Pro Tools 10: Worth It?
December 1, 2011 by Justin Colletti
Avid surprised many of their users with the recent release of Pro Tools 10. It came not even a full year after the announcement of Pro Tools 9, an update that had brought significantly more power to native systems.
Although version 9 was one of Pro Tools’ most expensive upgrades to date, it was fairly well-received, especially among native users. This group found that Avid had finally made good on some of their most long-standing requests, opening up basic features like auto delay compensation, MP3 bounce options and full-fledged Beat Detective to those without an HD card.
The latest release, Pro Tools 10, continues to close the gap between HD and Native, revamping the underlying system architecture and plug-in protocols to blur the lines between product categories even further.
Like its predecessor, PT 10 is one of the more costly audio releases from Avid. But unlike PT 9, the majority of immediate internet chatter seemed to be disparaging. Those of us in the pro audio field have come to expect a few groans and grumbles whenever the market leader gives studio owners yet another reason to part with more hard-earned cash, but this time, it was more than that.
While the detractors have some valid gripes, there are others who are genuinely excited about the new release. We’ll look at both sides and help you decide whether PT 10 is right for your studio.
HDX – Cost Effective For New Users
There is at least one group that has something to be excited about. Those specking out a new installation, or upgrading to an HD system for the first time, will find the new HDX hardware offers more power and I/O at a lower price point than ever before.
We heard from a few users who told us this was the release that finally made them decide to upgrade their studios from suped-up LE systems to full-fledged HD.
Meanwhile, Uri Djemal of Manhattan’s Madpan Productions said he was convinced to “sidegrade” by moving from an HD2 system to HD Native with Pro Tools 10.
“I was looking at a scenario where my HD2 system would be obsolete after PT 10. The old cards wouldn’t be able to run with the software, or the newly coded plugs. So I took a plunge, trading in my HD 2 Accel system to Pro Tools HD Native which comes with a free upgrade to PT 10. Total cost out of pocket: a bit over $600.”
“Some of the new features are long overdue, but they don’t disappoint. I can’t imagine using another DAW, and the thought makes me want to pull out what hair I have left in my head. Pro Tools, despite its significant change, is just as familiar and intuitive as always.”
Those who decide to opt for dedicated DSP chips will find that HDX affords up to 5x more processing power per card, and allows users to assign specific tasks to either the HD cards or to the RAM cache, potentially freeing up more juice for power-hungry virtual instruments and high-resolution video.
32-Bit Floating Point – An Unexpected Improvement in HD Sound Quality
Price-to-performance ratio aside, Grammy-winning producer/engineer Vaughan Merrick is most excited about floating point architecture finally coming to HD.
“You could easily write an extensive article on the benefits of 32-bit floating point math and how HDX at 192k is a much better sounding system than TDM, which is the part that I really care about. The other various features are nice, but I don’t think the sound quality argument can be undersold.
“I personally stopped using my TDM system when Pro Tools 9 went Native, since the 32-bit floating point system sounds so much better than TDM.”
Merrick is also excited about the ability to work as easily at 24/192 as he might have worked at 24/44.1 in the past. For him, every step away from granularity toward greater transparency is a step in the right direction, but it’s HDX’s embrace of floating point architecture that seals the deal.
“They defended 48-bit fixed-point for years, and even wrote some white papers about the advantages. The TDM system was developed in the late 90s, and I presume fixed point processors were the only way to get low-latency performance at a price-point most of us could swallow. But they’ve embraced 32-bit floating point throughout the system now, which means better sound quality and consistency between DSPs.
“Basically, the 32-bit float system allows the 24-bit word length to be preserved in its entirety the entire time it’s in the box. When you turn down the fader in floating point, you’re not getting any degradation of the signal; there’s just less distortion inherent in the math.”
“It’s a complicated discussion to have,” Merrick tells us, but he maintains that listening tests confirm this will be a welcome change for HD users.
New Features – Powerful, Welcome, But… Underwhelming?
On their own, some of Pro Tools 10′s new features are impressive. “Clip Gain”, which was a centerpiece of Avid’s press junket, is a handy tool for editors seeking more fluid dynamic control. The elimination of fade files in the new engine allows for real-time edits to crossfades, and speeds up session load times dramatically. Eucon control has been improved, and the bundled suite of plug-ins, including the new Channel Strip, is quite nice.
Taken together, the entire tool-set might easily warrant the $600 price tag for new professional-level users. But is it worth a $300 upgrade from PT 9 for users who already spent $300, less than 12 months ago? And what about the $1,000 upgrade cost for HD users?
To be fair to Avid, the sheer amount of work their team put into designing an entirely new engine may be deserving – they did throw away a lot of old code for this new release – but that doesn’t mean an immediate upgrade makes sense for most of their customers.”
