For the first time ever, Avid have made the full Pro Tools feature set available on native systems — and you don't even need one of their interfaces to run it!
It's official. Hell has frozen over. This year's AES show in San Francisco saw the announcement most of us thought we'd never hear: Avid, for so long the most insular manufacturer in the business, were embracing openness. No longer would their market‑leading Pro Tools DAW be tied to Avid's own hardware; from now on it would work with any interface that supported the ASIO or Core Audio driver protocols, from the Apogees and Prisms of this world to the built‑in inputs and outputs of a cheap laptop.
And that wasn't all. Users of the more affordable native Pro Tools packages, LE and M‑Powered, had long griped about the artificial limitations that kept those packages feature‑poor in comparison with Pro Tools HD. At a stroke, Pro Tools 9 removes nearly all of these — and with the addition of the new Complete Production Toolkit 2, a native system can acquire all the features of an HD rig apart from those that are hardware‑dependent, making such gems as VCA groups and advanced automation available to native users for the first time.
Things have come a long way since I joined Sound On Sound back in 1998. Then, the very idea that anyone might actually buy a Pro Tools system for the software would have seemed laughable to many. TDM systems represented an affordable and very popular way to get multitrack audio in and out of a computer, and to run DSP‑assisted plug‑ins, but most studios ran Logic or other third‑party software as a 'front end', and the Pro Tools installers gathered dust in a drawer somewhere.
Over the last decade or so, Digidesign and now Avid have done a remarkable job of reversing that situation, to the point where other DAWs such as Nuendo and Logic now incorporate numerous features that originated in Pro Tools. You could point to several milestones along that path. First came Pro Tools Free, a free 'taster' version of the software that would work with a Mac's built‑in hardware. Then came the Digi 001, the Mbox and a succession of other affordable native versions, successful ports of the Pro Tools software to Windows and Mac OS X, and the acquisition of M‑Audio. Meanwhile, at the high end, there was the transition from Pro Tools Mix to Pro Tools HD, and the introduction of the hugely powerful Icon control surfaces.
The software itself has also undergone radical overhauls in that time, yet unlike some DAWs, Pro Tools has managed to retain the core simplicity and elegance of its two‑window approach. Its strengths in audio recording, mixing and editing have been enhanced, while Avid have worked hard to make it competitive in areas such as MIDI sequencing, where it was previously less able than rival DAWs. The last major update, to Pro Tools 8, thus introduced a huge number of improvements focusing on the 'music creation' side of things. These have, no doubt, helped to make the program more appealing to newcomers, but above all, it's the dominance of Pro Tools in professional recording and mixing circles that has fuelled its desirability further down the ladder.
The problem is that this desirability has, until now, been tempered by a fair number of frustrations. By version 8, the Pro Tools native range had become fragmented and confusing, with separate LE and M‑Powered versions augmented by numerous add‑on Toolkits, and some of the features that Avid kept HD‑only were almost universal in rival DAWs. The restriction of having to use Avid's own hardware was also becoming acute.
Enter a new management regime at Avid and a shift from 'engineering led' to 'customer focused' development. At recent industry events, Avid have been keen to emphasise that the opening up of Pro Tools 9 is not a reluctant move, but one that reflects a sea change in corporate culture. (This, apparently, has involved a shift to an 'agile development' model, in which their engineers become 'pigs' or 'chickens' and are divided into 'scrum teams'. No, me neither.) The development of Pro Tools 9 was thus driven by a public wish-list that Avid have posted and maintained at http://protools.ideascale.com. Among the most in‑demand features were delay compensation, ASIO and Core Audio support, HD features on laptops, and higher input and track counts in native systems — and so that's what we've got.
For Pro Tools LE users, it all sounds a bit too good to be true. After all, Avid were the company who used to demand an extra 20 dollars just so we could bounce an MP3 file. Surely there would be some catch, some hidden limitation that would ensure third‑party hardware and native operation remained the poor relations?
The Pro Tools 9 product range is refreshingly simple. There are no longer separate LE and M‑Powered versions, just a single product with a single installer disc. As before, those who have an HD system get all the features. Those who have the basic Pro Tools 9 licence get slightly fewer — albeit many more than in LE or M‑Powered — but, by buying the optional Complete Production Toolkit 2, can get the full feature set except for features that are dependent on HD hardware, such as TDM plug‑in support. All versions are now authorised to iLok, and a Pro Tools 9 HD licence will authorise the full Complete Production Toolkit 2 on a native system — so many HD users will no longer need to buy a separate LE system to work on the road.
