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Why does sound quality drop when exporting from DAWs?
It really shouldn't unless you are exporting to a lossy format like MP3.
There's an experiment you can try: bounce or render your mix as usual in uncompressed format. Import that mix back into a stereo track in your DAW and listen to it. Does it sound the same as it did before you rendered the mix, or not? If it sounds good in the DAW, then the difference you're hearing is due to the difference in playback systems.
Also are you doing any SRC or bit-depth changes? If so those change the sound also. So if you're recording at say 44.1khz with 24-bit files, running through a 32 or 64-bit mix engine, and bouncing down to a interleaved 44.1khz 16-bit file, there's a fair amount of places for the sound to change. And yes are you comparing it inside the DAW? In the same room? All of those things change the sound also.
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I know in Tracktion it offers "real time" rendering which I always do. Some plugins may introduce artifacts when doing a quick render. Real time renders do it, well in real time. If the song is 4 minutes then it takes at least 4 minutes. You may check and see if your current DAW offers that option. I would imagine they all do.
I'm pretty much a noob when it comes to recording so I'll give all those tips a shot. Even when I export to a high quality wav things don't sound quite as good played back in itunes.
iTunes has all kinds of things that can affect the sound quality. First of all, if you import it into iTunes and have iTunes set to convert everything to AAC or MP3, that will definitely affect it. There's also automatic audio level matching, EQ, and other user-adjustable settings in iTunes that can significantly change the sound too.
Changing the playback system, or any significant part of it, or changing the playback location (room) is pretty much guaranteed to change the sound to some degree too. But assuming you did a 24 bit 44.1kHz recording, then bounced down to a 24 bit, 44.1kHz stereo file (rendered in real time), and the bounce down was all digital, there should not be any difference in the sound of the DAW's stereo output and the DAW's rendered / bounced down stereo mix - especially if they're played back at the exact same level, and through the same system.
I agree with the suggestion to try re-importing the stereo mix into a new stereo track in your DAW, alongside the existing multitracks. That way, you can use mute groups to jump back and forth between them and the stereo mixdown in an instant, and do direct, side-by-side, level-matched comparisons.
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