Starting out in Pro Tools LE – What do I need?

Greetings:

I’ve been using a Fostex VF 160 for about a year now.  I’m not too crazy about it. It is very cumbersome to use.  A friend of mine showed me how much easier Pro Tools is and I’m sold.

Now, I’m pretty good at using a computer, but, to be brutally honest, I have no idea what I need to run Pro Tools LE with a Digi-002 rack.

Can someone please let me know everything I need in a desktop computer to run a good reliable system?

It does not have to be the best on earth. I currently do demos for bands and other performers and need a decent amount of memory, etc.

I also understand that I’ll need an external drive as well.

In your explanation of what I need, please use the simplest language possible as I’m not an expert on this stuff.

I’d prefer to purchase a Dell computer, unless that is a big mistake for some reason,  and I do not know Apple computers at all.

Thanks in advance for your help – it is greatly appreciated.

If you are really set on a Pro Tools LE system, then you can go to the Digidesign web site where they have a list of compatible computers for their various systems.

However, you may want to SERIOUSLY consider other software solutions.  Pro Tools LE is not the “real” high-end Pro Tools system that you see in the major studios, and you are forced to use their hardware interface and their limited software (limits the number of tracks and the types of plug-ins you can use).  Also, their hardware doesn’t work really great with other software.

If you like Dell computers, then, obviously, you are a PC guy, and there are WAY more options out there for PC users these days with MUCH more flexibility and power than the Pro Tools LE systems.

Unless being able to work with Pro Tools sessions directly, or just to be able to say you have “Pro Tools”, is the major deciding factor, then you should definitely look around at other options before making your decision.

Look at stuff like Cubase SX or Nuendo from Steinberg, Sonar from Cakewalk, Ableton Live, Magix Samplitude, and others before making your final decision.  With ANY of those other software, you get to choose the audio interface that fits your needs!  You also have access to the thousands and thousands of VST plug-ins and instruments that will work in any of those systems without any problems.

If you still find you need to work with other studios that use Pro Tools, it’s not a problem… you simply consolidate tracks and import/export them from one system to the other… it’s very easy these days and I’ve done it several times with other studios that use Pro Tools, even though I don’t use Pro Tools in my own studio.

The key is to go to some music stores that sell a variety of software, and try each one out.  Some of the companies even offer time limited trial versions of their software which you can download and play around with on your current computer to help you make a decision.

Then, pick the software that YOU like the best and that makes the most sense to you and the way you work, and then build a system around that software.  Don’t just go with what some other studio is using just because that’s the first piece of software that you’ve seen.  Try a few others out and be sure you make the right decision for yourself before you get locked into some proprietary system that gives you only a fixed number of tracks and uses a non-standard plug-in system.

Then, when you pick the software you want, check out some of the many companies that specialize in building and tweaking PCs specifically for audio.  Many of them will sell and install the software and audio interface for you so it comes to you all ready to go.

Good luck with your decision.

Thanks for your thoughful and helpful response.  I will take your advise.

I have two follow-up questions.

1. You said,”Then, when you pick the software you want, check out some of the many companies that specialize in building and tweaking PCs specifically for audio.  Many of them will sell and install the software and audio interface for you so it comes to you all ready to go.”

As I am new at this, can you recommend some companies that will do this?

2. What does “audio-interface” mean?

Thanks again and I greatly appreciate your expertise and assistance.

One other question:  could one use the Digi-002 rack and with Pro-Tools M Powered 7?

Thanks again for your help.

Quote:

1. You said,”Then, when you pick the software you want, check out some of the many companies that specialize in building and tweaking PCs specifically for audio.  Many of them will sell and install the software and audio interface for you so it comes to you all ready to go.”As I am new at this, can you recommend some companies that will do this?

There are quite a few of them, some come and go, and some big players that have been around for awhile.

Here are just a few companies to get you started, in no particular order:

Sweetwater:  http://www.sweetwater.com

PC Audio Labs:  http://www.pcaudiolabs.com/

ADK Pro Audio: http://adkproaudio.com/

Just go to Google.com and search for “DAW computer” and you’ll find quite a few more as well.

