Digidesign's Pro Tools remains one of the most popular digital audio workstations on the market. Unfortunately, most personal-studio owners don't have
Publish date:
Social count:
Digidesign's Pro Tools remains one of the most popular digital audio workstations on the market. Unfortunately, most personal-studio owners don't have

Digidesign's Pro Tools remains one of the most popular digital audio workstations on the market. Unfortunately, most personal-studio owners don't have the $5,999 (or more) that it takes to get started with a Pro Tools TDM system with its DSP-based processing power.

And the competition has been catching up. A number of other companies have released DAWs and digital audio sequencers that cost well under $1,000, work with third-party hardware, and support real-time plug-in formats such as VST or DirectX. Although Digidesign has made some attempts to cater to this market with less-expensive packages such as ToolBox, these systems don't include support for real-time plug-ins or feature MIDI sequencing capability.

Enter Digi 001, the long-anticipated personal-studio-priced digital audio sequencer from Digidesign. Digi 001 includes a hardware interface (see Fig. 1) and PCI card, and it runs Pro Tools LE, a host-based "lite" version of Pro Tools version 5.0. LE features a MIDI sequencer and 24-bit audio capability, just like the TDM version of Pro Tools 5.0, and also introduces a new plug-in format called Real Time AudioSuite. Ever since I'd heard rumor of this feature-enhanced, lower-priced system, I couldn't wait to take it for a spin. Since I'm familiar with the power of the higher-end TDM systems, I was especially curious to see how robust Digi 001 would be and what kind of demands it would place on my computer.

PACKAGE DEALDigi 001 is designed to be a studio in a box (sans amplifier and speakers, of course). Along with the PCI card, hardware interface, and Pro Tools LE software, the package includes an optical cable and a cable to connect the PCI card to the interface. Digidesign intended Digi 001 to be a plug-and-play product, and indeed it is-if you meet the minimum RAM and OS requirements.

For starters, if you're used to running your digital audio sequencer with 64 MB of RAM, you'll need to double that amount to run this program. Although Digi 001's minimum requirement is 128 MB of RAM, Digidesign recommends that you have at least 192 MB, and if you want to take full advantage of the system by running 24 audio tracks, numerous MIDI tracks, and plug-ins galore, you will need even more. Needless to say, this isn't your typical "lite" version of an application.

ON THE FACE OF ITThe Digi 001 hardware interface is designed for use with or without a mixer, and sports a nice complement of I/O options. The unit is 1U, beginning at 13.5 inches wide without the rack ears attached, and is powered by your computer via a 6-foot multipin cable that attaches from the rear panel to the PCI card. A front-panel light indicates that the interface is on. While the cable is long enough to let me easily reach the interface when it's in the rack, I wish there were a power button on the unit so I could shut it off when I'm using my computer for nonmusical chores.

The Digi 001 interface can handle most I/O needs. The front panel has two mic/line inputs with convenient Neutrik combo (XLR and 11/44-inch) jacks that accept mic-, instrument-, and line-level signals. These inputs, channels 1 and 2, feature mic preamps (a first for Digidesign), a -26 dB pad for line-level signals, and separate gain controls. A single front-panel switch adds phantom power to both inputs at the same time. A software-selectable highpass filter (shelving at 60 Hz) on channels 1 and 2 removes low-end artifacts while recording. The front panel also has a volume control for the Monitor outputs, a headphone jack with a dedicated gain control, and a Monitor Mode switch.

The remaining six analog inputs, channels 3 through 8, are on the rear panel (see Fig. 2). Inputs 3 and 4, also called the Monitor Inputs, are used in conjunction with the Monitor mode. When the front-panel Monitor Mode switch is on, signals sent to Monitor Inputs 3 and 4 will go to Main Outputs 1 and 2, respectively, so you can use the interface as a simple mixer even if the unit is disconnected from your computer.

The mic preamps compare favorably to the ones built into my studio mixer, and the tracks I recorded through the interface sounded great. The A/D/A converters are all 24 bit, and you can run a session in 16- or 24-bit resolution at either 44.1 or 48 kHz. A dither plug-in comes standard and allows you to select a bit resolution of 16, 18, or 20.

I'll admit that a couple of things about Digi 001 immediately stuck in my craw when I first started recording. To begin with, the hardware interface has no level meters. While you can watch the meters in the Mix or Edit windows as you manually adjust the gain level for channels 1 and 2, gain adjustments for inputs 3 through 8 must be done with the software, and the necessary dialog box is two click levels away from the surface of the program. The program also doesn't allow you to hear the results as you change levels. You need to execute a change before you can see and hear the results.