Avid provide a helpful comparison chart listing the features of the three different systems, and their counterparts in Pro Tools 8, at www.avid.com/us/products/family/Pro‑Tools/compare. I won't reproduce it in detail here, but will highlight a few key points. For anyone running Pro Tools on HD hardware, changes are relatively few. Compared with Pro Tools LE, however, the basic native Pro Tools 9 is a lot more powerful. As well as getting ASIO and Core Audio support plus full delay compensation, users can record up to 32 simultaneous inputs on 96 mono or stereo tracks, employ up to 256 mixer buses, and use the timecode ruler and the full multitrack version of Beat Detective. AAF/OMF/MXF import and export, and MP3 export, are now included as standard. And, as previously mentioned, the Complete Production Toolkit 2 unlocks the full HD feature set, giving you surround mixing, VCA groups and advanced automation among other joys. However, the additional plug‑ins that came with the old Music Production Toolkit 2, such as Hybrid and Smack! LE, are not included, and are only available as separate products.
I tested Pro Tools 9, with the Complete Production Toolkit 2, on both Mac and PC. In both cases, you'll need an up‑to‑date OS. Mac OS 10.6 'Snow Leopard' is required on Apple machines, and Pro Tools 9 is only officially supported under Windows 7 on PCs. There have been reports on the Web of users successfully installing it under XP, but for review purposes I thought it fairer to use an approved system, so made a fresh installation of Windows 7 Home Premium on my Dell laptop. (This is a 32‑bit machine, and Pro Tools itself remains a 32‑bit application for the time being.)
In look and feel, Pro Tools 9 is exactly like version 8, and it's not until you investigate hidden corners of the Playback Engine and Hardware Setup dialogues that the new features become apparent. The only major one that is actually new, rather than inherited from HD8, is the one most responsible for the current chilly temperature in Hades: support for the ASIO and Core Audio driver protocols. On my Windows machine, I was able to test Pro Tools 9 with one of Avid's new Mbox 3 USB2 interfaces, a Zoom R16 and a Native Instruments Rig Kontrol 2, both of which also connect via USB2, and a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Firewire interface. On the Mac, I had access to an older Mbox 2, an NI Rig Kontrol 3 and an RME UFX, both of which I connected via USB2.
Where an Avid interface such as the Mbox is connected, Pro Tools chooses it by default, and appears to work exactly as Pro Tools 8 did. Enter the Playback Engine dialogue and click on the topmost pop‑up menu, however, and you'll get the option to switch to any of the other audio devices attached to the system. On the Mac, these include an aggregate driver that is created automatically when Pro Tools 8 is installed.
You don't have to do too much mucking about with ASIO devices to realise that Pro Tools' support is not yet as elegant as that of most rivals. Switching to a different audio device requires the closing and reopening of your Session, as does making changes in your audio hardware's control panel software. Pro Tools also seems unable to dictate sample-rate changes to hardware, so I had to quit and make them in the control panel instead. The Playback Engine dialogue lets you set the buffer size, but only supports a comparatively limited range of options: 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 and 2056. If your interface doesn't offer any of these, Pro Tools will quit in a puff of indignation.
Of the interfaces I tested, this immediately ruled out the Rig Kontrol 2: its Windows drivers set buffer sizes in milliseconds rather than samples, and don't appear to have any compatible settings. More of a concern was the Zoom R16, which does offer 256, 512 and 1024‑sample options, but refused to cooperate at all with Pro Tools 9. Unlike most interfaces, its control panel still allows you to change the buffer size even when it's in use by another application. This really freaked Pro Tools out, but even when both were correctly set to the same buffer size, all I could manage was occasional, horribly garbled audio output (which, for once, wasn't down to my singing).
Thankfully, however, it was a different story with the Saffire Pro 40, which worked fine. I was able to keep the Saffire MixControl utility open at the same time as Pro Tools, allowing me to create monitor mixes and so forth, and all of the Pro 40's inputs and outputs were visible (and audible!) in Pro Tools. Moving faders and so on within MixControl didn't seem to upset Pro Tools, but more fundamental changes, such as switching to a different clock source, usually provoked the demand to close and reopen my Session. Fairly regularly during the review period, I got this message even when I hadn't made any changes myself, so perhaps MixControl was doing something in the background that Pro Tools didn't like. There were also a couple of occasions when everything looked to be working but no sound emerged until I quit and relaunched Pro Tools. In general, however, it was stable enough to use and never fell over during recording, though it was not as reliable as Cubase is on my system.
I had less time to test things on the Mac, but encountered no problems in that period. Both the Rig Kontrol and UFX required a few visits to the I/O Setup window to get sound out, but once set up, it seemed to work well.
