For more than a decade, Pro Tools has been available in two variations: the high-end HD version that costs at least $10k (and possibly two to three times that much) and the LE version (and later M-Powered), which could be had for just a few hundred dollars, if you already owned a decent computer.
HD is the no-compromise DAW that utilizes PCI cards loaded with DSP chips to provide stable performance, extremely low latency, giant track-counts and plug-in hosting. LE and M-Powered have been directed towards the home/project studio user as a host-based system with a limited track count and feature set. This scenario left a huge gap with many LE/M-Powered users willing and wanting to pay more money for a more powerful system but financially unable to afford or even justify a system that costs over $10k.
Avid listened (though many would argue that it took way too long) and completely revamped its product line. There are now two versions of Pro Tools, Pro Tools 9 and Pro Tools 9 HD and, in addition to the TDM version of HD, there is the new Pro Tools HD|Native system, providing nearly all of the features and performance of a standard HD rig for a fraction of the cost.
In contrast to Pro Tools HD which utilizes a single Core card and one or more Accel cards, Pro Tools HD|Native is comprised of a Pro Tools|HD Native PCIe card, Pro Tools HD software, and one or more Pro Tools HD Series audio interfaces. A decade ago computers didn't have the power required to effectively run a DAW as intensive as Pro Tools, but utilizing new processor technology makes host-based systems the most practical avenue as far as processing power per dollar goes. The power of the system is determined by the host computer's speed; therefore, the faster the processor, the more plug-ins can be used. Additionally, the system's 64-bit floating-point processing provides a higher mix resolution and increased headroom resulting in extraordinary performance, fantastic sound and the ability to support up to 64 channels of I/O and up to 192 audio tracks.
The HD Native PCIe core card eliminates inherent latency issues that come with USB- and FireWire-based DAWs, providing the lowest latency of any host-based DAW. As long as the buffers are kept to 64 samples or below on a 24-bit/44.1 or 48 kHz session, I found that latency was never an issue. Although it taxed the processor slightly more, I found that this was still possible at high-resolution, 192 kHz recording. If you are one of those people who work at high-res rates, or if your computer doesn't have the horsepower to operate with a buffer set at 64 samples or below, tweaking the software mixer that is incorporated into the Hardware Setup window to achieve zero-latency monitoring is another option. Unfortunately, there is no quick key to get to this page, making it a bit of a pain to navigate there very often.
Avid's solution is the LLM (Low-Latency Monitoring) Path that provides the means to automatically toggle a track between playback and zero-latency input monitoring automatically when punching in and out. The downside is there is only one configurable LLM path, making it perfect for single-input overdubs but unusable when tracking a band. Another potential problem is that since the LLM track isn't actually passing through the Pro Tools mixer, the musician/vocalist can't monitor any plug-ins inserted on the record-enabled track.
Since the Pro Tools|HD Native hardware is also compatible with any Core Audioand ASIO-compatible DAW software such as Logic, Nuendo, Live, Cubase and Reason, it is an equally attractive package for non-Pro Tools users.
Anyone who regularly reads my reviews knows that I'm a Mac guy. I'm not PC-illiterate — as I have spent a reasonable amount of time operating Nuendo, Wavelab and Cubase on a PC — but until now, I had spent very little time with Pro Tools on a PC. I was fortunate to have a truly super computer running Windows 7 during the review period, so I not only experienced HD Native for the first time, but I was able to utilize it on a PC, too.
My first chance to work with Pro Tools|HD Native was mixing two songs for bass virtuoso Adam Nitti (adamnitti.com) over three days at the Carl Tatz-designed Windy Hill Studio with the ADK Pro Audio/Avid HD Native system. Besides my frustration of having to relearn several shortcuts (nope — no Apple key on a PC keyboard!), I was blown away. Not only did I find mixing on a Native system a pleasure, I found that working on the PC was equally satisfying (I'm sure, in part, because of the ADK CPU which performed flawlessly).
I must add, though, that there was an issue between the Avid HD Omni and Windows 7 that required me to reconfigure the HD Omni if I accidentally turned the computer on before turning on the Omni. It only took me one time of having to go through this annoying reconfiguring process to make sure that I didn't do it ever again. Needless to say, in three days of nonstop use, Pro Tools never crashed or even hiccupped, for that matter. Plug-ins loaded almost instantly, and the computer never even came close to maxing out. I mixed the tracks completely in the box, and the end result was sonically fantastic. I was as pleased as I've ever been with an in-the-box mix, which was likely due, in part, to Pro Tools HD|Native's 64-bit floating-point processing.
While I never tracked an actual band with the PC Native rig, I did experiment with some hefty multitrack recording. I created 64 audio tracks (all from the same input) and recorded for several minutes rapidly punching in and out at random intervals in an effort to lock up the rig, and the system never faltered. I then recorded the 64 tracks for over an hour and again, the system worked flawlessly.
The following week I spent four days tracking the band Two Cent Offering (twocentoffering.com) at The Brown Owl, this time on a Mac-based Pro Tools|HD Native rig. I found this to be equally gratifying and in no way different than working on a full-blown HD rig. Once again, the program never crashed and there was never a computer or software glitch at all. Once the tracking was finished, I experimented moving the session between the Pro Tools|HD Native Mac rig, Pro Tools|HD Native PC rig, and a basic Pro Tools (non-HD) rig and, in every instance, the session opened flawlessly without any complications at all.
After several weeks of Pro Tools|HD Native use, I'm left asking myself the following question: Can HD|Native truly be as good as it seems? The answer is almost. After all of my use and experimentation, I found only two downsides to the system and, depending on your workflow, they may be biggies.
First of all, there's no support for TDM plug-ins. Presently, most TDM plug-ins are available in the RTAS format (and typically for less money) but in my case, two of my favorites, Sound Toys Pitch Blender and the Digidesign ReVibe, are TDM-only, thus a big negative. Second, Avid's HEAT (Harmonically Enhanced Algorithm Technology) software option that convincingly adds analog character to Pro Tools HD systems is only available with TDM systems. If your heart is sonically attached to any TDM plug-in or to Pro Tools' HEAT option, you may want to consider springing for the full-blown Pro Tools HD. Otherwise, I think Pro Tools|HD Native is all you'll need.
As someone who has been a fervent Pro Tools HD user for over a decade, when I worked with HD Native — regardless whether I was tracking or mixing or working on a PC or Mac — I continually forgot that I was using a host-based system. This has never happened to me before, and I must say, I'm impressed.
Russ Long is a Nashville-based producer, engineer and mixer as well as a senior contributor to PAR.