Lately, the market has been flooded with affordable audio and video products for amateurs and professionals alike. The much increased variaty in the choice of such solutions has created a problem of choosing the appropriate product, as there are so many things to consider.
After slightly over half a decade of composing, and doing some film and audio work in the past 2 years, I have decided that I need to gradually build up the hardware to move up from my current level quality- and possibility-wise.
Pro Tools was something I started considering due to the availability of Digidesign software and hardware at relatively reasonable prices. Or so I thought.
UPDATE: For those reading and thinking Pro Tools ruined my life and ate my dog… Uuhh.. Yeah.. Ever heard of a literary device called hyperbole? It is quite often used in various pieces of writing. Such as tales, for instance.
Pro Tools really did suck though.
Having used Cubase for the past 5 years, the choice of the hardware seemed to be the widest possible, since Cube supports all types of audio devices, through the use of ASIO drivers on Windows and CoreAudio drivers on Mac OS X.
Nevertheless, I have started to grow more and more curious about Digidesign’s Pro Tools. The tremendous hype everywhere on the Internet around it, and the constantly reappearing statements along the lines of “real engineers use Pro Tools in their studios” kept pushing me to give it a try.
Now here is my coming out of the closet part. I have been using a Sound Blaster Live! for all my recording and composing since 2003. A group of developers released a free driver for Live! and Audigy cards that introduced a relatively low-latency to those otherwise consumer products, which pretty much made me stick to Live up until now. Before I have felt much of a need to record anything, other than my guitar maybe.
The problem with all this, however, is that there is no way to try Pro Tools out without having one of the Digidesign’s audio interfaces. The cheapest Pro Tools|HD1 solution starts at $8,000, and that’s without any of the audio interfaces like the 192I/O which also need to be purchased, albeit seperately.
As can be easily read about on the Digidesign website, the next best thing to Pro Tools|HD is Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered. Since the latter doesn’t let you use some of the PT add-ons like the DV Toolkit ($999!), I decided to give the Mbox 2 a try, after double-checking that the store I buy from has a refund policy.
The latest Pro Tools software works on the new Intel Macs, and both the CoreAudio and ASIO drivers are present, which to me meant that I could use Mbox outside of Pro Tools, if I so desired. The sales person informed me that the latency is pretty much standard over all modern interfaces, unlike in the past. Yeah, anyway…
For the $495 the Mbox 2 costs, I get the custom Digi designed preamps; an external unit, which is a big plus since I don’t want to be tied down by PCI/e in case I want to use a laptop on location or anywhere outside of my place; and this great software all engineers use called Pro Tools (LE).
The other road to PT is the M-Audio interfaces, but paying for the interfaces + Pro Tools M-Powered is more expensive anyway. All the other options exclude Pro Tools from my list.
Got in the store, talked about how I would like to try Pro Tools. The guy suggested that if I’m used to Cubase, it’s not a bad idea to stick with it, especially because the choice of hardware is pretty large. I said I wanted to try out Pro Tools. He didn’t reply.
I asked about Pro Tools. He said he loves it, but then went on to tell me how much he loves Logic, and demonstrated its quantizing features on the iMac, even though I didn’t ask for it.
Anyway.. Payment off debit. $500 something. It’s a steal!
Could hardly wait to get home. Upon arrival, opened the box and discovered that all the manuals and CDs are sealed. Duh. Called the store to make sure there is no restocking fee for opening the stuff up, and after being ok-ed, opened and installed PT on both the Intel mac and the Windows machine. Decided to not open the CDs with the Ignition Pack plugins.
First things first, loaded iTunes up on the Mac. Music plays fine, Core Audio works. Hooray! Loaded up Pro Tools. Nice splashscreen! Entered the code, created a session. Oh my, I’m a total Pro!
Loaded up iTunes on the Windows machine. Enabled music sharing, and chose Mbox as the Windows audio driver. iTunes is silent. Double checked: still won’t work.. Oh who cares, I have SB Live to listen to iTunes! Gotta try the fun stuff!
Loaded up Cubase. The unit shows up among the ASIO drivers. Check the latency setting. Hmm.. Set the driver to 128 samples delay. Latency – 11ms input, 9 ms output. The minimum setting is 128 samples. Hmmm. That’s as far as it goes? I can get 2.66ms with my SB Live and the kX drivers, with occasional clicks and pops though.
