What could be more tempting than a sweet-sounding virtual analogue synth? How about that same synth bundled with a bunch of high-quality plug-ins targeted at music production?
Having established Pro Tools as the industry-standard tool for multitrack audio recording and editing, Digidesign's development over the last couple of years has focused on musicians and programmers. Pro Tools 7 added lots of new MIDI functions, as well as Instrument tracks, which provide an elegant new way of incorporating soft synths into a Session. Now, the company's takeover of Wizoo has added another string to their bow. The German developers have been transformed into Digi's 'Advanced Instrument Research' department, and the first fruits of their work are two new software instruments, Xpand! and Hybrid. Both are native plug-ins that are available for TDM, LE and M-Powered systems on Mac and PC, though as they are only available in RTAS format, they won't work with other hosts besides Pro Tools.
Xpand! is intended to be free to all Pro Tools users, although since it's too large to be easily downloaded, you might need to pay a nominal sum for Digi to send out the CD. It is, in essence, a virtual workstation sound module, designed to provide a good basic library of bread-and-butter patches covering both real and synthetic sounds, without allowing the user to get too tangled up in complex editing. Hybrid, by contrast, is not free, and has no truck with samples: it's a full-blown three-oscillator subtractive synth offering comprehensive editability, with elements of wavetable and FM synthesis thrown in.
Hybrid (above) is available as a product in its own right, but many potential buyers with LE and M-Powered systems will be tempted by the new Music Production Toolkit bundle. This includes Hybrid along with four other plug-ins: Digidesign's Smack! compressor, Broadband Noise Reduction LE, Sound Replacer and TL Labs' TL Space convolution reverb. In addition, it ups the audio track count available in LE and M-Powered versions of Pro Tools to 48, and adds the full multitrack version of the Beat Detective drum-fixing tool that was previously available only in TDM systems. At £295, the Music Production Toolkit looks excellent value, and as none of the elements have previously been reviewed in SOS, I'll look at them all in this review.
Before that, though, let's take a quick look at Xpand! (below). It's strange that while the likes of Logic and Cubase are bundled with weird and wonderful soft synths offering everything from analogue emulation to physically modelled bells made out of cheese, no-one has yet thought to include a conventional sound module. After all, if there's one thing that everyone needs to get started, it's a collection of basic sounds such as drums, keyboards, strings and basses, so full marks to Digi for making Xpand! a free part of the Pro Tools environment.
What are those basic sounds like? Well, it's fair to say that anyone who's ever used Steinberg's Hypersonic soft synth will be on familiar territory here — in fact, large sections of the sample library appear to have been taken wholesale from that product, which was of course designed by Wizoo. That means there are some decent, if not exceptional sounds in most categories, with drums, percussion, basses, keyboard and mallet instruments all well represented. There are a few nice individual orchestral instruments, but the string and brass patches are generally underwhelming. There are also plenty of synthetic sounds, many of which are very usable, but in this department, the lack of editing on offer can become frustrating.
Hypersonic was designed to work in host programs that support multiple outputs from soft synths, and offered 16 'slots' on separate MIDI channels, each of which could be routed to one of four stereo outputs. Pro Tools doesn't support multiple outputs, so Xpand! is basically designed to be triggered from a single channel. If you want to use it for bass and drums and keyboards, say, you'll have to use three instances on separate tracks. Each instance allows you to layer up to four elements, though, so you can stack sounds or combine the various elements of a drum kit into a single Xpand! patch. Each element has its own arpeggiator, too.
A basic mixer is used to balance the levels and pan position of the four elements, and to send to the two global effects, but there's no facility for insert effects to apply to individual elements. And, of coure, the fact that every element in an instance of Xpand! shares the same output means you can't apply effects to an individual element in the Pro Tools mixer, either. This isn't a problem in most cases, but is annoying with drum kits, where you might want to process the snare or kick separately.
