DIGIDESIGN/M-AUDIO PRO TOOLS M-POWERED

Long hailed as the holy grail of audio production suites, Digidesign Pro Tools has been an industry leader for quite some time, setting the benchmark
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TAKE IT WITH YOU >Just like standard Pro Tools LE, Pro Tools M-Powered sessions are fully compatible with other Pro Tools hardware configurations.

Long hailed as the holy grail of audio production suites, Digidesign Pro Tools has been an industry leader for quite some time, setting the benchmark for high-end, professional digital audio in the music, broadcast, multimedia and film industries. Pro Tools is the system of choice for the vast majority of professional studios worldwide. So if it truly is the best of the best, why isn't everyone from the mastering pro to the home hobbyist using the software? Because Pro Tools is notorious for being a strictly proprietary system, meaning that you must purchase Digidesign hardware to use the software that comes with it. The software simply won't work with third-party audio interfaces — period.

Pro Tools is currently available in two main configurations: HD and LE. The basic Pro Tools HD 1 system lists for $7,995 and is essentially an HD Core card (previously known as TDM) that fits in one of your computer's open PCI slots and handles DSP processing. Additional Accel cards (previously known as Farm cards) increase the DSP capacity of the system and add other features, such as increased track count, at a cost of $4,995 each. Then, you have to get one of Digi's I/O interfaces (which is essentially an A/D/A converter), the least expensive of which is the 96 I/O at $1,995.

Although these prices make getting into a Pro Tools HD system financially unattainable for most musicians, getting into a Pro Tools LE system is much more feasible. The least expensive LE hardware option is the Mbox, which lists for $495. This does come with some limitations, however. LE is a pared-down version of the software, with a maximum of 32 simultaneous audio tracks (with 128 virtual tracks), and the DSP capacity is limited to your computer's processor. Although it does handle MIDI, the Mbox has only two audio channels and connects to your computer via USB. Yet another hardware option is the Digi 002 Rack, a FireWire interface that provides eight analog ins (with four mic pres), eight analog outs, ADAT, S/PDIF and MIDI — all at $1,295 but still with a 32-track limit.

All that said, the Pro Tools landscape changed remarkably when Digidesign's parent company, Avid, acquired M-Audio in August 2004. Now, the company has followed suit by issuing a new version of the software, Pro Tools M-Powered, that's compatible with a wide range of M-Audio hardware interfaces offering a variety of I/O options in either PCI card or FireWire form, making it accessible to just about everyone. M-Audio currently offers a total of 11 compatible interfaces, and that number should continue to grow. At press time, the M-Audio Audiophile, Delta and FireWire lines were compatible with Pro Tools M-Powered.

A CLOSER LOOK

From the software front, Pro Tools M-Powered is virtually identical to Pro Tools LE; however, the software is sold as a stand-alone product. (You'll need to buy a separate M-Audio interface.) Currently, the least-expensive compatible M-Audio interface is the Audiophile 2496 PCI card. And with the software, this puts the total price at around $479.90, coming in just under the price for the Mbox. With such a negligible difference, why would someone go the M-Powered route instead of buying an Mbox with Pro Tools LE? Well, the Audiophile 2496 is a two-in, two-out interface with S/PDIF digital I/O and 1×1 MIDI; the inclusion of MIDI is the most notable advantage to the Mbox. But the benefits really become apparent as you work your way on up to the M-Audio 1814 FireWire interface, which handles MIDI I/O, 18 audio inputs and 14 outputs for less than $700. The appeal of Pro Tools M-Powered should start making sense at this point.

Okay, enough about hardware — what about the software itself? Quite a few of you may have previously opted for other applications like Steinberg Cubase SX, Apple Logic, MOTU Digital Performer, Propellerhead Reason or Ableton Live. However, Pro Tools LE has grown substantially during the past few years, with more features and updates consistently added to further narrow the gap between HD and LE functionality. What's more, in my experience as a Pro Tools LE user on a Mac, the platform is so much more reliable in Mac OS X, especially in the area of MIDI timing, which was marginal at best in Pro Tools for Mac OS 9. And unlike Logic, it's still compatible with Mac OS X and Windows XP. So in light of the new level of accessibility that Pro Tools M-Powered offers, those who may have overlooked Pro Tools in the past should consider giving it another look, especially if you already own an approved M-Audio interface. Even if you don't make Pro Tools your primary sequencer, learning the software and having the application available make working on other people's projects and remixes that much easier.

I tested Pro Tools M-Powered on a Mac G5/dual 1.8GHz (my current Pro Tools LE machine) and an M-Audio FireWire Solo interface. Starting with a fresh installation of Mac OS 10.3.9, I installed Pro Tools M-Powered version 6.8 and the drivers for the FireWire Solo all from the same install CD; authorization for the software is contained in the provided USB iLok. M-Powered comes with more than 30 free RTAS and AudioSuite plug-ins, including EQ, dynamics, delays, reverb and several Bomb Factory plug-ins. (It's important to note that only Mac OS 10.3.8 is officially supported, but the software seemed to work fine in 10.3.9 as well as Tiger.) A serial number for Ableton Live Lite 4 Digidesign Edition is also included, along with a Quick Start Guide. Digidesign hasn't provided a hard copy of the full Reference Guide for quite some time, but a PDF version is included, and a hard copy is for sale on the Digi Website for $39. PDF guides for plug-ins, keyboard shortcuts, menus and more round out a complete set of documentation. All this is a nice start, but I have to point out that Pro Tools LE comes with more bundled software, such as Propellerhead Reason Adapted; IK Multimedia SampleTank SE, AmpliTube SE and T-Racks EQ; Digidesign D-Fi; and a few other DigiRack Plug-ins, which all make for more of a turnkey production package.