But let’s load up Pro Tools. I’ve read that inside of PT, the software uses its native drivers, which should provide lower latencies. And since Pro Tools is known to be so great, with its new MIDI features, I may not even need Cubase!
So far so good. Feels slick. I feel like producing a platinum record. Time to sleep.
Need to put the Mbox back in its plastic bag for the night. Don’t want it to gather dust overnight and have problems with dirty equipment in case of a return. Though it doesn’t seem like that will ever happen!
Time to wake up. I’m a total Pro today!
After two espressos, and completing the Getting Started guide, it’s time to pick up the Basics booklet. Seems like it’s the next step in learning.
One thing’s a bit annoying though. Seems like Digidesign guides are written by the parent Avid people. The guide has a very slow learning curve, and all of the sudden they drop in terms no one knows. Good thing I know what pre-fader and post-fader effects are. How are other newbies supposed to know? But I guess nobody reads the manuals anyway. They just click around ’till they know it all, or when the computer explodes.
Hmm. This Basics booklet looks like a getting started guide to Getting Started. Why the heck would you need that for? In case the only technologically-related thing I’ve done before is microwave a pizza? Ok, those corporations sure have a good sense of humour.. Nobody reads the manuals anyway.
Hmm. It looks like you can’t just grab the edge of the track and stretch it vertically in Pro Tools like you can in Cubase. You can only use one of the preset settings for the track height, ie. small, middle, large, and a few others. Hmm.
The booklets only cover the basics. Let’s read the reference.
Hmm. After looking over a few navigational chapters, it seems like the user interface is handled by that one department with the people who are always late because of traffic, and leave the project completion until the day before deadline. But… I’ve got used to Avid before, so I guess Pro Tools just takes getting used to. That’s what pro’s do anyway. Use software that no sane person would.
Let’s record some stuff! The beloved Fender Mustang should do. That’s what the guy at the store said anyway: “I just plug my guitar into Mbox, and it’s all I need!”
Wow. The recording does sound great. Really crisp. But then, I’ve used an SB Live before. Anything should sound good, really.
Tried a few tracks, and routing send FX. Really nice.
Inserted a few plugins on the inserts, and made a few send tracks with reverbs, delays and stuff.
Blah, what the heck is this.. An error… “Try decreasing the H/W buffer”. Okay.
Options>Playback Engine I have it set to 128 samples. Where is the actual latency value? How do I know what latency I have? Cubase clearly states it in milliseconds. Are they hiding something?
Wait.. 128 samples? Let’s try it again. One more track…. Error again? C’mon, I didn’t even finish recording. Do I have to edit stuff now, ’cause I can’t pull that riff off again. This is software for musicians, for God’s sake, not computers. We need to capture every noise and fart, because later on it could be that magical accident that makes the record.
Anyway.. Set the buffer to 256 samples.. I think I can hear a delay already.. So the latency is the same as with the CoreAudio/ASIO drivers as it is with the ‘native’ ones? Hmm.. That’s no good.
I mean, I like to feel Pro and all, but I do a lot of MIDI stuff, and I can’t afford to decrease the latency forever, until I play a part, and then go to have have lunch waiting for it to play back.
Time to sleep.
Screw sleep. I want to dig deeper and decide on whether this is worth the money.
Hey, I have an idea. Since most of the plugins I use come in both VST and RTAS flavours, and the latency in both Pro Tools and Cubase seems to be the same, I can record a few tracks, and then assemble identical compositions in both DAWs to see how they compare in performance. Let’s do this.
Saved the presets for all the plugins in Pro Tools. Created a new composition, and what do you know, at 128 samples and 3 audio tracks it starts spitting out errors. Ok. Cubase. Imported the files, applied the insert FX. Strange feeling. Cubase feels like going back home. Oh, the good old vertical scaling, and the smart ruler which scrolls AND zooms with a single click!
Anyway, recreated the session. Added the effects. The thing starts clicking… Well, at least it clicks, and doesn’t spit out errors! But the CPU load is pretty high. That’s just 3 tracks, man!
Hey, why don’t I try using the SB Live’s kX ASIO driver?
No clicks. Let me check.. Maybe the latency is set too high.
So… Wait… The SB Live made in 2001 that I paid $50 for with the drivers written by the entusiasts produces a lower latency without any sound artifacts than the Mbox 2 from the “Award-Winning” Digidesign that I paid 10 times more for? That’s interesting!
