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Discover Pro Tools LE

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We continue our series on Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs, which allow musicians to record, edit and play back their music. This week we look at Digidesign's Pro Tools.

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which has moved on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each week.

If you're thinking about getting into home recording, Pro Tools is worth considering as one of your alternatives. Besides having a long experience in audio software, and a large market share in the industry, Pro Tools is also available for both Windows and Mac OSX. It isn't the cheapest option, costing from around $300USD (depending on which hardware options you choose), so if you're on a tight budget, it may not be for you.

Pro Tools is actually a family of products ranging from software that suits the home hobbyist right up to full-scale commercial studios. Pro Tools LE is the product most suitable for home recording, and the one we will focus on in this article. Some of you may be using Pro Tools M-Powered, which is basically the same product adapted to M-Audio hardware.

History and Background

Pro Tools is made by Digidesign, a division of Avid Technology, a well-respected US company that create creative software, and particularly specialise in video and audio production. Avid Technology were created in 1987, and focused on pro video software. They acquired Digidesign in 1994 to add pro audio to their lineup.

Digidesign had got into digital recording software very early on, releasing Sound Tools for the Apple Mac in 1989. They called the program "the first tapeless recording studio". In 1991 they released Pro Tools, an integrated software and hardware system. We will talk more about the hardware side of things soon.

This was a significantly better product and featured more voices, ProDECK and ProEDIT software, MIDI, and automation. Currently (twenty years later!) Pro Tools is at version 8.

Pro Tools Hardware

In last week's article on DAWs we pointed out that a digital audio workstation is not just software, but also hardware. This is especially true of Pro Tools.

When you purchase Pro Tools, you are not buying just a software box. You buy hardware - an audio interface - that comes with the Pro Tools software. There are lots of hardware options, depending on your needs.

Hardware comes into the equation with Pro Tools in four main contexts:

HD Systems

Pro Tools HD is the high end program in Digidesign's range, and relies very heavily on specialized digital sound processing hardware which takes the work away from the host computer and gives it to powerful chips on expansion PCI cards.

LE Systems

Pro Tools LE (the consumer product we are focusing on) relies on the host computer's CPU to do all of the work, but requires the use of a specialized sound card for audio to digital conversion. Because Pro Tools LE does not work with a normal sound card, the Pro Tools audio interface also acts as a copy protection mechanism.

The cheaper range of interfaces are part of the Mbox 2 Family, and are external devices that connect to the host computer via USB2, though some models have Firewire options. The devices are quite portable, and there are four main models:

  • Mbox 2 Pro: a FireWire-powered audio/MIDI workstation that delivers high-definition sound, and 6x8 simultaneous channels of analog and digital I/O.
  • Mbox 2: a compact, USB-powered audio/MIDI workstation that provides 4x2 simultaneous channels of analog and digital I/O, high-quality sound, and zero-latency monitoring.
  • Mbox 2 Mini: a very compact, USB-powered audio workstation that delivers high-quality sound and 2x2 simultaneous channels of analog I/O.
  • Mbox 2 Micro: the most portable USB-powered system that provides editing, sequencing, and mixing, and a high-quality audio output (no audio inputs).

The Mbox 2 and Mbox 2 Pro also come with a large collection of professional-grade plug-ins. You can learn more about these devices on Digidesign's Mbox 2 Family page.

The more professional range of interfaces are the 003 Family, and aim to attain the same quality as commercial studios. You can learn more about these devices on Digidesign's 003 Family page.

M-Audio Products

Avid aquired M-Audio in 2004, and soon afterwards created Pro Tools M-Powered, which brought Pro Tools functionality to M-Audio audio interfaces. Compatible M-Audio products now include a copy of Pro Tools M-Powered.

Control Surfaces

Digidesign also create control surfaces to provide hands-on control of track volume, panning, plug-ins, playback, and other vital recording, mixing, and editing operations. The main options include an eight-fader control surface, and a large 24 channel mixing desk. Learn more from Digidesign's Control Surfaces page.

Pro Tools 8 Features

The Pro Tools 8 Features page lists the main software features as follows:

  • A Well-Stocked Studio
    Pro Tools 8 comes with over 70 virtual instruments, effects, and utility plug-ins, and over 8 GB of audio loops.
  • More Tracks Than Ever
    Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered users now get three times more audio tracks (up to 48 simultaneous stereo or mono tracks) than previously to create larger, more complex mixes.
  • Score Your Music
    The new Score Editor lets you view, edit, arrange, and print MIDI data as music notation, allowing you to compose music using the notation tools or transcribe MIDI data in real time.
  • Complete MIDI Sequencing and Production
    The new MIDI Editor window includes a comprehensive array of new MIDI editing features, tools, and functionality that make it easier than ever to compose with virtual instruments and sound modules.
  • Stretch Your Pitch
    Transpose a region to a different key or fix its pitch in real time with the new Elastic Pitch.
  • Comp Tracks to Perfection
    With the new track compositing workflows, you can craft the perfect performance from multiple takes faster and easier.
  • Extended Hardware Control
    Pro Tools 8 deepens its ICON console, control surface, and M-Audio peripheral integration, letting you map plug-ins directly to your controller and more.

User Comments

What do users of Pro Tools think of the product? Here are some comments by users and reviewers that I found around the Net. If you are a Pro Tools user, I'd love to hear from you in the comments too.

  • "For years, Digidesign have been doing almost exactly the opposite to most other companies in the music industry: namely, trying to turn an audio application into a sequencer. And while Pro Tools 7 and its point-one incremental successors finally got the company's flagship product into a position where sequencing was a bit like cutting steak with a butter knife (you could do it, but it probably wouldn't be much fun), Pro Tools 8 has a clear mission: to make Digidesign a serious contender in the music-creation market." (Mark Wherry)
  • "I really like it so far, the included plugins are way more useful than older versions of PT. It is really really nice on the eyes too, very smooth looking. no problems so far!" (Brendan27)
  • "So, here’s my real opinion. Pro Tools 8 is amazing. It is a major leap forward for Digidesign, and a necessary jump to leapfrog Logic and DP, both in GUI looks and MIDI functionality. Literally, it looks a lot like Logic now (when you make the tracks dark grey) or like Digital Performer (when you make the tracks light grey). Gone are the familiar white background on the edit window and stale grey mix window. Say hello to color! Seriously, the interface looks much more modern, with 3D buttons and rounded corners. The Color Palette window gives you a lot of control over the intensity of the colors too… ranging anywhere from muted pastels to bright ‘bag of Skittles’ technicolor." (David Franz)
  • "PT 8 has a spooky kind of dark halloween Logic rip off feel to it and I am not sure if I am liking the new look at all. PT 8 has got a beautiful new lick of paint but the selection of dark browns and greens just reminds me of logic 8... Here, like in Logic everything is crammed onto the page like an overproduced Timberland track. Taking a look at the positives it is very nice to see how much more power is now available to the PT user... I as an LE chap am very impressed with the higher track count. Secondly I can now run 10 plug ins simultaneously on my mono/stereo inserts should I need to be a fat greedy plug-in pig beast. The new midi editor is very sweet and allows midi manipulation to happen at a touch." (Dav Nagle)
  • "Pro Tools is your choice, if you have the money and are allowed to spend it. Simply the most professional system you can get today, yet easy to learn and very straightforward to use." (Music-Software-Reviews.com)
  • "In a nutshell Pro tools 8 is empowering and it’s more of a one stop shop than ever. Improved midi performance, state of the art design, a super plugin database, awesome virtual instruments. yep sold me. A definite thumbs up!" (Mike de Velta)
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