Despite a Reference Guide that stretches beyond 1,000 pages, as well as a handful of additional guides and manuals, there is so much you can do with Pro Tools LE that it can be overwhelming to approach the documentation directly. (Though, to Avid''s credit, the guides are easy to navigate.) For those who just won''t RTFM but want to get things done now, this article offers five techniques that every Pro Tools LE user should know, but which are often overlooked.
One of the things that sets Pro Tools apart from the competition is its elegant routing system, yet it''s the simplest application of the sends and buses that often intimidate Pro Tools users. I''ll explain a couple of ways the pros use them to get the most creative mileage, with a fun technique at the end for fans of old-school, tape-speed effects.
Throughout the article, I''ll offer keyboard shortcuts whenever possible. Command/Control indicates that on the Mac you use Command, while on the PC you use Control as part of the key sequence.
Unlike in an analog mixer, the insert section in Pro Tools is post-fader. This means that even though you may have effects plug-ins on your track while you record, you''re not recording—or printing, as we say—those effects to disk. That''s a good thing when all you want to do is give singers some reverb around their voices. On the other hand, if you want to keep that awesome sound you''re getting from your amp-modeling plug-in, you''ll need to use an aux track to host the plug-in and then route its output, using a bus, to an audio track to capture the processed signal.
Begin by creating an aux track that will serve as your main audio input (Track > New, or Command/Control+Shift+N). If you''re playing guitar, a mono track will do, but if your input is stereo, create a stereo aux track. The aux track serves as the effects conduit that will feed other tracks. So if you''re recording a lead guitar part, this is the track in which you will load your favorite amp-modeling plug-in.
Notice that the aux track doesn''t have a Record Enable button like audio tracks do. You need to create a destination, so hit Command/Control+Shift+N to open the track dialog box again and create the number of destinations tracks you want. (Typically, I''ll create the aux and audio tracks at the same time, but for the sake of clarity, I''m doing them separately here.)
FIG. 1: The aux track (left) hosts my plug-in and routes it to the middle track. The right track records the unprocessed signal, which I''ve noted in the comments field at the bottom.
To feed audio to your destination track, use a bus in the I/O section rather than one in the Sends area because you don''t want to hear the unprocessed track while you play. (If you were to use a send in the aux track, and kept its output tile set to Out 1-2, you''d hear both parts—processed and unprocessed—at the outputs, which gets annoying when you''re playing.) Therefore, select an unused bus for your aux track''s output—let''s say bus 7 for now—and then select the same bus number as your input for your destination track. Hit the Record Enable button to see if you''re getting signal when you play (see Fig. 1).
Remember that your input gain setting should be set at the interface. In the case of an electric guitar, plug into the DI input, push the DI button to set the initial gain level, and then set the input trim control on the interface itself so that your signal is not overloading.
In the Mixer window, the amount of signal you send to your destination track will be determined by the aux track''s fader level. To get the best signal-to-noise ratio and use the most bits possible, make sure your input signal is hovering in the 75-percent range of the aux input''s meter—mostly in the yellow zone and rarely (if ever) hitting the red.
At this point, you should be able to hear your processed guitar from your destination track. You can set the fader level of the destination track to whatever is comfortable because it doesn''t affect the signal while you record—it''s for monitoring only. Set it to a listening level that inspires your playing. (Unfortunately, it doesn''t go to 11.)
While you''re tracking that killer guitar tone from your modeling plug-in, it''s also a good idea to record an unprocessed version of your part just in case you want an alternative tone later on. To get that, create a new audio track with the same input that is going to your aux track, hit Record Enable, lower the fader to zero (so you don''t hear the dry guitar part), and hit Record.
A good habit to get into is naming the tracks (by double-clicking on the name tile) in a way that will make it easy during mixdown to see what''s there. And be sure to add notes in the Comments section (View > Mix Window View > Comments) below each track when you record multiple tracks in this way. Comments provide a good way to remember a patch setting, show a collaborator what you did to get that sound, or tell the mixer how to treat the track. Figure 1 shows my annotations for this particular set of tracks.
FIG. 2: Select Playlists in the Track View tile to see all of the alternate playlist lanes when you''re done loop recording.
