Month: June 2019

Real Alternatives To Avid's Recent Pro Tools Price Increases

The Skinny

On June 18th, 2019, an Avid employee and moderator of the Avid Pro Tools Users group on Facebook announced a heads up of pricing changes to the Pro Tools product lineup. It later was also shared on Avid's DUC board. This move has angered many people, driven others to rage, and others left not knowing quite how to proceed.

I do have to say that Avid's decisions, noted in the image shared by Avid below, have disappointed me to the point where after a year of small updates I know at least I myself am making plans to switch DAWs and cease any commercial support of Avid via my purchases and renewals and also my advocating the AAX plugin ecosystem. If this sounds familiar or you feel you might be in the same boat, please read on.

Pro Tools new pricing structure planned for July 1st and on

So where does that leave me and the many others like those on Gearslutz or on other social media platforms who have voiced displeasure at Avid's pricing decisions and seeking alternatives? Thankfully in a really good place that will ultimately probably affect many of us for the better!

What To Expect Leaving Pro Tools Behind?

Did you know that low limited I/O and channel counts are a unique Pro Tools-ism? If you're just now investigating alternate DAWs, you might be looking for these stats on competing products and coming up short. Historically, Digidesign (now Avid) sold hardware DSPs that had hard voice/channel limits that weirdly found their way into the Pro Tools Native platform. Avid has recently even started selling "voice packs" that increase these entirely arbitrary limits in their Pro Tools Ultimate product. If you move to another DAW, you are expected to largely be able to add as many tracks and I/O count as your system can handle and not an arbitrary amount as decided by Avid.

While these specific benefits are huge, they have been around for some time. So why hasn't the pro or prosumer market adopted 3rd party platforms en masse long ago? This is largely due to the value that Pro Tools shines in that other DAWs for the most part lack: Hardware accelerated digital sound processing. Anyone who has ever used an Accel or HDX based Pro Tools environment has no doubt fallen in love with the low latency that Pro Tools offers.

However, the days of Avid being the only DAW vendor offering low latency recording environments ended several years ago with the advent of 3rd party DSP solutions and Thunderbolt audio interfaces. Companies such as Universal Audio have been provided hardware accelerated plugin architecture for quite a while now. Even better? They function perfectly in a wide variety of DAW platforms instead of being tied down bottom up to a single vendor. Additionally, with Thunderbolt audio interfaces, we even have better access to low latency recording that under certain circumstances beats Avid's offering. The cons to these great offerings of the last several years come at the cost of their very design: in not being a top down solution from a single vendor building the hardware and software, it is largely left to users to build our their environments based on their needs and abilities rather than a team of QA engineers. While some might see this as a total con, I would actually refer to it as simply an alternative a la the difference between building your own studio PC or purchasing a Mac, albeitly without as many variations leading to possible issues.

Therefore in leaving Avid's Pro Tools, you're actually much more free to pursue products that fit you in a much better suited capacity, but from multiple vendors.

A Literal Plethora of Pro Tools Alternatives

Aside from the top down pros and cons of Avid's offering, let's take a moment to focus on popular alternatives to Pro Tools and Pro Tools Ultimate itself: other DAWs. I've used several DAWs over the years. As an electronic musician, we have a bit more freedom in our recording and writing environments. For some DAWs, I found they functioned really well in Rewire mode for Pro Tools and used them as additional writing tools. Over the past years, I've used Pro Tools extensively but I've also used Presonus Studio One, Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live, Propellerheads Reason, and Apple Logic Pro X in the past. While I won't be doing full reviews of each in this blog post (perhaps in the future though), I wanted to share my experiences with them in the context of a Pro Tools user who might be looking for an alternative to invest in. At the very least, hopefully I leave you with a basic overview of each. In each of the listings below, I'm going to be focusing on the highest tier versions of the product and not the feature-restricted entry versions. The prices listed below reflect these versions of the product.

MOTU Digital Performer (Sweetwater) - $499, $395*

MOTU Digital Performer

This is the one DAW I've always meant to investigate more. You may not hear about it in circles that chiefly revolve around Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Logic Pro X, but it's been around about as long as I've been alive. So what does Digital Performer have to offer that the other choices do not? While I don't have a lot of personal experience and am looking at giving it a thorough hands on, on paper this DAW calls out to me.

Being primary someone that works with MIDI controlled synthesizers, samplers and effects devices, I've always felt many of the DAWs on the market have fallen short with regard to external instruments in the hype of AAX/VST/AU effects/instruments. Whether you've never let your outboard gear go or are raiding and eBay for now-cheap gear from your favorite bygone eras, outboard gear for me at least plays a large role within my productions. Digital Performer, to me, based on talks with some other DP users and reading commentary on forums seems like a MIDI guy's or girl's DAW. Take Ableton Live, for instance. Awesome sampler, great sample manipulation, even a fairly straight forward I/O configuration setup. But no SysEx support? The heck? MOTU's Digital Performer looks like the gold standard, right up there at least if not beyond Steinberg's Cubase, when it comes to its MIDI engine implementation and workflow.

