Digidesign Pro Tools 8 Engineers Workhorse Gets More Musician-Friendly Than Ever - KeyboardMag

Digidesign Pro Tools 8 Engineers Workhorse Gets More Musician-Friendly Than Ever

Pro Tools has become a standard in so many studios that there’s always anticipation surrounding any upgrades. Digidesign bills Pro Tools 8 as one of the most significant upgrades yet, and after working with it on multiple projects (including a Bach harpsichord CD by Kathleen McIntosh), I’d have to agree.
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1109 Pro Tools 8 Main Web

Pro Tools has become a standard in so many studios that there’s always anticipation surrounding any upgrades. Digidesign bills Pro Tools 8 as one of the most significant upgrades yet, and after working with it on multiple projects (including a Bach harpsichord CD by Kathleen McIntosh), I’d have to agree. [Click image above for extra-large version corresponding to the legend below. Looking for the section on PT8's new soft synths? Click here. - Ed.]

HANDS-ON

1.MIDI editing is greatly improved, as evidenced by the controller lanes.
2.Pro Tools doesn’t support MIDI plug-ins per se, but the MIDI Realtime Properties options work in a similar way.
3.Yes, you’re seeing 10 inserts. What you’re not seeing are the 16 extra tracks the LE version now includes: 48 instead of the 36 in PT7.
4.The Universe view simplifies navigation with a compact, quick-scrollable overview of your project.
5.Twenty new effects include this “Talkbox,” which imparts vowel-like sounds to an audio signal.
6.Comping audio tracks is easier than it’s ever been in Pro Tools.
7.The interface has a darker, more pro look that’ll be particularly welcome in video editing suites.

PROS

Greatly improved MIDI capabilities. Excellent Score Editor. Many significant workflow improvements. New virtual instruments rock. More tracks (48) and inserts (10) than previous versions of LE or M-Powered. Improved look and feel. Elastic Audio pitch transposition.

CONS

Retains several “legacy” limitations: No automatic path delay compensation for plug-ins, no track freeze, no support for VST devices, no faster-than-realtime bouncing.

INFO

Upgrade for LE or M-Powered: $149.95; HD upgrade: $249.95; M-Powered new install: $249.95, digidesign.com

NEED TO KNOW

What is it? The latest version of Pro Tools, the industry-standard DAW in commercial studios.
Is the upgrade worth the money? The new virtual instruments alone are worth the price, but add the score notation, greatly improved MIDI, 20 new effects, better workflow, and Elastic Pitch, and it’s a no-brainer.
Does PT take advantage of 64-bit operating systems? At press time, support for Mac Snow Leopard and Windows 7 were “coming soon,” but we don’t yet know whether it’ll run 64-bit natively, or as a 32-bit app, as it now does under 64-bit Vista.
Can the Score Editor replace my notation program? For pro-level work such as printing a big orchestral project, you’ll still need Sibelius or an equivalent program. But the Score Editor is based on the Sibelius engine, so not only is it really good, but you can export files to Sibelius.
Does Elastic Pitch replace programs like AutoTune or Melodyne? Elastic Pitch affects regions, not individual notes. For really detailed pitch editing, you’ll want more. But if you only need to transpose an instrument, no problem.
How are the new virtual instruments? They sound great and they’re super fun to use — click here to get right to them.

WHAT’S NEW

The most obvious changes are the five new virtual instruments (see page 54), 20 new effects, greatly improved MIDI editing, and the Score Editor. There’s also a new look and new session templates, improved comping, a decent pitch-transposition algorithm, and the LE/M-Powered track count has been upped to 48 mono or stereo tracks. Some previously optional effect plug-ins are now included: Eleven Free, Maxim, D-Fi, and Bomb Factory’s SansAmp. There are too many other small tweaks to go into here, but we’ll hit the high points.

There have also been enhancements to the optional Music Production Toolkit. While space doesn’t permit us to review it in these pages, the basic changes are a new maximum of 64 tracks, and the inclusion of Eleven LE, Hybrid, Smack! LE, Structure LE, and TL Space Native.

