The Evolution of Avid’s Pro Tools and the Arrival of the Optional Subscription Model


Earlier this year, Avid announced version 12 of its industry-standard Pro Tools DAW (digital audio workstation). What made a bigger splash and caused more heated discussion on the pro audio message boards was not any one functional feature of the update, but rather the fact that Avid was adopting an optional subscription-payment model, in addition to being able to purchase a license for the software outright, giving the option of yearly or monthly access. So why does Pro Tools garner such strong opinions, one way or the other, and what does 12 ultimately mean for the end user?

To understand why Pro Tools is so significant a piece of audio software, let’s first take a brief look at what it, and any other DAW, is at its core. After your analog audio is converted into a digital signal through some sort of audio interface, a DAW allows you to edit, mix, master, manipulate, arrange, and apply effects to that digital audio in a non-linear, typically non-destructive fashion prior to it being converted back into an analog signal for us to hear. Add in MIDI and software synth functionality, along with video support for sound for film, and a DAW allows you to create and compose, all within the “box” of your computer. At the end of the day, (and no matter what some people feverishly insist), no DAW has a sound, as digital audio is all 1s and 0s. So if Pro Tools does not provide a different sound than Logic or Cubase, what’s the point? you might ask. Just grab the cheapest one and get to work, right? Well, not really.

Once you realize that no one DAW is going to give you “better sound,” the benefit of one versus another comes down to a number of other factors, including stability, how efficient you find its workflow, its intuitiveness, and its availability in professional studios, just to name a few. As someone who has worked with just about every major DAW in the last 10 years or so, I find myself always coming back to Pro Tools, and even if a project is started in another software, (for myself it is commonly Logic) I typically bounce my tracks down to edit and mix in Pro Tools, as I find its interface the most intuitive for my particular workflow. As recording habits continue to evolve, I also find myself handling more complicated tracking, such as drums, at a pro studio, while often tracking guitars, synths, and other parts at home. Since most major facilities use Pro Tools as their main rig, it simplifies the process for me to be able to go seamlessly between locations.

The reason Pro Tools is the DAW of choice at many pro studios is simple. Avid will happily tell you it is because of the reliability of the company’s product, but it is also, thanks—in no small part—to the fact Avid was the first real game in town. The company established a strong foothold as studios slowly changed from analog-only to digital recording in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and remains in most of them to this day.

Initially, a Pro Tools HD system (consisting not only of the software but accompanying hardware) was priced well out of the range of the hobbyist or project studio, and technological limits at the time kept its voice count so low so it really could not be operated independently of a tape machine to bounce to. However, in 1997, as both the software and accompanying HD hardware improved, Pro Tools HD systems became able to handle up to 48 tracks, allowing the digital recording revolution to truly begin.

While Pro Tools systems found a home in professional studios relatively quickly, it wasn’t until the release of the Digidesign Digi001 and Mbox interfaces, along with Pro Tools LE software in 1999, that the home and project studio crowd were able to get their hands on a Pro Tools system. The most significant difference between the pro HD systems and more consumer-end LE is where the processing took place; HD relied upon external hardware while all processing in LE systems took place within your computer. Additionally, LE had track count limits, which changed based on what resolution audio you were working with.

Setting what would be the long-standing tone for home Pro Tools use, Pro Tools LE was a closed system, meaning it would only work with a Digidesign interface, which not only provided conversion, but essentially acted as a hardware dongle for running the software. While the LE systems allowed audio people to get their hands on Pro Tools at a reasonable price, many did not like being bound to specific hardware interfaces to use it.

Finally listening to customer requests, the LE system was essentially discontinued with the release of Pro Tools 9, which, for the first time, allowed you to use the software with any Core Audio or ASIO-compatible interface, while relying on your computer’s processing prowess to handle the workload. The next significant update came with Pro Tools 11, which saw the software go 64-bit (finally allowing it to surpass the 4GB RAM limit of 32-bit operation), and the introduction of its new AAX 64-bit plug-in format. Which brings us to…

Pro Tools 12: Its Head in the Cloud and the Rise of the Subscription Model

Pro Tools 12 brings quite a few functional updates to the table. While not as drastic an update as its predecessor, there are more than a handful of “under the hood” updates, including a bunch of features that were previously HD only. Most notable, though, is the (as of this writing, forthcoming) inclusion of the Avid Cloud Collaboration. Let’s take a look at what the new additions offer.

