Pro Tools has been an industry standard for many years. Walk into any professional studio and you'll likely find Pro Tools in the engineer workflow, and for good reason. It's a rock solid DAW with a feature set that fills every need of a recording, mixing or mastering engineer. However, it's also a great tool for musicians who are looking for a way to produce demo recordings or for just laying down some tracks during the creative process. And because Pro Tools is so prevalent in the industry, you can easily share Pro Tools sessions with mixing or mastering engineers to complete the process.
Pro Tools Interface
Avid has done a wonderful job of making a remarkably complex application intuitive and quite approachable, even if you aren't a Pro Tools expert. The interface is uncluttered and much of the complex functionality is hidden by default. Options abound, and you can easily set up just the right interface settings that meet your specific needs.
There are two main windows that you'll use most often; the Mix window and the Edit window. Many functions are available in both, but each is specialized to a particular type of task. The Edit window is generally where you'll spend your time recording and editing your tracks. The Mix window is where you'll spend your time, well, mixing. With that said, I frequently find myself switching back and forth no matter what production stage I'm currently in.
By the way, a quick note about the use of the term "windows". The Edit and Mix windows are just that; windows. That means that if you are using a multi-monitor setup, you can display your Edit window in one monitor and your Mix window in the other. You can also arrange them side by side, etc., just as you would any other window.
Switching between the Edit window and the Mix window is simple. On a Mac, press Command+= to toggle between the two. (Use Ctrl+= on Windows.) This is just one of the literally thousands of keyboard shortcuts in Pro Tools. In fact, Pro Tools comes with a 65 page reference of keyboard shortcuts! You obviously won't need to learn all of them, but you'll find that if you spend some time learning the ones that are common in your workflow, you can save yourself a ton of time.
Several windows in Pro Tools have a small button in the upper-right corner that enables a special keyboard shortcut mode called Commands Keyboard Focus for that window. When you click this button, you can use single key shortcuts to interact with that window instead of multi-key combinations that might not be as convenient.
The Edit window is extremely customizable. For example, in my Edit window that you see above, I have enabled the display of instruments, the first bank of 5 insert effects, my I/O configuration, and I've also displayed automation for the Violin track. I can, of course, choose not to see all of that. If I want to focus purely on editing some tracks I've laid down and I'm not interested in monkeying around with any inserts or doing any routing, I may choose to hide my inserts and I/O settings. I can use several different techniques for doing so, but I most often will simply right-click on a track and select or deselect different options depending on what I'm doing. As you can see in the screenshot below, I can quite easily pick and choose what I want to see for each of my tracks.
As you work with Pro Tools, you may find that you want a different interface configuration for different situations. Avid's got you covered as you can easily save your layout to a custom window configuration that can easily be retrieved later. Saved window configurations are a great way to handle a different layout based on your workflow. For example, if I am working in a session that has a lot of bus routing, I like to have my I/O column displayed and if that session contains virtual instruments, I like to have the instrument column displayed as well. By simply setting things up the way I want them and saving that as a custom window configuration, I can quickly customize the Pro Tools interface exactly as I want it without having to go through all of the setup again.
When I'm using Pro Tools, I am free to customize everything exactly the way I want it.
Window configurations don't have to save everything. You can pick and choose which properties are stored in a window configuration. This is just one of countless ways that Avid has done a great job of not locking you into doing something a certain way. I've used a lot of software over the past few decades, and I've never encountered an application that does such a great job of not imposing a particular paradigm on me. When I'm using Pro Tools, I am free to customize everything exactly the way I want it, and I think that's especially critical in an application that is really focused around bring out your creativity. It's an approach that I'm sure that you will love as much as I do.
When you're mixing your session, you will spend most of your time in the Mix window. You can easily see all of the inserts and sends for each of your tracks. You can also see how your tracks are routed. Pro Tools uses color coding and other display techniques to make it easy to identify when plugins are bypassed or inactive. A bypassed plugin will appear in blue and an inactive plugin will appear with a dark gray background. In the screenshot below, you can see that I have a bypassed plugin and an inactive plugin.
A Couple of My Favorite Interface Features
The Pro Tools user interface has so many great features that make it a real joy to use, but here are a couple of my favorites.
Groups are a great way to work with multiple tracks that are related. For example, in the session I'm currently working on, I have an instrument track for a flute. That instrument track is bussed to an audio track so that I can record the Midi data to an audio file. (This is recommended in case you end up in a situation down the road where a virtual instrument plugin no longer works due to compatibility issues, etc.) I also have a specially configured reverb plugin just for my flute and that plugin is configured on an AUX track and I have a send on my flute instrument track that goes to the AUX track. To make it easier to manage these tracks, I grouped them into a Flute group. I can then select all of those tracks by clicking on the Flute group within the Groups window.
