DSP In Pro Tools - It's Not The Holy Grail It Once Was And May Not Be For You

08-20-2014 09:18 AM

There was a time when to get real power and flexibility from Pro Tools then one had to take the plunge and invest in their hardware DSP solutions, either HD or HDX. However this option is becoming less necessary for modern music making.
If you are considering how to develop your Pro Tools enabled studio then things you need to consider.
DSP Comes In All Shapes And Sizes

Pro Tools HD/HDX systems are not the only solutions to offer DSP, the hugely popular UAD powered platform uses DSP chips to power the Universal Audio plug-ins. Waves now have their DiGiGrid platform to offer DSP power for Waves and possibly other third party vendors.
Studios Come In All Shapes And Sizes

It is sometimes easy to forget when working in music how small track counts can be compared to those working in post. Post sessions can extend to hundreds of tracks and can make the average album session look like a Portastudio when compared. In this scenario then the need for high track counts at high sample rates and with near zero latency make the need for Pro Tools HD/HDX a no brainer without it these sessions would be impossible to run.
Virtual Instruments Change The Equation

When it comes to composing in Pro Tools and using virtual instruments for making music, then DSP is nigh on useless. Yes it might take the strain away by using DSP for audio plug-ins already in this mix, but 99% of VI plug-ins require the power of native processing. Pro Tools 11 helped a great deal by going to 64bit processing, this means that all the memory in a computer is available for hosting large sound libraries.
Native Processing Is Enough For A Lot Of People

We ran some tests at Pro Tools HQ last week with the new Mac Pro ‘trash can’. We ran a couple of sessions, one with tracks running native versions of Avid Channel Strip and Dverb, as well as 32 channels of Eleven. In the second test we inserted a copy of Exponential Audio PhoenixVerb on every channel, which claims to be super efficient. In both tests we ran out of tracks and voices before we ran out power.
Latency, Latency, Latency

The million dollar question for many people is the issues of latency. As track counts get larger and sample rates to as high as 192Khz then this has an impact on latency. For some people this is going to require them to invest in Pro Tools HDX, there’s no getting around that. However for those working at lower sample rates then there are equally well thought through solutions, for example the UAD Apollo Console offers near-zero monitoring when tracking and also enables the user to monitor via UAD plug-ins when tracking, you can even choose to just monitor or print the effects, like a good old tape machine. You can see this in action here. Other brands also offer monitoring solutions, such as Focusrite, RME, MOTU and many more, although the elegance of the implementation can differ greatly.
What Should You Do?

Well that depends on what you need your Pro Tools system to do. Let’s answer the question with some questions for you to consider?

  • How large are your track counts going to be?
  • What sample rate are you going to be working in?
  • Do you want to be tied to one particular brand of plug-in?
  • Will you be using a lot of virtual instruments?

If you are going to be working in huge track counts then HDX is probably for you, there’s not getting around it, whilst native power is a lot better it’s still not going to be sufficient for the needs of most sound stages.
Whenever you invest in a DSP solution then you are committing to a brand, be that Avid, Waves or Universal Audio. Now the reality is that most of us work in a mixed economy, so we use HDX and UAD cards in our Pro Tools rigs, after all, it all helps with the heavy lifting. The real question is how many DSP solutions do you want to invest in?
If you are going to be working with VIs then you may be better off buying a second computer, for example a Mac Mini and investing in Vienna Ensemble Pro 5. This enables the user to run all their VIs from a separate computer over ethernet and then let’s the Pro Tools rig look after audio and plug-ins. The best thing about this solution is that you are investing in another computer not just a propriety hardware box.

As we said earlier in some recent tests using just native processing Pro Tools ran out of tracks before we ran out of power. Limiting track counts in Pro Tools was once an essential way that Avid could ensure stability in native solutions, this is less of the case these days, in most cases the limitations in Pro Tools are simply a way of leveraging more money from Pro Tools users.
Right now to get Pro Tools HD software you need to buy Avid hardware. It’s a smart move on the part of Avid, it ensures a steady sale of HD hardware boxes, which to be frank are unnecessary for the needs of many people who invest in them, however if Avid unlock features or simply sell the software then the genie is out of the bottle and HDX sales decline.
In Conclusion

DSP solution come in all shapes and sizes, not just as HD/HDX solutions. DSP is not for everyone, it means investing in proprietary hardware solutions.
The moral of the story is, figure out what YOU need, do your homework and then make your decision. It’s not the Holy Grail it once was and may not be for you