Avid Pro Tools|HD Native With HD OMNI Review

Jun 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Brandon Hickey

REDESIGNED INTERFACE OFFERS LOW LATENCY, HD PERFORMANCE

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The Pro Tools|HD Native PCIe card can be purchased by itself or in a hardware I/O bundle.

The Pro Tools|HD Native PCIe card can be purchased by itself or in a hardware I/O bundle.

There is no question that Pro Tools 9 has been one of the most significant releases of the popular software to date. Long-standing barriers have been broken down, ushering in a new era. Opening up to third-party hardware and unlocking features like the timecode ruler, automatic delay compensation and DigiTranslator in all tiers of the software has, indeed, invited a new school of users. Now, with the release of Pro Tools|HD Native, Avid offers a new and affordable way to use its high-end I/O, including the HD Omni (reviewed here), while promising super-low latency. Pro Tools|HD Native can be purchased with just the PCIe card and software, or as a bundle. (Various bundle pricing at Avid.com.)

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LATENT TENDENCIES
What many native DAW users, especially those using USB or FireWire interfaces, don’t realize is that Pro Tools|HD does a much better job of managing latency than most other DAWs. Anyone who has ever crashed and burned while tracking vocals because the artist couldn’t get over the weird delay in the headphones knows what I’m talking about.

Pro Tools HD Native includes a software mixer incorporated into the Hardware Setups window.

Pro Tools HD Native includes a software mixer incorporated into the Hardware Setups window.

The A/D converters in most devices, at best, work only slightly slower than real time. From there, the USB and FireWire buses fail to be the speediest protocols to deliver data, and when you add in the other passengers riding that same line, transit becomes even slower. Once that data gets to your computer, it has to talk to an audio driver, which will address the data in a way that is meaningful to audio software running within your operating system. This seems to be one of the most substantial lags, considering that the same processor is dealing with audio, graphics, video, network transmissions and anything else that’s happening in the OS. In some systems, audio will take a back seat to other processes to accommodate, for example, a networked transmission from your control surface. Finally, there’s the one factor we can control—the playback buffer—which, depending on the size of your session, can be set to a wide range of durations. A safety offset ensures that even if the buffer is overrun, the DAC, which also slows things down, can perform correctly.

LICKING LATENCY
Avid has addressed I/O latency in Pro Tools|HD Native with three levels of defense. The primary means is simple: Keep your buffers low, do nothing differently than you would on a typical HD system, and everything will be okay. Bumping up the buffers beyond 64 samples on a 24-bit/48kHz Pro Tools session was rarely necessary. I opened up a 5.1 mix for a 16-minute short film. The session used 147 voices, more than 100 tracks, dozens of plug-ins and automation, not to mention the compressed video clip. I kept backing off settings in the playback engine to see how low I could go. With H/W Buffer Size set to a mere 32 samples, running four processors at 85-percent CPU usage, I could still keep my disk buffer at the lowest setting and play back without error. On top of that, I was able to overdub a vocal; due to the scaled-back settings in the playback engine, no noticeable latency was incurred in the headphones. Shocking!

Next, I opened up a 24-bit/44.1kHz music mix, with the intent to overdub an electric guitar solo. This was a session with high-delay-inducing Drumagog plug-ins running alongside a dense mix incorporating other plug-in processors. Stir in the necessary delay-compensation engine, and a bigger buffer became a bit more necessary. Even when increasing the buffer to 256 samples, I was really surprised with how unnoticeable the latency remained. Conversely, a 256 sample buffer on a Pro Tools system running off of the CoreAudio driver is uncomfortably apparent. Due to the low latency of the PCIe-based HD Native architecture streaming through its dedicated audio driver, even a vocal mic recorded in a session buffered at 512 samples fell just shy of that awkward latent feeling. I even tracked a vocalist who had complained about delay in the cans in the past, kicked the buffer up to 1,024 samples just to see what would happen, and she really didn’t hear a delay until I made her listen for it.

Avid’s second solution is the inclusion of a software mixer incorporated into the Hardware Setups window. To me, this is a baby-step in the right direction. I have an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra. It has a similar software mixer available through the Mac System Preferences window. Using this device with Pro Tools M-Powered 7 and beyond, I could go to the Hardware Setups window in Pro Tools for a link to that software mixer. The only difference between that and what is offered in HD Native is that rather than linking to a different window, the mixer lives “inside” the Pro Tools software. If it were found in the Mix window, even as a pulldown tab like the “Tracks” or “Groups” on the left, that would be far more practical. It is a very practical way to manage zero-latency monitoring, as proven by countless devices that use this solution. But you’re always taking a trip to the Hardware Setups, which has no quick key to access it, and paging over to the fourth tab in that window is cumbersome.







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