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Which Version of Pro Tools is Best to Buy?

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Whether you’re an experienced recording enthusiast or you’re putting together your first home studio, you’ll likely record, process and mix many of your tracks using audio editing software. Audio editing programs have become commonplace in professional studios and are generally known as DAWs, or digital audio workstations. For recording enthusiasts, DAWs provide a cost-effective means of creating tracks, podcasts and demos. Among the most widely used and popular of these audio editing suites is Pro Tools. Recording enthusiasts who are interested in jumping into home recording or who need to update their software will find flexible options in the Pro Tools line.

Evaluating Your Pro Tools Options

The first full version of Pro Tools was released in 1991 and ran $6,000 per copy. Originally designed to work exclusively on Apple computers and the Mac operating system, the program is now offered in a PC-compatible version. Recording enthusiasts who want to buy this powerful audio editing suite today have many more options than consumers did in the early ’90s. In addition to choosing from different software programs, shoppers must also choose from different product families within the Pro Tools line.

Before you shop, take some time to think about the recording tasks that you plan to handle on a regular basis. Think about the tools and capabilities that you need from a software suite in order to handle tasks efficiently. Those shoppers who are new to recording suites should watch online demos of the programs to get an idea of how each suite’s interface works. If possible, it’s also a great idea for shoppers to spend time interacting with Pro Tools at a software or music store.

Transitioning to Pro Tools from Other Studios

If you want to make the switch to Pro Tools from another DAW or audio editing program, you likely have special concerns about how well your knowledge of one program will translate to another. While it’s important to remember that there’s always a learning curve, Pro Tools boasts one of the most user-friendly, straightforward interfaces in the world of audio software. Users who work with other Mac programs, especially video editing programs like Final Cut Pro, will find the program’s tools and interface familiar.

Transitioning should also be relatively easy for those switching from other programs or for those who want to use Pro Tools on a PC for the first time. Because Avid was one of the first producers of music software, many of today’s audio editing suites are built with the same design sense and logic as Pro Tools. The program’s timeline in particular has been adopted as a standard style for many audio editing programs, making it easy to jump into with little training.

Choosing Between Pro Tools Software Families

Once you’ve determined your recording needs and have considered your previous experience with DAWs, you’ll be able to take an in-depth look at the Pro Tools family to determine which version of the program will best meet your demands. As you shop, remember that a wide variety of audio interfaces can also be used to enhance recording capabilities. Most of these interfaces come bundled with at least a basic version of Pro Tools. If you’re debating between two versions of the program, be sure to look at upgrade options for the most basic version. Avid does offer reduced-cost upgrades to some users who own older or lighter versions of Pro Tools.

Pro Tools 11

Pro Tools 11 is the current full, standard version of the program offered on the consumer market. This version of the program is considered professional grade and offers almost all of the tools and editing capabilities that most recording enthusiasts will need on a day-to-day basis. Pro Tools 11 supports 32 inputs and can record 96 tracks at 38 kHz. Determining the number of instruments or devices and tracks used for your everyday recording projects will help you decide if this version of Pro Tools offers enough power for your work. Pro Tools 11 also offers the following features and capabilities:

  • Loop recording and track comping
  • In-depth MIDI editing
  • Sibelius Score Editor
  • Elastic time and pitch
  • Beat recognition
  • Clip gain
  • MP3 export options
  • Offline bounce
  • Variable pan depths
  • Avid video engine

Pro Tools HD

Pro Tools HD is an extended version of the base program targeted primarily at professional studio users and experienced home recording engineers. This program is designed to be used with any of Avid’s external interfaces including the Mbox, Eleven Rack and Fast Track lines. This version of the program offers scalability, meaning that the maximum number of inputs and tracks can be increased and other extended capabilities can be added to allow for a professional-grade editing experience. This version of Pro Tools is recommended only for experienced users who already know what types of interfaces and plug-ins they’ll need to complete tasks.

Pro Tools HD offers all of the features listed for Pro Tools 11 plus the following features and capabilities:

  • Surround-sound mixing
  • Advanced metering
  • Track punch
  • Input monitoring
  • VCA mixing
  • Advanced audio editing, mixing and video editing capabilities
  • Support for all Avid and Pro Tools interfaces

Pro Tools Express

Built on the Pro Tools 10 model, Pro Tools Express is a light version of the program that offers basic tools and capabilities suited to amateur musicians and recording enthusiasts who are just learning their art. Aspiring musicians and recording engineers will find this version of the program a good jumping off point as it is inexpensive and offers a simplified version of the full Pro Tools timeline. It’s important to understand that Pro Tools Express is not offered for individual sale and must be purchased bundled with an Mbox or Fast Track device. Some third-party devices from M-Audio and Akai are also bundled with Pro Tools Express.

Pro Tools Express offers these basic features and capabilities:

  • Basic 16-track recording, editing and mixing
  • Loop recording and track comping
  • In-depth MIDI editing
  • Sibelius Score Editor
  • Elastic time and pitch
  • Automatic delay compensation

Weighing Your Options Side by Side

For the majority of recording enthusiasts, choosing the right version of Pro Tools is simple with a little knowledge. Use the chart below to compare the features of each program side by side so that you can determine whether or not a given build will meet your demands. Remember that some features are dependent upon external interfaces.

Pro Tools 11 Pro Tools HD Pro Tools Express
Simultaneous Tracks at 48 kHz 96 256 16
Maximum Inputs 32 192 Dependent on hardware
Maximum Instruments 128 256 8
MIDI Tracks 512 512 16
Maximum Sample Rate 32 bit, 192 kHz 32 bit, 192 kHz 32 bit, 96 kHz

Making the Most of Pro Tools

Buying the right version of Pro Tools ensures that recording engineers and enthusiasts of all experience levels can create professional-quality audio tracks. As you shop, remember to prioritize your own recording habits and needs. It’s also a good idea to make an inventory of all of the interfaces used for recording. This helps to ensure that you buy compatible software and that you know exactly which Avid interfaces can be paired with your software for maximum productivity and flexibility.

Helpful Resources:

Pro Tools 12 - Only $329 for Limited Time

Pro Tools 12 Professional Annual Subscription is no available for $329. Powerful music software that typically retails for around $599.