With Pro Tools now catering for such a wide range of users, can the latest version provide both value and satisfaction for everyone?
Pro Tools 10 is a watershed release for Avid's industry-standard music and audio creation system. In addition to offering a host of new features, including a completely new plug-in format, Pro Tools 10 also supports HDX, the long-anticipated DSP hardware successor to HD. And, if this wasn't already enough for existing users to consider, Avid are also taking the opportunity to encourage the adoption of various support and maintenance packages, both new and existing, alongside more traditional upgrade options.
One of the reasons I would describe Pro Tools 10 as a watershed release is that, in Avid parlance, it will be the last "feature release” of Pro Tools to support the now suddenly 'legacy' HD hardware. This means that what will presumably be called Pro Tools 11 won't offer support for Pro Tools HD Accel systems with the old HD Core, Process or Accel cards, nor the older blue-and-silver interfaces. This decision is sure to cause a few raised eyebrows — nay, pitchforks — from existing users, but Avid have at least said they will acknowledge this hardware "through software maintenance updates for the next three years, and offer hardware repair and phone support for the next five years”.
If the previous hardware transition from Mix to HD is any indication, HD systems will continue to be used in studios, both private and commercial, for at least the next three to five years, which means that Pro Tools 10 is a fairly important release for HD users. However, with Pro Tools 9 having added support for completely native systems beyond those previously catered for by Pro Tools LE, there is now an increasing number of people running the software without any Avid hardware at all. This means that Pro Tools 10 is, arguably, a release that's going to represent something different depending on the hardware you're using. For new HDX users, it's the beginning; for HD users it's the end (unless you upgrade to HDX); and for native users, it's the next step.
Given that Pro Tools exists as both a hardware and a software platform, we're going to split the review of Pro Tools 10 and the new HDX cards into two parts. This article is going to focus on the software, while next month's follow-up will cover the new HDX hardware and AAX plug-in format.
Pro Tools 10 is the first version of Pro Tools that's officially certified to work with Mac OS 10.7 'Lion', following the 'public beta' support introduced in version 9.0.5. Fortunately, the application remains compatible with Snow Leopard (10.6.7 or 10.6.8), which is a good thing, since I know many musicians and audio engineers who have been hesitant to upgrade to Apple's latest operating system, unless forced by the necessity of new hardware. Windows users need to be running Windows 7 SP1.
Although the software will run on either 32- or 64-bit variants of Mac OS X and Windows, Pro Tools 10 is, to the dismay of many, still a 32-bit application. This is slightly surprising given the climate into which Pro Tools 10 is being released, where many competitors have already introduced 64-bit support, and there is clearly demand from users, especially by those using large, sample-based instruments. However, Avid have at least planted the seed for 64-bit support in Pro Tools 10, as we'll see in a moment.
As is often the case with updates, many of the improvements are numeric, and Pro Tools 10 is no exception, with some users benefiting from increased numbers of voices, tracks and auxiliary input tracks. Out of the box, Pro Tools 10 offers the same quantities as version 9 at 44.1 or 48 kHz: 96 voices, 128 tracks, and 128 aux input tracks. However, with the addition of the Complete Production Toolkit, you now get 256 voices (up from 192), 768 tracks (up from 512), and 512 aux input tracks (up from 160). Pro Tools HD users with an HD Core card get the same figures as with the Toolkit, except that the number of voices remains at 192, since this is hardware dependent — those with an HD Native card enjoy the same improvement of 256 voices. Those with the new Pro Tools HDX hardware get further benefits in this department, which we'll be investigating next month.
To complement the change in numbers, there are also changes in nomenclature in Pro Tools 10, which Avid state is to "ensure optimal compatibility between Pro Tools and Media Composer” (Avid's non-linear video editing system). The change that will have most impact is that regions are henceforth to be known as clips. So gone is the Regions menu: in its place, the Clips menu. Likewise, the Region List is now the Clips List. Most of the other changes are fairly mild: the Edit Selection Start and End Markers are now In and Out Points; Process (as in the off-line Process of Audiosuite plug-ins) is now Render; and, most controversially, Time Code is now Timecode.
Lastly, Avid have taken the opportunity to finally expel all traces of the Digidesign name from Pro Tools, including file names and paths. The only slight reminder of Pro Tools' past is that DigiTest is now called Avid DigiTest. Fare thee well, Digidesign!
