Ableton Live vs Pro Tools – Which is Better?
Ableton Live is an easy-to-use program with a focus on creating electronic tracks and performing live, while Pro Tools is best suited for mixing and mastering audio and recording live instruments. Both Ableton Live and Pro Tools are complete digital audio workstations (DAWs), but they approach music production in different ways.
Ableton Live was first released in 2001, whereas Pro Tools has been around since 1989. Developed by a team of German engineers – including, most notably, the Monolake members Robert Henke and Gerhard Behles – Ableton Live was mainly designed for performing electronic music live and creating full tracks. Pro Tools, on the other hand, was developed by Avid Technology with the main aim of serving as an industry-standard music program for professional recording studios.
This alone should tell you a little something about what makes Ableton Live and Pro Tools so different: even though they’re both highly-regarded DAWs used by thousands of professionals worldwide, they have different features, workflow, and general characteristics. Here, I’ll talk about the critical determinants that make both programs so different.
The similarities between Ableton Live and Pro Tools
If there’s one thing Ableton Live and Pro Tools have in common, it’s the fact both can be used as full-fledged DAWs. This means that you can use both for doing pretty much everything, from composing, recording, mixing, mastering, and yes, even performing live.
Both Ableton Live and Pro Tools are written in C++ (even though Pro Tools incorporates other programming languages), both are supported in macOS and Windows, both offer MIDI, VST, and audio-recording features, and both come with a wide variety of built-in audio effects.
However, it’s harder to achieve certain things with Ableton Live and much more complicated to achieve others using Pro Tools. To understand which DAW fits your needs the best, it’s important to analyze the key differences between the two.
Key differences between Ableton Live and Pro Tools
- Ableton Live features a live session view and an arrangement view, whereas Pro Tools only has an arrangement view. For this reason, Ableton Live is best-suited for performing live.
- Pro Tools is more well-equipped to deal with large amounts of data, especially during recording. For this reason, Ableton Live is more prone to CPU overloads.
- Ableton Live features a huge built-in library with samples, virtual instruments, and audio effects. Pro Tools’ stock audio effects are great, but that’s about everything you’ll get for free.
- Ableton Live is quicker workflow-wise, especially for creating electronic songs from scratch. You can make full electronic songs in Pro Tools, but you’ll need to use external samples and external virtual instruments.
- Pro Tools’ audio-editing is non-linear and non-destructive, whereas Ableton Live’s audio-editing features are much more creative. This is part of what makes Ableton Live such a great DAW for creating inspiring new sounds on the go.
- You can get Ableton Live with a one-time payment, while Pro Tools is a subscription-based program. This means that using Pro Tools is less cost-effective.
The main difference in pricing between Ableton Live and Pro Tools is that you can get the advanced Live 11 Suite with a one-time payment, but you need to pay an annual subscription to continue to use Pro Tools. Aside from that, both DAWs will cost you at least a few hundred dollars.
Ableton Live and Pro Tools are two of the most high-cost DAWs in the market, but there’s a reason for that: they’re both renowned music programs that allow you to do virtually anything. You can get a budget version of Ableton Live and a more accessible subscription to Pro Tools, but these have limited features that may hurt your progress as a music producer in the long run.
Ableton Live is about workflow. The Live Session view allows you to record short musical phrases and ideas in a matter of seconds, and the DAW is loaded with tools for creating new, inspiring sounds on the spot. Pro Tools is harder to navigate, a bit chunkier, and features only an arrangement view.
One of the best things about Ableton Live is that it doesn’t include drop-down menus. This means that everything you’ll need to create music, record samples, and mix/master tracks is right there on the screen. There are some hidden features (including a handy Groove Pool) but you can access these with the click of a button.
Pro Tools has lots of drop-down menus and a wide array of advanced features that are sometimes hard to spot. As a plus, however, it’s generally more customizable than Ableton Live. While Ableton Live’s templates will all look pretty much the same, Pro Tools is a powerhouse music program that can be convincingly adapted to most music-production needs – as long as you know how to use it properly.
If you’re a beginner, there’s a chance you’ll find both Ableton Live and Pro Tools’ interfaces a bit intimidating. However, it’s much easier to start having fun with Ableton Live than with Pro Tools. Since Ableton Live is, above all, a live-performing and beat-making tool, you can create a nice beat just minutes after opening it. Pro Tools is not as well-suited for the purpose, especially if you plan on using virtual instruments.
This is when the push comes to shove. As the name will probably tell you, Ableton Live was made for performing electronic music on the go. While it’s possible to use Pro Tools on stage, the DAW isn’t at all designed to fit the needs of live musicians. It’s made for the studio, for working with live bands, for processing huge amounts of data, and for mixing and mastering.
