Specifying & Buying Your First System

Digidesign (Avid) Pro Tools Tips & Techniques

Published in SOS May 2009
Bookmark and Share

Technique : Pro Tools Notes
Tempted to invest in a Pro Tools rig but don’t know where to begin? You need our handy guide to choosing a system.
Mike Thornton
With the launch of Pro Tools 8, there are probably more musicians than ever considering the purchase of their first Pro Tools system. I’ve spent many years helping users get to grips with Pro Tools, so this seemed like a good time to share the experience I’ve gained.
Buying A New System: The Computer
A Pro Tools system consists of three main components: the Pro Tools software, a Mac or PC computer, and additional Digidesign or M-Audio hardware that handles audio and MIDI input and output (and mixing, in the case of HD systems).
Not just any old computer will do, and I cannot recommend too strongly that you follow the advice in the compatibility charts on the Digidesign web site. For Macs it is reasonably simple: as a rule, the current machines are approved, although there is often a time lag between a new Mac being released and Digidesign approving it. Occasionally, Apple launch machines that are more problematic, usually because of I/O issues. For instance, the new Macbooks don’t have a Firewire port at all, so you can’t connect external drives or Firewire interfaces like the M Box 2 Pro or 003 family. The new Mac Minis, iMacs and Mac Pros all now only offer Firewire 800 ports, so Firewire 800 to 400 adaptor leads will be needed for Firewire interfaces, which may delay the approval of these Macs.
PCs are more complicated, as there are many more possible hardware combinations out there, but whatever you do, don’t be tempted to go for a cheaper machine or use cheaper components that aren’t on the list. The Digidesign User Conference is full of folk who have tried and come unstuck, so don’t risk it!
The Audio Hardware
The latest and most powerful interface in the Pro Tools LE range is the 003 Rack+.
The latest and most powerful interface in the Pro Tools LE range is the 003 Rack+.
For a more affordable first system, you could consider buying a second-hand interface. Good options are the 002 family, or if you don’t want to get into the Firewire 400/800 minefield, the original M Box is still supported with the current software on a G5 or Intel Mac. I wouldn’t suggest going ‘further back’, as other old hardware like the 001 and Mix systems has not been supported for several versions of the Pro Tools software.
Beyond that, your choice of interface must be guided by your needs and, most of all, by how many simultaneous input and output channels you require. The options in the home/project studio price range are summarised in the box at the end of this article. Don’t neglect the M-Audio line, which, in many cases offers more features for less money than the Digidesign hardware, and unlike the current Digidesign Pro Tools LE range, still includes PCI-based interfaces. Note, though, that unlike the Digidesign interfaces, M-Audio hardware doesn’t come with Pro Tools software; you need to buy it separately.
Extra Drives
Additional hard drives are recommended for audio recording and sample storage. External Firewire drives have the advantage of being portable and usable with laptops.
Additional hard drives are recommended for audio recording and sample storage. External Firewire drives have the advantage of being portable and usable with laptops.
It is possible to record to the system drive (C: or Macintosh HD) on your computer but, like other manufacturers, Digidesign don’t recommend it, and there is much to be said for keeping your audio separate. This means adding a second hard drive. If you are going to be using large sample libraries, it is best to keep their data on a separate drive too.
To stay approved you need to use either another internally mounted PATA (IDE) or SATA drive, if your computer has the slots for them (most desktop tower machines do), or use external drives mounted in Firewire 400 or 800 cases. If you take the latter route, make sure the external drive has an Oxford chip set, as these are the only ones guaranteed to work reliably. It also must be a Firewire drive: USB 2 drives won’t do. Although in theory USB 2 can pass data at up to 480Mbps (Firewire 400 can pass data at 400Mbps and Firewire 800 can pass data at 800Mbps), the USB interface needs much more involvement from the computer’s processor to handle the data and so in reality doesn’t perform as well. Try copying the same data to a USB 2 drive and a Firewire 400 drive and you will find the Firewire drive wins hands down! More importantly, Digidesign don’t support USB drives for audio recording or playback.
The M-Audio range includes a large number of Pro Tools-compatible audio interfaces, from the basic Transit to sophisticated multi-channel devices such as the Project Mix I/O and ProFire 2626.
The M-Audio range includes a large number of Pro Tools-compatible audio interfaces, from the basic Transit to sophisticated multi-channel devices such as the Project Mix I/O and ProFire 2626.
For maximum performance, any drive you want to use for Pro Tools should be at least a 7200rpm drive. That means the disks inside the drive are spinning at 7200rpm. Lower spin-speeds mean a lower data rate off the drive, translating into fewer tracks and edits before the drive is unable to keep up. The 7200rpm recommendation used to mean, in effect, 3.5-inch drives with mains-powered cases: 2.5-inch drives can be powered via the Firewire cable (‘bus powering’) but most 3.5-inch drives require too much power. Until recently, however, 2.5-inch drives — usually used inside laptops — only span at 4200rpm or 5400rpm. However, it is now possible to get portable 2.5-inch drives that spin at 7200rpm.
The other option for external drives is the eSATA protocol. This looks very promising, with a number of folk using these drives very successfully, but unlike internal SATA drives, they aren’t yet approved by Digidesign.
Above: The professional Pro Tools HD systems, which offload mixing and signal processing to dedicated DSP cards, offer huge potential I/O counts if you have the money and the PCI slots available!
Above: The professional Pro Tools HD systems, which offload mixing and signal processing to dedicated DSP cards, offer huge potential I/O counts if you have the money and the PCI slots available!
Whatever drive you end up with, the first thing you must do is to format it before you try to put any content onto it. Mac users can do this by using the Erase function of Apple’s Disk Utility: all media drives attached to Mac-based Pro Tools rigs must be formatted ‘Mac OS Extended (Journaled)’. On a Windows PC, you should select My Computer from the Start menu, right-click on the drive you want to format, and then use Format from the drop-down menu. From Pro Tools v7.4, FAT32-formatted drives are no longer supported on Windows-based systems, so you should be sure to use NTFS instead.  0

