A First Look at Avid Pro Tools 11

ACCORDING TO AVID, PRO TOOLS 11 is a “ground-up rewrite” of the nearly ubiquitous DAW—and that’s not marketing hyperbole.
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ACCORDING TO AVID, PRO TOOLS 11 is a “ground-up rewrite” of the nearly ubiquitous DAW—and that’s not marketing hyperbole. The new Avid Audio Engine (AAE) finally brings 64-bit architecture to the venerable workstation, enabling it to take much fuller advantage of multi-core computer processors and access RAM more efficiently, resulting in dramatically increased performance. Here, I’ll describe a few of the software’s most significant new features. I tested Pro Tools 11 on a 6-core 3.33GHz Mac Pro with 20GB of RAM, running Mountain Lion 10.8.4. (Mountain Lion 10.8.x is required on a Mac, and on a PC you’ll need Windows 8 or 64-bit Windows 7.)

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Let’s start with the ways in which Pro Tools 11 handles effects and instrument plug-ins. First, PT11 runs AAX Native 64 plug-ins exclusively, which means that if you are upgrading from, say, Pro Tools 10, none of your RTAS plug-ins will be compatible. While nearly all plug-in manufacturers will eventually offer effects and instrument plug-ins in the AAX Native 64 format, at the present time numerous major players still do not, which will be a temporary deal breaker for some. The good news is that if you have Pro Tools 10.3.6, it can coexist with Pro Tools 11 on the same computer, enabling you to switch between the two (Avid even includes PT10.3.6 with PT11, which is a nice touch). Additionally, PT11 comes bundled with AAX Native 64 versions of its excellent AIR Virtual Instruments plug-ins (along with an 8GB sound library) and Creative Collection effects, sound processing, and utility plug-ins.

Another major feature of PT11 is Dynamic Plug-in Processing, which allocates DSP resources dynamically in relation to current usage. For example, if you are mixing a 24-track project using multiple plug-ins on each channel, but there are sections where not all of the tracks actually contain audio— rather than continuing to power the plug-ins on all 24 tracks, DSP resources are temporarily withdrawn from the plug-ins on the tracks that aren’t currently playing, and made available for other purposes until needed again. This will obviously be a bigger deal in some situations than others, but I tend to have lots of little parts on individual tracks coming in and out of my mixes, so I benefitted from this immediately.

PT11 also features a Low-latency Input Buffer, which is an independent buffer dedicated exclusively to live and virtual instrument inputs—apart from the playback buffer—that is set dynamically according to what the session needs for reliable playback, so that you can achieve the lowest possible latency when tracking, without sacrificing playback performance. Besides facilitating better artist performances, this often makes it unnecessary to change buffer settings whenever you switch between tracking and mixing.

Another major change is the integration of the Avid Video Engine—the core engine in Avid’s Media Composer professional video editor— enabling you to play several formats of HD video directly in the Pro Tools timeline without transcoding, and view it on the built-in monitor, or via video interfaces from Avid, AJA, and Blackmagic Design. This is huge if you compose music for picture, whether you are an amateur or a professional, and it works beautifully.

Offline Bounce or accelerated bounce-to-disk has also finally come to Pro Tools. This feature has been a staple in most competing DAWs for years, and Pro Tools users had requested it frequently, so its inclusion will make many people happy. I wasn’t able to achieve the super-fast speeds that Avid suggests are possible, but, for example, I was able to bounce a 21:00 piece comprising 30 tracks recorded at 32-bit/48kHz with lots of plug-ins to a 16-bit/44.1 stereo WAV file in about three minutes, which is pretty good. And get this: You can have the bounced file instantly added to your iTunes Library or uploaded to SoundCloud or Gobbler.

In addition to the higher-profile features, there are scores of other great additions, including lots of very helpful keyboard shortcuts. For example, with two keystrokes you can bypass all of the inserts on a selected channel or channels in one of eight different ways (All, Inserts A-E, Inserts F-J, all EQ, all Dynamics, all Reverb, all Delay, and all Modulation), which is a huge timesaver. Sends may also be muted in various ways, and pressing one or two keys while double-clicking in blank areas of the Mixer or Edit windows will add new Audio, Aux, Instrument, or Master tracks. The new Workspace Browser is also impressive, allowing you to easily search for, index, catalog, audition, and relink files. And you can also now write automation while recording.

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Although I won’t be fully transitioning over to Pro Tools 11 until more of my beloved third-party plugs-ins become available in the AAX Native 64 format, I am very much looking forward to the day that I do. The improved efficiency resulting from PT11’s 64-bit architecture alone will greatly expand my studio’s capabilities, and the myriad new features—in particular the increased video integration—will make composing and recording more exciting and enjoyable. This is a huge step forward, and that’s why Pro Tools 11 receives an Editors’ Pick Award.

Kudos Lots of significant new features and greatly increased efficiency due to 64-bit architecture.
Concerns Somewhat limited availability of third-party AAX Native 64 plug-ins at the time of this review.
Price $699 street for the full version (upgrades from other versions of Pro Tools $299-$499).