Quick rundown of systems (See bottom for details):

  • Pro Tools HD:
    • Audio: 128 channels of digital audio
    • Midi: 256 channels of midi
    • Extra hardware: Internal DSP acceleration; external converters
    • Cost: $7,000-$13,000+Mac/PC+converters
  • Pro Tools LE:
    • Audio: 32 channels of digital audio
    • Midi: 256 channels of midi
    • Extra hardware: No hardware acceleration, external converters
    • Cost: $500-$2000+Mac/PC
  • Pro Tools Mix/24 (legacy):
    • Audio: 64 channels of digital audio
    • Midi: 256 channels of midi
    • Extra hardware: Internal DSP acceleration; external converter
    • Cost: $7000+Mac/PC+converter
  • Pro Tools Free:
    • Audio: 64 channels of digital audio
    • Midi: 256 channels of midi
    • Extra hardware: No acceleration, no advanced A/D conversion
    • Cost: Mac/PC necessary

Introduction

Pro Tools is a professional digital audio production tool used by many professionals and studios. Pro Tools can be used to perform nearly any professional audio production task. It could be safely said that Pro Tools is the most popular and widespread professional digital audio system there is. (Nuendo is a serious competitor, though.)

Pro Tools is aimed at professional musicians and producers as well as at large scale projects, but is not exclusively so. Pro Tools systems (excluding the diminutive Pro Tools Free) can be acquried for as little as $500, not including the host computer, or can be doted upon to the tune of $30,000.

Pro Tools is made by DigiDesign, presently a division of Avid, who also make video editing software and other things.

What Is Pro Tools?

Short answer: Computer software and specialized audio hardware

Long answer: Generally, Pro Tools consists of a high quality suite of audio production software, from digital audio editing to midi compostion, as well as specialized hardware used for audio processing (But only in the case of HD) and analog-to-digital conversion (and digital-to-analog; herein referred to as A/D).

Hardware

The hardware that a Pro Tools system is based on performs two functions: Audio processing and conversion between analog and digital sound.

The audio processing component of the hardware is only available for Pro Tools HD systems, as well as the outdated (but much in use) Mix/24 systems. Audio processing power is added in the form of a large farm of DSP chips on one or more of the peripheral components (in this case, internal cards in the Mac). The term 'farm card' is used to describe cards not vital to the system that have been added for processing and i/o extension. ProTools LE relies singularly on the processor of the host Mac or PC.

The A/D conversion aspect of Pro Tools hardware is, in a sense, the most vital. While processing power can be increased by buying a better computer or just by dealing with slow audio processing, sub-par conversion can make an entire audio project sound like it was made in a bathtub, and cannot be reversed. The basic qualifiers of an A/D converter are the number of lines (audio signals) it has, the sample rate (e.g. 44100 hz), and bitrate, as well as pro audio specifications I won't explain. Note that converters with the same specifications can be vastly different in quality. (The ProTools converter recommended for a given system is not necessarily the best converter available!) Example A/D converters include the Mbox and Digi 002 for Pro Tools LE systems, the 888 for ProTools Mix/24 systems, and the 96 and 192 for Pro Tools HD. Note that, as with any audio production system, the mixing quality of the system is negated if you use mics, pre-amps etc. that are not on par with the rest of the system. (The converse is also true.)

These two basic functions of specialized hardware (conversion and processing) along with capable software are the more than $14,000 cost of a Pro Tools HD|Accel system.

Software

The software is included with whatever hardware system you purchase. I'm not sure what happens if try to mix and match the different core systems. There are basic limitations to the software; the LE systems can only think in 32 audio tracks. If that isn't enough, well, I guess you'll have to buy the next system up.

The quality of the software is what sells the entire system. You would have to see the system running and watch a skilled user manipulating multiple channels of both digital audio and midi to really see the power of the system. The essence of the system is that it will do anything you can imagine doing with digital audio information, and do it well. The interface is intuitive; a musician familiar with computers will recognize almost immediately what is going on, and picking up and using the system is a matter of understanding a few basic screens and commands.