A fairly common criticism I hear about DP is that virtual instruments take up two tracks, one MIDI and one Instrument tracks that outputs audio. This is quite a bit different from working with virtual instruments in other DAWs where when you load a virtual instrument and write MIDI on that track while audio also plays from the track. What some might call a criticism I believe is people not appreciating the consistency of Digital Performer. I LOVE this concept. I love it with a passion. What this means is working with virtual instruments and outboard instruments is completely consistent, no longer requiring a mental checklist of configuring multi-timbral MIDI instruments when adding one to the project.

And I believe this type of common critique is just one example is the biggest crux MOTU faces: People simply can't distinguish from uncommon albeit better workflow implementations with their own common experiences. I have my suspicions that I'm going to love Digital Performer quite a lot. For my specific purposes, it represents my perfect Avid Pro Tools replacement: mature development and application, hardware and software integration from the same vendor, excellent MIDI features, and a stable of extremely talented fellow users to share experiences with.

After reviewing several years worth of posts and corresponding release notes of various DP releases over time, MOTU seems very much like a company insistent on not chasing fads but rather focuses on real improvements for its users and well baked feature request implementations. Too often, especially in some DAWs listed in this post and Avid's Pro Tools, it feels like a feature request turned upgrade feature was simply half assed with the expectation that people would go ahead and pay for the upgrade now while updates would be released that polished the implementation. This seems to be the antithesis of MOTU software development, which is very refreshing. Long term DP users like those found on Gearslutz and MOTUnation (unaffiliated with MOTU the company) seem very happy with their solution. It's quite a bit different from the groans and murmurs you'll hear elsewhere. Very sharp.

And this development methodology doesn't preclude DP getting rather large feature implementations. In the most recent release, version 10, DP gained a whole new view that takes inspiration from Ableton Live and like that found in new products like the Akai Force via the Clips Window, opening up a whole new world of methods not just for composition but for live performances as well.

MOTU Digital Performer 10's new Clips Window a la Ableton Live Session View and Akai Force

I'll be reporting my experiences with Digital Performer in another blog post in more detail, zeroing in on workflows coming from Pro Tools and working with external outboard gear in the context of electronic music.

*If you are coming from another DAW, be sure to check out MOTU's competitive upgrades which allow you to trade in your license for a competitors DAW in exchange for a $100 discount.

MOTU's competitive upgrade offer for Digital Performer

Apple Logic X (Apple Mac App Store) - $199.99

Logic Pro X by Apple

Apple has perhaps the most numerous feature set translations and commitment to excellence for anyone seeking to get off the Avid train and seek greener but similar pastures. After acquiring eMagic and all of its assets quite a long time ago, Apple has poured resources into its DAW and ecosystem. Both the market and third party vendors have responded in kind with virtually any type of hardware or software being very nearly guaranteed to work within Logic, something that I never quite had with Avid's Pro Tools.

Not only just investing in their acquired DAW, Apple has continued to provide excellent support to bring Logic into the future by acquiring other companies to pad the feature set of Logic such as when it recently acquired Camel Audio and repackaged all software into a Logic update for free for every Logic Pro X customer. Now, that's something really special that is unique to Apple so let's contemplate on Apple's position in the DAW-verse: Apple essentially uses Logic Pro X as a loss leader to sell more Macintosh hardware. Since the first release of Logic Pro X, every single point release since (and there have been many) have been released for free to all existing customers. These updates aren't anemic in nature and only existing to seemingly provide bullet points on a release notes pamplet either. Apple has continued to modernize and optimize Logic Pro X to the point where if you're on a Mac, you really should be considering Logic first.

Starting life much like some other DAWs where MIDI features were its bread and butter with audio features coming much later, Logic Pro X not only has perhaps one of the most comprehensive MIDI workflows of any DAW on the market, but the audio features are near second to none as well.

Keep in mind that I'm not an engineer recording other bands, I'm not running a studio for other bands, I'm a recording artist who records and mixes my own electronic music. Logic Pro X integrates not only software instruments and effects in a very clear, very Pro Tools-esque manner, but also integrates with external MIDI instruments and external audio paths for outboard gear all in a very consistent and easy to comprehend and perform manner.

While some features might not be completely represented from Pro Tools with a 1:1 analogue, Logic can't be ignored as a bonafide EDM powerhouse. And if you are a mixing engineer or running a studio, Logic Pro X from my estimates truly does represent the #2 alternative for that famed "industry standard". Popular with bands recording themselves, film and television composters, EDM artists and singer songwriters, Logic Pro X I believe represents a solid transition target for anyone fleeing the recent tyranny of Avid. For $199, it's at the very least worth checking out. I've owned Logic Pro X for many years and while I haven't (yet) started and finished a project within it, I have used it to write initial stems, melodies, and arrangements, all to great joy. With the wealth of plugins available and its solid mixing paradigm, there's really no reason I can't finish songs within this DAW and only simply preferred mixing stems in Pro Tools previously.