While you might think it could require some effort to become aroused over Pro Tools 10 having a new disk engine, you would be wrong. All Pro Tools users will benefit from better performance when recording and playing back audio, but Pro Tools HD users and those with the Complete Production Toolkit are in for a particular treat. In addition to support for Network and RAID storage systems, as well as enhanced support for Avid's own shared storage solutions, a new disk cache feature enables session audio files to be loaded into memory. This means that instead of the audio data being played back from disk, where it's stored, it is played back directly from memory.
The advantage of playing back audio data from memory is speed. Playing back and locating different points within the session becomes perceptibly more responsive, since accessing the same data from disk will always be slower, even if you're using solid-state drives. In fact, if all the audio in the current timeline is cached, playback and locating while playing back happens pretty much instantaneously. This will be particularly advantageous when working with large sessions, and especially useful for those running multiple Pro Tools systems in sync with each other, since the caching helps to reduce lock-up times.
To enable disk caching, you simply select a size for the cache in the Playback Engine Setup window. This size is set to 'Normal' by default, meaning that the disk playback basically works much as it did before, but you can activate disk caching by selecting an amount of memory to be used by the cache from the pop-up menu. The amount of memory available for caching will be 3GB less than the memory installed in your Mac (or 4GB less on Windows, due to differences in the OS), and can be set in 1GB increments after the initial 256 and 512MB options. So if, like mine, your Mac has 16GB of memory, the maximum amount assignable for caching will be 13GB. (In practice, on my Mac, which was running Mac OS 10.6.7, Pro Tools would only let me assign a maximum of 12GB to the cache, even with no other applications running — not that this could really be described as a big deal.)
Since Pro Tools 10 is a 32-bit application, you might be wondering how it's able to access memory beyond the usual 32-bit boundaries. The answer is that it doesn't. By opening Activity Monitor on the Mac, you can see that Pro Tools uses a second process called KMM_Server, which can run as a 64-bit process, communicating with Pro Tools to store and retrieve the audio data for your session. Pretty neat. What's more, you'll notice that if you select, say, 4GB of memory for your disk cache in Pro Tools, the amount of memory KMM_Server will take up will be about 4GB. So if you need to free up some memory on your computer while using the disk cache, you'll need to reduce the amount of allocated memory.
Once disk caching is active, the Activity section of the System Usage window will display two additional metrics: Disk Cache and Timeline Cached. The Disk Cache meter shows how much of the cache is used, while Timeline Cached indicates how much of the audio in the current Timeline is stored in the cache. In an ideal world, the Timeline Cached value should be 100 percent, and the Disk Cache a little lower; but you will still see benefits even if you don't have enough memory to accommodate an entire session in the cache. However, I think most people will be surprised by how little memory you actually need to store an entire Timeline in the cache. For example, the demo song supplied with Pro Tools 10 uses only four percent of a 12GB cache. A small improvement when setting up the disk cache would be if Pro Tools could tell you how much memory would be required to cache the current Timeline in the Playback Engine window. Even though it's a global setting, rather than session-specific, it would still be helpful, since Pro Tools only allows one session to be loaded at a time anyway.
Overall, though, disk caching is a brilliantly obvious way to improve the performance of audio playback in Pro Tools. We tend to forget that in the early days of audio software, the only reason for recording directly to disk was because computers didn't have the memory capacity to store enough audio to be useful. When Pro Tools was released in 1991, for example, a Quadra 900 typically shipped with 4MB memory — enough for less than one minute of mono, CD-quality audio. But with modern systems having between 4GB and 64 GB of memory, redressing the balance between memory and disk usage seems like a sensible way forward.
Another apparently humble feature that may nevertheless have users reaching for the Champagne is that you can now change the gain of individual regions — sorry, I mean clips — without having to resort to automation, which is tremendously useful. By making the Clip Gain Info visible, the gain of a clip can be adjusted with a click on the fader icon that appears in the bottom left of a clip. As you adjust the gain from the default 0dB, a handy decibel label appears next to the fader icon, reporting the gain change that's been non-destructively applied. Better still, right-clicking the fader icon provides a series of related options, where you can clear or bypass the clip gain, or even render it to an audio file.
