Digidesign’s Pro Tools 8 was previewed at last fall’s AES show to an awe-inspired crowd. The application is the next evolutionary step of the industry-standard music creation and audio production software. This new version has been completely updated with a new user interface, over 70 plug-ins and virtual instruments, fully integrated MIDI and score editors, and an expanded array of editing features.
The MIDI upgrades are so significant that Pro Tools can no longer be considered a DAW with MIDI functionality, but rather a platform equally adept at processing MIDI and audio. The Pro Tools 8 package (which is available in HD, LE, and M-Powered versions) provides everything users need to create, compose, score, record, mix, produce, and broadcast within a single application.
As most of you are at least somewhat Pro Tools savvy, I am primarily going to focus on PT8’s new features. The Digidesign website is packed full of general Pro Tools information including hardware and software options, system requirements, and tons of downloadable manuals and streamable demonstration videos. Unless stated otherwise, all references to Pro Tools 8 refer to all three versions of the software.
PT8’s new Quick Start window has fully implemented template support. Several templates are included and offer useful starting points for a number of different situations. This will be exceptionally useful to beginners who are still trying to grasp the mindset of Pro Tools as a whole.
PT8 boasts a stylish new GUI that includes redesigned icons and a complete visual overhaul. Most of the familiar Pro Tools functionality is still in place, but with several subtle enhancements and easier access to many editing options that were previously only found in the Preferences. The Edit and Mix windows have been polished and are easier to navigate. Both windows retain their basic layouts but the Edit window features some major improvements including a Universe View at the top of the edit window (which replaces the older Universe window that has been dumped) and several new rulers including Key Signature and Chords.
In addition to the omnipresent grid values, counters and core edit controls, the Zoom, Transport, MIDI, and Synchronization controls can now be added to the Edit window’s toolbar and placed in the user’s preferred sequence. While I’ve never felt too strapped for monitor space in my multi-monitor studio setup, having the extra controls on my toolbar is particularly helpful when running LE on my MacBook Pro.
Back in Pro Tools 7.3, Digi added the ability in both the Edit and Mix windows to infuse the tracks background with its selected color by using a quick key command (though it was somewhat buggy at the time). PT8 has added control of this feature (which now operates perfectly) in the Color Palette Window by adding Saturation and Brightness sliders to adjust the amount of color that is applied to the background.
Several small touches have greatly improved the program. There is now a Timeline Insertion/Play Start Marker Follows Playback button in the Edit window so this function can be changed without opening the Operation Preferences. In addition to the Toolbar’s Zoom controls, there are now horizontal and vertical zoom buttons in the lower-right corner of the Edit window. Automatic Delay Compensation is now applied to Sends as well as Inserts, making it possible to record with Delay Compensation enabled. The Mix window’s horizontal pan controls have been replaced with circular controls and each channel now supports up to 10 inserts instead of five.
Thankfully, users are no longer bound to viewing and editing a single type of data on any given track, as the Show/Hide Automation Lane button found on each track in the Edit window makes it possible to simultaneously view and work with unlimited automation parameters. I’ve been begging for this feature since seeing it in Nuendo over half a decade ago.
The Pro Tools 8 virtual instruments are not scaled-down versions of separately packaged products but rather full-blown instruments that have been designed and built ground up by Digidesign’s AIR (Advanced Instrument Research) group.
Boom, a retro drum machine, features a drum-machine-style pattern sequencer and offers 10 different electronic-oriented kits each with extensive sound-shaping capability. DB-33 is Digi’s Hammond B3 variation. It includes rotary speaker cabinet and tube preamp emulation as well as drawbars, variable percussion, and several tone wheel models. It doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as Native Instruments’ B4 or Logic’s EVB3, but it sounds every bit as good, and the rotary speaker emulation is amazing. The Cabinet controls allow the Tube Pre-Amp settings, the microphone placement and the rotation speed to be tweaked but best of all, separate inputs with individual level controls [External and Organ — Ed.] allow the cabinet to be used as a plug-in on an audio track. This has quickly become one of my favorite new plug-ins, as it sounds fantastic on electric guitars and vocals.
Mini Grand is an acoustic grand piano that includes seven selectable piano models, with eight velocity layers per key and built-in reverb. Vacuum is a unique monophonic virtual analog synth that employs something Digi has defined as Vacuum Tube Synthesis. Its dirty, distressed look provides huge basses and smooth leads matched to its vintage-slanted sound and packed with tons of sonic character. Lastly, Xpand!2 is another virtual synthesizer plug-in that offers a ton of cool sounds. It includes 1.5 gigabytes of content; everything from keyboards to guitars, basses, drums, orchestral instruments, and rhythmic loops. Each of the five instruments is extremely high-quality, doing a superb job of adding value to the PT8 package.
Much like Logic’s Quick Swipe Comping feature, the new track compositing workflow provides a quick, easy, and accurate way to create a composite performance. By using the Playlists view for an audio track, the best parts from a track’s alternate playlists can be selected and copied to the main playlist allowing the “perfect take” to be created from multiple alternate playlists. Alternate playlists are displayed directly below the track in Playlist lanes and can be edited in the Playlist view just like the main playlist in the Waveform view. As with tracks, Playlist lanes can be reordered by simply clicking the name of the alternate playlist and then dragging it to the desired location. A region can be rated on a scale of 1 to 5, which is useful for identifying preferred takes when comping playlists. Playlist lanes can be viewed or hidden based on the ratings of regions in the playlist.
