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TMO Interview - Q&A with David Gibbons, Director of Product Marketing, Digidesign

by , 2:00 PM EST, November 19th, 2004

In professional circles, Digidesign's Pro Tools has become synonymous with digital audio recording much the way Xerox is for photocopying or Kleenex is for tissue. Other notable products exist, including Apple's Logic and MOTU's Digital Performer; however, Pro Tools is the largest single player in the market.

Irish-born David Gibbons joined Digidesign three years ago, first as the company's live sound product manager before being promoted to director of product marketing. Mr. Gibbons is not your typical suit, however. He spent several years as an audio engineer before he segued over to product management in the pro-audio space.

Recently Mr. Gibbons spoke with The Mac Observer about the genesis of Pro Tools, its position in the pro-audio world, and how GarageBand may be creating more audio junkies. Here is what he had to say:

TMO: When did you make the move into product marketing?

David Gibbons: About ten years ago, after working as an audio engineer in London, I started to work for a manufacturer demonstrating its product. They wanted specialists who had actually used the product to better explain to users its benefits and features.

My role as a product manager is to help the design and engineering team understand the attributes that people are looking for and also what gaps still may exist for new or updated products.

TMO: Given that Avid is the parent company of Digidesign, how much cross-pollination exists between the two entities?

Mr. Gibbons: Avid is based in Massachusetts, while we are based in Daly City, California. Each of us has our own product development team and computer software and hardware engineering team. However, our products are designed to work together seamlessly. You can easily transfer Pro Tools audio to an Avid [video or film] editing project, and you can export audio and video from an Avid-based project into Pro Tools.

TMO: Does Digidesign's business revolve exclusively around Pro Tools, or do you offer other pro-audio products as well?

Mr. Gibbons: Pro Tools is the largest part of our business, and most of the things we make work as peripherals, allowing you to do more with Pro Tools. Some products do not require Pro Tools in order to run though, and one of these products is called DigiDelivery, a networking product that allows you to deliver large files -- be it Pro Tools or any other kind -- that works as a replacement for people using FTP transmission, or sending actual physical media back and forth.

In May, we announced our entry into live mixing and processing with a new product called VENUE. VENUE brings many of the most attractive features of a Pro Tools system to live mixing, and also allows you to make live recordings more easily, We showed this product to the public at two major tradeshows in London and San Francisco, and so far, it's getting a terrific response.

TMO: The Pro Tools system is composed of both a hardware and a software component, much like Apple. Do you feel that part of the reason Pro Tools has been successful in the pro-audio community is because you provide users with the whole widget?

Mr. Gibbons: Yes, absolutely. Many of the alternatives to Pro Tools require you to buy a standalone application, find a piece of hardware it can work with, and then pair the two together to try to achieve the same results. In many cases, integrating products from different companies means that you don't get the quality of performance you had hoped for -- a problem you can eliminate by choosing our combined offering.

TMO: When did Pro Tools first arrive on the market, and how has it impacted the way people record audio?

Mr. Gibbons: In 1985, the company introduced a product called Sound Designer, which allowed you to take your multitrack -- probably an analog multitrack in those days -- and make changes. You could easily modify the master to alter the length of tunes or add in extra choruses or verses. It didn't serve as a replacement to an analog system in the way that Pro Tools does today, but that was the genesis of it all.

Pro Tools was introduced in 1991, and initially, it could only record eight to sixteen tracks. This wasn't enough to replace what people were doing with analog multitrack, but over the years Pro Tools has expanded to the point where it can do everything analog systems can, and more.

TMO: When did that transition point happen, in which Pro Tools took over the analog studio?

Mr. Gibbons: It was gradual. There was this transition period, where people were using a combination of Pro Tools and traditional analog multitracks. Then at some point, they realized: "We don't really need the analog multitracks anymore. We can do it all with Pro Tools."

TMO: When Pro Tools first was launched, was it a multiplatform product, or did it start out either on the Mac or Windows?

Mr. Gibbons: Pro Tools started on the Mac. At the time, the Mac OS was very much the platform of choice for professionals in all kinds of media -- which I guess it still is. And in the beginning, Pro Tools was pretty expensive, to the point that only professionals really could afford to purchase it.

TMO: Would you say that Pro Tools LE is more geared towards PC users, while the full version of Pro Tools still is weighted toward Mac users?

Mr. Gibbons: The functionality is the same on both platforms, but I think the ratio of Mac to PC users you've described is true. There are a couple of minor differences between the Mac and PC versions, but it's primarily the same. You can choose to use it on both platforms should you want to.

Of course on the whole, more people have PCs, which is why we expect Pro Tools to spread to the PC over time. Nevertheless, we try to make sure that new versions and upgrades of Pro Tools come out within a few weeks of each other on both platforms and that there aren't any major functional differences between the two.

TMO: How has OS X affected the Mac version of Pro Tools? Have you found that a lot of people have made the switch?

Mr. Gibbons: In general, we haven't found a huge difference in performance going to OS X. We did some engineering to make sure that the functionality would essentially be the same, and we were already working within limits on the performance that were determined by factors that are external to the operating system used.

For example, you could get 192 tracks of recording and playback at 48 kHz with Pro Tools because that is the bandwidth of the digital engines that we have built. So that factor just remained the same in OS X.

At the same time, people do see a performance benefit when manipulating the UI (User Interface) through OS X because its technology allows for faster redraws. And the faster processors on newer Mac systems that run on OS X also make a difference, of course.

TMO: If a musician records something using a competing product -- say MOTU's Digital Performer -- can Pro Tools translate the file? Or are Pro Tools and its competitors more or less proprietary in nature?

Mr. Gibbons: It varies quite a lot. There are some standards for file exchange. One of those is OMF, which is a system that Avid developed to provide an open standard for media interchange. It has since been superseded by a new platform called AAF, which describes the session and the way everything relates to everything else in terms of time.

Much more important than the audio files themselves is determining how these files have been edited, cut up, and recorded. This information is much harder to translate because it is often stored outside of the audio file itself.

TMO: What is your take on GarageBand?

Mr. Gibbons: I thought it was a great introduction that would increase interest in making music on the computer. A portion of those who use GarageBand most likely will graduate to something that offers greater functionality.

Apple's Soundtrack is a more capable version of GarageBand, while Apple's Logic targets people with professional needs. But some people will move to Pro Tools from GarageBand -- and that's a good thing. You can use Mbox [the hardware component of Pro Tools LE] as an audio input or output for GarageBand. People can buy a Pro Tools system and use it in conjunction with GarageBand.

TMO: What is your group doing to promote Pro Tools to GarageBand enthusiasts?

Mr. Gibbons: We don't have any specific marketing plan for GarageBand users. We sometimes do joint promotions with Apple -- in fact, we just completed one that demonstrated how you can use Pro Tools on practically any computer, along with the range of configurations available. This includes Logic as well as Pro Tools, for those who want to do something a bit more professional than they can with GarageBand.

A lot of people are using Logic on a Macintosh in conjunction with our Pro Tools DSP hardware. So even if they aren't purchasing the software, they are buying the hardware -- and that works for us as well.

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