Test Drive: Pro Tools M-Powered

GETTING M-POWERED

With the FW 410 interface installed and functioning, it’s time to add Pro Tools M-Powered (hereafter PTMP). The PTMP package includes Windows and Mac installation CDs, a brief Getting Started manual and an even briefer Basics Guide. These are reproduced in PDF form on the discs, along with the full manual and various other bits of documentation. Also included is an iLok USB dongle, which serves to copy-protect PTMP.

Hmmmm... now that’s different...

Up until now Pro Tools has, in effect, used Digidesign’s hardware as a copy protection dongle, with PACE’s iLok USB dongle employed only as an accessory for authorizing third-party plug-ins. But with PTMP, the iLok USB dongle is now used for the program too. It’s hard to love any copy-protection scheme, but the iLok system is widely used for plug-ins, and it makes it possible to store all your plug-in authorizations in one place. It also lets you install a single copy of PTMP on as many different machines as you like, as long as you only intend to use one at a time. However, the sheer physical size of the dang thing can be a serious nuisance — the two USB ports on my Mac laptop are located in such a way that with the iLok in place it’s impossible to insert any other device save a USB cable. The iLok won’t work in an external USB hub, so the only alternative is to get a very short USB extension cable.

Installation is straightforward on both the Mac and PC. Although the PC version does demand a couple of tweaks to System Properties settings, the manual does an okay job of holding your hand through the process, so be sure you read the installation section. It’s also important to install the drivers before you install Pro Tools, but with that done you just plug in the iLok key, navigate the Found New Hardware wizard yet again, and you’re ready to go.

I won’t bother to describe the program — hey, it’s Pro Tools, and it seems to me identical to my LE system. So what’s different from LE? The DV Toolkit, which gives you a timecode ruler and allows you to import project files from Avid’s Xpress DV video-editing package, is not supported here. Neither is DigiTranslator, used for working with OMF projects, and there’s no support for Avid video peripherals. No problem so far, right? The only potential hurt is that PTMP doesn’t support any of the Ethernet-based control surfaces, like the Control|24 and ProControl. But honestly, I don’t know anyone who owns either and doesn’t work a big TDM rig anyway, so the net answer is that there’s no difference. And PTMP sessions are completely compatible with LE and TDM systems, so you can take your hard drive into almost any studio in the world and work on ‘em there.

Like Pro Tools LE, you can have up to 128 mono or stereo audio tracks, but also like current LE versions, PTMP provides only 32 “voices,” and playing back a stereo track requires two voices. And again like LE, you can have 16 mono busses (or eight stereo busses), and up to five inserts and five aux sends per channel. Trust me, if you’ve used Pro Tools, you’ll be right at home using Pro Tools M-Powered.

BUNDLED SOFTWARE

No self-respecting audio recording package can be competitive without the sweetener of free effects and processors, and PTMP is no exception. The standard Digirack suite of basic plug-ins has now been increased to 35 items, and you can download the new EQ III plug-in, which is the best EQ offered by Digidesign. While it may be hard to get excited about DC Offset Removal and Normalize, most of the Digirack tools will come in handy sooner or later. The compressors and equalizers are useable, and D-Verb is more versatile than most bundled reverbs. All the dynamics plug-ins can be keyed from any of the internal busses in the Pro Tools mixer — an invaluable feature which is not available in most editors. What’s more, all the real-time plug-ins (RTAS) are also available in off-line Audiosuite (AS) versions. If you run out of processing power, you can just copy your settings from the RTAS plug-in to the AS version and apply the effect permanently, saving valuable CPU cycles.

As with all current versions of Pro Tools, you also get a selection of plug-ins from Bomb Factory, which was another of Digidesign’s acquisitions. The highlight for most folks will be BF76, a recreation of the classic Universal Audio 1176 compressor. I think I prefer Universal Audio’s own software recreation of this unit, but since you’ll need to cough up for an extra DSP card or a TDM system in order to get that one, the BF76 plug is not to be sneezed at. Also included on the CD is Ableton’s Live Digidesign Edition, but the other lite programs bundled with LE versions of Pro Tools are absent here. Propellerhead’s Reason Adapted is bundled with most M-Audio hardware in any case, but it’s a shame that you don’t get IK Multimedia’s Sampletank SE, Amplitube LE or T-Racks EQ.

THE WRAP

If you’ve always wanted to get into Pro Tools without buying into the Digidesign hardware, here’s your chance. While many of us had hoped that the total cost of an M-Audio interface and PTMP software would be less than that of a Digidesign mBox (which includes LE), that isn’t really the case — the total is quite nearly the same (actually a bit more with the FW 410, but there are cheaper supported interfaces). But in many ways the M-Audio interface is more versatile than the mBox... 10 outputs instead of two, and ASIO2 drivers that work well with non-Digi software, for example.

How does the M-Powered package sound? Easily as good as an mBox, that much is certain. I like the mic pre’s better than those on my mBox, and the dual headphone jacks are quite useful. And hey, it’s Pro Tools.

The M-Audio Firewire 410 retails for $399, and is available on the street for less than $300. Pro Tools M-Powered retails for $349, and can be found for less than $300. For more information and a demo version of Pro Tools M-Powered, visit www.m-audio.com, or www.digidesign.com.

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