Digidesign Pro Tools has an extensive feature set that may seem endless to everyone except the most experienced user. But even power users might not know that an update has added functionality that can change the way they approach routine tasks. And unless you have read the latest version of the Pro Tools manual (now approaching 700 pages), the full potential of the workstation will remain untapped because many of its handiest features, while not necessarily hidden, are not immediately obvious.
In this article, I'll focus on features and techniques that can be used to enhance your work flow, no matter what kind of production work you do. Many of these features appear in version 6.7 (the most recent update), while others have existed since version 6. But whatever level of experience you have with Pro Tools LE, the following tips and techniques will help you increase your productivity. (Because Mac and Windows keyboard shortcuts vary slightly, I will indicate both — Mac first, then Windows — with a slash between the two, as in Shift + Command/Ctrl + N.)
PDQ Session Building
Beginning with version 6.7, Pro Tools LE lets you create all the tracks you need for a session in one step. Start by going to File and choosing New Session (Command/Ctrl + N). Name the session, then select the audio file type, sampling rate, bit depth, I/O settings, and destination of the session folder. (You will notice that you have the option of choosing a fader gain of +6 or +12; the larger gain range will be useful if the session is destined for use in an Avid video editing system.) Select Save, and then let the session build.
To add your tracks, go to the File menu and select New Tracks (or use Shift + Command/Ctrl + N). The New Tracks dialog box now has the plus (+) button at the far right of the box. Click on the button to specify as many of each type of track as you think you will need. Note that once you click on the plus button, a minus (-) button appears next to it on each track. As you would expect, the minus button removes any track you have created. You can use your keyboard's Up- and Down Arrows to raise and lower the number of tracks you want for each kind of track, or you can type in the number of tracks.
Starting with version 6.7, you can specify whether an audio track is sample based or tick based. (Pro Tools lets you combine tick-based and sample-based tracks in the same session.) If you're working on a project that has audio files and you need tempo flexibility, tick-based tracks will lock your audio regions to the tempo grid just as MIDI does: when you change tempo, your samples remain lined up with the beat. If you want to change back to a sample base, click and hold on the Edit window rack's time-base icon (it resembles a small triangular metronome), and select Samples.
After you've selected the tracks that you want, click on Create and Pro Tools will build the session, placing the tracks in the Mix and Edit windows in the order you specified in the New Tracks dialog box (from top to bottom in the Edit window and from left to right in the Mix window). If you decide later that you want to change the order, it's easy to do: go to the Show/Hide Tracks display at the far left of the Mix or Edit window, and drag any track to the position you want it. In addition, you can sort the tracks in the Edit and Mix windows by name, type, edit group, mix group, or voice by clicking on the Show/Hide bar and selecting Sort Tracks By from the pull-down menu.
Better Living Through Templates
Although the new functionality I have described can help you create a session quickly, you don't have to start from scratch each time you create a new song if you have template sessions. You can have templates for all types of projects that you work on; for example, you can have a template for different band lineups, for video post-production work, or for MIDI-only sessions. Creating session templates is easy, but the steps are different for Mac and Windows machines.
For Windows, build the session that will become your template, save it with a name indicating that it's a template, and close the session. If you're a Windows user, right-click on your session icon, choose Properties, and click on the Read Only box. Now you can open and work on the file like normal. But when it comes time to save or close the session, you will be prompted to rename the file in order to save it, because it's a Read Only file. To make changes to your template, you will have to return to the Properties dialog box and deselect the Read Only box.
For the Mac, highlight the icon of your template session, go to the File menu, and select Get Info (Command + I). Click on the Stationery Pad box, then close the window. Next, double-click on your template. After the Edit and Mixer windows are built, a dialog box will appear with two options: Edit Stationery and New Session. Click on Edit Stationery if you want to modify the template file. The New Session button opens another dialog box that prompts you to rename the session and select where you want to save it. Once you press Save, you're ready to work on the new session, without damaging the related template file.