FILE SWAPPING

One of the key components of any Pro Tools session is its compatibility with any Pro Tools hardware configuration. My LE sessions opened in M-Powered without a hitch, and I honestly could not spot any differences in appearance, operation, features or functionality between the two versions, even after messing around with an intensive session. If there are any differences, they're extremely minor and hard to spot. Therefore, instead of discussing the differences between Pro Tools LE and M-Powered, I'll focus on what M-Powered is capable of as well as the recent improvements to Pro Tools that are a part of it.

Pro Tools comprises two complementary main windows: the familiar Mix window, where each track appears as a vertical mixer strip (or channel strip), and the timeline-based Edit window, where most of Pro Tools' sequencer and creation functions reside within a host of collapsible and adjustable windows, including a Show/Hide list of all tracks, an Edit Groups window for creating and maintaining groups and subgroups, an Audio Regions bin and a MIDI Regions bin. At the top of the Edit window are controls for horizontal and vertical track-view size, a handful of editing tools, a mini embedded transport and the Event Edit area. A separate Transport overlay window can also be expanded to show additional MIDI controls.

One of the new features in Pro Tools is the ability to create a number of multiple tracks and different kinds of tracks at the same time. So if you want to create a new session with one master fader, four audio tracks, four MIDI tracks and eight aux inputs, you can do it from one window with only a handful of keystrokes. Each track has five additional column views that are easily shown or hidden independently: comments (very handy), inserts, sends, I/O and track color. The fact that everything from arrangement to automation to MIDI sequencing can all be done within each track in the Edit window has always been attractive to me. Audio tracks can be easily changed to show either blocks, waveform, volume, mute or panning automation. MIDI track views can be toggled between blocks, regions, velocity, volume, pan, pitch bend, aftertouch, program change and SysEx as well as other controllers and plug-in automation. And automation can be drawn in with the pen tool, which has options for freehand drawing, straight line, triangle, square, random, parabolic and S-curves.

M-Powered is capable of handling sample rates as high as 96 kHz at 16 or 24 bits, 32 simultaneous audio tracks, 256 simultaneous MIDI tracks, 16 internal mix buses (eight stereo), five inserts and five sends per track. Pro Tools uses its own plug-in architecture, known as AudioSuite and RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite), and most plug-ins come in both forms. RTAS plug-ins are instantiated right on audio tracks as inserts whereas AudioSuite is used to process waveforms, creating a new audio file. This is commonly used to alleviate system usage by allowing you to disable the insert plug-in once you have the desired effect. Additionally, the massive world of VST plug-ins can be used in Pro Tools by purchasing FXpansion's VST-to-RTAS wrapper for $99.

Other recent improvements and additions have made Pro Tools even more powerful. The new Time Trimmer offers a simple way to perform time compression and expansion on the fly by simply grabbing the end of an audio region and moving it to the desired destination, creating a new processed audio file. You can even assign third-party plug-ins to perform this operation. Furthermore, many features that were only available in the TDM or HD version of Pro Tools have recently been made available in LE and M-Powered. Command Focus mode takes quick keys a step further by enabling the use of a single key to perform common tasks such as zoom, copy, paste, fade, nudge and much more. Tab to Transient adds more convenience by using the Tab key to place the cursor just before detected transient peaks without having to zoom all the way in. But perhaps the coolest addition is Beat Detective LE, which allows you to cut up and quantize audio regions. This powerful tool can also extract tempo, beat and groove information and apply it to other selections. Pro Tools also supports ReWire for Live and Reason, allowing you to use these other applications in conjunction with and inside of Pro Tools.

There's no question that Pro Tools M-Powered lives up to Digidesign's reputation. I've always said that choosing a DAW is a matter of preference and comfort. Now, with Pro Tools M-Powered on the scene, excluding Pro Tools because of budget concerns is a thing of the past. I am a bit disappointed that M-Powered doesn't come bundled with as many extras as LE, but the good news is, the company didn't skimp on the application itself, as it is just as powerful as LE. Now, if Digidesign would release a version that ups the track count to 48 or 64, that would really be something.

DIGIDESIGN/M-AUDIO

PRO TOOLS M-POWERED > $349.95

Pros: Cost-effective entry into a Pro Tools system. Award-winning audio recording, editing, mixing. New Beat Detective LE. Time Trimmer for visual time compression and expansion.

Cons: Limited to 32 simultaneous audio tracks. Only 16 internal buses. Not bundled with as many software extras as Pro Tools LE.

Contact:www.digidesign.com or www.m-audio.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4/933; 384 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3.7; free USB port for iLok key; approved M-Audio interface

PC: Intel-compatible/1GHz; 384 MB RAM; Windows XP; free USB port for iLok key; approved M-Audio interface