For many musicians, recording engineers, and producers alike—at Abbey Road Studios and Skywalker Sound, right on down to the smallest bedroom studios—Pro Tools feels like home. Aside from the much-maligned move to a subscription-based support model, Avid has steadily improved Pro Tools over the years. Pro Tools remains expensive, but it’s still the best audio editing app for larger studios with lots of outboard hardware and the need for extensive support networks, and its workflow remains second to none. Pro Tools is our Editors’ Choice for PC-based recording software; while it’s equally awesome on the Mac side, Apple Logic Pro X edges it out there thanks to its robust feature set and unbeatable value.
Versions and Setup
There are three main versions of Pro Tools. Pro Tools First gives you 16 audio and 16 MIDI tracks, with the ability to record up to four at once from four inputs. It certainly lets you learn your way around the program, but you only get three genuine project saves, and they must be in the cloud with an Avid account. Avid relaxed this somewhat in mid-2019 to theoretically let you make unlimited local saves, but they’re stored in a cache and are still not separate project files; you must choose three at any one time to sync to the cloud as full projects that can be shared with others. This convoluted workaround still makes it difficult to recommend First over, say, the surprisingly powerful PreSonus Studio One Prime, but if you need to learn Pro Tools, this is the only way to do it for free.
The middle version (called just Pro Tools, or informally “the native version,” and the one I tested for this review) costs $599 with a Perpetual license. With that price, you still own it forever, but you only get 12 months worth of software updates, which is frustrating; a support subscription costs $34.99 per month after that, at which point you also get full version upgrades as they’re made available. You can also commit to a full year up front and pay $29.99 per month, or prepay the year for $299 and save more. Over time, the money for one of the subscription services might work out if you usually buy the latest upgrades, but it’s almost guaranteed to be more expensive like this otherwise if you want ongoing support.
With Pro Tools native, you can play back up to 128 simultaneous stereo tracks at 48kHz, 64 tracks at 96kHz, or 32 tracks at 192kHz, with up to 32 tracks of simultaneous recording. You also get 1,024 MIDI tracks, 512 instrument tracks, 128 auxiliary tracks, unlimited busses, and a video track. Some complain about the arbitrary track limits in the native version, but when they’re this high, I don’t think it’s a big deal. (Remember when eight-track ADATs and DA-88s were the norm, and pro studios had three linked together for 24 tracks? Or better yet, a Studer 24?)
Still, if the track counts aren’t high enough, professional-level customers will want to look at Pro Tools Ultimate, which can be used either natively or with Avid’s high-end digital I/O hardware (for still additional cost). Pro Tools Ultimate bumps the audio track count to 384, including up to 192 simultaneous record inputs and 512 auxiliary tracks. It also adds all kinds of support for multi-layered video edits (with up to 64 tracks!), plus surround mixing, broadcast standards, field recorder workflows, video editing, and more that I don’t have the space for here. It’s far more expensive, though, with subscription prices starting at $74.99 per month and no option for a perpetual license.
Avid has always been tight with system requirements as the company certifies versions of Pro Tools for various new hardware releases—and the time necessary for that is far and away the longest in the industry, with most certifications for new macOS revisions and Mac model releases taking months. For this review, I tested Avid Pro Tools 2019.6 on a MacBook Pro 15-inch with 16GB RAM, an internal 256GB SSD, and a 4TB external drive. Most recent Macs are compatible, but you’ll need at least Windows 10 or macOS Sierra (10.12) and at least 16GB of RAM on either platform. On the plus side, Pro Tools used to require a Pace iLok key, a USB copy protection dongle. That’s finally history, as you can now enable an iLok Cloud account in order to free up a prized USB port on your laptop.
Once you get your head around the peculiarities of your particular version and what you’re paying for it, the actual fun can begin. If you’ve never worked with Pro tools before, it’s easy to get your head around. The main interface has two main windows: Edit and Mix. The Edit window handles all recording, arranging, and detailed audio and MIDI editing. If you’ve used Pro Tools in the past, you already know audio editing is precise and seamless. From loop recording, to sample-level editing, to comping together tracks, you can quickly assemble and edit a performance with the combination Smart Tool cursor and apply crossfades—all within the main Edit window. Clip Gain, one of my favorite Pro Tools features, lets you adjust volumes on the fly using a pop-up volume slider, without having to install Gain plug-ins or manually add automation data everywhere. Beat Detective picks up grooves in audio tracks, letting you fix timing issues across multiple instrument. A new groove audio editing capability maintains relevant grid positions when copying, cutting, and pasting unquantized audio and MIDI clips.
