This article is partially excerpted from the introduction to A Musician's Guide to Pro Tools, Book Two, which is a continuation of A Musician's Guide to Pro Tools Book One. It was adapted by me to serve as a sort of review of Pro Tools 6. In view of the fact that upgrading to Pro Tools 6 entails a lot more than clicking the install button on a CD, I decided that the article should encompass the whole upgrade experience. Getting around in PT 6 is a cinch for anyone familiar with PT 5. Dealing with Mac OS X, however, is a whole 'nuther ball game.
The biggest difference between PT 5 and PT 6 is not the program itself, but the fact that PT 6 will only run on Mac OS X (10.2.3 and higher). This new Unix-based operating system is a radical departure from OS 9 and earlier. Switching to OS X (the "Jaguar" version) is almost like switching to a different brand of computer. All of the companies who write software for Macs (like Digidesign) have had to completely rewrite their software in order for it to run natively on OS X.
For those who are just now entering the Pro Tools world, it's important to realize that OS X and PT 6 represent something of a compatibility dividing line. Earlier versions of Pro Tools will not run on OS X. Pro Tools 6 (and up) will not run on OS 9. Since the Macintoshes I use are capable of booting in both OS 9 and OS X, it's possible to install both versions on the same computer. New Macintoshes shipped after the beginning of 2003, however, will no longer boot in OS 9. Therefore, anyone wishing to upgrade to a brand new computer will also have to upgrade to Pro Tools 6. Whether you're ready to jump on the OS X bandwagon or not, all professional facilities will eventually have to upgrade.
What's Different in OS X?
Just about everything. The Apple Menu is still there, but it's not customizable. The Special Menu is gone, its functions moved to the Apple Menu. The Application Menu and Control Strip have been replaced by the Dock. Because OS X is designed so that a single machine can have multiple users, it's very security conscious. You have to ask permission to do every little thing. OS X users will often be told they can't throw out a file due to lack of permissions. Whereas in OS 9 one was free to rummage around in the System Folder and trash things at will, it's pretty much off-limits in OS X unless you log in as the root user (not recommended without thick glasses and a pocket protector). Among other things, OS X has done away with System Extensions, the Extensions Manager, and the Chooser (good riddance). These items are still used when running Classic Mode, but that's of no use to Pro Tools users. Allocating memory to the Pro Tools application and the DAE is now a thing of the past. It's now done dynamically (automatically, as needed) by OS X. Another good thing about OS X is that the Force Quit command actually works. When Pro Tools crashes, it won't take down the whole computer.
Many Mac users who have switched to OS X feel as though they have given up some of the control they had over the computer in OS 9. Fortunately, lovable computer geeks like the ones at www.unsanity.com and others have figured out ways for us to regain some of that control. Here are some highlights:
WindowShade: OS 9 has a window shade feature where you can double-click on a window's title bar and the window will disappear, leaving only the title bar visible. I love this feature, but OS X did away with it. Want it back? Download WindowShade X (www.unsanity.com - $10) to restore it.
FruitMenu: Want the Apple Menu back the way it was? Download this app (www.unsanity.com - $10).
ShadowKiller: Think those cool drop shadows on the windows and menus are slowing down your mac? Try this one (www.unsanity.com - Free)
Dock Detox: Distracted by bouncing Dock icons? Download this app (www.unsanity.com - Free).
X-Ray: This app does a lot of useful things, including overriding those pesky permission errors you see when trying to drag files into the Trash. Bravo!
(www.brockerhoff.net/xray - $10)
TinkerTool: This nifty little freebie is an additional control panel for the System Preferences application that allows you to access more system settings than are usually visible in the standard panels. Among other things, it allows you to place both scroll arrow buttons at both ends of the scroll bar. Cool.
(www.bresink.de/osx/TinkerTool2.html - Free)
If you're new to OS X, here are a few tidbits for you:
Which programs are running?
Look at the Dock to see which icons have a black triangle under them.
Get that Dock out of my way!
There is a small, thin dividing line in the Dock. If you hold down the Control key and click on this line, you can select "Turn Hiding On." Now the Dock will only appear when the cursor is at the bottom of the screen.
Put the Pro Tools icon in the Dock
This is accomplished by simply dragging the Pro Tools icon onto the Dock.