I recommend creating templates that don't include audio files, because when you rename and save new versions, the original audio files are not automatically copied into the Audio Files folder of the recently saved session. The audio files remain in the original Audio Files folder. (You can see where these audio files reside by clicking on the Audio tile at the top of the region bin and selecting Show Full Pathnames.) As long as you have access to the drive where the template's audio files reside, you won't have a problem. But if you plan to take the session elsewhere, you should use the Save Session Copy In option under the File menu. That will create a new folder for the session and copy all of the required elements into it.
Import Session Data
If you want to import audio files and other attributes from another session, use the Import Session Data option. This feature imports the specified audio tracks and video elements and maintains any associated plug-in settings and automation. In the process, audio files are automatically converted to the proper session resolution.
FIG. 1: In the Import Session Data dialog box, I have selected to import two stereo audio tracks (Stereo Perc and Prep Piano). Note that I have also chosen to copy the media into the new session, and offset the incoming tracks by 17 seconds.
Under File, select Import Session Data. The first dialog box you see will prompt you to locate the session file from which you want to import data. Select the file and click on Open. In the next dialog box, select the source tracks and other session elements that you want to import (see Fig. 1). Click on the desired Source Tracks (or select New Track under the Destination heading for each track you want). Make your Audio Media Options selection and click on OK. The selected elements will appear in your new session.
The Audio Media Options box determines how the audio files are imported into your new session. Select Copy From Source Media to make copies of the selected tracks and put them in the desired location. If the source files differ in file format, bit depth, and sampling rate from the destination session, the source files will automatically be converted.
If you select Link To Source Media (Where Possible), the audio regions appear in your session, but the original audio files are not copied into your new session file. They reside in the source folder, and your regions point to their location. If the source files cannot be used during playback (which would be the case if they reside on a CD-ROM or slow drive), then the files will be converted (if needed) and copied into the session during the import process.
Another option is Consolidate from Source Session, which copies only the audio files that are used in source session tracks, skipping the ones that aren't being used. The final option is Force to Target Session Format, which copies and converts only the source tracks, which have a different file format, bit depth, and sampling rate than the destination session. Source files that don't need conversion aren't copied; they appear in the track but read from the source file.
Other Import Session Data features include Video Media Options, Timecode Mapping Options (for maintaining absolute or relative values or mapping start time code to a selected value), Track Offset Options (user definable as Bars:Beats, Min:Secs, or samples), Sample Rate Conversion Options (including conversion quality), and the ability to import a session's Tempo/Meter Map.
FIG. 2: From the Workspace window, you can see which drives and CDs are mounted and their content. Here, you can see the waveforms for the audio files, read the duration of each, and preview a file by clicking on its icon or waveform.
Entering the Workspace
The DigiBase database provides a powerful way to organize and manage your files in Pro Tools LE. Although there are three types of DigiBase browsers (Workspace, Volume, and Project), I'll focus on Workspace. Among other things, Workspace lets you view, organize, and search for a variety of file types across multiple mounted drives simultaneously (see Fig. 2).
Open the Workspace from the Windows menu or click on Option/Alt + semicolon (;). At the far left, you will see your drives and media, as well as number of categories that will be useful for organizational purposes. Click on the arrow to view the files on each drive.
When you first launch Workspace, you will find the Waveform column in the far right panel. If the wave — forms don't appear automatically, go to Calculate Waveform under the Toolbox menu. Once calculated, the waveform overviews are saved as a database file in a folder within Pro Tools LE, so when you remount the media at a later date, the waveforms will appear automatically. In addition, you can share the database file with other users of the storage volume from which you were working, allowing them to automatically retrieve the waveforms without having to wait for them to be calculated.
Select the name of the file that you want to play using the Up- and Down Arrows to scroll through the names, and press the spacebar to play it back. In addition, you can click on any point on a waveform and preview the file from that point by clicking on and holding down your mouse button. This is especially useful for browsing lengthy files.
When you've located the file that you want to use, you can add it to your session in one of three ways: drag-and-drop the file from the workspace onto a track you've already created; drag-and-drop the file into the blank space below the other tracks, which will create a new track and place the file within it; or drag-and-drop the file into the Audio Regions list. No matter which method you choose, the audio is automatically copied into your session's Audio Files folder. If you want the audio file to retain its original bit depth and sampling rate, hold down the Shift key as you drag-and-drop the file.
