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Pro Tools vs. Native Recording

"Certain people can be dismissive of a studio that isn't equipped with Pro Tools"

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain... the great Oz Has Spoken!

    Pro Tools HD is a software based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) which uses Digidesign's proprietary computer cards to handle the computations and DSP (Digital Signal Processing).  This in contrast to "Native" software programs utilizing the host computer's processor(s).  Digidesign is one of the pioneers of computer hard disc based digital audio recording and, as such, is touted as the worldwide standard recording program used by a large number of pro recording facilities.

    However, to dismiss all other recording and editing platforms because they "aren't Pro Tools" is a biased and narrow position.  It's akin to saying that since Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry with the Model-T, that you are somehow deficient if you don't own a Ford.  To take this position is to totally ignore the significant advances made over the past decade by the major Native-based software programs.

    As a point of fact, many audio professionals shun the expensive and proprietary Digidesign Pro Tools systems in favor of Native systems such as Digital Performer, Nuendo, Logic, and others.

We're not in Kansas anymore Toto...

    Pro Tools uses what is called TDM (Time-Division Multiplexing).  A programming code which performs all the data processing on dedicated chipsets (located directly on the proprietary ProTools card and Accel expansion cards).  Writing code for TDM is trickier and more time consuming, therefore Pro Tools software and plug-ins cost more.

    "Native" systems utilize the host computer's native processor(s) to handle all the computations and number crunching.  Native software code is much easier (and therefore more cost effective) to write.

    The bottom line: Neither approach is "better", they are simply two methods of achieving the same ends. Each method has it's inherent strengths and weaknesses - differences which make either system more or less desirable depending on the individual's needs and personal preferences.

Lions and tigers and bears; Oh My!

    Video and audio files are huge.  To add to "the straw on the camel's back" so to speak, the greater the resolution, the larger the files.  It's like comparing a 1-megapixel camera to a 10-megapixel camera. With the 10-megapixel camera you have to purchase a larger memory card to store the same number of pictures, and your computer will run slower when editing and printing.  The 10-megapixel picture is preferable however, because it contains far more detail and resolution.

    This translates to massive numbers of ones and zeros which have to be stored, edited and otherwise manipulated by the computer processor(s).  This means faster, more powerful computers are required to do the same volume of work. Amongst audio and video professionals, the architecture of the Mac is considered best suited for handling these massive files.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road...

    Since the first PCs were introduced, raw speed & computing power, RAM capacity, hard drive and removable media storage capacities have all continued to increase on an exponential curve.  At the same time the actual dollar cost of that increased raw power and storage capability has, generally speaking, stayed the same or even dropped in price.

    As a studio owner working to maintain an edge in a technology driven market, I have to ask the hard questions...  What is best, having the "prestige" of owning a Pro Tools HD system (and investing the equivalent of a luxury car for that privilege)?  Or having a system that performs, for all practical intents and purposes with the same end result, at a greatly reduced cost?

    Rest assured, those who already have their fortunes invested in a Pro Tools HD system will insist that it is the only way to go...  But is it really?

    In essence, the computer is a recording device.  A box of components which stores ones and zeros on a hard drive or other storage media.

    At the time of this writing, Apple is producing a computer with capacities up to 8-Core x 3.2GHz processors (that's 256- GIGAHERTZ of raw processing power).

And up to 32- GIGABYTES of onboard RAM.

And up to 4- TERABYTES of onboard storage. 

    But there's more than that... depending which software and hardware is running, it can manipulate those ones and zeros with varying degrees of sophistication and ingenuity.

    In fact, there are several fully matured and highly advanced Native software programs available with capabilities which compare to (and in certain critical areas, are superior to) Pro Tools.  With the advent of these increasingly capable Macs and ever more sophisticated software programs, the gap between Native and TDM systems is steadily disappearing.  Indeed, with each quantum leap of computer and software capability, the glitter and sheen of the Pro Tools system fades a little bit more.

    There will always be the major players - Ocean Way and Skywalker Ranch depend on the gargantuan capacity that only full blown Pro Tools TDM systems can provide.  But what of the rest of us who don't require 190+ channel systems?  For these applications, there are several "state-of-the-art" Native DAW systems with capacities for track counts far exceeding what is needed, and with plenty of processing power left over for things like plug-ins, automation and VI's (Virtual Instruments).  Further, if a client does want compatibility with Pro Tools for some reason, the audio files can be exported in a PT compatible format.

There's no place like home...

    It's been said that talented engineers can produce great work on even the most basic of equipment.  Conversely, even the most sophisticated and expensive systems are limited by the capability and understanding of the engineer at the helm, and the artist being produced.

    The often overlooked aspect in this "Pro Tools vs. Native" comparison is not so much the recording medium itself.  It's placing the instrument in a good sounding, well tuned acoustic space, selecting and positioning the best microphone for the sound source, plugging that microphone to the optimum choice microphone preamp and outboard gear, and then turning that analog signal into "ones and zeros" with a premium A/D converter.  This is where we have chosen to focus our attention (and our fortune) - on the "front end" - focusing on the quality and tone of the recorded sound.

Put on your ruby slippers on and click your heels together three times...

    So which is it?  Shall we all sit around bragging about our Pro Tools systems?  Or ignore the hype and "Get to the joy ride that is making music"?  After all, the vast majority of people listening to the music could care less how it was recorded, but do care how it sounds...


UPDATE 11/15/2011:

As a longtime MOTU Digital Performer user I often visit the Motunation web forum. One of our members (Radiogal from Stockholm, Sweden) recently posted a thread reporting the results of listening tests comparing "ProTools 9, ProTools 10, Logic 9, Cubase (latest version) and Digital Performer 7.24"  "by 30+ members of the Swedish Sound Engineer Society".

Interestingly enough, it was only at the last minute that Digital Performer was entered into the comparison (at Radiogal's urging).  Ironically, after 2.5 hours of intense blind listening comparisons, Digital Performer was rated the top DAW.  I encourage you to read the thread for yourself. Here's a direct link:



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