What is ProTools?

ProTools is a software based DAW made by a company called Digidesign which is part of Avid. ProTools is one of, if not the most widely used DAW in the audio industry, it is very powerful and very widely respected by many producers and engineers. Using ProTools is not like using Apple’s Logic Pro for example there is one major difference which can make or break the deal of a potential customer. To use the ProTools software you must also use an approved audio interface.

There are many different versions of the ProTools software, however there are three main groups which are –

  1. ProTools HD / TDM
  2. ProTools LE
  3. ProTools M-Powered

These three different versions all require something different to run and this difference is also reflected in how much you are willing to spend as a user vs. how much power you want out of the system. The audio interface, or interface card in HD / TDM acts as a dongle for the software, which means you will need the serial number and interface to use ProTools. The cheapest option is ProTools M-Powered which makes use of certain M-Audio audio interfaces, the more expensive and more common home system is the ProTools LE system. This uses Digidesign’s own branded audio interfaces as the dongle for the ProTools software, however functionally the software is the same, the real difference being the price of the Digidesign interfaces is higher but does come shipped with ProTools LE, however the M-Audio interfaces don’t come with ProTools M-Powered as standard. The M-Powered and LE systems can be used with any form of host system Windows, or Mac, Laptop, or Desktop, as long as the system requirements are met, these systems are known as host-based systems that use the power of the host system as their plug-in processors.

The highest cost, and highest performance ProTools systems are the HD / TDM based systems. Unlike the previous ProTools systems to use HD / TDM you will need PCI or PCI-x slots, so a desktop machine is needed. Certain expansion chassis are available however at this time I do not know of any that run with the current HD hardware on laptops. HD / TDM systems don’t use just the interface as the dongle, they use host cards and one interface as the dongle for the system. Unlike an LE or M-Powered system which is limited to only one interface connected at any time, an HD / TDM system is only limited by how many host cards the host machine can handle, and however many interfaces the host card itself can handle, for example my own Digidesign 002 system has 8in and 8out which is the highest number the 002 can handle on it’s own on my MacBook Pro, however my TDM Mix24 system, which has one Mix24-Core and two DSP-Farm cards in a G4 tower machine, can currently handle  32in and 32out due to the host cards I/O options. This expandability is what costs the main bulk of the money, however the DSP processing power on the host cards themselves is the key to the HD / TDM system.

The host cards in these systems provide dedicated processors for plug-ins that can make use of them, this reduces the power need of the host system meaning that my 2.8Ghz Intel Core2Duo MacBook Pro running the latest version of ProTools LE can handle a lot of plug-ins whilst using 100% of the host CPU, however my Mix24 TDM setup can handle many many more without even touching the Dual 1Ghz G4 CPU’s leaving those free to handle other things. This power costs a lot of money with the host cards started at £5000 and the interfaces around £1300, just to get an HD system to start ProTools you would need to spend over £7000 including the host system for the most basic HD setup you could get. This power allows the use of TDM plug-ins and RTAS plug-ins at the same time, which is extremely powerful.

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