Pro Tools HD changed everything. There was a time when recording audio with a computer was hard; there were many weak links in the recording chain. Computers were not up to the task of delivering high-quality audio at near zero latency. Tape and consoles had many drawbacks, but latency was not one of them.
Avid's idea to use dedicated DSP to deliver high-quality audio was a breakthrough; it meant professionals recording studios could have all the advantages of using a computer based DAW with few drawbacks. Mike's first Pro Tools rig was a Mac 7100/66 with a Nubus TDM system that offered 16 tracks of real-time zero latency processing on a 66MHz clock machine back in the late 1990s!
Think of any top studio, sound stage, TV studio, in fact, any professional audio facility and our money is they use a Pro Tools HD rig. Pro Tools HD and latterly Pro Tools HDX has been the industry standard recording system for the last 15 years, at least, if not longer.
For this reason, Pro Tools HD has been the crown jewels in the Avid audio portfolio of products, and for a good reason, there's been nothing like it. For many years Pro Tools HD/HDX has been the turbo in Avid's audio development kit.
As already said, the DSP in Pro Tools HD was necessary when it came to market; native computer processing was just not up to the job and in some cases that is still the case. On the other hand native computers started to catch up.
Some companies like Steinberg and C-Lab had already been making music sequencer and audio recording software for some years. Applications like Pro 24 and Creator/Notator based around computers like the Atari ST and Commodore 64, but as computers like the Mac began to get more powerful, then other companies joined the market, developing music and audio production software.
Suddenly products like Cubase and Logic Pro were harnessing the faster computing power and peripherals and offering respectable performance without the need for any additional DSP. They also offered features that Pro Tools did not, sometimes to deal with the restrictions of native computers - for example, track freeze - some think of it as a luxury, for these underpowered DAWs it was a necessity.
Enter Pro Tools Native Stage Right
Avid saw the change in the market and responded with their native based versions of Pro Tools, such as Pro Tools LE, based around a Digi 001, or the early Mbox. These systems were a hit; Pro Tools was regarded as an aspirational recording product costing tens of thousands of pounds, and now anyone with a reasonably powered computer and a much smaller investment could join the Pro Tools club. It was a smart move by Digidesign/Avid, after all, if you can't beat them then join then and with the kudos of Pro Tools HD, then selling Pro Tools native systems was a cinch.
Avid was getting two bites of the cherry, with Pro Tools HD and Pro Tools Native - there didn't seem to be any downsides for them.
Over the coming years, Pro Tools continued to dominate the professional audio industry. Firstly, Digidesign/Avid were using the native version of Pro Tools to equip professional musicians and engineers who did not need the power of HD. Secondly, they were also weaning the next generation of recording engineers on Pro Tools, with the hope that 'once a Pro Tools user always a Pro Tools user.'
Things Just Got Harder
But this plurality did not come without a cost, while the Pro Tools software is to all intents and purposes the same, making things happen under the hood of Pro Tools is more complicated to do with two different systems.
For example, until the arrival of the AAX format, Pro Tools plug-ins were based on the DSP-powered TDM architecture for Pro Tools HD and the RTAS format for Pro Tools native systems. This difference meant that sometimes plug-ins were available in HD-TDM but not RTAS, even worse, some third party developers offered an RTAS version and not the TDM version. For them, it was easier and less costly to develop native plug-ins, and some developers decided the costs were not worth it. This decision created a disparity, and not always favouring owners of expensive Pro Tools HD systems. Of course, Pro Tools HD could run RTAS plug-ins but in the same way as a Pro Tools native system, thus reducing the benefit of owning a Pro Tools HD system. If anyone wanted to work using virtual instruments then most of the time your HD DSP based system was not going to add any benefit to your workflow.
With the introduction of the AAX format, Avid declared that parity had come to plug-in architecture in Pro Tools, a single format for both HD and native Pro Tools systems. The AAX format development was promoted suggesting that if a developer made an AAX native plug-in, then the process of making the DSP version was almost the same. However as time passed and developers released their AAX plug-ins, it became apparent that this was not the case. Not only did it take more time for AAX DSP plug-ins to appear than it did AAX native, in many cases third-party developers of some of the most used TDM plug-ins simply dropped support for them in the AAX DSP format. Newer developers started to make AAX plug-ins for Pro Tools users, but many of them avoided the AAX DSP format altogether, for them the return of investment just did not warrant the development costs.
Native Computers Bite Back
At this point in the story, it is perhaps a good point to bring the humble native computer back into the narrative. While all this Pro Tools development was playing out computer development had not stood still, in fact, it had powered ahead. Computer processors, memory, and storage had all got faster and cheaper. New connection protocols arrived too such as FireWire 800 and USB2, and more recently Thunderbolt and USB3. The native computer is far from humble today; it has grown up into something far more powerful.