The addition of ASIO and Core Audio support makes sense of the changes that were made to the I/O Setup window in Pro Tools 8.1 HD, which are now standard in all versions. Tracks are now routed to outputs via buses (hence the need for more buses), and I/O Setup configurations can now be stored with the system as well as with a Session, making Sessions more easily interchangeable between systems.
Something that's perhaps worth mentioning in passing is that when placing your recordings on the timeline, Pro Tools compensates for delays caused by buffering, but not for the small additional delay caused by A‑D conversion, meaning that in absolute terms your recordings end up a few tens of samples late (27 samples, in the case of the Saffire Pro 40). If you care about this, Cubase, Sonar and most other DAWs let you enter an offset value in samples, and will automatically slip your recordings by this amount when placing them on the timeline. Pro Tools currently doesn't.
For those considering a move from another DAW, it's also worth flagging up a point about how Pro Tools handles input monitoring. In most DAWs, such as Cubase and Reaper, input monitoring is independent of track arming. In other words, you can record‑enable a track without enabling input monitoring on that track. And when you're using a separate low‑latency monitor-mixing utility, such as Saffire MixControl or RME's TotalMix, that's exactly what you want to do. Because you're hearing the input signal directly through said utility, you don't need to hear it again through your DAW; but when you hit play in your DAW, you do want to hear the track you've just recorded.
In Pro Tools, by contrast, track arming and input monitoring are the same thing. If you record‑enable a track, you will hear its input through Pro Tools, regardless of whether you're already hearing it through MixControl or TotalMix or whatever. Unless, that is, you mute the track to which you're recording, or lower its fader — in which case you'll have to remember to unmute it on playback, then mute it again for the next take, and so on. This is a nuisance, especially when you're recording multiple inputs (in which case it's worth making them into a Mix Group so you can mute and unmute them all with one click).
I've been whingeing about this in Pro Tools reviews ever since the launch of the original Mbox in 2002, and in the context of Pro Tools 9 it's probably now my number one gripe. Some of Avid's own interfaces, including the Mbox 3, support Pro Tools' Low Latency Monitoring mode, which makes things a bit more friendly, but this doesn't show up as an option when you're using an ASIO or Core Audio interface.
If I had a pound for every time someone on the Internet has said that Pro Tools LE was "unusable” because it didn't have plug‑in delay compensation, I could have bought Avid and implemented it myself. I'm not quite sure how this piece of received wisdom became so entrenched. After all, thousands of hit records were made on older TDM systems without delay compensation — where its absence is much more noticeable, because every single plug‑in introduces a delay. On LE systems, it's only a problem where plug‑ins use lookahead, or where audio needs to be routed out to an external processor or DSP card. As far as I'm aware, none of Avid's bundled plug‑ins causes any delay whatsoever, and nor do the majority of third‑party ones, so personally, I've never felt it to be a deal‑breaker.
Still, the Internet is a powerful medium, and delay compensation in native versions of Pro Tools was the number one feature request from users. Avid have duly obliged, and Pro Tools 9 now features the delay compensation engine that was previously available only in HD. It's a tried and tested implementation of the concept, which embraces external hardware as well as plug‑in delays. Plug‑in delay compensation is switched off by default, but a pop‑up menu in the Playback Engine dialogue allows you to select Short (1024‑sample) or Long (4096‑sample) modes. Change the setting and once again you'll have to re‑load your Session, but after that, everything should be fine. To be used as inserts in the mixer, hardware effects have to be attached to the same numbered inputs and outputs, and if you want their delays compensated for, you have to calculate them manually — there's no automated 'pinging' for delays as you find in some other DAWs.
One of the most obvious cases where delay compensation should bring benefits is with DSP plug‑in processing cards such as the Powercore and UAD2. Unfortunately, though, whenever I tried to load a plug‑in from the UAD2 Solo Laptop card on my Windows machine, it caused massive CPU spikes, which made it unusable. This was the case regardless of which audio interface I was using. At the time of writing, the latest version of the UAD2 software (5.7) still uses a wrapper to make its plug‑ins available to Pro Tools, but Universal Audio have announced the development of proper RTAS versions, so hopefully these will make a difference.
