Pro Tools Music Production Toolkit - EMusician

Pro Tools Music Production Toolkit

Pro Tools comes in two basic flavors — the full-blown HD systems and the somewhat limited LE and M-Powered (for use with M-Audio, as opposed to Digidesign hardware) versions. While the LE versions offer many of the features of the more powerful HD software, some important features are missing, and some users have longed for a version that sat between the two.Music Production Toolkit closes that gap somewhat. Part plug-in bundle, part upgraded software features, MPT offers increased production power, speed, and functionality for users of standard LE software. Installation was a snap (the software requires a user supplied iLok for registration and copy protection); once it’s installed, you can take advantage of . . .
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MORE TRACKS

While you can have up to 128 audio tracks in a standard Pro Tools LE session, only 32 “active” tracks can be enabled at once (stereo tracks count as two tracks) — which cannot be disabled or re-enabled “on the fly” during playback. While you still can’t change the active tracks on the fly, MPT ups the maximum active track count to 48 mono or stereo tracks (if you use only stereo tracks, that’s 96 channels of audio). Granted, many other DAW software programs do not place any limitations (other than the capabilities of your computer system) on the maximum amount of tracks; regardless, the increased track count should suffice for all but the most gluttonous track users, and should be easily attainable with most reasonably modern DAW computer rigs.

MORE EDITING

LE and M-Powered include a “lite” version of Beat Detective. While useful for editing mono or stereo tracks, you have to resort to work-around tricks to edit grouped tracks, such as a multi-miked, multi-tracked drum recording. (Check out Rick DiFonzo’s article in the Jan. ’07 EQ for details on how to do this.) MPT adds the full version of Beat Detective, which works with grouped tracks and is not restricted to single mono or stereo tracks. It really is an incredibly powerful tool that can save you considerable time and effort in editing performances: You can then extract the groove of a performance and apply it to other tracks, slice the selected region into individual regions, quantize them . . . and after you cut things into regions and quantize them (please use this feature responsibly!), you can adjust the region start or end times to fill in any “gaps.” There’s lots of power here, and it’s easy to learn.

One command I wish it did have is the ability to edit or adjust the start times of all selected regions by a user-determined amount (Digi says this may be part of a future update). The bottom line is that if you do a lot of editing, the “full” version of Beat Detective alone is worth the price of MPT; edit jobs that used to take hours or even all day can normally be done in a fraction of the time with this tool.

MP3 EXPORT

You can now convert your final mixes to MP3 format, which are useful for uploading to online sites, as well as for long-distance mix “progress reports” and approvals. (While some users feel this should be a standard Pro Tools feature, Digidesign would then have to pass on the cost of the Fraunhofer Institute license, even to those who prefer to use a third-party converter utility.) Being able to produce files in the MP3 format is a nearly daily requirement in a modern production studio, so thumbs up on the MP3 option.

STILL M.I.A.

There’s still no notation display in any version of Pro Tools. That’s an important production tool for printing out lead sheets, as well as for composers and producers who are more comfortable with editing MIDI notes on a staff than they are using a piano roll editor. While Pro Tools has greatly improved its MIDI features in the last few versions, I still hope to see an editable notation display within the program.

A pretty large gap on the hardware side remains between the LE systems, with their maximum of 18 simultaneous I/Os, and the HD systems, which in addition to their number-crunching DSP cards, feature easy expansion just by adding additional I/O interface units. While I really like my Digi 002, it isn’t expandable in terms of audio I/O; if you’re into recording at the higher sample rates, the maximum 10 channels of I/O can be a little restricting for some types of music production (you can easily use more than that for rhythm section tracking on a rock recording).

Additionally, some people prefer to mix to an external board; the maximum amount of channels you can output at once with Digi or M-Audio hardware is 18 at 44.1/48kHz, which is fine for “stems” (stereo sub mixes), but not enough for sending most of the individual tracks to the board on larger productions. I’d like the option to add a second Digi or M-Audio interface to my existing setup to increase the I/O capabilities, but MPT doesn‘t allow this. Alternatively, a new interface that would allow for at least 18 inputs and 32 outputs at all sample rates would be a welcome addition to the LE or M-Audio hardware lineup. Again, most DAW software lets you use whatever interface you want; while I understand the compatibility advantage to Digidesign’s proprietary approach, music production sometimes benefits from more channels of simultaneous I/O than is currently available with Pro Tools LE/MP hardware systems.

BUT YOU DO GET . . .

Plug-ins, and a pretty good selection at that. First up: Sound Replacer (Figure 1), the classic drum replacement plug-in. You select the track or region you want to process, open Sound Replacer in AudioSuite, then import up to three replacement samples. Each sample has a user adjustable threshold, so it’s possible to set up replacement tracks with multi-layered tones. For example, you can select a lightly played snare sample for the hits with the lowest threshold, a firmly played snare for the average hits, and a heavy snare sample for the loudest hits.

