It’s been a long time since I mixed exclusively with a Protools system — something like 7 years now. I was once a devoted digidesign (nee Avid) disciple where I would write music with sequencers and instruments or in Logic or Cubase and then when the writing and scratch performances were done everything got printed into stems and opened up in Protools for a hi-fi mixing experience. The results of this process were lovely. And despite a growing unhappiness from the mainstream pro audio climate about the cost and sound of Protools — which I shared, and often slandered those who mixed exclusively “in the box” and even went above and beyond to purchase very expensive microphones, preamps, and outboard compressors and other wonderful things that don’t make sound — I still did all of my final work in Protools.
It all began with a little application called Sound Designer II. I don’t know if there was a Sound Designer I because it was already called SDII in 1993 when I arrived at the prospect of making music with a computer instead of an elaborate recording studio and/or outboard mixing console and/or sampling live performances with my 2 meg Emax II sampler for re sequencing into my tracks and singing the vocals live into the final mix — believe it or not I made many 12″ singles and two albums using the latter method. Sound Designer II was a miracle application. I could record a song to DAT tape, and then via SPDIF dump it into the macintosh and edit it with SDII. Once it was equalized, and edited to my satisfaction I then dumped it back to DAT tape again and delivered it to the mastering engineer who cut the tracks to a master lacquer for vinyl pressing or made the glass master for CD reproduction. It was extremely time consuming and very expensive.
One day a really fine fellow who worked for Digidesign offered to come over to “check out the studio.” I wasn’t immediately receptive to anyone I didn’t know coming to my completely private recording studio to “check it out.” I’ve never been a “jammer” or much of a lookie-loo, so I was suspicious at first. When he arrived he sat down and listened to some of the early Dubtribe tracks, and we talked about the challenges of moving from an analog studio to a computer based recording system. It turned out to be a very useful and compelling conversation. At the end of the talk the guy pulled a ProTools II box out of his bag and offered it to me as a gift. I was delighted and amazed. We set it up, installed the software and did some recording tests to see what actually sounded better – tape, dat, sampler, or protools. Believe it or not the answer was Protools – hands down. And so I soon saved up my royalties and bought myself a full Protools III system complete with what would eventually include the main card, many DSP farms, a sample cell II card, and an expansion chasis to hold all the dsp farms which no longer fit into my Quadra 950. But let me tell you I was in hog heaven. The tdm plugin scheme was fantastic, it sounded great, and worked beautifully. I have never been so happy with my studio — not before, and not since.
About a year later Digidesign announced that they were changing things. They were no longer going to support the nubus architecture of the old macintosh, but were going to go with the PCI cards that the new Mac G3 computers used. At the time I was both desperate for more processing power, the features of the new software, and a faster computer. In order to make this happen I was going to have to do a number of very expensive things: 1. Upgrade my computer (meaning replace it with a new one.) 2. Upgrade my protools system (meaning buy the new software, and upgrade the main card, the dsp farms, and the expansion chasis) and 3. Upgrade all of my plugins. This worked out to cost something more than $12,000. At that time my rent was $600 a month, and I barely earned that. So this was a substantial investment. But I was ambitious, and excited, and cracked out with full blown upgraditis, and so it had to be done. The trouble is that despite the new 24 bit quality, and all of the additions to the Protools software, this new system didn’t sound as good as the old Protools III rig had sounded. I was disappointed, and the law of diminishing returns had left me with fewer dsp farms, fewer plugins, and no sample cell card anymore. Things got worse, not better.
Regardless of my disappointments I recorded a couple of successful albums with the Protools 24 rig – Dubtribe’s Bryant Street album was recorded at this time and stands today as some of my best work. And then Digidesign announced ProTools HD. Apple launched OS X. The world had suddenly changed, and despite my new Mackie Control and my new studio monitors, the Urei compressors, and the beautiful Neumann microphones, I felt like I was working with a dinosaur now, and would never truly unleash the power of Protools until I could scrape up another $24,000 and not only go Protools HD, but also step up to the new and exciting world of Os X. I fumed about this for a while, and resonated more with the folks who were really capping on digidesign and the “in the box” sound of severely limited, sonically tragic popular music. I agreed mostly because I didn’t actually have $24,000 to spend on the dream system, and the dream macintosh. I had gone over to the dark side – and yet was warmly welcomed as having joined the light. They were confusing times.
Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I rallied my resources and priced out what my exchange program credit would get me — digidesign had always offered an “exchange program” for users who wanted to upgrade their systems. You bought the new stuff, and they then asked you to send back your old stuff and would credit you for your registered equipment. It worked out like this: I would have a Mac G4 quad with a huge cinema display, and a Protools HD core card in exchange for my very expensive Protools 24 system and $24,000. I was pissed. I had my darth vader helmet on and kept calculating the figures over and over and looking wildly around the studio for more things to sell in order to come up with more money to at least have one measly DSP farm. I squinted at the fine print and tried to see just how many more plugins I could instance per dsp chip with this new system vs. the old system and how I could feel that I was clean again, free of the old and enraptured by the brand new, and thrive in an endless world of limetless dsp processing on a flat screen display, all delivered beautifully by OS X. Ghaaa. I was so horny I could have sold my soul for this beautifully sexy audio equipment.
And then it occurred to me: What would it cost to get “out of the box?”
I calculated. If I sold my Protools 24 system, each of my plugins, and this whole G3 computer and monitor I would have a very tidy purse to score a sexy new mac, and a completely different audio card. It would be a whole new world. I would be free. Desperate for change, I went through with it. I sold everything and ended up with a first generation MacBook Pro and an Apogee audio interface. I no longer had the ability to use Protools — because the software was hardware dependent — but I didn’t care. I had Logic Audio, Os X, Audio Unit Plugins galore, and life was wonderful. I have been working this way for years now, and often laugh to myself that what once filled two rooms and two closets to create a recording studio is now one two space rack, a laptop, and a small bag with mics and cables in it. I have been absolutely liberated from the world of bulk, weight, and ever increasingly expensive upgrades. I’ve returned to the world of those who make music, actually produce music regularly, and departed the world of arguments regarding the quality of solder used to connect hard wired cables from the snake to the tty patch bay. I no longer care at all. I am liberated, mobile, and productive. What I always wanted to be.
Today I got an email from Avid. Avid is now the company who produce Protools. Digidesign was purchased and absorbed. They do not exist anymore. The email announced Protools 10. For a moment I remembered the joys of a secondary mixing experience. I remembered the pure pleasure of my artistic endeavors being one thing, and my fidelity and precision mixing, tracking, mastering, and editing being another thing entirely separate from my creative process. I sighed lustfully as I read the email. Avid have liberated Protools from the box. One need no longer own a pile of expensive dsp farms to use Protools. One need only shell out the $700 for the software and they can then record, edit, and mix down to their heart’s content. How wonderful!
I lost my head for a minute and went to go look at my last Protools registration information to see what it would cost me to upgrade from whatever version that was to this new version. “Yes!” I thought to myself. “I could totally work that way again. It would be amazing!”
I retrieved my registration information and began what would turn out to be a two hour long odyssey of looking for an email contact form, or link on Avid’s website so that I could ask “What would it cost to upgrade from my version of Protools to this new version?” I never found that link. Instead, I came to my senses and found myself with my face about an inch from the screen, my mouth completely dry, my fingers shaking, my back about to spasm from slouching forward. I saw myself trying desperately to climb back into the box. Thank god I snapped out it. The next thing to do is to return to the original email which I opened when it was light out — it is dark in here now and I have not yet turned on the lights — and go to the bottom of the message and click the blue link which simply says “unsubscribe.”