In addition to what Avid describe as 'static' clip gain, Pro Tools 10 also offers 'dynamic' clip gain. As you might be able to guess, dynamic clip gain allows you to have what is, in effect, gain automation within a specific clip. This automation can be seen and edited by making the Clip Gain Line visible, whereupon you can use the pencil tool to create gain breakpoints, either by clicking to create single points, or dragging to draw multiple points. Once you've created additional points on the Clip Gain Line, the decibel label disappears from the clip. However, what's particularly neat is that you can then click the clip's fader icon to trim the entire Gain Line. And, as well as using the on-screen fader, you can also 'nudge' the clip gain by a value specified in the Editing Preferences, using key commands, your mouse's scroll wheel, or a EUCON-compatible controller.
If Avid had stopped there, clip gain would already be pretty indispensable, but the company's developers have gone a few steps further. Not only is it possible to cut, copy, and paste clip gain settings between different clips, but Pro Tools HD and Complete Production Toolkit users can convert between clip gain settings and track volume automation. While competing applications have had the ability to apply per-clip gain settings for some time (Nuendo had this feature on its release 10 years ago, for example), Avid's implementation is incredibly thorough, and should be welcomed by anyone who edits audio in Pro Tools.
To complement the new clip gain functionality and the new disk engine, clip fades in Pro Tools 10 are now calculated in real time, rather than having to be written and played back from disk. This is another welcome improvement, since it renders — no pun intended — the regeneration of fade files when you forget to copy the Fades folder a thing of the past.
When Avid acquired Euphonix in 2010, the company gained a great deal of expertise and technology relating to mixing consoles and control surfaces. Although it had previously been possible to use Euphonix's products with Pro Tools, users had to resort to clunky workarounds involving Mackie's HUI protocol. So it was perhaps no surprise that Pro Tools 9, released towards the end of 2010, incorporated native support for Euphonix's EUCON control surface protocol, making it much easier to control Pro Tools' mixer from Euphonix's Artist and Pro series products.
EUCON support has been further enhanced in Pro Tools 10, so that almost every Pro Tools command, such as those normally accessed via menus or keyboard shortcuts, can be assigned to the Soft Keys on your Euphonix surface. Over 500 commands are exposed, so you can now create and manage groups, for example, or adjust the edit selection without having to touch a keyboard or mouse.
Another Euphonix-related improvement in Pro Tools 10 is the new Avid Channel Strip plug-in, which is based on the EQ and dynamics algorithms from the System 5 console's channel strip. For those unfamiliar with the System 5 console, it's a high-end, modular digital console now sold by Avid, but originally released by Euphonix in 1999. Although the System 5 is popular in a many different fields, it has become a particular favourite for post-production work, being used to mix both the music and the final dub for major Hollywood feature films. If you've watched a film in the last 10 years (or listened to a film soundtrack), there's a good chance you'll have heard audio signals that have passed through a System 5 console.
Channel Strip comprises four sections — EQ, Filter, Dynamics and Volume — which can be arranged in almost any order you like, except that the filter always follows the EQ. Each effect has its own section in the interface, which can be collapsed if you don't wish to see certain settings that might not be in use. The EQ offers four parametric bands, accompanied by the filters, while the dynamics section offers controls for both expander/gate and compressor/limiter processing with a side-chain. The interface for the EQ and dynamics sections comprises tabs for each of the components of the given section, whether bands of EQ or specific dynamic processes. However, the dynamic section also offers an 'All' tab, so you can see all dynamics parameters on one page numerically, which is really handy.
One particularly neat aspect of the Channel Strip plug-in is the Listen mode, which is available for the side-chain component of the dynamics section and each component of the EQ section. Enabling Listen mode on the side-chain lets you hear the input signal, while clicking Listen on a given band or filter in the EQ section solos and inverts that band or filter so you only hear the affected frequencies. This allows one to be incredibly surgical when trying to find the appropriate frequency (and Q). In fact, that word pretty much sums up the System 5's channel strip. It's perfect for shaping a sound without adding a great deal of extra (and perhaps unwanted) colour.
