The DESKTOP DYNAMO

A primer on Digidesign's Digi 001 and Pro Tools LE 5.1. Digidesign's Pro Tools systems have remained the standard for professional digital audio recording
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A primer on Digidesign's Digi 001 and Pro Tools LE 5.1.

Digidesign's Pro Tools systems have remained the standard for professional digital audio recording and editing throughout the last decade. Pro Tools' powerful creative capabilities have inspired countless musicians, significantly changing the way artists and producers make music. But for many years the stratospheric cost of a full-blown Pro Tools setup ensured that this versatile creative technology stayed within the professional audio realm. Pro Tools also lacked MIDI sequencing — a crucial composition feature that most dance- and electronic-music producers can't live without. All of this changed in 1999, when Digidesign not only added MIDI sequencing capability to Pro Tools 5.0 but also took its Pro Tools technology to the masses by releasing the Digi 001 audio/MIDI interface with Pro Tools LE 5.0 software, a system that still costs less than $1,000.

The Digi 001 is a complete hardware and software system for MIDI sequencing, audio recording, editing, and mixing. Pro Tools LE, recently updated to version 5.1, is almost identical to the top-of-the-line Pro Tools software except that it lacks some advanced functions and it limits users to 24 audio tracks (versus Pro Tools' 64 audio tracks). Pro Tools LE is compatible with AudioSuite and Real Time AudioSuite (RTAS) plug-in effects, but you can't use it with TDM plug-ins, which are a big part of the appeal of a top-end Pro Tools/24 Mix system. However, the 001 ships with the DigiRack suite of audio plug-ins that includes reverb, delay, compression, EQ, and more — all an aspiring producer or remixer needs to get started.

Another crucial difference is that Pro Tools LE employs native processing only, which means that your computer's CPU does all the work. High-end Pro Tools/24 Mix systems use PCI cards that take the load off the computer by handling processor-intensive functions such as real-time mixing and effects processing. You can load a Pro Tools LE session recorded with your Digi 001 into a Pro Tools Mix system with all of your settings intact, however, allowing you to work at home at your leisure and later complete the tracks at a professional studio. Digidesign also offers discounts to Digi 001 owners who want to upgrade to Mix systems, making it relatively painless to expand the system as your needs grow.

This article focuses on several techniques that anyone producing hip-hop, dance, or almost any MIDI-and-sample-based music with a 4/4 time signature can use. First we'll look at how you can build your MIDI tracks in a continuous flow — similar to how you'd piece together a live set — without interrupting your creative spark by constantly stopping to perform tedious editing tasks. Next we'll check out some methods for working with audio: cutting and rearranging drum loops and vocals. Though there's only enough space here to scratch the surface of what Pro Tools LE can do, beginners should find these tips inspirational and the hip user will take away a new idea or two.

MIDI CITY

Now is the perfect time for MIDI newbies to get into Pro Tools LE, because MIDI capability is still new to the program. Pro Tools LE 5.1 doesn't include the incredibly deep features that high-end software sequencing packages offer, so it's much easier to grasp. Learning MIDI sequencing on a computer can often mean doing very little actual songwriting — you get bogged down with stopping to edit, rerecord, transpose, requantize, and otherwise screw with little bits of MIDI data. Here are some suggestions to help you get a nonstop creative groove going while you're sequencing MIDI.

Create all your MIDI tracks first. To do this, choose New Track from the File menu. In the dialog box, enter the number of MIDI tracks you want (go nuts — it's better to have too many than too few) and scroll through the Track menu to select MIDI tracks. In the Mix window, you must choose the MIDI device and MIDI channel that each track will use, so you must have your MIDI setup stored in Open Music System before launching Pro Tools LE. (We could devote an entire article to this process alone, but the documentation covers it in sufficient detail.)

You can set program numbers for your synth on each MIDI track, or just assign which patches you want to send to which MIDI channel on each of your MIDI devices. Dial up some drums, bass, strings, synth leads, pads, and so forth, but don't worry too much about editing all the patches to perfection before you start sequencing. In fact, unless you already know where your track is heading, it's likely you'll want to tweak the sounds after you've created your arrangement.