What are the different levels of Pro Tools systems?

There are essentially two types of Pro Tools systems on the market, corresponding to which version of the software they run: ProTools|LE and ProTools|HD. There is also the legacy Pro Tools|24 MIX system; it represents a cost/performance middle ground between the two current systems, but is filed under 'legacy' by the web site. Pro Tools Free is a much disempowered distribution of the production software.

Pro Tools LE

Pro Tools LE systems consist of the Pro Tools LE software as well as one of two hardware elements as the basis of the system - either the $500 Mbox, or the $2500 Digi 002. The Mbox comes with two analog lines in and two analog lines out - thus, only two channels can be recorded at the same time. The Digi 002 (Successor of the Digi 001)offers better recording quality, a mixing board or rackmount physical unit, and 8 analog channels both ways, as well as 8 ADAT I/O ports, and 16 channel in/32 channel out Midi support. The Mbox is the preferred solution for small scale editing and portable use; the Digi 002 is aimed at low-end studio use.

The software that comes with each of these systems is the same; it is capable of editing and playing only 32 channels of audio at a time, and up to 256 channels of midi (I guess that's probably generally enough).

Pro Tools|HD

Pro Tools|HD systems consist of the Pro Tools HD software and two essential hardware components: One component is an internal card for a PC/Mac which has extensive audio processing hardware, and the other is typically a rackmount component to which is connects for analog input and output from and to the digital system. The simplest of these systems begin at $8000, which does not include the A/D converter component (several hundred dollars).

The HD software is capable of editing 128 channels of audio and 256 channels of midi; the number of analog inputs and outputs it is capable of depends on the hardware used.

HD systems might also be accompanied by a control surface, which is a large piece of hardware used to control things like volume and balance in a manner emulating analog studio mixing boards. These cost $8,000-12,000 (There are only two available).

Pro Tools|Mix/24

Pro Tools|Mix systems consist of the Pro Tools software, an internal card for processing and connecting to I/O devices (converters), as well as a converter. ProTools|Mix systems are capable of editing 64 channels of digital audio as well as 128 channels of midi. Like the more recent HD systems, Mix systems can employ 'farm cards' for extra processing power and I/O. These systems can also be accompanied by a control surface. Pro Tools Mix hardware is no longer commonly sold, but will continue to be available used as producers switch to HD systems.

Pro Tools Free

Yes, there is a free version of Pro Tools. It is only currently available for Win32 and Mac OS 9 (You can try it under OS X, but good luck). It is available for download from the website or can be ordered on CD for US $10. It uses whatever audio interface is in your computer, so the audio quality will probably be inferior to that of any other Pro Tools system, unless you invest a great deal of money in your audio card. Also, this version can only handle 8 tracks of digital audio and 48 tracks of midi. Pro Tools Free also does not come with the large assortment of commercial plugins included in Pro Tools LE and HD systems. All in all, the $500 investment in an Mbox will pay for itself after the cost of peripherals and the embarrassment of people realizing that your band's spiffytacular new 'CD' is in fact a CD-R with a misaligned label and the same audio quality as Arfenhouse.

Other Information

My knowledge of Pro Tools comes both from my father and his systems - he owns both a used Mix/24 system on a G4 PowerMac (OS 9.2) and an Mbox on a Powerbook G4 (OS X). See http://www.zoowest.net for details.

Next round of changes will include better software description and perhaps a complete list of major hardware components.

Sources:

  • Digidesign: http://www.digidesign.com
  • Avid: http://www.avid.com
  • Information about my dad's studio: http://www.zoowest.net

Celebrity voices are imitations, not endorsements. Digidesign, Avid, and Pro Tools are IP of Avid.

Some sections updated, added ProTools Mix, ProTools free, moved from ProTools to Pro Tools. Changed 'ProTools' to "Pro Tools" in a bazillion places. Moved this section to the bottom.

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