A Beginners Guide to Pro Tools
by Eli Kao and Jeff Towne
- Create a new Pro Tools Session
- Recording new audio
- Importing Audio
- Preparing to edit and creating new tracks
- Working in the edit window
- Basic Mixing
- Bouncing to Disk
Digidesign’s Pro Tools is an industry-standard digital audio program used for a variety of applications, from mixing film sound in Hollywood to producing radio documentaries in your living room (or producing radio in Hollywood and mixing film sound in your living room.) The wide array of features and options in Pro Tools can be overwhelming to the newcomer, and though the manuals and documentation are thorough, there’s so much detail, and focus on multitrack music production, that they can be confusing to a beginning producer looking to mix together a few voice tracks, some ambience and some stereo music. The purpose of this article is to guide you through the essential operations of the program and give you a way to approach your project that is simple and geared toward audio documentary work.
Note: The version referenced in this article is Pro Tools LE 7. The Mbox is used as an example of a supported hardware interface, and though some details may vary from device to device, the concepts are the same. If you are on a Windows PC, the “Ctrl” key should be substituted for the “Apple” key whenever keyboard shortcuts are listed.
What should I get?
Pro Tools comes in a few different flavors. Perhaps the most ubiquitous combination is the Mbox interface with Pro Tools LE. For most radio producers and home studio owners, the expanded input/output options and small increase in audio quality offered by higher-end systems like Pro Tools HD do not warrant the higher price tag.
Pro Tools LE is sold with Digidesign hardware, and will only work if one of the supported interfaces is connected to your computer. The original Mbox, or its replacement the Mbox 2, is a good interface for most users. The new Mbox 2 Pro, and the Digi 002r offer more input and output channels if one needs to record or output more than stereo audio (most users don’t.) The Digi 002 is an integrated controller with hardware faders and the ability to input and output multitrack audio. The original Mbox and the Mbox2 connect to your computer with a USB cable. The Mbox2 Pro, 002 and 002r connect with a firewire cable. Unless you’re buying a used system, the least expensive Digidesign option currently on the market is the Mbox 2.
The Pro Tools program is now also offered in a less-expensive “M-Powered” version that works with a variety of interfaces made by M-Audio, which can be purchased seperately. Pro Tools M-Powered and the M-Audio FireWire Solo interface would give similar capabilities to the M-Box and Pro Tools LE. There are a couple of minor differences between the Pro Tools M-Powered and LE that pertain to post-production for video, but they are otherwise functionally similar. As with ProTools LE, ProTools M-Powered will only function with an approved hardware interface connected.
In addition, there are Pro Tools HD systems, but these are very expensive and generally only necessary for commercial music and film production.
Pro Tools FREE, which you may have heard about, will not work with current operating systems (it’s only good with Mac OS 8.6 or 9 and Windows 98 or ME), although the download is still available on Digidesign’s website at this time.
Important: Before you buy a Pro Tools system, be sure to consult the Digidesign website and check that your computer and operating system are compatible with the hardware and version of Pro Tools you want. There are enough exceptions that doing your homework on their website is well worth it.
Do I need anything else?
You should have a second hard drive on which to record audio and save files. It is not recommended to use your computer’s main system drive to record audio. This drive can be mounted internally if you have a tower-style computer, or it can be an external firewire drive (USB drives are not currently supported.) Most normal consumer drives are fine, just make sure that the drive has a minimum speed of 7200 RPM and average seek time faster than 10.0 ms. There are also specific formatting instructions for your drive depending on your platform and operating system. Check the Support section of digidesign.com for details.
You will also want a good pair of headphones (such as Sony MDR-7506) or powered monitor speakers that will be plugged into the respective outputs of your Digidesign or M-Audio hardware. See the article Setting Up a Small Studio for more information on additional equipment you might want.
Create and save a Pro Tools Session
- Make sure your Digidesign hardware is properly connected and launch Pro Tools.
- Once Pro Tools is open, select File > New Session…
- Give the project a name, select the hard drive where you want to save your project, and make the following selections in the “Session Parameters” box to ensure maximal compatibility and minimal processing:
- Audio File Type: BWF (.WAV)
- Sample Rate: 44.1 kHz
- Bit Depth: 16 bit
- I/O Setting: Last Used should be fine
- Fader Gain: choose +12 dB (ProTools 6 only)
- Enforce Mac/PC Compatibility: Sure, why can’t we all just get along? (ProTools 6 and below)
- When done, click “Save” to create your new session.
Each time you create a new session, Pro Tools 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 “.ptf”
- Audio Files and Fade Files folders, and new in Pro Tools 7, a Region Groups folder
Reminder – Save your work!
Frequent iterative saves are highly advisable. 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 (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 small.
