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Digidesign Pro Tools 8 (Mac/Win) Review

May 1, 2009
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Among DAWs, Pro Tools is a ubiquitous behemoth. From M-Powered to LE to HD, Pro Tools is the software you're most likely to find running in studios of all sizes. A major upgrade like version 8 is always enough to get the whole pro audio community abuzz with excitement, and this reviewer is certainly no exception. New features include user-interface enhancements, integrated score and MIDI editors, new Elastic Audio functions, a sizable loop collection, 20 all-new effects plug-ins, 4 all-new software instruments, and more.

Gray Is the New Black

My first task was to install Pro Tools LE 8 on my studio's 8-core 2.8 GHz Mac Pro. I received my update information by email, which prompted me to log in to Digidesign's user area. I entered the activation code and downloaded the 4.1 GB application installer, which includes several software instruments and sample libraries. Installation was straightforward and speedy, and I didn't need to have a previous version already installed.

The most noticeable difference in Pro Tools 8's graphical user interface is the color scheme, which now emphasizes shades of gray. In the Mix window, you can color code each full channel strip using the color-palette preferences. In the Mix and Edit windows, moving tracks around is significantly easier, because brilliant yellow highlights indicate their new locations. Bus and I/O assignments are also highlighted when you change them.

Other GUI improvements include knobs for panning (instead of sliders), more-detailed metering in the Mix window, multiple lanes of automation data per track in the Edit window, and more-customizable (and recallable) window configurations. The new Universe view allows you to navigate your entire session from a miniature overview in the Mix window. My only gripe is that it's harder to see the difference between active and inactive tracks.

Not Just Another Pretty Face

FIG. 1: With an updated GUI and loads of new features and plug-ins, Pro Tools 8 changes the face of Digidesign''s powerful DAW software. The new Playlists Track view speeds up the comping process.

FIG. 1: With an updated GUI and loads of new features and plug-ins, Pro Tools 8 changes the face of Digidesign''s powerful DAW software. The new Playlists Track view speeds up the comping process.

Pro Tools 8 has loads of new features, as evidenced by the 131-page PDF What's New in Pro Tools. It's impossible to tackle them all in this review, so I'll focus on the most important ones. Pro Tools LE and M-Powered now have 48 simultaneous stereo or mono tracks, which you can expand to as many as 128 mono or 64 stereo tracks using one of three optional Toolkits ($395 to $1,995). Although that's quite a few more tracks than the previous version, non-HD users still don't get automatic delay compensation. You can have up to ten inserts per channel, twice as many as before. You can sweep the mouse over multiple tracks in the Track List to show or hide them.

One of my favorite new features is the Playlists Track view, which displays each playlist in its own lane below the main playlist (see Fig. 1). A new key command for copying a selection from an alternate playlist to the main playlist makes comping much, much easier. The key commands Shift + S, Shift + M, and Shift + R now solo, mute, and record enable the currently selected track or playlist. Another handy new feature: Command + Option + Z (Mac) or Ctrl + Alt + Z (Win) now restores your last selection if you accidentally deselect a region or section of the timeline.

The new Elastic Pitch function lets you change pitch in a recorded track on a region-by-region basis. You manually select the notes you'd like to change and then type the plus or minus value (in semitones or cents) in a dialog box. You'll start to hear artifacts if you go too far up or down, but it works quite well within a semitone or two.

The only feature that took a backward step is the Export Tracks dialog box. Parameters that don't apply aren't sufficiently grayed out, making it hard to see what attributes your export will have. In addition, Export Tracks doesn't default to the last-used folder like it used to when you click on the Choose button.

A.I.R.-Plugs

One of the upgrade's most exciting aspects is its new plug-in bundle. Although many of these plug-ins deliver the same capabilities that other major platforms have had for years — automatic panning, a real-time multitap delay, and multiple reverbs, for example — the sheer number of them is impressive, and they all sound really good (see the online bonus material at emusician.com). The various distortion processors are real standouts. Bomb Factory/Tech21 SansAmp, for instance, sounds remarkably like my beloved SansAmp PSA-1 rackmount unit. A.I.R. Frequency Shifter is a Bode modulator that's similar to a ring modulator but with more control. I also liked A.I.R. Stereo Width, a powerful yet simple-to-use M-S encoder/decoder with several useful modes. Other notable additions are A.I.R. Spring Reverb, A.I.R. Talkbox, and TL Metro, a feature-laden alternative to the standard Click plug-in.

