Asbjoern Andersen


With Pro Tools being as ubiquitous as it is, it’s a useful addition to pretty much any studio setup. Building a Pro Tools rig, however, can take a large bite out of anyone’s budget – but it doesn’t really have to be that expensive, as demonstrated in this guide by Jeff Shiffman, co-founder of Boom Box Post and Supervising Sound Editor on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Loud House.

Along with his colleague Kate Finan, the team has built several powerful Pro Tools rigs without spending a fortune. Here’s how they do it:

 

The modern post production professional is inevitably tied to some kind of software. For a sound designer, that software is undoubtedly Pro Tools. There are other options out there but the truth is none have come close to breaking through the stronghold Avid has on the market. I haven’t walked into a single professional sound facility that wasn’t running one iteration or another. And for good reason. Pro Tools makes our job fast and efficient, and for my part is pretty much transparent in the creative process. Sure, each new version comes with glitches and quirks but when you add it up, it’s a stellar piece of software. Affording this software is another story.

When I started in the industry, on top of purchasing a decent computer, having a legit rig meant shelling out insane sums for stacks of HD cards paired with sync and I/O devices. Even then, there were limitations to track count and processing ability. Editors were keenly aware of just how far they could push their gear before things started to go haywire.

These days, things are different. Computers have long since become powerful enough to handle the heavy lifting required for basic editorial and mix and Avid is moving toward a more software based business model. So what makes for the best balance of power and affordability? In starting Boom Box Post, we’ve built a lot of rigs and I think we’ve struck a great balance. Here’s how we go about building Pro Tools systems that are powerful and relatively affordable.

You’re not going to mix the next summer blockbuster feature, but you’ll do just fine with about 95% of the work out there.

A few caveats. This system has more than enough steam to edit and mix a significantly track heavy television series or medium size film. You’re not going to mix the next summer blockbuster feature, but you’ll do just fine with about 95% of the work out there. In the same regard, there are many cheaper ways to get your hands dirty with Pro Tools. If you aren’t in the position to take on this kind of work just yet, maybe jump in with a Mac Mini and standard Pro Tools and bookmark this post for when the need arises.
 

Computer:
The backbone of your rig needs to be reliable. Time tested and rock solid, I like the Mac Pro models from early 2010 (code name Nehalem). You’ll do fine with a Quad-Core 2.8 Ghz and finding a refurbished model on ebay is a snap (search for this model number: MC250LL/A). They seem to get significantly cheaper every month and there’s a glut of them to choose from. These computers sport dual display output (a must) and multiple Firewire 800 (which we still utilize) and USB ports. Adding PCI-E cards, serial drives and RAM is dead simple. Despite being over 5 years old, these are standards that are still widely supported by third party manufacturers making this model the sweet spot where technology meets price point.
 

Memory:
Aim for 24-32GB of RAM. Short of this, try and get one on the cheap with as little RAM as possible and buy a RAM kit to easily upgrade this yourself. I like macsales.com for their efficient website portal and great prices.
 

Storage:
Adding a solid state to a Pro Tools machineI’m loving SSD’s (solid state drives). If you haven’t yet worked on one, you’ll be amazed at how fast they power up and shut down your computer. Restarts are a fact of life and you’ll quickly appreciate the time saved. Plan on grabbing a 240GB SSD to use as your main system drive. On top of all your application needs, this is more than enough storage to cover the inevitable random downloads and other miscellaneous junk that bogs down a system drive. Fill up two more HD spots with dedicated media drives. One drive each for projects and video files; a 2TB and 1TB respectively. This will get me through a handful of series before I need to offload to our backups (which you should be doing regardless). Of course your mileage may vary. Unfortunately they aren’t making SSD’s large (and cheap) enough for these yet so I go with the reliable Western Digital Caviar Black drives.

Pro Tip: You’re not going to find an older model Mac Pro with an SSD system drive. Since you’re going to replace this drive on any rig, should you find a used computer for sale with a large (1TB or above) system drive, take advantage of this by planning to format it as one of your two media drives.

