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How Pro Tools Software and Hardware Works

Pro Tools Systems
Even basic Pro Tools hardware and software systems let users record up to 18 tracks.
Even basic Pro Tools hardware and software systems let users record up to 18 tracks.
Image courtesy of Digidesign

Pro Tools is more than just software. The software works in tandem with a wide assortment of internal and external hardware components to create the world's most powerful and versatile recording, editing and mixing system.

The Pro Tools software itself is the same across all Pro Tools systems, whether you're using the most basic home studio system or the most elaborate professional setup. Pro Tools software allows a musician to record with microphones, analog instruments or MIDI controllers, edit the tracks with intuitive editing tools, add effects with thousands of third-party Pro Tools plug-ins, mix the songs with built-in virtual mixing boards, and export to CD or any digital file type.

The power and expandability of the Pro Tools software depends on the processing power of the entire system. For example, the most basic system allows you to record up to 18 simultaneous audio tracks. That's the equivalent of recording an 18-piece band where every instrument has its own microphone recording to its own track on the Pro Tools software. The most advanced Pro Tools HD systems can handle up to 192 simultaneous audio tracks.

In Pro Tools, digital audio conversion and effects processing is handled by several different pieces of hardware. The first is called an audio interface. An audio interface is like an external sound card. It's mainly responsible for converting analog audio signals to the digital signals that your computer can understand.

In the back of the audio interface is where you plug in all of your microphones, electric guitars, MIDI controllers, et cetera. On the front of the interface are simple controls for adjusting the input and output levels of anything connected to the box. The smallest Pro Tools audio interface is slightly bigger than a flash memory stick and includes only one analog output jack, while the largest units are rack-mounted boxes that have eight analog inputs/outputs, four microphone preamps, studio monitor outputs and MIDI connectors.

The higher-end Pro Tools HD systems come with internal PCI cards to boost your computer's processing power. You can buy systems with one, two or three accelerator cards that will speed up the Pro Tools software when applying effects to dozens of tracks simultaneously. Professional recording studios typically invest in one or more external hardware expansion units that come loaded with six accelerator cards.

The final component of a Pro Tools system is something called a control surface. A control surface looks a lot like those large control boards in a traditional analog recording studio. Control surfaces are hands-on tools for accessing all of the functionality of the Pro Tools software. Think of them as giant joysticks. A lot of engineers grew up on analog control boards and like the feel and accessibility of all of the knobs, buttons and faders.

It's possible to do everything in Pro Tools with a mouse and keyboard, but control surfaces put everything at your fingertips. Digidesign sells control surfaces with as few as eight faders or $10,000 models with full control over 24 channels.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Pro Tools? Read on to find out.