Important! When moving between workstations-
Remember that NO AUDIO is ever saved in the file “yoursessionname.ptf”. Whenever you move from workstation to workstation, be sure to copy and bring the ENTIRE contents of your project folder, including the “.ptf” file(s) AND the “Audio Files” and “Fade Files” folders, 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.
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, Pick Analog if recording from the M-Box’s microphone inputs, or the analog line inputs. By default, the clock source should set itself to “internal” – if not, switch it to that. If you are recording from a digital source, such as a DAT machine, connect the digital output of that device to the digital input of the interface, select S/PDIF as both the input source and the clock source. After recording from the digital input, come back to this dialog and switch the input back to “analog” and the clock to “internal” before editing or bouncing out.
Make a track to record into
If you don’t have one open already, create a new session, then from the Track menu, choose new track (In ProTools 6 and older, use File > New Track.) Easier still is to use the shortcut Apple-shift-N. Select “1″ and “Audio Track.” New in Pro Tools 7 is the ability to add different types and numbers of tracks at the same time. Click the + at the right side of the dialog to add a new row of new track options.
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 mixer window) in most cases called “track1” by default, and double-click it to name the track. Labeling it now will cause all the soundfiles recorded into that track to start with that name. Let’s call it “narration.”
Make sure that channel’s inputs are set correctly. Switch to the mixer window (Apple = will toggle between the mix and edit windows.) The top horizontal bar, about half-way up the mixer channel strip sets the input: click on it to see the available choices. If you’re using the original M-Box or ProToolsFree, you’ll only have two choices, input 1 and 2 (or L and R on older systems) If you’re using an M-Box2, 002, 002r or a TDM system 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 (on the original M-Box, that’s the bottom jack.)
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’re 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 (or set the output level of your source if using a mixer) so that the ProTools meters are registering as high as possible, pinging the yellow a bit, without hitting the red. Notice that the volume faders in the mixer window have NO effect on the input levels you see on the meters. The input levels are controlled by the hardware knobs on your interface, and/or the output volume of your source. Although the volume of the track can be adjusted later, it’s important to record these tracks as well as possible, rather than to try to fix them later. If you can use a digital connection, you don’t need to worry about setting the input levels, the audio will be recorded in at the same level of the digital signal.
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: “Apple-spacebar.” 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 Apple-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 a CD, 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 be sure that the audio you are importing is copied to the “Audio Files” folder associated with your session. Pro Tools will handle all of this as long as you follow these steps-
- From the menu bar at the top of the screen, select File > Import > Audio to Track, or, if you wish to import your audio without creating new tracks, select File>Import>Audio to Region List.
- Navigate to the audio files you’ve saved on your computer, or to files on a CD, and select all that you want to import.
- They will appear in the lower left in the “Regions in Current File” box.
- Click the “Convert” button if it is blue-highlighted, otherwise click “Copy”. (“Copy” is used if the file format is already compatible with your session parameters, “Convert” is used if the files 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. Doing this 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 will be prompted for a save location after clicking “Done”. Choose the “Audio Files” folder for your session.
If you selected “Import to Tracks”, your audio will appear in new tracks on the Edit workspace, as well as in the Region List. If you selected “Import to Region List”, your audio will appear in the Region List, ready to be dragged into existing tracks, but no new tracks will be created. Your audio is now available to use and edit in your session! Yay! (Now is a good time to save.)
Note: in Pro Tools 6 and earlier, the “Import to Region List” function is accessed by clicking on the “audio” bar at the top of the Region List, which appears at the right side of the edit window.
Preparing to edit and Creating new tracks
Before you start editing, run through the following brief sections on opening the Edit window and setting playback operation preferences.
The Edit Window
At this point we are only concerned with the Edit window, where tracks are arranged horizontally and all Editing operations occur.
Make sure the Edit window is open by selecting Window>Edit (Apple-W) from the Pro Tools toolbar at the top of the screen.
If you wish, you may have the Edit window fill the screen by going to the uppermost left-hand corner of the window and clicking the little green “+” button.
Controlling Playback Operation
There are three settings that should be selected to ensure headache-free operation. They should be set via the menus as follows.
- Pro Tools>Preferences…>Operation> check box for: “Timeline Insertion Follows Playback”
- Options>Link Timeline and Edit Selections (select and leave checked)
- Options>Scrolling>Page (select and leave checked)
You can start and stop playback is by pressing the space bar. Try it out.
Also, in the Edit window there will always be a small set of “transport” controls (i.e. Play, Stop, Rewind, FF, go to the beginning, etc.) in the upper right of the window. If you’d prefer a bigger, floating transport display, go to Window>Transport (or press Apple-1).
Let’s Make Tracks!
If you recorded new audio or used the Import option “Audio to Track”, you will already have at least one mono or stereo audio track in the Edit window.