Pro Tools 8 (HD only) now maintains a Plug-in and Mixer cache for allocated DSP when closing and opening sessions. This doesn’t change the time it takes to open the first session after launching Pro Tools, but all subsequent sessions open and close much faster.
In addition to Pro Tools Elastic Audio time compression and expansion capabilities, the new Elastic Pitch allows whole audio regions to be shifted in semitones and cents in the range of +/- 2 octaves. Pitch transposition can be applied to the Elastic Audio regions by using either the Transpose window or the Elastic Properties window.
PT8 includes an impressive collection of music creation and sound-processing plug-ins, including five new virtual instruments (Boom, DB-33, Mini Grand, Vacuum, Xpand!2), 20 new effects, and Eleven Free, which is Digi’s fairly limited, but exceptional-sounding amplifier emulator. Also included are MAudio’s Torq LE DJ software and an impressive 8 GB collection of pro-quality loops from Big Fish Audio.
Significant as the changes in the user interface and improved audio performance are, they don’t overshadow the improvements to the MIDI Editor window. The MIDI Editor windows can show MIDI data and automation data for Auxiliary Input, Instrument, and MIDI tracks and, like the Edit Window, it provides the ability to show additional lanes, allowing MIDI controllers, velocity, and even automation data to be simultaneously viewed and edited. This window redefines PT8 sequencing, putting it on the level of what is offered by current versions of Logic and Digital Performer. While the ability to edit MIDI has been a part of Pro Tools since version 5 nearly a decade ago, PT8 is the first time that MIDI data can be graphically edited beyond the restrictions of a track lane in the Edit window. PT8 not only allows the MIDI Editor to be opened in a window, but it can also be incorporated into the Edit window for users who prefer to edit their MIDI and audio in the same window. Now, in addition to toggling between the Edit and Mix windows by pressing [apple] [=], you also have the option of opening the MIDI Editor window either by pressing [ctrl] [=] or by double-clicking a MIDI region. The PT8 MIDI Editor window is very much like the familiar piano-roll style editor, so users familiar with this type of editing should quickly feel right at home.
The PT8 notation function makes use of many of Sibelius’ features including the use of the Opus music fonts, which makes the notation quality very high. When working in the MIDI Editor, enabling the Notation Display button on the editor’s toolbar allows the notes to be edited as notation. This provides a linear view of the score with the notes running from left to right and keeping any rulers or lanes being displayed in line with the notation. The score can be printed from within Pro Tools or the session can be exported as a Sibelius (.sib) file for further finessing in Sibelius.
Pro Tools 8 installation, on both my studio and mobile rigs, was a breeze and after six weeks of use, I’ve found the new GUI to be a welcome addition. It is pleasing to look at and far less fatiguing at the end of a long day. Being such a substantial visual upgrade, I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to the new look and feel of my primary studio tool. Unfortunately the new software seems to be a bit of a CPU hog in comparison to version 7.4 and using Rewire makes it even worse. This said, I would still trade a little CPU power for the added power of PT8 any day. [“We don’t consume more CPU (plug-in instance counts are the same),” offers Digidesign in rebuttal, “but the new UI architecture still needs some performance improvements. We’re already working on those.” — Ed.]
Another PT8 feature that I’ve found to be extremely useful is the ability to open a session with all of the plug-ins deactivated, done by holding the shift key before selecting and opening the desired session. Since plug-in intensive sessions often take a long time to open, this lets you quickly open a session for immediate visual inspection and audio playback (without plug-ins). Even without this feature, the speed of opening and closing sessions is drastically improved with the implementation of plug-in caching.
I experimented with some long recordings and was pleased to find that file sizes up to 3.4 GB (as opposed to the previous 2 GB limit) are now supported, providing longer, single file recordings. I was happy to notice that gone are the days of having to stop playback every time you want to make a change to the mix configuration. PT8 allows most common changes, including adding or removing tracks, copying inserts and sends, changing I/O routing, and re-ordering tracks, to be made on the fly.
I love the selection of new effect plug-ins. Each one is usable in the real world, and surprisingly there is not a bad apple in the bunch. My favorites include Vintage Filter, Spring Reverb, FuzzWah, Chorus, and MultiChorus.
The additional inserts on each channel are nice but there should be a way to consolidate a track (in real time) with its plug-ins. I still incorporate a substantial amount of analog gear in my mixes (and I don’t see that changing anytime soon). I like to print new audio files that include my analog processing so all of my analog gear doesn’t have to be repatched and reset every time I do a mix recall. PT8 still leaves me having to bus processed audio to a new track — all of this when I’d prefer to hit just hit the “consolidate with plug-ins” button.
As minor as it seems, one of my favorite features of PT8 is the translucent waveforms that allow the grid to be viewed through the waveform in the Edit window. As great as this feature is, I wish there was a translucence slider that allowed me to customize the amount of translucence. More than that, why do the waveforms lose their translucence when working in Elastic Time’s Analysis and Warp mode (when they are needed the most)? [“Good point,” offers the manufacturer. “We had actually tried that and found the see-through grid lines clashed too much with Analysis and Warp markers. In extreme cases, this made working in Warp view very hard and frustrating.” — Ed.]
Digi has clearly set a new standard with Pro Tools’ sleek new look and enhanced functionality and creative power. Pro Tools 8 is easier to use than ever, faster to work with, and offers more customizability than ever before.
Russ Long, a Nashville-based producer/engineer, owns The Carport recording studio. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review. www.russlong.ws