Five years ago, it was impossible to run professional digital audio workstation (DAW) software and work in real time with hundreds of audio tracks—each with multiple layers of effects applied to them—on anything other than a tricked-out workstation outfitted with proprietary (and expensive) DSP acceleration hardware. That extra hardware was needed to ensure consistent, glitch-free performance when bringing work into different studios.
Today, the impossible is possible. Take Avid® Pro Tools® for example. It’s the de facto industry-standard DAW. The latest DSP-accelerated Pro Tools|HDX system can handle up to 768 audio tracks (256 per card) and 256 channels of I/O. Pro Tools|HD Native systems can handle up to 256 audio tracks and 32 channels of I/O running natively on an Apple Mac* or PC host alone. Both hardware systems support up to 32-bit, 192-kHz audio resolution. Pro Tools 10 software can handle up to 96 audio tracks at 48 kHz, without any extra hardware, and includes over 75 DSP plug-ins and virtual instruments. These products give musicians and recording engineers the ability to compose, edit, record, and mix world-class productions.
“The key to unlocking that performance was the 2nd generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor,” said Bobby Lombardi, senior audio product manager for Avid. “The 2nd generation Intel Core i7 processor delivers performance that’s on par with the performance of yesterday’s hardwarebased systems. These processors open the door to workflows that were previously impossible.”
Pro Tools 9 was the first version of the software to go native. “We added support in Pro Tools 9 for Core Audio in the Mac OS and ASIO-compliant sound cards on the PC about a year ago,” Lombardi said. “But we really embraced host-based computing with Pro Tools|HD Native.”
Image above: Avid Pro Tools* 10 software runs natively on off-the-shelf PC and Apple Mac* workstations and laptops.
Caching in on Host-Based Performance Gains
To deliver what Avid describes as the lowest latency, highest performance of any host-based DAW around, Avid engineers optimized Pro Tools | HD Native for Intel® multi-core, multi-threaded processors. “We got quite a speed boost by ensuring that our code was fully multithreaded,” Lombardi said. “We’ve seen immediate benefits when moving onto each new generation of Intel processors. When the new chipsets are rolled out in new HP laptops or MacBook* Pros, we immediately qualify those machines.”
Many new features in Pro Tools 10 software (Pro Tools HD software comes with Pro Tools | HD Native) leverage the power of the host CPU. For example, Clip Gain can quickly adjust the volume levels of multiple “clips” (previously referred to as audio “regions” in Pro Tools lingo) directly on the timeline during playback so that results can be heard instantly. The power of the 2nd gen Intel processor also helps enable real-time fades. “In the past, we required fades to be rendered before you could listen to them,” Lombardi said. “In Pro Tools 10, fades are applied in real time, speeding your workflow.”
Pro Tools 10 also provides ample visual feedback with the use of on-clip faders, numeric readouts, and real-time waveform displays. Calculating real-time fades and gain changes across multiple clips and then displaying those results graphically takes a lot of processor horsepower.
Avid engineers also use Intel® VTune™ Amplifier to identify hotspots and bottlenecks in their code. “We’ve used Intel VTune Amplifier on the last couple of Pro Tools releases,” Lombardi said. “It helped us determine where our code was spending most of its time so we could remove loops and bottlenecks that shouldn’t have been there.”
Pro Tools 10 is a 32-bit application, but Avid engineers were able to achieve another performance boost by implementing a RAM cache in Pro Tools HD software that gives users access to all of the available RAM on their systems—a feature often touted as a major benefit of 64-bit native software. “What’s really interesting about workflows that can leverage up to 16 GB of RAM on a laptop is that they allow users to take advantage of all the processing power in the 2nd gen Intel Core i7 processor,” Lombardi said, “and start buffering disk activity for recording and playback in a large RAM cache. That means the media doesn’t have to reside on the local system—users can start using networkattached storage (NAS) systems. Used in conjunction with a fast enough wireless connection, mobile workflows start to get interesting.”
Lombardi envisions a musician or producer being able to access remote storage for recording, playback, and editing from anywhere in a facility. “These are things we couldn’t do before with slower processors, and we would never have imagined doing them on a laptop.”
The 2nd gen Intel Core processor also powers the new Avid Channel Strip, a high-quality, high-performance plug-in that offers the same EQ, Dynamics, Filter, and Gain effects algorithms found in the renowned Avid System 5 console (formerly Euphonix, a company Avid acquired in 2010). “Using a laptop with a 2nd gen Intel Core i7 processor, it’s now possible to mix 60 to 90 tracks of music with the Avid Channel Strip running across every track,” Lombardi said.
From Mouse-Driven Mixing to Touch-Screen Control
Regularly mixing projects with large track counts is usually a good reason to add an external control surface, which allows the use of physical knobs and faders to adjust track volume, set EQ, and tweak DSP parameters. But if a control surface such as an Avid ICON digital mixing console or Avid Artist control surface isn’t handy, Pro Tools can be driven using a mouse or trackpad. “Being mouse-driven is nothing new to us—Pro Tools has been mouse-driven for more than 20 years,” Lombardi said. “Many customers do quite a bit of mouse mixing.”
Interest in mobile music and audio production workflows is on the rise, so it’s not surprising that a number of Avid’s third-party partners have developed iOS*- and Android*-based mobile apps for remotely controlling Pro Tools. “These apps let you control our software through screen sharing, using the touch screen to control parameters through a virtual desktop.” The layout of Pro Tools is a digital metaphor for an analog mixing console. It’s an environment that Lombardi described as having been carefully designed for mouse-driven mixing.