To the eye, 12 is very similar to 11, but while the visual aesthetic has more or less stayed the same, there is some more firepower in its engine, so to speak. It can handle audio in resolutions up to 32-bit/192 kHz (though track counts get limited that high, see below chart for a list of available tracks at different resolutions), and finally gives us input monitoring, which is no longer an HD-exclusive feature, something I have been waiting years for. Another welcome addition, at least for me, is the inclusion of 17 different metering options, including K-system and VU metering; a nice touch, as I’m accustomed to using third-party plug-ins for precise metering on my master bus.

One welcome addition to 12 is an altogether separate piece of software. As iOS devices have established themselves as a mainstay in music production, one of the most obvious applications for them is the hands-on access they can bring. Avid has recently announced its free Control app for the iPad, which essentially takes that master touch module from the S6 control surface. It gives some fairly in-depth control over not only Pro Tools 12.1 or later, but later versions of Logic, Cubase, and Nuendo, thanks to its EUCON-control compatibility. While it will play nicely with third-party software, it is obviously optimized for Pro Tools, and gives you not just basic transport control but the ability to ride multiple faders at once; meter; and assign a variety of functions to its soft key bar.

The major change with 12, though, is the announcement of Avid Cloud Collaboration. As most software, regardless of application, is offering cloud-based storage options, Avid ups the game by promising real-time collaboration on the same project with anyone, anywhere in the world. This means you can be recording guitars at a pro studio in LA while your vocalist is simultaneously tracking from her home studio halfway around the world. Integrated text and video chat will allow you to keep tabs and talk out ideas instantly. This can become an incredibly useful feature, as being in the same room at the same time would no longer be necessary to collaborate on a project in real time. Please note, Avid Cloud Collaboration is coming to a future update of Pro Tools 12, and is not yet available at the time of this writing.

The feature that is easily the most talked about with Pro Tools 12 is, without a doubt, the announcement that it would have a monthly or yearly subscription payment model. Putting away our pitchforks and torches (at least for a moment), it should be noted you can still grab a perpetual license for it that allows you to "buy-to-own" and are not required to re-up any subscription for continued Pro Tools use. According to Avid, a large benefit of this new approach will be more frequent updates, new plug-ins (which the company appears to be churning out more frequently than before), and new features that will be released as soon as the Avid team codes them, rather than waiting for infrequent “point” updates in-between full versions.

Regardless, some longtime users have not been sold on offering monthly and yearly subscriptions. These options, they pointed out, while less expensive up front than a perpetual license (allowing users who cannot afford to own a license access to the software), can amount to more than the cost of a perpetual license over time. So, the big question is, does the subscription model make sense for Pro Tools?

The answer is: it depends. Each payment model is geared toward a certain kind of user, and certainly not every model is going to make sense for every user. Here’s a breakdown of the versions and subscriptions offered with the rollout of 12:

Pro Tools First

Who’s it for?  Anyone new to Pro Tools, or returning to the software

What does it get me?   The ability to record up to 16 audio tracks (4 simultaneously), a handful of plug-ins, including the Xpand! synthesizer, MIDI editing, and access to Avid Cloud Collaboration

The Details:  Technically, this isn’t numbered as 12, but it is built on the same architecture. It was announced at the same time as 12, however, and the fact that it is free makes it worth mentioning. First, it is absolutely geared toward anyone looking to try the software, giving you the ability to record up to 16 audio tracks, as well as a variety of plug-ins and access to purchase more. One caveat: Pro Tools First only saves to the cloud, and you have a limited amount of free storage, so if you find you like working in it, be prepared to upgrade to 12 or begin paying for storage! (At the time of this writing, Avid gives you the ability to save 3 projects free to its cloud.)

Pro Tools 12, Perpetual License

Who’s it for?  Those looking to own the latest version of Pro Tools outright, but who are potentially less concerned with installing non-essential micro-updates as released from Avid

What does it get me?  Perpetual ownership of a license for Pro Tools 12, along with one year of Avid’s Annual Upgrade plan (giving you every update for a year from your purchase date, which can then be renewed annually thereafter for an additional fee). You also get one year of access to Avid’s “bonus” plug-ins, along with one Avid support code. An iLok 2 (required) is included.

