The Empire Strikes Back!

With all the DAW zealots out here in the tech universe proclaiming their DAW of choice as the best, there is simply no denying that in the professional world of film and TV composers, engineers, and post production houses, ProTools has always been the industry standard.

There are good reasons for this. From their earliest systems though their more recent HD systems, the that it used its own DSP cards meant that users were not solely dependent on their computer’s processing power and delivered lower latency than any “native” system could deliver. Also, Digidesign, which was the ProTools developer for many of its peak years, was very cautious in certifying new versions of an OS and any hardware and drivers and even used its own plug-in formats. What this meant was that if your rig conformed to a “qualified” ProTools rig, it was as solid and bulletproof as a computer based DAW could be. If you run a 24/7 client based studio or post house,
nothing, and I mean nothing, is as important as this.

Also, from an engineer’s standpoint, for tracking, editing, and mixing ProTools had distinct advantages. Where a program like Logic Pro might give you several ways to accomplish a task, ProTools may give you only one, but the one frequently was logical, well thought out, and dead easy to learn.

But all this came at a price tag that generally could only be justified by working pros with decent budgets and/or a lot of steady clients. Probably $30,000 was the average. Digi did introduce some native version, like ProTools LE and ProTools M-Powered but they were pale imitations of the real thing with lower track counts, limited features, more latency without latency compensation, etc. They were OK as a secondary editing station or as a way to learn ProTools and get in the game. But I suspect a lot of users bought it for the chance to claim the status of having ProTools.

For years, its MIDI implementation was rudimentary and inefficient in terms of resources and so few composers composed MIDI with virtual instruments or MIDI hardware in it, preferring to do their MIDI in another DAW, bounce to audio, while tracking live musicians and mixing in ProTools. Digidesign did however, gradually start to improve their MIDI capabilities and some users thought they could envision using ProTools as their only DAW in the future.

So it is not surprising that a lot of people got really nervous when in 2005 Avid acquired Digidesign and in 2010 phased out that name. After all, a lot of high end guys and even some lower end guys had invested a lot of money in this stuff and depended on it daily for their clients and there were a lot of rumors about Avid’s financial health and questions about its competitiveness, as its core video editing apps had lost a lot of ground to Apple’s far less expensive Final Cut Pro based systems.

But Avid persevered, added more MIDI capabilities, introduced native systems that wee more robust and full-featured than the previous versions, and once again, the possibility of PT being a composer’s sole DAW seemed to be becoming more and more viable.

There were still some flies in the ointment however. PT lacked a score editor. Avid responded by integrating a light version of Sibelius, a nice step if not as full-featured as i.e. Logic Pro’s score editor.

PT used RTAS as a plug-in format and it was woefully inefficient. Avid responded by introducing the AAX plug-in format, which by all the reports I have received form PT user, is far more resource efficient. So again, Avid was on its gig.

What were the remaining issues?

1.Unlike pretty much every other DAW, ProTools did not have offline bounce capabilities or freeze tracks.
2.Unlike pretty much every other DAW, ProTools was not yet 64 bit, meaning it could not take full advantage of all the available RAM on your computer(s).
3.IOS support.

Well, Avid has responded big time with the announcement of ProTools 11, which addresses all these issues and more. It is slated for release on May 28th, 2013.

The software costs $699 and Avid says it will deliver better performance on whichever hardware you are using with it. There are upgrade paths for previous versions and while a high end ProTools setup that gives you the lowest possible latency and most power will still cost you some substantial bucks, lower priced configurations are nowhere near as crippled as they were in the past, giving you i.e. SMPTE timeline and latency compensation, just to name two.

So what does this augur? For the committed ProTools based composer, this is all very good news. Avid has proven its commitment to making ProTools a viable option for MIDI/virtual instrument composing as well as for all the audio tasks it has always excelled at. While it still may lack some things, for the first time, ProTools 11 will apparently be truly at least competitive with Logic Pro, Cubase, Digital Performer, and newbies like Studio One and Reaper as the all-in-one solution.

But for users of other DAWS who have not already bought in? Will they switch?

I can argue it both ways. The appeal of using just one DAW, the industry standard, will resonate with a lot of users. Also, “I use ProTools” translates to some potential clients as “I am the real deal.”

And compared to most of the competition, I do think ProTools is easier to learn for a newbie than most, but that is a subjective comment.

However, now that PT has “gone native”, native versions will be subject to the same software incompatibilities and conflicts that all native systems are and may not be as rock solid as that HD rig in the client-based recording studio or post house. Those guys will probably mostly update the software but keep their hardware. It still, in terms of bang for buck, will be among the more expensive options.

Most importantly, if you know your present DAW really well, you have to ask yourself ”How many hours will it take for me to learn to be as facile and efficient with ProTools as I am with DAW X?”

It is a legitimately big question that everyone will have to decide for himself/herself.

I would rather duck the obvious question for myself but as the author of three Logic Pro books, a Certified Trainer, a contributor here and on MacPro Video’s Hub, and a rep in Los Angeles and thanks to the internet, to a lesser degree the world (not trying to self-aggrandize, just factual I think) a Logic Pro guru, I am going to have to address it sooner or later, so here we go (gulp.)

Would I switch to ProTools 11 exclusively?

Probably not, unless I see enough increased earning potential to justify the number of hours of hard work getting really good with PT, as I am with Logic Pro. Plus sooner or later, there will be Logic Pro X and maybe, just maybe, Apple will up the ante, as Avid has.

But man, for the first time, I see it as a real possibility.

1 Comment

  • May 22, 2013 @ 12:00 am

    A great article with a fair summary of how I feel. I love that AVID are such a robust and dependable company; like Metric Halo, their products (even some legacy) get better with age and they don’t seem to make as many ‘mistakes’ as some.

    Native PT is finally becoming useable for composers and that’s exciting; having several good choices out there is always a good thing as we’re not all clones and we all work in different ways. I can happily report that the ‘old school’ idea that PT is “for serious businesses” and others are for hobbyists, has long faded. A huge amount of famous scores have been done in Logic and DP (then usually Mixed in PT).

    Hopefully those “old school” clients will learn quickly that the proof definitely IS in the pudding and not in the bowl. That’s why they specifically hired YOU in the first place.

    … and as long as there’s an OMF export, we’ll all be fine in the end.

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