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Why does Pro Tools turn conventional mixing on its head?

It took years of development to bring the analog mixing console to its current state of perfection. So why does Pro Tools throw all of this in the trash?

It took many years of development to bring the analog mixing console to perfection. And by perfection, I mean exactly what an engineer needs to make a great recording and a great mix.

If there were anything else an engineer needed to do that, analog consoles would have it.

To create a multitrack recording, a process that involves overdubbing, the mixing console needs to do two things…

One is to route the signals being recorded to the tracks they need to be recorded upon, mixing then if necessary. The channels of this mixer also provide EQ and dynamics so that signals can be processed prior to recording if desired.

The other is to create a 'monitor mix' so the engineer and producer can assess that all is going well as the recording builds up.

So a mixer designed for multitrack recording is essentially two mixers in one frame, one for signals being newly recorded, the other for signals that have already been recorded.

But the mixer in Pro Tools doesn't do this. It has other features borrowed from analog mixing technology. It has inserts, auxiliaries and buses, all good old analog features.

But the one thing it doesn't have is a mixer for signals being recorded. And since it doesn't have that mixer, it doesn't have the ability to process signals prior to recording.

All it has is a monitor mixer, so you can process and mix tracks that have already been recorded.

The question arises whether the omission of a mixer for the signals being recorded actually matters? Clearly Pro Tools has inputs, and these inputs go directly to tracks, and you can route them if you like. But all of this is in a very rudimentary form compared to a well-specified analog console like an SSL or Neve.

I am willing to bet that it matters to the designers of Pro Tools. I imagine they thought long and hard about this. And perhaps in the early days of Pro Tools it was left out as a measure to save on processing, computing power being much more limited than it is now.

But they did leave it out. And you know what? No-one noticed. They accepted Pro Tools as a new way of recording. They appreciated the built-in digital mixer for what it was – limited – and got on with using the system for what it did well.

And now that Pro Tools has matured, people are still prepared to work in this way.

Amazingly, by getting rid of an input mixer, Pro Tools has become very much easier to understand than a conventional analog console, at least to newcomers to recording.

If you need to process a signal and record that processed signal, you need to jump through a few hoops but you can work around the omission.

And most people are now happy to record flat, then process on playback.

Of course, it has to be said that you use more DSP this way, so Digidesign sell a few more DSP cards for their high-end systems. Those with LE systems will have to print effected tracks to disk to free up processing capacity if they need to.

So what's next? Perhaps someone will invent an analog console that works the same way as Pro Tools. Things will really have come full circle.

By David Mellor Tuesday November 29, 2005