Avid’s Audio Engine features a 64-bit architecture, a low-latency input buffer, and the ability to dynamically allocate host processing resources among dozens of plug-ins. The trick here is that each core doesn’t take on load until audio is actually passing through a given plug-in; just having it loaded and armed won’t do it. The System Usage window shows activity on each core during playback. For the first time, you can search through tracks, instruments, and more using a type-ahead search capability, and you can also finally select multiple items in a menu simultaneously. Even better, the program now captures performances retroactively if you weren’t recording—a small but amazingly useful feature that prevents you from having to remember to press Record when jamming, and then wishing you had (or the reverse, where you clam up once the Record button is pressed and can’t capture the initial inspired idea as well).
Unfortunately, there’s still no pitch correction built in. Newer DAWs like Apple Logic Pro X and PreSonus Studio One integrate pitch correction beautifully, with sample-level editing, without having to transfer or export audio into and out of editing plug-ins. Avid sells Antares Auto-Tune in its own store for $349, and there’s always Celemony Melodyne. I prefer Synchro Arts Revoice ($599), a stellar plug-in that lets you line up and tune multiple background vocals simultaneously for pitch and timing, and also includes a killer doubler effect and support for precise editing of film and TV dialogue.
MIDI Recording and Instruments
Avid bundles Pro Tools with a decent selection of virtual instruments. The most notable new additions are UVI Falcon, which comes with an impressive factory sound set, and Plugsound Avid Edition, a useful 2.6GB collection of instruments and synthesizer samples you access as a sound bank under UVI Falcon, with 1,000 preset sounds. Avid also sells additional expansion modules for this plug-in. As before, you still get Boom, a sequencing drum machine; Mini Grand, a modeled grand piano with several sounds and reverbs, plus variable dynamics via a single knob; DB-33, a tonewheel organ with a rotating speaker; Structure Free, which plays back sample-based instruments; Xpand2, a multitimbral workstation plug-in; and Vacuum, a monophonic “vacuum tube” synthesizer.
Notably missing as always is VST and AU plug-in support, which are far and away the most common two formats out there. Most major plug-in offerings from East West, Spectrasonics, iZotope, and Native Instruments, among others, offer Pro Tools-compatible versions of their plug-ins, so it’s not a huge issue. It’s just something to be aware of if you’re new to Pro Tools, as you may have trouble finding compatible versions of some lesser-known favorite plug-ins. For example, I was out of luck with my beloved Korg Legacy collection. If you’re beholden to a particular collection of third-party plug-ins, make sure each one has an AAX version available. In a nod to the current idiom these days, Avid embeds access to Marketplace, the company’s app store, if you want to shop, buy, and download additional plug-ins directly from the company.
Notably missing as always are VST and AU plug-in support, which are far and away the most common two formats out there. Most major plug-in offerings from East West, Spectrasonics, iZotope, and Native Instruments, among others, offer Pro Tools-compatible versions of their plug-ins, so it’s not a huge issue. It’s just something to be aware of if you’re new to Pro Tools, as you may have trouble finding compatible versions of some lesser-known favorite plug-ins. For example, I’m out of luck with my beloved Korg Legacy collection. If you’re beholden to a particular collection of third-party plug-ins, make sure each one has an AAX version available. In a nod to the current idiom these days, Avid embeds access to Marketplace, the company’s app store, if you want to shop, buy, and download additional plug-ins directly from the company.
Avid improved Pro Tools’ MIDI capabilities over the years; for the most part, it’s tough to tell Pro Tools originated as an audio-only application over two decades ago. The pop-out MIDI Editor window lets you handle most of the detail work. The built-in Score Editor is derived straight from Sibelius (which Avid acquired in 2006), and you can export Pro Tools sessions as Sibelius files (.sib). The Score Editor still lacks enough symbols for preparing professional printed scores, but it can print out basic notation parts in a pinch.
Coming back over from Apple Logic Pro X, I really missed that program’s ability to set minimum and maximum velocity levels on a MIDI track; there’s no way to do that easily in Pro Tools. (I also missed loads of Logic’s bundled plug-ins, although Pro Tools supplies its own good ones, if not as many.) On the plus side, Avid has finally added instrument track presets, which make it easy to save preferred virtual instrument plug-in chains; every other big-name DAW has this capability in one form or another, so it’s great to see Pro Tools finally on board with it.
Mixing and Post-Production
The Mix window, the second of Pro Tools’ two main modes, remains a fabulous place to work, particularly if you have one of Avid’s awesome control surfaces, but even just with the mouse cursor. The Mix window displays all of your tracks in a mixing board style—and one that’s closer to the real thing than Logic and Studio One, particularly when it comes to the way Pro Tools handles aux busses, sends, and returns. Studio One makes it faster to create sends and returns, but if you think the way a mix engineer thinks, you’ll probably still prefer Pro Tools. You can grab and automate any parameter anywhere across any track.