Also on the rear panel are ten analog outputs: two Monitor Outputs and two Main Outputs on balanced 11/44-inch TRS jacks operating at +4 dBV, and six additional outputs on unbalanced 11/44-inch jacks operating at -10 dBu. In Stereo Mix Output mode, the outputs are grouped into pairs, allowing for stereo panning. In Direct Output mode, audio can be sent to each output individually, which is useful if you're going to route each output through an analog mixer, or use the outputs for sends and returns. Other rear-panel connections include MIDI In and Out, a footswitch jack, a 9-pin serial connector, and S/PDIF I/O on RCA jacks.

The Digi 001 system also includes optical I/O on the PCI card. In software, you can select whether the optical connections send and receive 8-channel ADAT or 2-channel S/PDIF information. Digi 001 gives you the option of using S/PDIF Mirroring, which sends the same signals that are routed to outputs 1 and 2 to the selected S/PDIF output simultaneously. When S/PDIF Mirroring is disabled, the S/PDIF outputs can be routed independently, so you can use them for sends and returns.

I didn't like having the optical I/O on the PCI card, however, for several reasons. First, it's difficult to access, unless you connect the cables to the card when you install it and leave them connected until you need them. Second, the distance from the bottom of my computer tower to almost any position in my rack is greater than the length of the optical cable supplied with the Digi 001 system-you'll need to invest in a pair of long cables if you plan to use the optical input and output at the same time. Lastly, there's no ADAT sync in the Digi 001 system, although I didn't encounter any problems when I recorded to and from Digi 001 with an ADAT.

These inconveniences aside, Digi 001 allows you to use up to 18 inputs or outputs simultaneously, which isn't bad, considering the size of the interface.

As would be expected, Pro Tools LE imports Sound Designer II files. You can also open AIFF, WAV, SND, and QuickTime files using the Convert and Import Audio command. Pro Tools LE can also export these file types, as well as RealAudio G2 and MP3. To export MP3 files, you'll need to buy an optional encoder ($19.95) directly from Digidesign's Web site, although Pro Tools LE comes with a 30-day demo version.

I should also mention that you can change the color of the Digi 001 faceplate to match the color of your computer (unless you're running a beige G3, as I am). Faceplates are available from Digidesign for an extra $29.95.

RESPECT YOUR HOSTPro Tools LE is a host-based DSP/plug-in engine that runs Pro Tools 5.0 software under the hood. For the most part, Pro Tools LE looks and acts like the TDM version, with certain limitations.

The maximum number of mono audio tracks that can be played back simultaneously in LE is 24 (compared with a maximum of 64 in a Pro Tools/24 Mix TDM version). In addition, LE gives you a maximum of 16 internal mix buses (versus 32 in a TDM system), as well as five inserts and five sends per track (the same as in the TDM version). Running Pro Tools LE with the Digi 001 interface gives you 24-bit A/D/A conversion. If you're using an Audiomedia III card with LE, you'll have only 18-bit A/D/A conversion, although the card can handle 24-bit word lengths through the digital I/O.

One important thing to know is that Pro Tools LE sessions are interchangeable, under certain conditions, with sessions created on Pro Tools/24 Mixplus TDM systems. LE-created sessions will work in TDM systems with no trouble, including automation and plug-in settings. One way to create sessions on a TDM system that will work on an LE system is to limit your session to 24 tracks or less and 16 buses or less. Another way is to select Pro Tools LE on Mix in the Playback Engine Setup in the TDM application before creating your session. This step still allows you to use the Mix or 24 Mix I/O, but Pro Tools will be run on the host processor rather than the TDM DSP cards. You'll also need to make s ure you limit the track count to 24; any additional tracks will be discarded when the session is opened in Pro Tools LE. This compatibility aspect is an important feature of LE and should be of great interest to the personal-studio owner thinking about investing in this system.

SPEED IS KINGWhen you launch the Pro Tools application, you're also launching the Digidesign Audio Engine (DAE), which acts as the driver for the system. The memory allocated to the DAE determines how certain aspects of Pro Tools will operate; in particular, how much RAM is allocated to the program (select the DAE icon and choose Get Info, then Memory) and the size of the playback buffer (found under the File menu in DAE). These DAE settings affect the plug-in operation and the editing and mixing strength.