Editing for each element consists of six Smart Knobs. Just like the Hyperknobs in Hypersonic, these are hard-wired to whichever parameters or groups of parameters are deemed most important for that sound. With a synth patch, for instance, they might control attack, release, cutoff, resonance and so on. Where a sound is already fairly close to being right, the knobs usually provide enough flexibility to get it closer. You can also use the mod wheel and aftertouch to make parameter changes in real time, but this isn't the sort of synth where you can create new sounds from scratch. Still, whatever its limitations, it integrates nicely into Pro Tools and it's a whole lot better than nothing — so at the price, we can hardly complain.
There's no direct alternative to the Music Production Toolkit, because no third-party plug-in can extend Pro Tools ' track count or Beat Detective functionality. If those aspects aren't crucial to you, however, you could consider McDSP's Project Studio bundle, which includes the Revolver convolution reverb, the Compressor Bank suite of vintage plug-in emulations and the Synthesizer One virtual analogue synth, plus powerful EQ and amp modelling plug-ins. Alternatively, of course, you could mix and match plug-ins from different manufacturers, though this might not be so cost-effective.
If you're just considering Hybrid, Arturia's Prophet V is perhaps the closest among many competitors, combining the functionality of the analogue Prophet 5 with the Prophet VS's wavetable synthesis.
Though it's a rather different kettle of sonic fish, Hybrid bears a recognisable visual resemblance to Xpand!, with similar virtual knobs surrounded by luminous position indicators. Along with all the controls that affect specific parameters, there are also four Morph knobs, which again recall the Hyperknobs in Hypersonic. Each Morph knob can modify multiple Hybrid parameters in different directions and amounts, thus allowing you to change multiple aspects of a sound with a single twist of the mouse. The difference, compared to Xpand! and Hypersonic, is that the assignment of parameters to Morph knobs is completely controllable by the user.
The basic architecture of Hybrid is that of a well-specified subtractive synth, although there are nods to other synthesis methods too. Two main oscillators are supported by a simpler third unit, which is mainly designed to produce sub frequencies and noise. There are some interesting innovations in the design of the two main oscillators, and one or two curious omissions — oddly, neither can produce a sine or triangle wave, but each offers three variants on a sawtooth waveform, three based on a square or pulse wave, and a wavetable option.
The clever thing about the saw and pulse options is that they enable you to achieve oscillator sync and cross-modulation without tying up another oscillator to use as a modulator. In essence, each of the two main oscillators has a hidden second oscillator dedicated to this purpose, and when you select the CM or Sync versions of a saw or square waveform, the Wave Shape control determines the pitch ratio between that and the hidden waveform. This is a neat idea, which enables you to create all those classic 'tearing' sync leads and groaning cross-modulated noises with no effort at all.
The third square-wave option is a classic PWM waveform, with the Wave Shape control determining pulse width, while the final sawtooth-based waveform is Saw Multi. Like the Supersaw waveform in Roland's JP8000, this consists of several sawtooths stacked on top of one another, with the Wave Shape control setting a detune amount between them. Finally, the Wavetable option provides access to 100 wavetables, each containing 64 single-cycle waveforms; the Wave Shape control adjusts the playback position within the wavetable. You can't import your own wavetables.
There's only a single filter, but Digi are rightly proud of it. It offers all the usual high-, low- and band-pass responses, plus various settings that combine different high- and low-pass slopes. It has its own envelope and a Keytrack control, but the neatest part of it is the Saturation slider. Ramping this up causes your clean sounds to distort in a convincingly 'analogue' fashion; the effect varies from subtle warmth through to something akin to a broken speaker, but is never fizzy, and always sounds like it's part of the sound rather than being stuck on. With the exception of Sound Toys' peerless Filter Freak plug-in, I don't think I've heard a better recreation of this effect.
Clicking on the little tabs next to the oscillator and filter controls shows their modulation options instead. The most intriguing options here are to do with Hybrid 's FM capabilities. Unusually, these apply not to the oscillators but to the filter, the idea being that you ramp up the resonance to drive it into self-oscillation and then use Oscillator 3 to modulate the cutoff frequency at audio rates. Unsurprisingly, the results don't bear that much resemblance to the tinkly bells and ballad pianos one associates with traditional FM synthesis, which has got to be a good thing. Instead, there's a fair amount of noise and distortion on the menu, especially when you introduce noise as a modulation source. In fact, the main problem I found with this implementation of FM is that when used at full bore, the results need another filter to tame them! However, the FM capabilities are very useful for adding a dirty edge to sounds that are otherwise too clean, or in conjunction with Hybrid 's envelopes, for creating short bursts of noise to reinforce note attacks.
