Hands-On Review: PreSonus Studio One 3

By January 21, 2016

In a world of DAWs that can do things unimagined just a few years ago, the challenge today is to find a platform that offers the best balance of features, stability and workflow to match your methods and music. In auditioning Studio One 3, it soon becomes apparent that PreSonus was very clear about the directions in which they wanted to take Studio One. And it doesn’t take much longer to realize they’ve hit the creative sweet spot they were going for in developing Version 3. If you’ve used Studio One previously, you’ll be reassured to find that PreSonus is sticking with the single-screen interface that won a lot of converts in the first place. What’s different is the use of color—lots of it. Where earlier versions mostly displayed monochromatic shades of gray, everything from timeline grids to mix settings are now bathed in color. By picking colors from a palette, you can customize most of the elements in your arrangements and settings. This sort of color coding can be a boon when dealing with complex arrangements involving dozens of tracks, instruments and effects. The look of your entire interface can be reconfigured using the Appearance tab in the Preferences panel to dial in whatever background and foreground color values suit you. Regardless of what color settings you choose, Studio One looks great with its high-DPI interface. I tested the application primarily on my late-2014 iMac Retina 27”, and the GUI looks terrific. I found myself doing practically no leaning forward to decipher miniscule text or understand enigmatic tool icons. Working in fullscreen mode to take advantage of the iMac’s real estate made it much easier to position multiple parameter and instrument windows. By the way, it looks like the PreSonus programmers put a lot of effort into keeping the application’s code lean. Unlike older DAWs that suffer from code-bloat, Studio One barely got my iMac (16GB RAM, 3.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor) breathing hard. CPU usage was extremely low, even when Studio One was crunching big data chunks. On a laptop’s smaller screen, Studio One’s flexible Folder Tracks design lets you organize work pretty much any way you want. You can collapse multiple instruments, effects and sounds into logically organized folders, freeing up precious viewing space. The contents of folders can be easily color coded too—a big help on laptops and notebooks. As with other DAWS, the folders also map to mixer settings, so when you expand them, your mixer view is ready to go with all instruments and effects preloaded. Mixer view folders expand and collapse readily allowing you to hone in on specific tracks and sections for pinpoint mixing. The mixer channels can be stretched horizontally and vertically for maximum precision. Drag and drop channel placement is another nice touch. While many of the items in the top toolbar will be familiar to DAW users, one powerful improvement is the Arrow tool. Command-clicking on it provides a popdown list of other tool functions. I found myself returning to it time and again as a great little workflow enhancement. For old MIDI automation hands, there’s a new freehand drawing tool that lets you actually draw your note and other MIDI settings. (You have to turn off your snap-to-grid setting in order to do this.) The very visual approach extends to plug-ins and instruments too. In the Instruments tab, virtual instruments such as the newly developed Mai Tai and the significantly overhauled Presence XT synths as well as the legacy Impact synth can be set to appear in the list view as graphic icons making the process of locating and loading them faster and more intuitive. By the way, instrument load times—another indication of clean code—were exceedingly fast. PreSonus Studio One 3 Arranger Tracks Imagine taking your song apart and rearranging it effortlessly and non-destructively. Move and stretch intros, outros, verses, bridges and choruses anyplace you want them. Want to stretch that guitar break? No problem. That’s just some of what you can do with Arranger Track and its flawless drag-and-drop GUI. Opening an Arranger Track brings up a main window in which you can figuratively paint your arrangement’s structure applying colors to each section as you go. Like every aspect of the Studio One 3 GUI, this revolutionary work space is ideal for musicians and groove producers who like their environment highly visual and experimental. Moving single and multiple project elements around is as easy as click-dragging or shift-clicking them in the Arranger area at the top of the window. You can duplicate, edit, move or delete sections or entire songs on the fly. An element inspector window allows you to smoothly navigate through your project by simply clicking on each element. You can also access the color picker and other parameter-setting options here. As with many other workflows in Studio One, there are multiple ways to achieve the same results; choose those that suit your methods or the project best. For example, when you want to isolate an arranger section such as a verse or chorus for some tweaking, double clicking on it expands the section to the full width of your window. Things get even more impressive when you begin harnessing the power of Scratch Pads in conjunction with the Arranger window. Studio One’s Scratch Pads deliver an extensive function set you won’t find on other timeline-based DAWs or digital sequencing gear and software. For me, its most compelling feature is the ability to open multiple Scratch Pads in the context of a single project. If you’ve ever struggled with navigating among multiple song windows and kept several instances of your DAW running in order to keep all your musical sketches at hand, you’re going to LOVE what Scratch Pads can do. Being able to compare several versions of the same song or passages all in one window is priceless. PreSonus Studio One 3 Scratch Pads Tweaking arrangements is a pleasure with Scratch Pads. Because you can do all your experimenting non-destructively, I found myself becoming much bolder in trying out different virtual instruments, loops or simply injecting a horn stab or other brief sample. Dropping in, stretching and moving arrangement elements around at will is a liberating experience. Anyone who has labored to do such things by manipulating MIDI sequences and regions will find Studio One a whole lot friendlier. When you enter Scratch Pad mode, your screen splits, adding a vertical timeline editor window to the right of your arrangement. Moving elements between the two is again as simple as dragging and dropping. Since you do all experimentation on the right side of the screen, your