 
Pro Tools Software and Interface:
For track count and surround capabilities, any working sound designer and mixer will probably need to go with Pro Tools HD. That’s the call we’ve made. I like the HD Native systems and with these Mac Pro computers, the PCI-E card is the logical choice. Going with Thunderbolt means jumping in on a much newer (and thus expensive) computer. Since it’s not internally installed, thunderbolt has the advantage of possibly graduating to a newer system down the line, but for my money overall I’m willing to gamble that neither PCI-E or Thunderbolt is a guarantee, so you might as well go with the cheaper complete system option. For an audio interface, we use the OMNI HD I/O.

It’s a simple clean solution with lots of power and options

A simple D-sub cable gets you all the XLR outs you need for surround. As a bonus, you get a really great preamp for recording on the fly as well as some optical ins and outs (which we use to monitor Soundminer through the internal sound card). It’s a simple clean solution with lots of power and options.

Pro Tip: You can find any manner of AVID products online, usually brand new and cheaper than retail. Even better, I’ve found that a lot of these listings are coming from a few sources. Usually online music shops and the like. You’d do well to hit them up directly and ask for a sales quote. Chances are they are trying to meet a certain price point on Ebay to cover fees and would be willing to work directly with you for a cheaper price point. Find yourself a sales rep you like working with and make the connection. Going forward, this relationship can end up being very valuable for both parties as you will inevitably grow your gear along with your career.

 

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Furniture:
Audio desks are fancy and extremely professional looking. They are also very expensive. You can easily double your room budget just by picking out a decent sized piece. Instead, I suggest you go with a desk that speaks to your personality and doesn’t break the bank. As long as it has enough room for a keyboard and perhaps a shelf for a couple of visual monitors, you’ll be good to go.
Using furniture from Ikea for studio building
Ikea has plenty of options, most of which are highly customizable. Picking up stands for your audio monitors will give you the opportunity to pick a much smaller desk and to be very deliberate with their placement. You can find stands like the On Stage SMS6000 that do the trick for a very reasonable price. I prefer fancier looking ones for my front Left and Right (since they are fully visible), but if cost is an issue you can always start with a these in a stereo rig and then graduate them to the rear when you upgrade to 5.1.

A professional audio rig doesn’t have to break the bank. We’ve found that this formula is the best possible solution for where things stand today. That said, the technology and price points are constantly changing. The important thing to note here is to utilize creative thinking not only in your work, but also when purchasing gear for yourself. There are many creative solutions to finding the right fit. All you need is a little time to think it through… and a lot of patience for Ebay.

Disclaimer: Neither the author, nor Boom Box Post, Inc. or A Sound Effect has been paid to endorse any of the aforementioned products.

A big thanks to Jeff Shiffman for the insights on affordable Pro Tools rig building. You’ll find him on Twitter here, and his colleague Kate Finan here – and they have a blog up over at Boom Box Post here.
 

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3 thoughts on “How to build a powerful Pro Tools rig – without breaking the bank:

  1. This is not very good advice… there are FAR better rig configurations that would make this setup look like what it really is… antiquated. Do yourself a favor and do not follow this articles advice.

    • Hi Bryon, thanks for chiming in! Of course you’re right that there are far better rigs than this, but they’re going to cost a lot more too. I know Jeff and the team are mixing 5.1 TV series on setups like these, with a huge track count. So the takeaway here is that a carefully selected, older rig – with some modifications – will get you very far for substantially less than you’d (very easily) spend on a new one.

    • I should be clear here that this post is intended for independent editors and small studios. Any large studio should have the capital to invest in technology that will hold up for many many years. When amortizing the cost of these rigs, I’d be more than happy to get 3 years out of the part that appears antiquated (the Mac Pro). The emphasis here is on the AVID hardware and finding the most affordable way to get it running.

      Any computer configured for Pro Tools is completely subjective. There are hundreds of options here. This is just one man’s take and by no means a one size fits all solution. We found through a lot of trial and error that this setup is simple, upgradeable and just right for our purposes.

      As I write this, I have a 256 voice session printing entirely in the box to 5 sets of 5.1 and 5 sets of LtRt stems, taxing the CPU around 70% while running HD video and plenty of live plug-ins (in addition to a bunch of other apps). That’s the hardest we need to push a rig and I still have plenty of power to spare. The system specs may appear antiquated, but I have in front of me reliability at a reasonable price.

      That said, Bryon is someone I worked with for years and I do not take his comments lightly. Simply put, he is much more of an expert on this topic than I am. I’d be very curious to hear what his solution is for the same power and price point.

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