You can also drag the tracks and session data from another project into the Edit window of your open session. That will automatically open the Import Session Data dialog box, which will allow you to choose specific parts of the session that you want to import.
You can reorganize the columns in the Workspace and save View Presets of five layouts. The presets are selected using the numbered circles in the upper-left corner of the toolbar. I used this feature to place the waveform display and Abs Duration columns immediately after the Name and file-type columns, so I could shrink the Workspace window and still see the file names and waveforms. To move a column, drag its name tile to the position that you want, then Command/Ctrl-click on a View Preset number.
You can search all folders and drives by metadata within the Workspace. Put a check mark in the box next to each media element — hard disks, CDs, and DVDs — that you want to search. The metadata criteria available for search in Pro Tools LE is Name and Date Modified (more options are available to Pro Tools TDM users).
The Workspace can also be used to unmount drives and eject CDs and DVDs from within Pro Tools LE. Just highlight the drive and select Unmount from the Toolbox (which appears in the upper-left corner of the Workspace window).
Draw Your Own Tempo
Another feature added to version 6.7 is the Graphic Tempo Editor, which allows you to draw automation-style tempo-change curves. (Before you begin, make sure you are not in Auto-Tempo mode. Go to the Transport window and click on the Conductor icon.) To open the Tempo Editor in the Edit window, click on the arrow to the left of the word Tempo (above the track names). The plus sign to the right of the word Tempo opens a dialog box for manually typing in a tempo between markers. You can resize the window by pulling down on the lower portion of the window and using the up/down slider and zoom (+/-) buttons. As you edit the tempo, you can set the resolution and density of the points in the left pane.
Using the pencil tool, you can draw freehand shapes or select Parabolic, S-Curve, or Line. You can even modify the tempo curve while the session plays, if you don't mind a bit of stuttering during playback.
FIG. 3: Using the Grabber tool, I embedded a gradual tempo increase within another linear increase. Just after the 25-second mark, the tempo jumps to a higher number, slowly increases to the 47-second point, then suddenly decreases and finishes the initial accelerando.
Once you have the desired shape you can adjust it, depending on the selected resolution setting. For example, if you used a straight line to draw a gradual increase in tempo, you can grab the middle or end markers with the Grabber tool and adjust the start- and end tempos after you have drawn the line (see Fig. 3). You can also move the markers to extend or decrease the tempo shape to cover a greater or fewer number of bars.
Use Tempo Operations in the MIDI menu to make an overall tempo change for a selection. The shapes at your disposal include Constant, to even out a selection to one tempo; Linear, for a gradual tempo increase or decrease; Parabolic and S-Curve, for adding gradual nonlinear shapes; Scale, to change a selection proportionally; and Stretch, to apply a tempo shape over a larger or smaller area. In the Tempo Operations pop-up window, you can pick from a menu of simplified options (such as the start/end times of a selection) or check the Advanced box for additional shape-specific features. After you've applied the tempo shape, you can subtly tweak it further using the pencil tool or move portions of it en masse.
The red diamond in the upper tempo bar is now the start-time marker. Drag it to the right on the time line to put time before the original start point. When you do that, notice the negative numbers to the left of the diamond in the Timing window.
Under the MIDI menu, select any of the top four selections, and the Time Operations dialog box will appear. Time Operations are a suite of functions that are used to modify the length of a session. That is especially useful when accommodating a change in the session length, such as when you're cutting to picture, and a new video edit — with a different length — arrives.
The Change Meter operation lets you specify a new meter, how long it will last, and where it will go. Insert Time and Cut Time let you add and remove length in the session. Move Song Start lets you precisely place the start time. Once you're done, you can use the Renumber Bars option, under the MIDI menu, to clean up everything.
FIG. 4: Use the a…z button to enable Commands Focus mode and take advantage of numerous one-key commands.