We should also mention what you don’t get. PTLE and M-Powered still don’t do automatic path delay compensation for plug-ins — Pro Tools HD systems do. Some users mistakenly think that non-HD Pro Tools doesn’t have any delay compensation — it does, but it’s a manual process that uses the Time Adjuster plug-in. Or, you can buy the Mellowmuse ATA RTAS plug-in, which pings your system and compensates for delays. It’s a hassle if you change multiple plug-ins on a large project, but for many, this won’t be a dealbreaker.

Crossfading is not as seamless as most other programs; you can’t just drag one region over another and automatically generate a crossfade. And while some complain about the lack of track freeze, you can always bounce a track, which is basically a non-automatic version of freezing. However, bouncing can only be done in real time. This isn’t a big deal for a three-minute pop song, but gets time-consuming on a 20-minute concerto.

Buses are up to 32 from 16, though I’ve never come close to using 16, let alone 32. Finally, although some users complain that PT hasn’t made the move to 64-bit operation, I still think that aside from Cakewalk Sonar (which went 64-bit when Windows x64 hit), true 64-bit computing is currently a niche market. With Apple Snow Leopard and Windows 7 making it more mainstream, though, I expect PT will move to 64 bits sooner rather than later.

The benefits of upgrading to PT8 are so substantial, though, that you’ll concentrate most on the plethora of positives.

MIDI: NO APOLOGIES NEEDED

Pro Tools used to treat MIDI as a secondclass citizen, as befit a basically audio-only program. PT8’s MIDI capabilities are now on par with other DAWs, and some features are ahead of the pack. MIDI editing is treated more like audio editing, which improves workflow. Not only can you create MIDI loops easily, but a “mirrored” editing option lets changes in a MIDI region affect copies of that region.

Perhaps the most convenient addition is lanes under the notes window for controller data. Also, automation lanes have been added to audio tracks. I also think the ability to group MIDI tracks is huge, as it is with audio tracks. MIDI’s Superimposed Notes view is stellar too, because you can see (for example) the bass track’s notes while working with the drums to line up timings, and edit in any track you can see in the Notes pane. Even better, you can color-code MIDI notes based on track, velocity, or track type, minimizing confusion between superimposed notes.

My favorite feature is the MIDI Realtime Properties option. This essentially takes the place of the MIDI plug-ins found in other programs; you can edit quantization, duration, delay, velocity, and transposition in real time to hear how it sounds without modifying any data, then apply when desired. So, you can do a quick quantize when recording just to make sure everything’s on the beat for overdubbing, then turn off the realtime stuff and manually tweak to make any quantization less obvious. Of course, you can still use the more conventional Event Operations window, which has all the realtime editing options as well as others.

There are numerous small changes, such as expanded right-click options, MIDI note scrubbing, and the option to select all MIDI events (i.e., controller data), not just notes. If you use MIDI a lot, these improvements are a big deal — and the timing is right, because PT8’s new soft instruments give people who haven’t been that much into MIDI an incentive to get deep into it.

SCORE EDITOR

1109 Pro Tools 8 Score Editor

A new Score Editor (click image above for larger version) takes advantage of the Sibelius-based notation engine. No, you’re not getting Sibelius embedded in PT8, but you’re getting a lot closer. Besides, it’s easy to export Score Editor data into Sibelius if you need seriously pro notation capabilities.

Though I don’t use notation on a daily basis, I polled some colleagues who do, and they all had nothing but good to say about the Score Editor. Their verdict: While you wouldn’t use PT8 as a professional notation/engraving program, it takes what’s important about editing sheet music and gives it to you — and then some. As with MIDI, it has a similar workflow to other elements in PT8, including the mirrored editing option and a customizable toolbar. If you work with guitars, you can add tablature symbols, though this is for display only and doesn’t affect the MIDI data.

ELASTIC PITCH

This isn’t about pitch correction or fixing individual notes, but transposing a region by up to 24 semitones sharp or flat; there’s also a cents field for fine-tuning. I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality, although as there’s no formant correction, it doesn’t sound very natural on the human voice. However, there’s a big exception to that rule: Tweak a doubled vocal’s pitch by a dozen cents or so up or down, and the doubling effect will be much better than just adding delay.