To create new or additional tracks , go to Track > New (or File > New Track on PT6 or earlier) in the menu bar at the top of the screen. This window will appear-
Select the number of tracks to create and the type: mono or stereo. Typically you will want mono tracks for interviews or narration. Stereo may be useful for stereo ambient sound recordings or stereo background music from a CD, for example. In ProTools 7 you can add multiple tracks of different types by clicking the + at the right side of this window.
Here is the Edit window with two new mono tracks.
You can freely drag and drop audio between tracks, or from the “Region List” to a track using the Grabber tool (see below). (Remember the number of channels must match, i.e. mono for mono, stereo for stereo.)
Working in the Edit window
If you are new to digital audio editing, you may be overly cautious when working in Pro Tools. Don’t worry! Edit happy! Pro Tools is non-destructive, digital editing. Your original files are never altered by editing or mixing, and as long as you are saving regularly, you can always go back to an earlier version of your project. There are also multiple levels of “Undo”, via Edit>Undo (Apple-Z) in the top toolbar.
What do all those crazy buttons do? Get to know your Editing Modes and Tools
The buttons for the tools you will use to edit your audio appear near the top of the Edit window and look like this-
Zooming and Adjusting your View
There are a couple of options for zooming in/out. You will probably want to do this periodically as you work.
- The Zoom tool (magnifying glass)
- When it’s selected, simply clicking on a track with the mouse will zoom in. To zoom out, hold down the Option key to reverse the zoom, and click.
- You can also click, hold, and drag to select an area of a track, and when you release the mouse button your view will zoom so that the part you selected fills the visible area.
- The vertical and horizontal zoom buttons (to the left of the Zoom tool)
- Click the right arrow to zoom in horizontally
- Click the left arrow to zoom out horizontally
- Use the left-hand set of up-and-down zoom buttons to zoom in and out vertically (the other set is for MIDI tracks, which are for music production only.
- Note: If you get zoomed in too far and need to get your bearings, DOUBLE-CLICK THE ZOOM BUTTON TO ZOOM ALL THE WAY OUT. You can also adjust Track Height to facilitate viewing.
- In the group of controls to the far left of the track(s), find the small arrow in the middle-right and click.
- A menu pops up allowing you to choose the height for that track.
You select Edit Modes from the buttons in the top left of the window. The modes are listed here in order of probable utility.
- Slip – 90% of the time you’ll want to be in Slip mode. In this mode you can freely edit and move audio regions.
- Shuffle – In Shuffle mode, audio regions “snap” to adjacent regions or the beginning of the track. Shuffle does not allow regions to overlap, and is useful for sequencing regions for back-to-back play.
- Spot – In Spot mode, you can only move regions to exact time locations; when you click on a region in Spot mode, a box will pop-up asking the time location you want to move it to.
- Grid – Only useful for musical applications. Works like “snap-to-grid” in graphics programs.
There are three primary tools that you can use to edit your audio: Trim, Selector, and Grabber. They appear in a row at the top of the Edit window to the right of the Zoom tool (magnifying glass). They are all very useful, and are specialized for different purposes.
1. Trim allows you to use the mouse and trim away unwanted audio from the edge of a region. You can click once to make a trim, or click and drag to adjust the limit of the region.
2. The Selector is used to select any part of a region in the timeline so that you can cut or copy it.
3. The Grabber is used to select entire regions to cut, copy or move them.
Important: You may use these tools one at a time by clicking on the specific tool you want at the moment OR you may select the bar below the three tool icons and activate them all at once. When they are all selected, the active tool (and corresponding cursor icon) changes depending on your mouse location.
You can perform these on all, or part, of an audio region in a track. See the image above to find the corresponding tools.
- Select the Grabber tool (the hand image) then click and drag any audio region to a new location, either on the same track or a different one.
- Trimming– The Trim tool (with the arrows, to the right of the Zoom tool) allows you to quickly trim off the end of a region, as well as restore previously trimmed parts.
- When you click on an audio region, everything from that point to the closest edge will disappear.
- To restore a cleared part of a region, click on the edge of the region, hold, then drag back to “reveal” the cleared audio.
- Cutting/Clearing– Use the Selector tool (with the waveform, to the left of the Grabber) to select and cut any part of a region.
- Select by clicking, holding, and dragging with the mouse.
- Clear by pressing the Delete key.
- To separate or split a region into sub-regions, place the cursor where you want to make the separation, then go to Edit > Separate Region > At Selection.
- You can also select a chunk in the middle of a region with the Selector tool and go to Edit > Separate Region > At Selection to create three sub-regions.
- Naming– Naming regions will help you edit efficiently.
- With the Grabber, double-click on a region in the timeline and rename it in the box that pops-up.