This feature is even more powerful when you use it to mix. (You can choose whether groups are applied in the Mix window, the Edit window, or both.) For example, if I create a group for all of my strings, I can easily change the mix of all string instruments as a single unit by clicking on the group and then adjusting the level of one of the tracks in the group. When I do, all of the tracks are adjusted in unison so I don't lose the relative level of any individual track. I could, of course, bus all of my string tracks to a new bus and just adjust the level of that bus, but groups are more flexible if a new bus isn't really required.
Another super feature is the Memory Locations feature. Memory Locations make it easy to select a portion of your song, show and hide tracks, go to a specific part of a song, etc. For example, I've been working on a session that includes a couple of verses, a chorus, and a bridge. The chorus is actually broken up into two parts. The first part is the lead singer by himself, and then in the second part, two harmony parts are added. I set up memory locations for each verse, each chorus, and also for the part of the chorus where the harmonies come in. If I want to play the harmonies in the chorus, I can simply click on the harmonies memory location and press Play.
That's only one example of using memory locations. It's well worth your time to learn all of the ways that you can use memory locations. One of the best ways to learn that (and just about everything else about Pro Tools) is to take some of the many courses at Lynda.com that cover Pro Tools. My favorites are the ones given by Brian Lee White. His course on Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering is well worth a year of Lynda.com training all by itself.
There are so many great things about the Pro Tools UI that I can't possibly cover them all in this review. There's no doubt but that you'll have a few of your own favorite UI features that make your work in Pro Tools all the more enjoyable.
Getting Things Done
Pro Tools 11 introduces the Avid Audio Engine (AAE). This isn't just a marketing term for an under-the-hood feature that you'll never notice. It's a term for the completely rewritten Pro Tools audio engine and you'll notice its benefits in everything that you do in Pro Tools 11.
When it comes to recording, you'll no doubt appreciate the low-latency input buffer that AAE provides. Any track with an active input (including virtual instrument tracks that are record-enabled) are automatically in a low-latency mode. Other tracks are in a high-latency mode since latency isn't an issue in tracks that aren't being input monitored. This results not only in extremely low latency input monitoring, but also keeps you from having to constantly adjust your input buffer as you're recording new tracks.
Another great contribution that AAE provides is efficient use of system resources. Pro Tools now automatically efficiently uses all of the cores on a multi-processor system. As additional processing power is needed, the load is spread out across all cores. As CPU resource requirements are diminished (e.g. sections of a song with fewer tracks or fewer effects), CPU utilization is reduced across all cores. Not only does this mean that Pro Tools 11 is more responsive than previous versions, but it also means that you can have a crazy number of tracks loaded with effects and plugins without maxing out your CPU.
Check out the screenshot below and you can see just how well Pro Tools makes use of all 8 cores on our MacBook Pro. This isn't a huge session, but it does have 50 tracks, many of which have advanced bussing and 3 or 4 inserts that are all active. Even in the most processor-intensive sections of this song, CPU only increases to 10-12%. That's amazing!
Avid achieves such a high-performance level by dynamically using resources only when they're needed. Resources required for plugin processing are only used when a plugin is actually in use at the point where playback or recording is occurring. If the playhead is at a point where a particular plugin isn't being used, resources are not allocated to that plugin. Avid calls this dynamic plug-in processing, and it's a great benefit to Pro Tools users.
There are many other great additions that the new AAE brings to Pro Tools. Every automation event is now time-stamped which means that you can enjoy the highest level of accuracy when you play back automation, and you can now record automation while recording, a feature that Pro Tools users have been asking for. AAE also brings automatic delay compensation on sends.
If you're an existing Pro Tools user, this isn't just a nice upgrade. It's an absolute necessity.
Other features new to Pro Tools 11 include native 64-bit mode which means that Pro Tools can now address more RAM and offer larger VI sample sizes and more system headroom, offline bounce for bouncing audio at speeds up to 150 faster than realtime bouncing, extended metering in Pro Tools 11 HD, and the new Avid Video Engine which allows you to add a ton of HD video formats to your Pro Tools timeline without having to transcode them. Avid has also added the new AAX plugin architecture to take advantage of all of the great new features in Pro Tools 11. The list of new features in Pro Tools 11 goes on and on. If you're an existing Pro Tools user, this isn't just a nice upgrade. It's an absolute necessity.
Those of you who are running an earlier version of Pro Tools might be worried at this point that some of your plugins might not work in Pro Tools 11. Not to worry. Avid bundles Pro Tools 10 with Pro Tools 11, and you can install both versions side-by-side on the same system without any problems. If you need to use plugins that aren't compatible with the new architecture in Pro Tools 11, you can run them in Pro Tools 10.
