Intro from Jay Allison: Pro Tools divides producers. Some love it for its legacy standing, ubiquity, and complexity. Others hate it for the same reasons. It’s true there are good alternatives now, and cheaper too, but Pro Tools still has an important place in the public radio world. (Many of us got hooked when they gave it away for free. Good move.) Jeff Towne has done his typically thorough job evaluating the latest version—Pro Tools v10. His Transom test is chock full of insider tips and tricks just for the radio crowd. Either you have Pro Tools and want to fathom more of its depths, or you’re thinking of buying it and wondering if you should spring for the cash. Either way, check out Jeff’s review.
From Jeff Towne
Audio producers have gained several new viable choices in digital audio editing software in the past few years. We at Transom got on the Pro Tools bandwagon long ago, starting when Digidesign (now AVID) offered a surprisingly powerful Pro Tools Free. The free version was phased-out, but their basic-level package, Pro Tools LE, remained a fairly affordable entry into sophisticated audio editing.
Pro Tools has become something of a standard in radio production. It’s common in professional and semi-pro studios, making it a good choice for interactive work: sessions can easily be shared and tweaked, allowing collaborations among several producers and editors, even when they’re on different continents. It’s powerful, versatile, and scalable from small, personal projects to large professional multi-media work.
Pro Tools has made incremental changes in each version upgrade, but the Pro Tools 9 and 10 transformations are more dramatic. They’re expensive upgrades, so the question is: are they worth it? Here is the lowdown on Pro Tools 10 new features, including:
- Audio Interface: Choose One or None
- Playback Engine: Outboard or Built-In
- Clip Gain: New Volume Controls and Views
- Fades: Now no fade files
- Pro Tools Plug-ins: New Features & Formats
- Pro Tools Export (OMF/AAF): Share Sessions with Other Software
Pro Tools 10 has a higher cost of entry than Pro Tools LE used to. The full version is $700, and does not include a hardware interface (as old Pro Tools LE packages did). At press time, MBox Mini/Pro Tools 9 bundles are still available for just over $600, reportedly including a free software Pro Tools 10 upgrade — but I’m not sure those packages will be offered for long. An upgrade to Pro Tools 10 from a qualifying Pro Tools LE or M-Powered version 8 or lower (but NOT systems bought long ago with the original M-Box) is $400. The upgrade price from Pro Tools 9 to Pro Tools 10 is $300. There are some educational discounts, but in general, upgrades are a pricey proposition.
Also, Pro Tools 9 and 10 require the use of an iLok USB dongle for software copyright-protection. An iLok will run you $50, or, if you already have one, you can add the Pro Tools authorization via your existing iLok account.
The good news is that, as of Pro Tools 9, the iLok is the only hardware you need. Pro Tools is no longer tethered to proprietary audio hardware: you can use an external audio interface to get sound in and out of your computer, but you don’t have to anymore. Plus, you may now choose from a wide variety of USB or Firewire devices, not only those made by AVID. The big change though is: you can now use the built-in sound of your computer — no external box at all. Finally we’re able to edit on a laptop without dragging an interface along. (Again, the iLok is still required, and, though small, it does stick out of your USB port — something of an inconvenient appendage.)
Radio production often starts with importing sound files, rather than real-time recording, so this no-interface solution is appealing. You’ll still want an outboard interface if you’re recording directly into your computer: the built-in audio inputs on most computers are not high quality. So if you’ll be connecting a microphone to your computer, you’re better off with a good-quality external audio interface. Also for playback, the Digital-to-Analog conversion and general audio circuitry is better in most external interfaces than any computer’s built-in sound. Critical listening while mixing is easier with a quality interface.
You might even get some more use out of your old M-Box, depending on how old it is. The 2nd and 3rd Generation models will generally work (not the original M-Box: that was phased-out a few upgrades ago.) But you’ll have to get Avid’s latest drivers — they’re not included in Pro Tools installer — it’s not clear why not, since it would make it easier for their long-time customers. The AVID website lists compatibility information on hardware, software and drivers for Windows and for Mac.
Playback Engine Selection
This new flexibility of interface hardware options also brings a new choice. Previously, you would choose from a smaller number of “Playback Engines” (i.e., the required Digidesign or M-Audio hardware). Now you’ll need to make sure to configure Pro Tools to communicate with whatever interface(s) you use. Switching between different configurations can be dizzying, and convincing Pro Tools to acknowledge the correct interface is occasionally a chore. Sometimes Pro Tools won’t even start, complaining that it can’t find the playback engine you last used.
The not-obvious control panel to address these issues is in the Setup menu, but it’s not Hardware, or Peripherals, or I/O, rather it’s Setup>>Playback Engine. Select that dialog; then choose the device you’d like to use for input and output. If it doesn’t show up there, make sure you’ve loaded drivers for it (not all devices require this).
If you choose a new playback engine, Pro Tools will save, close, and re-open your session, and you should be good to go. But if you’re not seeing an input signal or getting playback through the selected device, you may also need to do some adjustments to the Setup>>I/O window.
