I'm going to weigh in on this, and I think I may end up surprising some people. I couldn't say this a few years ago, but today I can safely state that they are all the same! OK, so they aren't exactly the same, but each application has a similar set of features. Some are stronger in certain areas, of course. For instance, Cubase and Logic have superior MIDI features to Pro Tools, although Pro Tools has been catching up in recent years. In addition, each program has a slightly different user interface. However, by and large, all of these applications are strong contenders, capable of allowing the user to produce professional-quality recordings.
Here are a few things to think about when considering purchasing a DAW:
- Portability - i.e., will you be taking your projects to other studios at times? If so, you should use the most compatible DAW. According to the word on the street, most professional studios still use Pro Tools, but Sonar, Cubase and even Logic have a significant piece of the market.
- Operating System - If you use a Mac, you can't use Sonar, and Windows users can't use Logic or Digital Performer. I am also of the opinion that Pro Tools and Digital Performer will be more intuitive to longtime Mac users, whereas Cubase and Sonar might feel more comfortable to Windows users.
- What are you recording? If you are using mostly MIDI, you might prefer Cubase, Logic or Digital Performer. If you are recording live instruments and don't use MIDI, Pro Tools, Sonar or Nuendo might be more appealing.
- Budget - This is where I believe Pro Tools suffers. Their low-budget options are severely limited, in terms of track counts, features, and plug-ins, especially when compared to all of the other programs I've mentioned. There is also a significant price jump when migrating from the "consumer" Pro Tools platform to the "pro" versions. This is largely due to the proprietary hardware requirements.
- Stick with what you are used to - A friend was recently considering switching from Sonar on Windows to Pro Tools on the Mac, largely because a music store employee told him he needed to. After he described his system to me, it was clear to me that he could do everything he needed to do with his current system. He had never really used Pro Tools anyway, and he felt very comfortable with Sonar, so there was no need to switch.
The first Pro Tools system I worked on was a TDM Mix system with a maximum track count of 24 mono tracks and only the basic Digidesign plug-ins, and I was still able to produce some great recordings. I can certainly make do with 48 stereo tracks, numerous plug-ins, and sample rates up to 96k!