In addition to the new Channel Strip plug-in, there's also Down Mixer, which simplifies the process of creating stereo fold-downs of surround material, and a new version of Mod Delay. But, as well as new plug-ins, Avid have also made a number of other mix-related improvements that will be helpful to those who use Pro Tools for large-scale mixes. There are now Solo and Mute indicators on the Edit window's toolbar, so if any track in your session has been soloed or muted, the appropriate indicator will light up to show that a solo or mute is active somewhere. Clicking the Solo indicator will clear the solo status of any tracks, but, unfortunately, clicking the Mute indicator does nothing. According to the Pro Tools manual, a 'clear mutes' function is impossible because Mute is an automatable mix parameter. Even so, it would have been nice if clicking the Mute indicator would at least scroll you automatically to the first muted track in the list, just to make it easy to track down a rogue mute, if you'll excuse the pun.
A particularly neat touch is that the Solo indicator works across multiple Pro Tools systems synchronised via Satellite Link. This means that if a session on any linked system has a soloed track, the Solo indicator will light up, which is pretty cool. The only slight complaint is that the Solo and Mute indicators are only visible on the Edit window, and it might have been nice to find some way for them to be accommodated on the Mix window as well.
Staying with the theme of making things easier to see when mixing, another neat feature in Pro Tools 10 is called Bus Interrogation. While the name sounds a bit like some kind of forceful public transport inquisition, it's actually a way of quickly seeing all tracks sharing a common assignment. For example, say you have a number of tracks routed to a Drums bus and you want the Mix window to show only those tracks. Simply right-click on an assignment to the Drums bus (from a track output, for example) and choose 'Show Only Assignments to Drums'. Any tracks not containing an assignment (whether an input, output or send, and so on) to the Drums bus will be hidden, clearing the Mix window of unnecessary clutter. When you want to return to the tracks that were visible before selecting this command, right-click on any assignment and choose 'Restore Previously Shown Tracks'. The only small quirk is that the Mix window always ends up scrolled all the way to the left after the restoration. It would be nice to have the option of the Mix window being restored to the exact place to which you were previously scrolled.
In addition to being able to show only the tracks sharing a common assignment, you can also choose to select the appropriate tracks, and there's also a Show Assignments command. This is similar to Show Only, except that it's intended to ensure all tracks that might share the given assignment are visible (as opposed to hidden). This time, all other visible tracks displayed in the Mix window remain that way.
One of the most contentious aspects of Pro Tools 10 is likely to be its cost. Avid have increased the price of the basic software flavour of Pro Tools by $100£33, so that a new copy of Pro Tools 10 now costs $699£539. If you're already a Pro Tools 9 user, an upgrade to version 10 will set you back $299£239, which might be considered equivalent to the cost of a higher-end, console-style plug-in — say, the Avid Channel Strip. But in addition to this plug-in, you also get most of the other features discussed in this article. To get the rest, including the new disk caching functionality, you'll need the Complete Production Toolkit, which costs an additional $1999£1559.
As before, the Pro Tools HD 10 software itself is available only with a new hardware system (with either the Pro Tools Native or HDX card). This HD version can still run without any additional hardware, and in this case it behaves like a copy of Pro Tools with the Complete Production Toolkit. However, the cost for Pro Tools HD users to upgrade to version 10 is the not insignificant sum of $999£755, making it, so far as I can remember, the most expensive software upgrade in Pro Tools' history. Initially, it was possible to save money by purchasing Avid Standard Support: a 12-month support package that, for a limited time, retroactively included the Pro Tools HD 10 upgrade. But with that offer now closed, HD users will have to pay the full amount to upgrade.
Pro Tools 10 is an incredibly useful update, and I don't want to seem completely negative about the cost. But it does point to a difficulty in evaluating the fiscal value of software. Given that the version 8 to version 9 upgrade was $349£294 for HD users, does one really get $650£450 worth of additional value on top of this in the switch to Pro Tools 10? I guess it depends on the users at the end of the day, and what they need their systems for. Certainly, high-end mix facilities might be more than happy to pay the money for features like disk caching and being able to synchronise more systems via Satellite Link. But if you mostly use a Pro Tools system as, say, a songwriting tool, there's potentially less to get excited about.
