If the best things in life are free, then perhaps Pro Tools 3.4 is one of them — Digidesign are now giving away this version of their Mac audio recording and editing software. Mike Collins looks a gift horse in the mouth.
Digidesign's Pro Tools is one of the most widely‑used multitrack digital audio editing systems on the planet. Unfortunately, it costs a lot of money to set up a professional Pro Tools system, which will give you between eight and 32 tracks of audio plus almost unlimited virtual tracks depending on your choice of Digidesign audio card and your computer configuration. You can, however, acquire a slightly older version of the Pro Tools software for free direct from Digidesign. The latest version of the 'paid for' version of Pro Tools is now up to 4.1; the version that Digidesign are giving away is 3.4, which will run using either a Mac's native audio hardware or an Audiomedia III card, providing better recording and editing facilities than the audio side of many audio/MIDI sequencers. You can also record MIDI into Pro Tools, but the editing facilities are so basic that you're better off importing a MIDI file to replay from within Pro Tools — or, better still, run a MIDI sequencer on your Mac at the same time as the Pro Tools software, synchronised via OMS.
Pro Tools is based around two main windows — one that looks like a mixing console with faders, pans, mutes, routing controls and insert points, and one that shows the waveforms of the audio in each track for cut‑and‑paste graphic editing. It's largely intuitive, although anyone who is new to using computers for audio will face something of a learning curve.
Obviously Digidesign hope to attract new users who will eventually progress to their fully pro systems based on Pro Tools hardware, which is supported by a huge range of third‑party hardware peripherals and software. The basic operating principles of v3.4 are, however, pretty much the same. Using the Pro Tools software with a PCI PowerMac's built‑in audio facilities (note that Nubus machines can't be used with this software) will get you straight into using the same software interface that the big boys use, and most Power Macs will let you replay enough audio tracks to do serious work. The actual number of tracks varies according to the speed of your CPU and hard disk — from eight tracks with a 75MHz machine up to 16 tracks with 100MHz or faster machines. What you don't get is the ability to run software plug‑ins — big‑league Pro Tools systems have DSP farm cards that allow sophisticated TDM plug‑ins to be run without loading extra work onto the host computer.
Once you start using the software seriously, you may want to consider getting a Digidesign Audiomedia III card, which will give you two tracks of simultaneous recording and eight tracks of replay. The A‑D and D‑A converters on that card are far superior to those on a typical Power Mac and, most importantly, you also get a pair of stereo S/PDIF digital inputs and outputs. Using the digital input, you can synchronise the digital audio to external equipment — which you can't do with the Mac's in‑built audio unless you buy a third‑party digital I/O card from Lucid, Sonorus or others. You can also transfer audio in and out digitally via S/PDIF so you can sample digitally from CD, mix your music onto DAT in the digital domain, or transfer material from DAT into Pro Tools for further editing.
What Can I Do With Pro Tools 3.4?
Because all the MIDI + Audio sequencers on the Mac use Digidesign's SDII file format, you can open files in Pro Tools 3.4 which were originally recorded into Digital Performer, Studio Vision, Cubase VST or Logic Audio — and vice versa. You'll probably find that you can do some clever edits or processing of your audio files in Pro Tools which your sequencer won't do quite as well. Furthermore, if you have a MIDI‑only sequencer, you could record your mixed MIDI tracks as stereo audio into Pro Tools, then overdub guitars or vocals. And if you do have an Audiomedia III card, you can work initially with up to 16 tracks using Digidesign's PowerMix DAE (more of which in a moment), then bounce these down internally to use no more than eight tracks via the Audiomedia III card. Then, for your final mix, you can use the Audiomedia III card at the stage where it matters — transferring your mix out to DAT or whatever via S/PDIF, or using the Audiomedia III's higher‑ than‑Mac‑quality D‑A converters to go on to analogue tape.
What Can'T It Do?
Version 3.4 software is similar to the last available version 3.x release — remember that you're not getting the latest version 4.x Pro Tools software. So you miss out on features like more flexible track grouping and automation, loop recording, 'edit during playback', and AudioSuite plug‑in capability. In fact, there is no plug‑in support at all — you can't use TDM plug‑ins, as TDM requires appropriate hardware, and you also can't use the 3.4 software with any Digidesign hardware other than the Audiomedia III card.