Choose Input Quantize from the MIDI menu (see Fig. 1). In the window that appears, check the box for Enable Input Quantize. This feature quantizes notes instantaneously as you record them, making it easier to capture a usable take on the fly. There are many quantize options, so you can go back and play with the feel later. For now, click on the 16th note (or maybe the 16th note tuplet, or the 32nd note) for the quantize grid and close the window.

In the Operations menu, make sure that Loop Playback is selected and that Destructive Record, Loop Record, and QuickPunch are all deselected. In the Transport window, click on the MIDI Merge button (see Fig. 2). Decide the length of the loop you want to record — 4, 8, or 16 measures is ideal, although sometimes you might want to record just a single measure. With the Selector tool, choose the desired number of measures in the first MIDI track to record, then record-enable that track by clicking on its Record button. This setup records MIDI data in the measures selected; the cursor then loops back for another pass when it reaches the end of the last measure. MIDI data from subsequent record passes is merged with the original data, just as when you record patterns on a drum machine.

To begin recording, first click on the round Record button in the Transport window; recording starts when you click on Play (or press the Spacebar). After sequencing one track, you can move on to record another on the fly by holding down the Command key (Mac) or the Control key (Windows) and pressing the Up Arrow or Down Arrow keys. If you're unhappy with a MIDI track you've recorded, press Command or Control along with the Period key to delete the take (this works on the active track only). Unfortunately, this process stops the recording, and you'll have to click on Play to start it up again.

You can also elect to use Loop Record mode (see Fig. 3), which creates a new MIDI region for each new record pass, giving you a choice of alternative takes. This is a great way to capture the perfect take without stopping your workflow. Either way you do it, the idea is to concentrate on coming up with a core loop for a song — with most of the main instruments and arrangements represented — before you stop to edit the MIDI event data, tweak the sound parameters, requantize, add effects, and so on. Maintaining spontaneity is often crucial for creating a truly inspired tune.

Of course, these are just suggestions that might work for you; there are no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes you'll want to come up with a killer sound before you do any sequencing: a tight bass riff can inspire a funky bass line, or an amazing analog-synth lead patch may set off arpeggiated dreams in your head. Also, you may occasionally want to add some effects to a sound first. For example, you might come up with a part where you lock a delay to the tempo, creating a syncopated rhythm essential to the arrangement.

When you do reach the MIDI-editing stage, many of the processes will resemble the audio-editing techniques described in the following section.

AUDIO IMMERSION

Sampled drums are bigger than ever in dance music as people tire of the same old 808, 909, and other overused drum sounds. Sure, you could trigger drum samples or drum loops via MIDI from a sampler, but Pro Tools is such a breeze to use with audio that you'll probably have an easier time — and more fun — laying out your beats as audio tracks. Once you see Pro Tools' detailed waveform displays on your monitor and find out how easy it is to edit audio and locate loop points, you'll probably place a classified ad to sell your sampler. The program can even cut up loops into individual sounds, similar to how Propellerhead's popular ReCycle program works.

A lot of dance mixes begin with beats, and a lot of beats begin with loops. When you're starting a track with a loop but don't know the tempo, use Pro Tools' Identify Beat command to find it for you (see Fig. 4). Import your loop to a new track by choosing Import Audio/Track from the File menu. Make sure the loop is accurate by listening to it first with Loop Playback. If it loops cleanly, go to Identify Beat in the Edit menu. A dialog box appears where you enter the start and end points of the loop. If you imported the loop to the beginning of the session, the start point is 1|1|000. If the loop is, say, two bars long, the end point is 3|1|000, or 1|3|000 if the loop is two beats long, and so on. Click OK, and Pro Tools will calculate the audio's tempo. Enter this as the master tempo by choosing Change Tempo from the MIDI menu.