original arrangement remains unchanged until you’re happy with what’s in your Scratch Pad(s). Simply drag what changes you like into the main arrangement window and Studio One puts them where they need to be. By default, when you drag a Scratch Pad into the main arrangement, a copy is created, or you can option-click while dragging the Scratch Pad to replace existing events in the arrangement with the Scratch Pad’s events if you’re confident they’re a keeper. As you create Scratch Pads, they’re automatically saved along with the song and can be exported as-is. Parking odd bits of the arrangement way down the timeline is a thing of the past. When you reopen a song, all previously created Scratch Pad tracks load with it, so you’re ready to get to work instead of wasting time finding and opening multiple versions of the song. Scratch Pads are a killer tool for audio producers who need to efficiently create alternate versions of their work. Radio edits, extended or instrumental mixes or remixes can all be saved in the same project file for easy retrieval. Anybody who, for example, needs multiple versions of radio ads with content aimed at specific regions of the country will find Scratch Pads to be an incredible timesaver.
Explore the incredible power of Arranger Track working in conjunction with Scratch Pads.
PreSonus Studio One 3 Mai Tai Studio One 3 comes with a hefty set of VIs, some of which deserve special mention. I found the new Mai Tai polyphonic synth especially versatile and tasty. It produces a wide range of old-school analog synth sounds and effects that should please EDM and groove producers. Of course, it can generate cutting-edge synth sounds too that are as modern as tomorrow’s pop hits. You can use Mai Tai’s two oscillators and sub-oscillator in tandem with Character settings and a host of cool filters to dial in sounds you’ve only imagined up to now. Huge basslines and killer leads are made to order for EDM producers. Dual LFOs, three envelope generators plus a 16-stage modulation matrix that allows you to route modules however you like and up the creativity quotient even further. My Tai comes with its own suite of effects making instrument design a more within-the-synth experience. There’s also a Quality setting with which you can scale CPU usage up and down—a nice enhancement to prevent playback issues when hundreds of tracks are involved. Filters can be applied with virtually no latency, again a nice touch when performing in real time. PreSonus Studio One 3 Presence XT The other big synth news with Studio One 3 is the completely updated Presence XT. Aside from the huge 15GB content collection bundled with it, Presence XT can read most popular sample formats and supports EXS, Kontakt and Giga. For anybody with significant sample libraries, this is major. PreSonus partnered with Bitwig to co-develop a native sampler format for Presence XT meaning you can also import Bitwigs sample libraries for even more creative fodder. PreSonus also plans to offer its own new sounds that can be purchased and used right within the Presence XT’s window. By the way, the new sampler engine appears to be very powerful. It has articulations and scripting support—a big deal for composers who work with complex scores. Available articulations also appear on the keyboard, making the synth quite performance friendly. Building multi-instruments is just as simple—simply drag new instruments and FX to the synth window. This is ideal for creating keyboard splits and layers. There’s also a full complement of note effects for tweaking your synths. These include a sophisticated arpeggiator that has numerous parameter settings that can turn a non-keyboardist like me into a more skilled performer-producer. The Chorder tool allows you to trigger single-finger chords when working with a small-format hardware keyboard controller. As with most other modules in Studio One, you can map and save any elements of your custom-created instruments for immediate recall. You can also save effects that will be applied only to those song sections you designate.
The Mai Tai analog polysynth has the power to satisfy the most demanding artists and composers.
A huge library, unprecedented control and the ability to work with a broad range of sample formats makes the Presence XT a versatile creativity engine.
PreSonus Studio One 3 FX Chains
If you’ve found working with multi-layered plug-ins in other DAWs bewildering, join the club. Studio One changes all that. Version 3 adds extended FX chains functionality that integrates beautifully with the rest of the GUI. You can combine and manage any mixture of serial or parallel effects in a very visual way. Just click on any channel’s editor icon to see active effects in a routing view. Insert and Splitter tools make editing and applying effects with precision much easier. You can create up to five splits and mute the output of any of them using a handy checkbox. Split Mode radio buttons allow you to choose among a Normal setting that engages all split effects simultaneously, or alternately, you can route splits based on frequencies or channels. Imagine applying reverb and delay only on high frequencies to keep your bass tight, or dialing in the most specific narrowband (or multiband) effect imaginable. Achieving deeply layered mixes and sound beds has just become much easier. Creating multi instruments follows a similarly intuitive approach. You can stack synths then split them by key and apply individual note effects to a specific synth. For example, you can apply a separate arpeggiator to your left hand for basslines and another for your right-hand lead lines, each playing a different instrument.
Check out Studio One’s awesome FX chains capabilities and intuitive multi-instrument building process.
PreSonus Studio One 3 Bit Crusher Studio One comes with a generous helping of effects including a couple that are new to the program. Bit Crusher is another way of generating those old-school synth sounds instead of working with Mai Tai. It includes a collection of low bitrate drum machines and other sounds that conjure up the earliest days of electronic instruments. The new Rotor effect gives you a convincing emulation of a Leslie speaker and sounds terrific applied to the B3 and other organ sounds in the Presence XT. I found it to be surprisingly versatile on a range of instruments and voices to create unusual, swirling sounds. Of course, if you’re an old-school guy who loves the harmonic depth of vintage B3s and Wurlitzers, the Rotor is tailor-made for adding that big, ambient sound too. PreSonus Studio One 3 Rotor For advanced timing and pitch editing, PreSonus has partnered with Celemony to integrate its Melodyne Essentials software.

