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DIGIDESIGN Pro Tools LE 7.0 (Mac/Win)

May 1, 2006
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Thanks to its state-of-the-art audio-editing features, excellent plug-in support, and quality hardware, Digidesign Pro Tools has become the dominant DAW for multitrack audio recording. But one area in which it has consistently played catch-up with its rivals is MIDI features. It was late to join the MIDI game, and it hasn't been able to shake the reputation that its MIDI features are not quite on a par with those of its major competitors.

FIG. 1: Pro Tools LE 7.0 offers a host of improvements, including reorganized menus and souped-up MIDI editing commands.

With the release of Pro Tools LE 7.0 (see Fig. 1), that should change. Digidesign has substantially improved the program's MIDI functionality and has added many other useful and substantive enhancements, including a redesign of the menu structure. Virtually all the new features in Pro Tools LE 7.0 can also be found in Pro Tools M-Powered 7.0 and Pro Tools|HD 7.0. Because EM has previously reviewed Pro Tools' pre-version-7 features (go to www.emusician.com to read archived reviews), the focus here will be on what's new.

Mac users who want to upgrade to Pro Tools 7 should be aware that it does not support Mac operating systems prior to OS X 10.4 (Tiger). Windows users will need XP with Service Pack 2 installed.

I tested Pro Tools LE 7.0 using a Digidesign Mbox and a dual 2.5 GHz Mac running OS X 10.4.4 (10.4.4 is not officially supported by Pro Tools as of this writing, but it should be for the upcoming 7.1 release, which should be out by the time you read this) as well as a Dell D610 laptop with a Pentium M processor running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2. The program ran fine on both systems and seemed very stable.

More of Everything

Pro Tools LE 7.0 gives you ten sends per track, as opposed to five in prior versions. The number of buses has been doubled from 16 to 32, which is a huge improvement. In the past, it was easy to run out of buses on a complex mix. The number of Memory Locations has also been increased from 200 to 999.

Another change is the new PTF session-file format. It's designed to delineate Pro Tools 7 files from those saved in earlier versions. The PTF files are not backward compatible, but Pro Tools gives you the option of “saving as” in formats going back to version 3.2.

The new session format is designed to open on both Macs and PCs. It eliminates the necessity of selecting the Mac/PC Compatibility option to make a file cross-platform capable. I tried opening several files alternately on the Mac and PC to see how seamless the cross-platform capabilities of the PTF file format really were. The files opened fine (and appeared identical) on both machines.

New Track City

Perhaps the most significant improvement to MIDI sequencing introduced in Pro Tools 7 is the Instrument Track feature, which gives you hybrid MIDI tracks with audio outputs. In previous versions, getting a MIDI instrument up and running required setting up a MIDI track and an aux track to bring its audio output into the mixer. Now, it's much easier. If you want to bring a soft instrument or external MIDI instrument into your session, you simply create an Instrument track and instantiate your instrument as an insert.

If you have effects that you want to insert directly into an Instrument track, you can do so by using one of the other insert slots on the track. If your plug-ins support multiple outputs, you can route a single instrument from an Instrument track to outputs on multiple aux or audio tracks.

I have one complaint about the implementation of the Instrument Track feature: when you create an Instrument track, its volume fader in the Mix window is turned all the way off. According to Digidesign, that was necessary to work around a bug in the pre — Pro Tools 7 software-development kit and will at some point be changed. The first few times I set up an Instrument track and inserted a soft instrument, I had a moment of frustration trying to figure out why I couldn't get any sound from it. Even subsequently, when I was aware of the issue, it still interrupted my creative flow. My solution was to create Instrument tracks in my Pro Tools session template, saved with their faders turned up to 0 dB.

Get Real

Another major improvement is the MIDI Real-Time Properties feature, which lets you nondestructively apply or edit such parameters as Velocity, Duration, Quantization, Transposition, and Delay to MIDI tracks on playback. There are two ways to access Real-Time Properties. The first is through the individual tracks in the Edit window. If you enable the Real-Time Properties view (either in the Edit window View Selector, or by choosing View→Edit Window→Real-Time Properties), it appears in its own column (see Fig. 2). There are buttons that enable each of the five parameters.

FIG. 2: The Real-Time Properties view provides nondestructive MIDI editing features and can be opened in the Edit window on any track.

When you click on one, it opens up one or two pull-down menus and one or two parameter boxes for each of the five. For instance, for Quantize you can choose the note value from a pull-down menu and enter the Swing percentage in a parameter box. (I wish that they'd also included a Strength parameter in this window, like the one in the Real-Time Properties window.)

