Pro Tools is a different beast than it was two years ago when I reviewed version 8. At that point, users were locked in to using Digidesign’s hardware or the handful of reversed engineered interfaces (Prism Sound, Apogee, Lynx, etc.) that Digi refused to support. Critical listeners complained about the quality of the Digi interfaces that they felt couldn’t sonically compete with a big percentage of competitor offerings.
Two years later, everything has changed as Pro Tools 9 (PT9) has redefined what it means to be the premier audio production platform. Avid is the masthead for this major update since the Digidesign name is no more. Avid, a leader in video and audio production, purchased Digidesign in 1995. The entire audio interface line has been revamped (see my Avid Pro Tools HD Series review in PAR’s November 2010 issue); the new hardware sounds amazing. But with Pro Tools 9, you don’t have to use Avid hardware; you can use any interface you desire.
Laid to rest is Pro Tools LE [it will “no longer be developed,” offers Avid — Ed]. Now there are Pro Tools and Pro Tools HD, and the gap between the two has narrowed; Pro Tools M-Powered “is still a current product, which hasn’t been updated to v.9,” explains Avid.
Pro Tools requires no additional hardware, and its feature set can be greatly enhanced with the addition of the pricey Complete Production Toolkit 2. Pro Tools HD runs on either a Pro Tools|HD Native system, which utilizes a single HD Native card, or a Pro Tools HD system, which utilizes an HD Accel Core card and one or more HD Accel cards.
The upgraded PT9 audio engine includes support for Core Audio and ASIO-compatible interfaces or for the computer’s built-in audio utilizing no external interface at all. Avid has increased the audio track capabilities to 96 mono or stereo voices in Pro Tools and 192 in Pro Tools|HD. Both support up to 256 internal busses; 128 and 160 maximum auxiliary tracks for PT and PT HD, respectively; and 64 and 128 instrument tracks for PT and PT HD, respectively. Pro Tools|HD and Pro Tools with Complete Production Toolkit 2 support the standard HD (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) and the SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound) 7.0 and 7.1 surround formats. [Specifically, offers Avid, “the surround panner supports both 7.0 and 7.1 SDDS and DTS-style panners” — Ed.]
PT9 has a completely revamped I/O settings configuration. Previously, I/O settings were stored with and recalled from a Pro Tools session, which meant that studio settings corresponding to hardware could change each time a session was opened potentially resulting in loss of monitor paths. PT9 I/O settings can be recalled from the system, allowing a studio’s I/O configuration to remain intact when opening a session created on another Pro Tools system. Additionally, the I/O settings (Input, Output, Insert, Mic Preamps and H/W Insert Delay settings) are system settings that are stored with and can be recalled from either the system or the session file. When a session created or edited on another system is opened, you can choose the I/O settings that were stored with the session and overwrite the I/O settings stored with the system. I regularly track at other studios, then return to my studio to overdub and mix; I’m happy to say that the days of spending the first couple of hours at my studio reconfiguring 10-12 sessions with my studio’s I/O settings are gone. This feature has also made it simple for me to swap sessions back and forth between my non-HD Pro Tools and my Pro Tools|HD rigs with virtually no reconfiguration at all.
PT9 includes full EuCon integration. I’ve been using the Euphonix MC Mix EuCon controller for nearly two years via the HUI MIDI protocol; while it’s been great, EuCon always worked better with other DAWs than with Pro Tools. This is no longer the case as the integration provides easily configurable yet extensive Pro Tools control via any Artist Series or Pro Series controller.
All versions of Pro Tools now include Advanced Import Session Data allowing AAF and OMF files to be imported into Pro Tools sessions. File interchange between Pro Tools and other DAWs via OMF/AAF/MXF files previously required the DigiTranslator add-on. This feature, as well as an incorporated (” free”) MP3 export option (long overdue), are now built into PT9.
The new Variable Pan Depths feature allows users to alter the Pro Tools center attenuation. Previously, when a track was set at unity and panned to the center, the result was an output level of -2.5 dB (the new default is -3.0 dB) to both the left and right speakers. Now this level can be set to -2.5 (the standard stereo pan depth setting in Pro Tools 8 and lower), -3.0 (the industry standard for surround mixers and many consoles), -4.5 (the standard for many British analog consoles), or -6 dB (the standard for full mono compatibility) giving Pro Tools the ability to respond like the user’s familiar mix environment.