Avid added offline bouncing back in version 11, but now Pro Tools offers track freeze and commit features. It’s brilliant—you can commit a track to audio up to and including any point in the signal chain, while leaving a few other plug-ins on that track still active and ready for adjustments. Pro Tools supports a number of metering standards, including peak and average to VU, K, and PPM, for matching up with regional broadcast requirements. All plug-in automation is time-stamped, and you can write automation while a track is in input or recording.
The built-in Avid Video Engine lets you edit multiple HD video formats, including RED and Avid DNxHD, from within Pro Tools without transcoding. It also works with Avid Mojo DX, Avid Nitris DX, and a variety of AJA and Blackmagic Design video interfaces for monitoring DNxHD and QuickTime video. Satellite Link synchronizes up to 12 Pro Tools installations, including HDX, HD/TDM, and native.
As part of the base installation, you get plenty of AIR effects that cover all the major bases when mixing. One of my particular favorites is Avid Channel Strip, an AAX plug-in that mimics Avid’s ultra-high-end System 5 console’s EQ, dynamics, filter, and gain effects. While it’s not automatically built into every channel, you can always add it. It sounds excellent and is almost infinitely flexible. The included Bomb Factory’s BF76 compressor (a Urei 1176 emulation) is nearly spot-on. Space offers an array of beautiful-sounding convolution reverbs, complete with multiple photos of the actual room that was recorded in each impulse response file.
Cloud-based collaboration features from Avid lets up to 10 users work on a single project, including those running just Pro Tools First. Pro Tools also works exceptionally well importing sessions created in other programs—more so than with any other major sequencer. For example, you can exchange project sessions not only with other Pro Tools users—native or HD, PC or Mac—but also Logic, Cubase, and Avid Media Composer users. You can also import I/O settings directly from existing projects into new ones. I’ve done a variety of projects where I’ve either exported from or imported to Pro Tools to mix; there’s plenty of flexibility here for collaboration, as long as you’re willing to put in the extra time to allow for those imports and exports with other DAWs.
As should be obvious from the pricing, Pro Tools scales incredibly well, from the surprisingly capable, free First version, to massive Pro Tools HD systems in the largest and most well-specified studios, complete with subscription-based support policies to match, and all while maintaining project compatibility across the board.
The Tools Pros Use Most
Despite its various quirks, Pro Tools is as robust and full featured as ever. While we don’t think anyone shopping for a sequencer should base their decision entirely around this, Pro Tools remains the standard DAW in recording studios across the world. Buying into Pro Tools, in whatever capacity, will mean your projects have the largest potential compatibility base, should you want to work with other musicians, forward a project to a producer, or hire a mixing engineer that wants to look at the actual track data and plug-ins you used, and not just a stack of tracks you exported as individual audio files.
Pro Tools has always been a little slow at adopting features from other DAWs, though; remember how long it took to get plug-in delay compensation, offline bouncing, and 64-bit compatibility. And as mentioned earlier, Avid takes longer to certify new hardware and OSes for use with the current version of Pro Tools. It’s a bit slower moving, this juggernaut of a platform, but in the end it (usually) means more reliability for professional use. Speaking of which, Pro Tools has a reputation for being rock solid with audio editing, mixing, and post-production, and less-than-solid with third-party virtual instruments; this has not changed much over the past several years. (I never have trouble with Avid’s own instruments, though.) The usual rule about software patches over time applies; stay current and check in regularly with your audio interface and third-party plug-in vendors for updates.
All told, Avid Pro Tools is a robust effort, and our Editors’ Choice for PC-based recording software. Apple Logic Pro X still holds Editors’ Choice on the Mac platform because it’s a screaming deal at $200; it’s easier to compose with, it’s more reliable and capable than ever before, and like most Pro Tools competitors, Logic Pro X requires no monthly fees. Several other programs on the PC side, notably Studio One Professional and Cockos Reaper, also offer multi-track audio recording and editing for significantly less money than Pro Tools as well. Studio One’s workflow in particular is better suited to individual musicians composing tracks, or mixing smaller sessions in a project studio. It’s tough to beat Reaper’s amazing value and extremely light memory footprint. And Magix Samplitude Pro X4 offers a path to a professional mastering platform as well. Avid needs to watch its back on the lower end and midrange portions of the market much more closely these days.
But make no mistake: Pro Tools still holds court as the standard-bearer for cross-platform, high-end digital audio workstations, from bedroom studios right on up to the largest recording studios and post-production houses in the world.