When PRO TOOLS was first launched as a four-input, four-output hardware and software system for direct-to-disc recording on Apple Mac computers, it was greatly admired for the range of features it delivered for the price: 16-bit digital sound recording with random-access retrieval; non-destructive editing; full synchronisation to external audio and video systems; and mix-down automation. But although its pricing was very reasonable for the power on offer, those holding the purse-strings in organisations like BBC Radio initially seemed reluctant to commit themselves. This probably happened because the editing features in PRO TOOLS at that time weren't specially developed for working with speech like competitors SADiE, and also because the PC was already a dominant force in office use. Probably managers were reluctant to invest in Apple Macs as well, especially as most investigations into digital editing were very much a toe-in-the-water affair. Despite the writing on the wall, quarter-inch tape was still king in Broadcasting House. Hence PRO TOOLS found itself mainly taken up in areas where it excelled, such as music recording and editing, composers studios, and post-production.
By the time BBC Radio's Digital Project started in 1994, PRO TOOLS had found some more fans, and now that we have reached version IV the position has changed considerably. Today there are many committed users of PRO TOOLS in BBC Radio (mostly ensconsed in the strangely-named 'woffices') and there's a grand total of around 100 systems throughout the corporation. PRO TOOLS has also attracted commercial users like Virgin Radio and Kiss FM in Britain, and the worldwide picture includes ABC, CBS and NBC in the USA, and CBC in Canada.
This move towards 'world domination' has been helped by continual progress in the development of both software and hardware for PRO TOOLS, as well as in the Apple Mac computers needed to run the system. Importantly there has also been a shift in awareness amongst the users themselves. Departmental buyers, producers and sound operators are all more willing to learn about and use new technology in the making of programmes for transmission. Especially as most areas within broadcasting organisations are now being squeezed to find every possible way to save on the cost of making programmes.
Luckily for Digidesign, digital editing is seen by 'accounting broadcasters' as superbly cost-effective. While this is debatable for some types of programme, there is no doubt that many producers and sound operators who are properly trained in the possibilities of this new medium find the freedom offered by non-linear access to recorded material exciting and liberating. And Digidesign have been learning, all the while...
Since PRO TOOLS was released, Digidesign have worked hard to make their product indispensible in every major area of sound production. First came expandability, allowing powerful multi-track systems to be built up by adding extra sound cards and analogue ins and outs. Then came changes to the software allowing sound processing Plug-Ins. These add greatly to the system's appeal through the ability to customise it with specialist 'virtual' digital processors. In the meantime, Apple were constantly upgrading their computers, first with the change to Power PCs, and then the move from their own Nubus expansion cards to PC-compatible PCI cards.
PRO TOOLS III for PCI was released in 1996, and now with PRO TOOLS IV we are seeing the first version to take advantage of the faster processing offered by low level (so-called 'native') coding on the Power PC, and the use of spare computing power to add even more tracks. Recent Project hardware offered eight audio channels in and out with restricted capabilities but at a much lower price. Now Version IV gives multi-track recording and mixing using only an AudioMedia II or III card, and can even give 16 tracks of playback on a Power PC without the use of additional hardware (PowerMix). At last Digidesign are offering hard disc recording, editing and mixing to suit a wide range of users - and a wide varity of budgets - and the approach appears to be paying off, with over 100,000 registered users of their hardware systems world-wide.
Building Powerful Alliances
Digidesign has been particularly successful in gaining the support of numerous third-pary developers, and in being seen as the 'industry standard' for digital audio on the Mac. This is partly a legacy from the earlier SoundTools system and Sound Designer II software, which indroduced the now widely-accepted SDII file format.
The possibilities for real-time sound manipulation in TDM Plug-Ins has excited companies like AnTares, Steinberg and CEDAR to produce PRO TOOLS compatible software which can carry out an incredible range of tasks including fine pitch correction, valve simulation and dehissing. Digidesign have written several useful Plug-Ins of their own, including DINR (Digidesign Intelligent Noise Reduction) and a virtual reverb (D-VERB). Filling another niche, companies like JL Cooper, Mackie and Gallery have developed control surfaces which free PRO TOOLS users from the ergonomic limitations of mouse control, and place traditional knobs, sliders and buttons under the operator's hands.
Peace at Last
With the launch of PRO TOOLS IV, Digidesign does seem to have seriously addressed the needs of users in broadcasting applications. Video post production is easier than before, systems run faster, editing is easier... If Version V could add extra edit decision lists (so we can easily make long and short versions of programmes), a better overview display, and multiple undos, maybe life would be perfect at last!
For those seasoned users of Pro Tools III, the latest Version IV software will look pleasingly familiar at first glance. You may notice some of the attractive new features and assume this is just another upgrade, but a quiet revolution has been taking place. In fact Digidesign have completely re-written the underlying software, this time coding it 'native' to the Power PC. They hope that the resulting speed up in the execution of operations will lead to an increase in your productivity - and that should leave us all more time to be creative eh?
* Digidesign have been responding to feedback from their customers by including various useful features. For instance, the Pencil Tool - which will be familiar to users of Digidesign's Sound Designer software - has now been incorporated into this editor. This enables you to redraw the audio waveform to eliminate obvious clicks and bad edits. I would like to say that this requires great skill and should only be undertaken by the most highly trained operator, but I'd be pulling your leg! It is used by first zooming in to a level of magnification where the offending spike becomes clear. The pencil tool is then simply used to draw a smooth waveform in its place. Be careful though, this is a destructive feature for that region and can only be undone once.
* The Scrubbing Tool has been made more responsive to the touch and now you can "fast spool against the heads" (as it were) at up to eight times playback speed. Scrubbing now works in stereo as well as left or right only. One surprising feature is that you can now reposition audio regions to a new track or time during playback without interrupting the playback.