Quote:

2. What does “audio-interface” mean?

The audio interface is what you need to get audio into and out of your computer.  If you get a Pro Tools LE system, then that comes bundled with an audio interface that the software is tied to (the software won’t work with any other interface).

If you skip Pro Tools LE and go for something else, then you can pick from the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of audio interfaces from other companies, and get the one that has the right types of connections for your needs.

Another word for audio interface is “soundcard”.  All computers these days usually have a simple Soundblaster compatible soundcard built into the motherboard.  While these built-in soundcards are fine for games and windows sound, they are really cheap and are not good at all for recording.

Soundcards designed for audio recording and playback can have multiple inputs and outputs, analog or digital or both, and they usually have special drivers designed to work with all the popular audio applications to give you much better performance than you would get with standard windows drivers.  The most popular driver types are ASIO, from Steinberg, or WDM.  Most of the major software programs support ASIO drivers/soundcards and you’ll typically get the best performance from those, although WDM drivers are good also.

The trick in picking a soundcard is to figure out how many simultaneous inputs and outputs you will need, and then pick a card from a respected company that has that (or more) and that has the right type of drivers for your software, and for which there are no known issues with whatever motherboard/chipset your computer has.  Again, this is where a good specialized DAW computer builder can really help you out in picking the right interface for you and that will work great with the system they build for you.

Quote:

One other question:  could one use the Digi-002 rack and with Pro-Tools M Powered 7?Thanks again for your help.

No.  The Digi-002 Rack comes with its own version of Pro Tools LE software.

Digidesign has recently got a bit smarter and decided not to lock people totally to their own hardware, and so they have partnered up with M-Audio to allow you to get a special Pro Tools LE package that works with several of the M-Audio soundcards.

I haven’t compared, but I’m guessing the software is exactly the same, or pretty close, for either the Digi hardware or the M-Audio hardware.

The advantage of the M-powered system is that you should also get regular ASIO drivers for those M-Audio products that will let you easily use that soundcard with any other software in addition to the Pro Tools LE software it comes bundled with.

Still, I think there are some better choices for serious audio soundcards besides M-Audio.  I would look at the RME or Lynx products first.  I’ve been a long time user of RME products myself, and the Lynx ones are in the same league as well.

Good luck with it.

Steve:

Thanks and please bear with me.

So a good combination could be:

RME Multiface II
Cubase SX3
appropriate PC.

It does not appear that Cubase SX3 requires a firewire port and the reviews have been excellent.  But, per your suggestion, I’ll try it out first.

I hope I’m on the right track.

Thanks AGAIN for your patience!

No problems.

Yes… that would be a good combination.  The RME products work great with Cubase/Nuendo.

No software actually requires a firewire port, unless you are using one of the Digi based firewire interfaces where you have to have that device plugged in for the software to work.

There are many firewire audio interfaces out there, if that’s the way you want to go.  The advantages of firewire are the portability so that you could use the same device for a studio computer and a notebook computer when traveling, and not having to install anything inside of the computer.  However, you have to be really careful about getting the right computer with the right kind of firewire interface.  Some firewire chipsets are better than others.  You can also, though, add on a high quality firewire PCI card to your computer, if the built-in firewire chipset isn’t very good.

But, the PCI based Multiface is a great little box as well, plus you can always get a cardbus card for a notebook computer in the future and share the same Multiface unit between the two.

I was running two of the original RME Hammerfall 9652 cards in my computer for up to 52 digital inputs and 52 digital outputs between my digital mixing console and my separate high-end A/D and D/A converters.  With my studio remodel, I’m planning on making a special gear closet for my computers and other noise/heat generating equipment and will need to be able to move the computer much further away, so I just bought two of the RME Digiface units with the PCI cards… with the included Firewire type connecting cables, I can have the computer about 17 feet away… and, they also sell even longer cables if needed.  I just got those last week, but haven’t installed them yet.  They are basically the same as the old Hammerfall cards, except that the Digiface/Multiface also have MIDI ports and the Total Mix software and a few other added things.