Pro Tools Tips
During this review, we spent a lot of time using Pro Tools in a real-world environment. We came away with an immense appreciation for Pro Tools and a strong belief that anyone who has a need to produce audio will find Pro Tools to be a great choice. However, you'll want to follow some basic tips if you're going to get the most out of this excellent DAW.
Use a Qualified Computer
Use a Pro Tools 11 qualified computer. Avid does a lot of work testing both Windows PCs and Macs for compatibility. If you stick with qualified computers, you'll have the best experience with Pro Tools. If your computer doesn't meet the requirements, you may still be able to run Pro Tools, but you may experience some problems such as poor performance, degraded audio quality and other problems. You can find information on qualified computers on Avid's website. (We used a high-end MacBook Pro for this review.)
Use a Dedicated Hard Drive
Use a dedicated hard drive for recording. If you're using Pro Tools on a laptop, use an external hard drive with a fast interface. (We used a LaCie Thunderbolt SSD hard drive for this review.) If you record to your system drive, you may find that your audio contains pops or clicks or that you experience poor performance while recording.
Update Your Drivers
Make sure that you have all the latest drivers for your system and make sure that your system meets the system requirements. You can find information on those requirements on the Avid website.
Protect Your iLok
You may also want to get iLok's Zero Downtime protection for your iLok and a spare iLok device so that you can take advantage of that service. Pro Tools will not run without an authorized iLok device, and these devices can fail and keep you from accessing your software. Trust me. If your iLok is going to fail, Murphy's Law dictates that it will happen right when you need to finish that all-important session for your most important client. It would be great if Avid would allow you to authorize your computer instead of requiring an iLok device, but that's almost certainly not going to happen.
You may also want to consider purchasing a Roklocker for your iLok. Roklocker is a durable polycarbonate enclosure for your iLok. Not only does it protect your iLok from breaking if you drop it or step on it, but it will also protect it from being ruined if you spill your drink on it. (You're on your own when it comes to protecting your computer.) Roklocker will cost you about $30, but it's well worth it for the level of protection and the peace of mind it provides.
Use Bome's Midi Translator to Turbo Charge Your Workflow
We're a huge fan of Bome's Midi Translator. This tool essentially allows you to do just about anything on your computer in response to a particular MIDI message. We used Midi Translator pretty heavily during our review of Pro Tools and it was a great addition to Pro Tools.
As we've already mentioned, Pro Tools offers a huge array of keyboard shortcuts that can energize your workflow, and if you couple that with Bome's Midi Translator, you can really boost your workflow into overdrive. You can easily configure Midi Translator to kick off complex keyboard combinations in response to input from your MIDI controller, and we found this to be an absolute "must have" companion when working in Pro Tools.
CPU and Pro Tools
As we were working on this review, we noticed that the cooling fans on our MacBook Pro would spin up after a couple of hours even when Pro Tools was left sitting idle. A quick check of Activity Monitor showed Pro Tools using a high level of CPU, but the System Usage window in Pro Tools showed very minimal CPU usage. We checked with Avid about this and we were told that Pro Tools is incorrectly reporting CPU usage to Activity Monitor, and we were assured that what we see in System Usage is absolutely correct. We confirmed this ourselves by using several low-level monitoring tools to monitor user-mode CPU cycles on our system. Even though Activity Monitor was reporting almost 150% CPU usage by Pro Tools, it was actually using 2% when idle, exactly what the System Usage window indicated.
We're mentioning this for two reasons. The first is that we found a fairly large number of people on the Internet complaining about the exact same scenario we experienced, and most of them were claiming it to be a bug in Pro Tools. (We don't blame them. We thought it was, too, until we investigated further.) The second reason is because we feel it's likely that some users might peek at Activity Monitor and wonder why it shows Pro Tools using a ton of CPU cycles. Worry not. What you see happening in the System Usage window is correct and, at least for the time being, you can safely ignore what you see in Activity Monitor.
We found Pro Tools to be a solid platform for anyone who is producing music or any other audio. The flexibility of the user-interface and workflows makes it the perfect choice no matter how you like to work. Pro Tools is great at getting out of the way and letting you maximize your creativity, and that's a critical component to any DAW in our opinion.
We also found Pro Tools to be remarkably stable. We spent dozens of hour in Pro Tools during our review, and we never experienced a hiccup. If you're an existing Pro Tools user, there's more than enough goodness in Pro Tools 11 to make it a worthwhile upgrade. If you're a user of another DAW, now is a great time to make the move to Pro Tools. If you're not convinced by this review, grab a free trial of Pro Tools and try it for yourself. We're confident that you will also find Pro Tools to be a great choice for your audio production needs.