For Transpose, the pull-down menu lets you choose either octaves or semitones, or even change data to a particular key. If you choose the former, you get two parameter boxes: one for octaves and one for semitones. The latter gives you a parameter box to enter the key (for example, C2).

The second way to access nondestructive MIDI editing options is through the Real-Time Properties window (see Fig. 3) in the new Event menu. By doing so, you can access a deeper level of parameter control. For instance, when quantizing, you have five parameters to choose from: Tuplet, Offset, Strength, Include, and Random. In addition, the Real-Time Properties window lets you apply your nondestructive edits to individual regions within a track.

FIG. 3: The Real-Time Properties window gives you much greater control of nondestructive MIDI editing than the Real-Time Properties view does.

A related feature lets you choose whether or not the Real-Time Properties parameter changes you've made are reflected in the corresponding MIDI or Instrument track's graphic display or event list. This feature, called Display Events As Modified By Real-Time Properties, is turned off by default but can be switched on in the MIDI section of the Preferences page.

Lots More MIDI

The destructive MIDI editing features of the MIDI Operations window have been significantly upgraded from previous versions. As part of the general rearranging of the Pro Tools graphical user interface, several features have been combined into single windows, enhanced, or both.

The new Grid/Groove Quantize window consolidates what were two separate Quantize windows in previous versions. Support for randomization has been added to Groove templates.

The Select Notes and Split Notes windows have been consolidated, with additional criteria added. A new Remove Duplicates window has been included, and the Transpose window has been enhanced. You now have the option to transpose all selected notes to a specific pitch. Change Duration has been upgraded, too, with a new Legato option, a Remove Overlaps function, and more.

Two other major enhancements to Pro Tools 7's MIDI functionality are Sample Based MIDI and Mirror MIDI Editing. The former allows you to assign the time base of MIDI and Instrument tracks to Samples rather than Ticks. This feature will be a boon to those scoring to picture, because it means that individual MIDI events can stay locked to a specific timecode location when you're experimenting with different tempos. It's also useful for creating tempo maps in songs recorded without a click.

FIG. 4: Region Groups can contain both MIDI and audio tracks, and make it very convenient to move whole song sections around.

The Mirror MIDI Editing option allows you to edit a single region that's been copied (or looped) to other parts of a song, and have your edits reflected in all the copied regions. That could be handy when working on looped parts.

Regionally Speaking

Pro Tools 7 also introduces several important ways to deal with Regions. Most notable is a feature called Region Groups (see Fig. 4), which lets you select two or more regions (from the same track or different tracks) and group them for editing.

The advantages are numerous. For instance, you can define multitrack song sections (including both MIDI and audio tracks) as Region Groups, and then arrange your song by cutting, pasting, and dragging these groups around the Edit window. You can also drag Region Groups into the Edit window from the Regions list, where they show up with their own listings.

FIG. 5: The new Region Looping feature enables easy region copying.

Region Looping gives you new options for repeating regions. The Region Looping dialog box (see Fig. 5) lets you choose the number of loops, the loop length, and whether to enable crossfades. Once it's set, just click on OK, and the looped regions appear. This feature also works with Region Groups, so you can, in effect, turn grouped regions into loops (even combined MIDI/audio Region Groups). After a Region Group has been looped or duplicated, you can copy it as many times as you'd like by dragging its right-hand edge with the Trim tool, giving you capabilities reminiscent of loop-based production programs like Sony Acid and Apple GarageBand.

Pro Tools 7 introduces a couple of new options for splitting regions as well. Separate Regions On Grid lets you cut up your regions into grid-defined sections. Separate Regions At Transients cuts regions up at their transients, which is partly what the Beat Detective feature does. Because Beat Detective LE works on only one track at a time, this new command could come in handy when editing multitrack drum parts. You could make a Region Group of all your drum tracks, and then use the new Separate Regions commands to cut them all up in rhythmically appropriate places.

Seeing the regions in your song is easier, too, thanks to the new Consolidated Regions list. It lets you view both audio and MIDI regions (as well as Region Groups) together in the same list, should you so choose.

Imported Goods

Pro Tools 7 adds drag-and-drop support of audio and MIDI files from non-DigiBase directories. It's also the first version of Pro Tools that supports Acid and REX files. You can drag them right into the Edit window, from either the DigiBase window or from the Windows Explorer or Mac Finder windows. If they have slice data in them (some Acid files don't), they snap to the tempo of the track.

You can change tempo as much as you want after the tracks are in your session, and they'll continue to snap to the new tempo. I was a bit surprised to discover that the importation of Acid and REX files works only through dragging-and-dropping. If you try to import such files using the Import Audio command, they come into your session as conventional audio files with no slice data.

