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February 14, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production

M-Powerment

At some point, I'm going to have to pick up a copy of Pro Tools for my home studio, for two reasons. First, I'll probably be consulting for WBI after my contract runs out, and I want to be able to open project files without any import/export issues. Second, I've honestly grown to like Pro Tools. Cubase is good software, but in my (admittedly limited) experience with it, it's the kind of software that believes every function needs a new window. Soft synths? New window! Mixer? New window! MIDI editing? New window! Channel strip? GUESS WHAT WE'RE DOING!

I kid because I love, of course. Cubase also has a lot of great features that Pro Tools doesn't have, like support for VST plugins and a wider range of hardware. And even though it opens up all those windows, it does get credit for making it easy to move between them--from almost anywhere in the application, you can get to a track's plugins, sends, and channel strip information. But for fast and flexible audio production, Pro Tools is still a monster.

But it's never been budget software, frankly. Some may disagree with the comparison, but Digidesign (the people behind Pro Tools) have always reminded me a bit of Apple: they like to use their own hardware (the merits of which are strongly debated), they're seen as more expensive than the competition, and they're pretty much standard issue at professional studios. Of course, in professional studios, a Pro Tools rig doesn't mean the same thing that we've got here at the Bank. A top-of-the-line Pro Tools HD setup offloads the effects and signal processing to outboard DSP chips contained in big, expensive rackmount units. Home users unwilling to spend more than $10,000 on a recording setup have two Pro Tools choices that are file-compatible but use host-based processing instead: Pro Tools LE and M-Powered.

My dilemma comes from picking between those two home versions. At the Bank, we're using an LE system (the very nice Digi 002), which requires Digidesign hardware (in this case, a big mixer-looking chunk of machinery that acts as both an interface and a control surface). That used to be the only budget choice. But then Avid (the parent company of Digidesign) bought M-Audio, makers of a ton of audio interfaces, and together they put out Pro Tools M-Powered, which is basically identical to LE but only runs using M-Audio hardware.

Now, I already own an M-Audio interface, the Firewire Solo. I like it. It seems solid, it's very low-latency, and other M-Audio hardware is relatively cheap so it would be easy to upgrade to a bigger system. Going to Pro Tools just means buying the software, which runs about $250. The downsides are that it's dongle-protected (so I'd have to carry around a little USB key in addition to everything else) and it doesn't come with as many plugins as the LE packs do.

Normally, I'd just have to bite the bullet on those deficiencies, because Digidesign's most affordable LE system was the Mbox 2, starting at $450. But they've just started shipping the Mbox 2 Mini, a small USB-based LE system. It doesn't offer very much in the way of input, but it's only $300, or $50 more than the M-Powered system. The Mbox also acts as a hardware dongle, meaning that I wouldn't need to carry the iLock dongle in order to use the software. On the other hand, it's expensive to upgrade an LE system (the cost of software is built into the price for new hardware) and I might still need a USB key for authorization if I bought any plugins.

So although I'm tempted, in the end I have to believe that for my small studio M-Powered will be the most logical choice. I like having a bigger choice of hardware, even if it does all have to come from M-Audio, and the overall costs are probably much lower (on par or cheaper with competitors, actually). If I had a couple thousand dollars, I'd probably want to shell out for a the Digi 002 system, because I've learned to appreciate having well-built physical faders for mixing, and then I'd add an Mbox 2 Mini for portable work. But I don't have that kind of money. I'm thinking I'll pick up the M-Powered, and then use the extra $50 toward either a Jamlab USB interface (very portable) or fxpansion's VST-to-Pro Tools plugin wrapper (thus negating the only feature I'll really miss from Cubase and Ableton Live).

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