You may want this loop to play throughout the entire track. If so, select the loop by clicking on it with the Grabber tool or double-clicking on it with the Selector tool, then choose Repeat from the Edit menu. Enter the exact number of times you want the loop to repeat. You can always clear any instance of the loop later by selecting the unwanted segment and pressing the Delete key, or you can automate track muting (see the sidebar “Automation Nation”).

LOOP EDITING

If you have a drum loop that you want to cut up into individual drum sounds to create your own beats, the Strip Silence function can simplify this process. Strip Silence deletes silent parts of an audio region and creates new regions from the individual parts that don't have any silence. For instance, if you had an a cappella audio file of James Brown shouting “One, two, three, hit it!” the Strip Silence command would create audio regions for each word that doesn't have any silence in it. You could then move around and duplicate the regions as you wished — making the Godfather of Soul count backward, change his timing, stutter, and so forth.

Most drum loops don't have areas of absolute silence but do contain regions where the volume between drum hits is lower. To cut up a drum loop using Strip Silence, you must first identify the areas you want to qualify as silence. With the Selector tool, choose a low-volume area between drum hits that you want to delete. (If you are in Grid Edit mode, click on the Slip Edit mode button in the upper left corner of the Edit window so that the Selector tool won't snap to a grid value.) With your area selected, choose Identify Silence from the Edit window. The dialog box will show the volume of the selected region in decibels. When you apply Strip Silence, the function will treat any area at or below this level as silent and delete it.

Now select the entire drum loop and choose Strip Silence from the Edit menu (see Fig. 5). The dialog box gives you additional options, but for our purposes just click OK. Pro Tools then creates different audio regions for segments of the drum loop (see Fig. 6). This can give the loop a fresh, chunky feel by inserting quick breaks of complete silence where none existed before. Now you also have new segments of audio that you can rearrange to mess with the beat. The original loop remains unharmed in the Audio Regions list on the right-hand side of the Edit window. You can drag this region back into a track if you want the original loop.

You can experiment with Strip Silence by identifying higher or lower decibel levels as silence, but it's possible that this function alone will not splice your loop into all of the individual segments. For instance, in Fig. 6, Strip Silence didn't separate the kick and the hi-hat. To create a region for each of these sounds, drag on the kick drum area with the Selector tool. Play the selection to make sure you're happy with it, then choose Capture Region from the Edit menu. The program will ask you to name the region, then it will create the kick drum region in the Audio Regions list. You can now drag just the kick drum onto a track and duplicate it. Repeat this process until you've created regions for all the single drum hits you want.

PLACING AUDIO

Now that you've chopped up your loop into individual drum sounds, you can construct beats by placing them in audio tracks. You can do this about as quickly as you can sequence a MIDI beat. First, clear all audio from the original loop and create audio tracks for each drum sound (select New Track in the File menu). This allows you to play more than one sound at a time, and you can record automation for — and apply effects to — each sound separately. Next, choose Grid Edit mode and select the grid value from the upper right corner of the Edit window. If you desire, you can change the tempo from the MIDI menu to make your new beat play at an entirely different bpm rate than the original loop (see Fig. 7).

Begin dragging audio into tracks from the Audio Regions list. If the grid value is set at 16th notes, you can snap a hi-hat to the grid lines to create a fast 16th-note rhythm. To duplicate a sound, click on the region with the Grabber tool and choose Duplicate from the Edit menu. Click on the duplicated block and drag it to the desired location. Once you have a pattern down that you want to copy, use the Selector tool to choose the desired range of notes and then select Copy from the Edit menu. If you're copying a bar, click on the Selector at the next bar and choose Paste from the Edit window. To copy and paste patterns from several tracks, select the area in one track and then Shift-click on the areas in the other tracks.

All of these audio-editing methods will work on any phrase, not just on a drum loop. They are particularly useful for cutting up and rearranging vocals (see Fig. 8). If you use the same techniques described for cutting up drum loops on a vocal phrase, you can create stuttering syllables faster than Fatboy Slim can “Praise You” for it. And you'll do it a whole lot quicker than ol' Norman did on his 20th-century sampler. To make your vocal segments tighter, select your audio regions in Grid Edit mode so you can get segment lengths of exactly a quarter note, an eighth note, a 16th note, and so on. This works best if the vocalist has precise timing.

