Mixing Efficiency

How to take better advantage of Pro Tools' creative potential.
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As an acoustic musician, I have spent a major portion of my life in the practice room, squaring away all the left-brain technical stuff so that when I perform I can be entirely in right-brain expressive mode. As an electronic musician, however, I am too often guilty of trying to be both artist and technician at the same time, with sheet music on one knee and a software manual on the other. The predictable result is that I am less effective at both roles.

I don't expect to persuade anyone to sit down and practice at the computer the way one plays scales and arpeggios, but clearly some thoughtful preparation can pave the way for more-effective creative time. Big-league engineers ordinarily have assistant engineers to set up the console, patch in their favorite processors, organize tracks, and document everything so they can focus on the music instead of the technology. For the rest of us, it pays to be our own assistant engineers and spend some time preparing a session for the real creative work.

In this article, I will focus on ways to set up a session for a more organized and efficient mix. In addition to thinking ahead so you don't have to interrupt the creative flow, you can use certain tricks and underutilized functions in sequencers to help smooth out the rough spots in a mix session. Although I will use Digidesign Pro Tools 7.3 for my examples, each of the major DAWs and digital audio sequencers offer similar shortcuts and time-savers. All of my suggestions work in HD, LE, and M-Powered systems unless otherwise noted. Being efficient in Pro Tools means using lots of shortcut keys — I'll use Windows modifier keys and note their Mac equivalents in parentheses (see Web Clip 1).

Conquering Space and Time

In preparation for mixing, you may listen to a rough mix or simply throw the faders up to unity and listen through once or twice to get the big picture. As you make mental notes of each new section, press Enter on the numeric keypad to drop a marker. In the Edit Memory Location dialog box that appears, type a name (intro, verse, chorus, and so on) and click on Marker (see Fig. 1). Be sure that all other options are deselected and Reference is set to Absolute, then press Enter to close the dialog box. No matter how long it takes you to type cantankerous contrabassoon cadenza, Pro Tools will drop the marker where you first pressed Enter.

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FIG. 1: Markers are a special type of memory location. Use them to delineate a song''s form and annotate the flow of the mix.

Later, you can add comments to the markers to indicate moods, lyrics, objectives, and so forth. Comments can be displayed in the Memory Locations window, and they'll show up in the tool tips that appear when you hover the cursor over a marker. (Enable Details under the Tool Tips options in the Display Preferences window.)

After you've marked the song's road map, locate to each marker in turn and click on Play. If you were off-target, zoom in and drag the marker to a more precise location. Instead of locating by clicking on markers in the Memory Locations window, use the shortcut of pressing Period (.) on the numeric keypad followed by the number of the memory location and Period again. Pro Tools relocates efficiently enough that you can use this technique to experiment with the arrangement, skipping or repeating sections without editing.

If the song was not recorded to a Pro Tools click track, the grid will not align with the song's tempo. Tempo-based effects, such as filter LFOs and note-based delay times, will not correspond to the song. Take the time to create a tempo map of the entire song, using either Identify Beat or Beat Detective. Even if you have no intention of using Beat Detective to time-correct any parts, the tempo map will be useful.

Work in 4- or 8-bar segments, starting from the beginning of the song. Be careful to make very precise selections and listen to each selection in Loop Playback to confirm that it is accurate. Set up a click track and listen to whether it aligns well with the audio tracks. You will almost always want to base the tempo map on the drums.

Up the Organization

You should have named your tracks when you created them — Pro Tools (and other DAWs) names recorded or processed files after the tracks in which they were created. If you didn't, do it now so you know which fader is which. Although Pro Tools is fairly intelligent about shortening long track names, you're always better off keeping them short to begin with — you're more intelligent by far. You have room for only eight to ten characters of average width, so use them wisely.

Be sure your Comments field is visible and use track comments liberally. Note any outboard processing, corrective action, musical function (lead, background, and so on), or other tidbits. Assume that you will forget everything, and use comments to help you remember.