Presonus Studio One - (Sweetwater) - $399.95

Presonus Studio One 4.5

Presonus Studio One represents, in my opinion, the easiest transition away from Pro Tools. Attacking on all fronts, Presonus has upped their game and has challenged Avid's once great foothold over the industry by providing software, low latency audio interfaces, and mixing desk controllers. As such, they have continued to consistently drain away Pro Tools users that have previously given their no faith vote in Avid management and are becoming increasingly efficient at it.

Where Studio One shines I believe is its emphasis on the audio side of things. While it possesses a very strong MIDI workflow (that's improving with each release), it is making a transition for any Pro Tools user easier than the majority of the competition.

Its development started long after many of the other options listed in this blog, but Presonus has turned this into its advantage by being able to design it from the get go with modern features and avoiding the mistakes and fizzled out trends of yesteryear. With a good amount of developers coming from Steinberg to Presonus, their previous work on Nuendo has given Presonus an enormous amount of talent that are put to good use.

Updates are where Studio One really shines. Major versions are now around $149 while the initial purchase of the Professional edition is $400. You might say, well that $149 beats Avid's new upgrade price of $199 but it's still not as good as the $99 fee we had previously. And you're right to a degree, but Presonus upgrade path includes the much loved ".5" releases that contain just as many new features for that major version as its initial release completely free. So essentially you're getting several years worth of upgrades for $149. And they aren't skimpy features. Just check out the promotional material for the most recent Studio One 4.5 release.

Studio One's centerpiece feature has to be its workflow. As I mentioned before they got to skip over dealing with legacy designs by jumping into the DAW market late in the game. And they seem to be targeting Pro Tools users specifically with audio and mixing workflows. Small things like allowing operators to modify hardware pre-amp values per channel and endlessly configurable short cut modifications will make anyone's life easier.

It's my opinion that the vast majority of Pro Tools users should give Presonus Studio One Professional a shot when getting off the Avid wheel of uncertainty because the vast majority of Pro Tools operators aren't using Pro Tools as artists but as engineering personnel. While Studio One excels for these workflows, it also doesn't preclude musicians who are using Studio One as their primary DAW for compositions and exploratory song creation so it's a good option for all crowds.

In addition to the software, consider that Presonus is the only vendor that offers very low latency Thunderbolt powered audio interfaces in the form of their Quantum product line that hold up to HDX cards at a fraction of the price as well as mixers that double as audio interfaces such as the new Studio Live 64S. Strip away anything resembling arbitrary channel and I/O limits and one might find one kicking themselves for not switching to Studio One sooner.

Ableton Live Suite (Sweetwater) - $749.00

Ableton Live 10 Suite

I know many artists that primarily use Pro Tools and we all seem to have another application to handle drum programming, sample manipulation and core arrangement tasks that get piped into Pro Tools either via Rewire channels or by exporting stems to import into Pro Tools later. Ableton's Live DAW is commonly held up as the go to sketchpad chocked full of features that is nearly universally preferred among electronic artists.

The program is known in some circles for being extremely popular especially in the realm of live performances, but over time Ableton Live has been slowly built up into a very scalable and functional DAW in its own right. There are two main modes in Ableton Live that split emphasis on live performance and a more traditional DAW workflow named Session (live performance) and Arrangement (composition and arrangement). Ableton Live, especially in recent versions, has very little holding it back from being a suitable DAW for EDM workflows. It recently gained VST3 support opening a whole new world of plugins such as Roland Cloud and has very mature hardware controller support in the form of Ableton's own Push 2 and third party vendors such as Akai's APC product line.

One area I wouldn't recommend Ableton Live is large scale multi-channel recording for bands that don't focus on beat mapped production or mixing engineers or studio owners looking for something that can act as a scalable one size fits all solution. If you're recording electronic music, however, you should really own Ableton Live. If not to use as your primary DAW, then at the very least for use in Rewire mode in whatever DAW you end up replacing Pro Tools with. The sampler features alone make it easy to replace the best of the best from the likes of Akai and Native Instruments. Recording bands and you'll quickly run into situations where the DAW has obviously not been built for that task set.

As far as upgrade costs, Live releases tend to have extremely long multi-year lifespans. While each upgrade is $299, you'll be running on that version with many, many feature additions over several years.

Steinberg Cubase (Sweetwater, zZounds, AMS) - $579.99

Cubase Pro 10

Cubase is a monstrously deep program with options and considerations inherent in its design that go back literally decades. Famous among electronic artists for its amazing MIDI features and audio tracking capabilities, if you're leaving Avid's Pro Tools and have a MIDI-heavy environment controlling many external MIDI devices or are adamant about having a fully featured and well thought out MIDI editor, then you'll feel right at home with this DAW. The mixer, complete with VCA options in mixer channels, makes a mostly suitable replacement for your Pro Tools mixing experience.

Upgrade prices between versions are very fair and reward users that invest in the Cubase platform (rather than increase renewals 101% like Avid is now doing) by reducing upgrade costs for users that have updated to the more recent versions.