A better browser

Hunting for the right sound or loop can be a huge time suck. Studio One 3 makes the process faster and smarter with a search engine that exploits musical tags, tabs and super-logical folder architecture. Type in “snare,” and the engine returns all results filtered by whether you’re looking for Instruments, Effects or Loops. Vendor, Style and Instrument tabs help you fine tune results. You can drill down further by clicking on the tags icon, which presents lists of Style, Instrument and Character tags. I found the process remarkably intuitive. Searching the core libraries, my computer’s files, the PreSonus Shop and Exchange (more on them in a moment) was intuitive and quick. The browser also lets you accesses the media within your project via the Pool tab. No more opening web browser windows to find a sound. Choose from any of the core selection of sounds built into the program. Or drag external audio files into a Studio One 3 folder then audition them in the window just below the browser. A sync button lets you hear the file played at your project’s tempo—a much more musical way to browse and audition. It’s hard to beat Studio One when it comes to intuitive and flexible drag and drop support. You can drag browser items into channels, tracks or single events. You can also create presets and loops the other way around by dragging them out of other views and dropping them into the browser. The Cloud tab is essentially a means of end-running your usual web browser to access content within Studio One. These include the PreSonus Shop where owners of Studio One Artist can access upgrades on the Cloud tab as an alternative to springing for the Professional edition. Other crossgrades and add-ons are available too and Presonus says more are coming. The PreSonus Exchange, also accessed via the Cloud tab, is another huge trove of extensions, FX chains, grooves and much more shared among members of the PreSonus community. And when you’re ready to share your project on SoundCloud, built-in client software under the Cloud tab makes doing so effortless. You can also import audio from your Soundcloud account using Studio One. This makes a great cloud-based storage solution for stems tracked on the fly with mobile gear. Once you’re back at the studio, the stems are there waiting for you to flesh your ideas out. As far as I know, only Studio One has this functionality. With so many artists and producers tracking on the road these days, it’s evident that PreSonus has been listening to its users.
The newly updated browser streamlines finding, configuring and adding new sounds, instruments and FX.
PreSonus Studio One 3 Multi-Touch PreSonus has factored in the growing popularity of multi-touch screens in unveiling Studio One 3. For a real hands-on experience without having to spring for a hardware controller or mixer, Version 3 offers multi-touch support on both Mac and Windows computers and displays. The program is also designed to work flawlessly with multiple displays (Presonus says they tested up to six at once!). Of course, if you won’t settle for anything less than a true hardware controller, Presonus has gear that tightly integrates with Studio One. The PreSonus StudioLive CS18AI is a dedicated Studio One mix controller that will answer the call with the highest level of software integration and high-res audio. It’s designed for maximum versatility and integration with other PreSonus software too and features 18 touch-sensitive motorized faders. If you’re looking for a rackmount unit to serve as your interface and studio control center, the PreSonus Studio 192 is just the ticket. It has 26 inputs including 8 remote-controlled XMAX mic pres, and gives you speaker switching and individualized headphone mixes plus zero-latency USB 3.0 monitoring—all controlled through Studio One. Very flexible routing and workflow options make the Studio 192 a powerful adjunct to the software. For example, you can run Studio One’s killer Fat Channel plug-in using your computer’s processor, then when needed, switch seamlessly to the 192’s onboard DSP. The software and the 192 can share the same preamp settings. A DigiMax DP88 preamp/converter will be available in the third quarter of 2015 that adds 8 more software-controllable XMAX preamp channels and even includes ADAT I/O support. Actually, PreSonus has integrated Studio One with its entire line of interfaces ranging from the AudioBox series iOne and iTwo to the pro-level Studio Live AI consoles and RM mixers. Used with either the Audiobox iSeries interfaces or the Capture for iPad, you can transfer music wirelessly from your iPad into Studio One. PreSonus Studio One Remote for iPad Just as I was wrapping up this review, PreSonus released its Studio One Remote—a free app with which you can wirelessly control Studio One 3 Professional using your iPad in on-the-go situations. In a workstation setting, you can use it as a second screen. Before you sneer dismissively and say there’s no way you’re going to be mixing on an iPad, you may want to consider all its cool workflow-enhancing possibilities. For starters, it frees performer-producers from their desks or racks when recording. The app lets you control transport and mix console settings including inserts, sends, I/O, and FX. And much, much more. I didn’t have a chance to explore the app, but the feature set on the PreSonus website is impressive, With robust FX control, editing and arranging windows and extensive project navigation cues, it’s clear that Studio One Remote is no mere afterthought.

