Avid Vocal Studio is a replacement for the existing M-Audio Pro Tools Vocal studio, and like its predecessor it’s a combination of hardware and software aimed squarely at those wanting to dip a nervous first toe into the waters of home audio recording. Its two companion products are Avid Recording Studio (with a USB mixer desk) and Avid Key Studio (with a MIDI keyboard).
The common feature of each is the brand new Pro Tools SE software. This replaces Pro Tools M-Powered Essential, and represents a subtle shift in approach; rather than just disable a host of features in the full Pro Tools M-Powered software, Avid has redesigned the interface to give Pro Tools SE a more simplified (and hence more usable) workflow while still keeping the essential look and feel of its bigger brothers. It also gets a video track import (MOV or WMV) and a MIDI score/notation editor.
The good news is that you won’t find greyed-out menu items (actually, there is just one for the £16 MP3 export plug-in) or ‘only available in the full version’ nag screens. Which is nice. Of course, the software is limited compared to the full-fat version, but at least you’re not made painfully aware of it at every click. It’s easy to upgrade later too, as the hardware and session files can be used with the high-end Pro Tools versions. SE is limited to two simultaneous live recording streams, with up to three DSP effects on each of the maximum 16 audio and 8 virtual instrument tracks.
In the box you get a hefty (and good quality) M-Audio Producer USB cardioid condenser microphone, complete with headphone jack (for zero-latency direct monitoring), metal desktop stand and carrying pouch. It took about 40 minutes to install the program, which includes 3GB of loops and a decent selection of demo songs. Windows Update and the M-Audio driver had a bit of a fight, but it ended amicably with an M-Audio mixer control in the Windows 7 notification area (Vista is not supported, only XP and 7).
Launching the program opens a quick-start menu with links to session templates, demo songs and tutorials. The program won’t even launch if the mic isn’t plugged in, and since all its audio output is routed to the headphone jack, you won’t need your PC’s speakers. The tutorials cover a wide range of basic and more advanced topics, but they aren’t very well produced.
Each topic is a collection of very short, low-resolution screencasts embedded in an HTML page with a text caption for each. We found a much better series of narrated video guides on Avid’s You Tube pages: if these could be expanded to cover vocal recording they would be ideal. Nowhere in the manual is there any guide to basic microphone technique or other tips for budding recording artists.
Happily, the software itself is pretty intuitive to use, helped immensely by ‘Learn more about…’ help links on almost every menu or setting. As with any real-time audio application, Pro Tools needs all the PC horsepower it can get, so it helps to disable as many background tasks and services as possible, especially if you’re adding lots of tracks and effects. We encountered a few strange glitches and errors, but re-installing onto a clean copy of Windows helped immensely.
Once you master the basics (and learning the keyboard shortcuts should be one of your first tasks; the interface looks nice but has tiny buttons and switches), the fun starts to kick in. Whether you want to record original songs, add narration to a movie or just mix a bunch of high-quality loops to create some music, it’s easy to lose hours of your life.
The mic gives superb results for both vocals and acoustic instruments. More adventurous users will enjoy exploring the impressive array of 20 effects to fine-tune the composition before exporting to a WAV file. Movies can only be saved in Quicktime (MOV) format, however.
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