One useful feature that few people take advantage of was added when version 6 was released. The Commands Focus mode maps dozens of routine commands to letters on your QWERTY keyboard. The a…z button, which sits below the View Presets buttons, enables Commands Focus (see Fig. 4). Although there are dozens of commands to choose from — a few of which work only in TDM systems — a handful of them are easy to remember.
Start with the letters E, R, T (as in QWERTY). You can toggle the horizontal zoom of a highlighted selection in and out using E, going from the smallest view you were in to a larger view. (Use Zoom Toggle Track Height in the Display section of Preferences to set the size of the larger view.) Use R to gradually zoom out horizontally, and T to gradually zoom in.
You can perform Cut, Copy, and Paste with X, C, and P, respectively, without holding down the Command/Ctrl key. Once you've highlighted and cut or copied a selection, you can use P to move it up or semicolon (;) to move it down, preserving the start and end time of the selection. (Holding down the Option/Alt key while moving a highlighted region is another method.) You can also tab the cursor up and down using the P and semicolon keys.
Tab forward laterally through a track of audio regions using the apostrophe (') key: the cursor will stop at the beginning and end of each audio region as you hit the key. To reverse tab, use L. (Using these key commands in a MIDI track tabs you to each note.) If you want to start playback while your fingers are in the neighborhood, press the left-bracket ([) key.
Clean Up That Mess!
If you've been working on a session for an extended period, it's likely that you have accumulated extraneous data. It is, therefore, a good idea to do a little housekeeping once in a while, so that there is no wasted space on your hard disk. There are several ways to do that.
Say you have finished recording, editing, and mixing a song, and you want to make an archival data backup that includes only the elements being used. Because some of the following steps are destructive and may potentially delete something you need, use the Save Session Copy In option, under the File menu, to make a backup of your entire session in a safe place. If you perform the following cleanup routines successfully, you can delete this backup version. Otherwise, it's there if you need it.
The first step is to remove unused audio files. Select them in the Audio region bin located at the far right of your Edit window (if it's not showing, click on the double arrow at the bottom-right corner of the screen). If you're selecting more than one region file, click on each one while holding down the Shift key until all of them are highlighted. Click on the Audio tile and choose Clear Selected from the pull-down menu. Click on Remove if you want to take those files out of the session but leave them on the hard disk. Click on Delete if you want to permanently remove the files from the disk.
The difference between Remove and Delete is important to understand: the Delete function is a destructive one, so if you are sharing files with another session or project, choose Remove. Otherwise, you will negatively impact other songs by deleting the shared audio files.
But what if your region list is a mile long, and you can't easily tell which regions aren't being used. Go to the Audio pull-down menu again and choose Select. Highlight the Unused Regions Except Whole Files option and click on it. The unused regions in the session will be automatically highlighted. Go to the Audio pull-down menu once more, choose Clear Selected, and click on Remove in the Clear Audio box. If you want to remove (or delete, if you're feeling confident) all unused audio files in the session, highlight Unused Regions under the Select category in the Audio menu. Then go to Clear Selected and choose Remove or Delete as needed.
Once the unused data is gone, it's time for one more step that will minimize any wasted space in the session and allow for a streamlined backup. The Compact Selected command permanently deletes any audio data that is not being referenced by a region. (That is why I used Remove to clear — but not destroy — the unused region data that I wanted to keep. Any detritus left over will be removed for good after that process.) If you are completely done with your session, choose Select All under Audio. Then go to Audio and click on Compact Selected. In the dialog box, you are prompted to select the amount of “padding” (a user-specified amount of time around the remaining files) that you want, which will be used for crossfades. Click on Compact, and the program will process and remove any remaining unused audio and then automatically save the results.
Play the session to make sure that you didn't inadvertently delete something useful. If it plays correctly, use Save Session Copy In to copy and place all of the session elements into one centralized location. Now you have a complete copy of your session that you can burn to disc and place in your archive.
