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
EIGHT IS ENOUGH
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
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
NO X's, PLEASE
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 (www.digidesign.com/compato). Although Digi-design
says it provides the program “as is,” without guarantees in
terms of compatibility, there is a surprising amount of support
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.
PLUG RIGHT IN
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.
THE FIRST TIME'S FREE
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.