Macs Making Music: Pro Tools

David Ellefson has been a professional musician, performer, recording artist and songwriter for the last 25 years. Most notably the last 18 years have taken him to the recording studios and stages around the world as the bassist for the rock group Megadeth. As a long time Macintosh enthusiast his Macs, include desktop machines, iMacs, iBooks and PowerBooks.

For more information on David Ellefson, please visit his personal Web site.

If there is one piece of gear that reinvented multi-track music recording it is without a doubt Digidesign Inc.'s Pro Tools. In fact Pro Tools did for the music recording industry what Adobe Systems Inc.'s PageMaker, Illustrator and Photoshop did for the desktop publishing industry. While there are many digital audio hardware/software products available for the Mac, Pro Tools says it all in its name; gear designed for the most discriminating music professional.

So, what is Pro Tools and what does it do? To tell the story of this magnificent state of the art invention I spoke with Digidesign's territory sales manager Dave Anderson.

"Digidesign started in the late 1980's and the two founders began by building sound libraries for Emulator's Drumulator," said Anderson. "Our first offering was called Sound Tools which allowed you to do digital editing. We called it the 'digital razor blade.'" Always native to the Macintosh, the first edition of Pro Tools followed in 1992. It began as just a simple editing system that allowed the user to record and playback 4 tracks of audio. That primitive system had little mixing capabilities, featuring just volume and panning, but was designed to be expandable up to 8,12 and 16 channels. It was 16-bit technology, which means that it could reproduce audio in CD quality. It began at US$6,000.00 for the 4-track version and ran all the way up to $20,000 for the 16-track system -- that's almost double the price of the most advanced system today.

While this was a major revolution in digital music technology, what really made Pro Tools the leader of the pack is when Digidesign created their TDM system. "TDM stands for Time Division Multiplexing which is a term borrowed from the telephone company", explains Anderson. "It is our acronym for our proprietary hardware based mixing and processing environment and this is what makes Pro Tools the industry leader."

The TDM system offered another major break through in that most computer audio suites and music sequencers were known as host based systems, meaning that they worked as fast as the CPU would allow them to go. The TDM however, known as a power-on-demand system, was not reliant on the Mac's processor speed. Instead it used the computer's processor only for limited functions while most of the tasks, such as the real-time effects, were happening on the DSP (digital signal processing) chip within the external TDM hardware.

So, when the TDM system began shipping in 1996 it offered the ability for third party vendors to start writing software plug-ins. Companies like Waves, Bomb Factory and Focusrite began offering a plethora of products, such as equalization and reverbs, which rivaled many outboard products. Thus a cottage industry was born out of Pro Tool's plug-in ability.

"In 1997 we came out with the Pro Tools 24 system which was no longer 16-bit but rather 24-bit, meaning that the dynamic range was actually better than CD quality", said Anderson. "It offered up to 64 tracks of audio and using plug-ins you could then mix everything on the Mac within Pro Tools at a fraction of the cost of buying a studio that had a mixing console, tape machines and outboard gear. This also caused huge waves in the industry because then everyone started recording in 24 bit".

Finally, the horsepower to record a lot of tracks was available but a bottleneck began within the system because the mixing capability wasn't quite up to snuff for the most demanding professionals. Thus began the Pro Tools 24 Mix Series that offered a more powerful DSP chip on the TDM hardware. It also operated at 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling rates. This gave up to seven times more power for the same price as the standard Pro Tools 24 and required less outboard gear for mixing.

"Today we offer Pro Tools HD (high definition) which breaks all the rules of the Pro Tools 24 Mix Series in that we've doubled the signal processing so you've got twice as much power for the mix as you did in the Pro Tools 24 Mix Series", Anderson states proudly. Also, sampling rates have been doubled and quadrupled offering 96 to 192 kHz rates. "Even though humans can only hear about 16 to 18 kHz there are many overtones and harmonics that happen in the [audio] spectrum that we do hear and when you can record at a higher sampling rate your recordings just sound better."

Digidesign's vision is one that allows its users to do all of their audio production in Pro Tools. This includes recording, editing, mixing, processing, midi production and even mastering. With this in mind Digidesign also realized many people preferred to work on an actual mixing console instead of a computer screen. So, the company now offers mixing desk type of control surfaces, such as the Control 24, that gives the user the look and feel that they may be accustomed to when working on an actual studio mixing desk.

With all this cutting edge technology you may be thinking that the price and learning curve may be too much for you to handle, but fear not. Just as Apple boasts simplicity and a machine for everyone in all price ranges the same can be said for Digidesign.

The least expensive version is called Pro Tools Free and can be downloaded at no charge from Digidesign's website. It offers 8 tracks of digital audio, 128 midi tracks and does not require any external hardware. Simply plug your instrument or audio source into the soundcard of your computer and you're ready to rock.

One of the newest, most portable versions of Pro Tools is the Mbox that lists for $495.00. It offers the LE bundle version of Pro Tools that boasts 24 tracks of 24-bit audio, at 44.1 or 48kHz sampling rates, several usable audio plug-ins and is currently Mac exclusive. The actual Mbox interface is small, rugged and very portable offering two tracks of simultaneous recording with its 2 line or XLR inputs, 2 outputs as well as S/PDIF. It even features 2 Focusrite microphone preamps with phantom power. The unit is powered by a computer's USB bus so it requires no external power source thereby making it a great choice for use with an iMac, iBook, or Powerbook. I currently use this with my Titanium PowerBook and it's a great way to capture ideas on the go.

Probably one of the most popular consumer/professional models is the 001. Packaged with the LE software the 001 hardware design allows the user to record up to 18 tracks simultaneously (10 digital, 8 light pipe and 2 S/PDIF) which is great for recording live drums or even a full live band. Prices start at $995.00 for the standard version and $1345.00 for the more advanced system that offers third party plug-ins from Bomb Factory and Waves. The 001 requires a PCI card slot so it can only run on tower style computers.

Digidesign still sells some mix systems but these days their real bad boy is the HD TDM system. The HD system is very configurable but the 5.3.1 Pro Tools software alone is $8000.00 and the entry-level interface 96 I/O (in & out) rack mounted hardware is another $2000. This offers 8 analog ins and outs, more than 8 digital ins & outs as well and other inputs. The second HD system offers the same 5.3.1 software but enlists the192 I/O hardware for $4000.00. It is 24 bit and offers a 192 kHz sampling rate that allows for 128 tracks of audio. This looks to be the industry workhorse for high-end professional users.

One of the coolest features of working on Pro Tools is that because it is industry standard you can take your session files to many professional recording studios, transfer them into their Pro Tools system, and continue recording or mixing. In addition, Digidesign should be offering their products on the Mac OS X platform by the end of the year further assuring that the Mac will reign supreme in digital music for some time to come.

Because the user base is so wide and varied with Pro Tools there is just too much to cover in one month's column. So, I will be making the rounds to some of the studios, engineers and artists who use this dream machine to make their music come alive in next month's column. See you then!

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David Ellefson

PC World
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