You are here

Digidesign Pro Tools 4.0

Digital Audio Software Upgrade By Paul D. Lehrman
Published December 1996

There are now more options on the market than ever before for anyone wishing to indulge in hard disk recording and editing. PAUL D LEHRMAN previews the latest update for the popular Pro Tools system, designed to keep Digidesign on top amidst increasing competition.

Digidesign's latest and greatest version of the software for their signature hard‑disk recording and editing system, Pro Tools 4.0, is scheduled to be released by the time you read this. It's not the revolutionary jump that the last Pro Tools upgrade was — Pro Tools III, you may remember, not only revamped the software but essentially required that you turn in your old hardware for new — but it's a significant step forward for the system, with lots of clever and well‑designed new features. While Pro Tools has always been particularly well regarded for its editing capabilities, the new version improves the system's recording and mixing functions substantially, bringing them closer to the level of its editing, both in sophistication and usability.

I was able to see a late Alpha version of the system, a few weeks before the Los Angeles AES convention, and just before it went into the Beta‑testing stage. There were some instabilities in this version, but all of the new features were up and running, and many are impressive indeed.

Hardware Options

First things first: what do you need to run this software? Well, there are quite a few hardware choices available. Pro Tools 4.0 can run on a Power Mac with no extra hardware at all, using the internal 16‑bit sound. The output will be stereo, but the number of tracks can be 4, 8, or even more, depending on the speed of the CPU and the hard disk. On this platform, the program is fully functional, except that real‑time DSP is not available. The next step up is Digidesign's Audiomedia III card for PCI Macs, which offers better and faster performance but still only two outputs. Then there's the 'Project' card, which used to be known as Session 8, and has eight analogue ins and outs. Finally, to take advantage of everything the program has to offer, you need a full‑blown Pro Tools III system, which starts at eight tracks and goes upwards, and comes equipped with one or more DSP‑farm cards. Both PCI and NuBus versions of Pro Tools III are supported, the latter, says the company, "for some time to come," in case you were worried (which I am). Older Pro Tools systems, however, are not officially supported, although they may still work.

Soft Improvements

The program code for Pro Tools 4.0 has been optimised for Power Macs, so that it runs a lot faster. This is especially apparent in screen redraws of tracks, which seem almost instantaneous, and with on‑screen metering, which now has ballistics remarkably close to a real plasma display (and in three colours!) The improvement is also evident, if not quite as obviously, in other areas, such as DSP crunching and crossfade calculation. On pre‑Power PC Macs, there is also some performance improvement, but it's not nearly as great.

The severe restrictions on file formats in previous versions are gone: Pro Tools 4.0 can read and write audio in Sound Designer II, AIFF, .WAV, SND, and QuickTime Movie formats, using a wide range of sampling rates and word lengths — a welcome development for multimedia producers. Format conversion is automatic when you import a file, and when you perform a conversion, either coming in or going out, you can specify the quality and speed, (which are inversely proportional) of the result.

Probably the most important improvement in the software is the way in which it handles automation. Faders can now be grouped, and groups nested within each other. Up to 26 groups can be set up, and they can be enabled or disabled, individually or globally, without changing their configuration. Moving any fader in a group moves all of them, and they all move proportionately to each other. There are four modes for automation: play only; write; an update mode called Touch, in which the fader reverts (or 'glides') back to the previous level when you let go of it (the glide time is programmable); and Touch Latch, an update mode in which the fader stays put after you've moved it.

Automation can now be applied not just to level and pan, but to any parameter on the screen, whether it's a built‑in function such as EQ, or a third‑party plug‑in. Parameter controls are record‑enabled in just the same way as fader or pan controls. Once you've recorded a parameter change, the track can be displayed as a horizontal line on the edit screen, just like level changes, and can be adjusted in that screen using the 'hand' cursor. In fact, this can be done while the program is playing — it no longer comes to a sudden halt whenever you move anything on the edit screen — and while you're adjusting the parameter, its current value (EQ centre frequency, decay time, delay feedback gain, or whatever) is displayed right next to it. Unfortunately, you can only view one parameter at a time on this screen — maybe that will change in Pro Tools 5.'s a significant step forward for the system...

When automation is being recorded in real time, the program creates a new event every 5ms — which Digidesign say is even faster than an SSL desk. This much data can load down the computer, however, so a 'Thin Automation' function, similar to the 'Thin controllers' function in many MIDI sequencers, is provided. This can be applied automatically after each pass, or used manually. Solos and mutes (which now work instantaneously and intelligently, so that soloing a reverb, for example, doesn't shut off all of the inputs to the reverb!) also have their own automation track.

There's a new 'narrow mix' display mode, in which the faders slim down so that 27 of them will fit onto a 17‑inch screen. This will be helpful to anyone who uses a lot of tracks and wants to see them all. For further slimming of the screen, a 'Show/Hide' window lets you remove tracks that you don't need to see from the screen, while continuing to play them. The Show/Hide window is itself hideable!

In addition to being able to set up automation groups, you can define editing groups, so that slicing and dicing one track can affect all of the others in a group. Groups can overlap each other, and any group can be designated as an edit group, an automation group, or both.

Sound Designer Functionality

The other major change in Pro Tools 4.0 is that destructive editing of files has now been brought inside the Pro Tools environment. Previously, the program was strictly non‑destructive: if you wanted to change an actual sound file, it had to be exported into another program, like Sound Designer II, modified, and then brought back into Pro Tools. Most of Sound Designer's functions are now in Pro Tools, and when you modify a file destructively, it stays right where it was, so you don't have to re‑import anything. (One reason for including these functions is that making Sound Designer compatible with the new PCI machines would have meant rewriting it from scratch — it's a 10‑year‑old program — and Digidesign, understandably, were not too eager to do that!)

There are now five levels of screen height available for each track, the largest one being about the size of a typical Sound Designer window. A new icon has joined the Pro Tools Toolbar: Sound Designer's pencil. When you zoom in on a soundfile far enough, you can redraw the waveform with the pencil.

The destructive audio functions are found in the Process menu; the usual operations, such as normalise, reverse, change level, and so on, are available, and a new function removes any DC offset from a file. When a region is edited, the program gives you the choice of creating a new soundfile or overwriting the old one, but regardless of which you choose there is always an Undo facility available. The Process menu will gain additional functions as third‑party developers modify their Sound Designer and TDM plug‑ins for the new software. This new plug‑in architecture is known as AudioSuite, and it can be used with even the lowliest Power Mac‑only Pro Tools system. A welcome corollary to this feature is that multiple regions, when shift‑selected in the Regions window, can be batch‑processed by any operation in the AudioSuite, in a single stroke.

The playlist feature of Sound Designer has also been brought into Pro Tools 4.0, and up to 99 playlists — that is, different arrangements of audio material — can co‑exist on a single track. This can help when you have several alternative takes of an instrument or vocal in a recording: you can use different playlists with a single set of processing parameters, instead of multiple virtual tracks, each of which needs its own automation, EQ, reverb, etc, and so on.

And There's More...

There's a lot more to Pro Tools 4.0. Regions can be sorted by name, date created, SMPTE time, or other criteria. A true destructive‑record function, which permanently wipes out unwanted takes, has been implemented. You can now draw your own crossfade curves, and a representation of how the resulting waveform looks is displayed as you draw. As I said, lots of clever new stuff. The rest of the features list will have to wait until after the software is released, and we have a chance to dig into it at length. I'll let you know what I come up with!