I have included the live performance aspect of Ableton Live under the workflow comparison because Ableton Live’s session view is part of what makes it such an easy-to-use program. Ableton Live also has an arrangement view where you can carefully edit songs, mix/master tracks, and process large amounts of data. However, its handy session view, made for the stage, is also great for creating loops, drafting ideas for songs, recording samples and instruments on the fly, and combining different musical phrases.
Understandably, Ableton Live is the DAW you should get if you’re planning on performing electronic music live. Compared to Ableton Live, Pro Tools is extremely hard to use in a live environment and will offer you few to no advanced solutions for performing on stage.
Another big plus of Ableton Live, especially if the workflow is your thing, is the fact that it is arguably the DAW in the market with the most available hardware controllers. The crown jewel is, without a doubt, the terrific Push, which was developed by Ableton itself. It’s a complete hands-on controller that allows you to use every Ableton Live feature pretty much without touching the mouse.
But there’s more. Over the years, companies such as Novation have worked hard to create hardware controllers based on Ableton Live’s interface. These hardware controllers are perfect for playing live, but they can also help you to get faster results during the composition and mixing/mastering stage.
Dealing with audio
When it comes to recording audio, Pro Tools is superior to Ableton Live. Pro Tools is THE music program for recording live instruments, and it’s ready to deal with even the most ambitious studio sessions in the world. Not by chance, it’s the DAW used by the world’s best recording studios.
Pro Tools has all the advanced features an audio engineer needs to record and process live instruments, including a one-of-a-kind Beat Detective tool (for correcting small tempo imperfections), flawless comping, an excellent clip gain function, a session data import feature, and—crucially—the ability to process and organize large chunks of data.
Since Pro Tools was designed for doing stuff like recording 50-piece classic music orchestras or big bands, it’s also less prone to CPU overload than Ableton Live, particularly during the recording stage. It also includes more advanced latency control features, especially if paired with a state-of-the-art sound card such as Universal Audio’s Apollo.
Audio production isn’t just about recording, though. And that’s why you shouldn’t snub Ableton Live, even if you’re working exclusively with audio files. While Pro Tools includes all the fundamental audio-edit functions you could ask for, Ableton Live’s approach to audio is more automatic and creative.
One of the best things about Ableton Live is the included Warping modes, which allow you to quickly snap samples (even entire songs) to a predefined BPM. More than that, they can be used to radically change the sonic characteristics of a sample, to the point of it being recognizable.
Both Ableton Live and Pro Tools can be used efficiently for mixing/mastering, but I have to give this one to Pro Tools. While recent versions of Ableton Live now have much-needed mixing/mastering features such as the ability to create buses inside buses and a comping feature, there’s no denying that Pro Tools is still the industry standard for mixing and mastering engineers.
However, it’s important to keep in mind you can easily master a number-one hit with nothing but a basic Ableton Live suite. Just like Pro Tools, Ableton Live comes loaded with a series of high-quality audio effects that include all the mixing/mastering essentials, from compressors and equalizers to a gate and a utility tool.
Unlike Ableton Live, Pro Tools doesn’t have a built-in sample library. You can add your samples to Pro Tools, but there are no factory sounds you can play with from the go. Ableton Live, on the contrary, comes with a huge collection of sounds that include everything from one-shot drums to real instruments.
Ableton Live’s samples are also put to good use from the go, as you can have access to many built-in drum rack/sampler presets. While Ableton Live’s sample library was once criticized for being too focused on techno and house music, it has since become extremely diverse and includes everything from Latin percussion drum racks to grand piano samplers.
In addition to a huge sample library, Ableton Live also features a few built-in virtual instruments. Ableton Live’s instruments collection isn’t as impressive as the one you can find in DAWs such as Logic Pro, for instance, but you can do a lot with stock synthesizers such as Operator and the more-recent Wavetable.
Since there are also many presets for each virtual instrument available, you can choose from hundreds of playable sounds from the moment you first open Ableton Live. Pro Tools, on the other hand, is disappointing in this chapter. To play around with MIDI inside Pro Tools, you first need to spend some money on third-party VSTs.
So, what’s the best DAW? Is it Ableton Live? Or is it Pro Tools? As nagging as it may sound, it’s up to you to decide. There’s no definite answer because both DAWs fill different needs and are mainly designed for completely different music professionals.
Created by a group of young ambitious electronic musicians from Germany, Ableton Live is for sure the DAW you should get if you plan on creating electronic songs from scratch and performing them live. For over three decades and featuring in the world’s most expensive studios, Pro Tools has certainly one of the best DAWs for studio owners, experienced audio engineers, or live bands looking for a reliable program where they can record their first album.
It’s up to you to consider your needs and goals as a music professional to choose which DAW to get. Either way, Ableton Live, and Pro Tools are both revolutionary, full-fledged, and inspiring music programs designed for making music at the very highest level.