Remember Pro Tools Free?

Years ago, it was then-Digidesign’s ploy to give you the first hit of Pro Tools without paying, in the hopes you’d get hooked and buy the full version. Well, the idea is back, just with a different name. Pro Tools First is a stripped-down version of Pro Tools.

And it’s one of three changes in Pro Tools 12 to how you buy and work with the flagship music production software. Pro Tools 12 is now something you can use for free (with various strings attached). It’s something you can rent, with subscription pricing (in addition to continuing the purchase option). And Pro Tools is connected to Avid Everywhere online offerings intended to help you collaborate and share – with the ability to buy and sell content.

The timing comes as several players in music making software look to new models – as noted earlier this week, Cakewalk is making SONAR available via payment plans as well as providing monthly subscriptions to “membership” in content and updates, and leading cloud collaboration tools (Gobbler and Splice) are serving up solutions for buying or “renting” plug-ins as you work with others.

When Pro Tools 12 arrives further into this year, customers will be able to take advantage of the new pricing model, buy or rent third-party effects and instruments from inside the software, and give new collaboration/marketplace tools a spin.

Free First

First, the free offering is something likely to get attention, since Pro Tools is usually associated with some cost of entry. The new free version is a really Pro Tools, and can open and save projects – meaning it’ll come in handy if you want to share projects with someone who doesn’t own the software. But it of course has some limitations that would push you back to the paid version.

Once you get pas the obligatory genre project templates (dubstep!), the session software looks like Pro Tools. It’s limited in track and input/output count and is missing more advanced edit features. So, you get:

16 mono or stereo audio tracks
16 Instrument Tracks
16 MIDI tracks
4 simultaneous audio inputs, max
No video
Offline bounce, but limited export/interchange apart from audio bounce
Loop recording, but many of the advanced edit tools are missing, including punch and automation
More restricted instrument/effect suite, though you still get the Xpand!2 instrument and some effects

There’s one other significant restriction, though, that’s perhaps more of a deal-breaker than the others: you can only work with three projects at a time. Avid tell us that you would need to delete a project when you’re no longer working with it. (Presumably moving the project to offline media would also work.)

See the updated comparison chart for how Pro Tools editions differ in functionality.

Apart from the project number restriction, this looks similar to the way Ableton differentiates Live Lite, the software we see more than any other bundled with production gear. The basic idea is, give people the software, but stop them from editing complex projects or using very many tracks. But the project limitation notion is fairly novel, and for me would make me hesitate to recommend the free tool for much more than trying out Pro Tools or sharing a project now and then; there are plenty of cheap DAWs on the market.

More interesting are the other approaches taken with Pro Tools 12. For Pro Tools lovers, this does open up some new ways to buy their software.

Subscriptions and Online Service

Avid has been talking since last year about Avid Everywhere, which is a combination of moving software to subscriptions as well as purchase, and backing it with online services and a marketplace for buying content produced by users in its tools.

Subscribe or buy. Choose subscription or traditional up-front payment. Subscriptions, as with other software, will cost you in the long haul – you can get the price down to US$25, but only if you commit to a year or more. They’re bundled with support, much like the Cakewalk deal mentioned earlier this week.

See more regular updates. Avid also says that the move gets the software off the 18-month revision cycle it had previously used (and, to be fair, what is typical in the rest of the industry as far as major new functionality). Updates will be more frequent, the company says, though we’ve yet to see what that means in practice (especially since pay-to-own versions will remain available). For now, Pro Tools 12 is almost exclusively about providing the new pricing model and compatibility with collaboration, not any significant changes to editing, mixing, or instruments that I can see.

Cloud collaboration. Right now, collaborating in Pro Tools is a matter of manually making ZIP files of projects with collected media and moving them around. Pro Tools 12 promises still-as-yet-unrevealed mechanisms of streamlining this process through updates to the software and accompanying online services.

Expect more of this sort of thing; Propellerhead, for instance, recently announced Discover, for its desktop Reason and iOS apps. But Avid’s offering also assumes that you want to make some money off of that content (or buy it to use it). So, the Avid Everywhere project also includes —

A content marketplace. Here’s where we enter new territory: Avid wants you to share and sell your stuff. Because Avid makes the world’s leading media products, the notion is that you can dump all your assets into a marketplace where other people can choose to buy them – so an editor might pay for your music bed in their sports coverage. Avid handles not only the purchase, but embedding metadata and credits.

It’s not available yet in Pro Tools, and I’m unclear whether those buying such assets want this sort of tool, but we’ll see. Think of it as a combination of SoundCloud and the App Store, only for audio and video.

Buy plug-ins as an add-on. Here’s a part that makes more immediate sense: a built-in marketplace will also let you buy (or rent) instruments and effects directly inside Pro Tools. Subscriptions would be new to Pro Tools developers;

Really, it’s surprising they hadn’t done something like this sooner, given that Pro Tools has always had its own ecosystem of third-party add-ons. (The other tool with the same closed-garden expansion capabilities, Propellerhead Reason, also added in in-app store to go with it.) I imagine this could get heavy use; even Pro Tools First has access to the market.

Making Sense of the New Pro Tools

We’ve known “Avid Everywhere for Audio” was coming as an initiative since last spring. Now, it really remains to see what things look like in practice – whether you love this concept or hate it, what it means in the actual experience of using the software. Sound on Sound have a great video overview from NAMM this week:

At least we can also say Avid the corporate entity is looking far healthier. NASDAQ even had the company ring the opening bell, celebrating its return after being delisted for failing to share critical financial information.

So, will all these new ways to buy Pro Tools software and content, collaboration and marketplace, fuel healthier Pro Tools growth, or be just a distraction? That’s the next chapter.