Eli Crews: You all may be wondering why it took us over here at Tape Op so long to write a review of Pro Tools 11; I mean, it's been out for quite a while now and all. The simple answer is in three letters: AAX. I'm not really interested in placing blame for the fact that it's taken some plug-in manufacturers so long to get their AAX 64bit plug-ins up and running, but here we are, a full year after the release of PT 11 was announced, and a number of very popular plug-ins still aren't available in AAX format. Since some of those are plug-ins I use regularly, I haven't been able to make the switch fully; in fact, I just did my first mixes in PT 11 recently, although I've been tracking and editing in it, on and off for a few months. So, as much as I'd love to give you an in-depth review of the day-to-day use of the software, I'll have to give you mostly fleeting impressions.
There are a number of new features that promise to make working in Pro Tools 11 faster and more fluid. Now a 64-bit application, with its Avid Audio Engine rewritten from the ground up, PT 11 accesses the resources of your computer much more efficiently, utilizing more RAM than previous versions. In practice, I find that high-track-count sessions started in PT 10 run more smoothly with much lower CPU loads in 11. However, there is one area that I see a decrease in performance from 10; it takes a lot longer (like, four or five times longer) to load up a session with a lot of plug-ins running.
Back on the positive side, there are lots of little tidbits that are super-cool in Pro Tools 11, like mini-meters on aux sends, the ability to view multiple send levels at a time within the Mix window, master bypass key commands for aux sends and plug-ins, compressor gain reduction directly viewable in the Mix window, multiple meter ballistic choices, and non-realtime bouncing (including Pro Tools HD's ability to bounce multiple buses and multiple formats simultaneously - e.g., WAVs and MP3s). Some would say this last one is pretty overdue, seeing as I was doing offline bouncing in Digital Performer before my 12-year-old son was born. In practice, I found that in a session with lots of plug-ins running, it only got up to about 1.8 times faster than realtime, although for rough mixes of sessions with little or no plug-ins, it's screaming fast. I still prefer recording into a blank track over bouncing, and I very non-scientifically confirmed with a discerning client that the realtime print sounded better to both of our ears.
One feature that I hope to see expand in the future is the new master meter at the top of the Edit window. This defaults to your main stereo output, and you can reassign any stereo bus or bank of eight buses or outputs to be displayed here, which is totally great. I would love this to be able to accommodate multiple banks of eight, so I could tell at a glance if any of my 24 outputs (which feed my summing box) were clipping.
My biggest gripes about using Pro Tools 11, though, are blessedly ephemeral. Allowing both PT 10 and 11 to be installed on the same computer is a first for Avid, and I experienced some of the pains of this experiment. Having access to the earlier version was absolutely necessary, mostly due to the aforementioned general slowness of third-party AAX plug-in rollout. But switching between them was anything but graceful, in large part due to my allegiance to (and reliance on) an Avid product: the Artist Control [Tape Op #76]. The EuControl software, which is needed to run any of the control surfaces in the Artist Series, has a new, PT 11-compatible version 3.1. However, running PT 10 with that version of EuControl makes my computer unhappy and crashy and stuff. So every time I want to work in PT 10, I have to reinstall version 2.7.1. Needless to say, that kinda sucks. So once all of my plug-ins are able to run in 11, I will happily bid PT 10 adieu and with it, EuControl 2.7.1. That will be a nice day, I look forward to it.
Scott McChane: The change to 64bit architecture and the new Avid Audio Engine are arguably the best new features of Pro Tools 11. For the most part, these two improvements stay pretty much hidden from the user's view, so maybe they aren't as sexy as you'd hoped, so let's talk about some features we can get excited about.
The advanced, configurable metering options (with customizable color break settings) are amazing! From headroom indicators and optional channel metering modes (Classic Peak, Linear, RMS, Standard VU, Digital VU, and various broadcast standards - some are HD only), to gain-reduction meters (HD only), and even tiny level indicators on the insert sends - Pro Tools 11 has you covered. Speaking of sends, you can now adjust preferences, setting newly-created sends to default to unity gain. You can now globally mute sends and selectively or globally bypass inserts from the Track menu. Dynamic host processing for native plug-ins (selectable in the Playback Engine window) only taxes CPU cycles when plug-ins are actually processing track information. Also in the Playback Engine, the low-latency input buffer is now automatic, and Delay Compensation is always at maximum (as it should be in my opinion). And with the new Avid Audio Engine, no more biting my nails, praying for the old DAE to lock to my interface during Pro Tools startup. With Avid's new engine, my "soon to be extinct" FireWire connectivity has never been more reliable!