The Details: A perpetual license is going to appeal to many of the “old school” users of Pro Tools who don’t necessarily upgrade frequently once they have a version running smoothly with their rig and third-party plug-ins. The first year enrollment in the update plan is a nice plus, giving you access to any updates along with new plug-ins and features Avid might roll out during that year, but most people interested in this license probably already have a bevy of third-party plug-ins they love.

Pro Tools 12, Annual Subscription

Who’s it for?  Those looking for continued access to the most current version of Pro Tools and who are interested in keeping up to date with every update Avid releases, along with access to Avid’s bonus plug-ins.

What does it get me?  It includes 12-month access to Pro Tools 12, which gives you access to any update Avid releases during those 12 months. Also included is access to Avid’s bonus plug-ins, as well as Avid support. An iLok 2 (required) is included.

The Details: The annual subscription will likely catch the attention of anyone who doesn’t have (or want to drop) the cash on a perpetual license for 12. If you don’t have a large list of third-party plug-ins to help tweak your mixes, access to the bonus plug-ins are a nice touch; let’s face it, these non-stock plug-ins are a step up from what comes bundled with the software by itself. 

So, after a year is up, and the upgrade plan expires (if not renewed, of course), what are you left with? For the DAW itself, you are “feature-locked” at the last update you installed within that one-year period. Important to note, all of Avid’s “bonus” plug-ins will stop working for you without renewing. From here, you have four options: do nothing and use what you have, re-up with the “Plug-In and Support” plan, which gives you another year of support and access to the bonus plug-ins, get another year of updates with the Annual Upgrade plan, or go for both.

Pro Tools 12, Monthly Subscription

Who’s it for?  Those who need temporary or inconsistent access to Pro Tools 12. Those used to working in other DAWs like Logic or Cubase could find this option useful if they need quick access to collaborate on a project started in Pro Tools.

What does it get me?  The monthly option for Pro Tools 12 gets you everything the annual subscription does, but is, as you might have guessed, month to month and requires no further commitment from you. Once again, bring your own iLok 2.

The Details:  The monthly option won’t make much sense for the typical regular Pro Tools user, but if you are coming from another DAW and need access to Pro Tools to collaborate and complete a project that happens to be Pro Tools-based, you’ll probably be happy you only have to drop a couple of $10s rather than a couple of $100s.

Pro Tools 12 HD

Who’s it for?  Current HD owners looking to upgrade, or anyone looking for higher track counts and processing power, surround mixing capabilities, and more HD-exclusive features

What does it get me?  A wide variety of HD-exclusive features, including optimization for video applications, advanced automation options, and more

The Details:  HD is always a bit different and 12 doesn’t deviate from that model. Since Pro Tools HD systems are hardware dependent, there is not currently a subscription model in place for HD. However, 12 HD includes Avid’s Annual Upgrade plan, giving you every update for a year following the purchase. At the year’s end you can renew the plan for an additional fee.

Legacy Pro Tools Upgrade to 12

Who’s it for? Those looking to upgrade from Pro Tools LE (excluding the Digi001 and original Mbox) or other legacy versions of Pro Tools.

What does it get me? A perpetual license for Pro Tools 12, along with one year of support and upgrades, including access to Avid’s “bonus” plug-ins.

The Details: This one is a bit more self explanatory, and is the route to go if you want 12 and own a legacy version of Pro Tools.

What Makes Sense?

The pricing options offered by Avid for Pro Tools 12 are, no doubt, a departure from how you could obtain the software for previous versions, and it is reasonable that some longtime Pro Tools users might view them skeptically. At the end of the day, it would be a waste of money for a frequent user to get a monthly subscription, but that kind of user would likely be more interested in the perpetual license, anyway. The additional options of monthly and annual subscriptions do inform Avid’s recent movement toward a less closed-in environment for Pro Tools than it has shown in the past, which is something that I welcome, as a long-time user myself.

Supported Tracks Pro Tools | HD Pro Tools Pro Tools | First
Maximum simultaneous audio tracks @ 48/96/192 kHz 256/128/641
(mono or stereo) 
(mono or stereo) 
16 / 16 / –
(mono or stereo)
Maximum inputs (hardware dependent) 192 32 4
Audio recording (maximum simultaneous tracks) 256 32 4
Instrument 512 512 16
MIDI 512 512 16
Auxiliary 512 128 16
Busses Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Video 64 1 n/a