You definitely can’t go wrong with RME.  And, I have been a long time Cubase user since when it was MIDI only.  Now I use Nuendo, which is basically the same as Cubase SX but with some added post production features.  I think it’s great software, but, you should definitely try it out first to see if it makes sense to you and the way you like to work.  Some people like Sonar and some like Ableton Live or Samplitude.  Even the new ACID Pro 6 (which I also use for doing loop stuff) is trying to be more of a full feature DAW now with better audio and MIDI recording features and such (but, version 6 is brand new and has some bugs to work out still).  ACID is great for loop based stuff, and you can use it as a Rewire client inside of Cubase or Nuendo (which I have done in the past).  However, now Cubase and Nuendo will also work directly with ACID loops and will time stretch them in real time, but still not as well as ACID if you are doing a lot of loop based stuff.

The great thing about a powerful PC and a good soundcard is that you can have as much software installed as your system can handle and use the best features of each as needed.  I have Cubase/Nuendo, ACID Pro, Vegas, Sound Forge, Wavelab, Reason, Fruity Loops, and a bunch more… Nuendo gets used the most in my daily work, but the other programs all have their place and their uses.

Steve:
If I’m going with the RME Multiface II and Cubase SX3 setup, would you recommend an additional external drive?Thanks again!

At the minimum, you should have TWO internal drives… one for the operating system and programs, and a second drive dedicated just for audio.  The audio drive should be a 7200 rpm drive (or higher, if desired) with an 8MB or more cache.  You want that second drive on a separate IDE channel from the OS/System drive, if possible.  If you are using SATA, there are different ways to set things up.

For more reliability and/or performance, you could also choose to go with a RAID array for the audio drives, using two or more drives.  For instance, a RAID 0 setup uses two identical drives setup in a mirrored array.  That means that all the data is written to both drives exactly the same, so if one drive should crash, you have a built-in backup drive and you just replace the bad drive and rebuild the mirror on the new drive.  That gives you redundancy in case of a hard drive failure, but will not protect you if the files get corrupted due to a software issue, or virus, or something else (since the corrupted data will be mirrored to both drives).  Then there are more advanced RAID arrays using at least 3 drives that give you both data redundancy AND increased performance.

However, for more songs, one good 7200 rpm drive with 8MB cache is plenty.  That’s all I have for my audio drives (although I have a removable bay, so I can swap drives in and out for different clients and projects), and I can easily run 50 tracks or more at the same time.  I’ve had projects with over 100 tracks without problems, but not all the tracks are playing at the same time.

I also believe that you want at least one external drive… not for recording, but for daily backups.  Get a decent firewire drive enclosure that will accept the regular and cheaper IDE/ATA type drives, and that makes it easy to swap drives in and out, and then get some of the biggest drives you can afford.  At the end of each day, copy everything you worked on from your internal drive to the external backup drive.  You can also use backup software that will do incremental backups automatically and only back up any new files or files that have been changed since the last back up.

Also, with an external backup drive, you can use software like DriveImage or Ghost to make an image of your OS/System drive with Windows and all your programs.  Then, if your OS drive fails, you can use the recovery software to restore that disc image to a new drive and save a LOT of time versus having to totally reinstall the operating system and all your programs.  It’s a good idea to make a new drive image every time you install new important software or any major updates to your system or programs.

Finally, you should get a DVD burner, and every time you finish a song or project, also back up the whole project and all related files to DVD-R (or DVD+R).  Make at least two copies, test them on a DIFFERENT system to make sure they can be read on other systems, and then store one copy somewhere off site (at work or a friend’s house or something).  Backup to DVD is better for long term because you can fit over 4GB of data on a disc, making a lot less disc swaps than CDR.  However, the new Blue Ray and HD DVD formats are just starting to come out which hold a LOT more data than a regular DVD… but, those two are competing formats and it’s going to be a while before we figure out which one becomes the popular format and which one dies out.