The performance of a system running LE depends on the speed of the host processor. The faster the processor, the more power you'll get. Although the minimum CPU requirement is 604e/200 MHz, you're going to want a much faster processor if you plan on having a lot of automation and a large number of tracks, edits, or third-party plug-ins. Balancing these four CPU-intensive elements is the key to success with a host-based system, especially if you have a slower computer.

With this in mind, two of the most important settings in LE are the Buffer Size and the CPU Usage settings, found in the Hardware Setup dialog box. Buffer Size controls the amount of latency, or delay, you get when recording or playing through the system. The lower the setting, the lower the latency; the higher the setting, the more tracks and plug-ins you can use. CPU Usage determines how much of the host processor is reserved for the Pro Tools application. This will need to be adjusted if Pro Tools is sharing the processor with a host-based synthesizer.

For this review I used a beige G3 with a 266 MHz processor. Although I had no problem running Digidesign's excellent 24-track tutorial and demo on this machine, I found it wasn't fast enough when I tried to use multiple third-party plug-ins at once, or if I had lots of edits and automation in my projects. G3s and G4s with faster speeds will get the best results.

To get the most out of Pro Tools LE, you'll need to have the right balance between memory allocation and speed. Fortunately, the manuals that come with Digi 001 help you determine this, in language that is easy to understand.

Be aware that there is a small incompatibility problem between Digi 001 and the beige G3s. Digidesign is aware of the problem, which is posted on the Digi 001 Web site. The incompatibility problem results in an occasional, nonfatal error. During the month that I tested LE, I got the error message only three times. Not a big deal, but noticeable. Blue-and-white G3s and G4s are therefore recommended for use with Digi 001. (By the time you read this, a Windows 98 version of Digi 001 will also be available.)

MIDI IMPLEMENTATIONWith version 5.0, Digidesign introduces a MIDI sequencer-a major breakthrough for Pro Tools and a feature many of us Pro Tools users have been anxiously waiting for. In the last few years, Digidesign has fallen behind its competitors, who have developed quite sophisticated digital audio sequencers that use third-party hardware I/O. Has Digidesign risen to this important challenge with Digi 001? The answer is "almost." Don't give up your full-featured sequencer just yet.

A far cry from the days when Pro Tools could only import and play Standard MIDI Files, Digi 001 and LE now allow you to record, edit, and play MIDI data much the same way you do audio tracks. In fact, you can edit across audio and MIDI tracks at the same time, working on entire sections of a session if you so desire. I found this to be one of the most useful aspects of the new MIDI implementation.

The new sequencer has a resolution of 960 ppqn and allows for a total of 128 MIDI tracks. With the Digi 001 interface, you get a single MIDI In and Out port, giving you a total of 16 MIDI channels at a time. With a more extensive MIDI interface, you can use up to 128 MIDI channels with LE.

In the Edit window, MIDI tracks are treated just like audio tracks and can be viewed as either Notes (in the familiar piano-roll style) or Regions (see Fig. 3). At the far left of the window is a handy vertical keyboard, which you can play by holding down the Command key and clicking on the note you want. The larger the displayed track, the more keyboard notes you will see.

You can use the Track Display option in the Edit window to select the MIDI data you want to view or automate, just as you would with an audio track. You have a choice of viewing Notes, Regions, Volume, Velocity, Pan, Pitch Bend, SysEx, or Continuous Controllers. For example, if you select Velocity in the Track Display, you'll see a vertical line for every MIDI event. These lines are referred to as Velocity Stalks, and can be raised or lowered using the editing tools. Other MIDI data, such as Pan, is similar to its audio counterpart and can be edited in a similar fashion.

The implementation of MIDI in Pro Tools also adds a few items to the transport control bar (see Fig. 4). In addition to the regular transport controls, you get a metronome button, which lets you count off a specified number of bars, and tempo and meter indicators. You can select the tempo either manually with a slider on the transport, or via the Tap Tempo feature, and you can place specific tempo events in the tempo track at the top of the Edit window.

Another useful button in the transport window is MIDI Merge. When selected, it allows you to merge new MIDI data with existing MIDI information.

For my taste, the MIDI implementation complements Pro Tools' audio features quite well. Like the rest of the program, the sequencer is straightforward and easy to use, which is a plus. However, I consider this sequencer to be a work in progress; sophisticated MIDI users who require a full-featured sequencer will find some significant items missing.