Like delay compensation, most of the other 'new' features in the basic Pro Tools 9 have been available in HD for quite a while. That doesn't make them any less of a big deal, though, and together they amount to a massive shot in the arm for Pro Tools as a native system. All of them have been described in detail in previous SOS articles, so I won't go into detail, but here's an outline of what you can expect:
Beat Detective is an automated editing tool for knocking wayward drum performances into shape, and although it's quite long in the tooth now, I've yet to find a better alternative. As it happens, just before the review period I had exactly such a performance that I wanted to conform to a rigid tempo grid. By way of experiment, I held a 'quantise‑off' in Pro Tools 8 between Beat Detective and the newer Elastic Audio functionality, which uses time‑stretching rather than chopping and crossfading. All of the Elastic Audio modes compromised the sound to an unacceptable extent, especially on floor toms. Beat Detective required a bit more manual hand‑holding, but was the clear winner in quality terms. The key here is the multi‑track Collection mode, which was previously available only in HD or by buying the Music Production Toolkit. This allows you to gather together a composite set of 'triggers' — say, from kick and snare drum tracks — and apply them to all your drum tracks simultaneously, thus preserving phase relationships between them. For some reason, the first time I tried this in PT9 it wouldn't let me collect anything, but after that, it worked as expected.
The timecode ruler is a necessity for working with video, and makes basic sound‑to‑picture work possible within Pro Tools 9. For more advanced video work, though, you'll want to add the Complete Production Toolkit 2, which enables HD features such as multiple (up to 64!) video tracks, advanced video editing, and surround sound mixing.
The Complete Production Toolkit 2 also enables VCA groups, a feature derived from large‑format mixing consoles. Assigning a VCA fader to multiple audio tracks in your mix allows you to raise or lower their levels simultaneously with one fader move. You could do this by routing all of their outputs to an auxiliary track, but the VCA approach offers several advantages, perhaps most notably the fact that the wet/dry balance of any tracks with post‑fade aux sends does not change when a VCA fader is moved. The benefits of working in this way may seem subtle at first, but can be substantial in practice. For more on the subject, see Mike Thornton's workshop from September 2008 (/sos/sep08/articles/vcagroups.htm) and Simon Sherbourne's preview of Pro Tools HD 7.2 (/sos/sep06/articles/protools72.htm).
Hand in hand with VCA groups comes a slew of advanced automation features, again available for the first time in a native system thanks to the Complete Production Toolkit 2. These are too many and too complex to describe in full here, but include various useful ways to write multiple layers of automation for a single fader, which can later be 'coalesced' to a single curve, plus support for snapshot automation, where settings for the entire Pro Tools mixer, or any subset of its parameters, can be stored and recalled for individual sections of a Session. Again, most of these features were introduced or updated in Pro Tools HD 7.2, so take a look at Simon's preview for more details; suffice it to say that few DAWs can match the power of Pro Tools in this department.
Several other previously HD‑only inclusions merit a mention. Auto‑scrolling between the Edit and Mix windows is now included in all versions of Pro Tools, making it much easier to keep track of where you are in a large Session. Also included as standard are the more powerful version of the Digibase browser, complete with Catalogs, and the Export Session as Text option. Oh, and remote control of Avid's PRE mic preamps is now universal as well, though I don't suppose there are many of these about in native systems.
Pro Tools 9 is an unusual update, in that nearly all of its 'new' features aren't new at all. Admittedly, support for ASIO and Core Audio is a deal that's about as big as they come, but apart from that, almost everything was already there in HD. It's not hard to think of further additions that might have improved the program for everyone, such as offline bouncing or a 'freeze' function for plug‑ins and instruments, but these will remain the province of rival packages for the time being. Likewise, Pro Tools remains the only major DAW that has not yet been coded natively for 64‑bit operating systems. In practice, this is not an issue unless you need to use large sample libraries, but it probably needs to happen soon.
Nevertheless, by suddenly opening up so much previously HD‑only functionality to native users, Avid have effected the biggest step forward in the history of Pro Tools as a native application. At a stroke, they have removed almost all the frustrations afflicting the many users who wanted or needed to belong to the Pro Tools world, but lacked the budget to go HD. The upgrade to Pro Tools 9 is not cheap, but it is surely worth it: as someone who worked mainly with LE and M‑Powered, I literally jumped for joy when I first saw the feature list, and I can't imagine anyone else in the same position feeling otherwise.
The same is not likely to be true of HD users, though. Unless you want to take advantage of the ability to run a native Pro Tools rig when away from the studio, there's almost nothing in Pro Tools 9 HD that wasn't in 8.1; and let's not forget that many HD users have invested tens of thousands of pounds in Avid hardware over the years. By making almost all HD functionality available in native systems, with third‑party hardware, Avid risk undermining the investment that these loyal customers have made.