Let’s try loading up one of my previous compositions in Cubase that I used SB for, but with the Mbox this time.
Oh Christ! This is a latency mess! 100% load, robotic sound as if someone pitch shifted everything 10 octaves down, and then played back on the tape-chewing boombox. I think I know what one of the reviewers on the web referred to as “Robot burping”!
Ok.. This is unacceptable! I am pretty sure it has to do with SB Live being PCI and Mbox being USB. But why did they have to go with USB 1.1 anyway?
The guy on the Digidesign board explains the decision to go with USB 1.1 to be based on ‘maximum compatability’ with the widest range of laptops.
Just one thing though… I don’t honestly think that any computer from the pre-USB 2.0 era would be able to comfortably run Pro Tools! Most of these PCs appear on garage sales nowadays, and they all have Windows 98 installed. The only thing working under Windows 98 is Pro Tools FREE, and I really don’t want to take the journey to the past.
Anyway, I might as well learn the software some more. Just in case that if I’m suddenly required to use it at some point, and I will know how to. Also, since the Mbox is obviously a pretty bad piece of hardware, I can get the M-Audio Firewire 410, and have low latency AND the ability to run Pro Tools.
More and more pages of the reference manual. Gotta take a nap. I still have 6 days to try this out.
Screw sleep. I’ll finish this once and for all, and will return the damn thing today. The store opens at 12 PM, from what I remember. I still have 6 days to learn more about Pro Tools though. Gotta learn it. In case I meet Butch Vig on the street, and he’s like “seen this new Pro Tools feature, it’s totally bad ass”, and I will go “Word!”.
Ok, this is getting annoying. On every other page there is a section of text that says “Pro Tools|HD only” in the header. Were they too lazy to write a seperate manual for LE, or they just want to rub in the fact that I’m using the LIGHT VERSION of their CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED PRO TOOLS SOFTWARE USED BY THE TOP ENGINEERS WORLDWIDE.
God, don’t they earn enough to hire more people to write manuals? Besides, this two-column style of writing is really tiring at 5 am! I want to have one column per page. This isn’t the freaking New York times!
One eye open.
Hmm. If you subtract all the stuff about Pro Tools|HD, there isn’t really that much of text left about LE!
So.. What is this? I thought there are some secret features that I can’t get access to right away..
No.. This is REALLY BASIC software!
I mean, there is no seperate piano roll! All the MIDI has to be edited WITHIN the track. Cubase introduced the similar feature with in-track MIDI editing to SX3, but that’s in ADDITION to the piano roll, not as its replacement!
But ok.. Suppose that Pro Tools is the ‘mainly audio’ software. It doesn’t really hurt to introduce features that people can find in all other DAWs nowadays though, does it!
Anyway… No seperate audio editor either! In fact, the only main windows you work in are the Workspace and the Mix. The bulk of the work is done within Workspace, which is pretty clumsy and hard to use, nevermind the Windows 3.11 buttons, which I thought are what makes software ‘pro’ only 2 days ago.
Feature-wise, this is REALLY BASIC! What the fuck is the big deal about Pro Tools?! How can all those studios I have found that use Pro Tools LE do any sort of work, knowing that even Cubase LE which comes with a lot of quick video tours with the funny Australian guy on the Apple’s website alone, I can already tell it’s FAR more powerful! From what I hear, it’s basically Logic Pro without all the bundled plug-ins. And if you’re upgrading up from Garage Band, which starts to look like Pro Tools LE’s real competition, it’s really a sweet deal!
So the only things the Pro Tools live off is the marketing and hype! Every time you pick an audio magazine, they have those praising reviews of Pro Tools. So that’s where Digidesign’s money goes.
Almost broke the mouse button clicking hard in attempts to deinstall Pro Tools from both computers. Sadly, I didn’t have anything else in the trash bin in Mac OS, so the Emptying Trash window popped up and quickly disappeared, not allowing me to taste the sweet picture of the Pro Tools software wiping away from my hard drive.
I’m back to the store. Surprisingly, I was walking there faster than when I was going to buy the damn box. Money is powerful!
Talked to the guy. After checking all the box contents, and listening to me express my hatred for all things Digidesign, as I have hoped, he admitted that Pro Tools LE is really nothing more than an upgrade from an 8-track, which is driven solely by a big name corporation and the fame it got over the years selling its overpriced HD/TDM systems.
