A young, aspiring musician walks into a consumer electronics store. (Let’s call it Big Buy, and imagine people wearing… red polo shirts.) They wander into the game aisle and muse at the latest music games in the video game section – $60-100 in price. But there’s an endcap with something else: a box of Pro Tools that’ll run on their computer, plus a ready-to-use audio interface, for $99-129. Instead of Guitar Hero, they leave with Pro Tools – a name they already knew.

See full details of the new lineup, with photos.

This idea is nothing new – for many years, it’s been possible to do great stuff with $100 on a computer. But the most powerful brand in music production (Pro Tools) has remained notably absent. Instead, that hypothetical consumer would find a smattering of consumer-only choices with names they likely wouldn’t recognize. Meanwhile, the name “Pro Tools,” and the software interface that made it popular, have been limited to more complex offerings sold through specialists.

Today changes all of that. Gone is the idea that “Pro Tools” is only for the high end. Gone is the iLok hardware dongle. (You still need either the Micro or Fast Track interface plugged in, but the target market for this product may not care.)

There are three offerings:

A vocal studio, bundled with a USB mic (similar to M-Audio’s Luna).

A “recording” studio, bundled with a simple USB bus-powered audio interface (the previously-available Fast Track.

The “KeyStudio”, bundled with a 49-key USB keyboard. The software comes with 60+ virtual instruments, says Avid, so you’ve got quite a lot to play.

The software included in each has some limitations – it has 32 tracks (16 audio, 8 instrument, and 8 MIDI), and more basic routing options (3 inserts per track, 2 audio inputs, and 2 outputs). The absence of multitrack recording is probably the biggest restriction. But you nonetheless get a range of virtual instrument sounds and effects, plus a full complement of editing and mixing features.

On the same day that people are rediscovering The Beatles through a video game, and video games are causing people to rediscover music making, you can buy a studio for about the same price.

Now, if you’re reading this site, that’s probably not news. But it could be news to quite a lot of people who haven’t discovered computer music making. And it represents a tectonic shift in how the titan of music making software treats its flagship.

What’s hard to overstate is how profoundly Avid has changed overnight some of the rules they themselves wrote. There’s no diplomatic way to put this: for years, Avid/Digidesign has been a dinosaur, with all the negatives and positives that can come from that. They have all the heft of a dinosaur, the footprint – and all of the kind of ongoing assumptions about how to do business. The whole modus operandi of Pro Tools seems to have been protecting the crown jewels. The idea of something called Pro Tools sold to a genuine mass market at this price, without any differentiation between “consumer” and “pro” or “mass-market” and “musician” is largely new. And that could point to a sea change for the whole industry further in the future.


In fact, even Avid’s competition has followed the unspoken rule that your flagship product and the crippled version you sell to the mass market have to be kept isolated. Apple is careful to distinguish Garage Band from Logic, iMovie from Final Cut. Ableton’s entry-level versions of Live have key features removed – even the LE version that costs about twice what Pro Tools Essentials, with hardware, does. Cakewalk doesn’t call its entry-level software SONAR. MOTU doesn’t have an entry-level Digital Performer. Steinberg has Nuendo, Cubase… and, remember, most people who have never heard of any of these things have heard of Pro Tools. The result is the industry takes a bunch of names that aren’t well-known to the general public, and then …adds more.

The kind of gymnastics manufacturers do to keep the low-end from being the “real” product sometimes border on absurdist.

For instance, take M-Audio’s Fast Track, the interface now included with Pro Tools Essentials Studio. It’s a simple box with a USB jack and some audio inputs. But a first-time consumer probably wants to plug it into a computer – including a Windows PC that lacks a pre-installed GarageBand – and have something happen.

The Fast Track is marketed as coming from “M-AUDIO,” a company most people outside our bubble have never heard. It’s “compatible” with Pro Tools “M-Powered” (not an actual word). Oh, except that’s a separate purchase – and it comes with a special plastic USB dongle that you have to plug into your computer called the iLok. The average consumer hasn’t ever seen hardware copy protection.

On the Fast Track product page, the fine print about how the other software bundles work is longer than the description of the actual product.