On the subject of envelopes, Hybrid is well equipped with modulation sources. Two of the four envelopes are hard-wired to the filter and amplifier, and all four are available as modulation sources elsewhere. Three sync'able LFOs offer all the usual waveforms with the handy addition of Random and Drift, which are akin to smoothed sample & hold waveforms. If you want to reproduce the slight instabilities inherent in the sound of a true analogue synthesizer, you can achieve a lot by using one of these waveforms to subtly modulate oscillator pitch, wave shape and so on. One thing you can't do, however, is delay the onset of LFO modulation, so that vibrato fades in on sustained notes.
I would also take issue with the way LFOs and envelopes are edited. You can click to enter precise numeric values from the keyboard, but I imagine most people will prefer the alternative of dragging the breakpoints in the graphical representation. The trouble is that it's hard to be precise enough using this method, because the graphic displays are small and the range of the envelopes is huge, so dragging by a couple of pixels seems to take your attack time from 10 milliseconds to 30 seconds. According to the manual, it should also be possible to control these parameters using a mouse scroll wheel, but it didn't work with the pad controller on my laptop.
I must admit that I've never really seen the point in building a sequencer into a plug-in that is itself running in a sequencer. If you do, though, you're unlikely to be disappointed by Hybrid 's step sequencer and arpeggiator. Clicking the Seq tag switches the plug-in's entire window around so that you see the controls, most of which pertain to the sequencer. You make the arpeggiator or sequencer active by choosing a Mode from the pop-up menu at the top left. Some of these settings are very basic: for example, the Up, Down, Up+Down and Random choices simply cycle through the notes in whatever chord is being held down in the order you'd expect. The Phrase option uses a MIDI file as a basis for the arpeggiation; lots of preset phrases are provided, and you can import any Standard MIDI File. However, you can't drag and drop MIDI Regions from the Edit window or Region List, which would be much more convenient.
The other Modes relate to the Step Sequencer, which offers control of up to five parameters over 16 steps. Note pitch and velocity can be specified for each step, along with two control parameters and a gate. A set of performance controls allow you to tell Hybrid the rate at which the sequencer should run, and how much swing should be applied. Disappointingly, there doesn't seem to be any way to save sequencer patterns independently of Hybrid patches, but it is possible to transfer patterns between patches.
Copying sequencer patterns is made possible by the fact that each instance of Hybrid actually contains two identical synth engines: all of the features I've described above are available twice, in 'A' and 'B' versions. Saving a preset using the standard Pro Tools plug-in settings window saves all parameters for both, but Hybrid also has its own preset system which stores the settings for a single synth engine. Visiting the Presets page allows you to load a stored patch into either the 'A' or 'B' engine. You can also copy all the settings between the two, or just those pertaining to the sequencer. Some of the basic editing controls for both engines are reproduced on the Presets page so that you can make quick adjustments without having to flick back to the main edit window.
This all seems to work, but I'm not quite sure what it offers that couldn't be achieved more simply by running two instances of the same plug-in, and dispensing with the two-level preset architecture. Given that Digi have developed this dual-engine approach, moreover, I think they've missed a trick by not extending the morph system to allow you to morph between different patches loaded into the two engines.
Finally, we should pay a quick visit to the Common and Effects pages. The former groups together the usual portamento, retriggering and mono/poly options, and allows you to assign and detune up to eight unison voices to each synth engine for a thicker sound; for some reason, though, switching Unison on for an engine forces it to play monophonically, which isn't always what you want.
Building effects into a plug-in soft synth is, in my view, nearly as pointless as building a sequencer in, given that most users will have a range of dedicated plug-ins available to do the job rather better. Be that as it may, Hybrid offers two insert effects for each synth engine, plus global chorus, delay and reverb. The choice of insert effects is impressive — there are well over 40 options, covering the usual reverbs, delays and modulation effects, as well as the less usual bit reduction, pitch-shift, rotary speakers and so on. Most of them sound pretty good, which only reinforces the feeling that I'd rather have them available as separate plug ins.
