Pro Tools Free

Digidesign's Pro Tools is inarguably one of the most popular DAW applications in the professional studio, and anyone contemplating getting into the audio field should be familiar with the system. 11/01/2003 7:00 AM Eastern

Digidesign's Pro Tools is inarguably one of the most popular DAW applications in the professional studio, and anyone contemplating getting into the audio field should be familiar with the system. Unfortunately, it's not always easy for a beginner to spend time with a Pro Tools TDM or LE system. Fortunately, there is Pro Tools Free, which allows students to get hands-on experience with the program away from the studio and with minimal investment. However, the program is currently frozen in time at Version 5.0.1, while Pro Tools TDM is at V. 6.1.1. Therefore, it is important to know what Pro Tools Free can and cannot do.


Pro Tools Free is a spin-off of Pro Tools LE V. 5.0.1. One of the largest differences between the two programs is that the free version has a limit of eight audio tracks — a third of LE's capabilities. If you try to create more than eight tracks, then the program automatically reduces the count to the correct amount. To open a session that was created on another Pro Tools system in Pro Tools Free, make sure that it was saved in a version that is compatible with V. 5.0.1, that it conforms to the proper audio and MIDI track count, and that it doesn't require plug-ins not supported by Pro Tools Free.

Pro Tools Free has only the most basic MIDI capabilities, which doesn't reflect the program's current implementation. You can run 48 MIDI tracks (recording only one track at a time) and use a USB or serial MIDI interface. You can also use third-party MIDI controllers; MIDI Controller Personalities for the most common devices are included with the Pro Tools Free CD-ROM. (I recommend ordering the CD-ROM — $9.95 for shipping and handling — because it includes extras and saves you the hassle of doing multiple downloads to get the guides and demos.)

Pro Tools Free is not compatible with Digidesign hardware interfaces. For audio on the Mac, Pro Tools Free uses Sound Manager, while on the PC, it uses the Windows sound driver. Although the resulting fidelity may not match what you would get from Digidesign's hardware, it's more than adequate for teaching and noncritical editing and listening. Surprisingly, Pro Tools Free is compatible with Digidesign's Audiomedia III card on a PC running Windows 98 Second Edition.

Be careful to not install Pro Tools Free on a computer that has another version of Pro Tools already on it. The installation will remove any earlier versions of the program and you will have to completely reinstall Pro Tools LE or TDM to use your Digi-design hardware interface.


The newest computers ship with operating systems that are incompatible with Pro Tools Free: OS X on the Mac and Windows XP on the PC. Fortunately, it's a buyer's market and getting a deal on a “legacy computer,” such as a Mac G3 or a Pentium III, shouldn't be a problem. Pro Tools Free supports a wide range of computers, and specific information on the subject can be found within Digidesign's compatibility pages ( Although Digi-design says it provides the program “as is,” without guarantees in terms of compatibility, there is a surprising amount of support material online.

On the Mac, Pro Tools Free runs under OS 8.6 through 9.x. I get great results using Pro Tools Free on an iMac/500 running OS 9.2. If you're contemplating running Pro Tools Free in OS X under Classic mode, forget it: Classic and Pro Tools Free don't mix (so to speak). On the PC, Pro Tools Free runs on Windows 98 and ME, but not on Windows 95, 2000 or NT.


Pro Tools Free allows you to use Digidesign RTAS and AudioSuite plug-ins that are compatible with Pro Tools LE 5.0.1. This includes the DigiRack Dither, EQ, DeEsser, Limiter and Compressor.

If you want to buy a third-party plug-in, then ask the manufacturer if it works under Pro Tools Free. Plug-ins from Antares and Bomb Factory, for example, don't work with the program.


A reoccurring topic in the Digidesign User Conference (aka the DUC) is whether Digidesign will make Pro Tools Free available for Mac OS X and Windows XP in the future. One of the biggest commercial arguments for offering a free version is to get new users hooked on the system. But sooner or later, V. 5.0.1 is going to become so outdated that it is useless, even for beginners.

Digidesign insiders have rumored that an updated version is on the drawing board. But it's one thing to come up with an idea and another to implement it. With all of the new products Digidesign is releasing, it seems that the company is putting its resources toward products that generate revenue, and rightly so. However, when Digidesign gets around to releasing a version of Pro Tools Free that runs on the latest operating systems, it will likely snare a new generation of users who may, ultimately, upgrade to a Digidesign hardware system.

Laura Pallanck is a Bay Area-based sound designer.

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