Other improvements worth noting include a new System Usage window that shows the percentage of CPU abuse on each processor core individually, as opposed to a single aggregated figure. Notable new track shortcuts allow you to add a new track from a channel's output assignment drop-down, perform a right-click bounce from a specific output assignment, and select from various view/bypass features. The updated Transport window offers a new output meter and a handy fade-in feature that takes getting used to, but is great for smoothing out noises related to abrupt timeline selection starts. Offline bouncing is a new feature that offers multiple, separate bouncing options from different output assignments and sends. I'm not much of a "bounce" guy, but I can see the workflow benefits here, especially for broadcast and commercial use.
I'm hoping these words may help you weigh the impact of your impending transition to Pro Tools 11 (while also attempting to explain the diminished number of new third-party plug-in releases of late). For freelancers like myself, who work on small-budget projects, a major update is also a major question mark: "With Pro Tools 11, will I have to upgrade my entire DAW (interface, computer, and operating system), or can my 2011 Mac Mini with a 002 interface carry me through one more version?" Before I attempt to answer that question, let me just say that PT 11 is a major update - technically, the biggest update ever. And though the immediate benefits/features of PT 11 may not seem worth the trouble when compared to the cost and effort of a new installation - science, improved workflow, and better service to your clients should compel you to upgrade sooner than later.
Before tackling a big update like this, I'm begging you to run a Time Machine (Mac OS) backup of your entire system. I did, and I had to restore my entire system more than a few times for the purpose of this review -partially due to my "hard-headed" nature. Please read all of the installation instructions, which will take some time. I did not and paid for that in lost hours as I ran into unstable behavior of Pro Tools 11.2.3 and PT 10.3.8 (required for loading projects from PT 11) on Mac OS 10.9 (Mavericks). Though you may be hoping for a glitch-free two-hour installation, plan on a full day of downtime for updating your operating system (or in my case, upgrading and then downgrading), managing your iLok licenses, reauthorizing plug-ins, and downloading new ones. Furthermore, if you're like me, you either don't have the immediate resources to upgrade your entire plug-in library from RTAS/TDM to AAX, or your previously-purchased plug-ins are not yet available in AAX. To be clear, PT 11 will open older project files from previous versions, but it will not run your RTAS/TDM plug-ins. However, if you have AAX versions of all your older plug-ins, the settings of any instantiated plug-ins will remain intact in PT 11, but I've found that custom presets you've made previously won't transfer into PT 11. Also, you cannot run 10 and 11 simultaneously - only one version can be opened at a time.
Further laborious tests unsurprisingly revealed that installations on systems with 4 GB of RAM and up yielded noticeable performance improvements in Pro Tools 11. My next hardware purchase will not be a mic, preamp or compressor; it will be a new desktop that can accommodate at least 16 GB of RAM to take the most advantage of Pro Tools' 64-bit nature.
Some features I'd love to see in future Pro Tools updates are: a semi-transparent System Usage window; a fully-scalable mix window; and an online update wizard that would allow users to ascertain quickly and efficiently their upgrade options and requirements given their DAW setup.
In the short term, due mostly to my computer's processing limitations and my sparse collection of AAX native plug-ins, I've made the choice to revert back to my Pro Tools 10-only workstation setup. But if you listen closely, you'll hear that sound - it's the sound of inevitability. In the end, we'll all have to upgrade.
Andy Hong: I didn't experience any of the installation/compatibility woes that stymied Eli and Scott. Getting Pro Tools 11 running on my two Windows 7, 64bit Ultimate systems was quick and painless. But then again, I don't use a ton of plug-ins and my desk is an actual console, not a MIDI or Ethernet-based controller. I also didn't have to do anything special with my audio interface, an RME HDSPe MADI FX [Tape Op #91], which connects to my console and various peripheral I/O devices via MADI; as far as Pro Tools is concerned, it only cares that the RME card is there. Of the plug-ins I do use regularly, my UAD2 system [Tape Op #67, #73, #76, #83] is still lacking AAX support on Windows (although on Mac, AAX is available), so I have to make do without it when I'm running PT 11. But otherwise, PT 11 has been surprisingly solid for me.
