Avid Pro Tools 9 - KeyboardMag

Avid Pro Tools 9

Different updates have different characters: Some are about features, some emphasize workflow, and some—like this one—are about compatibility and integration.
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By Craig Anderton

Different updates have different characters: Some are about features, some emphasize workflow, and some—like this one—are about compatibility and integration. Pro Tools 7 was the update that entered the world of grooves and time-stretching, while PT8 polished the rough edges and added a whole bunch of goodies, including new instruments and effects. So what did Avid do for version 9? They changed the whole paradigm.

Overview

Though Pro Tools HD and M-Powered are still in the lineup, there’s no more Pro Tools LE. The big news is that the version that replaces LE—simply called Pro Tools—no longer requires an Avid-branded audio interface to run. Instead, it works with just about any CoreAudio or ASIO interface. I tested PT9 with interfaces from Roland, E-mu, Focusrite, Mackie, MOTU, and others, and they all worked. What’s more, when running PT9 under Windows 7, I attained lower latencies while working strictly in the Pro Tools environment than anything I’d been able to attain before: 128 samples with complex projects, and 64 for simpler ones.

Fig. 1. When using delay compensation, set the overall amount (1,024 or 4,096 samples) higher than this number, and you’re good to go. Among other benefits, this makes it easier to use DSPpowered effects such as Universal Audio’s Powered Plug-Ins.

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One important thing to know: Some audio interfaces have a slider in their soft ware control panel for setting the sample buffer, which lets you get settings other than the usual multiples of 64. For PT9 to pass audio properly, though, you must use 64 samples or a multiple thereof: 128, 256, 512, and so on. In-between settings such as 96 or 100 samples cause problems.

The irony of divorcing the software from the hardware is that along with PT9, Avid released a new line of Mbox interfaces that you might really want to use with Pro Tools, or for that matter, any other DAW— see our full review of the new Mbox Pro. Forget everything you knew about the Mbox line; the new is to the old as a Porsche is to a Volkswagen Beetle.

Ditching dedicated hardware is also an important move for laptopbased musicians and producers, who can now use a MacBook Pro’s internal Core Audio interface, or ASIO4ALL with a Windows laptop’s internal sound chip (or an ultra-compact ASIO interface), turning PT9 into a DAW-to-go.

Delay Compensation

Another change is the inclusion of path delay compensation. This is one of those “What took you so long?” changes, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome. It compensates for any delays inherent in an audio path through some device so that you hear tracks that don’t pass through the device in perfect sync with tracks that do. This works on internal inserts and with DSP-powered effects such as the Universal Audio UAD-2 series—yes! For delay compensation on hardware inserts (e.g., patching in an external compressor or EQ), you need Pro Tools HD or HD Native.

You have a choice of short (1,024 samples) or long (4,096 samples) compensation, which determines the level of resources allocated; Pro Tools then delays each mixer track to attain the overall delay amount. I found that even with just a few UAD plug-ins, I needed to specify the long delay. Thankfully, this isn’t done by trial and error; there’s an unambiguous figure in the Session Setup window that shows the existing delay (see Figure 1 above), so you just choose whichever compensation setting is greater than that. The UAD plug-ins are a good test because they require going through their own DSP hardware (which, incidentally, is why you have to use realtime bounces with them on all DAWs, not just Pro Tools), and hey, I like them, so I wanted to make sure they work.

If the required delay for a given plug-in is longer than Pro Tools can provide (as it may be for, say, a dynamics plug-in with a particularly long “look-ahead”), then you have the inelegant but workable option of disabling compensation for that plug-in only and shifting the track manually to compensate. Pro Tools doesn’t ping the system to provide a suggested amount of delay, so this is pretty much a manual process. It also works the same way if you’re processing via external hardware. I did note that when employing compensation with fairly big projects, I needed to bump the interface buffer up for stable results: 256 samples usually did the job; if not, then 512 never let me down.

If you’re recording in a track that uses delay compensation, Pro Tools turns it off to minimize monitoring latency, and then turns it back on during playback. It behaves similarly with virtual instruments, but note that this works only with instruments within the Pro Tools environment—it can’t reach into ReWire applications to compensate for any issues going on there.

Plays Well with Others

Being able to use any audio interface isn’t the only way in which Pro Tools is now more neighborly. EuCon compatibility may not seem like a big deal—unless you’re a fan of the Euphonix Artist Series controllers such as the MC Mix and MC Control. These are excellent, compact control surfaces with motorized faders, and EuCon is the Ethernet-based, highly sophisticated protocol they use. Previously, they worked fine on the Mac with a limited number of applications, and still do, but since acquiring Euphonix, Avid has finally implemented EuCon for Windows as well as Mac. This is another “it’s about time” feature, although no one using only Windows realizes that’s the case because until now, they had no way of knowing how cool the Euphonix controllers are. Another note for Windows musicians: If you’ve been having trouble installing the optional Instrument Expansion Pack, you’re not alone, and Avid has a fix.