Pro Tools 10 is about audio. There are new audio editing features, new audio plug-ins, and incredible internal improvements such as the new disk engine and more flexible support for working with different audio formats. What Pro Tools 10 is not about is sequencing, which comes as a surprise when I think back to the huge push Digidesign made in version 8 to boost Pro Tools' music creation functionality. Maybe Avid now feel that Pro Tools' abilities in this respect are adequate for the moment, especially since it was never a sequencer in the way that Logic, Cubase and Digital Performer were and are, and maybe it makes sense not to transform Pro Tools into that type of music production software. However, it does seem a shame that some of the shortcomings on this side of the product have still not been addressed three years later. Ultimately, Pro Tools 10 feels like a more polished Pro Tools 9. Many of the major improvements are arguably quite subtle, but it is possibly the sheer avalanche of these subtle improvements that will make it a worthwhile and impressive upgrade for the majority of users.
Pro Tools 10 offers many improvements when it comes to working with different audio file formats, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who is happy to see support for interleaved files, whether stereo or multi-channel. Pro Tools 10 also supports some of the more modern WAV format varietals, including the Wave Extensible Format (for better compatibility with interleaved multi-channel files), and RF64, which enables more than 4GB of audio to be stored in a single WAV file. And given that the HDX hardware processes audio at the same 32-bit floating-point internal resolution as native systems (as we will discuss further next month), Pro Tools 10 now also supports 32-bit floating-point audio files. This is useful if you do a large amount of off-line processing, but has the disadvantage of placing a greater load on your storage resources.
Some of these new format options are available when creating a new session, such as 32-bit float (as a Bit Depth option) and Interleaved. However, a significant change is that the Audio Format (WAV or AIFF), Interleaved and Bit Depth settings can now be changed after a session has been created, in the Session Setup window. If a change is made, any new audio recorded after this point will be stored according to the new settings, which is possible because Pro Tools 10 now supports mixed audio file formats in a single session. This is a pretty big deal, especially as it will also save having to convert every file you add to a session that might be in a different format.
In addition to supporting various other formats, Pro Tools 10 also introduces a new '.ptx' session format of its own, meaning that sessions created in Pro Tools 10 cannot be opened in previous versions. While this kind of change is rarely welcomed by anyone, it is at least possible, as it has been in the past, to export a session that is compatible with earlier versions of Pro Tools using the 'Save Session Copy As 'command.
Speaking of exports, a useful command Avid have added in Pro Tools 10 is the ability to export the selected tracks as a new session. This is great if you want to send only certain tracks to a collaborator, for example, or if you want to clear out the clutter from one session to use only a few tracks as the basis for something new.
Pro Tools 10 also adds the ability for bounces to be automatically added to your iTunes library, and another slightly unexpected — but very welcome — new feature is the facility to export a bounced session to SoundCloud, the popular cloud-based music service. (For anyone who doesn't know about SoundCloud, it's essentially for audio what YouTube is for video.) When bouncing to disk, there's a new 'Share with SoundCloud' option, which will prompt you for an additional page of SoundCloud-related settings, such as a description for the track and whether you want to make the track private. Once the session has been bounced, Pro Tools will ask for your SoundCloud log-in (which can be remembered for future uploads), and, assuming the process is successful, a helpful window will appear containing a URL of the uploaded track that can be copied to the clipboard.
One of the less conspicuous manoeuvres Avid have made with the introduction of Pro Tools 10 is to encourage users to sign up for support and maintenance contracts, a business model that has served the video side of Avid reasonably well in the past. The first offering is known as Avid Vantage, but the big question is whether the vantage is the user's or the company's. For $149£106.80 a year, Avid are offering "unlimited online customer support”, whatever that means, along with a $99 coupon that can be redeemed against an Avid software purchase. Vantage users can also choose four plug-ins to be licensed for the tenure of the support. I've got to admit that I have no idea why anyone would go along with this offer, and I invite Avid to show me the value of the support I would receive as a Pro Tools user if I did.
As mentioned in the main text, Avid initially offered retroactive Pro Tools 10 upgrades to HD users who bought the Avid Standard Support Package ($599 in the US), effectively saving them quite a bit on the retail price of a Pro Tools HD 10 upgrade. However, it does rather seem that you would do this for Avid's benefit rather than your own, since, despite the carrot, Avid obviously hope you'll be so infatuated with the support you receive that you'll continue to pay the fee annually, regardless of whether there are any major updates in a given cycle.
In a market where only high-end console customers are used to paying for annual support for their purchases, I think the onus is on Avid to show regular Pro Tools customers why an annual fee will be to their benefit rather than to AVID on the NASDAQ.