Anti-virus Software & Pro Tools
There is no way you should run an Internet-connected computer, especially a PC, without any virus protection software installed. However, there can be conflicts between anti-virus programs and Pro Tools, and they can cause performance to suffer. In the Mac world I use Intego’s Virus Barrier and it has never caused me, or any of my clients, any trouble. On the Windows side the consensus out there seems to be to steer clear of the larger companies. Comments on the Digidesign User Conference say that they use more processor power than the leaner packages from companies like AVG and Kaspersky.
The other advice is not to surf anywhere your grandmother wouldn’t go! If you do, you are asking to pick up all sorts of stuff. Finally, don’t use software from dubious places: the use of cracked software, apart from being theft, will leave your system in a very fragile state. We may complain about software vendors leaving the beta testing to the users, but cracked software testing programmes don’t exist at all!

Hardware For Pro Tools LE & M-Powered
This table shows all the current Digidesign and M-Audio interfaces that are compatible with Pro Tools LE and M-Powered software. It does not include legacy products that are still supported, such as the original M Box, or keyboards and DJ controllers.
SystemConnects viaAnalogue inputsAnalogue outputsHeadphone outputsDigital inputsDigital outputsMIDIMic preampsAdditional features & notes
Digidesign
M Box 2 MicroUSB00100no0
M Box 2 MiniUSB22100no1
M Box 2 USB221stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes2
M Box 2 ProFirewire 400462stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes2phono preamps, word clock I/O
003 RackFirewire 4008828-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIF8-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIFyes4word clock I/O
003 Rack+Firewire 4008828-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIF8-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIFyes8word clock I/O
003Firewire 4008828-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIF8-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIFyes4control surface with motorised faders, word clock I/O
M-Audio
Audiophile 2496PCI220stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes0
Audiophile 192PCI220stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes0
Delta 1010PCI880stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes0word clock I/O
Delta 1010LTPCI880stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes2word clock I/O
Delta 44PCI44000no0
Delta 66PCI440stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFno0
TransitUSB22122no0analogue and digital input shared
Mobile Pre USBUSB22100no2
Fast Track USBUSB22100no1
Fast Track ProUSB221stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes2
Fast Track UltraUSB2662stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes4
Fast Track Ultra 8RUSB2882stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes8
Firewire SoloFirewire 400421stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFno1
Firewire 410Firewire 400282stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes2
ProFire 610Firewire 400482stereo S/PDIFstereo S/PDIFyes2
ProFire LightbridgeFirewire 40002132-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIF32-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIFyes0only 16-channel ADAT supported with Pro Tools
ProFire 2626Firewire 40088216-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIF16-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIFyes8only 8-channel ADAT supported with Pro Tools
NRV10Firewire 40082100no5analogue mixer with faders, auxes, EQs and so on
Project Mix I/OFirewire 4008428-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIF8-channel ADAT + stereo S/PDIFyes8control surface with motorised faders, word clock I/O


DAW Tips from SOS

 

Home | Search | News | Current Issue | Tablet Mag | Articles | Forum | Subscribe | Shop | Readers Ads

Advertise | Information | Digital Editions | Privacy Policy | Support | Login Help

 

Email: Contact SOS

Telephone: +44 (0)1954 789888

Fax: +44 (0)1954 789895

Registered Office: Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB23 8SQ, United Kingdom.

Sound On Sound Ltd is registered in England and Wales.

Company number: 3015516 VAT number: GB 638 5307 26

         

All contents copyright © SOS Publications Group and/or its licensors, 1985-2014. All rights reserved.
The contents of this article are subject to worldwide copyright protection and reproduction in whole or part, whether mechanical or electronic, is expressly forbidden without the prior written consent of the Publishers. Great care has been taken to ensure accuracy in the preparation of this article but neither Sound On Sound Limited nor the publishers can be held responsible for its contents. The views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the publishers.

Web site designed & maintained by PB Associates | SOS | Relative Media