You can replace the existing recording with just the samples, or select a percentage of your choice for them to be blended into the original track. While SoundReplacer is reliable, easy to use, and useful, the on-screen waveform redraws are pretty slow even on a fast host system, and it’s starting to show its age compared to newer programs such as Drumagog and TL Drum Rehab, which offer more extensive feature sets. But it certainly can be useful for smoothing out the sound of a consistency-challenged drummer, or for replacing a weak recording with sounds you like better.

“Convolution reverbs don’t always work as well as algorithmic reverbs for an over the top “effect,” but for a wide variety of acoustically realistic spaces, they’re currently unbeatable.”

TL Space (Figure 2), a convolution reverb plug-in, includes an extensive library of spaces, with additional impulses available at Digi’s website. Halls, rooms, plates, office and industrial spaces, hardware units, studio rooms, and even post-production sound ambience effects are all well-represented. I particularly like the United/Western Plate reverb and concrete stairwell impulses, but many of the other presets are also quite good. While not as extensive as the tools you usually find available on a high quality algorithmic reverb plug-in, TL Space does offer a solid collection of user adjustable parameters (decay time, predelay, EQ, wet/dry and early reflection ratios, etc.). Convolution reverbs don’t always work as well as algorithmic reverbs for an over the top “effect,” but for a wide variety of acoustically realistic spaces, they’re currently unbeatable. TL Space sounds as good as, or better than any other convolution reverb plug-in I’ve used, and can do an outstanding job of simulating “real” acoustical environments.

The Broadband Noise Reduction (DINR) plug-in (Figure 3) is also included; like SoundReplacer, BNR has remained largely unchanged for a few years, and while it does a fine job knocking back noise levels, I could hear it working once it got past about 6dB of reduction. If you need more than that, two or more passes through with modest reduction settings works better than a single pass with a high amount of reduction.

Smack! LE (Figure 4) is a very cool-sounding “retro” compressor. Rockers are going to like this one, as it leans heavily towards the “attitude,” as opposed to “neutral” side of the fence. It has three compression modes — normal, warm and optical, as well as ratio, attack, and release controls. There is no threshold control; the threshold is preset and you hit the compressor harder by, uh, “smacking” the input knob harder. This works fine, but a threshold control would make things easier and more flexible, as would having the attack and release times displayed in milliseconds instead of on a 1–10 scale.

But where it counts, Smack! LE delivers. It works great for drum bus duties (check out my column in the Jan. ’07 issue of EQ for more on this technique); however, it requires some manual latency compensation to get things back in phase when used this way. Still, the results are worth the extra effort, and Smack! LE works great for punching up drums and adding beef and impact. It also works very well for bass and vocals, and I have to admit that on one song it gave me some of the best squashed acoustic guitars I’ve ever printed. It’s become one of my favorite compression plug-ins.

The one “production” plug-in addition I would like to see added is a good modulation effect. While the DigiRack delays are useful and have basic modulation capabilities, a variety of good modulation-based effects are crucial tools for many types of music production.

AND YOU ALSO GET . . .

Instruments! While Pro Tools still doesn’t offer the sheer numbers of virtual instrument plug-ins that some competitors do, the ones they do are quite good. BFD Lite, which currently comes bundled with all LE systems, provides a solid virtual drum plug-in, and Xpand!, a free ROMpler plug-in instrument that was added last year, is a very cool instrument for common sounds such as pianos, percussion, basses, strings, pads, and so forth.

Now MPT adds a new synth called Hybrid (Figure 5). It has a similar “look and feel” to the Xpand plug-in, but instead of being sample playback-based, this is a feature-rich, three oscillator (two primary, one serves as a modifier), virtual analog/wavetable synth. The user interface is easy to navigate; it works very well for fat buzzy leads and synth bass, but less well so for reedy and atmospheric sounds. There is a good selection of waveforms, as well as 100 single cycle waveforms available in the wavetable menu.

For those who produce music with synthesizers, Hybrid adds another synth that sounds good and is easy to program; and this single item retails for about half the price of the entire Music Production Toolkit bundle.

CONCLUSIONS

If you’re doing traditional multitrack recordings of full bands and ensembles, and need more software “horsepower” than the standard version of Pro Tools LE/MP offers, I’d say it’s a no-brainer. Even solo recordists working alone will find plenty to appreciate in this bundle. With over $2,000 worth of bundled plug-ins included, and additional features that have not been available to LE users previously at any price, it’s hard to argue with MPT’s value.

Of course, if you already own some or all of the bundled plug-ins, MPT may be less attractive; but even setting aside the plug-ins, the full version of Beat Detective and the increased track count will make it a “must have” purchase for many users. And if you don’t already own a good convolution reverb, TL Space (which normally sells for the same price as the entire MPT bundle) is a worthwhile addition — as is Hybrid, one of the better-sounding analog synth emulations I’ve heard.

I use an LE system as the main DAW in my studio every day, and you can definitely get professional results out of an LE/MP system if you do your part. But adding MPT increased the capabilities of my system, while improving my production speed and efficiency. The Music Production Toolkit may not offer every feature you’ve been dreaming of, but it is definitely a cut above a standard LE system, and it comes in at an attractive price. Check it out; I’m sold!