It should seem like such an innocuous idea but when we ran the article of upcoming changes coming in Pro Tools 2019 the response to one idea met widespread negativity. It seems the concept of Avid charging for users to buy or rent track count, dubbed by some as the 'Pro Tools Track Tax' has not gone down well. Looking at the comments to both our article and on Facebook, the concept of voice packs gets the thumbs down by many, but why?
Avid has increased the track count for all Pro Tools Ultimate users, whether you have the standalone Ultimate software without any Avid hardware, or an HD Native system with Pro Tools Ultimate of an HDX1 system again with Ultimate. All Pro Tools Ultimate users will get 384 voices instead of the existing 256 at NO EXTRA COST. If you have an HDX2 system you will get 768 voices, and if you have an HDX3 system you will get 1152 voices again at no extra cost when Pro Tools 2019 is released.
What Avid have done with Voice Packs is enable Ultimate users to get more voices in bundles of 128 to extend their system. For example, say you are an HD Native user and with Pro Tools 2019 you will have 384 voices as standard you now have, thanks to the likes of Netflix and Amazon, more and more Dolby Atmos projects coming in, that routinely come through your facility, where 384 voices still won’t be enough because of the increased track count that comes with Dolby Atmos productions. With Pro Tools 2019, you will be able to buy a voice pack or 2 to increase your overall track count, without having to invest in and HDX2 or HDX 3 system, that’s a huge saving. Yes, there will be a fee for this but it is enabling you to do the job and keep up with the changing workflows, compared to investing in an HDX system it is still much cheaper and that’s before we get into the debate of operational cost versus capital costs.
Or perhaps you are an FXs or foley editor with a standalone Ultimate software system and although 384 voices will be enough for most of the jobs coming across your desk, one job comes in that needs more voices. With Voice Packs, as Avid has explained it to us, even though you have a perpetual Pro Tools Ultimate license you will be able to rent a voice pack to get an extra 128 voices, for a short period of time to get you through this unexpectedly demanding job and then when its done, you stop renting the voice pack and drop back to your regular 384 voices, ie. you only pay for it when you need it.
There are so many other times in our industry when we come to a situation when we lack resources such as I/O, microphones, or outboard gear. we will happily rent in the extra things we need to get us past the bottleneck. So why is there a kick back to the concept of voice packs?
Studying the comments, it seems that a significant number of people voicing concern or annoyance about voice packs and Avid charging for extra tracks are from people who are kicking against the principle of charging for tracks. Or they are people for whom 256 or even 384 tracks is enough, so it is a point of principle and not something that will affect them in their daily work when using Pro Tools. Back in the days of studio hardware and 2” tape machines, we didn’t complain to Otari or Studer when we needed more than 24 tracks, we just rented in a second machine with a synchronizer and got on with it… and of course charged it to the job.
Avid have chosen a similar business model, but for some reason it doesn’t seem acceptable. Why is this?
Is it because other DAWs don’t put a ceiling on the maximum number of tracks? They choose to allow users to find their own ceiling, which is likely to be different for each user, because of the combinations and permutations each user has are huge and so specifying a ceiling is very hard to do unless you take the path Avid have chosen. Avid’s model is to approve a handful of systems through a comprehensive and time consuming testing process. It’s all in the detailed compatibility documentation that is on their website should you want to check it.
What this whole debate and reaction has shown is the long standing fault line in Avid’s product line and specs, that the maximum voice count especially in the HD hardware systems going all the way back to the concept, a physical limit. For example, the hardware in an HDX1 system and the time-division multiplexing had a finite limit that in a slot, you had a maximum number of voices that would fit. What this whole voice packs announcement has shown is what some had surmised was the case, that the software voice limit of 256 is not a hardware or system limit, but a marketing and business model limit. It could be argued that the jump of 256 to 384 voices could be down to improvements in the tech, after all Mike’s first HD system had a 16 voice maximum running with a Nubus card on an Apple PowerPC 66 MHz clock computer. Now we have much faster bussing around our computers and processors that are many orders of magnitude faster than his first Pro Tools HD system. However, if you will be able to take a voice pack and add another 128 voices to an HDX 1 system, then clearly the 256, shortly to be 384, voice limit cannot be a hardware/system limit, it must be a business model based limit after all.
It's such a shame for Avid to hit a kerb with this announcement, after all, they have worked tirelessly to earn back the trust of many loyal Pro Tools users. No one can argue that they haven't been giving the Pro Tools community sweeteners for the last two to three years, with more consistent updates, new features and lots of free stuff to boot. Who would want to return to the days of the Avid Pro Tools Facebook page looking like the homepage of a puppy torturer? Thankfully for everybody, those days are over, and Avid deserves credit for that, so this perceived misstep is indeed a shame, but it highlights an ongoing “fault line” that exists in the Pro Tools product family. That is selling both a Native and DSP version of the software.
Here's the problem, you can't give to native users what HD users can't get; furthermore you can't give to native users something better. HD is the premium product, and yet at times, it presents Avid with philosophical product development problems, for example; Track Freeze. To implement Track Freeze in a native DAW is far easier than to do it in a DSP platform. We have it on good authority from many past Avid Pro Tools developers that track freeze was working natively for a significant time before it was released for both platforms, but if you think the 'Track Tax' idea has created some bad PR for Avid, imagine the shit storm if native users had got Track Freeze before HD and HDX owners. And so for years Avid had to sit and watch the constant barrage of comments citing track freeze in every DAW on the planet. Included by Apple et al to deal with the limitations of native processing power, may we add, not as some great feature. Track Freeze was the workaround that became the most requested feature.
So a core philosophy is that native users can't benefit from anything HD owners don't. Let's be clear this isn't based on some dogma motivated by a financial imperative, it's what the English call 'fair play.' Avid is trying as hard as it can to keep two sides of a user base from tearing apart, just like a house sitting on a fault line. You know there's the potential for an earthquake so you do everything you can to ensure the house is ready if/when it comes... and pray! Hindsight would say that you shouldn’t build a house on a fault line, but Avid made a business decision to invest in DSP and it paid off for many years, it is only more recently that computers have started to offer the power that means the need for DSP is less than it used to be in audio production.
DSP has been such a benefit for Avid over the years, it helped propel Pro Tools and Avid into the industry standard DAW position, and despite what you may read some bedroom keyboard warrior writing in a forum or on social media, Pro Tools is still the industry standard. But as we have already pointed out there are two sides to the coin, on the other side of the coin is the recurrent headache of reconciling the DSP/Native users as development continues.
This DSP/Native problem is why there is no mileage in the argument that suggests removing the track count in Pro Tools. That could be done overnight for native owners, but HD/HDX owners have voice restrictions placed on them by the hardware... the hardware that is meant to benefit them... you see the problem? So what powers many top studios in the world and gives them near-zero latency and massive track counts is also the thing that gives Avid one huge product development headache.