Steinberg as a company absolutely loves its users regardless of their role or use cases. Starting out as an obscure MIDI editor, the charm of the company hasn't left and even survived in flying colors following the purchase of Steinberg by Yamaha who has consistently invested in all product lines and brought it into entirely new industries.

It is notable to when talking about Cubase that the company that develops it also developed the plug-in formats of VST, VST2 and VST3 which except for Apple's Logic Pro X, is the competitor of Avid's own AAX platform.

I wouldn't call Cubase a drop in replacement for Pro Tools. In fact, I wouldn't saw that about any of the DAWs in this blog post. However, feature for feature, Steinberg's Cubase provides perhaps the most beneficial transition path out of Pro Tools land. You might have to relearn some of your common workflows, but you'll be rewarded with ease of use and quality of life improvements in doing so.

Upgrade costs range from $50 to $100 between versions, but Steinberg won't leave you out in the cold and take your blanket if you don't re-up for the last version or last several versions. Steinberg has several sales throughout the year and I got my upgrade for $50 during a sale for Cubase 10 Pro.

Steinberg Nuendo (Sweetwater) - $999.99

Steinberg Nuendo 10: For you surround folk on Ultimate looking for other options.

Nuendo is without a doubt a great Pro Tools Ultimate killer that's been waiting in the wings for years. Imagine all of the great feature sets of Cubase, but with extra finesse and love giving to workflows for a whole myraid of extra markets ranging from post-production to composition to video game audio development to surround mixing to Yamaha-powered mixing desk compatibility. This is Nuendo!

While Cubase will do just fine for your average electronic musician recording and writing their own music, Nuendo goes to 11 in all other realms usually associated with Pro Tools Ultimate. Surround mixing is something that has long been locked to Pro Tools users behind the Ultimate's larger fee and hardware requirements, but it comes freely in Nuendo. In fact, many post and media production studios have abandoned Pro Tools long ago to base their productions on Steinberg's top of the line DAW.

Better still, while Avid is increasing prices and seemingly punishing long term perpetual license owners, Steinberg has made much effort to give the power of its platform to ordinary users as well as larger production houses. This is what I like to see: large companies that know their customers make their revenue and treating them right and appreciating them. Rewarding Steinberg ecosystem end users, Nuendo was recently given a drastic price decrease from nearly $2k down to $999.99. Crossgrades from existing Cubase users are available. Steinberg seems intent on a mission to be as inclusive and helpful to its users as possible which to me is a breath of fresh air after years of Avid.

In Closing: Further Considerations

Remember how at the beginning of this blog post I talked about there being the factor of Avid providing a top down solution that made it hard to compare other competing products to? Again, this works in your favor and now I'll explain that further.

It's only relatively recently that Avid has allowed users to use third party audio interfaces. Either through DigiLink or on native Core Audio sound systems, the experience was nonetheless needlessly and unreasonably nerfed in both versions of Pro Tools, regular and Ultimate. These limitations such as a max or 32 I/O was obviously meant to drive users to seek out their next stage in the product line up, the HDX card solution in conjunction with Pro Tools Ultimate. And if prices weren't abrasive to home project studio and self-recording bands I would have been happy to ride up that ladder because the software is without a doubt very great. And that's the shocking part of the last nail for me: I love Pro Tools. I like it's design, I like it's work flow, and despite claims to the contrary, its MIDI capabilities were very comprehensive. But I don't like AVID. One can make all sorts of arguments (and I've seen plenty of straw men already out on the forums and social media) that the price hike is inconsequential if you use Pro Tools for a living or its central to your creative endeavors. However, that doesn't take into account reading between the lines and anticipating future product prices changes based on the actions of AVID in the past: AVID seems to want to shed its project studio and non-professional customer base and shift their larger customers over to subscription models. They claim this is what the industry is leading to and is what people want, but I disagree. In some cases, subscriptions make sense. I'm an ardent supporter of Roland Cloud. But for the DAW, no. I'm not renting my DAW, whatever I'm using for that project.

But this opens up the curious among who are looking at cutting Pro Tools out of our lives to these amazing alternative options, and not only that, we get to pick and choose how we deploy and use our collection of solutions. If there's any talk of abandoning Pro Tools, especially when institutional investments like HDX, HD Native, Avid Artist Mix, S3 or S6 control surfaces or Avid Pro Tools Docks are involved, we must consider alternatives as collections of solutions because we're necessarily moving away at that point from a single solution from a single vendor. What does this mean exactly? Magic. We can pick and choose which tools fit our work flow best. Do you want a massive amount of Thunderbolt-based low latency input and output ports to use a large amount of outboard gear or record from many sources at once? Grab yourself one of Presonus' Quantum 4848 and laugh heartily at AVID's needless limit on channel I/O (even in their Ultimate version). Want to get Neve transformers on your audio interface? Grab one of Steinberg's UR-RT interfaces and you're already going above and beyond what AVID is offering on the Pro Tools side. Mix and match, there are no real wrong answers, just a return to seeking the latest scuttlebutt on the latest and best combinations of software and hardware.

