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Music 265b Lesson 1: Introduction to Pro Tools

PDF version is available HERE

What is Pro Tools?

Pro Tools is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) – a combination multi-track recorder, mixing console, nonlinear audio editor, MIDI sequencer, and musical notation software. In a studio, it is the industry-standard recording program. Besides software, Pro Tools systems also include an external audio interface, which is like a mini-version of the analog mixing console; the physical inputs & outputs of the system. In a project studio, this is typically an M-Box, or a 003 Rack unit. In large studios, it can include large consoles, like the C24.

Getting Started

Launch Pro Tools and go to File > New Session in the menu (shortcut: COMMAND N. On a PC all shortcuts use CONTROL instead of COMMAND). This window gives you the option to create a new session based off a template file, or make a blank session. Create a blank session at Mastering quality: 48kHz sample rate, 24 Bit bit-depth (standard CD quality is 44.1kHz, 16 Bit). Higher sample rates & bit depths are higher in quality, but require more hard drive space & CPU usage. Name your session and save it in your project folder: make sure you don’t save it in another student’s session.

Before we explain the layout, make some new tracks by going to Track > New (COMMAND SHIFT N). Make 16 mono audio tracks in samples, press the + button to the right, 1 STEREO Master Fader, + again, and 1 stereo Aux Input. Click the create button. Audio tracks are similar to our channels on the console, the Master fader is identical to the L/R mix fader, and the Aux Inputs can fill a variety of roles, like the console’s bus faders & aux send/returns.

Layout: Edit Window

The Pro Tools layout combines a mixing console, recorder, patch bay, and also shows a visual representation of recorded audio waveforms in the edit window. The upper right corner has our different tools (trimmer, selector, and grabber: the three of these combine to form the multi-tool), which are our primary resources for editing audio.

Next is the Transport, similar to the interface found on the front of our DA-88 tape recorders. This displays the time (either in minutes & seconds, bars & beats, or samples), and provides play, stop and record functions.

Beneath the transport are various Rulers. The upper 3 show the main counter in bars & beats, minutes & seconds, samples, etc. The next 3 are for tempo (default 120), meter (default 4/4, common time) and musical key (default C major). You can alter these 3 rulers by clicking the + symbol to the right of the ruler’s name: this will change the tempo, meter, or key at the cursor’s position in the session timeline. The last ruler is for markers (or memory locations). Create a memory location by pressing ENTER on the number-pad. Memory location markers typically serve as notes or reference points (e.g. “Take 1,” “Verse,” “check for distortion,” etc).

The bulk of the edit window is taken up by our tracks: this section lets us see the recorded waveform & programmed track automation. When we have recorded audio or MIDI data, this area is where you will do the bulk of your editing & splicing. Besides displaying the waveform, tracks can also display automation information like pan, volume, mute, etc. More on that later.

Layout: Mix Window & Tracks

To view the Mix Window, press COMMAND = (this function lets you quickly tab between the mix & edit windows). This view should look familiar: very similar to a mixing console, with a few differences. The Audio Track functions like an analog channel strip. The first two sections are the Inserts: These are used for plug-ins, ranging from signal processors like EQ’s & compressors, to instruments like drum machines, synths, and samplers.

The next section is the Sends, which function exactly like the aux (effects) sends on the console. These let you route the signal through extra paths inside Pro Tools’ buses. These are sometimes labeled (verb send, etc) to help avoid confusion. Sends also have a fader with mute, solo, and pre/post fader functions.

Next, we have the track’s I/O (Input/Output). Tracks can receive their input from an external audio interface (Analog 1-8, ADAT 1-8, SPDIF L/R, etc), MIDI sources (keyboards), internal buses in Pro Tools, or the output of other tracks. Outputs will send the signal back out through the audio interface, through the internal buses, or to other tracks, depending on how you route the signal.

Beneath the I/O is the channel’s Automation mode. This lets the channel read, write, or ignore automation commands, such as pan, mute, and volume automaton. We’ll cover this in-depth later. Next is the channel’s Group ID indicator, which shows the channel’s current group assignment (e.g. “Drums”), if any.

The Pan knob (two knobs on a stereo track), just like the pan knob on a console, moves the signal to the left or right in the stereo image. These knobs will only show if the track’s output is routed to a stereo pair (e.g. Analog 1 & 2, etc).

The Record button functions just like arming a tape recorder: LEFT-CLICK to arm the track for recording, COMMAND LEFT-CLICK to prevent the track from being armed (Record-Safe Mode) by accidentally clicking (command click again to undo this). Remember, try not to record “dead air” when possible: it takes up hard drive space. However, you can always delete it later.

The Solo button is identical to the solo on the console, with one added feature. By using the COMMAND LEFT-CLICK shortcut on the solo button, the channel will be in Solo-Safe Mode (until you command click again). This means the track will still make sound when something else is soloed. Typically, this is used on an effect track (reverb, etc) or a stem, allowing you to hear your soloed track (like vocals), with the reverb as well. The Mute button is identical to the mute on the console as well.

Next is the Volume Fader & Meter: identical to the faders & meter bridge on the console. If the signal clips, a red dot will appear at the top of the meter: reduce the incoming volume (going from the console to Pro Tools), or lower the fader to avoid clipping.

Lastly, you have the Track name & Comments. Double-click to label the track or add comments as needed. The track’s name (e.g. “vocals”, etc) will name the channel’s audio file(s) when it is recorded (e.g. “Vocals_1”, “Vocals_2”, etc). If any of the above sections are not showing, go to View > Mix (or edit) Window Views.

Other tracks have identical features, but different functions. The Aux Input (mono & stereo) can fill a variety of roles, similar to the buses & aux returns on the console. Unlike Audio & Instrument tracks, Aux tracks cannot record audio/MIDI data: sound can only pass through them. Their most common uses are as listening groups or sub-masters (playback for a specific group of tracks, like all drum channels, strings, etc), reverb tracks, or headphone mixes. All of these operations can be done by setting the aux track’s input to read the output of one of the buses inside Pro Tools. For example, click on a send on any audio track, and set it to bus > bus 1 (or “verb send” if it is labeled. Any unused bus will do). A little send window with a fader & meter will appear: raise the send volume by moving the fader. Now go to your aux input and set the channel’s input to bus > bus 1 (or whatever you used as your send). Sound on the audio track will pass through the send and play through the aux input as well. Aux inputs cannot record audio, but they can have programmed automation.

The Master Fader (mono & stereo) is like the L/R or main mix fader on the console. It controls the master volume out of Pro Tools for any output (like Analog 1 & 2, ADAT 1 & 2, etc). The master fader’s input reads from all outputs in Pro Tools on any given channel (default Analog 1 & 2). The Master Fader is typically the last thing our signal will pass through in our signal chain.

Very briefly, Instrument Tracks can receive & record MIDI data. They have an additional MIDI I/O, located at the top of the channel strip. Incoming MIDI data can be assigned to Virtual Instrument plug-ins (virtual keyboards, drum machines, etc) inside Pro Tools. MIDI Tracks are used to send MIDI data outside of our Pro Tools system to outboard MIDI equipment (a real synthesizer, drum machines, etc), or to other instrument tracks.

This covers the basic layout of Pro Tools, including the types of tracks most commonly used in studio recording. We will cover editing, plug-ins, sequencing, mixing, and mastering later on. Before you can get there, you need to record some tracks. After this review you should be ready for your first real multi-track session: our next lesson.

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