Producer/Engineer Allen Farmelo, who’s often quick to embrace significant new updates, is cool-headed in his reasons for skipping this one.
“Aside from a few bugs, Pro Tools really is the best DAW out there for serious record production,” Farmelo says. “And the new Avid I-O converters sound amazing. But I’m just facing the realities of what this current offering means to me and my business.
“I might be one of the worst candidates for a Pro Tools 10 upgrade because I already own an HD system. The $999.00 update cost, plus the dawning reality that my TDM plug-ins will soon be unsupported has me, for the first time ever, holding off on an upgrade.
“I paid five figures for my HD system not that long ago (plus a few upgrades along the way), so to be putting another $1K into a system that will soon require even more software purchases feels wrong for me and my business right now.
“Instead, I’m putting all of my re-invest money into hardware. I keep looking at my Studer A-80, which I use daily, and marveling that it is thirty years old and there have been no format changes: 1/2″ tape, XLR connectors, capacitors – Even the pinch rollers are still built to the same specs. Similarly, when I sit down at my console I know I will be using it for decades. I’ve actually factored the value of my console into my retirement plans. Try that with a digital system!”
He’s definitely not alone. “We recently upgraded to PT 9, so we won’t be upgrading again so soon,” says Matt Werden, engineer for LoHo Recording and Blue Man Group.
“We have 4 HD rigs, plus a couple other software-only rigs, and tons of plug-ins, so it isn’t cheap or easy for us to upgrade. Aside from the cost, the PT 10 release is a bummer for us because PT 9 is still not stable. I was expecting a year or more of CS updates, but now I’m stuck with an older version that no one will be paying attention to.
“Some of the features in PT10 seem great, but it seems they’ve been saving things like clip based gain just so they could justify getting more money out of their customers. The whole situation gets a thumbs down from me.”
“No one is holding a gun to your head.”
Farmelo and Werden are pretty even-keeled about the whole thing, but we can’t say the same for everyone.
Mere moments after we broke the story of Avid’s announcement, some of the comments on our site had already begun to look ugly. The same was true across several pro audio forums, where many users vented their frustrations over the cost of the upgrade, the timing, and fact that Avid had not yet gone as far as creating a 64-bit version of the program. And some users, like Werden, were concerned that Avid decided to move on to a new release before addressing all the compatibility issues of the last one.
“I’m not entirely sure why everyone’s so up in a tizzy about a new version coming out this time, except that we’re in economically difficult times,” says Vaughan Merrick. “Quite frankly, that’s a perfectly good reason to be upset about shelling out more coin, but nobody needs to upgrade unless they want to. Hell, I know people who are still using Pro Tools 7 and 8!”
I instinctively understand the frustrations of users who excitedly upgraded to PT 9 months ago, only to find themselves behind the curve already. But with that said, I’d tend to agree with Merrick here. Although I mostly use Pro Tools 8 and 9 in my everyday sessions, I still have Pro Tools 7 installed on my home machine, and it still works great. To me and many others, each new upgrade is an option, not a requirement. If you want to stay cutting edge, I’ve figured it will always be more effective to show it with your work than with your tools.
“Users may wish to upgrade to 10 when and if they upgrade to HDX, or not at all,” says Merrick. “ I don’t get the big hoopla. Everything digital goes through upgrade cycles. For some reason when it comes to upgrading laptops, it’s not a big deal, but upgrading Pro Tools is cause for hysteria? I dunno. To me, it’s just life in the digital era.”
Avid announced Pro Tools 10 and HDX just a day before the 131st AES convention. They reserved an elegant conference room in the Jazz at Lincoln Center building, and served the reporters they invited some of the best hors d’oeuvres we’d had in while.
In another age, this was the norm for pro audio companies. But when Avid held a well-appointed press junket this year, it was something different; A reminder that they stand alone in the field in many ways, and a reminder that they plan to keep it that way.
Just one week later, Avid surprised the industry again, this time announcing a round of layoffs in which they shed nearly 200 employees – 10% of their total workforce. In any other economy this may have seemed like an ominous move, but not today. There’s even a fair chance this decade could prove to be a new era for Avid.
While many pro users accuse Apple, the owner of Logic and Final Cut Pro, of fumbling on recent updates, even stripping away features and simplifying their programs, Avid has made it clear that they’re aggressively courting an upscale market, even if that might means alienating some of their “prosumer” users. In their November 20th press conference, the company’s motto and constant refrain was “Avid, committed to the professional.”
As their shifting market strategy comes into focus, Avid is bound to make some friends, and some enemies. The reality is that Pro Tools might not be able to compete with DAWs like GarageBand, Ableton Live, and Reaper when it comes to retaining casual users, and just maybe, it shouldn’t try.
Based on recent moves, that seems to be their take at least. Don’t be surprised if Avid is willing to give up some of their share in one corner of the market if it means they can maintain a firm hold on another.