Turn off the Empty Trash warning
If you hate this thing as much as I do, you can turn it off in the Finder Preferences (Finder Menu > Preferences).
Disable the login window
This will make booting up faster (System Preferences > Accounts > Log in Automatically).
Upgrading to Pro Tools 6
Although OS X has been out for a while, Pro Tools users have been able to conveniently ignore it up to this point, since Pro Tools wouldn't run on it. Most of the professional Pro Tools operators I am acquainted with who normally upgrade their Pro Tools software whenever a new version becomes available have adopted a wait- and-see attitude toward PT 6. Why? Partly because experience has taught us that New Operating System + New Software = Bugs. Pro Tools 5.x.x has reached a point in its evolution where it is rock solid and dependable, and that's the way we like it. Will PT 6 be as dependable? Sure-as soon as all the issues are ironed out. Unfortunately, Digidesign has to keep up with an evolving operating system which is constantly being updated by Apple.
There is a long list of software and hardware (http://www.digidesign.com/compato/osx/new.cfm) such as Sample Cell, Direct Connect, Adaptec SCSI cards, etc., which will no longer work with PT 6, mainly because it's not compatible with OS X. Many users are holding off because a lot of their plug-ins won't work in PT 6. Most have been upgraded, most of the rest will be eventually, but some never will. Floppy disk authorization of plug- ins is no longer supported, so the new I-Lok system is mandatory for plug-in authorization in PT 6. The I-Lok Smart Key is a small device (like a dongle) which plugs into a USB port and contains your plug-in authorizations. You can buy one from the Digidesign online store for $40. You must then proceed to the I-Lok web site (www.ilok.com) and set up an account for the purposes of "migrating" your plug-in authorizations to the I-Lok, which can be moved from one computer to another. Then you have to contact the manufacturer of every floppy disk-authorized plug-in you own (assuming there is an OS X version) and have them update your I- Lok account. This can be quite a task for someone who owns a lot of plug-ins. I was dismayed to find out that it will cost me $420 to upgrade my Waves plug-ins to the OS X version (after paying around $2K to purchase them seven months ago). So far, upgrading my G4 has cost $129 (Mac OS X), + $195 (PT 6) + $40 (I-Lok) + $420 (Waves upgrade) = $784, and I still have a lot of plug- ins to go. It just goes to show you that you don't really buy software, you just rent it for a while. Face it, they've got you by the old cojones.
Since I am in the midst of continuing and revising my tutorials, I bought both the LE and TDM versions of PT 6 for research purposes as soon as they became available. PT 6 LE was rather sluggish on my G3 500mhz I-Book/M-Box setup, even with the RAM maxed out. While the OS X user interface (known as Aqua) with its pulsing translucent buttons, transparent windows and drop shadows is a feast for the eyes, it's also quite a memory hog. I installed the TDM version on my G4 dual 867mHz, where it ran like a top. Since the I-Book is a supported machine for PT 6, I am fairly hopeful that these growing pains will be ironed out in the near future.
What's New in Pro Tools 6?
The designers of PT 6 have incorporated quite a few improvements which may not seem that significant when reading about them in the product literature, but when taken as a whole, they really do speed up the workflow in a Pro Tools session. In any session, the ability to keep things moving along quickly greatly enhances the recording experience. Nobody wants to sit around waiting for the computer to complete a process. Because PT 6 is now able to take advantage of both processors in a dual-processor Mac, users of these machines should experience more than a 20% speed increase and 20% more RTAS plug-ins. Due to the improved multi-tasking abilities of OS X, Pro Tools is now able to perform many processes in the background which formerly necessitated an interruption in playback. For example, batch crossfades across multiple tracks, editing functions such as consolidating selections, AudioSuite processing such as pitch shifting, and inserting plug-ins on tracks are just a few of the things that can now be done during playback. This can be a big advantage in situations where a band is in the control room listening and the engineer doesn't want to kill the vibe by stopping the playback to perform various edit functions.
Digidesign has now included many plug-ins in the TDM version of PT 6 that previously cost extra: Chorus, Flanger, Multi-Tap Delay, Ping-Pong Delay, DPP-1 (real- time pitch correction), and D-Verb. PT 6 (both versions) also features a new Click plug-in that provides an instant click track. The Click plug-in has various sounds to choose from and has user-definable volume levels for accented and unaccented sounds. It works in harmony with the Grid Mode, and tempo is controlled using the MIDI functions in the Transport window.
