Digidesign Pro Tools|HD and ProControl

Pro Tools. It’s everywhere. It’s become synonymous with hard disc recording. Most every studio, post house, dubbing stage, and home studio has a system. Every recording school teaches it at the top of their curriculum. A&R guys don’t hire engineers anymore unless they come with a Pro Tools rig or are at least well-versed in using one. Now that it rules the audio world, what can Digidesign do for an encore? How about answering the only criticism of the system with the introduction of Pro Tools|HD.

While Pro Tools has effectively replaced the tape-based multitrack for serious audio work, many engineers have sited three issues with the system that they’d like improved: converter quality and clocking, the lack of high-resolution recording, and mixing with a mouse. The former criticisms have effectively been answered with the new Pro Tools|HD system and the latter with ProControl, a console-like controller for any Pro Tools|HD or TDM system.

What’s New In HD
Pro Tools|HD is primarily a hardware change, with the latest 5.3.1 software updated to accommodate the new hardware and its higher sampling rates. This means that if you’re a long-time Pro Tools user, nothing has changed for you operationally except for the fact that the software now automatically recognizes all of your HD interfaces so you don’t have to manually enter that info. Also included in 5.3.1 is support for DigiTranslator and Unity, as well as more sample rate pull-up/pull-down options.

As for the hardware, Pro Tools|HD consists of three different basic setups: the HD 1, 2, and 3. HD 1 includes a single PCI HD Core Card that supports up to 32 channels of I/O with nearly twice the voice count and DSP power of the previous Mix Plus system. Add an HD Process Card (previously called a “Farm Card”), and you have an HD 2 system that again doubles your I/O and processing power. Add yet another Process Card, and you have an HD 3 system that gives you up to 96 channels of I/O at 48k. You can add up to six Process Cards for those muscle systems that feel particularly DSP challenged.

The Digi I/O and sync hardware has changed considerably not only in style, but in content as well. All units have a modern brushed metal with blue-edged front panel that really looks good in a rack, but the back panel really tells the story. On the 192 I/O, there are four I/O card bays that are normally loaded with eight analog ins on bay 1, eight analog outs on bay 2, and AES digital I/O on bay 3. Bay 4 is open for an additional analog or digital I/O card if needed. All I/O is available on DB25 multipin connectors. Standard features such as two channels of AES/EBU I/O on XLRs, ADAT I/O, and word clock I/O are also included. Two nice touches on the unit are the real-time sample rate conversion on the digital inputs and a soft clip limiter on the analog inputs. There’s also a “Legacy Port” that allows connection of up to two older 888 interfaces to the system.

Several other new units complete the HD series. The 96 I/O offers many of the same features of its big brother, except there are no expansion bays, it won’t do the 192k sample rate, and the analog inputs and outputs are on 1/4-inch jacks. At half the price of the 192, it’s a great deal though (see sidebar for prices).

Other units include Sync I/O, MIDI I/O, the 8-channel software controllable mic preamp called PRE, and the digital-only 192 Digital I/O.

System Requirements
Pro Tools|HD requires a relatively late model G4 Macintosh with AGP-type graphics (the graphics card fits in its own separate slot, which is just about all G4’s except the very first model). OS 9.1 through 9.2.2 are currently supported, although OS X support seems just around the corner. Version 5.3.1 also now runs on a PC with at least a P3 or P4 processor using Windows XP, Professional or Home. With either platform, at least 256 MB of RAM is required, but the higher the track count, the more you’ll need. HD currently doesn’t utilize dual processors, so computers with this feature offer no additional benefit.

On Surround
Since Version 5.1, multichannel mixing has been given a lot of attention, and it shows. Multichannel masters and faders, multichannel plug-ins, and the ability to read and write multichannel Broadcast Wave files are important standard Pro Tools surround features that are still not implemented by much of the competition. Audio tracks now support multiple output assignments for creation of multiformat mixes up to 7.1, as well as multiple stem mixes. A large graphical XY Panner display is provided on each channel. When opened, the Panner allows surround positioning, separate LFE send levels, center channel send, and full Divergence and Position controls, and all parameters can be automated. Additional surround features include Multichannel Bouncing, with the ability to perform sample and bit-rate conversion during or after a bounce.