What Pro Tools HD had been designed to deal with, was less of a problem for many people using a DAW. In many cases, those using computers for recording audio felt that the benefit of HD outweighed the investment.
What developers of other DAWs like Logic Pro X, Cubase and Studio One realised was that both the power of native computing and newer ways to build software applications started to make developing those apps easier than using a proprietary DSP architecture. This agility meant that systems once regarded as less professional as Pro Tools suddenly had features the industry standard Pro Tools did not have. It's no surprise the code that Pro Tools is written with is deep. Avid may have worked hard to update much of the legacy code, but one of the selling points of Pro Tools, backwards compatibility, means that coding anything for Pro Tools is a lot harder than it is for many of the competing DAWs that carry less coding, legacy and compatibility baggage.
At the same time, developers of third-party plug-ins were making native versions of their products for other DAWs, which on the whole used the VST and Audio Units (AU) format. Making an AAX version was a much simpler effort in terms of time and financial investment than making a DSP version was. For many developers as long as their plug-in performed the same natively across the formats then they were happy enough, AAX DSP development was a bridge too far, and so many chose not support the DSP format.
Not only had software technology made significant development strides but hardware interfaces had too. When Avid eventually allowed Pro Tools owners to use third party interfaces from companies like Focusrite, Universal Audio and RME then inevitably many choose to opt for them. Like the software, many third party interfaces offered more features for less money, and ingenious ways were developed to provide low latency recording, in some cases and somewhat ironically using DSP to solve the problem!
If it was hard for third party developers, then it was certainly no easier for Avid to develop for what was effectively two different Pro Tools systems, HD and native. They were not only hampered by the additional technical and financial pressures but also the added political one. If you sell two different systems, and one is more costly and perceived as the professional one, then any feature you develop must be on the more expensive one; exclusively, before the native version, or at least at the same time.
DSP Isn't A Bad Idea
And here comes the punch line, it is often harder to develop features for DSP than it is for native - for example, track freeze. So even if you can make a feature work in Pro Tools native, if it does not work in Pro Tools HD then it's unlikely to be released until it works in both systems.
You may have heard me use the phrase "Avid have painted themselves into a corner" on podcasts over the last few years, it is for this very reason. Pro Tools HD's DSP architecture was once the turbo that powered Avid's development but it some cases it has become the anchor for the Avid development team.
Every Pro Tools development decision has to consider the time, cost AND the politics question. The question is not just 'can we develop it?' but 'can we develop it for HD?' When you start to consider this equation then you realise that Avid have a difficult, if not impossible, road to walk when developing Pro Tools. This dilemma is made even harder when other brands like Apple, PreSonus, and Steinberg are knocking out updates and features at a rapid pace. If you get frustrated seeing other DAWs getting more powerful features than Pro Tools, then you can be sure the team at Avid feel the frustration a million time more. It's like running a marathon with a heavy rucksack on your back and seeing many others running past you - if only you could just drop the backpack, then you could run so much faster.
The next time you stop and consider Avid's development achievements for Pro Tools, taking into account these challenges, it's a bleeding miracle they manage to make most things happen at all. It takes longer, costs more and is a lot harder to do.
Does this make Pro Tools HD irrelevant? Some would claim that, but we don't think so. We still believe that until someone figures out how to defy the laws of physics in a native computer then if people want near-zero latency monitoring then they need to use DSP solutions. DSP isn't a bad idea if it were, then companies like Waves and Universal Audio would not be investing in developing their own platforms.
But a DSP solution comes at a cost, and an even higher one when you have two user groups to keep happy and there are no easy answers. You might be thinking, 'how did they get into this situation?' if so then start reading this article again. What Digidesign and then Avid did by developing Pro Tools HD was a smart and the right move at the time, it is simply the case that over time technology has moved on and now given Avid's developers one giant headache. Any sensible person is going to realise that Avid made the right decisions based on the data they had at the time - we may have the benefit of hindsight looking back over the last 15 years, but it would be unwise to judge them harshly based on this. It would be like judging NASA for the decisions they made when building their first rockets.
This problem only gets harder as time passes, new audio formats like Dolby Atmos and VR are emerging, and Avid is trying to respond to these, but within the development constraints they have.
A Blessing Or A Curse?
For the time being Avid continue to develop their flagship Pro Tools DSP based HDX system, if we want to continue to use it, then we have to be aware of the challenges it brings to development. Conversely, if we use a native version of Pro Tools, then you need to consider this too, for any feature to appear in Pro Tools, then it has to appear in HD as well as native.
Avid invested in DSP and for many years it paid off, many studios continue to use Pro Tools HD and HDX systems, in fact almost every top facility in the world and it's not changing anytime soon.
But when it emerged Pro Tools HD responded to a problem that is far less of an issue than it was at the time. Even worse for Avid, when it comes to developing Pro Tools, DSP used to be the answer, now it seems to be the challenge.