For those who have yet to commit to a DAW, meanwhile, Pro Tools 9 changes the landscape completely. Personally, of all the DAWs I've tried, Pro Tools has seemed to me the most intuitive. I do better work in it, and I do it faster. Tastes and working methods vary, but if you too appreciate the simplicity of Pro Tools' two‑window approach and the power of its editing and mixing tools, the fact that you'll be buying into something close to an industry standard could tip the balance. Avid's pricing positions it squarely in the DAW pack: around the same as the full versions of Cubase and Digital Performer and slightly dearer than Logic Pro or Sonar, though if anything, it's perhaps the much cheaper and highly customisable Reaper that can most closely match Pro Tools' functionality. Each of its rivals can boast features that the basic Pro Tools 9 lacks, but the reverse is also true; this is no longer 'crippleware', but a very powerful tool.
While the Core Audio implementation appears pretty solid, ASIO support in Pro Tools 9 still feels a little immature, both in comparison with other applications such as Cubase, and with Avid's own hardware drivers. If you're planning on using a Windows system, check carefully that your preferred audio hardware works properly: the AIR Users' Blog maintains an unofficial list at www.airusersblog.com/pro‑tools‑9‑hardware‑checker/ that may be helpful. But it's already very usable with the right interfaces, and this is such an important and central issue that I'm sure Avid and other manufacturers will be working to improve it. (Focusrite, for example, have already announced that they're working on an RTAS plug‑in that will replicate the Saffire MixControl functionality within Pro Tools.) In other respects, Pro Tools 9 is remarkably free of bugs and teething troubles, because so much of its functionality has already been tried and tested in the HD world.
Having used Pro Tools 9, I'm no longer sceptical about Avid's new corporate openness. In fact, it's exciting to speculate about where it might lead next. VST and Audio Units support? The release of an open RTAS software development kit? Macro support? Full session compatibility with other DAWs? If enough of us say we want it, there's a good chance Avid will implement it. Until then, I'm off for a skate on the River Styx...
Apart from the ability to work with ASIO and Core Audio drivers, the headline features in Pro Tools 9 are not new as such — it's mostly about cascading previously HD‑only features into the native version of the program. However, there are one or two neat additions that weren't in Pro Tools 8, and a couple of them are really useful.
Top of my list is the 'New Track' routing option that appears when you click on a track send or output slot (right). Previously, if you wanted to set up an auxiliary effect or a group bus, you'd have to manually create an Aux track, then assign an input bus to it — and if you wanted to name that input bus, you'd have to visit the I/O Setup window. Now you can do it all in one go. Select New Track, and Pro Tools will not only ask you what sort of track you want to create, but automatically assign an unused bus to it, and rename that bus into the bargain. And, of course, the usual Pro Tools shortcuts apply, so holding down Alt will route all tracks or sends to the new track, and Shift-Alt will route all outputs or sends on selected tracks. So if you want to route all your drum tracks to a stereo auxiliary track, all you need to is select them, hold down Shift and Alt, choose New Track from the pop‑up output selection menu and name the resulting Aux track. Easy peasy. It would be better still if you got the option to automatically solo-safe the new track — perhaps that can be added in a later update.
On the subject of shortcuts, in previous versions of Pro Tools, when you wanted to create a new Playlist on a track, you had to click on a tiny arrow icon in its Edit window track header. Since this is something you need to do often when overdubbing, it was a pain in the neck, and mercifully Avid have now added a keyboard shortcut for 'Create New Playlist on Selected Track'. Goodbye RSI, hello faster working (and the ability to create Playlists from the Mixer window).
Harder to evaluate, but probably more important in the scheme of things, is support for the EuCon protocol. This, as far as Pro Tools users are concerned, is the first fruit of Avid's purchase of Euphonix, and adds welcome new possibilities for hardware control of Pro Tools. Euphonix's well regarded MC Mix and MC Control sit in a largely empty area of the market just above the likes of Avid's Command 8, while their super‑powered System 5 MC is arguably a step up even from Avid's D‑Command and D‑Control. I don't have either, sadly, so was not able to test the EuCon support myself, though I've seen Pro Tools running with a System 5 MC at industry events. EuCon is still an open standard, and although as far as I'm aware there are currently no third‑party controllers that support it, it does offer an interesting alternative to the ageing HUI protocol for other manufacturers. I'm sure it won't be long before there is more choice.
At long last, it's now possible to select different panning laws in Pro Tools (or 'pan depths' as the manual calls them). The default setting in earlier versions of Pro Tools attenuated a mono track by 2.5dB when panned centre; this remains an option, and still seems to be used by all the template Sessions, but Pro Tools 9 defaults to 3dB for blank Sessions, and you can also choose 4.5 and 6dB settings. Expect an avalanche of forum threads saying that Pro Tools 9 "sounds different” to its predecessors.
More specialist improvements include support, in HD and the Complete Production Toolkit 2, for the newish 7.0 and 7.1 surround formats that use side speakers.