Digidesign Pro Tools 6

The king of the DAW hill advances to OS X

Despite the seemingly best efforts of us humans, the world keeps on turning. Prime evidence? The never-ending stream of software updates we deal with on an almost daily basis. Software updates are one thing, but OS updates are another. Major OS upgrades usually turn everything upside down for awhile, until all the developers have a chance to release yet another upgrade (or two or three) that deals with the new OS. However, once the various twists and turns are navigated, the new OS is generally found to be an improvement — few of us would truly want to go back to the computers and OS’s of five years ago.

But it’s not like you really have a choice about upgrading to the new OS and software. Yes, you can decide to “freeze” your computer and simply use the software you have . . . after all, if it’s working now, why potentially break it? Unfortunately, this only seems to work for a short while; eventually you want the cool features in the new OS or in the software that runs on it. Or you start running into problems with your “frozen” computer, and realize that the versions of software you’re running are no longer supported, you can’t get parts for the hardware, or whatever. The prudent thing seems to be to wait a reasonable period of time for the new OS to “settle in” and for all the developers to get onboard, then dive in yourself.

That’s been my approach to Mac OS X. I had experimented with it a bit, but was waiting for more audio applications to be ported over before taking the deep dive. Now with the release of Pro Tools 6 — as well as the release or near-release of other critical audio/MIDI software — I’ve taken the plunge. Digidesign has decided to only support OS X on the Mac (Windows XP will be coming soon), with no “legacy” support for OS 9.x. While not a complete “overhaul,” Pro Tools 6 offers a number of very cool advancements, and sets the stage for more improvements to come.

What’s New
We’ve covered Pro Tools extensively in the past (most recently our review of Pro Tools|HD in October 2002 and the Digi 002 review in March 2003), so let’s put or main focus on what’s new in Pro Tools 6 (PT 6).

It probably goes without saying that the most obvious change is support for Mac OS X. This includes the graphic and user interface changes, and also “under the hood” enhancements, such as improved performance, dual-G4 processor support, and increased stability. But there are numerous other changes in PT 6.

If you’re doing a lot of recording sessions, accessing files frequently for video spotting, or using a network for storage, managing Pro Tools sessions, audio, and related files can get to be a mind-numbing chore. PT 6 includes DigiBase, an integrated database optimized for Pro Tools data and media. DigiBase allows you to catalog all your media, whether hard drives connected to your PT 6 computer, network storage devices, CD-ROMs and DVD-Rs, whatever you might have. You can then organize, search, and manage your data in easy and powerful ways. The DigiBase windows look like browsers; in those browsers you can view, search, audition, and delete files, copy files between drives, find and relink missing files, and an assortment of other functions. You can also drag and drop files directly from DigiBase browsers into Pro Tools sessions (very cool).

There are different types of browsers; the Workspace Browser gives you an overall picture of all data. Volume Browsers manage local and networked storage media. Project Browsers cover the files referenced in the current session, and Catalogs store “snapshots” of the contents of media, whether online or offline. A Task window lets you view and control background tasks such as file copying.

Initially, I didn’t see much use for this databasing in my small studio — I could see where it would be valuable to a big post house that needed to organize tons of files, sound effects, etc. But as I began cataloging my active and archived media, I found it tremendously useful to be able to instantly find anything that I wanted. Plus, being able to copy and convert files from the central browser windows was fast and easy. My opinion now: DigiBase is great addition to PT 6.

Groove quantize has been a much-needed addition to PT’s MIDI functionality. With PT 6, it’s here. The Groove Quantize dialog allows you to adjust note locations, durations, and velocities based on a “DigiGroove” template. A number of DigiGrooves come with PT 6, but even better, you can now use Beat Detective to extract a DigiGroove template from an audio region. The extracted templates can be used immediately, or named and saved to disk — so you can build up your own library of groove quantize templates.

In use, it was a simple matter to extract a groove using Beat Detective. I had great luck applying the feel from East-West’s Joey Kramer drum loops (reviewed Nov. ’02) to my MIDI drum parts, and to accompanying MIDI bass tracks.

Even with the addition of Groove Quantize, Pro Tools still has quite a ways to go to become a composer-level sequencing powerhouse like Digital Performer, Cubase, or Logic. But there are numerous additional MIDI improvements in PT 6: Chief among these is support for the Mac’s CoreMIDI (see sidebar). Others include support for up to 256 MIDI tracks per session, MIDI time stamping (with supported MIDI interface), and virtual MIDI inputs that let you route MIDI data to other supported applications (such as Ableton Live). You can now use the Trim tool to change MIDI note duration in velocity view, and the pencil tool can draw and trim MIDI notes and controller data.

There are two very cool new editing features in PT 6 that have to do with Grid mode (where files snap to “quantized” locations). Normally, PT operates in “Absolute” Grid mode, where if you move an audio or MIDI region, its start time snaps to the nearest 1/4-note, 1/8th-note, or whatever. In Relative Grid mode, if a region’s original start time falls between grid points, dragging the region will maintain the region’s start position relative to the nearest grid point. Say your grid is set to 1/4-notes, and an audio region originally started 1/16th-note away from the 1/4-note grid. If you move that region, it will snap to a point 1/16th-note away from the nearest 1/4-note grid line. This is very cool, as it allows you to work using a grid, but not destroy the feel of regions that need to start before or after hard grid lines. PT 6 also allows you to temporarily switch from Grid to Slip mode by holding down the Command key — a useful shortcut during long editing sessions.

Other Stuff
There are a lot more useful features in PT 6, from the seemingly (but not really) minor (the ability to jump to the cursor location if it’s off-screen), to the major: the ability to insert plug-ins while a session is playing — no more stopping the session to insert a plug-in! Still no automatic plug-in delay compensation, though . . . I’ll keep hoping. Other plug-in updates include a new Click plug-in with zero latency and various click sounds/accents, and the bundling of Digi’s D-fx, DPP-1, and D-Verb as DigiRack plug-ins with PT 6. Digi also improved aspects of session import, timecode/sync, and MachineControl (for those with the Machine Control option installed.

Latest and Greatest
Version 6 advances Pro Tools nicely; not only is the switch over to OS X seamless, but the new features provide a nice power-boost — particularly the DigiBase media/file databasing and groove quantize/groove extract. In use, the program was rock solid. I didn’t have a single crash or problem with it in extensive use . . . the biggest challenge is simply acclimating yourself to the OS X way of doing things, and that’s not difficult.

There are some areas where PT could still be improved — MIDI functionality and plug-in delay compensation come to mind — but as it stands at v6, Pro Tools is still among the easiest and fastest audio production packages on the market. Pro Tools 6 made it worth it for me to move to OS X.