Pro Tools (screenshot) session

Pro Tools: 1 Overview

Intro from Jay Allison: At last, here’s Jeff Towne’s new and improved guide to Pro Tools, a full breakdown of this much-used (and loved and hated) audio application, focusing on all the stuff you need for radio storytelling. and not the stuff you need to make a hit record, which is what most people want to do with this software, and what makes most training materials ill-suited for us. Jeff breaks down his primer into three parts: Overview, Editing, and Mixing. (Thanks, by the way, to The Knight Foundation for their support for our Transom Online Workshops which made this training resource possible.)

So, you’ve collected some audio. Now you need to get those sounds chopped-down, and layered-up, into a final production. There are many options for computer-based audio editing, ranging from open-source freeware to very expensive software and hardware combinations.

Pro Tools was one of the early Digital Audio Workstations to gain prominence, and it remains one of the most popular programs for editing and mixing audio. Because Pro Tools is so widely used, it makes it easy to collaborate with others, or to move projects between professional and home studios.

There are good reasons to choose a different program, better suited to one’s particular needs, and the Transom Tools: Software section provides information about several options, as well as guidelines and tips that should translate across many systems.

There are currently a few versions of Pro Tools available, including a budget, limited-capability option, Pro Tools Express, which comes with, and can be used only with, several specific audio interfaces. This may be a convenient starting point, but be aware that it has limitations and requires a paid “crossgrade” to move to the full version. AVID, the parent company of Pro Tools, provides a table comparing the capabilities of the different versions.

The full versions, simply called Pro Tools or Pro Tools HD, can be used on a wide range of computers, including laptops. Earlier iterations of the software required powerful computers with additional hardware, but Pro Tools 9 and up runs on a wider variety of computers, with or without added hardware. Pro Tools does require an iLok USB dongle as software authorization. On a desktop computer, it’s relatively simple to set that up and forget it, but it’s a persistent annoyance when using a laptop. The iLok must be connected at all times; be careful not to let the iLok get bent or twisted, you can damage the internal hardware on your laptop.

Pro Tools is fairly picky about what hardware it runs on, and more important, what versions of computer operating systems are compatible. Be careful to make sure that you have appropriate computer resources and are running the right operating system for your preferred version of Pro Tools. Compatibility is changing all the time, be sure to check the AVID website for up-to-date requirements.

The good news is that while you need a moderately powerful and up-to-date computer, the requirements are not as onerous as they once were. You may not be able to use an old hand-me-down computer, or a bare-bones budget machine, but you do not need a top-of-the-line, tricked-out flamethrower either.

Storage

Digital Audio eats up disk space, so you will want a large, speedy hard drive. The conventional wisdom is that high-performance drives are critical, but in real-world use, most audio documentary productions do not tax the hard drives as much as a multi-track music mix might, and oftentimes, the built-in hard drives or less-expensive external drives will do the job.

Simple projects can be stored on the computer’s internal drive, and will run fine in most circumstances, but it’s more reliable to keep project audio on a separate drive, allowing your computer’s internal drive to concentrate on running the OS and program code. Audio files can get large, clogging your internal drive if you save everything there. And computers usually run smoother when your system drive is not close to full. So it’s good form to use an external drive. It makes collaborating with others easier too, if you can simply carry your external drive to someone else’s studio.

So, to be safe, it is better to have a separate drive for audio, either an external hard drive connected via Firewire or USB, or a separate internal drive in tower-style computers that allow installing additional drives. It’s best to use hard drives with low seek times, and high rotational speeds. Drives that spin at 7200 RPM or higher are preferable. These higher performance specs really only come into play when one has many tracks of audio playing simultaneously, or the session has a very large number of edits. Luckily, large, speedy external hard drives are relatively affordable so adding that capacity is relatively painless.

Interfacing

You need to get audio in and out of your computer. Most computers have some basic soundcard, but their inputs and outputs are rarely up to the task for serious audio production. If most of your audio production involves importing sound files recorded elsewhere, having a high-quality audio interface may not be of paramount importance; you may be able to simply use the built-in audio hardware on your computer.

If you do any real-time recording directly into your computer, such as voicing narration, or recording an interview directly into the computer, you will very likely want an external audio interface. That will give you better quality microphone inputs, and will do the analog-to-digital conversion of your audio outside of the electrically chaotic environment of a computer chassis.

Even if you never record directly into your computer, and only work with audio files imported from elsewhere, you may still want an external interface, simply to improve the quality of the audio playback over the audio outputs built into your computer. Pro Tools 9 and newer will work with a wide variety of external interfaces, made by AVID, or many other manufacturers (or with your computer’s built-in hardware).