Group your tracks by instrument type or musical function. Obviously, the drum tracks should be next to each other, and you probably want the rest of the rhythm-section instruments to be near the drums. Don't be dogmatic, but do be consistent from session to session. You won't have to waste time searching for the guitar-solo track if you know it always goes immediately to the right of the electric and acoustic rhythm-guitar tracks (in that order). Consider adopting the Recording Academy's recommendations (see Web Clip 2).

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FIG. 2: Pro Tools, like other software, supports color-coded tracks. Using colors consistently across projects is a great way to help identify tracks, especially in a mix containing many tracks.

If you have a lot of tracks, reorder them more efficiently by dragging them up and down in the Tracks list. If you need to move groups of tracks, do it from the Edit view. Alt-click (Option-click) on any track's Track Height Selector and choose Small to fit as many tracks as possible onscreen. (Mini or Micro will fit more, but you'll have a harder time reading track names.) Select the tracks you need to move, and drag them up or down as a unit.

Most DAWs allow you to color code tracks, and this can be a great help in finding your place in a lengthy set of tracks. In Pro Tools, you can automatically colorize tracks and regions by function (under Display Preferences) or individually assign colors from the Color Palette, which is found under the Windows menu (see Fig. 2). To apply the colors of the tracks' small color bars to the entire length of the channel strips, hold Ctrl + Start + Alt (Ctrl + Option + Command) as you click on any color in the palette, and drag upward until you achieve the desired intensity.

Read more of the mixing Pro Tools article

E-I-E-I/O

Label your inputs, outputs, inserts, and buses. All can be renamed via a right-click menu, or you can manage them all from I/O Setup (see Fig. 3). It's more efficient to assign a send to Verb Bus than to wonder whether it's supposed to be Bus 13-14 or Bus 15-16, and it's much easier to remember what you've done with a track if you can see it has sends to GtrDelay and ShortVerb. When you patch in a hardware processor, name the insert after that device.

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FIG. 3: It''s much easier to create and understand your session''s signal flow when paths have relevant names, such as Horns Verb and Drums Subgroup.

Export and reuse your I/O settings. Open a well-documented session and click on Export Settings in the I/O Setup window. Choose a fitting name and save the file to the default location. When you create a new session, choose this setup from the New Session dialog box. All of your helpful names will be immediately available in that session. You can import your favorite mix I/O settings into an existing session by using the Import Settings button in the I/O Setup window. You'll need to reassign any existing I/O paths, but if you do this as you start a mix, it should save you more time than it costs.

Group Hug

The notion of a fader group (a mix group in Pro Tools) is intuitive: move one fader, and its buddies will move along with it. In Pro Tools, simply select multiple tracks and press Ctrl + G (Command + G). The Create Group dialog box underwent some major revisions in version 7.2 (7.3 for LE), and Pro Tools HD's group behaviors became substantially more flexible (see Web Clip 3).

If you want to adjust a grouped track individually, you can either Start-drag (Ctrl-drag) its fader or suspend the group. The standard way to suspend a group is to click on its name in the Groups list — groups are active only when they are highlighted. In the Mix view, it's far quicker to press the group's ID letter, at least for the first 26 groups (A to Z). When creating groups, choose an ID of D for your Drums group and K for your Keyboards group, and you'll have no trouble remembering which key to press.

Even if you don't find yourself using fader groups that often, groups have other important uses. Click on a group's ID in the Groups list to select all members of that group, and Shift-click on another group's ID to add its members to the selection. This works even if the group is not currently active. Start-click (Ctrl-click) on a group's ID to display its member tracks while hiding all other tracks. Shift-Start-click (Shift-Ctrl-click) on another group's ID to show its members as well. Start-click (Ctrl-click) on the All group to show all tracks.

Although some functions, such as assigning sends and inserts, don't follow groups, you can use groups to apply them efficiently. Click on a group's ID to select its members, then Shift-Alt-click (Shift-Option-click) to assign a send or plug-in to one member track. The send or plug-in will be created across all members of the group with the same channel format. Remember that in Pro Tools, the modifier combination Shift + Alt (Shift + Option) means “apply to all selected tracks.” To apply an action to all tracks, hold only Alt (Option) while clicking.

