At Pro Tools Expert we get a lot of emails to the Pro Tools Expert Podcast each week from users asking us to advise them on buying a Pro Tools system - this often includes what computer and what interface to buy. Here are our 6 top tips to consider when buying a Pro Tools system. This article has been updated after being first published in 2013.
Buying An Avid Pro Tools System? Then Read This First
Pro Tools has some unique requirements that some other popular DAWs like Logic Pro X, Studio One 3 Professional and Cubase in that many Pro Tools users will want to take advantage of Pro Tools HDX or HD Native cards.
Windows PC users have an almost limitless choice for a Pro Tools computer; there is no shortage of Windows-based computers that can accommodate Pro Tools HDX and HD Native PCIe cards.
Apple users have a harder job if they want to use Pro Tools HDX or HD Native PCIe cards and DigiLink audio interfaces. Newer Apple computers like the Apple Mac Pro Late 2013 ‘Trash-can’ and Apple laptops do not have any way of using a PCIe card so need to consider using an expansion chassis connected via Thunderbolt. Expansion chassis can accommodate PCIe cards so are a favourite for Pro Tools users. You can also use an expansion chassis to host older UAD cards for use with UAD powered plug-ins.
If you choose to run Pro Tools with a native audio interface using a protocol like Thunderbolt, USB or FireWire then you have a much greater choice of computer both on Mac and Windows. Thunderbolt is fast becoming the standard protocol for audio interfaces. Whilst this is a single standard on Mac computers Windows users have do not have the luxury of Thunderbolt working across all Windows computers and so this has meant audio interface manufacturers have supported Thunderbolt on Mac, but Windows computer users have seen a slower roll-out of Thunderbolt-equipped audio interfaces they can use.
You can also consider using an interface that connects to your computer using audio over IP and connects via a standard ethernet connection.
Should You Choose A Mac or Windows for Pro Tools?
This article is not about telling you to choose a Mac or Windows computer, some of the Pro Tools Expert team use Macs, and some use Windows computers. We think our job is to try and present you with the facts about both Mac and Windows and then let you decide which platform is best for you.
Generally, a Windows computer is going to give you more computer for your money, Macs on the whole cost more than a comparable Windows computer. What Apple offer with their integrated software and hardware ecosystem is compatibility, as outlined above this helps when third party manufacturers need to support protocols like Thunderbolt.
If you are looking for advice on buying a computer for audio recording with Pro Tools, then we have lots of advice from both Pro Tools professionals and Pro Tools enthusiasts about getting the best Pro Tools computer for you.
Independent Advice On Buying A Pro Tools Computer
We are not tied to any particular platform so you can find open-minded advice on both Mac and Windows PC for Pro Tools. We don't sell anything either so that you can be sure of impartial advice from the largest independent Pro Tools user community in the world - even better all our Pro Tools computer information is completely free.
Avid Approved Computers For Pro Tools
If you are looking for a list of Windows computers approved for Pro Tools then Avid, the makers of Pro Tools, have produced a list of approved Pro Tools windows computers.
Community Advice On Pro Tools Computers
Lastly, this is a user community so if you would like to send in your thoughts and experiences of buying or building a Pro Tools computer then contact us with your buying a Pro Tools computer tips and tricks.
Buy The Pro Tools System You Need Tomorrow Not The One You Need Today
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when buying a Pro Tools system is to buy it for the needs you have now, if you do this and don’t account for any growth then you will soon be thinking about upgrading the interface, the computer, the memory or your hard drive, if not all of them.
So you need to think carefully about what you think you will need in the future. If you are a singer songwriter and buy a Pro Tools audio interface with just an input for your guitar and your vocal microphone, then you’ll kicking yourself if you join a band, or if your local church or school wants to record their event on your Pro Tools system. You can even consider how buying a better system could help pay for itself, by offering to hire yourself out for recording bands and other local events.
This thinking extends to every part of the Pro Tools system you buy, since Pro Tools 11 Pro Tools is 64 bit it can take advantage of the extra memory for plug-ins and especially virtual instruments, so max out the RAM. One thing to be careful of is that some vendors, including Apple will charge a premium for things like extra memory, so shop around and visit some online vendors like Crucial, you could save a packet. The same applies to hard drives, which in most cases are easy to retrofit and there are plenty of online tutorials to show you how if you are not sure.
Find A Good Dealer Who Understands What You Are Looking For And Who Will Look After You
Another regular topic on the podcast are questions about support and after sales care, yes you may be able to find an Mbox Pro very cheaply from a supplier on the internet, but what happens when it goes wrong, or you need help? A good dealer will be able to help you and take care of you. They have connections into the brands like Avid that are not available on line, so do consider where you are going to buy your equipment and software from as well as what you want to buy. If you are confident that you know what you are doing then maybe the saving you can get by shopping around on line are worth having, but if you are less confident then consider using a good and reliable dealer with the slightly higher prices, a premium worth paying for the security of having that support and after sales service that good dealers provide. Some of the best dealers around advertise with us so make sure you click their banners and contact them.