* The Fades window now displays the chosen shape on a graph, which can be manipulated by 'pinning' the line at certain points and stretching the curve just like using the volume graph. Similarly, in the Crossfades window, the shape of the fades can be distorted by dragging the intersection point; choosing to favour the 'in' or the 'out' and continually auditioning your changes as you go.
Customising the Display
* Looking at the main edit page, there are several ways in which the display can be personalised. This is an attempt to simplify what can become an over-cluttered screen with too many lists. The number of track sizes has been increased to five. Any individual track height can now be either mini, small, medium, large, or (for those whose eyesight is beginning to fail) 'jumbo' size! You can still choose to 'hide' certain tracks, as before, and a new show/hide menu lists their status accordingly. Also for producers who would rather sit as far from the screen as possible, Digidesign have provided an optional timecode readout in a 'letterbox' format big enough for Mr. de Mille to see, even through a haze of cigar smoke!
* Just as we currently use some of the locator memories to store zoom settings, we can now include the extra information about track height and show/hide in one of the 200 memory stores. So, display preferences can now be recalled to show up certain groups of tracks in large scale while others are minimised or even hidden. This can even be done during playback, to save more time.
* The region list can now be set up to give a reduced display of only certain categories of audio region thus shortening each list. Sorting can now be done by criteria such as name, creation date, length or disk location, and a little diamond symbol by the list heading reminds you that you are only viewing a limited selection.
* One thing users had asked for, but which could not be accommodated, was to contract the time scale to include more than just the maximum nine minutes per view. It is apparently not possible, as the smallest regions could disappear and confusion would ensue!
Expanding the Mixer
Digidesign are very proud to show off an ever widening selection of processor software Plug-Ins which can not only provide the user with the usual dynamics, EQ and reverb but these days a whole range of sexier gimmicks. Digidesign have been encouraging some of the famous companies who have already established themselves with impressive hardware - people like Focusrite and Drawmer - to translate their black boxes into software. So sometimes you will even get the same familiar array of knobs, looking like the front panel of an effects unit which you could only drool over in the adverts of Line-Up. Now you will be able to tweak all those parameters and recreate the same effect - but for a fraction of the price - and digitally!
Plug-Ins fall into two groups: Audio Suite and TDM. The Audio Suite selection which is included in Version IV (pitch shift; sample rate conversion; time compression/expansion etc.) can be previewed in real time, but the chosen region must then be bounced down as a new piece of audio. The more powerful TDM Plug-Ins however, can be used to play back in real time and, having installed your favourites, you can insert them into any channel on the mixer. The operation of any parameters labelled in red can now be recorded in automation and will thereafter operate in real time with every pass.
Some of the major improvements in Version IV are in the operation and automation of the mixer. For the complex programme maker who cannot afford a multi-channel mixing console, this upgrade presents them with a virtual mixer. Features that have been expanded include: the number of bus-bars for internal routing which have been extended to 32; prioritisation by 'voices' has increased from 8 to 16; and the number of possible groups increased to 99. A group can even be assigned to govern other sub-groups. For example, having created a music group and an effects group, it then becomes easy to allocate an 'M & E' group which could be ridden gently up and down underneath dialogue. With all these extra features and extra tracks you are likely to be using, it is best to have the mixer come up as a full screen page. Selecting Narrow Mix View can then scale down the display to show up to 36 channels on a 21 inch monitor!
The automation button now offers a choice of four modes (plus off) which, admittedly, are rather like the SADiE auto-mix modes. Basically you can choose either write, touch, latch, or read. The new software responds to finer movements of the mouse and allows you to paint smoother fades along the tracks.
There are, of course, some limitations to this latest version, The duplicate tracks feature will allow you to compare alternate 'takes' or performances. That's fine for pop songs with regions which cut on the beat of a bar, or films which have been cut to an exact timecode. Not so useful for radio programmes which are compiled piecemeal and need to be flexible. But that's my only reservation.
So if by now you're dreaming of making award winning programmes, and thinking, "there's got to be a catch", well of course you really ought to consider buying more hardware. Your shopping list should include: extra RAM; another DSP farm card; don't forget some greater capacity S.C.S.I. drives; add a hardware controller... Don't you really need a new Power Mac anyway? Dream on!
Clive Williamson is a freelance technology journalist and producer and musician with the group Symbiosis. His website at www.symbiosis-music.com includes 'Digital DIY', giving on-line access to useful information and articles about studio technology.
Dave Robinson is currently compiling documentaries and features on both SADiE and PRO TOOLS for Radio 4.
Digidesign, a division of Avid Technology Ltd
Avid Technology Europe Ltd.
Bucks SL0 0NH
Tel: +44 (0)1753 655 999
Fax: +44 (0)1753 654 999
Digital Signal Processing - usually refers to DSP computer chips.
The "data highway" that provides the DSP processing power for digital mixing and interconnection of Plug-Ins and additional hardware cards. The 'Core System' needed to run PRO TOOLS III or IV with TDM is one Disk I/O card; one DSP Farm card and one 888 I/O or one 882 I/O Audio interface.
The Digidesign Audio Engine is the "audio operating system" which manages disc operations, I/O and other system level tasks.
Card with four DSP chips designed for audio processing within PRO TOOLS. The mixer uses up one chip on your first card, leaving three chips to manage your TDM Plug-Ins. Add extra DSP Farms for more processing power!
Additional software modules from Digidesign and third-party developers which add virtual processing to digital audio in PRO TOOLS. Come in two types: TDM and AudioSuite.
PCI & Nubus Cards
Early Apple computers (including Mac II, Quadra and Power PC 6100/7100/8100) need Nubus expansion cards. Newer Power Macs now require the PC-style PCI cards, which run more efficiently at higher bus speeds.