Setting Up

You’ve installed Pro Tools on your computer and authorized your iLok; it’s time to get started. First, make a new session. When Pro Tools starts up, it offers you options to open a recent session, or create a new one. If Pro Tools is already open you can make a new session by choosing File> New Session — or hitting Command-N on a Mac OS computer or Control-N on Windows OS. When creating a new session,a dialog box opens asking you to decide on Session Parameters. In most cases you will want to use the following settings:

  • Audio File Type: “BWF (.WAV)”
  • Sample Rate: “44.1 kHz” or “48 kHz”
  • Bit-depth: “16-Bit” is the conventional setting, unless your source audio was recorded at 24-bit. Like high sample rates, larger bit-depths eat-up more disc space and increase processing overhead, and are usually of little benefit in the world of audio documentary production.
  • I/O Settings: “Last Used”, or you can set this to whatever audio interface you are using, or ignore it if you’re using the computer’s built-in audio.

For most audio productions, 44.1 khz is the standard sample rate, but audio for digital video is conventionally encoded at 48 khz. In most cases you’ll want to use whatever sample rate the majority of your source audio uses. If you’re working with sound files recorded on a flash recorder, pick the sample rate that matches those files. If you’re using audio from music CDs, those are encoded at 44.1 kHz, and it is most convenient to work at that sample rate. Pro Tools allows you to work at higher sample rates, such as 88.2 or 96 kHz, but that is rarely practical or necessary for audio documentary work.

Pro Tools (screenshot) dialog window for New Session

When you “OK” the settings in this dialog, Pro Tools asks you to name the session, and choose a location to save it. You’ll most often want to save the session to a hard drive that you’ve designated to hold your audio projects, preferably not the internal system drive of the computer.

Pro Tools (screenshot) folders and filesEach time you create a new session, Pro Tools (11+) automatically creates the following files and folders in your save location:

  • A main project folder named after your session
  • A session file with the extension “.ptx” (“.ptf” in earlier versions of Pro Tools)
  • An Audio Files folder
  • A Clip Groups folder
  • A Session File Backups folder
  • A Video Files folder

You should be good to go, but first, check that Pro Tools is set to work with whatever audio device you’ve chosen to use, even if that’s the built-in audio on your computer. Go to the top Setup menu, and pick Playback Engine… from the drop-down. The top box in that dialog box shows you what audio hardware is used to play back your audio. If you’re not using an external audio interface, that should be set to “Built-In Output”. If you are using an audio interface, you should pick the name of that interface from the list. If you don’t see the name of your device, you may need to install drivers. Any changes made in this set-up causes your session to save, close, and re-open.

Reminder: Save Your work!

Frequent saves are highly advisable. Pro Tools does make backups of your sessions automatically (and stores them in the “Session Backups” folder). But it is much easier to recover from mistakes or return to an earlier version of a project if you have a series of session files that are named in a logical fashion (e.g., “yoursessionname01.ptf” – “yoursessionname99.ptf”). The key is to save frequently and with some easily recognizable series of filenames. Don’t worry about taking up drive space, these session files are very small.

Remember that no audio is ever saved in the file “yoursessionname.ptf”. That session file only has pointers to the audiofiles, and other information about the session, but no actual audio.

If you move your project from one workstation to another, be sure to copy and bring the entire contents of your project folder, including the “.ptx” file(s) AND the “Audio Files” folder, along with any other folders Pro Tools has created within your main project folder. Check that you have these files saved on your external hard drive or burned to CD or DVD as data before you move to a new workstation.

To be extra safe, there’s a process that guarantees that all necessary files are present when moving a project: from the File menu, choose Save Copy In… and be sure to check the “Audio Files” box under the “Items to Copy” heading. That makes a new copy of your session, and duplicates all audio used in your session, even if those audio files were not located in your session’s Audio Files folder.

Recording New Audio into Your Pro Tools Session

Check Your Input Settings

Before you do anything else, check your input settings. Under the setups menu, choose “Hardware.” In the Dialog that opens, choose the device that you’d like to use, and check the settings. Then go to Setup> I/O… and click the “Input” tab. Make sure that inputs are appropriately assigned (hitting the “Default” button often sets things up properly.)

Make a Track to Record Into

Pro Tools (screenshot) dialog window for one New Track

If you don’t have an available track already, create a new one by going to the Track menu, and picking New. Easier still is to use the shortcut Command-Shift-N on a Mac or Control-Shift-N on Windows. Select “1″ and “Audio Track” and choose whether it should be mono or stereo. If you’re simply recording a narration, choose a mono track. If you’re planning to record or import stereo music or ambience, choose a stereo track. If you click the plus sign at the right side of the New Tracks dialog, you can add additional tracks at the same time.

Pro Tools (screenshot) dialog window for New Tracks

We’ll use one of our new tracks to record a narration. Find the white bar at the top left of the track in the Edit window (or at the bottom of this new track of the Mix window) in most cases called “Audio 1″ by default, and double-click it to name the track. Labeling it now causes all the soundfiles recorded into that track to start with that name. Let’s call it “narration”.