Establishing a backup routine is VERY important because hard drives WILL fail!  It’s not a question of “if” they will fail, it’s a question of “when”.  So, an external drive for daily backups is good, and then a DVD drive (or BlueRay or HD-DVD in the future) for long term archival when you finish a song or project.  RAID arrays that mirror the data across more than one drive are also good for a little better safety margin if you don’t backup as regularly as you should, or if a drive dies in the middle of a session.

Steve:

Would a Yamaha MW10 10-Input USB Mixer work with Cubase SX3 and would you recommend it? It’s a bit lower in price and I’ve enjoyed other Yamaha products.

I had to search for that since I don’t keep up with every audio interface out there.  I read the description of it at Zzounds.com, and since it comes with a free version of Cubase SE (the stripped down entry-level version of Cubase), I’m assuming that it will work just fine with Cubase SX as well.

Be aware, though, that USB based audio interfaces typically can’t achieve as low of latencies as PCI card based interfaces.  This may or may not be a problem for you depending on how you are recording and monitoring and if you plan on using software based synths and samplers much.

Steve:

In your last reponse to my many questions, you mentioned “if you plan on using software based synths and samplers much” .  Does that mean that a USB-functioning  interface does not work well with software synths and samplers?

Thanks.

It just means that some of them can’t achieve very low latencies, which can make it difficult when trying to play a software based synth.  “Latency” is, very simply put, the processing delay of the soundcard… or, the amount of time it takes for the audio to come out of the output after an audio signal is sent to it.  So, if you are playing a software synth from an external MIDI or USB keyboard, the latency will affect how long it takes for you to hear a note after you play the note on a keyboard.  The best PCI based soundcards can achieve latencies of as low as 1.5 ms (milliseconds), which you can’t notice at all.  However, with other soundcards, particularly USB based ones where the data must go through the USB bus, your latency may be somewhere in the 50ms or even higher range.  This can be a noticeable delay and be very annoying when you are trying to play keyboard/synth parts.

If you are going to go USB, make sure you get one with ASIO drivers, as those will give you lower latencies.

Note, also, that the lower you set your soundcard’s buffers, which directly affects the amount of latency, the more CPU processing power you need.  If you have a LOT of tracks of audio and several other synths or plug-ins running, you won’t be able to use the lowest buffer/latency settings without getting all sorts of crackles and stutters in the audio playback.  The more powerful your computer is, the more you can do at lower latencies.  Usually I set my soundcard to very low latency settings when I’m composing stuff with software synths, before I have too many audio tracks and other plug-ins going.  Then, when I’m tracking vocals or other live instruments, and when I’m  doing the mixing, I set the buffer/latency settings MUCH higher to give me smoother playback with LOTS of plug-ins and such for mixing.

I use an external mixer for monitoring when I’m recording vocals and such, so latency is not an issue for me in those cases.  If you are monitoring “through” the computer, then latency can be a very big issue since it is basically doubled in those cases (recorded audio goes in through the soundcard, through the software, then back out through the soundcard).  If you were trying to sing and monitor in headphones, you would hear your voice as an echo, which would really mess most people up.  Most soundcards bypass this problem by using a feature called “direct monitoring” which pass the audio input directly to the audio output, without having to go through the computer and software first (although it’s still passed into the computer and software for recording the audio on a track).  This can be a little tricky to set up right, depending on how the soundcard is configured and if it has an onboard mixer to allow you to mix the direct audio in with the playback audio from the computer (the accompanying tracks).

Note that direct monitoring can’t be used for software based synths since that audio is originating from software inside of the computer and must be passed out through the audio interface.

Hopefully this makes a little more sense.

I know it all sounds confusing… but, once you get it all set up and play around with it a bit, it will all make sense.

Steve:

Thanks again for all of your great help.  I’ve taken your advise and I went with one of the programs you recommended (Cubase SX3).

I also have a computer system on order.  As far as the interface, I’ve done a lot of research and for the cost and quality I was really looking at the Presonus Firepod 10-Channel Firewire unit.  The reviews look great and the price is pretty good.

Short of an actual endorsement, would you recommend this item?

I’m sure that will probably work fine for you.

I can’t give you a personal recommendation for it, since I have not personally tried it.  But, I haven’t heard any bad things about it, either.

Steve

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