There’s also a lot more import/export mojo revolving around the popular session interchange standards AAF and OMF, including fairly esoteric options like being able to import RTAS plug-in data from an AAF sequence. More interesting to musicians is that PT9 can now export MP3 audio files without you buying an extra encoder. You’ll also find additional time code and sync functions, like redefining time code positions and being able to use the “Go To” command with subframes. I also like the “Export Sessions as Text” option. Perhaps it’s not a crucial part of studio life, but it creates a handy reference of audio files and audio regions used in a project, as well as including Edit Decision List information, crossfade info, and more.

Further Improvements

PT9’s gestalt is pretty much the same as previous versions. It works, people are used to it, and the interface is straightforward. With minor exceptions, you don’t need to re-learn what you already knew. Here are the coolest new tweaks.

Workflow. You now can create a new track from a send or track output, change stereo pan depth (this sets the attenuation when a stereo signal is panned to center—a variation on the pan law concept), and—fanfare, please—there’s now auto-scrolling in both the Edit and Mix windows.

Track Count. You no longer need an add-on to get big track counts. Pro Tools 9 does 96 voices (mono or stereo) at 44.1kHz, 48 voices at 96kHz, and for those who prepare music for canines, 24 voices at 192kHz. You can record 32 tracks simultaneously (if your computer can handle it, of course), and have up to 64 instrument tracks, 512 MIDI tracks, 160 aux tracks, 256 busses, and one video track. You can double the voices and instrument tracks by adding the Complete Production Toolkit 2—except if recording at 192kHz, where you get 50 percent more voices. These are the same elevated track counts you get with Pro Tools HD; the Toolkit also adds 64 video tracks and the popular VCA mixing capability.

Beat Detective. The multi-track Beat Detective used to be available only in PTHD, or PTLE with Music Production Toolkit 2 or Complete Production Toolkit. Now, it’s standard-issue. The bad news (sorry, Dave Grohl) is that its presence may encourage more people to use it, but of course, that complaint is a matter of taste.

DigiBase. This searchable project management tool lets you find files not only by name, but also by modification date (useful for tracking down files used in particular sessions) and kind. It’s now standard in Pro Tools 9, where formerly you had to have PTHD, or PTLE with either DV Toolkit 2 or the Complete Production Toolkit.

Conclusions

PT9 is the debutante ball where Pro Tools comes out and joins society. It no longer lives in its walled garden of hardware, and includes many features that used to be optional at extra cost. It has a more unified feel, right down to the single installer for all versions. However, this standardization comes at a price: for Windows users, only Windows 7 is supported, and for the Mac, it’s currently Snow Leopard or nothing. I understand that this simplifies matters, but given how much Vista resembles Windows 7, I’m surprised it’s not supported as well. Another note for Windows users: Pro Tools 9 is not a 64-bit program, but runs as a 32-bit app in 64-bit systems. Whatever horsepower you lose by not having native 64-bit operation is made up for by increased compatibility with other programs that haven’t made the 64-bit native jump, such as ReWire clients and Waves plug-ins.

Some of Pro Tools’ features are about catching up with the rest of the world, but “revolution number 9” is also about system integration. Coupled with the session interchange and sync enhancements, and the superb new interface hardware if you want it, Avid has—by accident or by design—made Pro Tools more of a standard, not less. This isn’t just good news for Pro Tools fans, but for anyone who uses any DAW, yet also wants to be compatible with the de facto industry standard for multitrack recording. That’s what Pro Tools is, regardless of whoever may like to say it’s not.

*Video: First look and testing.

Specifications

PROS No longer tied to Avid hardware. Works with virtually any CoreAudio or ASIO interface. Includes delay compensation for plug-ins. Increased track count. EuCon control surface support.

CONS Realtime bouncing only. No track folders. Requires RTAS adapter for VST plug-ins.

CONCEPT Digital audio workstation (DAW) software with multitrack audio and MIDI recording.
MAXIMUM AUDIO TRACKS 96 (stereo) at 44.1/48kHz, 48 at 88.2/96kHz, 24 at 176.4/192kHz.
OPERATING SYSTEMS Mac OS 10.6 or higher, Windows 7 (32- or 64-bit). Visit Avid’s website for detailed hardware requirements and qualified computers.
PLUG-IN FORMATS HOSTED RTAS.

PRICE List: $599
Approx. street: $599

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