Avid Pro Tools 9 (Mac/Win) Review

AT LAST, A FULLY NATIVE VERSION OF THIS INDUSTRY-STANDARD DAW
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Fig. 1: Pro Tools 9 will run on any Core Audio– or ASIO-compatible interface.

During the past year, Avid has made a concerted effort to change its image from an aloof corporate entity to one that''s responsive to its customers'' needs and concerns. The first hint that something was afoot was a little more than a year ago when Avid cooperated with Mackie in allowing Pro Tools M-Powered drivers to be distributed for Mackie''s Onyx-i mixers. That was the first time a modern version of Pro Tools would run on an interface other than one made by Avid.

Then, during the past six months or so, as Avid has been rolling out a series of new products (interfaces, keyboard controllers, Pro Tools HD Native, and more), it has been stressing in press briefings how it is taking its users'' requests in mind as it designs new products and sets strategies. The product roll-out culminated in the stunning announcement of Pro Tools 9 (see Fig. 1) on the eve of the AES show in November. (At the same press conference, Avid announced Pro Tools HD9, but this review focuses on the native version.)

CHANGING TIMES
While Pro Tools has long been a dominant force in the pro audio world, its offerings for those not able to shell out $12,000 and up for an HD system have been slimmer. Pro Tools LE and M-Powered lack many of HD''s key features and capabilities. If the strategy had once been to entice people to move up to HD by withholding important attributes such as automatic delay compensation from lower versions, it doesn''t appear to have been a rousing success. With native DAWs such as Logic, Cubase, Live, SONAR, Digital Performer, and even newcomers like PreSonus'' Studio One offering better performance for their open native systems, it was harder for LE and M-Powered to compete.

Pro Tools 9, which runs natively under Core Audio (Mac) and ASIO (Windows), is indeed an answer to the wishes of many. It offers the long-wished-for automatic delay compensation and provides many of the features that were once only available through expensive “toolkit” options. From the DV Toolkit, you get video features such as timecode readout and OMF, AAF, and MXF file exchange. From the Music Production toolkit, you get multitrack Beat Detective (see Fig. 2) and MP3 export.

Because PT 9 is fully native, you''re no longer limited to using an Avid interface, which opens up a whole world of options. Of course, Avid makes excellent interfaces so you might choose to go in that direction, but you''re no longer compelled to in order to run Pro Tools. If you''ve invested in an Apogee, RME, MOTU, or any other interface, you can now use it with PT 9. What''s more, unlike LE, you''re not tethered to an Avid interface as a dongle, which means that you can run PT 9 on a laptop with the only additional hardware being your iLok key because PT 9 will also run on your computer''s built-in audio system. (For Windows systems, an ASIO-compliant audio card is required.)

If you own a Digidesign or Avid interface, you can crossgrade to PT 9 for $249 and download drivers from Avid to make your interface compatible with PT 9. (It''s kind of ironic that you now need drivers to run PT 9 on Avid hardware but not on third-party hardware.) The only Pro Tools LE interfaces that are not compatible for PT 9 use or eligible for crossgrades are the Digi 001 and the original Mbox.

SPEC IT OUT
Pro Tools 9 is a powerhouse compared to LE, which it officially replaces. (M-Powered will remain as a less-expensive option.) As well as the aforementioned delay compensation and toolkit features, you get twice as many tracks, simultaneously recordable tracks, and instrument tracks. Pro Tools 9 offers eight times as many buses and 32 additional aux tracks (see “Pro Tools Systems: Selected Features Comparison” chart) as LE.

With all that, PT 9 still doesn''t have all of HD''s features or track count, but you can get it pretty close by purchasing the Complete Production Toolkit 2 for $1,995. It gives you surround mixing—which you don''t get in PT 9—enhanced track and bus counts, VCA mixing, and some additional advanced features. If you''re a DV Toolkit owner, you can upgrade to the Complete Production Toolkit 2 for $299; Music Production Toolkit owners can upgrade for $1,599. The Complete Production Toolkit 2 is definitely a pricey upgrade, but when you consider that you''re getting most of the functionality of HD at a fraction of the price, it doesn''t seem as expensive.

PLUG AND PLAY
Pro Tools 9 offers a plug-in collection identical to Pro Tools 8. As with 8 (reviewed in the May 2009 issue of EM), you get a nice selection of processing plug-ins and instruments. Despite the changeover to native processing, the plug-ins remain under Avid''s proprietary RTAS/AudioSuite formats. Because nearly all major plug-ins run under those formats, this isn''t an issue. Concurrent with the PT 9 announcement, Universal Audio announced that its Powered Plug-Ins now have RTAS versions, and you can use UAD plugs with Pro Tools without the need for a VST wrapper.

Thanks to the inclusion of the DV Toolkit in PT 9''s standard feature set, the program is now much better suited to working with video. Beyond just SMPTE readouts, you also get a Feet and Frames readout, the ability to redefine a timecode position by entering a new position at an insertion point, pullup and pulldown commands, and subframe support.

The multitrack Beat Detective capability, which was once only the province of HD or LE with the Music Production Toolkit, is another key addition to PT 9. Previously, LE''s Beat Detective only worked on a single track, which left you in the cold for correcting a multitrack drum kit, which is probably the most common application for Beat Detective. The new MP3 Export feature is thoroughly implemented. You can choose quality level (from 16kbps to 320kbps), encoding speed, and even add ID3 tags for the exported file.