So much for Hybrid 's features. What does it sound like? Strangely, the synth that it most calls to mind for me, both visually and sonically, is the Waldorf A1 plug-in bundled with Steinberg's Cubase SX. However, that shouldn't be taken as a criticism, partly because A1 is a very under-rated synth and mainly because Hybrid is vastly more powerful and versatile. It's excellent for basses and leads, and good for strange pads and atmospheres, although things like synth strings don't seem to come as naturally. In general, if you want things punchy and brash, Hybrid is likely to excel. If you prefer them delicate and ethereal, it's not so good. This is partly because all the waveforms available at the two main oscillators are so harmonically rich; the main difficulty I had programming Hybrid was in getting the filter to close enough to eliminate these harmonics. Even with the cutoff knob at zero, it only takes a small amount of filter envelope to make things over-bright, and I'd have preferred to have finer control at this end of the scale.
That apart, there's a lot to like about Hybrid. The clever oscillator design definitely speeds up programming, there's an impressive lack of aliasing and zipper noise, and reproducing the engaging instabilities of a true analogue synth is easier than on any other virtual design I've tried. If you already own and like one of the many other virtual analogue synths on the market, Hybrid won't add a huge amount to your armoury, but if you don't, it should definitely be in the running for a place in your plug-in folder.
Digidesign introduced their Smack! compressor quite a while ago, and it's proved deservedly popular despite the name (what next, the Crystal Meth de-esser?). It has a slick retro-styled front panel that recalls vintage gear from the likes of Fairchild, but offers a more versatile selection of controls than you'd expect from most hardware units. There's no threshold control — you simply mess with the input level and ratio until you get the amount of gain reduction you want. This is indicated on a large virtual VU. The ratio is a stepped control which goes from 2:1 up to 'Smack!', which is hard limiting. Annoyingly, though, the attack and release controls are simply numbered from 0 to 10 rather than being calibrated in milliseconds. It may look more retro that way, but it's not as informative.
There are actually three different types of compression available. The Normal, Warm and Opto settings emulate different hardware circuits, and the differences between them are more apparent as you crank Smack! harder. Normal and Warm modes are based on an FET circuit, the difference being that the latter's release time incorporates a programme-dependent element; it also seemed to me to have slower attack times. In Opto mode, the attack and release controls are greyed out, and you're restricted to the fixed, slow time constants. Another control switches in various flavours of harmonic distortion, again attempting to incorporate some of that old-time feeling. The effect is pretty subtle on most sources, but can add a pleasing burr to instruments like bass guitar.
Overall, Smack! is a very useful and musical compressor, and I think everyone doing pop or rock music will find a place for it in their mixes. In Normal mode, the attack time goes down to around 100 microseconds, making it an effective 1176-style limiter. It's also particularly good as a buss compressor, whether over a drum submix or an entire mix, and it's easy to get satisfying pumping effects out of it if that's your bag.
The various elements of the Music Production Toolkit are authorised to an iLok key in the usual way. Note, however, that you need to upgrade your version of Pro Tools to 7.1 in order to use either the Toolkit or the Hybrid synth.
Having bought up both Wizoo and Trillium Lane Labs in the last year, Digidesign have found themselves in possession of two different convolution reverbs. Both of them have unique selling points: as well as being capable of true surround operation, Wizoo's design allows you to blend algorithmic and convolution reverbs within a single patch, while TLL's TL Space is notable for being the only convolution reverb that runs on Accel DSP chips, thanks to its clever bridging technology. Since the Music Production Toolkit is only available for LE and M-Powered systems, though, the version included here runs as a conventional RTAS host-powered plug-in. As such, it does pretty much the same as all convolution plug-ins; there's no must-have feature that separates it from the likes of Audio Ease's Altiverb, or indeed Wizoo's W2, but it's easy to use and offers a sensible amount of control.