It would take several entire issues of Remix to show you everything Pro Tools can do, but suffice it to say that you can produce music until OutKast is rockin' unursing homes and you may still find new tricks to explore. As with any art or craft, no one can tell you exactly how to create, but learning the basics always helps. Bite the bullet and read Pro Tools LE's encyclopedic manual, but don't burn yourself out — after one marathon reading session I could have sworn that “Stripping Silence from Regions” read “Stripping Science from Religions.” Mastering Pro Tools is a science as well as an art — and once you're hooked on it, you're sure to become a devout convert.

Markkus Rovito tells people he was named after a gun, but I know he was named after a famous 19th-century ballet dancer.

Pro Tools LE 5.1 Hardware Systems

Digi 001 ($995)

  • PCI card with breakout box
  • Two mic-line XLR and ¼-inch inputs with phantom power and mic preamps for guitars, microphones, and so forth
  • Six additional ¼-inch line inputs for synths, samplers, mixer, and so on
  • Eight individual, assignable ¼-inch outputs
  • Stereo main outputs to connect to monitors or back to the mixer
  • Two digital S/PDIF I/O channels
  • Eight digital ADAT Optical I/O channels (on PCI card)
  • MIDI I/O
  • Footswitch jack
  • Headphone jack
  • Cable to connect PCI card and breakout box
  • Pro Tools LE

Digi ToolBox XP ($545)

  • Audiomedia III PCI card
  • Two analog RCA inputs
  • Two analog RCA outputs
  • S/PDIF digital RCA I/O
  • Two sets of RCA cables
  • Pro Tools LE

Automation Nation

Pro Tools' automation features let you record and assign a wide variety of parameter changes to a track. In audio tracks, you can automate changes to volume, pan, mute, and any plug-in parameter. For MIDI tracks, you can automate volume, pan, mute, and any continuous controller data.

For an example of how to record automation, let's consider the audio drum loop playing through the entire track mentioned in the main text. To mute the loop for parts of the song, you can automate the mute function. In the Mix window, locate the Automation Enable button above the Record button for the loop's track. Click on the button and select Auto Write. Play the track and click the Mute button on and off as you desire. When you're finished, replay the track; it will play back the track-mute changes exactly as you made them.

You can edit the mute automation if it's not perfect. Go to the Edit window and click on the Track Display button for the loop's track (it should display the title Waveform), then select Mute. A line will appear, displaying the mute automation of the loop's waveform. With the Grabber tool, you can click on any mute point and drag it left or right.

Capturing Vocal Tracks

Luckily for bedroom musicians, underground hip-hop and dance music vocals don't always need sparkling production qualities. Even if all you have is a beat-up Radio Shack mic, you can still get your rhyme on. Plug your mic into one of the preamp inputs on the front panel of the Digi 001. If your mic needs phantom power, push in the red Phantom Power button. Create an audio track in Pro Tools and set the track's input to Mic/Line 1 or Mic/Line 2 (you may need to choose Edit Window Shows> I/O View from the Display menu). Click on the Record button on the track to record-enable it, then turn on the mic and check the levels. You want the loudest part of your vocal performance to go as high in the level meter as possible without clipping. When the audio clips, the top of the level meter will be red. Adjust the level as needed with the knob to the right of the Digi 001's input.

Turn off your studio monitors; instead, listen to your vocals through headphones — preferably closed-ear models that don't allow audio to leak out. Click on the circular Record button in the Transport window. Then click on the Play button or press the Spacebar when you're ready to record, and do the same to stop recording. Now play back the vocal. You can choose Undo from the Edit menu to throw out the take if it's not up to your standards.

If recording your own vocals isn't your thing, feel free to take a cue from Herbert and other producers by taking found sounds — paper ripping, a zipper zipping, glass breaking, or whatever you can think of — and processing them for some wicked percussion. Or just sample your vocals from records like everybody else does.