Making Memories

Be sure to take full advantage of memory locations. In addition to storing markers, memory locations allow you to recall zoom settings, track show/hide settings, track heights, group enables, selections, and more. Many repetitive tasks can be sped up by using memory locations. You know how to use mix groups to show and hide grouped tracks — create memory locations to show and hide tracks that are not ordinarily grouped. Create a memory location that shows only your effects returns, only your subgroups, or only your instrument tracks.

You don't need to create memory locations in the default numeric order. Make all your show/hide memory locations start with 30 and your group-enable memory locations start with 50. To create a memory location with a specific number, press the Period key, the number of the memory location, and Enter on the numeric keypad. With 999 memory locations available, you can organize them as you wish.

Create a pair of track-height memory locations to toggle between Small and Jumbo so that when you go into the Edit view to edit mix parameters graphically, you can jump in to do detailed editing. If you find yourself returning to specific sections and looping them, such as looping a short drum fill to tweak EQ on the toms, save the selections as memory locations. Be sure you deselect all General properties (zoom, group enables, and so on) so when you recall a selection, you don't change any of those attributes. Conversely, be sure your Time properties are set to None for your show/hide and track-height memory locations so they don't relocate the playback cursor.

Pro Tools can now save up to 99 window configurations, and these can be recalled as part of memory locations. Window configurations can recall the entire layout of all windows — which ones are open, how they are configured, and how they are arranged onscreen — or the display settings of the Mix, Edit, or Transport windows.

Suppose you use sends A through E for global sends, such as your main reverb, while reserving sends F through J for individual sends, such as a guitar delay. Show just A through E and press the Period key followed by the number 11 and then the Plus key on the numeric keypad to create a window configuration showing just those sends. Check Mix Window Display Settings in the Edit Window Configuration dialog box, and don't forget to give the configuration a meaningful name and description. Create a window configuration with the number 12 that shows just F through J. Press Period, then 11, then Asterisk (*) on the numeric keypad to recall the A through E view.

Create window configurations for any common changes you make to the Mix view, such as opening and closing the Tracks list (or even changing its width) and displaying or hiding sends, inserts, comments, and I/O. If you simply click in the Window Configuration List to change views, you are saving yourself mouse-clicks each time. Better still, recall them from the numeric keypad.

Plug It In

There are several ways to optimize your use of plug-ins. If you reach for certain presets regularly, make Pro Tools recall them as the plug-ins' default settings. Recall your preferred preset for a given plug-in and declare it the User Default in the plug-in's Settings menu. From the Settings Preferences submenu, tell Pro Tools to set the plug-in's default to User Setting. Every time you insert that plug-in, it will launch with these settings.

Even if you do this on a project-by-project basis, it will save you time. For example, say that on the first song of a project, you create an EQ setting that works well on the lead singer's voice. Make it your default, and as you work your way through the rest of the songs on the album, you will always have a good starting point. Be sure, though, that you have saved this setting to the Root Settings folder, not the Session Settings folder.

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FIG. 4: Plug-in settings submenus are simply folders. Plug-in settings files that exist within the plug-in''s Root Settings folder appear at the top of the settings list for quick access.

You should make a habit of preserving the settings on all your plug-ins by saving presets in the Session Settings folder. Should you encounter a corrupt session file, you could re-create your session from the existing audio files, but you would have lost your mix. If you have saved your plug-in settings, however, you could recall them easily. Saving them to the Session Settings folder prevents them from cluttering the Root Settings folder — you can always import settings from one session's folder into another session if you want.

When a plug-in has multiple folders (submenus) of presets, there are probably a few you use more than others. Copy those preset files from their subfolders to the plug-in's Root Settings folder so they appear at the top of the list (see Fig. 4). You'll need to go submenu diving only for those settings you use less often.