More Good Housekeeping Secrets
Maximum system efficiency should be one of the main goals of the Pro Tools LE user. Because the program relies on your computer's CPU for every task, you want to use those cycles judiciously. One way to save CPU cycles is to make inactive any tracks that are not being used at a particular point in a session. When a track is inactive, its associated automation, plug-ins, sends, and voice allocation is deactivated, so it doesn't require any CPU time. To make a track inactive, go to the track in the Mix window and Command + Control/Start + click on the Track Type indicator. The track will become gray when it is inactive.
Another way to buy back CPU time is to reduce the number of automation breakpoints. Under Setups, select Preferences, then click on Automation. Check the box marked Smooth and Thin Data After Pass, and Pro Tools will automatically delete unnecessary breakpoints in the automation.
If your song has a lot of edits and you're beginning to notice playback errors, try reducing the edit density in certain sections. For example, the strings of small regions and crossfades clustered together in a loop-based production may be putting a strain on your disk drive's ability to find and retrieve data. To mitigate the problem, use the Consolidate Selection function. Once your regions are set and you're sure that you're finished making changes, highlight them and select Consolidate Selection under the Edit menu. The regions will be rendered into one file and automatically placed in the right spot in your session. Later, when you've finished the song and are removing unwanted regions before compacting your piece for archiving, you can select and remove the region files that your consolidated region replaced.
Digidesign also suggests that Mac users turn off the journaling feature for any media drives that they plan to use with Pro Tools LE. If you're using the Apple Disk Utility to format your drive, select Mac OS Extended rather than Mac OS Extended (Journaled). If you're recording to your boot drive with Pro Tools LE, you can select Disable Journaling using Disk Utility for better performance (although that will increase your computer's recovery time after a power failure).
Manuals and More
In addition to the features mentioned earlier in the article, version 6.7 added the Undo History window (select Show Undo History under the Windows menu), MIDI Detective, and Beat Detective LE (which is worthy of its own Master Class article). As with any program that has become an industry standard, there is plenty of reference material available for Pro Tools LE users. Start with the Pro Tools Reference Guide PDF, which is available for free online at www.digidesign.com/support/docs. At 678 pages, you may not want to print the entire document. It is, however, well organized and indexed. (A spiral-bound version is available online from the DigiStore.) Digidesign's document page also includes a PDF manual devoted to DigiBase, which is well worth reading. Any time you spend with either manual will pay off many times over.
For those of you looking for something to supplement the Digidesign documentation, there are numerous third-party resources available in book and CD-ROM format (see the sidebar “Resource Guides for Pro Tools LE”).
Gino Robair is a senior editor at EM.
Resource Guides for Pro Tools LE
Third-party resources for Pro Tools LE abound, and many of the books include CD-ROMS with templates and session examples. Before you buy any of the titles, go to your local bookstore and make sure that they cover the skill levels you need. Sample movies of the CD-ROM tutorials can be viewed online.
The Complete Pro Tools Handbook, by José “Chilitos” Valenzuela (Backbeat Books, 2003)
The Complete Pro Tools Shortcuts, by José “Chilitos” Valenzuela (Backbeat Books, 2004)
The Musician's Guide to Pro Tools, by John Keane (McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2004)
Producing in the Home Studio with Pro Tools (2nd edition), by David Franz (Berklee Press, 2003)
Pro Tools 6 CSi Master (2nd Edition) CD-ROM, by Steve Thomas (Course Technology, 2005)
Pro Tools 6 CSi Starter (2nd Edition) CD-ROM, by Colin MacQueen (Course Technology, 2005)
Pro Tools 6 Power!, by Colin MacQueen and Steve Albanese (Course Technology, 2005)
Pro Tools All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies, by Jeff Strong (John Wiley & Sons, 2004)
Pro Tools for Video, Film, and Multimedia, by Ashley Shepherd (Course Technology, 2003)
Pro Tools HF_sc DVD, by Charles Dye (Kagi Media, 2004)
Pro Tools LE 6 Ignite!, by Andrew Hagerman (Course Technology, 2004)
Visual Quickstart Guide — Pro Tools 6 for Macintosh and Windows, by Steven Roback (Peachpit Press, 2004)