Alongside its Pro Tools 10 and HDX unveiling, Avid turned some heads by recently announcing it was replacing its RTAS and TDM formats to a new format called AAX, “Avid Audio eXtension.” Now, your first reaction may not be unbridled enthusiasm, exactly: it seems the last thing users are likely saying is, “yes, please, I’d like a new plug-in format to worry about.” But I wanted to give the engineers at Avid a chance to tell us what they were thinking and why they made the move.

Avid’s product announcements have unfortunately coincided, presumably because of the financial calendar, with unpleasant restructuring and downsizing news, a topic NYC-based audio engineering site SonicScoop takes up. However, I prefer to focus here on the engineering side of what’s happening; we can look at Avid’s business and the changing business landscape another day. (For what it’s worth, I’m not as bleak as SonicScoop about the industry at large – least of all because I think the larger audio market remains healthy, even if Avid has been caught adapting to a new marketplace.)

The picture painted by Avid is one of a smooth transition to AAX. Now, of course, you’d expect them to say that, but I think they do have some specific technical reasons that, even with the change of name, the shift should be friendly to Avid developers. I’ll let them explain, though.

Bobby Lombardi, Senior Pro Tools Product Manager goes into the technical details of what AAX, and what it means for Pro Tools developers and users.

CDM: The main draw appears to be the ability to switch between native and DSP-based processing more easily, correct? From the end user perspective, can you get into specifics on what a user will see and how this will differ from RTAS/TDM?

Bobby: Visually, a user will see that the RTAS/TDM pop-up on the Pro Tools 10 Plug-in header has changed to Native/DSP. The exciting part is what they will hear. In the past, with HD Accel systems using a 24-bit fixed point processing environment, and host-based systems using 32-bit floating point processing, the gain staging could be quite different and produce significantly different results. With the introduction of AAX, sessions that migrate between host-based and DSP-accelerated HDX Pro Tools systems will sound identical.

How much work will it be for developers to migrate from RTAS/TDM to AAX?

Moving from an existing RTAS plug-in to AAX Native is relatively simple. Plus, once a developer has an AAX Native plug-in running, it will take a small amount of development effort to support AAX DSP. In comparison to TDM 56k used with the legacy HD hardware, AAX DSP is much easier to support and developers do not require specialized skills in writing 56k assembly code, so it opens up the opportunity for many developers to create DSP accelerated versions of their plug-ins.

We’ll still see parallel, separate versions of plug-ins for AAX Native and AAX DSP, correct? And some will, as with RTAS, presumably be native-only?

This is really up to the individual developer. Some developers may find it strategic to support one or the other, however Avid’s goal with this new format was to simplify plug-in development and reduce the complexity to support accelerated hardware.

RTAS and TDM are listed as “legacy” formats. Is Avid making any commitment to how long they’ll last?

The RTAS and TDM formats will continue to be supported in the 32-bit versions of Pro Tools but will not be supported once Pro Tools is released as a 64-bit application. The new AAX plug-in format is the bridge to 64-bit plug-ins for the Pro Tools and Media Composer platform.

Avid has expressed a desire to embrace open formats, but why is there still no common, industry-wide plug-in format? (Actually, there may be no good answer to that question, but I feel obligated to ask!)

We absolutely do embrace open platforms because they can open workflows that enhance the user experience. Part of the experience we need to ensure is that it’s stable, integrates well on our control surfaces, and provides a long-term commitment to the customer. For these reasons it’s important that we can design the plug-in architecture. For example, without designing AAX we could never give customers a plug-in environment that supports both DSP accelerated and native Pro Tools systems and ensure they delivered 100% sound parity. We hope that by providing a modernized AAX SDK for plug-in development, developers will find it easier not only to support Avid’s products, but also finding it easier to develop for non-Avid plug-in formats.

Any word on when we’ll see third-party plugs with AAX support?

More developers are coming online each week with their AAX offerings. We had over 25 developers showing over 60 individual AAX plug-ins at the AES tradeshow in NYC last month, and expect to see many more at the upcoming NAMM tradeshow. With the ability to provide all Avid third party developers a optimized development path to DSP-accelerated plug-ins, we do expect to see more DSP-accelerated plug-ins on the new AAX platform than the legacy TDM platform.

Thanks, Bobby. And for one other take, I happened to get to talk to Universal Audio about their transition. UA, given that they have their own DSP platform and support Avid’s rival packages, certainly aren’t dependent in their business on the Avid ecosystem (though you can be sure it makes a big part of their market). Anyway, here’s what they say; I’m guessing other third parties would say something similar, but if you’re a third party reading and wish to comment, please do so, and don’t let the fact that I only have UA here dissuade you.

Lev Perrey, Universal Audio Director of Product Development, responds to CDM:

Universal Audio intends to support AAX Native in conjunction with UAD-2 DSP accelerators ­ exactly like we have just completed with RTAS support in UAD Powered Plug-ins v6. There is no announcement as of yet as to when the transition to AAX will be complete but we are actively developing and committed to the Pro Tools platform. Pro Tools 10 does support RTAS and initial testing with UAD plug-ins shows it to work just like Pro Tools 9.

As for the significance question, for UA moving to AAX Native should be similar to our recent migration to RTAS ­ although it will be easier for us now moving to AAX since we have fully invested in direct Pro Tools development and better understand the Avid SDK.

We’ll continue to follow this story. Thanks to Avid for getting us more details; I know it’s appreciated.

More info:
AAX Audio Plug-ins @ Avid