*M-Audio Session software is available in Fast Track USB packages sold at consumer electronics retailers, and currently works only with Fast Track USB and M-Audio Micro hardware. If you purchased a Fast Track USB package from your local pro audio dealer, you received a professional software bundle including Ableton Live Lite. If you wish to purchase Session for use with your Fast Track USB, it is available directly from M-Audio for only $25 (valued at $69.95). Purchase Session now.”

What’s Session? That’s another software product, unrelated to Pro Tools.

Hell, I’m confused, and I do this for a living.

Now, instead of that complexity, you can get one box that includes both the Fast Track and Pro Tools Essentials, without any of the fine print. (As pictured.) If those stores had decent commissions, I’d just park myself in one around the holiday season.


Don’t get me wrong: Pro Tools Essentials has tough competition. GarageBand has been down this path before, minus the hardware and the “Pro Tools” name, but with the very serious “Apple” name attached. The aforementioned Rock Band franchise will now have its game songs produced in Reaper, a $60 piece of software that does for some of its advanced users what Pro Tools might. The hardware tie-ins here, ironically, may be less valuable to people than the software – Pro Tools, more than a keyboard or mic, is likely to sell the packages.

The bottom line, though, is that a box that says “Pro Tools” at $99 is important to the whole industry. And if Avid is redefining what a “Pro” tool is, something bigger than even Avid really is shifting. The technological shift is hardly new, but the ability to recognize that in the market has been a long time coming.

I’m curious to see what will happen next.

  • Jordaan

    The software industry must really be taking a hit these days. Just look at recent native instruments price reduction of their essentials package and now this development from the protools. I'm not sure what repercussions this might have industry wide. The protools brand image has, even with its branching off into m-audio, been marketed as a professional suite. While it does open protools up to a larger audience, is a niche audio tool able to bridge the divide between pro and novice user to the same extent that garage band has sought out a general audience? I don't know.. but kudos to them for trying : )

  • @Jordaan: I don't read this situation that way. I sat down with some of the Avid folks – and incidentally, they were people from the consumer side. I didn't get a "cut our losses, clear out Pro Tools as cheaply as you possibly can!" I think it's a growth play. Whether it works or not, I agree – that remains to be seen.

    I'm sure Avid is taking a hit in some of its businesses, but that's not a new trend. And on the other hand, they have some interesting growth at the high-end, as with their live audio consoles.

    I don't think GarageBand is any more or less a niche audio tool than Pro Tools. I think that's been the challenge for all of this stuff. You have a huge, huge population who wants to do stuff with music on their computers. But there's a disconnect between that desire and these tools on offer for them, which, no matter how you package them, do remain a bit foreign.

  • This is an interesting post Peter. I particularly like your comment about the 'disconnect' between the human desire to make music with computers, and the tools available. I wonder how this can be resolved? Perhaps we'll see a move towards more game-like or instrument-like interfaces that encourage a more exploratory approach to music-making?

    Like you, I'm curious to see what will happen next…

  • It *was* an interesting post, but not interesting enough to make it all boldface! Sorry – fixed!

    @Jamie: You know, I think part of the reason why that hasn't changed is that you really do *want* a lot of those tools in order to produce. So it's hard to reduce complexity without also reducing functionality. I think because there's such desire for people to get into production, particularly from talented musicians who are smart enough to learn from it, it may simply be a matter of getting the tools in their hands and teaching them how to use them.

    Look at the graphics/video side. Those tools are really quite challenging to use, perhaps more so – and less fun – than the audio tools. But for whatever reason, the software makers have been able to bridge the gap between themselves and the users. If it's possible there, it should still be possible in music.

  • cody

    Does the Keystation/Microphone version of PT Essentials require a dongle 1/8. in io thing?

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  • mediawest

    the better the gear gets, the worse the music is…. more power than my major studio ten years ago….

  • @cody: It seems it *may* – I'm trying to get confirmation on that.

  • London

    The article fails to realize one thing. That to limit this software was a fairly simple exercise for AVID and in doing so they are able to leverage a largely untapped market into the DAW that all other DAW derive from. Smart work by AVID, but not such smart journalism.

