Pro Tools 9 Review: Freedom At Last
Sometimes we all reach a point in the mix room when we want to give up. With slumped shoulders and an irritating case of carpal tunnel, the thought of slamming one’s head into the keyboard has crossed many an engineer’s mind. This is supposed to be music-making, right? So why on earth, then, are we stuck behind computers for 12 hours a day? Is this what it has come down to? It certainly is what engineering has become, and this is in large part due to the development of Pro Tools, the industry standard in computer-based audio recording, known for corrupting musicians and engineers with absolute mix power.
In case you’ve been living in a cave (or you are just new to recording), computers have almost entirely wiped out tape recording. There are but a scant few studios or engineers that don’t track, edit, and mix without a computer. And for every studio that is of professional-grade, each must have Pro Tools. Pro Tools is the standard DAW (digital audio workstation), and studios working off other software are suspect. That’s not to say that other recording software can’t produce professional-quality audio (in fact, almost any competing software can), but Pro Tools was the first on the scene, it’s the most predominant DAW in the professional audio world, and as such it has a compatibility monopoly over the entire recording industry.
Although Pro Tools has been going strong since the 1990s, truth be told many users have been getting fed up with certain limitations and restrictions of the software. In an effort to answer the gripes of the consumer, maintain its studio stronghold, and compete with other software, parent company Avid recently released Pro Tools 9 (PT9), a revision that embraces freedom — the basic trend of successful technology. PT9 is very similar to its predecessor, but this time it’s unshackled. In the past Avid had two versions of Pro Tools; LE and HD. LE was intended for the musician, and HD for the professional studio engineer. Along with hardware necessities for HD and a huge price jump between the two, Avid also stymied its LE software with obnoxious limitations in order to bully users into purchasing the much more expensive HD. (The other basic trend of successful technology.)
With hopes of revamping the image of Pro Tools, Avid has discontinued development of LE. Now there is only Pro Tools 9 and Pro Tools 9 HD, with HD being a facet of the hardware. Essentially, the only real restrictions that the non-HD version has are due to the hardware, not the software.
Pro Tools 9 now comes with more of everything, including up to 96 tracks of playback. That many tracks would necessitate multiple monitors or an amazing scrolling ability.
The best part about PT9 is the unlocking of its hardware restrictions. Unlike the restraints of previous versions, PT9 works with any audio interface, including a computer’s core audio. No longer is Avid/Digidesign hardware or M-powered Pro Tools necessary for operation. In previous versions, Pro Tools would only operate if it detected such hardware, as it was a means to ensure that users purchased something from the company. Now users can work on sessions without so much as an audio interface or the insultingly stupid Mbox 2 Micro, as PT9 can utilize the standard headphone jack on a computer allowing engineers to mix and edit on the go (no additional purchases required).
For all the awesome freedom this new hardware compatibility allows, Avid couldn’t just let users off the leash like that without a safety net. PT9 is now protected by iLok, the standard in USB anti-piracy. For those unfamiliar, the iLok is just like a USB thumb drive, and it must be plugged in to run Pro Tools. To call it a pain would be an understatement. The last thing a musician needs is another tiny losable object, especially one that could prevent an entire recording session from starting. Imagine how silly you might feel showing up to a location recording, unable to open the software because you left the iLok at home (guilty as charged). It’s a precaution against pirating, but it’s a punishment to the user more than anything else. Oh well, can’t have it all.
Another excellent addition to PT9 is the automatic delay-compensation feature. In the past this was only available in HD (a big reason engineers made the jump to HD), but now it’s available to every Pro Tools user. The delay compensation comes in three lengths: none, short, and long (the latter two for a session with few plugins and a session with many plugins, respectively). What, you may ask, is delay compensation and why do you need it?
Well, when adding effects, plugins, sends, or rerouting through busses, an audio track becomes delayed by the digital signal processing (DSP) and this puts it out of phase. This is particularly detrimental to drum tracks, because if a set of overhead mikes are out of phase from the kick and snare mikes, things can sound dead and lose all their punch. Delay compensation takes the tracks that are delayed by DSP and pushes them forward in time, realigning them with their original placement and keeping them in phase.
Within the playback engine properties, it's very easy to switch between using an audio interface and the computer's core audio, and it's also easy to switch from the three delay-compensation modes.