Buy A Computer That Works For Audio
It is tempting to think that you can save money when building your Pro Tools system by buying a cheap computer. To save money these machines have to cut corners somewhere, this may be in the quality of components or by using integrated designs and chips, these kind of chips do more than one job rather than dedicated processes. Computers have come a long way, but to get all the stuff inside a Mac Mini or inside a PC laptop means even if the parts are all good they are still not made for all day long intense processing.
Now some of you are geeks and can build a PC in your sleep, if that’s the case then there’s some bargains to be had by buying the component parts and building your own Frankenstein machine, some of these custom built PCs could power the Space Shuttle.
Make Sure Your Pro Tools System Has Future Proof Connectivity
Visit the home or studio of anyone who has been recording for any length of time and you’ll find a box, or in some cases a room, filled with cables and peripherals that were once the standard way to move audio or data. You won’t find a long term audio professional worth their salt that won’t have at least a SCSI drive or some kind of old cable system that needs to be sent to audio heaven. Nostalgia does seem to paint a better picture of all our past purchases that didn’t go on for the decades we hoped.
Whilst there is no such thing as a completely future proof connector, their are some ways you can ensure you protect yourself. Make sure any computer you buy has mixed connectivity for the peripherals, such as USB, Firewire and Thunderbolt. You should try and avoid at all costs any manufacturer proprietary connectors, these are less common these days, but still take care to make sure that the graphics, audio and peripherals connectors are all standard ones.
Your audio interface should have both jack and XLR connectors and if possible connectors that allow for audio expansion, such as ADAT lightpipe, SPDIF and if you are serious about clocking then a way to add external clocking devices. Also consider how many headphone connectors you may need in the future, if you buy a Pro Tools interface with just one headphone socket then you might find yourself sitting in silence every time you come to track a vocalist in your studio.
Since Pro Tools 9 - there is no longer the requirement to buy Avid hardware to use Pro Tools, this means you are free to buy any Core Audio interface for a Mac or ASIO audio interface for a PC.
Pro Tools HD Or Pro Tools?
This is one of the most common questions we get at Pro Tools Expert, what will a Pro Tools HD or HDX system give you that a regular Pro Tools system won’t?
In a nutshell, Pro Tools HD and HDX offers two things. Firstly almost zero latency monitoring of the audio when recording, this is the time it takes for the computer to process the audio and then pass it back for you to hear, Secondly it offers higher track counts before you get the dreaded error messages. Thankfully Pro Tools 12 has made the error messages due to running out of power less likely with Commit and Track Freeze.
However, in order to take advantage of Pro Tools HD or HDX power you need to be using DSP based plug-ins, not native plug-ins. Very few virtual instruments are DSP based plug-ins and so they can’t use the power of Pro Tools HD/HDX chips, they will work just as they would on a regular Pro Tools system. You will get some power gains if your other Pro Tools plug-ins are using the Avid DSP chips, but if you are mainly using virtual instrument plug-ins then a HD/HDX system may not be the best system for you. If you are running Pro Tools HDX then you can check out our AAX Database to see which plug-ins are available in AAX DSP format as well as AAX Native format. In some cases if you use a lot of virtual instruments then you might want to consider a second dedicated computer running Vienna Ensemble Pro 5 over ethernet as your instrument host, this may be a better way to spend money and get you more bang for your buck.
If you are working on sessions with big track counts such as large audio recordings, TV, film or gaming then Pro Tools HD is worthy of serious consideration. A Pro Tools HDX system with just one card is going to give you some serious horsepower, allowing for low latency tracking and higher track counts, it’s also worth remembering that if you work with sound to picture then latency is going to be a killer for trying to work with audio and picture sync. It would make ADR or foley work almost impossible.
The good news is that Pro Tools 11 and 12 with the new 64 bit audio engine and AAX plug-in architecture has given those not able to afford or with a wish to buy a Pro Tools HDX system, a serious power boost, in many cases a standard Pro Tools system on a powerful computer is going to be more than enough for your needs. Of course for those who may need a bit more than a regular Pro Tools system, but not a full blown HDX rig there is the Pro Tools HD Native system offering more power but at a fraction of the cost.
Buy The Best You Can Afford
Always our golden rules on the team, and this applies to both amateur and professionals.
- Buy the best system you can afford.
- Never get into serious debt when buying gear.
For those just using Pro Tools as a hobby, debt is never a good thing, the only time gear increases in value is if you wait around 20 years for it to become ‘vintage’ - this seldom happens with software and audio interfaces.
Consider buying second hand there are some excellent deals to be had on eBay so if you don’t mind someone else paying for the depreciation on the gear then you can grab a bargain.
If you make money from using Pro Tools, then consider buying the best you can but remember as an overhead it has to pay for itself. Consider it lasting three years as a business investment and then calculate what it needs make for you on a monthly basis to pay for itself and also return a profit to your business. The biggest myth one can be told when an eager salesman is trying to sell you a $100,000 Pro Tools system is that you can write it off against tax. That is often true, but you have to be making enough profit to have a tax bill in the first place and a $100,000 tax bill is huge! As my Dad always says when it comes to spending money in a business ‘profit is what you don’t spend!’
We hope this handy Pro Tools buying guide has helped both home enthusiast and professional alike, buying a Pro Tools system can sometimes seem like a minefield, but if you consider the points above then you should get the Pro Tools system you need and one that will grow with your hobby or your business.