside more routine applications, such as levelling out an objectionably loud note in a sax solo, for example
Listen Bus is another modest but useful workflow feature which I can see being handy for creating a separate headphone mix when recording vocals, or for working with room correction software like Sonarworks without the need to run it across your main mix bus.
A truly great DAW should effortlessly merge into your musical world and perform its many duties without breaking your creative flow. In Studio One 5, it’s clear that a great deal of care and attention has gone into building this focused production environment.
PreSonus have been busy redesigning their Native Effects suite, and it’s not hyperbole to say that they have comprehensively covered all options. There are 37 plug-ins in total, including filters, EQs, compressors, modulators, reverbs, delays and mix analysis tools, among others. You could easily live without ever needing to buy another third party plug-in, although these are of course supported.
Some of the plug-ins feature the new State Space algorithm, which digitally captures the behaviour of various analogue signal paths, allowing you to dial-in some saturation on your FX. This provides a great way of subtly building layers of warmth and saturation within your mix, which in my opinion gives better results than just throwing on a saturation plug-in at the end.
The Pro EQ plug-in is perhaps the most transparent stock EQ plug-in on the market, and sounds as good as any software EQ that I’ve used. It offers linear phase filters and a four-view spectrum analyser, which enables you to line up your frequencies with musical notes via a piano roll. For electronic music, which often requires surgical precision at the low end, this is a serious EQ tool for tightening and sculpting kicks and basslines. Conversely, the EQs found in the boutique Fat Channel are all about vintage vibes and highly coloured broad strokes. And while we're on the subject of vintage vibes, the Analog Delay, Chorus and Rotary plug-ins look and sound gorgeous.
Dynamics are taken care of with some very nice vintage-styled compressors. The 1176 replica in particular is typically robust, and responds just as you would expect it to. The MultiBand is precise, tight and transparent, and the wasp-coloured Tricomp is superb for adding punch and grit.
Overall there’s a nice mixture of tools that offer both vibe and precision depending on what your material requires.
The pick of the bundled software instruments for me is the Mai Tai analogue modelling synth. In keeping with Studio One’s overall aesthetic, its interface is clear and straightforward. It sounds punchy, rich, full of character and has a 16-slot modulation matrix that’s useful for creating unique shifting soundscapes. I was particularly impressed with the low-end heft when playing with the sub-oscillator, which will no doubt be rattling many a club’s walls when they eventually reopen!
Impact XT is also worth a mention. It’s a multichannel drum sampler with pitch, filter and amp controls on each pad. My favourite feature, however, is that it will automatically chop a loop and split it onto individual pads for re-triggering and re-processing. I can see this being looked upon very favourably by drum & bass producers in particular.
With many of us using external synths, samplers and drum machines, MIDI is still very much a day-to-day part of the production process. So it was a relief to find that the MIDI handling in Studio One is smooth, solid and well specified.
I had no problem quickly interfacing my external synths, and my AKAI MPC sync’ed up perfectly using the MTC sync setting. Compositional tools such as the Arpeggiator and Chord function are well implemented, and useful to fat-fingered keyboard players such as myself.
The drum pattern editor has some innovate creative features such as the Probability setting, which allows you to specify the percentage of probability that each note will play. This is superb for building depth and movement into relatively simple patterns.
Further MIDI improvements include the new Key Switch function, which separates your key switch data from your actual played notes. Support for ROLI devices is included, as is poly pressure and MPE.
This is an incredibly powerful and comprehensive package, and I haven't even touched on some of its other great new features, such as the Show Page program (for handling your gigging requirements) or the Project Page (a dedicated mastering suite). Naturally there is a learning curve that needs to be taken into account, but a few hours watching tutorial videos should be enough to get you up and running to a level where you could feasibly write and mix a track.
Choosing a DAW is arguably the most important decision a producer can make, as it determines how you move from idea to finished product. A great DAW should do this with the least possible resistance, offering inspiring options along the way. Studio One 5 has more than caught up with the competition – and in some ways has even eclipsed them.
Words: Chris Lyth
Review score: 4/5
Further info: Presonus.com