To begin with, there's no Event List. Musicians who are serious about tweaking MIDI data will be disappointed by this omission. (Digidesign is planning to change this in a future revision of the program.) Also, you can record only one MIDI track at a time. In addition, the program lacks a step-record mode, groove-quantization capabilities, MTC output, and simple music-notation abilities. Fortunately, you can run a third-party sequencer with LE if necessary.

REAL-TIME EFFECTSYet another significant feature of the Digi 001 system is its Real Time AudioSuite (RTAS) plug-in format. RTAS plug-ins can be added to an audio channel via any of the five available inserts, in the same way plug-ins are added in the TDM environment. The difference is, of course, that with TDM systems, the plug-in runs from a dedicated DSP chip, whereas in LE the plug-in runs on the host processor. The faster your computer is and the more RAM you have, the more plug-ins you can run in a session.

For the most part, the RTAS versions of a plug-in have the same features as their TDM brethren. And if you open an LE-created session on a TDM system, the TDM version of any RTAS plug-ins you used in the session can be substituted. As a person who enjoys using plug-ins, I couldn't wait to use RTAS.

To get you started, Digidesign throws in a set of its DigiRack RTAS plug-ins. These include two EQs (1-band and 4-band), four dynamics processors (a compressor, limiter, gate, and expander/gate), four types of delay (short, slap, medium, and long delays, both mono and stereo), and dither. One nice thing about the DigiRack plug-ins is that they don't tax your CPU, so even on slower machines you can run a large number of them simultaneously.

Things get a bit more interesting with the third-party RTAS plug-ins, however. A number of companies in Digidesign's Development Partners group have created RTAS versions of their TDM plug-ins. The result is that newer TDM plug-ins will come with both an RTAS and an AudioSuite (non-real-time) version, and every RTAS plug-in will include an AudioSuite version as well.

I was able to test several third-party RTAS plug-ins from Waves and Bomb Factory (see the sidebar "Third-Party RTAS Offerings"). On their own, the effects worked great. Some of the plug-ins, however, are particularly CPU-intensive, and I had mixed results when I tried to use more than one at a time during a session.

Apparently, a 266 MHz G3 is no match for some of these plug-ins. I had to remind myself that I was using the host processor rather than the card-based DSP chips of a TDM system. At least there's file-based AudioSuite processing available as well as Pro Tools' Bounce to Disk feature, so I could create file-processed (non-real-time) versions of a track when I needed them. As a nice touch, LE lets you copy and paste the settings of an RTAS plug-in to the AudioSuite version. This is a handy feature, since AudioSuite file processing is generally faster than bouncing to disk.

In addition to the system's speed requirement, Digidesign suggests that in order to run multiple memory-intensive RTAS plug-ins, you allocate an extra 1 to 2 MB of RAM to the DAE application for every five plug-ins you add. You can also gain some extra processing power by moving unused plug-ins from the Plug-in folder to another folder. (You'll need to relaunch Pro Tools each time you do this.)

NEW TOOLSPro Tools 5.0 includes a host of important upgrades. (A number of new features will appeal to post-production users; these will be covered in a full review of Pro Tools 5.0 for TDM in an upcoming issue of EM.) The user interface in version 5.0 includes familiar tools and windows, as well as some classy additions.

For starters, the Smart Tool automatically selects the Trimmer, Selector, and Grabber tools as needed. It determines its selection according to the portion of a waveform you're covering. Smart Tool can be switched on or off (the button resides below the Edit tools) and doesn't affect the Zoomer, Scrubber, or Pencil tools. Edit tools can also be selected with the F5 through F10 keys, and you can engage the Smart Tool by simultaneously pressing F6 and F7 or F7 and F8 (which correspond to the appropriate tools)-just two of several very useful macros incorporated into the program.

The Pencil tool now has five preset shapes: freehand, line, triangle, square, and random. The last three are handy for drawing track automation. The square and random shapes, with their sharp corners, are ideal for automating functions that can be switched on or off, while the triangular shape works well for continuous parameters such as volume. The height of the preset waveform is adjustable as you draw. Grid Value, on the other hand, determines the width of the shape, regardless of whether you're in Grid mode.