Pro Tools (screenshot) channel strip

Make sure that channel’s inputs are set correctly. Switch to the Mix window: Command-= (Mac) or Control-= (Windows) toggles between the Mix and Edit Windows. The top horizontal bar, about halfway up the mixer channel strip sets the input: click on it to see the available choices.

If you’re using a basic interface with only two inputs, you’ll only have two choices, input 1 and 2. If you’re using an interface with multiple inputs, you’ll have more options to choose from. For this example, set the input to 1 and make sure your microphone (or other sound source) is plugged into the first input of your interface.

Click on the “rec” button on this track, which is located in the middle of the channel strip in the Mix window, or at the left of the channel in the Edit window. The “rec” blinks red, and the fader turns red, which means it is record-enabled.

You should be able to see some green color bouncing on the meter for this channel if any sound is coming into the microphone, or through the line inputs, depending on what you’ve set to record. If you’re not seeing any movement on the meter, check your interface’s settings to make sure it’s set to the right input. Adjust your interface’s input gain knob so that the Pro Tools meters are registering as high as possible, pinging the yellow a bit, without hitting the red. Notice that the volume faders in the Mix window have NO effect on the input levels you see on the meters. The hardware knobs on your interface, and/or the output volume of your source control the levels you see on the track meters. Although the volume of the track can be adjusted later, it’s important to record these tracks as well as possible, rather than trying to fix them later. If you can use a digital connection, you don’t need to worry about setting the input levels, the audio is recorded at the level of the digital signal.

Too much:

Pro Tools (screenshot) channel strip showing level clip

Just Right:

Pro Tools (screenshot) channel strip showing safe levels

Start Recording

Once you have set levels, start recording by using the transport panel, clicking the circle so that it turns red, and then the “play” triangle. Or, as you will surely start to do, use the keyboard shortcut: Command-Spacebar (Mac) or Control-Spacebar (Windows.) To stop the recording: hit the spacebar again, or the square on the transport panel. Record the narration, perhaps doing multiple takes.

In the Edit window, you’ll see a waveform drawn for the soundfile you just recorded. Click the “rec” button again, so it’s no longer red, to get out of record-ready mode, so you’re ready to play back and edit.

You can use this same technique to record a stereo file. Create a new stereo audio track (or two mono tracks if using ProTools Free.) Name the track(s), make sure the inputs are set for channels 1-2, or whatever inputs on your interface you wish to use. Then click “rec” on the track(s) to make them record ready, press Command-spacebar, then play your source. Hit the spacebar again when you’ve recorded enough.

Importing Audio into Your Pro Tools Session

If you have existing audio files on your computer, on an external drive, or on field recorder, or a memory card from a recorder, you need to import them into your session. It doesn’t matter where those files reside, as long as you can find them! We’ll be making new copies of those files, which will all be saved within your project’s folder. Depending on the parameters of your session and the format of the audio you’ve recorded, a conversion may be necessary. You also want to make certain that the audio you import is copied to the “Audio Files” folder associated with your session. Pro Tools handles all of this as long as you follow these steps:

From the menu bar at the top of the screen, select File> Import> Audio.

Navigate to the audio files you want to import and select them.

They appear in the lower left in the “Clips in Current File” box.

If the “Convert” button is blue-highlighted, click “Convert”; otherwise click “Copy”. (“Copy” is used if the file format is already compatible with your session parameters; “Convert” is used if the sample rate or bit depth must be converted to match your session.)

Use “Add” only if you want to use the soundfile in this session, but you do NOT want to add it to the session’s Audio Files folder. Clicking “Add” makes it easier to lose track of your audio files down the line, so it is recommended that you use “copy” or “convert”.

If all the files that you want to import appear in the right-hand box “Regions to Import ” box, click “Done” to import.

You are prompted for a save location after clicking “Done”. Choose the “Audio Files” folder for your session.

Pro Tools now asks whether to create a new track for each clip, or place them into the clip List, at the right of the Edit window.

If you select “clip list,” no new tracks are created, but your audio appears in the list at the right of the Edit window, ready to be dragged into existing tracks.

Your audio is now available to use and edit in your session!

Pro Tools (screenshot) dialog window for Import Audio

Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund for supporting this Transom Online Workshop resource.

Jeff Towne

About
Jeff Towne

Jeff Towne has been producing radio programs since he was a teenager, back then with a portable Marantz cassette deck and a Teac four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and now with digital recorders and computer workstations. After honing his broadcasting skills at High School and College radio stations, Jeff has spent over two decades as the producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Echoes. At Echoes, he has done extensive recording of interviews and musical performances, produced documentary features, and prepared daily programs for satellite and internet distribution. As Transom.org's Tools Editor, Jeff has reviewed dozens of audio recorders, editing software, and microphones, and written guides for recording, editing and mixing audio for radio and the web. Jeff has also taught classes and presented talks on various aspects of audio production. When not tweaking audio files, Jeff can probably be found eating (and compulsively taking pictures) at that little restaurant with the unpronounceable name that you always wondered about.