TL Space designates the first portion of the impulse response as 'early reflections', and offers separate controls for this section and for the rest of the reverb tail. Naturally, these aren't as comprehensive as you might find on a typical modelling reverb, but they enable as much shaping of the impulse response as you're likely to need. Both elements of the reverb can be panned independently, if you're using a stereo-out configuration. The Length slider tells TL Space how much of the start of the impulse response should be considered early reflections, and the Size parameter scales the apparent dimensions of this space up or down.
The other controls are grouped in two pages under the headings Reverb and Decay. Parameters in the former list include a two-band EQ, stereo Width and an intriguing Reverse slider. The default setting for this is Off, and its other positions are calibrated in beats per minute, the idea being that you can create a reverse reverb that syncs to your Session tempo. The Decay page allows you to divide the impulse response into low, mid and high-frequency bands at user-definable crossover points, then adjust the decay time of each band independently. There's also a global decay time parameter, and you can set the relative levels of dry and wet signals, and the balance of early and late reflections. Both elements of the reverb can also be pre-delayed by user-definable amounts.
Clicking on the double arrow at the top right of the screen opens up TL Space 's browser, where impulse responses are categorised in a tree structure using folders. True-stereo operation is supported. The main display can be set to show either a waveform view of the IR, with the early-reflections portion highlighted in a lighter colour, or a JPEG-format image illustrating the space that was sampled. The Edit button brings up a pop-up menu allowing you to import audio files and IR libraries in all common formats. This all works fine, as far as I can see, but the menu itself is infuriating: if you simply click and let go, it automatically selects the first option, which is to open a web browser and attempt to download IRs from the Digidesign site.
To a large extent, convolution reverbs stand or fall on the supplied impulse responses, and TL Space 's library is pretty good. There are some particularly nice plates and springs, and it's strong on special effects and post-production sounds. I would have welcomed more ordinary rooms and ambience patches, but there are plenty of third-party options available if you need these.
One neat feature is that in addition to the IR library and Digidesign's own plug-in librarian, TL Space also supports up to 10 snapshots. Each of these includes an impulse response plus all reverb settings, and you can switch between snapshots on the fly. Snapshot switching can be automated, making it possible to step through up to 10 different reverbs within one Session from a single instance of TL Space. This will probably be of more use to post-production users than musicians, but it's still a nice touch.
My main reservation about TL Space is that on my machine, some settings seemed to produce unexpected spikes in processor use, causing Pro Tools to deliver its 'You are running out of CPU power' warning. Convolution is always demanding on CPU resources, but this was happening when it really should not have, in small Sessions without any other demanding plug-ins. In general, a single mono-to-stereo instance of TL Space would use perhaps 25 percent of CPU resources on my Windows laptop, but I sometimes found that adjusting a control would send it through the roof, and I'd have to turf out that instance of TL Space and reload it. However, this only happened occasionally, and not often enough to make me not want to use it! If you don't already have a convolution reverb, TL Space is a fine example, and is excellent value as part of the Music Production Toolkit.
If there's one instrument that causes more recording headaches than any other, it's the drums, and the popularity of Pro Tools as a music recording package has a lot to do with its tools for dealing with iffy drum recordings. Two features in particular have rescued countless records from the horrors of inconsistent timing and inadequate drum tuning (or ruined countless records by sucking the humanity out of a living, breathing drum part, depending on your point of view). Beat Detective and Sound Replacer are the weapons in question, but they haven't always been available to all Pro Tools users. BD was TDM-only for many years, before it was finally incorporated into LE versions in the Pro Tools 6.7 update; and even then, the LE version lacked some of the capabilities of the full version. Sound Replacer, on the other hand, has always been a cost option.
The Music Production Toolkit includes the Sound Replacer Audiosuite plug-in, and extends the Beat Detective capabilities of Pro Tools LE and M-Powered to the full multitrack feature set found in Pro Tools TDM.
However, it's been some time since Sound Replacer came on to the market, and it's beginning to show its age. This is partly apparent in the way it looks, with its Mac OS 8-derived icons and scroll bars, and partly in its functionality, which has been surpassed by some of the third-party alternatives that are now available or promised. (Shortly before they were taken over by Digidesign, TL Labs announced a sophisticated drum replacement plug-in called TL Drum Rehab, so it's possible that this will supersede Sound Replacer in Digi's product line at some point.) Of course, that's not to say that it isn't invaluable in the right circumstances.