If Pro Tools hangs up during start-up — posting an error message about an unavailable audio engine, or claiming to be unable to operate at some normal sample rate — try starting Pro Tools while holding down the N key. Eventually you’ll get a window asking you to pick your audio engine. Select the device you want to use for input and output. Even if you ultimately want to use some other device, you might try picking the built-in input on the computer, just to get it up and running, then go to the Set-up>>Playback engine menu and switch it to the correct device afterward.
Despite those complications, being able to connect to the audio interface of your choice, such as a USB mic or Firewire-enabled mixer, is a big step forward for Pro Tools. And it’s liberating working with no interface at all, especially while traveling or doing preliminary work outside a formal studio or office.
Another major innovation is Clip Gain. Now any clip (what Pro Tools used to call a region) can have its gain adjusted in a non-destructive way, independent of the track volume, which can still be applied as before (by switching the track into volume mode, or by real-time automation of the track fader). If you used to normalize regions, or make other Audiosuite gain adjustments before doing volume automation, you may find this new mode preferable. It’s non-destructive, so it’s undoable any time, and the clip boundaries can be adjusted with the trimmer tool anywhere along the length of the original soundfile.
For the most basic use of this function, simply grab the clip gain fader in the lower left corner of each clip and raise or lower the gain for that clip. (If that tiny fader is not visible, go to View>>Clip>>Clip Gain Info). You can also display the clip-gain as its own line: View>>Clip>>Clip Gain Line.
Just like track volume automation, you can add breakpoints to that clip gain line to automate volume changes over time. One important distinction between this mode of automating the volume and conventional track volume automation is that this volume automation is inherently bound to the clip: as the clip moves, the gain automation moves with it, in ALL circumstances. If desired, BOTH clip gain and track volume automation can be active at the same time.
You can commit the new clip-gain permanently by choosing “Render Clip Gain” by right-clicking on the clip gain slider. It’s necessary to render changes in clip-gain when saving a Pro Tools 10 session to an earlier version of Pro Tools (or exporting it to another program via OMF or AAF, see below). That right-click menu also offers options for bypassing or zeroing clip-gain, along with controls for hiding or showing the gain-indicator line. What’s more, crossfades can be made between clips with different gains, for a smooth transition between volume changes.
Fades Without Files
Speaking of crossfades: fades are handled completely differently now. They’re real-time processes, no longer written as files. There’s no “Fades” folder with tiny fade files in it. Session launches won’t be delayed while the computer searches for moved fade files, or regenerates missing ones. Also, you can now see the overlapping waveforms in a crossfade: simply select View>>Waveform>>Overlapping Crossfades for a better view of the combined waveforms.
Another new waveform display option is View>>Waveforms>>Power. Instead of viewing peaks you can switch to a representation of “power”: a more accurate indicator of the perceived loudness. In conjunction with clip-gain, this way of visualizing levels can be very helpful in creating a balanced mix.
If you wish to apply effects to a clip using Audiosuite processing, you can now automatically add “handles” to the edges of your selection, which allows crossfades to extend beyond the edges of the area you select, or allows some adjustment of the edges of the affected area after processing. The length of the “handles” is set in Preferences, ranging from .01 second to 60 seconds. You can also have multiple Audiosuite windows open at the same time, which is especially helpful when applying the same processing in multiple instances, perhaps rolling bass frequencies off of P-Pops. And because fades are now a real-time process, if there’s a fade on a section of audio, and that section is then treated with an Audiosuite effect, the fade remains unchanged.
Pro Tools Plug-ins
Real-time plug-ins also received a few new features. Automatic Delay Compensation was added in Pro Tools 9, and improved in Pro Tools 10 with greater maximum settings. As the name suggests, this function adjusts for the inherent delay that results from real-time plug-ins doing the math to generate the effects. Some plug-ins create significant delays, enough to cause phase problems or timing inaccuracies. Now these delays are compensated for: the audio remains in-sync regardless of the plug-ins inserted on the track.
Pro Tools 10 also sees the introduction of the AAX format plug-ins. These will eventually replace RTAS format. For now, both work side-by-side. Future Pro Tools upgrades, though, may not support RTAS plug-ins. Some of the included plug-ins are quite handy, especially the Channel Strip which incorporates EQ, Compression, Expander/gate and sidechain processing in a single plug-in.
Another file-format change: Pro Tools 10 sessions are now saved as .ptx files, not .pts. Unsurprisingly, this new session file format cannot be opened in a lower version of the software. But the “Save Session Copy As” function remains, and allows choosing an earlier session file format for exchanging your session files with a collaborator using an earlier version of Pro Tools.
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Pro Tools Export/Import (OMF & AAF)
Even more exciting: you can now export, and import, AAF and OMF files. This means you can exchange session information with other editing programs, not just Pro Tools. Once an expensive add-on, it’s now part of Pro Tool’s basic operation. Not all aspects of a mix will be retained when importing or exporting, but the timing, volume, pan (and more) of clips on multiple tracks are preserved when moving a project to or from different programs, such as Final Cut Pro, Logic, Adobe Audition, Digital Performer, Nuendo, and Sonar.