While consistency and one stop solution shopping have kept many of us locked in our usage of Pro Tools, I myself plan to fully explore Steinberg's Nuendo 10 platform in conjunction with my Presonus Quantum audio interface and later add DSP-powered effects processing with Universal Audio's UAD platform.

The sky is the limit and AVID has just invited many of us to more fully explore this amazing wild west of an AVID-free product and services horizon.

Working With Hardware Synths From The DAW With MIDI

Why Use Hardware Synthesizers?

Synthesizers have an utterly grand history. Within the context of working with them in a modern DAW, many musicians question the need to have hardware synthesizers at all when so many software synthesizers are available and arguably easier to use. One can get a lot of mileage out of physical synthesizers though, and some might say sounds that are simply unattainable by simply using software. After all, non-software synthesizers have different components that set them apart from what are essentially computer programs on the software-only side that introduce things that can't easily or at all be reproduced digitally.

There's a joy that's hard to describe when you're working with a synthesizer that's right in front of you, away from the computer screen, and outfitted with several knobs, sliders and fun quirky architectural designs.

Mario Mathy is having too much fun with hardware synthesizers...

Personally, I utilize both fairly evenly. There are times where the sound I want is possible in a software plugin, and yet there are times when the sound I am trying to formulate was popularized on a particular synth sitting somewhere in my studio. Do you remember the progressive trance fad of the late 1990s? A popular sound in those days for instance was what Roland called in their JP-8000 synthesizer the Supersaw waveform. It features several slightly detuned waveforms that defined an entire genre. It's quite easy to come up with similar sounds on a JP-8000 or JP-8080 today and this synthesizer is still yet capable of even more. It has a particular sound too, regardless of which patch or performance I have loaded in its memory. Additionally, chaining a device like an Eventide Blackhole Reverb or a BOSS RV-500 behind it, I come up with sounds found through happy mistakes much more often than when I load up a software instrument and play around with an init patch with the same old software effects plugins I have available for every other song I work on.

So why use physical synthesizers? First, variance. And second, there are still legitimately some sounds that software instruments, even attempted clones, struggle to replicate. And lastly, third, fun! This article attempts to cover the concept of hardware synthesizers for people that have only previously used software instruments but understand the basic concept of sending notes to an instrument and getting sound out. Although, it is also useful for the person that has bought their first desktop synth or rackmount synth that doesn't have its own keyboard and relies on external MIDI data to effectively use it.

Ports On A Synth

Synthesizers have a lot of differences between vendor, make, and model. Some have built in effects, some can act as effects processors for specific inputs, some can play multiple instruments on different channels and route them to different outputs. Synthesizers though from any vendor can usually be trusted to include the following as a base standard: one MIDI in, one MIDI out, and either a mono out or a stereo out. While some synths have more features and more connectivity, let's focus on that basic set of ports.

Behringer DeepMind 12D, we want to focus on its audio outputs and MIDI in and out ports

First, what is MIDI? Can I run audio through it? Can I run MIDI through audio cables? I don't understand! Don't despair. MIDI is simply a simple messaging protocol designed to send and receive data between MIDI devices. This data can be exposed to a computer running a DAW via the use of a MIDI interface. Most DAWs, in an effort to make software instruments easier to handle, actually confuse the subject of hardware synthesizers for many users I think. In most DAWs, you load up an instrument track and you have your audio and piano roll all on one track. Keep in mind that this is a shortcut designed to help composers. And for virtual instruments, it makes sense. If you need to record the audio out from that virtual instrument, you'd just route it to another channel or bus and record there, easy peasy. In a DAW utilizing a hardware synth though, you generally need to create at least a MIDI track for notes, knob values, program changes and sysex dumps and either a mono or stereo audio track for monitoring and recording. This gets more complicated when you start factoring in MIDI editor/librarians, synths with mulitple internal instruments that can be controlled per channel, etc, so let's keep this basic at the moment.

MIDI Interfaces for MIDI Devices

For the MIDI setup of controlling a hardware synthesizer, I highly suggest using either the MOTU Midi Express 128 or the MOTU Midi Express XT. Beginners will probably want to start with the Midi Express 128 because it's USB and easier to set up and manage. The features of the Express XT will probably be lost on most people and the benefits of running MIDI over USB can't be discounted for proper housekeeping (at least in macOS). Remember not to put the Midi Express 128 on a USB hub, unless it's directly from a Thunderbolt USB hub as hub connection encapsulation will introduce jitter to your MIDI channels which you absolutely do not want. Are there other vendors out there besides MOTU? Can't you just use a USB to a single MIDI in/out adapter? You can, but I would only use them in the early stages of becoming acquainted with working with MIDI in conjunction with external MIDI devices. Both MOTU MIDI devices I mentioned support 8 MIDI in and 8 MIDI out and are relatively cheap.

