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The Pro(Tool)s and Cons of Audio Software

As most listserv arguments do, it started with a simple question: “Best way to learn ProTools?”

Almost thirty email replies later, audio reporter Emily Guerin had stockpiled plenty of answers: LinkedIn Learning, private lessons, YouTube tutorials. But she was also left with another question: Is Pro Tools even worth it in the first place?

Pro Tools, an audio-editing software, is used ubiquitously in podcasting. Isaac Kestenbaum, director of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, teaches the software exclusively, precisely because he knows it’ll show up in jobs his students apply for. It’s also the default software for Chad Bernhard, an audio engineer at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

As you might notice, both Salt and CUNY are institutions that teach audio reporting. Meanwhile, Avid — the parent company of Pro Tools — markets Pro Tools as music software.

Back in 2015, the how-to blog OSTraining tried to draw attention to this split. “If you have professional music experience or just need to have the ‘best of the best,’ Pro Tools might be the solution for you,” the site read. Otherwise, the program is one thing: “overkill.”

Pro Tools might be “music software for everyone,” but it’s still music software, bringing a feature complexity most podcast creators and radio producers will probably never need. And yet, Guerin says, when she recently browsed freelance job listings for those exact roles, “if they said anything about an editing software, it was ‘fluency in Pro Tools.’”

This ubiquity baffles audio producer Chris Tsakis, who says he’s gotten by with various other programs, even while freelance-producing an audiobook for a major company. “I never told them that I cut and mixed the entire thing in [Adobe] Audition,” he told me over email. “No one was the wiser or cared.”

Considering the evident capabilities of other programs, Guerin wondered if Pro Tools was worth learning. And, more importantly, was it worth paying for?

Costing anywhere from $300 to $420 annually, Pro Tools ain’t cheap. (According to Avid’s site, the $360 plan is most popular, charging users $29.99 monthly.) Other reputable programs don’t cost pennies either: A comparable subscription plan for Audition rings up at $20.99 per month, and to outright purchase the “PRO” version of Hindenburg Journalist, a different but fairly limited program, you’ll need $375.

Even if Pro Tools didn’t have the highest price, it would likely always be out of reach for some. Its complexity leads many folks to pay for coaching lessons in order to add “fluency in Pro Tools” to their resumes, thus edging out those who can’t afford such training. And don’t forget the iLok, the physical USB stick that some users prefer over the cloud for housing their Pro Tools software license. It’s a literal key to the community — and will cost you another $49.

Chad Bernhard, of CUNY, says that while they may not entirely justify the price, Pro Tools’ capabilities give substance to its reputation. Sure, the program has its downsides — for example, just registering students’ software eats up the first few weeks of CUNY’s semesters, without fail — but it does deliver a crucial quality: continuity.

“What Pro Tools has done is remain remarkably stagnant in the last 20 years, which seems like a bummer,” he says. “But it offers this absolute, 100-percent open door to anyone who knows how to use it.” And while “it seems like a silly thing to just talk about the appearance of it,” the colors and interface of the program itself, purposely subdued, don’t as readily cause eye fatigue, allowing producers to work more comfortably and for longer stretches of time.

On a technical level, Bernhard points out, Pro Tools also just offers more possibility. That can be an incredible asset for the right kind of work, says Kateri Jochum, executive producer of audio for The Wall Street Journal, and that caveat is important.

“Pro Tools is really good, but I think for a lot of what podcasts do, it’s more machine than they need,” says Jochum. “I liken it to having a Ferrari and giving it to your grandmother so she can drive to the supermarket.”

When working with simple formats, especially on projects with tight timelines (like radio programs), she says, “it really has way more capabilities than you’re ever going to use.” This makes the proportionally high price unnecessary for lots of producers; it also makes simple tasks incredibly hard to complete.

Pro Tools, says Jochum, “was created for musicians so they can make beautiful music with it,” and it works for that purpose. Further, many practiced engineers favor the program because it allows them to improve audio that’s already been recorded; producers might also use it to make sound-rich shows. To that end, Jochum enthusiastically encourages her staff members whose projects and goals involve more complex production to explore the program.

Considering the benefits that Pro Tools does have — and the hold it maintains on the industry at least partially due to those merits — when Guerin saw listing after listing that insisted on a program she hadn’t yet needed to master, her instinct was to figure it out, not to complain.

“I didn’t expect that the innocent question of ‘How do I learn Pro Tools for free?’ would launch this whole debate about whether or not Pro Tools is necessary,” she said. It was only after dozens of people — more than twice as many as had answered Guerin’s original question — voiced their frustration about being expected to learn complicated and pricey software that she reflected on the question. Maybe her problem wasn’t that yet another person preferred that she use Pro Tools; maybe it was the fact that she’d need to be trained to use it… and had to find the most cost-efficient way to do so.

“From an equity standpoint, it’s kind of ridiculous,” she said, since the world of podcasts and radio shows relies heavily on independent producers and the assumption that they have gear that matches in-house standards. Already, this at least includes a laptop ($800+) and might also include a recorder ($150+), cables ($20+), and a microphone (anywhere from $100 to $1,000); add in a multi-hundred-dollar program with an inherent complexity that leads even seasoned producers like Guerin to wonder how she’ll learn to use it, and an already technical field becomes that much more exclusive.

“Pro Tools is a very expensive piece of machinery to own — much like a Ferrari,” says Jochum, of The Wall Street Journal. “As an industry standard, it also can be a barrier for access, and that’s something I’m concerned about.”

Guerin, on the other side of the software, agrees. “As there’s a movement to really open doors and make opportunities available for all kinds of people getting into audio,” Guerin said, “requiring the most expensive program is kind of the opposite direction that we want to be going.”