LOOP RECORDING, COMPING
A common practice in the studio is to create the perfect vocal or instrumental track from several alternate takes by cutting and pasting the best sections together. This is called comping (short for compositing). You can set up Pro Tools so that it repeats the section and automatically records and names take after take. This process is called loop recording.
Pro Tools will automatically create a new playlist on the same track for each alternate take. Think of each alternate take, or playlist, as a virtual track below the main playlist (the top track that plays back). Although you could manually create a new playlist and then record each take individually, using the loop-record function lets you stay in the groove by not interrupting your creative flow. (It also works best if you''ve chosen beginning and end points for the loop that aren''t too distracting.)
A bit of setup is required to make this process run smoothly. Begin by going to the Record section of the Operation page under Preferences (Setup > Preferences > Operation). Check the box next to Automatically Create New Playlists When Loop Recording, and then click the OK button.
If you want to see all of the alternate-take playlists automatically fan out below your main playlist when you stop recording, change the Track View tile from Waveform to Playlists (see Fig. 2).
You can also set an amount of pre-roll time before you begin loop recording, so select something that makes sense musically to get you into the section. However, you will only hear the pre-roll material once before you begin loop recording. If you want to give yourself a bit of pre- and post-roll on either side of the part you''re tracking, select loop points that give you the extra beats or bars before and after the section.
To set Pro Tools into Loop Record mode, select Loop Record from the Options menu (or simply right-click on the Record button in the Transport window until the circular arrow appears on it). Also be sure that you''ve selected Link Timeline and Edit Selection in the Options menu.
In the Edit window, use the Selector tool to click and drag over the area in the audio track where you want to record. If the beginning or end of the area needs to be adjusted, hold down Shift and drag near either side until the edges of the selection are in the correct place.
FIG. 3: The main playlist contains my comped guitar solo, built from the playlists below. I added a crossfade between the first two regions to smooth out the transition.
Record Enable your track, and then hit the Record button followed by Play to begin recording (Command/Control+Spacebar). If you''ve set a pre-roll amount, Pro Tools will begin playing the session, but it won''t actually start recording until the cursor enters the selected region (loop zone). But once recording begins, it will loop the selection until you hit the spacebar to stop the session.
FIG. 4: Move an alternate playlist into the main position by right-clicking and selecting it under Matches.
Now it''s time to create your composite track. To do this, you''ll want to see all of the alternate takes you recorded. If you set the Track View tile to Playlists before loop recording, you''ll already see each take in its own playlist lane once you stop loop recording. If you only see one playlist, select the region you just recorded and right-click to get the popup menu. Then select Matches > Expand Alternates to New Playlists to view all of the playlist lanes.
Let''s say you have eight takes of a solo, each with its own playlist. Choose the best parts of each alternate take and automatically paste them to the top position (the main playlist). To listen to an alternate playlist lane, use its Solo button. Then select the portion you want to move to the top, right-click on the region, and then select Copy Selection to Main Playlist (Edit > Copy Selection To > Main Playlist). The shortcut is Option/Control+V to paste the selected region into the main playlist (see Fig. 3).
The most efficient way to create a comp is to begin with the take that includes the most material that you''ll keep, and then paste the corrective sections from the other takes into it. If the better of the takes isn''t the main playlist, select the current main playlist, right-click to get the menu, and under Matches pick the take you want to be on top (see Fig. 4).
Once you''ve created your perfect take, you can hide the playlist lanes by right-clicking on one of the name tiles for a playlist and selecting Filter Lanes > Hide All Lanes. To create a single audio file of the comped regions, select the entire solo and choose Consolidate under the Edit menu (or use Option/Control+Shift+3).
FIG. 5: I''ve routed all of the track outputs to Bus 9-10 and matched the input for the destination track.
