When Avid announced Pro Tools First in January there was some initial hustle and bustle at the thought of a free version of their flag ship product, Pro Tools. However once details of the restrictions emerged, some of the shine was lost from what could have been a great product. Furthermore the long wait for the first people to get copy of Pro Tools First (nearly 6 months to the day) also meant the initial excitement was lost. However Pro Tools Expert now have a copy of Pro Tools First and wanted to take a look and see what it was like.
On the Avid web site Avid say who Pro Tools First is aimed at:
"Singers, songwriters, and musicians who are new to audio recording, or musicians who have always wanted to try Pro Tools"
What I want to make clear is that my desire is not, as some would have you believe, to 'trash everything that Avid do' especially with this review, there's been a long time for me to take a look at this version of Pro Tools, for other team members to do the same, discuss our findings and then consider the best way to convey those findings in a fair and reasonable way.
As I have already said the concept of a free version of Pro Tools is brilliant and long overdue. I remember having breakfast in London with one of the Avid team a long time ago who told me that a free version of Pro Tools was coming and how excited I was at the thought of this revitalising Pro Tools for a new generation of users.
Getting Pro Tools First
I signed up for a copy in the first hour of the announcement and finally got the invitation on June 20th. However it took another week to get the link to work, eventually the link took me to the right page instead of insisting I go right back at the start of the sign-up process, a number of other users have reported the same experience to Pro Tools Expert.
Once you get to the sign-up page you need to either use an existing Avid account or create a new one, and then give them your iLok ID. Consequently, you will also need an iLok account and the iLok software installed on your machine but YOU DO NOT NEED A PHYSICAL ILOK USB STICK to use Pro Tools First - note the caps there for those skim reading this before running off to a forum to post their outrage at needing an iLok. Pro Tools First uses iLok protection software but not iLok hardware. I hope I've cleared that one up.
Avid's insistence of using an extra layer of iLok protection (albeit software based) may be off-putting for some, after all to get the software you have create an Avid account (this is the same for getting the free version of Ableton Live and PreSonus Studio One Prime), so this extra hoop to have to jump through seems unnecessary - especially as it is free software.
It's ironic that getting to use Pro Tools First requires jumping through so many hoops. When the Avid CEO announced Pro Tools First in January 2015 he said that "We're tearing down the gates" - there still seems to be quite a few gates to get through to use Pro Tools First. It is worth also pointing out that you'll need an internet connection to get Pro Tools First and also one to use it in any meaningful way, as your projects can only be stored on Avid's servers and not locally on your machine. Pro Tools does however create a cache of the current project you are working in but that's simply a safety measure rather than a regular workflow.
Pro Tools First In Use
All that said, starting up Pro Tools First seemed pretty easy. If you are not logged into your Avid account then it will ask you to login, which I duly did. My experience was that you did not have to log in every time you used Pro Tools First so it's not like using a bank account on the web thankfully.
Once logged in, you have what appears to be a copy of Pro Tools, albeit feature limited, and you can see what you get in our chart below.
If you are used to using Pro Tools then Pro Tools First works in much the same way, the track count and some more professional features are missing but on the whole it works just like Pro Tools, so for someone wanting the Pro Tools experience then you will get it.
One highlight with Pro Tools First is the simplified Audio Engine and I/O settings, and you can read more about that here.
In terms of what you can do with Pro Tools First, if you are making music then you can use Xpand!2 (one of my favourite synths) to create drums, synths and other stuff via MIDI. You can also use any ReWire enabled application with Pro Tools First, so that means applications like Reason, Ableton, Plogue Bidule et al. It was ReWire that led us to find out how we could also use any AU and VST synth in Pro Tools First to circumvent the restriction that the only plug-ins you can use in Pro Tools First are ones that you purchase from the Avid Marketplace, which at the time of writing is still pretty sparse. Pro Tools First also ships with 20 plug-ins that include EQ3 and Dyn3 as well as Dverb and Mod DelayIII, plus some other utilities.
