Test Drive: Digidesign Pro Tools 7

by Steve Cunningham

A full three years after giving us version 6, Digidesign now presents us with Pro Tools 7 for HD, LE, and M-Powered systems. Pro Tools 7 is probably the most significant update to this venerable program since version 5, since it includes a major overhaul of the menus and user interface, as well as some useful new features.

Those of you who have been with these columns for awhile know that I never buy or recommend version #1 of anything — I’m a fan of stability, and like to wait until others have found any land mines that may exist in the newest versions of software. But the changes in Pro Tools 7 are compelling enough, and the land mines few enough, that despite that, I’ve been upgrading not only my VO and casting clients to version 7, but also the couple dozen rigs at the university so I can teach the new version this semester.

ilokVersion 7 is a paid upgrade for existing users, and if you have a Pro Tools HD system you now will need an iLok USB dongle to authorize the program (figure 1). Even if you don’t have an HD rig, iLok is required for several of Digidesign’s better plug-ins, including the excellent Smack compressor/limiter, as well as many third party plugs. If you’re a Pro Tools user, you’re gonna buy the $40 dongle — it’s just a matter of when.

I installed Pro Tools 7 LE over my existing 6.9.2 version on the Mac, and over my existing m-Powered 6.8 version on the PC. Other than the snazzy new icons and new splash screen, the process is identical to previous installations.

mixwindowWHAT’S NEW

Version 7 marks the introduction of the .ptf session file format in place of the older .pts format. This new format eliminates the compatibility issues between PC and Macintosh session files, so the PC/Mac compatibility checkbox is gone. In addition, all .ptf session files have +12dB of gain (at the top of the fader) only, whereas version 6.9 allowed you to choose between the original default of  +6dB and the then-new +12dB range. By the way, the +12dB setting was aimed at Avid video users, and just scaled the top of the fader travel a bit differently — the maximum gain hasn’t really changed, and your headroom still depends on which interface you use. The mBox has +12dBu of headroom, the 002 has +18dBu, and the 192 has +22dBu.

Because the new .ptf format works only on Pro Tools 7, you must save your session as .pts if you need to use it with an earlier version of Pro Tools. The good news is that the Save Copy In command allows you to save in formats going all the way back to version 3.2. Moreover, filenames are no longer limited to 31 characters, and it looks like the nasty long file path errors are history.

But converting old sessions from version 6 to version 7 is not always simple on TDM systems. Those of you with larger Pro Tools rigs will find that the DSP Manager works differently in version 7, and according to Digidesign this difference is part of what makes version 7 so much more DSP-efficient. However, early reports from the field indicate that opening version 6 sessions sometimes results in out-of-DSP errors, with the result that many of the session’s plug-ins don’t load properly, and manually re-allocating the plug-ins doesn’t seem to help. The workaround for this is to open the version 6 session, ignore the error messages, then quit Pro Tools without saving the session. Restarting Pro Tools then allows the old session to be opened successfully, with all plug-ins intact. This minor problem should be fixed in a future release, so be sure you get the latest from Digidesign’s website. At this writing, current versions are 7.1cs3 for HD, 7.0cs3 for LE, and 7.0cs3 for m-Powered.

Also new is support for ten aux sends per mixer channel, up from five sends previously (figure 2). The sends are organized as two blocks of five each, so you don’t have to waste screen space for sends you’re not using. The number of inserts per channel remains at five each.

For HD users, one of the biggest changes is the end of the HTDM plug-in format. HTDM was introduced in Pro Tools 5 as a way of integrating host-based plugs (those that use the computer’s CPU rather than Pro Tools’ DSP to do their work) into TDM systems. HTDM was always a dicey proposition, since the plugs were often unstable, and third-party plug developers treated HTDM as the step-child of their RTAS products.

In Pro Tools 7 HD, you can now use RTAS plug-ins both before and after TDM plug-ins on aux tracks and audio tracks, as well as on Master Fader tracks. There is a penalty though, in that using RTAS plugs in HD systems use voices to transfer audio to and from the TDM world. So if you have a stereo aux that takes its input from an audio interface and you stick a stereo RTAS plug on the aux, you’ll end up using four voices instead of two. Since HD systems provide a large number of voices anyway, this should only be an issue on very large sessions.

One final note for HD users — the DAE in Pro Tools 7 doesn’t work with some third-party editors, notably Apple’s Logic Pro and MOTU’s Digital Performer. Hopefully this will be addressed in future versions of the software.