Hands-On Review: AVID ProTools

Hands-On Review: AVID ProTools
With our Audio Assist column, we typically focus primarily on sound for picture production tools, with occasional side trips into plug-ins and audio postproduction tools. I was recently invited to AVID Technology’s West Coast HQ in Burbank, California, to get some hands-on time with ProTools 12.8.2, AVID’s latest version of the industry-standard audio post/recording/music/sound effects/editing suite. It had been quite a few years since I had used ProTools. I think most casual video editors like myself have only had a fleeting experience with ProTools over the years. If you have music/recording experience, chances are, you’re somewhat, if not totally, experienced with ProTools, as it’s the predominant tool used in the recording industry. While ProTools is also a huge player in the video postproduction business, if you handle audio post yourself as an editor and don’t send your TV/cinema projects out to an audio post facility, you may not have very high awareness of ProTools and all that it can do for your project soundtracks. It felt like the end of 2017 was a good time to reacquaint myself with the audio-editing suite, so I eagerly accepted the invitation.

Why Should Video Content Creators Consider ProTools?

No matter for whom you create video content—the web, your vlog, corporate clients, or Hollywood studios or OTTs—there are a few constants. The first is that your soundtrack is typically more important to the overall appeal and success of the project than your visuals. This may be a new way of thinking about and prioritizing your budget, production and postproduction workflow, but it’s true—sound is so important to your overall project. If sound is of paramount importance to the success or failure of your project, why would you consider just using your video-editing tools to edit, refine and polish your soundtrack? The audio tools in most video-editing programs are kind of blunt-force instruments when compared to professional-level audio solutions like ProTools. Typically, video-editing programs will let you edit your audio tracks to a certain level, giving you control over panning, level, rudimentary EQ and audio filters, and that’s about it. Automation and intelligent audio features aren’t usually present in most video-editing programs.

Another reason to consider investing in ProTools over your video editing program’s tools is the fact that ProTools is the industry standard in not only the TV and cinema post markets but also most every audio post category in facilities all over the world. Chances are, if you’re shooting a project in a remote country that may not have much of a traditional sound for picture postproduction industry, there will still be ProTools systems, editors and edit bays available. While you may or may not need audio post services while on location in a foreign country, if you do, it’s nice to have familiar, industry-standard tools available to work with.

Hands-On Review: AVID ProTools

Which Version?

When we talk about ProTools, we have to make sure that we are talking about a specific version of the software. AVID makes three different versions for your consideration.

ProTools Free. Avid has reintroduced a free product, now called ProTools First. ProTools First offers you 16 audio and 16 MIDI tracks, with the ability to record up to four at once from four inputs. Free certainly lets you learn your way around the program, with enough features enabled to get a good taste of the ProTools experience, but you only get three project saves, and they must be in the cloud with an Avid account. If you try and like ProTools Free, chances are, you’ll spend the money for the full version.

ProTools. This version (just known as ProTools or, informally, “the native version,” costs $599. You own it forever, but you only get 12 months’ worth of software updates; a support subscription cost begins at $24.92 per month after that, at which point you also get full version upgrades as they’re made available. With ProTools native, you can play back up to 128 simultaneous stereo tracks at 48 kHz, 64 tracks at 96 kHz or 32 tracks at 192 kHz, with up to 32 tracks of simultaneous recording. You also get 512 MIDI tracks, 512 instrument tracks, 128 auxiliary tracks, unlimited busses and a video track.

ProTools HD. ProTools HD ($999 + $83.25 per month and up), which can be used either natively or with AVID’s HDX hardware. ProTools HD increases the audio track count to 256 and includes up to 192 simultaneous record inputs. It also adds support for multi-layered video edits (with up to 64 tracks) plus surround mixing, broadcast standards, field recorder workflows, video editing and dozens of other cool features, many of which are very useful in sound for picture work.

Hands-On Review: AVID ProTools

What Are The Latest Improvements And Upgrades?

Space limitations preclude me from an exhaustive listing of every feature, so I’ll just hit the highlights here. You can take a look at AVID’s ProTools comparison page for a more in-depth look here: avid.com/pro-tools-hd/compare. The big three differentiators between ProTools HD and ProTools are:

Surround Mixing. If you need a sweet 7.1 mix for your latest action flick or even a simpler standard 5.1 surround mix, you’ll have to buy the top-of-the-line ProTools HD to mix surround, plus, of course, have a surround sound-enabled editing bay.

Dolby Atmos Mixing Workflow. Atmos is Dolby Laboratories’ latest industry-standard surround-sound immersive audio technology. It allows sounds to be precisely placed and moved in three-dimensional space. Atmos also adds height placement of sounds in the mix, providing an extra dimension to the edit. Atmos mixing is only available in ProTools HD.

Ambisonics VR Mixing. Ambisonic sound is the predominant audio workflow for virtual reality, augmented reality and 360-degree video. Regular surround sound is mixed for a static listening position. Because VR/AR and 360-degree video allow the viewer/listener to experience from any position in 360-degree space, the sound needs to track the virtual listener’s position within that space. Ambisonics VR Mixing is available in ProTools HD.

The following features are also only available in ProTools HD:

Satellite Link. With Satellite Link, you can control up to 12 ProTools | HD systems from a single transport over a simple Ethernet network.

Advanced Audio Editing. Scrub Trim, Replace Region, Fit to Marks, Matching Channels, Back and Play, Auto Fades, and more are only available in ProTools HD.

Advanced Automation. Punch, Capture, Write on stop, Write to all enabled, Automatch, Preview and more are only available in ProTools HD.

Advanced Video Editing. Multiple video tracks, multiple video playlists and video-editing tools are only available in ProTools HD.

Here are the ProTools/ProTools HD features not available in ProTools Free: Sibelius Score Editor, Revision History, Track Commit, Bounce, Beat Detective, AAF/OMF/MXF file interchange, Clip FX, Batch renaming, Clip Gain, Export to iTunes, Time code Ruler, Full Import Session Data, Variable stereo pan depths, AVID Video Engine, Advanced metering with gain reduction, Input monitoring, VCA Mixing, and Solo bus AFL/PFL.

Hands-On Review: AVID ProTools

Hands-On

ProTools is one of those programs like Adobe Photoshop where you feel as if you could take a one- or two-day class and understand about 75 percent of the program and its most commonly used functions. But it also feels as if it could take years to discover all of the controls and learn how to use them skillfully; it’s a very deep program.

From a video-editing perspective, the smartest strategy is to download ProTools Free, devote a few hours to learning how it works, and see if you discover the best way to integrate it into your workflow. Once you have the basics down, you can step up to the full ProTools Suite, which will add the AVID Video Engine so you have picture playback along with all of your audio channels and work. If you delve into the world of surround mixing, VR sound or have a need to delivery finished Dolby Atmos mixes, ProTools HD is available for a considerable bump in monthly subscription costs over the regular ProTools.

There are many advantages to using ProTools over your editing software’s integrated audio tools. If you work in environments where you typically hand off your finished picture cut to an audio post professional, you don’t need ProTools. The project’s sound mixer is probably already using it. But if you’re in a position where your clients are looking for a one-stop-shop kind of workflow where they look to you for polished final audio, ProTools should become a powerful, standard component in your workflow. The advantages of ProTools over video-editing program audio tools are too compelling to ignore.

Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.

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