MOTU Midi Express 128 front and back

So I mentioned MIDI in and MIDI out a moment ago, let's consider the importance of that with regard to an hardware syntheszier. On the ports available on a hardware synth, you'll likely find two MIDI ports marked in, out and sometimes thru. To avoid jitter and software quirks with thru mode, I'd encourage you for now at least to focus on the in and out MIDI ports. Also, on your MIDI interface, if you have a MOTU Midi Express unit, you'll also see sets of MIDI ports marked in and out. When running a MIDI cable between your instrument to your MIDI interface, you'll want to run the output MIDI port on the hardware instrument to the input MIDI port on the MIDI interface. Likewise, you'll want to run the input MIDI port on the hardware instrument to the output MIDI port on the MIDI interface. Confused? Think of it like a water fall: water flows out the hardware synth's out INTO the MIDI interface and water flows out of the MIDI interface INTO the hardware synth.

Party Like It's 1983

Couldn't this just use a single cable? This is confusing! It might seem this way to you at the time, but this actually works in your favor. Save for some quirks of very early MIDI-enabled hardware synthesizers, the format and method of communication hasn't changed much if at all since 1983! How is this crazy old technology working in your favor then? Because I can take a Roland Juno-106 released in 1984 and plug it up to my MIDI interface and talk to it from my DAW effortlessly without any problems. MIDI is quite incredible!

Roland Juno-106, one of the first synthesizers to use MIDI. Still compatible today with contemporary DAWs. Amazing!

It's DAW time Part 1: MIDI Inputs

So now that you have your synthesizer is plugged up to your MIDI interface which is connected to your computer where your DAW is running, you should be able to successfully complete two tasks: 1) sending MIDI data from the DAW, and 2) receiving MIDI data into the DAW from the instrument.

In your DAW, create a MIDI channel. The process for this is slightly different in every DAW, however it's a basic enough concept that if you go to add a track you should be able to choose to add a MIDI track. Some DAWs have what's known as an Instrument Track. This is not what you want because as I mentioned earlier those are combined MIDI/audio tracks used exclusively for virtual instruments. When you add your MIDI track in the DAW, you'll now want to configure the input and output MIDI ports for the instrument. If your MIDI interface has multiple ports, use the corresponding port to the hardware synth you are attempting to control. You'll additionally have the option to choose a MIDI channel on that port. Some DAWs output this to all, but go ahead and set it to channel 1.

To record MIDI data (like the notes you play on a keyboard or changes to knob values), arm your MIDI track for recording. This is very much like arming an audio track for recording. Starting recording on your DAW and then press some random notes on your hardware synths keyboard. Stop recording from your DAW, and you should now see those notes as the DAW captured them via MIDI.

But my hardware synth doesn't have a keyboard, how do I capture notes from it? In this case, with the exception of capturing MIDI cc values for knob/slider controls and possibly sysex data, you don't and we can move onto the next test.

It's DAW time Part 2: MIDI Outputs

So if you were able to complete the input MIDI recording, you should now have some sort of MIDI data in front of you. If you do, disarm your MIDI track in the DAW and press play. If you have both MIDI input and output working correctly you should now see your synth probably makes some lights denoting activity in receiving MIDI data. If you've completed both, you've just controlled your synth with the DAW (outputs) and recorded MIDI data from your synth into your DAW (inputs).

It's DAW time Part 3: Monitoring and Recording

Now that you've got your MIDI ports set on the track channel, you'll probably want to hear and record your hardware synth! Depending on how you have your hardware synth's audio plugged into your interface, you'll want to create either a mono or stereo audio track in your DAW. Once this is done, you want to change the audio input source to the ports used. To be clear, your audio interface will likely have two or more audio inputs. The ones corresponding to the audio output of the hardware synth is what you want to choose. Now in your DAW, you will have options depending on the software you're using. Some DAWs automatically monitor an audio track that is armed for recording while some you have to specifically set to monitor to listen and arm to record to record. After setting your audio track to monitor you should be able to hear your synth when you either press keys on the synths keyboard or when you hit play in your DAW and allow it to play the previously recorded MIDI data you recorded.

Multiple MIDI channels on a ports

Some hardware synths, romplers and samplers support up to 16 instruments that can be independently controlled. A popular hardware synth with independent instrument controls is the Access Virus. I have an Access Indigo2, which is an Access Virus C with a three octave keyboard built in. The sounds of the Indigo2 can get really amazing and complex when you layer multiple instruments together and they can be independently controlled by channels on the MIDI port. I can load patches on each channel, and even play multiple parts with a single synth such as having the Indigo2 which I keep on port MOTU Midi Express 128 (A) 2 loaded with a bass patch on port 2 channel 1, plucks on port 2 channel 2, pads on port 2 channel 3, and lead synth patch on port 2 channel 4. To take control of all of thsee channels, in my DAW I'll want to create 4 different MIDI tracks using the same port but pointed to the corresponding channel and either play and record by channel or draw out the notes by hand with a mouse or some other MIDI input device like a Novation LaunchPad. Some synths pipe all channel audio out through a single interface (like the Roland Boutique TR-09), but on my Access Indigo2 I have up to six audio outputs I can use in mono or stereo mode. If I use different audio outs on the hardware synth, then like how I set up MIDI tracks for each channel, I'll create multiple audio tracks in the DAW for each corresponding audio input on the audio interface.

