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DIGIDESIGN Pro Tools 6.1 (MAC/WIN)

January 1, 2004
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Unlike previous major upgrades of Digidesign Pro Tools, version 6 offers significant improvements rather than a radical overhaul of the feature set. Nonetheless, many of the changes are welcome, and in the case of Pro Tools LE, many are long overdue.

On the Mac, the raison d'etre of Pro Tools 6 is the program's migration to OS X (in particular, OS X 10.2.6). Windows XP was the operating system of choice for Pro Tools 5.1 on the PC, and its stability on that platform has greatly increased with this update.

The most obvious change is in the program's GUI: Digidesign has given the program a face-lift, and Pro Tools now looks almost identical on both platforms (see Fig. 1). All of the buttons have a 3-D beveled look, and audio-region backgrounds are colored, which helps them stand out even better. This new design is a welcome improvement, especially in the Mix window, but there is far more to this upgrade than a prettier face.

DATABASING DIGI-STYLE

One of the most significant additions to Pro Tools 6 is Digibase (see Fig. 2). This powerful audio database allows you to view, sort, and audition all of the sound files on your hard drives directly within Pro Tools using a file-browser window. Waveforms are displayed for each sound file, and selected files can be dragged and dropped into the current session.

Pro Tools 6 TDM includes Digibase Pro, which adds catalogs: user-definable groupings of sound files that can span multiple volumes. Primarily aimed toward post-production, catalogs can be used to collect and organize sounds under categories — footsteps, gunshots, or birdcalls, for example — making them easily accessible to your session.

The Task window shows the status of background tasks, such as sound-file copying. In addition, Tasks can be re-prioritized and cancelled while in progress.

SIGNIFICANT OTHERS

On the Mac side, Pro Tools 6's most important MIDI enhancement is support of Apple's CoreMIDI services. Say goodbye to reliance on the long-defunct OMS standard. Additional MIDI improvements include support for MIDI time stamping for more accurate MIDI timing, groove quantization of MIDI tracks, and the ability to draw notes and controller data with the Pencil tool. Pro Tools 6 also supports four virtual MIDI inputs that allow you to connect supported third-party applications such as Ableton Live.

Significantly, version 6.1 adds support for Propellerhead ReWire, a cross-application audio/MIDI streaming standard that allows any ReWire-compatible application to connect seamlessly with Pro Tools. ReWire sends audio data directly into Pro Tools tracks and out of your Digidesign interface, mixed with any audio data you might have in Pro Tools itself. Transport and location commands are shared between applications, and either program can act as the master. I started up Pro Tools and Propellerhead Reason, routed Reason's outputs into Pro Tools inputs, and within moments I was operating both programs together smoothly. The faster your CPU, the better your experience will be using multiple applications with ReWire.

Digidesign improved the Import Session Data window: it now gives you finer control over which parameters of a source session should be imported into the current session. Each track can be imported as a new track or into an existing track in the target session. Virtually every source-track parameter — from track comments to plug-in assignments to automation data — can be imported or ignored.

The Session Setup window has been streamlined, and it defaults to show only the most commonly needed settings. Synchronization and time-code settings are now window options that drop down when selected.

In the “nice touches that were a long time coming” category, the Selector tool can now select audio across multiple tracks when you move the mouse vertically. This simple enhancement is a real time-saver for multitrack editing.

In earlier versions of Pro Tools, click tracks could be generated only by using external MIDI sound modules. The new Click plug-in (see Fig. 3) creates audio pulses, allowing you to specify accented and unaccented levels. In addition, you have 11 sounds to choose from for the click.

Beat Detective can now create groove templates from a percussive performance. Groove templates can be saved to the clipboard or disk and applied to other audio or MIDI material. Pro Tools 6 comes with a hefty load of groove templates to get you started.

NEW TO PRO TOOLS LE

A number of excellent features that were previously available only in the TDM version have been added to Pro Tools LE. To begin with, the program can now handle 32 simultaneous tracks of audio. Audio tracks can be made inactive, allowing 128 audio tracks to exist in a session, with 32 of them active at a time. In addition, Pro Tools LE supports 128 auxiliary inputs, 64 master faders, and 256 MIDI tracks — practically enough to record a Queen album.

The Time Trim tool has also been brought in from Pro Tools TDM. This tool gives you the ability to time-compress or -expand a region on the fly to fit a specified length.

Command Focus mode lets you assign your favorite everyday editing commands to single keystrokes on the keyboard. Once memorized, these keystrokes increase your efficiency enormously. This feature greatly narrows the gap in functionality between the TDM and LE versions of the software.

The gap is narrowed further with the introduction of the DV Toolkit option ($795) for Pro Tools LE 6.1, making film and video post-production possible on LE systems for the first time. The DV Toolkit option lets you work in SMPro ToolsE timecode and the feet.frames format. Audio and video pull-up/pull-down is also supported. This welcome addition means sound editors can now use a Digi 002, for example, instead of a full-fledged TDM system, allowing the post-production world to get in the door for substantially less money.

