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RogueWave Studio - Music Production, Recording, Sound Design

Why is Pro Tools the industry standard in high end audio production?

I’ve never answered a question here before. But as a Pro Tools veteran of 21+ years who’s worked sessions for major artists from coast to coast, and as a former contributing editor for Recording Magazine, I feel pretty qualified to answer this one.

First of all, many people will be quick to tell you that Pro Tools is the industry standard because it was the first. While it’s true that it was the first, and while there’s no question that helped it establish an early foothold in the industry, that’s not the reason it has remained the tool of choice for high-end professionals. The reason is that it really is the best DAW on the market, and always has been.

Do not let people tell you that Pro Tools owes its industry status to simple market inertia. That’s just crazy. If a facility is investing a quarter million dollars in a Pro Tools system (not difficult to do), you can bet your ass they are investigating every possible alternative with a fine-tooth comb. When a company realizes it could buy FOUR full-blown Logic rigs for the price of a single PT rig, and still chooses Pro Tools, it’s not because they are mindless lemmings.

During my years at Recording, we staged several DAW “shootouts” on both Mac and PC, in which we would invite writers, hobbyists, and industry experts to compare them side by side, feature for feature. When pure features (and not price/costs of ownership) were considered, Pro Tools was the winner going away every time. There was usually a unanimous consensus on that. Nothing else even came close. Granted, it has been a few years since I was involved in that, but I strongly suspect this is still the case.

You asked for specifics. I can tell you that Pro Tools strongest advantages are in the following:

Multitrack audio editing (that is, applying edits to multiple tracks simultaneously). The PT features and workflow in this area are unequalled in the industry. It is simply faster, easier, and more productive by at least an order of magnitude. If you do this all day, every day, a Pro Tools system will pay for itself many times over just in increased productivity.

Digidesign/Avid invests millions in developing the absolutely best effects money can buy, and those effects run on a rock-solid DSP platform.

Speaking of hardware -- Digidesign’s dedicated hardware platform is second to none. They build world-class consoles, interfaces, etc. that are built specifically to run Pro Tools.

They only support systems that run on computers with exact specifications that they control. They won’t just let you slap Pro Tools into any off-the-shelf Mac you have lying around or can manage to snag off of eBay. This lets them design and build systems that are designed to run on specific hardware, and rigorously test those systems to ensure 100% compatibility.

Working with video and film. Digidesign consciously targeted the film industry very early on, and as such were really the only viable option if you needed to sync to picture. Once they were purchased by Avid, that focus became even stronger.

Surround-sound. This is closely related to the above. Pro Tools supports every conceivable surround-sound format, both in software and hardware, and has from the beginning.

The best dealer network. Digidesign doesn’t whore out Pro Tools. They don’t just let any Joe Blow with a credit card become a reseller. There is a rigorous dealer training and certification process, part of which requires you to know and support the product.

They stand behind their product. I purchased (and still own) one of their Control 24 consoles. When the silk-screening on it turned out to be bad (some of the labels were starting to rub off) they replaced the ENTIRE board. And when they changed the design to use a switching power supply, they retrofitted mine at no charge (they paid truck shipping both ways too).

The best reps and support engineers. They have dedicated reps (think “evangelists” in the software field) who will go anywhere and do anything to help a customer. I once worked in a studio where Digidesgn sent a tech representative to help us with an install, and the guy stayed for three weeks.

Granted, a lot of this stuff may not be important to you, especially if you’re a hobbyist or run a small commercial facility. But trust me, when you are shelling out well into six figures to outfit a room and paying engineers $100/hour to run it, it’s pretty important.

There are some areas where Pro Tools hasn’t traditionally been that strong. They were pretty slow early on with adopting MIDI features for example, and still lag in that area behind competing systems. I could probably thinkof a few others, but quite frankly none come to mind at the moment.

Be advised, all of my experience in this area is with Mac-based systems. I’ve never used or even seen Pro Tools run on a PC, so take that for what it’s worth.
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Warren Huart, the Fray, and API Go Number One!

Jessup, Maryland – March 2009:

Both engineer/producer Warren Huart and the popular group The Fray were no strangers to the great API sound when they purchased one of the first API 1608 small-frame analog consoles back in 2008 to record their second album entitled The Fray. This record has done nearly the impossible for most follow-ups: it went gold in five weeks and debuted number one on the Billboard record charts.

Originally from southeast England, recording engineer Warren Huart recorded The Fray's record from top to bottom. He is currently producing and engineering the new Better Than Ezra album and has worked recently with Sony artists August Ana and Howie Day. Huart comments, "I came to this country in 1995 and in 1999 the band I was in recorded an album with the legendary engineer/producer Dave Jerden at his Eldorado Studios. I loved the sound he got from recording everything using his rack of sixteen API microphone pre-amp cards he had pulled out of a console. He's known as an SSL guy, but he records everything though APIs."