The Mystery Islands Music Virus|HC editor/librarian. Notice on the left it allows you to modify each of the 16 channel instruments available on a Virus C-class. In the DAW, each patch corresponds to a specific MIDI channel on the port it's connected to.

Fun Things To Try

When working with multiple synths on different ports or a combination of that and an instrument with multiple instruments per channel on a single port, I like to periodically and rather randomly drag MIDI events from one MIDI track in the DAW to a separate one. You never know what might sound good in a different patch on a different instrument and this can lead to many happy accidents.

Also, when arming a specific MIDI track to record, try arming multiple MIDI tracks to record to start testing out laying sounds. What will happen is that as long as your MIDI tracks that are selected have the same input MIDI channel (commonly set to a master MIDI controller in most home studios), you played on that MIDI controller will send that notation, velocity, and sometimes aftertouch MIDI data (if your controller and hardware synths support it) to multiple instruments at once.

Patchbays For A Home Studio


After sharing some photographs of upgrades I've made to my home studio, I received a few private messages from people who asked how I set various devices up.  Thinking about it, I think it would be a good idea to start a blogging feature for the website to explain and share such things and get feedback.

To explain my current layout, I feel I really need to explain the layout I had before and the needs I had that led me towards a mixer-less patchbay configuration. I'll describe my previous setup and its inherent limitations, the technology breakthroughs that made me reconsider a patchbay oriented environment, and the method I used to configure and wire my patchbays.

Organized, but unorthodox

The Cheap But Manageable Old System

If you've followed my posts for the last couple of years, you'll know that I've started to utilize more and more outboard gear in my audio production while maintaining what I feel are the core benefits of ITB (inside-the-box) audio production.  The decision to go forward with the home studio patchbay project is tied directly to the concepts of outisde the box and inside the box audio production.

The advent of "prosumer" super low latency audio interfaces is really pushing the boundaries of the value one can squeeze out of a home music studio on a budget. Previously, audio interfaces not in the pro market ran on connection interfaces on the computer using formats such as USB or Firewire, opposed to the PCIe interfaces with much lower levels of latency in the pro market. While these USB and Fireware devices made it easy for one to easily record multiple streams of audio and sequence audio playback, they did so at the cost of the medium sacrificing latency. The latency derived from the amount of time it took audio to traverse the computer software and hardware bus. While you were spending a fraction of the cost of say a top of the line Avid HDX system with PCIe interface and DSP processing, you had to deal with the fact that realtime audio manipulation would incur much latency in the process if you ever planned to send audio in and out of your computer for further processing.

The majority of people using these USB and Firewire devices, if they lived entirely ITB, were for the most part unaffected by this. At most, they would need to adjust their audio buffer higher if they had many plugins running at once, but other than that it was painless.

Some people however have lots of outboard gear traditionally made for OTB (outside-the-box) environments or pro low latency environments with plentiful i/o ports. As I'm writing this, it is currently 2019 and I have a plethora of outboard audio equipment. Synthesizers, distortion units, compressors, limiters, filters, reverbs, delays, samplers, you name it and it's here.

Previously on USB and Firewire devices I could get by using a pair of in and out ports and capture the channel's wet return. On some outboard devices the aforementioned latency causes no real issues. Compressors and distortion effects notably. However, doing so with reverb and delay units always introduced a consistent albeit lofi charmingly annoying delay on the recorded return. When recording instruments such as guitar, synthesizer, samplers, drums, and vocals, one frequently needed to determine the amount of samples the recorded was offset and correct it.

At the time I believed the best way to squeeze the value out of my gear was to record with a mixer as a front end to my audio interface as well as to manage insert and aux effects. I never had any intention of mixing on my 32-channel Behringer SX3242FX, I just needed a wide variety of channels available while composing. When I needed to process something already recorded it was easily enough to run it back through the mixer, to the effects devices or via the aux channels, and rerecord the colored return. This worked out fairly well for some time, but really limited 1) by the amount of chains you go in and out and 2) by the time it took to wire everything up into the correct insert or aux ports.

There were times where I was discouraged from having to make the routes through the mixer as it was an ardous process. When I gave into that discouragement I also begin to hear where I was missing that fun outboard processing happy accident quality that one gets physically playing with knobs away from a computer screen. As time went on I squeezed the best of both worlds as best as I could knowing I wasn't getting the full benefits of my outboard gear due to the limitations of the technology that came burdened with latency in exchange for its affordable price tag.

Thunderbolt Revolution

And then the most wonderful two things in a long time happened to the music production industry: 1) Apple and Intel pioneered the Thunderbolt spec, a USB-like direct PCIe connection via cable and 2) Vendors started shipping Thunderbolt-enabled interfaces specifically tailored to take advantage of the increased bandwidth and speed that Thunderbolt provided.