Then there are the limitations of PowerMix DAE, the software interface which lets Pro Tools 3.4 use the Apple Sound Manager to route audio in and out of your Power Mac. This only works at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz, as the Power Macs' hardware doesn't support 48kHz. On‑line operation is also unsupported, meaning you can't trigger Pro Tools from an external SMPTE source.
The Bottom Line
It may not be as sexy as a full Pro Tools 4.1 TDM system, but v3.4 is still immensely useful, and is an ideal introduction to Pro Tools. It's also ideal for Pro Tools III and Pro Tools 24 owners who want smaller, cost‑effective workstations to do some preparatory work away from the main rooms.
For more serious work, consider buying the Digidesign Toolbox for Mac (see box, left), a bundle that includes an Audiomedia III card along with a selection of software including Pro Tools 4.1.1 software, for less than the list price of an Audiomedia III card with just Session software. The Audiomedia card can be synchronised to other digital audio equipment or to picture using an external synchroniser such as the MOTU Digital TimePiece. First‑rate documentation and tutorial material is supplied on the CD‑ROM, so if you want a copy, get onto Digidesign's web site right away and ask for your copy.
Digidesign Toolbox For Mac
Priced at £703.83 including VAT, Digidesign's Toolbox for Mac includes the Audiomedia III PCI card, Pro Tools 4.1.1 software, D‑Fx and D‑Fi plug‑ins, BIAS Peak LE editing software and SFX Machine Lite effects software.
The Audiomedia III card gives you analogue and digital I/O, and has onboard DSP processing with eight bands of real‑time parametric EQ, fully automated mixing for volume and pan, simultaneous
effects send and return, and integration with supported MIDI sequencers. Pro Tools 4.1.1 software features non‑destructive recording and editing, mix automation, and plug‑in support. The D‑Fx AudioSuite plug‑ins include Reverb, Chorus, Flanger, Multi‑tap Delay and Ping‑Pong Delay, while the D‑Fi AudioSuite plug‑ins include Lo‑Fi, Sci‑Fi, Recti‑Fi and Vari‑Fi which let you create grungy, warped and other retro sounds. BIAS Peak LE is stereo recording, editing and processing software which is ideal for mastering, editing and multimedia/internet audio content creation, supporting a range of file formats including AIFF, SDII, WAV and Real Audio. BIAS SFX Machine Lite features 20 multi‑effects presets for use with BIAS Peak.
You can also run the Pro Tools 4.1.1 software with PowerMix DAE, using your PowerMac's in‑built audio circuitry to provide up to 16 tracks of playback. System requirements for this include a minimum 48Mb of RAM with Mac OS 7.6.1 or higher.
Supported Cpu Models & Speeds
The following CPU models and speeds are supported by Pro Tools 3.4 with Powermix:
|Power Macintosh 9600||up to 233MHz|
|Power Macintosh 9600mp||up to 233MHz|
|Power Macintosh 9500||all speeds|
|Power Macintosh 9500mp||all speeds|
|Power Macintosh 8600mp||up to 200MHz|
|Power Macintosh 8500||all speeds|
|Power Macintosh 8200||all speeds|
|Power Macintosh 7600||all speeds|
|Power Macintosh 7500||all speeds (eight tracks only)|
|Power Macintosh 7200||all speeds (eight tracks only)|
|Performa 6400||all speeds|
|PowerBook 3400||all speeds (only works with PowerMix)|
|Power Tower Pro||all speeds|
|Power Center||all speeds|
|UMAX s900L||all speeds|
- Mac OS 7.5.3 or higher (note that Mac OS 8.1 is not currently supported by any Digidesign software).
- 24Mb minimum RAM (additional RAM is required for simultaneous use with MIDI sequencers, and Virtual Memory is not supported).
- A suitable Digidesign‑approved SCSI disk drive and a 17‑inch or larger monitor are recommended.
- It's free!
- Very useful on its own or in conjunction with a MIDI + Audio sequencer.
- A good way to learn the Pro Tools interface and to see what all the fuss is about.
- Only works on PCI PowerMacs, not NuBus models.
This is too good an opportunity to miss if you have a PCI Mac. Shame about the PC users!