Previously only available on HD, PT9 now includes the long overdue Automatic Delay Compensation (ADC). ADC operates in the same way as in Pro Tools HD systems, allowing the user to keep track of delays incurred on the audio tracks and auxes by showing the Delay Compensation view in the Mix window. This view reveals the total sample delay on each channel and allows users to manually enter a compensation value to adjust the timing.
The Complete Production Toolkit 2 Pro Tools add-on includes new features that narrow the gap between Pro Tools and Pro Tools|HD even more. “It gives you the same feature set as PT HD when used without HD hardware,” offers Avid.] The package increases I/O capabilities, adds surround mixing, and increases the track count for audio, aux and instrument tracks. It includes the Neyrinck SoundCode Stereo plug-in that allows surround sessions to be down mixed to stereo for 2-channel monitoring. This means an HD surround session can be tweaked on a plane while listening through stereo headphones — nice! It also includes the X-Form plug-in, based on iZotope’s Radius algorithm, that provides high-quality time compression and expansion, and formant corrected pitch-shifting.
The first thing I noticed about Pro Tools 9 is that it provides a single, unified installer for all versions of Pro Tools. When launching the Pro Tools application, Pro Tools|HD will run if Pro Tools|HD or Pro Tools|HD Native hardware is found. Otherwise, Pro Tools will run on existing or no audio hardware (in both instances a valid iLok is also necessary).
Although somewhat time-consuming, upgrading from PT8 HD to PT9 HD was smooth sailing. The first installation was on my Mac tower running OS 10.5, so I began by doing a clean install of 10.6.4 (the most recent physical update that I could find locally) and then updating (using the Mac Software Update function) to 10.6.5. I went ahead and did a clean install of all of my third party plug-ins as well as making sure I had the most recent version in every instance. The installation worked perfectly and I then repeated the process with my MacBook Pro and — with the exception of having to do a bit of experimentation to get Pro Tools to play through the laptop’s internal speakers — the installation went as smooth as expected.
On the downside, Pro Tools no longer supports the use of the Legacy I/O. Although I wasn’t able to get my 1622 16-channel I/O to work with PT9 (which I previously used to return analog effects into a PT session), many users have posted online that they have been able to successfully use Legacy I/O devices with Pro Tools 9.
One of the new features I love about PT9 is the addition of the track selection and the New Track options to the output selector (applicable for both the channel output and the send assignments). This feature greatly simplifies routing within a session. First of all, when routing the output of a channel to an existing track, you previously had to assign the output to a bus and then set the input of the existent track to the same bus number — two steps. Now you select Track under the output options and a list of the available track names appears (the destination track must be set to either an internal mix bus or to No Input in order to be available for assignment), and the track can be instantly routed to the existent track. The New Track option is much more user friendly. Before PT9, creating a new effects return took multiple steps: create a new aux track, assign the aux track’s input to an available bus, and then create an aux send on the audio track. PT9 automates this entire sequence, creating a new track with the output of the originating track/send automatically routed to the input of the new track using the first available internal mix bus in a single step just by selecting New Track under the output options.
The new OMF/AAF/MXF Interchange works perfectly. I imported an OMF file created in Final Cut Pro and Pro Tools flawlessly created a session with the audio and video files. Exporting is just as easy; you simply select Export Selected Tracks as New AAF/OMF under the File pull-down menu, and then use the dialog to set the file type, format, etc.
The overall look and feel of PT9 is relatively the same as PT8; the only exception I found is the Bus window in the I/O Setup page. I found this to be a bit confusing at first but I think it’s because I’m accustomed to using it in its previous configuration for so many years. Now that I’m getting used to it, it is more straightforward, somewhat automatic, and I love the fact that I don’t have to spend so much time reconfiguring my I/O setup when I bring an existing session into my studio to mix.
The release of Avid’s Pro Tools 9 and Pro Tools 9 HD once again validates Pro Tools’ reign at the top of the DAW market, and at this point and time, there’s no reason to look elsewhere.
Russ Long is a Nashville-based producer, engineer and mixer as well as a senior contributor to PAR. russlong.ws