ILOK PROTECTION

In an attempt to stamp out plug-in piracy, Digidesign has adopted the iLok system, which requires a USB dongle. All plug-ins and software enhancements created or distributed by Digidesign or by its development partners will require an iLok in order to run. Users must create an account at www.ilok.com to manage their plug-ins.

Like any copy-protection system, iLok has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, having a third party company act as an intermediary between users and manufacturers means additional bureaucracy and hassle. On the other hand, the iLok dongle holds authorizations for up to 100 plug-ins, and it allows freelance users to take their authorizations with them to work on multiple systems.

PREPARING TO UPGRADE

If you are running Pro Tools 6 in OS X, be sure to upgrade to version 10.2.6 (or later) before installing Pro Tools. Also, make sure that your computer is up to snuff. When I used Pro Tools 6 LE with my Mbox on an Mac iBook laptop, the performance was a bit slow and cumbersome. The reason is that G3 processors don't run OS X as well as G4 processors do. Nonetheless, Pro Tools 6 LE worked properly in that situation, and version 6.1 LE was considerably more stable on this machine than version 6.0.

I tested Pro Tools 6.0 TDM on a dual Power Mac G4/867 MHz (Mirrored Drive Door), with an HD 3 system and a Digidesign 192 I/O. The main issue I had was an intermittent problem with nasty distortion when I returned to zero in a session. (Playing back a session from the middle resulted in proper output.) These problems disappeared when I installed the Pro Tools TDM 6.0.1 patch, and version 6.1 has been glitch-free.

Additionally, be sure to take into account the upgrade costs for your plug-ins. Most of Digidesign's development partners have released Pro Tools 6.1 — compatible versions, but these manufacturers may charge separate upgrade fees for their plug-ins.

THIS JUST IN

As this review was going to press, Digidesign released the 6.1.1 and 6.2 updates. Unfortunately, neither update arrived in time for me to use them in this review. Version 6.1.1 added updated CoreAudio, ASIO, and WAV drivers to the program, allowing third-party software to communicate with Pro Tools hardware. In fact, with these drivers installed, you can use Emagic Logic, Steinberg Cubase SX, and other digital audio sequencers as the front end to your Pro Tools hardware without ever having to launch your Pro Tools software. Another added feature is the ability to import and export Windows Media Audio 9 and Windows Media Audio 9 Pro files on Windows XP systems.

Along with version 6.2, Digidesign has released the Pro Tools|HD Accel card, which offers a nearly two-fold increase in processing power over the HD Process card. The Accel card can be added to any Pro Tools|HD system, and Digidesign says it can work along with HD Process cards. However, users will need to update their plug-ins to run on the Accel card (the existing HD plug-ins will still run on the HD Core card). Pro Tools 6.2 also adds support for the 96i I/O audio interface.

ADMIT ONE

The version 6 update provides some much-needed improvements to Pro Tools, such as the ability to instantiate TDM plug-ins on the fly during playback, the ability to select audio over multiple tracks, and the Click plug-in. The Pro Tools MIDI toolbox is ever expanding, and Digidesign is working hard to make it easier to link Pro Tools with third-party applications by introducing ReWire support and alternative drivers for its hardware.

Any user working with large numbers of files will find the addition of Digibase to the program a real bonus. And LE users will enjoy the increased track count, the DV Toolkit option, the Time Trim tool, and the Command Focus mode. All of this, combined with the migration to Mac OS X and the increased stability in Windows XP, makes the upgrade to Pro Tools 6.1 worth the price of admission.


Nick Peck plays music, records music, teaches music, and writes about music. You can contact him at nick@perceptivesound.com. His Web site is www.underthebigtree.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Pro Tools 6.1

MAC: G4/350 MHz; 512 MB RAM (1,024 MB recommended); Mac OS X 10.2.6

PC: Pentium III/450 MHz; 512 MB RAM (1,024 MB recommended); Windows XP

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Digidesign

Pro Tools 6.1 (Mac/Win)
digital audio workstation
TDM upgrade $195
LE upgrade $75
upgrades from version 6.0 free

FEATURES 3.0
EASE OF USE 3.0
DOCUMENTATION 4.0
VALUE 3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Mac OS X and Windows XP compatibility. Updated GUI. Digibase database system. Addition of virtual tracks to Pro Tools LE. Addition of Command Focus mode to Pro Tools LE. ReWire support.

CONS: No Audio Units support. LE lacks surround sound and Beat Detective. Minimal MIDI implementation compared with other DAW software.

Manufacturer

Digidesign
tel. (800) 333-2137 or (650) 731-6300
e-mail prodinfo@digidesign.com
Web www.digidesign.com

Pro Tools 6.1 Specifications

Audio Tracks 128 (192 with the Accel card)
MIDI Tracks 256
Buses 64
Sends Per Track 5
Inserts Per Track 5
Sequencer Resolution 960,000 ppqn, synced to internal or MIDI Clock source
Sampling Resolution 16-bit, 24-bit (selectable)
Sampling Frequency 192 kHz max.
Quantization whole note to 64th-note triplet

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