FIG. 2: Boom, one of four new virtual instruments, is a drum machine with a very intuitive interface.

FIG. 2: Boom, one of four new virtual instruments, is a drum machine with a very intuitive interface.

In addition to the effects and utility plug-ins, Pro Tools 8 comes with four new virtual instruments, a previous one (Structure Free), and an updated one, all developed by A.I.R. (Advanced Instrument Research, a company under the Digidesign umbrella). Xpand!2, which blends sampling and synthesis, updates Digidesign's unique instrument plug-in. Mini Grand (piano), DB-33 (Hammond organ), Boom (drum machine; see Fig. 2), and Vacuum (virtual analog synthesizer) are all totally new. They all sound great and come in handy, especially for those of us without large software instrument libraries. The only problem I encountered is that DB-33 introduced crackly glitches running at 96 kHz, but it ran fine at lower sampling rates.

One great thing about all A.I.R. plug-ins is that they utilize the mouse scroll wheel, a feature I'd like to see on all plug-ins. A minor drawback for Pro Tools HD users is that A.I.R. instruments and effects run only as RTAS plug-ins, so they don't take advantage of TDM cards' processing power and low latencies.

MIDI Consultation

Since my work revolves primarily around audio recording and mixing, I wanted the opinion of someone who uses MIDI to compose on a daily basis. Steve Kirk, a member of the fantastic Bay Area band Orchestra Nostalgico, is a prolific composer for film, commercials, and video games. He uses a myriad of software-based sounds either as placeholders for real instruments or as part of the final arrangement. Steve had switched from Pro Tools to MOTU Digital Performer a few years back, citing more-complex MIDI requirements than Pro Tools could handle at the time. He recently upgraded to Pro Tools 8, hoping that what he considers superior audio editing in Pro Tools would be matched with ample MIDI implementation. He wasn't disappointed, and in fact he said he was incredibly impressed with the new MIDI features.

FIG. 3: The new MIDI Editor window makes editing various MIDI parameters on multiple tracks a breeze.

FIG. 3: The new MIDI Editor window makes editing various MIDI parameters on multiple tracks a breeze.

Steve found the new MIDI Editor (available as a tile at the bottom of the Edit window or in its own separate window) an elegant interface for accessing his complex layers of MIDI data. The MIDI Editor window can follow the main Edit window's tool and operation modes (Slip, Shuffle, Grid, or Spot) or have its own unique setup (see Fig. 3). It also has its own track hiding, Timeline view, and Conductor rulers. In addition, Steve really appreciated the new Score window, which is loosely based on Digidesign's Sibelius notation software, which he uses to flesh out his scores. His only (very modest) complaint was that there is only a global split point in Notation view; he'd like to be able to split the default Grand Staff on a local basis.

Cut to the Chase

Shortly before I finished this review, I received a new HD2 Accel system, which included an upgrade to Pro Tools 8. The Pro Tools HD-only features mostly revolve around Avid video improvements and Satellite Link (for running sessions across multiple computers over an Ethernet network), neither of which I use. In general, though, Pro Tools HD 8 has been running like a dream, with all the same features I'd been enjoying in LE, especially after I installed the CS (customer service) update. I have a general issue with Digidesign not alerting its customers to CS updates well enough, but it claims that automatic update notification will be part of a forthcoming release.

To be clear, this review is not really meant to compare Pro Tools with the many other DAWs out there. I'm a dedicated longtime Pro Tools user, and the latest version contains numerous components that make my day-to-day work easier, more pleasurable, and more creative, all at a very low upgrade cost. Although I've touched on only a handful of new features, I'm sure you'll continue discovering them around every corner as I have. I feel strongly that Digidesign has never offered a more compelling total software package than Pro Tools 8.


Eli Crews wrangles both ones and zeros at New, Improved Recording, his studio in Oakland, California. Special thanks to Steve Kirk for his help with this review.

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