It is a surprise not to see Eleven Free in the bundle considering who Pro Tools First is aimed at, Avid may want to rethink that. You can add further plug-ins via the Avid Marketplace, some are bits of the Eleven Rack stomp boxes which could be used for tracking electric guitar, but having to pay for even one of those to record an electric guitar is in our opinion a miss. Furthermore this is at present a subscription not purchase option.
You still get things like Elastic Pitch and Time as well as the MIDI Realtime options so there is plenty for those wanting to manipulate audio and MIDI in Pro Tools First. You also get the option to use the included Plug-ins in AudioSuite mode.
You get the Mix, Edit and MIDI Editor windows but no score editing features, however there is a Send To Sibelius feature which we assume allows you to send MIDI parts to Sibelius for scoring.
Of course you also get to record, edit and mix multiple channels of audio, four maximum at the same time. Audio, such as loops can be imported into Pro Tools as well as MIDI files. Audio can be exported both in realtime and offline, MIDI can also be exported. However there is no MP3 export option for sharing your songs.
Pro Tools First was on the whole stable, although there were a couple of crashes whilst using it on my Mac Pro 6,1 running OS X 10.10.3 with 32gb of RAM, including a couple of usual 'not enough power' messages.
All in all, the actual experience of Pro Tools First is much the same as the 'real' version of Pro Tools for those wanting to see what using Pro Tools is like. This as we said above was one of the reasons that Avid created Pro Tools First, so on that score it delivers.
Those reading this are probably waiting for the 'but' in this review, sadly there is one and it's a big one that could have been so easily avoided and that is the limitations placed on Pro Tools First.
Limitations are to be expected on any free version of an application, you'll find them in Studio One Prime or Ableton Live, but what puzzles the Pro Tools Expert team is that Avid have chosen to create limitations in Pro Tools First that take it from being a moment of Avid genius to a moment of oh no! - We guess driven by Avid's desire to get everyone on the Avid cloud. Set aside things like storing your projects on the Avid servers instead of locally, set aside the fact you have to re-buy plug-ins you already own from the Avid Marketplace, set aside the restrictions that you will also find in PreSonus Studio One Prime and you are still left with the most puzzling and deal-breaking restriction and that is you can't open a Pro Tools session in Pro Tools First and you can't open a Pro Tools First session in another version of Pro Tools. Now there has been some talk that this will be possible via the Avid cloud but we can't state that as fact, we certainly haven't seen it and it's not possible in the current version, so we have to go with what we know right now.
On the Avid Pro Tools First FAQs page Avid say:
Q. My friend has sent me a standard Pro Tools session file to work on, can I use Pro Tools | First for working on this session?
A. No. You cannot import or export a Pro Tools session file with associated media with Pro Tools | First. You can import or export audio files. Once Cloud Collaboration becomes available you will be able to collaborate online with other Pro Tools 12, Pro Tools | HD 12, or even with other Pro Tools | First users.
That one restriction takes Pro Tools First from being an absolutely brilliant idea and a must-have for anyone wanting a free DAW to being a DAW that some people might use just to see what Pro Tools is like.
We won't compare Pro Tools First to Garageband as you need a big hardware dongle to use that free DAW, it's called a Mac. We won't compare Pro Tools First to REAPER, because despite what many people think REAPER is not a free DAW, just used by lots of people that way. However we can compare Pro Tools First to Studio One Prime and on that feature alone Studio One Prime is the winner. You can open a Studio One session in Studio One Prime and a Studio One Prime session in any version of Studio One, no cloud required. So if you are a singer songwriter and you put down some tracks and want to then take it to a friend or a Studio using Studio One Professional then you can, we've tried it both ways and it is really elegant.
The reason I got Pro Tools in the first place was that I knew I could create my ideas at home and then take them to almost any studio and carry on working. I spent a lot of money investing in my first Digi 001 system simply to have that benefit, with Pro Tools First that benefit is not available. As we stated in our 5 Things Worth Knowing About Pro Tools First article you can export the stems as audio and do it that way, but to be honest at that point you can bring the audio into any other DAW of your choosing and the Pro Tools workflow edge has been lost.