BEYOND THE BOUNCE
The Bounce to Disk feature is the primary way that beginner and intermediate Pro Tools users create and export a mix. However, when you bounce a mix, you are locked out of making changes to your session as it plays back in real time. In addition, many experienced Pro Tools users say that the audio results aren''t as high as what you''d get when you do a layback—in essence, re-record you entire mix as a stereo track back into Pro Tools. Once you''ve done that, you can drag the resulting stereo file out of the Audio Files folder as a pair of mono left-and-right files, or export it as a stereo interleaved file using the Export Regions as Files command. Remember, the file you layback will be at the same resolution as your session: You cannot create a 16-bit, 44.1kHz file from a 24-bit, 96kHz session using this method. If you need to do that, use Bounce to Disk.
You can also use a layback to create submixes and stems—any situation where you want to create a mono or stereo file from a number of tracks—either because you''ve got more tracks or voices than you can play back or because a client has asked for them. In this example, I will focus on creating a final mix from a simple multitrack session that includes audio and instrument (virtual instruments controlled by MIDI) tracks.
Although doing a layback is simple, a couple of conditions have to be met. First, you have to make sure you haven''t exceeded the number of voices you can work with in your Pro Tools session. (This is not a problem in this example session, with seven audio and three aux tracks.) Second, under the Options pulldown menu, select Link Timeline and Edit Selection and de-select Loop Record and Loop Playback.
Next, create a stereo audio track that will be the destination and name it something useful. (I''ve called it Layback in this example.) To easily locate it in the Mix and Edit windows, I''ve also dragged it to the right of the Master Fader in the Mix window. (It''ll also appear below the Master Fader track in the Edit window.)
Leave the layback track''s output set at Out 1-2, but change the input to an unused pair of buses. (I''ve selected Bus 9-10.) Next, change the output for every track you want to include in the layback to match the bus tracks used as the input for the layback track (see Fig. 5). Click the Record Enable button on the layback destination track, hit Return to start at the beginning of the session (or select the amount of the song you want to record in the Edit window), and then hit Play. You should see the meters moving in the destination track and the Master Fader.
FIG. 6: You can print effects during a layback by using an aux track before the destination track.
Before you begin recording, play the track through once to make sure that none of the sections in your mix cause the meters in the layback track to go into the red. If they do, figure out which tracks are the culprit and adjust the fader levels to correct the problem. Then hit Record and Play (Command/Control+Spacebar) to initiate recording and create your mix. When it''s done, hit Save.
At this point, you may be wondering how to use insert effects on the master bus—reverb, compression, limiting—and have them print onto your layback files. To do that, you''ll use a similar technique that you used in the previous section of this article: You add an aux track with the effects before the layback destination track (see Fig. 6).
Create a stereo aux track, assign the input to an unused stereo bus, and then assign the outputs of the playback tracks to the same bus. Next, assign the aux output tile to another unused stereo bus and match it to the input of the layback track. Finally, assign the insert effects you want to use on the aux track, Record Enable the layback track, and you''re ready to record with effects. Again, play the track once through before you record to make sure that the effects are not causing any overs or changing the music in a negative way.
HOW HIGH THE MOON
As a reward for getting this far, let''s finish with something fun: half-speed record mode. Yes, it works just like it does with a tape deck: As you record, the session plays back at half-speed while your instrument sounds at the correct pitch. When you''re done recording, play the session back at regular speed, and the part you just recorded will sound twice as fast and an octave higher, just like it did when Les Paul and Frank Zappa used this technique to fill out their orchestrations.
The technique in Pro Tools is simple. Prepare your audio track to record as you normally would, and then put it in Record Enable mode. As you simultaneously hit the Record and Play buttons in the Transport window, hold down Shift (or use Command/Control+Shift+Spacebar), and the session will begin recording at half speed.
If you want to play your session back at half-time for transcription or lick-learning, Shift+Spacebar does the trick. Although you can''t record the slowed-down session using the layback technique discussed earlier, the RTAS/AudioSuite plug-in Flashback ($199, or $19.90 for 31 days) from Synaptricity (synaptricity.com) can do it. Because Flashback records in the background as you work, it will capture half-speed playback faithfully, as well as anything you do with the Scrubber tool. The plug-in opens up a new world of sound-design possibilities in Pro Tools, and I highly recommend it.
Gino Robair is editorial director for Gearwire.com and a former editor of EM. Special thanks to Brian Smithers.