If your DAW supports effects chains, whereby you can save and recall multiple plug-ins in order and with specific parameters as a single preset, invest the time to set up and save a few. Pro Tools does not currently do this, but it does allow you to drag a plug-in settings file from the Workspace browser directly to an insert, thereby instantiating the relevant plug-in with those settings in a single action. The one obstacle to this is that although the browser is great at searching for files, it is not very efficient at navigating to known folders. To get around the problem, create a folder at the root of any volume and copy your favorite settings there. They will then be only a click away in the Workspace browser when you want to insert them.

There are no doubt a handful of plug-ins on which you depend frequently. Make these into “favorites” so they appear at the top of the plug-in list, and you can get to them more easily. Ctrl-click (Command-click) on an insert and choose a plug-in from its usual folder, and it will always display above all your plug-in submenus. Repeating the process clears a plug-in from the favorites list.

Changing the Reels

This tip is exclusive to Pro Tools HD. (A work-around for LE and M-Powered users is available online; see Web Clip 4.) Although it's useful in myriad situations, its power is immediately evident when you're working on several songs by the same band. You work your way through the first song and get it sounding just right, and then it's time to move on to the second song. In a tape-based studio, you remove one reel and put on the next, leaving your console, patch bay, and effects alone. If you used the same track order on the second song as you did on the first, song 2 is half-mixed already. In a DAW, you might feel as though you're starting over from scratch when you open song 2.

In Pro Tools HD, you can simply import the mix from one song to another using Import Session Data (see Fig. 5). Once known as Import Tracks, this powerful function can selectively import plug-in and I/O assignments, automation playlists, and many other aspects of a session into another. In Pro Tools LE, only the name has changed — it can still only import entire tracks, including audio regions.

Within the second song, go to File→Import→Session Data and navigate to the first song's session file. If you used the same track-naming conventions, Pro Tools can automatically correlate the appropriate tracks; otherwise, you can assign them manually. From the Session Data To Import drop-down list, choose which parameters to import, making sure not to import alternate playlists. Under Main Playlist Options, choose Do Not Import so that none of the audio regions from the source session are imported. In this way, you can apply any or all of song 1's mix to song 2 (and 3, and 4 …).

Import Session Data can also be used in either HD or LE to import memory locations and window configurations, so your prep work on one session can speed another even more. Show/hide and group-enable memory locations are track specific, so they won't translate, and neither will selections or markers. Track height, zoom level, and pre-/postroll will translate perfectly, however.

Templates

You may find it useful to create one or more template sessions tailored to your most common mix scenarios. You can create a blank generic session from scratch or take a representative existing session and strip out its edit playlists and regions. Set the template to be read-only on the PC, or declare it to be a stationery pad under File Info on the Mac. This will prevent it from being changed easily. If you ordinarily follow projects from tracking through mixing, you'll probably want to start each session from a template, but if you often get called in to mix projects that were created elsewhere, you'll simply import the mix attributes from the template.

If you're impatient for Digidesign to implement effects chains, add some tracks to your template session that have your favorite plug-in sequences and presets on aux tracks. Make the tracks inactive so they don't use any resources. When you import the plug-ins or drag them from the dummy tracks to active tracks, they will be activated.

Get Busy

Of course, obsessing over organization is anathema to creativity, so don't get too carried away. Still, the more you can do to preempt any unnecessary interruptions to the creative process, the better. Pick the techniques discussed that seem most valuable to your work flow and use them as a springboard for your own innovative efficiencies.

At the conclusion of a project, when you're burning CDs and backing up sessions, take a few minutes to reflect on the procedures that ate up valuable time or disrupted your creative flow. Figure out ways to streamline the process — a new template, a different way of organizing memory locations, memorizing a useful shortcut — and implement the cure right away. Next time you start a project, you'll be glad you planned ahead.

Brian Smithers would like to thank Andrew Hagerman of Digidesign and his colleagues at Full Sail Real World Education for their insights and inspiration.