Order from the Menu

Finding all the new features is easy thanks to the new menu structure. Many of the menus have been renamed, moved around, and reorganized. Most are now shorter, with more pull-down submenus of nested items.

The File and Edit menus still handle most of the same functions, but the MIDI, Movie, and Operations menus have been replaced. There are six new menus: the Track menu allows for the creation, duplication, and grouping of tracks. The Region menu is dedicated to region-based commands such as Mute/Unmute, Bring To Front, Send To Back, and Quantize To Grid (called Quantize Regions in previous versions).

The Event menu handles many of the MIDI options formerly under the MIDI menu, as well as time functions and Beat Detective. The AudioSuite menu has been revamped to include several new effects categories. And the Setup and Window menus replace the Setups and Display menus, with a few changes.

Overall, the menus are more logically arranged and make it a lot easier to find the various functions. Naturally, you're much better off learning the key equivalents for the menu commands, because those will allow you to get around the program much faster.

Plug In and Turn On

The biggest news on the RTAS plug-in front is that all versions from Pro Tools 7.1 forward will include the new Dynamics III plug-in suite that Digidesign announced in November. Dynamics III plugs (a compressor/limiter and a de-esser; see Fig. 6) are transparent sounding and have a GUI that's much easier on the eye than the older Digi dynamics plugs. Pro Tools 7.0 users can download Dynamics III for free from the Digi site.

FIG. 6: The Dynamics III plug-ins feature an upgraded GUI and transparent sound quality. They''ll be included from Pro Tools 7.1 forward, but users of version 7.0 can download them for free from the Digidesign site.

Xpand (see Fig. 7) is a soft instrument from the new Digidesign Advanced Instrument Research Group. Xpand is a versatile plug-in that gives you a variety of synthesis options, including analog modeling, FM, sample playback, and wavetable. It comes with a varied collection of presets and offers a dual effects processor. Although it's not included in version 7.0 and won't be in the 7.1 release, it's available for free. Version 7.0 users can pick it up on a disc at their local Digidesign dealer (it's too large for downloading) or order it from the Digidesign Web store (http://store.digidesign.com).

Digidesign also made several enhancements to the RTAS plug-in format, which includes improved support for multiprocessor computers and multicore processors. Additionally, there were a number of small upgrades to DigiRack plug-ins such as Normalize, Trim, and EQ III.

FIG. 7: Xpand is a free sample playback and synthesis plug-in from Digidesign''s new Advanced Instrument Research Group.

One plug-in — related feature not added in 7.0 is automatic delay compensation (ADC). Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered are now the only major sequencers that don't have it. Especially for those using external hardware processors or accelerator-card — based DSP systems (such as Universal Audio UAD-1 and TC Electronic PowerCore), ADC would be a very handy addition.

Lucky Seven

Overall, Pro Tools LE 7.0 is more streamlined and powerful than previous versions, and it's a lot friendlier for MIDI sequencing. Although it still doesn't have the depth of MIDI features of some of its competitors (there's no notation window, for instance), it now has a powerful set of user-friendly MIDI tools that should be more than sufficient for many users.

The addition of Region Groups and Region Loops makes moving song sections around incredibly easy. Those features, in conjunction with the support of Acid and REX files, make arranging in the Edit window an even more powerful experience.

Other than the lack of an ADC feature, my complaints with Pro Tools LE 7.0 all fall in the “minor quibble” department. I hope that the Instrument tracks' fader issue gets resolved soon, so the faders on such tracks default to 0 dB instead of starting out all the way off. It would also be convenient to have the Strength parameter available for quantizing in the Real-Time Properties view in the Edit window.

But without question, Digidesign has substantially improved Pro Tools with this upgrade. Version 7 is sure to strengthen the program's already stellar reputation. Whether you're buying a new system or upgrading from a previous version, I highly recommend Pro Tools LE 7.0.


Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.

GUIDE TO EM METERS

5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology

4 = Clearly above average; very desirable

3 = Good; meets expectations

2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable

1 = Unacceptably flawed

PRODUCT SUMMARY

DIGIDESIGN
Pro Tools LE 7.0

digital audio sequencer
upgrade, $75

PROS: More buses, sends, and Memory Locations. New menu structure brings better organization. Instrument tracks make adding MIDI instruments easier. Real-Time Properties offer myriad nondestructive MIDI editing options. Sample-based MIDI. Region Groups and Region Loops streamline the arranging process.

CONS: No automatic delay compensation. Instrument tracks' volume must be turned up in the Mix window after they are created. No Strength parameter for quantization in the Real-Time Properties view.

On a scale of 1 to 5
FEATURES...4
EASE OF USE...3
AUDIO QUALITY...4
VALUE...4

MANUFACTURER

Digidesign
www.digidesign.com

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