Another significant change is in the zoom arrows. The horizontal zoom buttons affect audio and MIDI, but now there are separate vertical zoom buttons for audio and MIDI. In addition, there are five user-definable zoom presets (Digidesign refers to them as Zoom Chicklets). Anyone who has spent time with a waveform editor knows that zooming in and out can be time consuming. The ability to instantly recall specific resolutions is a great feature.

TAKE ME TO YOUR RULERAnother new aspect to the Edit window is that you can display any or all of the time-line rulers. This allows you to view audio and MIDI against bars and beats, minutes and seconds, and samples. You can view the tempo and meter bars to keep an eye on how they're mapped throughout a piece. Distressingly, a time-code ruler is absent in LE. If you plan on doing serious post-production, you will have to work around this by converting minutes and seconds to feet and frames.

Much of this becomes useful if you tracked to the internal metronome. When audio and MIDI tracks are synched to bars and beats, you can make use of Grid mode and view the grid across the entire Edit window. You can specify the resolution of the grid, from bar-length increments down to 64th-note triplets.

If you have an audio file that wasn't created with the internal metronome but you want to set a tempo map and use the features in Grid mode, you can analyze the file using the enhanced Identify Beat command. This command determines the tempo of the audio file based on the meter and time signature you've selected, then adds Bar/Beat markers in the tempo ruler. Once this is done, you can use Grid mode to select and work in any of a variety of quantizations.

MEMORY SERVESPro Tools 5.0 allows you to set 200 memory locations per session. In this application, however, memory locations are more than just one-dimensional pointers. Memory Location markers can recall specific zoom settings, track groupings, edit locations, track heights-you name it.

You can view memory location markers in the Marker window just below the Meter ruler, or with all memory location information in the floating Memory Locations window (see Fig. 5). Use this window to select the memory location you want to go to, as well as view the properties of a specific marker (whether it pertains to a zoom setting, track height, grouping, or something else). I found the ability to set different types of memory locations to be a valuable tool as my projects increased in size and complexity. Any position in the piece is only a single click away, whether it's an edit location zoomed down to the sample level or a specific track layout in the Edit window.

AN AFFORDABLE SOLUTIONMy initial excitement about Digi 001 was somewhat dampened by the hefty RAM requirements and the fact that I couldn't run more than one or two of the cooler third-party plug-ins at once. However, on my computer I had no problems using the system. Minor complaints aside, Pro Tools 5.0 is a significant upgrade, and the host-based LE is remarkably smooth and trouble free, even on my beige G3.

A number of digital audio sequencers on the market have more sophisticated sequencing capabilities, are compatible with ASIO drivers and VST or DirectX plug-ins, and cost less than Digi 001. (Even with version 5.0 and LE, Pro Tools continues to be a closed system when it comes to PCI card and hardware I/O compatibility.) Nonetheless, when you consider that you're getting a hardware interface with lots of I/O and a pair of great-sounding mic preamps, a PCI card, and RTAS-enhanced Pro Tools LE for under a grand, you're getting your money's worth with Digi 001.

Gino Robair is an associate editor at EM. Special thanks to Rod Watkins, Peter Drescher, Rudy Trubitt, and Steve Kirk.

DIRECTCONNECT RTASDigidesign has nearly completed its DirectConnect RTAS plug-in for Pro Tools 5.0. In conjunction with LE, DirectConnect will allow you to control software samplers and synthesizers via MIDI and route the output directly into an aux input of the Pro Tools mixer. By connecting to the mixer internally, you maintain a 24-bit word length while keeping latency at a very low level.

A number of third-party applications will work with DirectConnect RTAS when it's released, including Koblo's Studio 9000, BitHeadz's Retro AS-1 and Unity DS-1, and Native Instruments' Reaktor. But keep in mind that combining CPU-intensive applications such as Pro Tools LE with a software synth or sampler will require a faster processor and more RAM.

THIRD-PARTY RTAS OFFERINGSA number of Digidesign Development Partners have RTAS plug-ins available, some of which may already be familiar to TDM users. Waves' batch includes not only the familiar Q10, L1, C1, and S1, but also TrueVerb, RComp, MaxxBass, Ultra Pitch, and more.

Bomb Factory has modeled a handful of popular effects processors including Big Briar's Moogerfooger Ring Modulator and Lowpass Filter, the SansAmp PSA-1, and the Universal Audio LA-2A and 1176 compressors. Other companies currently shipping RTAS plug-ins include Arboretum, DUY, Metric Halo, McDSP, and INA-GRM. More are sure to follow.