In 2000, Huart partnered up with Phil Jaurigui at Swing House Studios in Hollywood, California. They had another brand of console and, as finances permitted, they started adding modules and more outboard gear to build up the studio's profile. Huart comments, "Our biggest step was to buy a real professional console. We realized it's the only way to break out of the demo studio world. We found a 20-input, 8-bus, 16-monitor '70s era API console and the differences have been enormous! There is a tremendous difference in sound between recording a kit of drums using a disparate collection of mic pre-amp modules, and recording the same kit using a console with its built-in pre-amps."

On The Fray's first album, Mike Flynn asked Huart to record drums on a song called "How To Save A Life." That song went on to be a huge hit with millions of downloads to date. They used the little API at Swing House to record the drum tracks. The Frays subsequently asked Huart to put together a Pro Tools rig to take on the road to record demos in preparation for their second album. Huart continues, "Look, if we're gonna do this, lets buy real pre-amps - not Mickey Mouse prosumer stuff - quality professional gear just in case you record something we'll want to use for the record. So we bought four API 3124 units - 16-channels of mic pre-amps."

When it came time to record the second album and after period of expensive and low productivity at a commercial studio in northern California, it seemed to make more economical sense to record at the band's studio in Denver, Colorado. Huart goes on, "But their studio had no console and I had heard good things about the 1608 - that had been out for only a few weeks - from drummer Hunter Crowley. I had only one question: Does it sound like a classic API console? I mix hot. So when you peg the meters does it still sound great? Well it does and so it was an easy sale."

Both Huart and the band considered buying a vintage model but as Huart says, "If we bought an old board, you're going to put $20K into it to get it usable. With the API 1608, we've got a real recording console with real mic pres, real EQs, bussing, professional monitoring facilities at a really good price. We didn't have cut off an arm or sell one of my kids to buy it. It sounds like my other API or any vintage API console."

The actual process of recording The Fray using the 1608 went smoothly due to Huart's clever use of the entire console. "The artist is happiest when everything is running as seamlessly as possible," he continues, "so I used absolutely every part of that board. There was not a single piece of that console that wasn't being used. We were patching all over the bloody place. I recorded from the direct outs to Pro Tools and I used the sixteen fader input channels to develop monitor mixes - which worked out well for the two producers, Mike Flynn and Aaron Johnson, to work freely on the monitor mixes. Headphone mixes, when tracking the band, were derived from the mic inputs. Those additional API 3124 units came in handy. I connected their outputs to the Echo Return inputs to mix microphones for top and bottom snare, toms and the front and back mics on guitar amps. I had thirty-two mic pre-amps running total and I had all the drum kit mics in front of me on the console where I love them."

If there is one constant in the Warren Huart, The Fray and API universe, it's writing and recording hit records.
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Back to Basics With an API 1608 on Foo Fighter's Grammy Award-Winning Wasting Light

Jessup, Maryland - Feb. 2012:

Foo Fighters took home five statues at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, including prestigious Best Rock Album and Best Rock Performance honors, winning for an album produced entirely using a 32-channel API 1608 console. For its Wasting Light album, the band went back to basics, switching off the computers and tracking and mixing to tape via the all-analog API console, with the help of engineer James Brown and producer Butch Vig.

Nominated in a total of six categories, Foo Fighters won for Rock Song: "Walk," Rock Album: Wasting Light, Rock Performance: "Walk," Hard Rock/Metal Performance: "White Limo," and Long Form Music Video for "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth."

In his acceptance speech after the band received the Best Rock Performance award, frontman Grohl said, "Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all the fanciest computers that you can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine." Commenting that winning the award "shows that the human element of making music is what's important," he continued, "It's not about being perfect, it's not about sounding absolutely correct, it's not about what goes on in a computer, it's about what goes on in here" — pointing to his heart — "and it's about what goes on in here" — pointing to his head.

Wasting Light debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart in April 2011 with first week sales of more than 235,000 copies. Vig, who had last worked with Grohl on Nirvana's Nevermind album two decades ago, said, "The API sound is great for rock. We drove the 1608 and colored the album with the pleasing sound of its subtle distortion." Less than a year later, the album made a clean sweep of every rock category in the Grammys.

At Brown's request, the API 1608's expansion slots had been outfitted with sixteen API 550A three-band EQs, eight API 550b four-band EQs and eight 560 graphic EQs prior to recording. "The 1608 had a way of gelling the mixes," said Brown. "I can't exactly put my finger on why or how, but the reality of it was pretty undeniable."
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