Buy just what you need

PreSonus Studio One 3 Versions PreSonus lets you jump into the Studio One 3 platform at whatever level makes sense for you. Actually, you don’t need to buy anything to get your feet wet with Studio One. The Prime version, which is slated to be offered as a free download in August, 2015 offers much of the drag-and-drop functionality of the versions you pay for. You can build projects with unlimited tracks, effects and instruments in Prime then save and export them. Of course, PreSonus is betting you’re going to want the expanded capabilities of the paid versions. And that’s a good bet, but Prime is a great way to sample the air of the Studio One ecosystem without spending a dime. PreSonus offers complete comparison charts for each version here. Artist is a step-up version that targets the intermediate user not quite ready for all power of the Professional version. As the “Mama Bear” in the lineup, it delivers more editing capabilities such as quantization, groove extraction and transient detection. It also includes the advanced folder structures that help keep your projects well organized. There are 30 very usable effects including the awesome Fat Channel that’s built into PreSonus hardware mixers. You also get that super-editable Mai Tai synth for a massive creativity boost. Professional is what you want if you can’t wait to start using Arranger Tracks and Scratch Pads. The 64-bit mix engine generates wonderfully detailed, nuanced sound. For complex recordings, exploit the power of extended FX chains as well as the robust loops, instruments and effects libraries. The 41 bundled effects include the user-friendly Multiband Dynamics compressor and Open Air reverb that add professional punch and sheen to your projects. Complete mastering and distribution tools means you can take your projects from an initial riff to a sketch to a polished, mastered production ready to distribute via CD, streaming or download. PreSonus is offering a range of upgrade and crossgrade possibilities for owners of earlier Studio One versions and competing DAWs. To lure some of the latter prospects and ease the transition process, the program can even be set up to respond to your current DAW’s command set. At Musician’s Friend you’ll find a complete selection of Presonus Studio One versions and upgrade/crossgrade options.
The three flavors of Studio One 3 explained.


With the release of Studio One 3, PreSonus has not just raised the bar on what we can expect from a DAW—they’ve lifted it practically out of view. It’s hard to think who wouldn’t benefit from Studio One’s powerful features. From sketching song ideas, to tracking and mixing, to arranging sophisticated orchestrations and polishing and sweetening, there’s little this DAW can’t do. The amazingly intuitive drag and drop functions should bring in a whole new generation of musicians, DJs, arrangers and composers into the Studio One camp. Anybody hungry for a DAW that lets you get totally creative without having to undertake deep learning curves and master arcane controls and commands should find Studio One 3 to be a great fit.

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