  • @Jordaan: I checked out the Native Instruments site after reading that, and indeed the Komplete 6 pack has been effectively halved in price! I was considering getting the Kore 2 upgrade to Komplete earlier this year, which then cost about €700 – but now the full Komplete bundle is €499. That's an impressive reduction…

  • So once again, consumers are encouraged to (a) believe that there is no inherent skill/training required to record and mix music (b) buy an entry-level toolset that will let them down the moment they get serious (c) continue to support the company that has done the most damage to cross-industry cooperation and open standards. Wonderful. Inevitable.

  • it will be interesting to see what happens – the pro arguement is that it puts the basic tools for music production to a whole new audience, which is undoubtedly a good thing.

    on the negative, it could end up with a big pile of returned boxes in AVIDs warehouse – I used to supply Evolution (pre-M-Audio) keyboards such as MK-249 to the consumer channel in the UK and the number we got back with the "sounds not working" fault was unbelievable – if Avid don't get their marketing right and make it very simple, it could be a problem.


  • Paul, come on.

    a) In the real world, any average consumer who sees THAT screenshot is going to immediately think they need skill AND training. Give me a break.

    b) As far as I can tell, this is Pro Tools software with full RTAS support. It wouldn't be my first recommendation, necessarily, but I don't think it's going to let anyone down, either.

    c) You know I'm generally not a fan of getting locked into Digidesign's hardware and plug-in spec (though I have had impassioned arguments with at least one developer for RTAS/TDM who at least made a case for why they like the platform). Avid says that "interoperability" is one of their goals. I don't see it here, so yes, I'm ready to hold their feet to their fire on that one.

    At the same time, I don't think you can blame Avid for all the industry's problems with cooperation and interoperability. Hell, if it *were* entirely Avid's fault, why wouldn't other host makers have native JACK support and some kind of open plug-in standard (I'm sure you'll agree VST doesn't count).

  • @Stephen – indeed, and I should qualify, the sea change is relative to Avid's marketing strategy in the past (Pro Tools FREE notwithstanding). Whether they're successful is an entirely different question, and I hear (and agree with some of) the criticisms.

  • Beh

    Lets hope it works better then pro tools free did on windows 98, or this will put off consumers in their thousands.

  • a) peter, you know as well as i do that the story ("dream") they are being sold and are going to be sold is that you "plug it in and record your music". this story is at best deceptive, at worst a lie.

    b) i wasn't referring to RTAS, merely to the lack of multitracking. although there are oodles of home recording situations where track-by-track will work fine, even for the most basic case of guitar+voice its pretty inconvenient to not have MT recording capabilities. the moment someone expands to band-level recording, even trios, the lack of it will hit hard. and then we touch on the hardware: a 2 channel interface. once again, an "obvious choice" for beginners. for beginners, that is, who are never informed that it frequently makes more sense to invest up front in a better, and more capable interface. problem is, you sell less devices like this because people upgrade less often.

    c) as for other host makers and JACK: well, a few do but they don't use it to try to sell stuff, in part a consequence of our (the JACK crew's) failure to productize JACK "sufficiently". moreover, what do they imagine they would gain? their apps already work with JACK on the platforms they care about, they just lack transport sync. who is going to persuade them that there is a reason to add new API to provide that?

    d) as for open plugin standards: i participated in and watched what happened to GMPI as it was hijacked by the MMA's expectations, and how much this set back any effort to ever do this again. how do you build an open standard for plugins and have it be successful when the 800lb gorilla in the room declares from the outset that they will not play? (oh, and also the 300lb gorilla known as Apple Inc. says the same thing).

  • a) Indeed, but… it's interesting, right? I'm fairly certain that audio software looks to average musical consumers like the inside of a 747. On the other hand, those same consumers I believe *don't* necessarily want things dumbed down – they want to have the full range of functionality. In the end, I do think this stuff balances itself out.

    b) True, though these are familiar issues. To me, the news here was that, instead of dividing its user base into silos, Avid is trying to treat them all at once. And I think that is news. Now, I also agree with you that the offerings still have some divisions… which is why I still like non-Pro Tools solutions. 😉

    c.) Me? Actually, for the sake of argument – pretend I'm a developer. I want to add transport sync because I want to have the most modern music tool on the market. What's my next step? Where would I go for API documentation? Oh, and – it has to run on every OS.

    d.) Well, this is why I wasn't going to pin it on Avid alone. There are a number of gorillas, of which Avid, big as it is, is just one. (And if we're talking MMA and we bring hardware in, Avid isn't even the biggest gorilla. Not to mention, I have some issues with the way the MMA itself as an entity has treated issues over the years.) I don't have a good answer to your question, but it seems to me that the process there is broken. But I was talking strictly marketing here. And I have to remain realistic about the fact that, as important as these issues are to me, they're not necessarily important to everyone. I *do* think they're important, but that also means they deserve discussion in a separate context.