Some other session export options are quite convenient: Export Selected Tracks as New Session is a quick and easy way to create sub-mixes or alternate versions of a mix. Export Session Info as Text is a great way to keep track of all the assets used in a project — it can even help in reporting music usage.
When importing files, there’s now support for mixed audio file formats, and for interleaved audio files. Previously, any file in a format other than the one set in the session’s default settings would be converted then copied to the Audio Files folder. Similarly, interleaved stereo files would be converted to two mono, split-stereo files.
Now most audio files can be added directly to a session without conversion. This can save significant disc space by avoiding the duplication of existing files (i.e. the converted copy). Important: Keep in mind that files imported via “Add to Session” rather than “Copy” or “Convert” are not automatically placed in the session’s Audio Files folder. When archiving or making a copy to use on another computer, be sure to use the “Save Copy In” command, and to check the “All Audio Files” box under “Items to Copy”, to force the copying of all audio files.
Pro Tools can also record interleaved stereo, or multiple-track files, such as for surround-sound applications. Be sure to check the “Interleaved” box when setting up the parameters for a new session.
When bouncing-out a mix, there’s now an option to automatically add the bounced file to your iTunes library. Similarly, there’s a box you can check to automatically share the bounce with Soundcloud (you’ll need to log into a previously created Soundcloud account). Soundcloud and iTunes require the bounce format to be Mono (Summed) or Interleaved. You can also export clips from the clip bin, using the Export Clips as Files command, and clicking the “Share with Soundcloud” box.
Another subtle Pro Tools change: The total number of simultaneously playable tracks has increased to a dizzying 96 with the basic non-HD systems (and a mind-boggling 256 tracks for Pro Tools HD with the Production Toolkit or the new HD Native Hardware). Sure, a typical audio documentary production is unlikely to get anywhere near that limit, but it’s nice to know that you’ll never run out of available tracks. Many more enhancements are listed in Avid’s “What’s New in Pro ToolsAvere” PDF. The above are a few most pertinent to the Transom.org community.
So, is it worth making the upgrade? Or is it time to move to another audio editing program? That may depend on whether you collaborate closely with other Pro Tools users, and exchange sessions. If these new features will make your editing and mixing experience better, the upgrade price isn’t too bad. If you need to work with projects created on other platforms, such as tweaking the audio for a Final Cut Pro video project, the OMF/AAF import and export functions alone are worth the price of the upgrade.
For many basic audio documentary productions, the power and flexibility of Pro Tools is overkill, like driving a Formula 1 racecar to the supermarket. Many producers might find it more efficient to consider a more straightforward audio editing program, one with fewer choices, but a faster and simpler workflow. The $95 Hindenburg Journalist lacks Pro Tools many options, but it’s focused on making radio programs, without the distraction of music-production-oriented features.
If you need the greater flexibility of a Pro-Tools-like editing and mixing environment, with aux sends and busses, MIDI, track grouping, etc., but just can’t justify the price of the Pro Tools 10 upgrade, you might want to take a look at REAPER. It’s a capable multitrack audio editor with many of the same attributes as Pro Tools, but available for $60 for a personal license.
But if you’re comfortable editing and mixing in Pro Tools, or require easy interchange with other Pro Tools users, there are many attractive improvements in the latest upgrade to Pro Tools 10. Importing and exporting OMF/AAF data is especially useful.
Pro Tools is still picky about what operating system you use, see Pro Tools 10.0 Qualified Apple Computers (10.6+ required) and Pro Tools 10.0 Qualified Windows Computers). Pro Tools is still a resource hog and can complain your session is too complex as it fails to bounce-out your mix. The bounce-to-disc mixdown function is still (maddeningly) only in real-time. The extensive array of options Pro Tools offers can be hard to assimilate.
But it’s also an industry leader for a reason. Pro Tools’ level of control is quite empowering once you learn how to use even just a small portion of its abilities. While many features, like MIDI, Looping, Virtual Instruments, Scoring, will likely go untouched by most audio documentary producers, its robust and flexible editing and mixing offerings make it attractive to control-freaks and creative folks alike.
It is an expensive upgrade, but you do get some big bangs for those extra bucks. The ability to connect with a wide variety of audio interfaces, or to simply use the computer’s built-in audio, is a game-changer. Other seemingly more modest improvements may prove just as useful: clip gain will streamline many mixing tasks, and the ability to import and use interleaved files may eliminate inefficient file duplication.
On a practical front, if you get a new computer, or upgrade your current machine to Windows 7 or Mac OS 10.7 (Lion) or higher, you have to buy (or upgrade to) Pro Tools 9 or 10 for reliable performance. In most cases, Pro Tools 8 or older won’t run at all on the latest OS versions.
The arrival of Hindenburg Journalist, the release of the Mac version of Adobe Audition (finally making it both Windows and Mac compatible) and the growing popularity of REAPER have all caused some drift away from Pro Tools being the radio production standard. But it remains a popular system, especially in commercial music production. All the improvements keep it competitive, and there are some real advantages in Pro Tools 10 for those on the Pro Tools path.