Pro Tools Essential Bundles for under £100 and you get a mic free!!

By Jim Wright

Before you cancel the leasing on your new HD system perhaps I should explain more.

Pro Tools essentials are Avids entry level packages and come in 3 flavours
Keystudio packaged with a 49 key USB keyboard
Recording studio with Fast Track interface from M-Audio
Vocal studio with a Neumann like USB mic.

vocalStudioMontage

They are aimed at the home enthusiast but I don’t think it will be long before they find their way on to tour buses and into superstars hotel rooms! Now the bad news, you will still have to pay up for your HD rig if you want ‘full on’ Pro Tools. In the Essentials version tracks are limited to 16 audio, 8 instrument and 8 midi. Routing options are pretty basic with 3 inserts per track and only 2 audio inputs and outputs. But the biggest restriction has to be the lack of multitrack recording, however, at this price I don’t think you can complain. Who would have thought you could buy a Pro Tools system for under £100 with the same basic layout as its £25,000 professional siblings. Avid have made a huge leap by attaching the Pro Tools name to a product range which can now take ‘the budding musician’ from bedroom to world class recording studio, on pretty much the same platform. This marks a major change from other manufacturers, like Apple, who have split entry level offerings from premium professional products, as they did with Garage Band and Logic.

So down to business – Is the kit any good?

Overall, yes, I think it is. Let’s start with Vocal studio. The USB mic allows for 24bit/48K recording and has a nice clean sound. It’s no Neumann, but then it doesn’t cost £2000! One unfortunate thing is that it doesn’t have a balanced audio output, just the USB connection. It would have been nice to be able to plug it into a regular desk for flexibility. The level from the headphone socket is adequate and there is a nice blue LED to show you it’s switched on and what side you should be singing into, very handy after a few drinks! Come on who hasn’t gone round the wrong side of a C414!!

As with all the packages you need to have the hardware plugged into your PC or Mac otherwise Pro Tools doesn’t want to come out and play. This hardware dongle situation can be a pain but, this is the way all Pro Tools systems work and you can’t blame Avid for trying to protect their investment. Installing the drivers and software was fairly straightforward and uneventful with the exception of not being able to choose which drive you wanted to load it on to. (You can pick any drive once its C:).

The other slightly strange thing and it may be just my system, but I couldn’t convince the software to use my sound card for playback, it only wanted to use the headphone socket on the microphone. It would be nice if you have a decent soundcard and speakers, to be able to use them. The only other issue I came across on a forum was some conflict with IE 8 so not a big deal. Mac wise I would follow the usual Pro Tools mantra of not doing automatic upgrades of the operating system, or Pro Tools itself because it’s just not going to work out well. Basic rules apply. Check release notes of the latest update on Pro Tools website before making any changes to your operating system.

Once up and running Pro Tools has a useful range of pre programmed templates for a variety of situations covering podcasting to heavy metal guitar band, which the newbie should find very useful. It is here where the balancing act begins. As an entry level product, there is a very steep learning curve to be climbed for the beginner. There are lots of knobs and buttons to learn but on the other hand the user will be trained on software used in the world’s best studios which could be kind of handy! You pay your money and take your choice.

Running through the different menus you do come across quite a few items with little icons at the side which send you to buy a $299 upgrade. This can be a bit frustrating but you do get a decent amount of plugins for EQ, dynamics etc and overall everything you need to get a reasonable mix is provided in the package.

One nice addition hidden away in the install disc is the Torque Virtual DJ deck software which connects via the magic known as “Rewire” straight into Pro Tools without a patch cable in sight. So for all of you bedroom DJ’s out there you can have access to some very serious production technology for the price of a few CD’s

The unweighted keyboard provided with the keystudio package is fine and feels pretty well constructed and comfortable to play. There is a socket for a sustain pedal (not Included) and Midi connection is via USB which also provides the power to the unit. A micro USB interface for connecting a microphone and headphones completes the set. As a little bonus you can use this keyboard with Garage band if that rocks your boat but when you get 60+ virtual instruments with the Pro Tools software I don’t know why you would bother. I shall wait for the hail storm of email from Garage band fans!
Finally the recording studio interface is the previously released “Fast Track” unit which allows for instrument and line level input on TRS jack and a balanced XLR input for microphones. No phantom power though. Again you have the option of 16 or 24bit operation at 44.1 or 48Khz and you get plenty of level from the headphone socket on the front. In addition there is also a pair of RCA jacks so you can connect to a decent amp and monitors. Abbey Road watch out!!

So should you buy it? For under £100 you get a recording system which would have made the Beatles wet themselves… So what are you waiting for? Price is no longer a limiting factor to serious audio creativity and you could be a step closer to working in the worlds best studios. Have you used Pro Tools before? Hell yeah!!