    In this context, though, I'll say this – I think it's equally big news that Reaper is the DAW of choice for Rock Band Network. I don't think the universe revolves around Rock Band – don't get me wrong – but it illustrates that there's an entirely new playing field. And Reaper, unlike Avid, is essentially an independent effort just like Ardour. I can't speak for Justin, but the fact that you can just email Justin and make a case for, say, JACK transport support is a radically different situation. And I think Reaper – not just because of Rock Band Network – has every opportunity to make a play for these new potential consumers that Pro Tools does.

    Without making the "dream" elusive, let's at least say this – there are great musicians out there who *are* smart enough and patient enough to learn how to use a DAW properly, who haven't yet gotten turned on to doing it.

  • Peter Kim said: "the fact that you can just email Justin and make a case for, say, JACK transport support is a radically different situation"

    I don't see how this is different than appealing to Avid. Justin may be more likely to implement it, but it's still the same process.

    In Ardour, ANYONE can download the code and add their own features and redistribute it. You don't even need the consent of the developers, because it's already granted via the GPL. That IS a radically different situation.

    Back on topic, though:

    This is further proof that recording technology has become commoditized. It's just not that hard or expensive to shuffle audio bits around. Making it "sound good" on the other hand …

  • I'm actually not saying Avid's not approachable; I think it's actually tougher for them to take on a technology like this.

  • OK, re-reading your post I think I see what you meant. There's definitely been a "leveling" of the playing field. And the Rock Band stuff _is_ cool. Using Reaper was a much better idea than rolling their own editor.

  • Richard Connor

    Avid have tried this in the past and as Steve Parker has said already this type of product can lead to a lot of returned products due to poor user guides, steep learning curves (for absolute beginners) or incompatibilities with other hardware / OS service packs. As these are mostly class compliant hardware products and the software is trying to be an all encompassing and closed app this may help especially with customer support.

    Let's just hope that Avid can cope with the demand and resulting customer support emails and phone calls!

  • Yes, it's risky getting out in the marketplace with an entry level product, no question about it. Support and returns are a bear. M-Audio has some experience out there, though.

    Also, I have to say:

    I'm a huge advocate of open plug-in SDKs.

    I believe in hardware choice.

    I think hardware drivers can and should work better than they sometimes … do. On the other hand, I have some gear with great ASIO, Core Audio support, etc.

    But I have to admit, I believe part of why Avid sticks to its closed hardware and closed plug-in approach isn't just that it gives them control over this ecosystem – it's because it also gives them control over compatibility, testing, and support. At the end of the day, it doesn't necessarily mean their stuff works any better than the competition's, but it does mean they have a less daunting picture as far as compatibility, testing, and the ability of someone else's stuff to break theirs (and they still have their hands full).

    It's just a reality of making computer audio work. It's awesome, but it's not easy.

  • @peter: i'd totally agree with your assessment of Avid's reasoning. to be frank, i'd love to be able to do that with Ardour, and i'd bet that cockos would love to do the same with Reaper, and steinberg with … etc. etc. Its a difficult judgement whether users are better served by trying to support as much as possible or by simply saying "this is the platform, if you are not on it, we don't support it/it doesn't run".

  • This is a conversation I have with developers all the time. Of course, the flipside is that – while it happens more by accident than design – having to support those multiple platforms can ultimately make the code more robust. Or from the user's perspective, any developer who can survive that probably knows what they're doing. I think that's just as true with the free and open source projects as it is the commercial ones.

    I think on the open source side, too, whatever Stallman says, if you can hook people on Mac and Windows, they're more likely to run Linux — especially these days, when half the people I know are saying, you know, Linux could be perfect for that netbook…

  • @peter: by "platform" i actually meant specific combinations of hardware more than operating system choices, but sure, your point still stands (mostly).