To use Sound Replacer, you select your source Region in the Edit window and choose SR from the Audiosuite plug-in menu. Clicking the Update button loads that Region into the waveform display in the centre. This can't be resized, and you have to wait for it to update every time you scroll or zoom, which gets old extremely fast. You can divide the source audio into up to three 'velocity' zones by dragging the yellow, red and blue sliders down until vertical lines appear over the drum hits, the idea being to catch all the wanted hits whilst excluding hi-hat spill and the like. Clicking on the floppy disk icon (I told you it looked dated) beneath each slider opens an Explorer/Finder window allowing you to select the audio file that will be used to replace any hit in that zone. Various other options let you change the way hits are detected, reduce the dynamic contrast in the replacement part, mix the replaced sounds with the original audio and choose whether to crossfade hits that are close enough to overlap. You can also choose to place the replacement Region onto a different track, which is useful.
This all works, and with a little bit of trial and error and some adequate drum samples, you can get good results fairly quickly. However, it's not hard to spot ways in which Sound Replacer could be improved. At the top of my wish list would be the ability to use it to create a MIDI part rather than an audio file. This might not have the same sample-accurate timing, but it would be vastly more flexible. In conjunction with a software sampler it would allow you to audition sounds much more easily and to use as many layers of samples as you like, and any false triggers or missing hits could easily be edited by hand. Other improvements I'd like to see include support for dragging and dropping samples from the Region List onto the sliders, and the ability to create, delete and move hitpoints by clicking and dragging in the waveform display. The icing on the cake would be some sort of frequency-conscious hitpoint detection, which might make it easier to isolate, say, all the kick drum hits in cases where spill is really a problem.
By contrast, Beat Detective is still one of the most advanced tools available for detecting and modifying timing in recorded audio. It has been repeatedly improved in recent Pro Tools updates, and the latest version incorporates the ability to work in identical fashion on MIDI and audio tracks; if you want, you can derive a groove template from an audio Region and apply it in the MIDI Quantise dialogue, which is pretty useful. The use of Beat Detective has been covered several times before in SOS, notably in August 2003 and July 2005, so I won't describe it in depth here.
Installing the Music Production Toolkit expands Beat Detective LE to the full functionality available in the TDM version, the main difference being that it works across multiple tracks. This makes it possible to apply the same timing edits simultaneously to any number of audio and MIDI Regions, which is vital if you want to preserve phase relationships between tracks in a multi-miked kit. It also opens up the sophisticated Collection Mode. In a nutshell, this allows you to analyse multiple audio or MIDI tracks, with different settings, and combine the results to create a single tempo map or groove template. This is really handy when you have a drum kit recorded with multiple mics, along with percussion overdubs and so on, and you want to combine elements of the timing information from several of them. You might, for instance, want to collect the triggers from your kick and snare tracks as a basic backbeat, before adding extra triggers from a 16th-note hi-hat part. Handy.
There's one more plug-in at the bottom of Digidesign's goodie-bag, but it seems a slightly odd inclusion in a package aimed at musicians. Broadband Noise Reduction LE has been taken from the DINR plug-in suite, and Digi say that it's intended for suppressing 'unwanted elements such as tape hiss, air conditioner rumble and microphone preamp noise'. My Pro Tools system has never suffered from tape hiss, strangely, and you don't have to spend too much these days to ensure that your mic preamps are adequately noise-free. Ambient noise such as computer whines and hums can be more of a problem for musicians recording to DAWs, but as always, prevention is better than attempting to cure these with plug-ins. In fact, the only time I can ever recall using noise-reduction software in a music-production context is to clean up samples taken from vinyl, and BNR doesn't include the de-clicking and de-crackling tools you need for that.
Like Sound Replacer, it's also looking a bit yellowed around the edges in this day and age. The version supplied here is off-line only, and in fact the Preview function wouldn't work in my system, so I couldn't even audition the results before applying the process. It's not a bad plug-in by any means, but trying to remove computer noise from a delicate acoustic guitar or vocal part is asking too much of it, and I rarely found that the benefits outweighed the side-effects.
