When you consider the computer’s history in the studio, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Pro Tools. It’s the Jupiter of DAWs, looming so large in the solar system of digital audio that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t come across it in the studio.
Its first parent company, Digidesign, was launched in 1984. Sound Designer was their first product and it had similar visual characteristics to other digital sampling interfaces like the Fairlight CMI. The technology gradually evolved to encompass full digital recording and the erstwhile standard of analog tape was beginning to feel obsolete.
36 years after its original conception, the Pro Tools story has been one of incremental evolution. There have been some big leaps along the way, but the software has never strayed too far from its original purpose: to be the hub of the modern recording studio.
Pro Tools is synonymous with the DAW. It has a long history and over time, it has well and truly become the standard which all other DAWs are measured against.
The modern tape machine
Tape machines and Pro Tools had parallel trajectories. When the program was called Sound Tools in 1989, it was a simple, stereo two-track recording and editing platform. Just like the early days of tape, track counts were low and the limits were hard. It wasn’t until the ’90s when Digidesign went with the Pro Tools moniker and it started to resemble the DAW as we know it today.
With each new version of the software in the ’90s, track counts increased, DSP power that was available in their proprietary hardware was beefed up, expanded bit-depth provided higher resolution and the Pro Control console was introduced – all before they had a significant rival in digital recording. With their last version of the decade (number 5) MIDI editing was introduced, enhancing its reputation as a creative workstation as well as an audio recording platform.
Up until the turn of the century, Pro Tools had been aimed at the pros, with prices to match. Then came the introduction of the ‘LE’ version of the software. Shipping with the Digi 001 interface and relying on the host computer’s CPU power, the pro-level platform was finally within the reach of the home studio enthusiast. Add to that the introduction of the MBox (a two-channel USB audio interface) and Pro Tools was looking to corner the domestic market.
The expansion into the domestic market didn’t mean that they forgot their core audience of professional studios. The HD system was introduced in 2003 and for the next 15 years or so, it seemed like every studio was boasting an HD rig on their spec-sheet. Session track counts and plugins ballooned with this exponential increase in computing power.
Later in the decade, the software got even smarter with Elastic Audio, allowing users to warp the fabric of audio without leaving the edit window. Editing improvements like multiple automation lanes were introduced in version 8. Also, the look and feel of the software began to resemble something like we recognise today.
As the naughties hit the tens, version 9 brought with it some significant changes. AVID had bought Digidesign 15 years earlier, but now only with this version did they drop the former branding. This change brought Pro Tools into line with AVID’s other creative software programs like Media Composer and Sibelius.
Another big change was support for Core Audio and ASIO. This opened up the software to a growing world of third-party audio interfaces. Considering the quality and tonal options on offer from the likes of Apogee, Universal Audio, Focusrite, RME and more, this decision introduced Pro Tools to a whole new audience, especially in the project studio market.
As Pro Tools hit double-digits it brought with it a slew of updates. A few of the headline improvements included Clip Gain (the ability to adjust the gain of an audio clip before inserts), 32-bit float sessions, support for exporting selected tracks and much more. This version, while maintaining the essential workflow of the platform, marked the beginning of the modern Pro Tools.
Eye to the future
Pro Tools got online in a big way with AVID Cloud Collaboration. Remote users could jump into the same session at the same time and could even communicate via text or video chat. Version 12 also had a number of ‘point’ updates, like the ability to Freeze and then Commit tracks, which converted potentially CPU-intensive MIDI or Virtual Instrument tracks into new audio tracks, with plugins baked in.
Nowadays, AVID offers up a selection of three versions of the DAW – First (free with a streamlined feature set), Pro Tools (for want of a better word, a “standard” version) and Ultimate (the big daddy, with a focus on demanding music and post productions).
As a system for working with digital audio, Pro Tools stands apart for several reasons. Other DAWs like FL Studio and Ableton Live have strong identities attached to specific genres and offer an environment that’s more conducive to music production from scratch.
Pro Tools made its name on the strength of widespread adoption in the recording studio. As such, there are no big-name Pro Tools endorsers – the brand itself is synonymous with the process of recording and editing audio. It’s bigger than any single personality.
This could explain the approach taken by Pro Tools toward its development. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the prevailing mantra. Considering the lasting success of Pro Tools, it’s hard to argue with this sentiment.