  • I will definitely buy this as a gift for a friend who is intimidated by computers but wants to record. Hopefully the installation and stability of this version will not have issues. The system requirements shouldn't be too demanding. It would be great if a first generation Mbox would work as the dongle. I have an extra one sitting around gathering dust, but I bet the software is specifically looking for an M-Audio product…..

  • Phil Radelat

    This is a joke. Who in their right mind would buy this crippleware? Avid needs to wake up to the reality of this industry. You can't force people to use proprietary hardware and crippled software and think you can bank on a name alone.

    There's plenty of hardware-independent solutions out there with FAR more production power than this garbage. Especially for it's price! Avid is too ignorant and arrogant and will never see the light.

  • Tony

    Bill Colbert wrote : "I will definitely buy this as a gift for a friend who is intimidated by computers but wants to record."

    If you can, give this a second thought. Protools is not automatic and in no way as simple to use or as compatible as, say Audacity for pure audio recording, or Garageband on the Mac for most smaller music tasks.

    Protools in notoriously unstable these days. Approach this with caution and maybe ask around for a devcent cheap interface with good driver support. Your friend can then try out Audacity for starters, and go for Reaper next.

    Don't think for a second, that Protools Essential users streaming to the Digidesign forums will get a boatload of help. Be prepared to answer lots of questions.

  • Kelly

    This is not a joke. And is a PRIME reason I'm heading towards the Apple/Digi thing. I love this type of marketing because it's not based on stupidity. And actually has a bit of brains and emotion behind it. In all reality, engineering and the such was a by industry built BY the industry. Art is not industry, and PEOPLE want to create. Best get em when they are young. Teach them. Give them the tools to have something acceptable to show. I myself am thinking about how my business in the future can interface with the up and coming slew of artists headed our way… I did say artists… Not engineers, not producers, not label heads. You all are actually kind of in touch with what's going on out there right now? Right? Just because you don't like it doesn't mean it's going away..

    VERY exciting times we live in!

  • Donovan Bartish

    I've worked with Cubase, Ableton Live, Reaper, and Pro Tools.

    Given what's available to the consumer masses at the moment, I think this Pro Tools Essentials has the capability of being the best out of the box low cost solution for the consumer market.

    Pro Tools 8 has proven stable for both Mac and Windows for me, and out of the box, can make really great sounds without buying a single extra thing. And, I have to add, that out of all the sequencer softwares I own, Pro Tools has to have been one of the easiest for me to learn out of all of them. So having it slimmed down to 32 tracks on a Pro Tools environment that sounds great is better in my eyes than having Ableton Live Lite which can only allow 4 tracks at once at the same price. I understand the frustrations of the closed RTAS environment, really I do, but considering the cost of the bundle, I think that this Pro Tools essentials may actually be enough for the average joe to actually create a decent sounding track, even with only 32 channels. And at least, they can take the same hardware and upgrade or crossgrade to any software they choose.

    An important point here too is that the hardware isn't restricted, and will work with both ASIO for Windows, and Core Audio for Mac. It's not like purchaser is forced to only use Pro Tools from here on out…

    So I think it's a smart move, and one that will benefit the consumer more than an even more crippled versions of previously bundled software.

    I'm speaking as someone who started as the average consumer who attempted to even create something at all with Ableton Live Lite and gave up… eventually I bought Live 7 Boxed. At least Pro Tools Essential should be more usable than Live Lite… and more usable than Cubase LE, which usually only comes bundled with more expensive hardware anyway.

    For Avid's part, it's a smart move… why bundle other companies' apps when they can promote their own? And, of course, when the need arises, there's a better chance they will purchase Pro Tools M-Powered. They'll already be familiar with the work flow.

    I think it's a win – win for both the consumer and Avid.

  • I'm curious as to how well this would integrate with a general Pro-Tools LE project. My main use for this would be for guitarists in the band to track at home and then allow me to integrate those tracks into my main project.

  • AA

    Avid's made a very good move-previously if you wanted Pro Tools, pay perhaps $200+ for a Digidesign audio interface and the software, $99 and $129 is much more affordable at a consumer's point of view.