Speaking of MIDI, things have been tightened up considerably in PT 6, mostly due to improved MIDI integration in OS X. OMS is now officially dead, replaced by AMS, Apple's new built-in equivalent. I decided to conduct a simple test to check for latency using the Click feature. This feature has been around for quite a while in Pro Tools. It allows you to easily trigger a click sound from an external MIDI device (in this case, a drum machine) via MIDI from Pro Tools without going to the trouble of creating a MIDI track and writing information into it. The idea was to measure the latency of the system by recording the triggered sound back into Pro Tools to see how well it lined up with the grid. Using my I- Book/M-Box setup, I triggered a cowbell using a MOTU Fastlane USB MIDI interface and my trusty old Alesis SR- 16 drum machine. Using PT 5.2 on OS 9, I recorded a couple of bars of cowbell onto a track. When I zoomed in on the waveform, I could see that it was about 5 milliseconds behind the grid. When I rebooted in OS X and performed the same test in PT 6, the cowbell was lined up exactly with the grid, with no delay at all.
Some important features have migrated to Pro Tools LE from the TDM version. I can now have 32 voiceable tracks on my M-Box, instead of just 24. Just as importantly, the LE version of PT 6 now supports inactive tracks. In previous versions, opening a session in Pro Tools LE on my M-Box would result in the removal of any tracks past the 24-track maximum. Now, any additional tracks over the 32 track limit appear as inactive tracks with their plug-in settings and automation info intact. The ability to de-activate tracks is a feature I use constantly to reclaim the DSP from tracks I'm not using, but don't want to throw away. It also prevents me from accidentally unmuting tracks I don't want to hear.
Another important new LE feature previously available only in the TDM version is the Commands Focus feature. This feature provides a range of useful single-key shortcuts that can speed things up considerably. Here's one example: normally, you would have to type Command+E to separate a region, which is something you have to do all the time in Pro Tools. With Commands Focus enabled, you can perform the same function by just pressing the "B" key. This may not sound like much, but when you have to do 500 of these in a day, believe me, it's a big deal.
Digidesign has also added Time Compression/ Expansion to the LE version. This is a very useful tool, especially for people who work with loops. While the audio fidelity of this feature isn't the greatest, you have the option of using a different program to perform Time Compression/Expansion via the Processing Preferences. You can specify Serato Pitch 'n Time, Wave Mechanics Speed, or SynchroArts Time Mod (of course, you have to own one of these plug-ins and have it installed in your system).
One of the biggest problems people have in Pro Tools is file management. It's all too easy to end up with elements of a Pro Tools session scattered across several hard drives. Anyone who has had to manually search their hard drives for a missing file knows of the frustration of tracking down files that were mistakenly placed in the wrong folder. Digidesign has incorporated a new peripheral application called DigiBase to help keep up with everything. It's kind of like a Finder for Pro Tools. It provides a means for indexing your audio drives so that they can be searched very quickly. It also makes auditioning and importing sound files and session data as easy as dragging and dropping. It even lets you mount and unmount volumes while Pro Tools is running. DigiBase will copy files in the background, and do a zillion other things that I won't get into here. The Digibase Guide is 69 pages long, if that's any indication (downloadable from the Digidesign web site). Let it suffice to say that it is a very powerful and useful feature that will ultimately make life a lot easier for Pro Tools users.
In summary, I have to say that once I got PT 6 up and running, I liked it a lot, but the trip there was a bit pricey for my TDM system when I added it all up. I've assembled a short list of pros and cons on the subject. Hopefully, this information will help you to decide whether or not it's time for you to make the move to Pro Tools 6.
Upgrading Pros: Lots of cool new features
Faster: uses both processors in a dual processor Mac Improved MIDI
Sooner or later, you're gonna have to do it anyway or be left behind
Software upgrade costs (Can I justify this by jacking up my rates?)
Computer upgrade costs (That old blue and white G3 is going to be breathing pretty hard.)
Time and effort involved in upgrading (Got plug-ins? Give it a week, at least.)
Saying goodbye to software and hardware that is no longer compatible
Getting used to a new operating system
Dealing with the inevitable bugs
Hey, the old one still works as well as it did last year!