One can't help think that some of Avid's product feature decisions are driven by fear rather than faith, let me explain. A faith driven product philosophy thinks that people are going to use your product and love it so much that they will buy other products made by the same brand, they'll not only use the free stuff but pay for the other stuff. It's what they call in marketing 'the halo effect' coined around the time of the iPod and iPhone. They will be so amazed, wowed, enchanted (Guy Kawasaki has a whole book on it) that they will do anything to own the products the brand makes - just like I did was when I first invested in Pro Tools. A fear driven philosophy thinks that people are simply going to use the free stuff and not bother with the paid for stuff, or not see the value in some of the paid for stuff, for example HDX hardware and just buy the software for the features. It's really boils down to how much you believe in what you are selling, or in this case giving away.
'Industry Standard' is a term that is quoted by many about Pro Tools, what this really means is you can go to 99.9% of studios with your Pro Tools session and carry on working, or bring your session from the big studio home and carry on working, albeit with some of the big expensive plug-ins not working on your home system. Pro Tools got a great reputation for many reasons, but that one 'industry standard' feature alone has been the reason so many studios, musicians and producers invested a lot of money in Pro Tools - session compatibility. Granted Pro Tools is missing some features that many other newer DAWs have that are attracting a new generation of music makers, but the ace in the hand has always been the ability to share your session with anyone, especially the professionals - so why leave it out?
So in conclusion Pro Tools First had the potential to get a whole new generation of users on Pro Tools and start a recording journey with Avid, but these restrictions, especially the session interchange one make that far less likely. Even if this appears as a cloud feature then it's still not going to attract anywhere near as many to using it as it could have simply by sharing the files. One can't help feel that the Avid Everywhere vision has become a restricting dogma that has in turn, crippled Pro Tools First.
It is a free version of Pro Tools that I feel sure many people will use in some way or other, but sadly (and I really mean that) the likelihood of Pro Tools First converting people to Pro Tools in the kind of numbers Avid needs has been scuppered. Avid should have taken a leaf out of PreSonus' book when it comes to session interchange and then Pro Tools First could have been seen on nearly every music making computer on the planet.
Avid Pro Tools First - Reasons To Try
- The Pro Tools experience
- Lots of features remain from full version of Pro Tools
- Same streamlined two window workflow that makes Pro Tools so easy to use
- Same audio editing that Pro Tools excels at
- Excellent AAE and I/O set-up that should be available in all versions of Pro Tools for this wanting a simplified set-up.
Avid Pro Tools First - Reasons To Pass
- Cloud only storage for projects
- You can't open Pro Tools session in Pro Tools First
- You can't open Pro Tools First session in Pro Tools
- You may have to buy AAX plug-ins you own again to use in Pro Tools First
- No guitar VI
|Pro Tools First||Studio One Prime|
|Maximum simultaneous audio tracks||16||Unlimited|
|Audio recording (maximum simultaneous tracks)||4||2|
|Project Storage||Cloud only||Local|
|Maximum Sample Rate Supported||32 bit 96Khz||32 Bit 192Khz|
|Maximum I/O||4||2 + 2|
|ASIO and Core Audio||Yes||Yes|
|Supported Plug-ins||AAX Marketplace||Native Effects|
|AU and VST Support||No||No|
|Instruments||Xpand2||Presence XT Sampler|
|Time and Pitch Stretching||Yes||Yes|
|Automatic Delay Compensation||Yes||Yes|
|Open Pro Tools Sessions in Pro Tools First?||No||N/A|
|Open Pro Tools First Sessions In Pro Tools?||No||N/A|
|Open Studio One Sessions In Studio One Prime?||N/A||Yes|
|Open Studio One Prime Sessions In Studio One?||N/A||Yes|
|Drag and Drop Plug-ins||No||Yes|
|Touch Surface Compatible||No||Yes|