There are two further features included in the Music Production Toolkit. One is the MP3 Option, which allows you to export audio Regions or bounce your mixes as MP3 files. It's an obvious and sensible inclusion in this package, though it's a shame it doesn't also let you import MP3s to Pro Tools. The other feature is a relaxation on the limited number of audio tracks you can have in an LE or M-Powered Session. Previously, you could have up to 128 mono or stereo tracks, but were limited to 32 mono Voices to play them back. This meant that, in effect, you could have 32 mono or 16 stereo tracks, plus a nearly unlimited number of inactive virtual tracks. With the Music Production Toolkit, you can still have up to 128 tracks, but 48 of them can now be active. However, it doesn't make a distinction between mono and stereo, so you can in fact have the equivalent of 96 Voices active if all your 48 tracks are stereo. Using high sample rates doesn't restrict the track count, so depending on the configuration you choose for your Session, you can now run up to 48 stereo tracks at up to 96kHz. The higher track counts achievable with the Music Production Toolkit are only supported by Digidesign under certain conditions, which you'll need a fast computer and multiple hard drives to meet, but even on my 7200rpm laptop hard drive I could play back 48 mono tracks at 44.1kHz without any problems at all.
The increase in track count for LE versions of Pro Tools is long overdue, but to my mind, Digidesign are exhibiting a bit of a cheek by making it part of a cost option. I can't think of a single other native DAW that still places this sort of arbitrary restriction on the number of audio tracks you can use in a project. Digi's argument has always been that they kept the restriction in place because they wanted to guarantee a certain level of performance. Now, however, they seem to be admitting what everyone else already knew — that modern computers are capable of recording or playing back far more than 32 mono tracks — so it seems mean that they haven't made this functionality available to every Pro Tools LE and M-Powered user.
At £295, the Music Production Toolkit is slightly more expensive than Pro Tools M-Powered itself (the LE versions, of course, are only available bundled with Digidesign hardware), which gives you some idea of the relative value Digi place on the two products. It offers a huge saving over buying the component parts separately, and to my mind, it's a well thought-out bundle that represents good value for money, as long as it doesn't duplicate plug-ins you already own — diminishing returns set in pretty fast when you start buying more than one convolution reverb. It's also competitively priced by comparison with third-party products. For instance, the entire bundle costs a lot less than Waves's IR1, a bit less than Audio Ease's Altiverb, and slightly more than Wizoo's W2 — but as well as the reverb, you're also getting a top-class compressor, a very nice virtual analogue synth and several other invaluable tools.
The Music Production Toolkit is not available to Pro Tools HD owners, but the Hybrid synth is sold separately as a £150 stand-alone product for both HD and LE systems. At this price, it's perhaps not quite such impressive value as the Toolkit, but it's still very much worth investigating: more flexible than dedicated vintage emulations such as NI's Pro 53, it sounds just as good, and in some ways it's easier to use, because its interface is not trying to recreate a 25-year-old front panel. I'm not sure it quite has the magic something that sets an instrument apart as truly special, but I've already used Hybrid on almost all the projects I've started since installing it, and it's always come up with the goods.
- Good value for money.
- Hybrid is a very nice virtual analogue synth, and if you don't already have one, should fulfil almost all your requirements in this area.
- Likewise, Smack! and TL Space are great: Music Production Toolkit owners are unlikely to need another convolution reverb or vintage-style compressor.
- The Music Production Toolkit is the only way to get full Beat Detective functionality and 48-track support in LE versions of Pro Tools.
- Pro Tools LE and M-Powered should support 48 tracks as standard, not as a cost option.
- Though it's still useful, Sound Replacer is looking pretty dated and could benefit from new features.
- BNR seems a little out of place in this bundle.
Digidesign's Music Production Toolkit is an aggressively priced and feature-packed bundle that will genuinely meet the needs of many producers. As a stand-alone product, the Hybrid synth is also well worth a look.
Music Production Toolkit £295; Hybrid £150. Prices include VAT.
Digidesign UK +44 (0)1753 655999.
+44 (0)1753 658501.