With instruments that don’t have as well-known a sonic context, Elastic Pitch is clean enough that extreme pitch transposition is more like an effect. I pitched a drum track up an octave and it sounded like a cheesy analog drum machine — kinda cool, if you like cheese. But the main point is that it sounded natural and useable; there wasn’t extreme “fluttering and flamming.”

LOOPS, COMPING, AND EFFECTS

PT8 comes with 8GB of loops and content, finally joining the majority of DAWs that bundle soundware. Part of this is to emphasize that because of the Elastic Audio feature introduced in PT 7.4, loop-based musicians are now welcome in the Pro Tools world. Musical styles include Dance, DJ, Hip-Hop, R&B, Funk, Soul, Pop, Rock, World, Rock Hard, and Jazz, and while the loops aren’t credited, they’re very good. There’s also a demo project for each style, which you can think of as a stealth tutorial on how to use the content with Pro Tools.

Twenty new “Creative Collection” effects fill gaps that you used to have to look for third-party plug-ins to fill. They’re also kind to your CPU. Highlights include KillEQ for DJ-type filtering, VintageFilter with its envelope- or LFO-controlled response, two delays (multitap, and one that “ducks” when signal is present to avoid muddiness), stompbox-style modulations (chorus, phaser, etc.), and Filter-Gate- Sequencer — AdrenaLinn fans, listen up! There’s no vocoder, but hey, they had to leave something for PT9, right?

The process of comping together the ideal track from multiple takes is much improved: Look at takes in Playlist view, select the good bits, and copy them easily to the main playlist. I still think Logic Pro (reviewed Oct. ’09) sets the gold standard for comping, but PT8’s is a big improvement. However, the comping workflow doesn’t apply to MIDI tracks, only audio. Fortunately, you get other tools for editing multiple MIDI tracks simultaneously, such as Superimposed Notes view. As to hardware integration, you can now map plug-in knobs to hardware MIDI controllers . . . better late than never.

CONCLUSIONS

If you use Pro Tools, you want this upgrade. Period. It fills in holes that were making PT look a bit dated compared to the competition, improves workflow in ways large and small, and adds soft synths that aren’t just “lite” versions of the ones you really want, but fine instruments in their own right.

Some companies do upgrades in hopes you’ll switch from a different program. Others do upgrades to keep you from switching, either by including lots of little tweaks or a few biggies. PT8 includes both, and our sense is that it’ll keep the Pro Tools faithful, faithful. MIDI users needn’t feel constrained, and the score editing will be a huge plus for anyone who works and thinks in sheet music.

The killer app could very well be the attention to workflow: MIDI, audio, and notation are treated more interchangeably, and throughout, functions are easier to access. Sure, I’d appreciate easier crossfading, and marker handling could be enhanced. However, I’ve always felt few programs could handle the most essential thing about producing music — capturing tracks — as easily as Pro Tools, and now the rest of the program has been brought up to the same ease-of-use standards.

If you’re already into Pro Tools, PT8 will make your day. If you’re just getting into it, you sure picked the right version for your maiden voyage.

ABOUT THAT MACKIE MIXER . . .

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Since the dawn of Pro Tools, aside from the very limited Pro Tools Free software, you couldn’t run PT without Digidesign hardware. Originally, this meant expensive interfaces and cards, but over the years, products such as the Digi-001, 002, and 003, Mbox series, and Pro Tools M-Powered (which works with M-Audio interfaces) have made PT accessible to almost any musician on any budget.

Now, Mackie has introduced their Onyx-i series — cross-platform FireWire mixers compatible with a variety of hosts, but more importantly, that can run Pro Tools M-Powered. Although I assume Digidesign isn’t too thrilled with this, ultimately it just might sell more Pro Tools M-Powered software. What’s more, it really does work. For more info, see the review in the Nov. ’09 issue of EQ magazine. - Craig Anderton