Lombardi’s team has been envisioning what future versions of Pro Tools might look like on various mobile platforms— high-performance laptops and Ultrabook™ devices, as well as iOS and Android tablets. “Spacing is important to consider when designing touch screens,” Lombardi said. “With mouse and pointer-driven UIs, things can get pretty small and still provide accurate control, but using fingertips on something like an iPad* involves the use of multi-touch pinching, grabbing, and spinning when interacting with objects on the screen. This requires buttons that are a bit larger and areas on the screen that aren’t as dense with controls.” Those same considerations come into play when considering another recent innovation—high-resolution laptop displays. Lombardi explained, “Things that seem quite large on a desktop display that are easily adjusted using a mouse or trackpad and pointer start to feel incredibly small on a laptop with a high-res display. We need to start laying things out differently to accommodate that.”
Another area of concern for Lombardi involves the raw processing power available on iOS and Android tablets. “The more processing power available,” he said, “the more we’re going to use, especially when it comes to editing and tracking (recording).” For those things, low latency is essential—not just for recording incoming signals, but for automation and editing. According to Lombardi, none of that is possible on dense, complex sessions unless small buffer sizes are used. And that’s possible only with more powerful processors.
“As processors become faster and more powerful,” Lombardi said, “we need to ensure that the amount of time they spend in a sleep state is shortened, not lengthened. What we’re finding right now with the 2nd gen Intel Core i7 processor is just fantastic. It’s the perfect processor for mixing with Pro Tools.”
In addition to processing muscle, mobile audio and video workflows need storage devices that can handle demanding workloads. “Pulling video or a couple hundred tracks of audio off a single hard drive can produce disk performance errors,” Lombardi said. “That was one of the main reasons we came up with the Disk Cache feature in Pro Tools 10—5400-rpm drives work quite well with it. But solid-state drives also offer an enormous benefit—not just because of their phenomenal performance, but because they greatly reduce start-up times.”
Imagining a time when tablets are powerful enough to handle tasks such as field recording or fast-turnaround editing, Lombardi said, “We definitely see value in handling those things on mobile platforms. As a result, we’re actively developing for tablets, yet at the same time, like many developers, we’re being careful in how we do that. It’s important to understand how smartphones and tablets can tie into workflows based on mobile apps running on laptops.”
Above image: A huge collection of virtual instruments, effects, sound processing, and utility plug-ins comes bundled with Avid Pro Tools* DAW software. Shown top to bottom: Structure, a virtual digital sampler; DVERB reverb and ambience processor; and Eleven, a highly realistic guitar amp emulator.
Building Future Innovation on Speed
Anticipating the availability of the 3rd gen Intel® Core™ processor family, Lombardi said, “We’re incredibly excited about it. All of the native processing power that’s available to us should increase significantly, benefiting Pro Tools in many ways. Pro Tools used to take several minutes to launch because it has to cache all of its plug-ins. That will be reduced to a couple minutes or less.”
In addition to the new features in Pro Tools 10 already mentioned, Lombardi called out plug-ins as benefiting greatly from advances in processing power. The more complex reverbs and virtual synthesizers that use physical modeling algorithms, guitar amp simulators, and other virtual instruments will get a further performance boost when run on 3rd gen Intel Core processors.
“Virtual instruments will see even better performance in future versions of Pro Tools,” Lombardi said. “By accessing more memory and tapping into enhanced processing power, you’ll see polyphony (the number of notes that can sound simultaneously) increased, and we’ll be able to run much smaller buffer sizes, making the entire system feel more responsive.”
System stability will also be bolstered. “The fragility of the system will decrease significantly because the computer will be able to handle more tasks without overrunning a buffer or forcing the user to start and restart playback,” Lombardi said.
3rd gen Intel Core processors should also allow Avid to allocate an entire core to running the system. That will reduce what Lombardi described as system spikiness. “System stability is fantastic when we’re able to dedicate an entire core to running the OS and another to running Pro Tools,” he said. “That hasn’t been possible on lesser CPUs because we’d want to use 90 percent of the CPU to run Pro Tools. With the 3rd gen Intel Core processor we will be able to take half a core for Pro Tools and give one back to the OS.”
Running Pro Tools in conjunction with a non-linear editing (NLE) system for video post-production is another common workflow process that will benefit from 3rd gen Intel Core processors. “Co-existence with Avid Media Composer*, our flagship NLE, is something we’re seeing more of as customers embrace using a single high-performance laptop to run both applications,” Lombardi agreed. “Our users also want to seamlessly move content between applications. We want to make sure that edits and metadata associated with the media are maintained.” As a result, Avid continues to invest heavily in developing the ability to freely interchange data and sessions between its two media applications.
Avid has also been moving toward a shared component architecture. “There are plenty of performance advantages to having a shared video engine and a shared audio engine in a DAW and an NLE,” Lombardi said.
Whatever the innovations, Avid’s engineers continue to collaborate with Intel application engineers to optimize and tune Pro Tools, ensuring that users experience the best possible performance when one of the world’s leading DAWs is run natively on 2nd gen and 3rd gen Intel Core processors.
For details on Avid Pro Tools software, check out: www.avid.com/US/products/Pro-Tools-Software/
About the Author
Before signing on as one of the writing muses for RH+M3, Dominic Milano spent over 30 years in print, online, and event media production, working on DV magazine, GameDeveloper magazine and the Game Developer Conference, Keyboard magazine, magazine, and more.