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Fig. 2: One of the big additions to Pro Tools 9 is the multitrack version of Beat Detective.

WHAT'S THE DELAY?
After native compatibility, automatic delay compensation is definitely the star of the show in PT 9. When you first launch the program, delay compensation is turned off, but you can activate it easily by way of a pulldown menu in the Playback Engine window. Once turned on and configured, it''s basically “set and forget.”

You can choose between two delay compensation options: Short provides 2,047 samples of delay per channel, and Long offers 8,191. Long is more CPU-intensive and is recommended for sessions that have large track counts. I found that I could get away with using Short on smaller projects, except when using certain plug-ins. For instance, WaveMachine Labs'' Drumagog 5 didn''t sync up correctly on the Short setting but worked fine on Long. You''ll just have to experiment. Overall, the delay compensation worked great; my wrapped UAD plugs-ins, which required tedious manual delay compensation in PT LE, ran perfectly in sync.

MORE NEW STUFF
PT 9 includes support for the EUCON controller protocol. I did not have a EUCON controller to try it with, but my colleague Kevin Becka from sister magazine Mix tested out an MC Control V2 controller and the response was excellent. He did encounter a couple of small bugs in the EUCON implementation but was impressed overall. Another new feature is variable pan depth. I''m not sure if I would ever have an occasion to use it, but it allows you to match pan-depth standards for certain types of consoles (for instance, British analog consoles have a different setting) and for full mono compatibility. A few additional minor features have also been added, including creating tracks from within a bus or track output.

One feature I wish had been added to PT 9 is an offline bouncing option. I work on a lot of long-form projects, and I find having to bounce in real time is a monumental time-waster. In other DAWs, I can bounce a 25-minute project in about a minute. According to Avid, that''s one of the features it''s looking at for a future release. (Avid says that it''s keeping track of customer feature requests and plans to try to regularly implement the most popular ones. Kudos to them for that!)

FIRE IT UP
Installation is easy. Everything you need, other than an iLok key (included with the full boxed version) is on one DVD. Once you download the license to your iLok account and install the software, you''re ready to rock. I installed it on my Mac Pro and my MacBook. One thing I noticed right away was that some of my older plug-ins needed upgrading to run on PT 9. For instance, I had to upgrade to V. 7 of my Waves plug-ins, although the older version I had, 5.9.7, ran fine on all my other DAWs.

I also had some CPU overload issues at first on my Mac Pro. Avid''s tech support told me that this can happen occasionally when you don''t opt for the “clean install” option, which requires that you reinstall all your plug-ins, among other things, and instead install on top of a previous version of LE, which gets automatically erased by the installer. They also said it might have to do with whether I did a clean install of Snow Leopard or installed it on top of 10.5, which I did. (You need at least 10.6.2 or higher to run PT 9 on a Mac or Windows 7 on a PC.)

At the suggestion of Avid, I uninstalled Pro Tools, deleted the old Digi preferences, and ran Apple''s combo system updater, but my problems remained. At that point, I was getting better performance on my 3-year-old MacBook than my 8-core Mac Pro. I then tried updating to OS X 10.6.5, and suddenly everything ran fine.

Who knows if this was anomalous to my particular system, but if you can, do a clean install of PT 9 onto cleanly installed system software; this should preclude any such problems. To test that out, I wiped an external hard drive, installed 10.6.5 onto it, then Pro Tools 9, and it ran flawlessly. I didn''t have the opportunity to test PT 9 out on Windows, so I don''t know if these sorts of issues exist on that platform. Once I got the installation issues on my Mac Pro resolved, everything worked great. Although I can only provide an anecdotal comparison, PT 9 seems to be on par with my other native DAWs in terms of its abilities to handle large track and plug-in counts. It was also comparable in terms of latency. It allows for a minimum buffer setting of 64 samples.

TOOLING UP
The release of PT 9 is likely to make a lot of people happy—with the exception of other DAW manufacturers. Pro Tools has morphed from a closed system to an open one, and not only do users have freedom of choice for which interface they use, interface manufacturers are no longer shut out from Pro Tools. With the addition of delay compensation, multitrack Beat Detective, and the new video features, PT 9 has become a formidable force in the world of native DAWs. This is a breakthrough release for Avid and should open up Pro Tools to a much larger segment of the market. With PT 9, Avid has shown that it has become responsive to its customer base, and that''s a win-win for everyone.

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Pro Tools 9 product page.

PRO TOOLS SYSTEMS: SELECTED FEATURE COMPARISON

Pro Tools LE 8Pro Tools 9Pro Tools 9 With Complete Production Toolkit 2Pro Tools HD 9, HD 8, and HD NativeVoices @ 48/96/192 kHz 48/48/not supported (mono or stereo) 96/48/24 (mono or stereo) 192/96/36 192/96/36 Simultaneous Record Tracks 18 32 32 160 (HD 9), 64 (HD Native) Instrument Tracks 32 64 128 128 MIDI Tracks 256 512 512 512 (HD 9), 256 (HD 8/HD Native) Aux Tracks 128 160 160 160 (HD HD 9, HD Native), 128 (HD 8) Buses 32 256 256 256 (HD 9), 128 (HD 8) Surround Mixing Paid Option Paid Option Yes Yes Automatic Delay Compensation No Yes Yes Yes Multitrack Beat Detective No Yes Yes Yes MP3 Export Paid Option Yes Yes Yes (Paid Option for HD 8)