At first, it wasn't great. The few vendors who shipped initial offerings simply re-used their existing USB based designs with a Thunderbolt connector, with the chipsets effectively using Thunderbolt as a USB hub wrapper. The result was no real benefit other than bandwidth of audio.

When proper Thunderbolt audio interfaces started to hit the market, however, it was like a kick of lightning. Many vendors have them in place these days, and the one I chose to go with was the Presonus Quantum. This audio interfaces is a beast and I've been able to get HDX levels of low-latency audio out of it for a fraction of the cost. Supporting 8 channels in / 8 channels out, and optional 16 channels in / 16 channels out via ADAT/lightpipe, it is a fully native Thunderbolt 2 interface with all the speed you expect from a super fast PCIe port and with all of the ease of use of a USB device.

It no longer made sense to utilize my mixer as a front end interface for all of my outboard equipment when this cheaply priced Quantum could handle those connections natively and with more routing possibilities. In most DAWs you can easily set up outboard equipment and use it either on a bus or like a plugin. I was able to test up to 10 loops back and forth in this manner with a combined latency of no more than 12ms which was incredible. For a single one, it goes down closer to 2-3ms. The roundtrip tests made me quicly realize I needed to be able to quickly patch my devices in arbitrary configurations per session to get the most out of my outboard gear.

Enter The Patchbays

Patchbays are as old as audio recording, or very nearly there. In essense, the purpose of a patchbay is to provide a front end in physical form for instruments, audio signal processors, audio inputs and audio outputs. Traditionally, patchbays are configured uniformly where outputs are on the top row and inputs are on the bottom. All your gear plugins into the back of them leaving you only having to use a smaller patch cable in the front to patch maybe a synth from one output, to a compressor, and then to a distortion pedal, and then to an in on your audio interface all without having to go behind your ever growing cabinet of gear and cable mess behind your desk. No more managing cables directly from one device to another, just wire the path together on the front of the patchbay and you're good to go!

Normal, Half-Normal, and Thru

There are usually 3 main modes that port sets on a patchbay can be configured as: normal, half-normal, and thru.

Before purchasing all the equipment I needed to set up the patchbay, I re-read up on the terms and methods used to make sure I would have everything I needed. For the most part, people usually tend to use a patchbay in half-normal mode, although in your home studio you can do really whatever you want because few people will ever use your studio the way you do.

With the different types of devices in play, I split my gear into 3 categories: 1) instruments, 2) effects units, and 3) audio interface I/O ports. From there it became more clear how I was going to configure my patchbays.

Instruments - When thinking of most instruments, the vast majority of them are going to have outputs exclusively. Because you're effectively not worried about input, THRU mode on a patchbay would work well because you can effectively use the top and bottom ports of the patchbay independently of each other. If you have a 48 port patchbay, you'll be able to fit 48 instrument outputs in THRU mode if you set each port set to THRU.

Effects Units - You really have a choice here, however I chose to go with HALF-NORMAL mode. The outputs of my effects units went on top, and the inputs went on bottom. Think of it like a waterfall, the audio comes out from the top and falls down. If you have a 48 port patchbay, you'll be able to fit 24 effect unit input and outputs in both HALF-NORMAL and NORMAL modes.

Audio Interface I/O - Unlike Instruments, we are dealing with both inputs and outputs with this category, however unlike effects units in which the audio signal is purposefully linked between the output of a device and its in during the signal flow, you definitely want audio interfaces inputs and outputs to function independently of one another. For this reason, I chose to go with THRU mode on all 24 inputs and outputs my Presonus Quantum and two Behringer ADA8200 channel strips afforded me. I keep the same layout, with all of my outputs on top and all of my inputs on the bottom. In the DAW, I can send anything from a previously recorded piece of audio to a live virtual instruments out through my patchbay, to effects units, and back to an input port, all without getting out of my chair.

The possibilities are endless

Other Possibilities

You can wire your studio up any way you please, there's no one right way, although there are definent wrong ways. Experiment and ask others. If you have a Thunderbolt interface and want to experiment with outboard gear, I suggest to start small. Back in the day I started with guitar pedals I had lying around. There's something really great about outboard gear that plugins have never captured for me, although plugins certainly have their place in my home studio along with ITB mixing capabilities.

And you aren't limited to my setup. The people I talked with about this project beforehand told me about all sorts of fun things they were doing. In addition to the things I ended up adopting, they were able to easily run audio outs from the patchbay to their mixers so they could mix OTB. This brings up a good distinction between the method I've adopted and pure OTB mixing: while I'm using outboard gear, I'm effectly using them to color audio as I record it, or as plugin/route wrappers routing hardware signals, that only works as well as it does because of the super low latency Presonus Quantum. But wiring up my patchbay as I did, I can mix OTB if I wanted to with 1-24 TRS cables, or do half and half splitting up outputs between effects routing and outputs to a mixer.

The benefit is clear though: my back won't hurt nearly as much constantly jumping behind my racks and wiring things together by hand. That's worth its weight in gold for me.