In Use
First of all, any previous issues that discerning engineers previously had with Pro Tools regarding the audio quality of the converters and clocking have now been resolved. Indeed, the redesigned HD192 converter sounds considerably better than the previous 888’s, and the jitter seems to be far less.

Previously, if you connected a high-quality word clock to the 888, there would be a noticeable decrease in jitter, resulting in a cleaner sound with a lot less of the hard “digital” edge that Old School purists complain about. Well, connect an external word clock to these new converters, and while it may make a slight difference on a complex mix with a lot of tracks, the effects are so much less dramatic that spending the extra money seems hardly worth the effort. Indeed, the 192 raises the sonic bar considerably for the average recordist without having to be concerned with buying additional external I/O and dealing with the interconnect problems that entails.

The 192 gives you big bang for the buck not only in terms of sonics, but also in terms of I/O versatility. In contrast to the previous 888’s, the 192 can give you up to 16 inputs and outputs per unit, depending upon how the card slots are loaded. A stock 192 will give you eight analog and eight digital inputs and outputs, which can be used simultaneously for a total of 16. By choosing the appropriate cards, you can easily customize the I/O for your application.

One of the biggest features of the 192 is that it gives you the added bonus of both 96 and 192k sample rates, as well as the widely used 44.1 and 48k. I’m actually surprised at the number of engineers that own this system and have yet to even try to record at one of these higher rates. While we’ve been recording at 96k for quite some time, we never had the ability to use 192 kHz, so this system led to an experiment to determine if there are any benefits at this rate.

We recorded the same material at 48k, 96k, and 192 kHz just to see what would happen. The source material was acoustic guitar, piano, light percussion (cabassa, tamborine, shaker), room tone, and a ping-pong game. To make a long story short, a side-by-side comparison really told the difference in sample rates. The 48k material had a hard upper mid edge to it with a small sound stage (relative to the higher sample rates). The 96k material was better, with less edge and a wider sonic landscape. But the 192k material was gorgeous! Gone was any evidence of the hard edge and what some call the “digital” element. The soundscape was both wider and deeper, and far more realistic.

While 48 and 96k differences were sometimes hard to detect unless you listened to them side by side, the 192k material was instantly recognizable. If it weren’t for the fact that 192k requires so much DSP power (a full HD 3 system will only give you 24 tracks) and so much disc space (four times more — enough to require the storage sophistication of a RAID or Storage Area Network), I believe that a lot more people would convert to this rate as soon as they heard it.

While Pro Tools|HD takes care of the sonic element, ProControl takes care of the visceral. ProControl is meant for anyone who has a phobia of mixing with a mouse and just needs to have faders under the fingers. But it does far more than just adding fader control, as just about every element of Pro Tools becomes instantly available via the work surface.

What It Is
ProControl is a well-designed control surface that adds all the controls normally found on a recording console such as faders, panners, mutes, on-off controls, etc. to Pro Tools. The hardware integration with Pro Tools is so good that just about every major and most-used functions can be directly accessed from ProControl, meaning that the use of the actual computer interface can be kept to an absolute minimum.

Connection to Pro Tools is a piece of cake. You simply connect a CAT 5 ethernet cable from ProControl to the ethernet connection on the back of your computer (all Macs have one). During hardware setup, Pro Tools finds the ProControl, initializes it, and it’s ready to go. If additional fader sections (called Fader Packs) are necessary, an ethernet hub is required to split the ethernet signal to all devices, but that’s pretty easy to come by these days.

ProControl is laid out very much like a console, with eight 100mm touch-sensitive motorized faders as the centerpiece. Each channel has illuminated Solo and Mute buttons, Channel Select buttons for I/O assignment, automation, grouping, and other channel-specific edit functions, and dedicated switches for EQ and Dynamics editing and bypass, insert assignment and bypass, and record ready states. There’s also lots of visual indicators such as ringed LED data encoders for pan position and send level control, and high-resolution, eight-character LED scribble strip displays for everything from channel names to send levels.

