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The Pro Tools Pathway Gets Two More Steps

October 7, 2010

Yesterday, Avid announced the imminent release of Pro Tools | HD Native. Boiling down the press release to a few key ideas and reflecting on a very nice phone chat I had with Mark Williams of Avid (hi Mark!), here are the essentials of what you need to know about it.

Up until now, there's been a very strict dividing line between HD and LE, the DSP-card-based and native versions of Pro Tools. That was necessitated in the early days of pro audio by the fact that no computer could possibly do what HD requires without some help, and as time went by, Digidesign (now Avid) has kept distance between LE and HD by adding power to HD—in the form of new interfaces, better converters, and more DSP power—and letting it stay ahead of what a native system can do, even as native systems get more and more powerful. Okay so far?

But in recent months, competitors have made a big deal about how native systems can outdo Pro Tools in some ways. Probably the best known of these is Apple's alliance with Apogee to create the Symphony system for the Mac that meshes with Logic Studio. The measurements folks use to prove they're better are always open to argument, and I'm not here to say that this or that native system is now better than PTHD or not, but no one can argue with the fact that a computer with no DSP engine added can do amazing things now... least of all Avid.

What Avid has done here is to remove one of the defining elements of HD. We can now no longer say that HD "is the Pro Tools where you have the specialized interfaces hooked up to a computer card, and the version of the software that can use the really high-end TDM plug-ins, and where the plug-ins all run on special DSP hardware", because with the introduction of PTHD Native, the special DSP hardware is now optional. HD is now defined by the interface hardware and the software alone, using a computer's native oomph to run RTAS and AudioSuite plug-ins, mix, and so forth, or DSP cards to run TDM plug-ins (which still won't run natively, but whose settings can be preserved for import/export of projects between HD setups).

In practical terms, this means there's now a whacking big stepping stone across the raging price river between the largest LE system and the smallest HD system. LE systems start at $300 or so for an Mbox mini, and can go up as high as a couple of grand for a loaded system using a Digi 003 with all the trimmings. You couldn't really get into HD for under ten grand before this. Now, for six grand, you can get into HD by buying Native and attaching Avid's new HD OMNI single-space interface to its I/O card. This gives you compatibility with larger AND smaller systems, easy expandability into more HD hardware later, and an overall smoother step up from the starter systems into eventual HD nirvana.

The only real downside to this concept is that you're relying on a computer to do a lot more heavy lifting than you would for any other HD system. It's true that modern machines can do this stuff... really, they can! (Especially since they're not being asked to run TDM plug-ins, which still require DSP cards.) But they can't do it for a few hundred bucks. You need to factor in the cost of a big, brawny computer, which is nontrivial regardless of whether you're talking about a top-line Windows system or a Mac Pro. That could add at least two grand to your total if you've been staggering along on an underpowered machine, or a laptop, before now. But if you'd invested in a screaming computer to get the most out of your native DAW, that power can now be directed toward running PTHD.

All that having been said, I'd also like to point out another Avid product announcement, one which has gone largely uncommented in the hubbub over PTHD Native but which potentially has far greater impact on our industry: namely, the release of Pro Tools SE. SE is a tweaked and renamed version of Pro Tools M-Powered Essential, which we reviewed in June 2010; we'll be taking a look at it in an upcoming issue (along with PTHD Native, of course!). SE is being offered with a variety of M-Audio interfaces and hardware, including three bundles (with the Fast Track interface, a USB mic, and a keyboard controller) at prices way the heck under $200. This solidifies and fine-tunes Avid's attack on the low end, and puts SE in place as the first step in a long chain from the beginner with a couple of bills up to the full-on studio owner crunching major trackage, with HD Native as a step along the way. For the first time ever, you can seamlessly move from your home computer and an add-on box to the systems they're using to release major label albums and cut big-studio movie soundtracks, all within the comfort of a product name whose impact in our industry simply cannot be underestimated: Pro Tools.

The pundits and chatroomers have been yakking for months about how the native-based companies were going to steal Avid's lunch. Now they're yakking about how Avid is one step closer to ruling the world. All I can say is, it's going to be an interesting process to watch, and I'll be looking forward to working with our reviewers to bring you the facts on these products as they ship.

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