Performance-wise, I'm more than happy with all of the "invisible" improvements Avid made to the underlying codebase of the application. On my aging but still very reliable, near-silent custom PC [Tape Op #67], equipped with the aforementioned RME PCIe card, I'm able to run Pro Tools 11 with an audio buffer size of 32 samples. On one project with 31 active audio tracks, most with at least one plug-in instantiated, I was able to punch in 16 additional audio tracks while monitoring all 47 tracks - and yes, that's with the buffer still sized to 32. That's impressive for an all-native system running on a six-year-old computer. I haven't done any high track-count punches on my Toshiba Portégé ultraportable laptop, but I did measure latency. With my RME Fireface UCX interface [#88] connected via USB and a buffer size of 64 (the Fireface UCX goes down to 48, but PT only supports multiples of 32), my roundtrip latency is 5.94 ms (262 samples) at 44.1 kHz. That's what you'd hear naturally if you were playing electric guitar with your ear 6 ft from your amp.
Feature-wise, Eli and Scott already mentioned many new workflow enhancements that I'm enjoying. In addition, I'm keen on the newly consolidated Workspace Browser. What was in the past a hodgepodge of individual browsers for the various assets in your project and on your drives is now a unified experience. Searching for media files, plug-in settings, session backups, etc. is now a mostly painless affair, especially if you've been smart enough to standardize on a naming convention (but even if you haven't, advanced search parameters can come to the rescue).
I also like the many new shortcuts. Double-clicking on an empty area of the Edit or Mix windows or the Track list creates a new track with the same type and width as the last created track; or you can specify the track type by holding down one of the modifier keys. The new commands for quickly bypassing inserts on selected tracks are also quite useful. For example, you can bypass only the reverb plug-ins across a group of selected tracks. Or on a single track, you can bypass an insert and all inserts that follow it. A whole bunch more keyboard and click combinations exist to choose which inserts are bypassed under what conditions.
Another new feature is the ability to write automation while recording. This is handy when you're overdubbing a performer who wants you to perform tweaks to the headphone mix during the overdub - write the tweaks as automation during the first take, and then sit back while the automation plays back during subsequent takes.
I haven't taken advantage of Pro Tools 11's incorporation of Avid Video Engine from Media Composer, Avid's video flagship, but anyone doing sound for picture for outside clients will surely appreciate this.
Note that Avid is no longer supporting legacy HD hardware for Pro Tools 11. That means HD and HD Accel hardware will continue to work with PT 10 and any of its maintenance releases, but for PT 11 and beyond, legacy HD owners will need to upgrade to HD Native or HDX hardware. Also worth mentioning is that Complete Production Toolkit, which is a software-license add-on that allows for many HD-only features to work on non-HD systems, is no longer available starting with PT 11. Therefore, if you want HD features like comprehensive metering types, multitrack offline bounce, or expanded track counts, you'll need to run Pro Tools HD software. Unfortunately, you can't buy the HD license without purchasing HD Native or HDX hardware. But once you have the license, you can run HD software on non-HD systems too. By the way, Pro Tools is still limited to 32 channels of I/O when using third-party audio hardware, whether you're running HD software or not. My DAW offers 194 inputs and 196 outputs; although Pro Tools "sees" all of them, only the first 32 channels will actually pass sound.
All-in-all, if you haven't yet upgraded to Pro Tools 11, there's a lot to think about. There are quantifiable improvements in performance as well as a number of enhancements to workflow that will benefit non-HD users with minimal impact on the wallet. On the other hand, if you're running currently-supported HD hardware, the upgrade cost is doubled, but even still, I think the upgrade is worthwhile when you consider the workflow time-savings with multitrack offline bounce and the many new power-user features and shortcuts. And what if you're running legacy HD hardware? Perhaps it's time to call your accountant to figure out how you'll amortize the purchase of new hardware while you put your old hardware up for auction. As Scott already mentioned, upgrading is an inevitable outcome if you plan to stay on the Pro Tools platform - it's really just a matter of when you can (or want) to spend the money. - AH