My personal favorite addition to PT9 is the rather simple yet incredibly useful export-as-mp3 function. At first it might seem somewhat unimportant, but this is a huge shortcut to expediting the workflow. Of course, for all final mixes hi-fidelity files are required, but for everything else, like emailing the 13th reference mix of a song to a client or tracking preproduction rehearsals, an mp3 can suffice. It’s a breath of fresh air not having to clean up a bunch of useless .wav files, and it’s even better not having to waste time converting them. The only thing missing from this feature is a quick normalizing option to get tracks in fighting form.
Although it's not new to version 9, one of the best additions to Pro Tools is the playlist view, which is a great way of organizing and auditioning various takes within one track.
Although everything depends on the system running the show, PT9 now has 96 playback tracks (HD has 192), so break out the horns, strings, choir girls, vibraslaps, and whisper tracks, because it’s time to record everything under the sun. Just remember, it’d take an amazing machine to run 96 tracks, top-loaded with plugins, without choking. PT9 also comes with a preposterously extensive 256 busses, and rumor has it Avid is giving away a Ferrari to the first person to use all 256 busses in a microtonal remix of Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love.” (We neglected to confirm this with Avid as of press time. Our bad. —Ed.)
For those who are ready to undertake the headache of transferring DAW platforms, Avid offers a friendly solution: PT9 exports and imports of OMF and AAF files, which are read by other DAWs and can aid in the transferring process. Don’t expect a perfect replica in another DAW, however, as there are almost always glitches between programs of different manufacturers.
Although it’s not new, it needs to be noted that PT9 comes bundled with some excellent soft synths that inspire creativity. While it’s nothing as extensive as Ableton or Reason, there’s plenty of variety, including sampled instruments and out-of-this-world wacky synths. There’s the lush mini grand, the no-bells-only-whistles Structure Free, the alien-like Xpand2, and the addictively fun Vacuum. Presets mean everything in the land of synths, and PT9 delivers with gusto. They sound great and they’re lots of fun to play and tinker with.
What’s Not New
For everybody already using PT8, there’s zero change in the appearance for the new version. All changes are structural and occur only under the hood. Aesthetics have been ignored and there’s no makeover here, but that’s okay because PT9 is easy on the eyes and lends itself to squint-free editing.
One of the most frustrating problems with Pro Tools has always been and continues to be the notorious error messages that pop up, stopping the playback or recording process. The most common of these are the “playback buffer” errors and the “can’t get data from drive fast enough” messages. While there are tricks to avoiding these issues, like selecting the region to record or raising buffers, it’s still a huge buzz kill to have a computer freeze in the middle of playback. PT9 does offer an “avoid error messages” option in the playback preferences, but it results in some shoddy playback (at least that was the case on a Macbook Pro with 2.8Ghz Intel Core Duo). Running PT9 on a much more powerful tower, however, yields more reliable results.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in DAW workflow was the addition of playlists, which happened a few years ago. Following that, in PT8 there was the addition of lanes (playlists as a subcategory), which added a new element of visual organization to tracks with multiple takes. A logical next step, which many engineers having been waiting years for, is a key command for new playlists. It’s a simple yet incredibly useful time saver and carpal-tunnel avoider, and any programming that allows more keyboard use and less mouse use is greatly cherished. Engineers are standing by.
Another simple improvement that’s on the up-and-up but hasn’t hit its mark quite yet is the rating system for individual takes. It would be great to have a quick visible method of rating regions in order to expedite the auditioning process of takes (the Netflix-style star rating is an excellent example). PT9 needs a star-rating system that’s always visible on every region and only takes one click to rate, but for now it’s just a record keeper hidden by a right-click.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue with Pro Tools is the use of MIDI instruments. Both the bundled instruments and their rewire brethren have latency issues and their timing is questionable. It’s a roundabout hassle to eliminate the latency (turns out an audio-print track is required — very strange), and the third-party rewire application is partly to blame (Pro Tools doesn’t account for rewire latency), but isn’t it about time we live in a latency-free world?
All in all, PT9 is a powerful DAW that pretty much has all its bases covered. It’s earned quite the reputation over the years as the go-to software for professional recording situations, and it continues that reputation with solid functionality. A little nudge here, a crossfade there, and any new user will quickly understand the beauty and precision of Pro Tools and why it deserves to be in the studio. PT9 software will run you anywhere from $249–$599.