Well, that’s really fine, but everything is dropping in price nowadays, and putting a big name on the box of a bad product isn’t going to bring in dedicated customers, or at least not for too long.
As soon as the customers pull their heads out of the stinky Digi hole, they should theoretically realize that there are better options for less, which maybe haven’t won as many awards, but have gained popularity by the good word of mouth, reliable products, and GOOD FREE SUPPORT!
Didn’t even give Firewire 410 a glance. I don’t want anything that has to do with Pro Tools remotely!
Checked out some of the mics. The new AKG Precision 100 really looks like a sweet deal. A good condenser with the US-made diaphragms for under $200! Got the refund from Mbox. All the other interface seem so much more feature rich now!
I am walking down the Downtown street. The cars zip by to the sound of Air in the earbuds. Those French guys really know how to use a minimum of instruments, and yet paint great detailed audio imagery.
Everyone seems to enjoy the day too, even though the air is hot and dry. Must be around 30 degrees celcius. I hope the Presonus Firebox in the bagpack won’t get fried!
This is really a sweet little box! It has 4 seperate ins, (not the ‘fake’ 4 like on the Firewire 410 where the other 2 line-ins are mirrored from the front two inputs; why the heck would you need that for?!), 6 outs, all balanced. That means I can connect a mic, a guitar, a sampler maybe, and one hardware effect. And it’s $100 cheaper than the Mbox!
Installed the drivers. Loaded up iTunes. Works! Will this mean the official good-bye to my SB Live? Not forever.. I’ll keep it in my computer parts drawer, for the memories. When I get a platinum album released, I can brag in the interview to Future Music, “This is the card I started with”.
Recorded something in Cubase. Installation was really flawless. I’ve heard some good things about the Presonus drivers.
I thought there are no Intel Mac drivers for the firebox, but between the time I’ve checked on them and the time I bought the box, they have apparently come out. The installation couldn’t be simpler! I dragged two program icons into the Apps folder. No reboot or anything. Superbo!
Opened up the composition I made with SB Live which had audio artifacts at around 40ms of latency. Was pleasantly surprised that Firebox can only go down to 30ms! “I’m sorry, I’m too good to go anywhere below that”. The track played without any pops at about 20ms of latency. Sweeet!
Made recordings identical to the Mbox tests, and compared by Solo-ing the Mbox and Firebox tracks one after another. Seems like the Firebox demonstrates a tiny bit of noise. Tried putting the Firebox on the floor, and playing guitar lying on my bed far away from other electronic appliances. The noise disappeared. I have to google up “grounding”.
Put together a list of things Firebox is better at compared to the Mbox:
* Twice as many inputs
* Three times as many outputs
* Twice the recording resolution (96k)
* Ultra low latencies – recorded at 1.5ms without any artifacts.
* Great software mixer for creating seperate headphone mixes and zero-latency monitoring
* Firewire connection (I need the damn USB slots!)
* Slick aluminum case
* WDM Driver – iTunes work!
* No Pro Tools!
It’s too good to be true, but I think I got more for less!
And I am very happy to be Pro Tools addiction-free! I no longer feel a desire to purchase an underdeveloped product, just because of the big name on the box and promises to be “just like the top producers”. As soon as you open the manual, every page will keep reminding you that you are just a wanna-be!
I hope that whoever has read this far is going to make some conclusions, or at least be cautious in how they spend their money.
What matters most is still what you prefer to work with. The best bet is to try as many things as possible, watch videos, read [unbiased] articles, and keep on looking for what clicks!
The awards mean shit!
They got the award for the $8+ grand software, not the (used loosely) cheap little Mbox!
Make sure you buy from a big store with a refund policy. When it comes to software like this, especially Pro Tools, there is no real way to try it out unless you have friends who use it (poor people). So even if the store adds the extra $50, even $100 dollars, go ahead. You can return it anyway. If you like the product, return it and buy for cheaper. The big stores don’t care! Just make sure you confirm that they don’t first. I can imagine the Mbox’s are really cheap as dirt, so they don’t care for the open manuals or CDs.
While you’re at it, burn copies of the software and write down the keys! If they don’t care, why not take advantage of it!
Research. Well. Listen to people’s opinions of the products, especially if they have tried other products, and have more high-end devices to compare with.
Try things out. And, for the love of God, don’t fall into the trap of marketing! At least, not completely!