ProControl also has a master section featuring a DSP Edit/Assign area that provides dedicated switches, encoders, and LED displays for assigning and editing plug-ins, six LED peak reading meters for stereo and surround output metering, and eight stereo LED peak reading meters show disk playback and channel input levels. There’s also an eight-character time display that toggles between Absolute time, SMPTE timecode, Feet/Frames, Bars/Beats/Ticks, and Samples, and Group Bank Switches that allow access to fader “virtual banks “consisting of groups of channel strips as wide as your ProControl setup allows (8, 16, 24, or 32 faders at a time).

A dedicated Master Fader button brings up all master faders in a Pro Tools session to the main section faders, and illuminated transport control switches control your session without the need for touching a keyboard. Speaking of keyboards, a built-in trackpad mouse replacement and weighted scrub/shuttle wheel for region selection and other edit operations means that you can say goodbye to your mouse if you want to. And, best of all, an analog control room monitoring/routing/talkback section eliminates the need for the usual outboard mixer for monitor control, and literally turns Pro Tools into a real recording console.

Expansion Units
If eight channel faders of the main unit are not enough, Fader Pack is an 8-channel expansion unit for ProControl that allows you to expand your unit up to 48 channel strips. Each Fader Pack includes eight additional faders and all the features of the main unit fader section, including the standard channel strip functions and stereo meters, and automation, key shortcut, and select/assign/edit controls, giving you access to common Pro Tools functions from any part of the ProControl.

Yet another extension module available for ProControl is Edit Pack. Edit Pack not only adds advanced editing and surround panning capability to ProControl, but a number of other features as well. There are two touch-sensitive, motorized joystick panners, a two-button trackball, color-coded QWERTY keyboard complete with Pro Tools shortcuts, eight high-resolution, 40-segment output meters, selection Start, End, and Length displays, timeline and MIDI window controls, comprehensive Machine Control selection (complete with track arming and edit mode switches), and 20 dual-function edit switches.

You can easily expand the ProControl system at any time by simply connecting a Fader Pack or Edit Pack to the ProControl Main Unit with an ethernet hub. Anywhere from one to five Fader Packs can be added to a Main Unit for 16, 24, 32, 40 or 48 channels of simultaneous control.

In Use
We deliberately first set up and used the ProControl without looking at the manual just to see how far we could get by just being intuitive. In fact, we never did look at the manual, being able to figure out virtually everything that the control surface had to offer within a short period of time. Suffice it to say that, once you get some time on this unit, you will not want to use Pro Tools without it ever again. While editing may still require some direct interfacing with the computer, everything else becomes a user’s dream. No more scrolling through channels. No more looking through menus. No more resizing the mix window. Virtually every feature of Pro Tools is available from a switch, fader, or control on ProControl. And after mixing on it, you’ll wonder how you ever did it with a mouse!

With the new HD system, Digidesign has taken the sonics of their very popular system to a whole new level. ProControl takes Pro Tools operation to still yet another level beyond that in terms of both ease and sophistication. Yes, Pro Tools currently rules the audio world, and with this formidable combination the dynasty is destined to continue for some time to come.

PRICE: See below.
CONTACT: Digidesign, 650-731-6300, www.digidesign.com.

Pro Tools Core Systems

HD: 1 $7995
HD: 2 $10,495
HD: 3 $12,995
Process Card: $3995


192 I/O: $3995
192 Digital I/O: $2495
96 I/O: $1995
192 A/D Expansion Card: $1295
192 D/A Expansion Card: $1195
192 Digital I/O Expansion Card: $995
Sync I/O: $2095
MIDI I/O: $595
PRE: $2495

Control Surfaces

ProControl: $11,995
Fader Pack: $6495
Edit Pak: $7495

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