- If you know the region by its existing name, you can find it listed in the “Regions” sub-window (to the right of the Edit window) and double-click to change the name.
- Select part or all of a region and go to Edit > Copy (or Apple-C).
- Select the destination (by highlighting it with the Selector tool) for the last thing you copied and go to Edit > Paste (or Apple-V).
- Applying (or deleting) Fades
- Select part of region(s) to fade or crossfade, using the Selector tool.
Then go to Edit > Fades > Create Fades… (or Delete Fades). The shortcut to create fades (after you’ve selected the area) is Apple-F.
Click on the bar at the left of each track display in the edit window to switch from “waveform” to “volume” and other modes, to control the track in different ways. Selecting “volume” will display a horizontal line indicating “unity gain”.
You can then adjust the volume of a track’s playback by making “breakpoints” by clicking with the grabber tool. Dragging a breakpoint up or down will adjust the level of the track output, the same way moving a volume fader would. Option-clicking with the grabber will delete points. Drawing with the pencil tool will create a dense stream of points that will follow the line you freehand. Selecting a range of points with the selector tool allows you to delete or copy that volume automation. While a range of points is selected, the trimmer tool can be used to raise or lower all points in proportion to one another.
If any of your soundfiles is drastically low in volume, you may want to get it up to its maximum level by selecting the region or regions, then going to the AudioSuite menu and choosing “normalize.” Run this process, and it will write a new soundfile, with the volume up to the maximum level (you can control the maximum volume of the highest peak in the normalize dialog.) Remember that this process simply brings the peaks up to the level you indicate, so the overall level of the track may need to be manipulated more.
Now, for a quick and dirty mix, we’ll use volume automation on the music tracks. At the bottom left of the track display in the edit window, click on “waveform” and from the drop-down menu, change this from “waveform” to “volume.” You will still be able to see the waveform, but layered in front is a line indicating the volume of the track.
Click with the grabber tool to create “breakpoints” which are pivot points for the volume to be raised or lowered. Dragging a point up or down will create a change in the mix volume of that track. Option-clicking will delete the breakpoint.
In this example, we “duck” the music down under the narration. Make a breakpoint in the music tracks’ volume automation slightly before the narration starts, then another a little later. Pull the second point down until it’s at a good level to voice-over (this will be different for different types of sound, just try a level and listen back, then adjust as needed.) Do the same at the end of the narration, raising the audio back up at the end of the voice. Then make one final point, dragging the audio down to 0 to cause it to fade completely out.
Only using a few breakpoints and making your volume adjustments in straight lines may be too coarse, so you may want to add additional breakpoints to more closely resemble a smooth curve.
Listen to it, and make adjustments to the breakpoints to make for an optimum mix. And watch your overall levels.
It’s always a good idea to have a Master Fader: choose “new track” or Command-shift-N, then choose 1 – stereo – master fader in the dialog that opens. That master fader will show the final level from all mixed tracks. If the audio on the master fader’s meters goes up in to the red, you need to reduce the level on one or more of your tracks. If the levels on the master fader look weak, you’ll need to raise the volume of one or more of your tracks.
Once some (or all) of your elements (narration, actualities, ambience, music, etc.) are in place, the most obvious way to start a mix is to play your session, and adjust the volume slider up and down with your mouse or an external controller.
Auto Write writes continuous automation information for all your moves.
Auto Latch only writes automation data when you change a parameter, and then leaves the setting where you last touched it.
Auto Touch writes automation data much like auto latch, but instead of leaving the levels at your last adjustment, it returns the level to the previous setting. This mode is useful for momentary ducks or boosts in a mix whose levels are otherwise consistent.
Auto Read will play back any automation you have written, and Auto Off predictably will ignore all automation data.
Good, now forget it.
Of course it’s perfectly fine if you’re comfortable working this way, but generally speaking, riding levels with a mouse on a graphic of a fader is a clunky way of controlling the mix, and will usually generate much more automation data than is needed. A physical control surface, providing an array of faders and knobs is undoubtedly quicker and more intuitive, at least for those of us who learned mixing on an analog mixer, but it’s still a less-precise way to control your mix than other tools provide. Try using the graphical breakpoint automation for a while and you’ll probably never go back to pushing faders around with your mouse.
Bouncing to disk
If you want to create a standalone audio file reflecting all of the editing, processing and mixing that you’ve done in your session, you need to “Bounce to Disk”. This isn’t necessary if you will continue to edit a project, but needs to be done if you would like to burn an audio CD, for example.
- Highlight what you want to “bounce to disk” by clicking and dragging on the timeline ruler (or in a track with the Selector tool). Typically you will select the entire session but you can select a subsection. (Remember that if a track is muted, the audio on that track will not be heard in the bounced file.) You don’t need to highlight all the tracks, just the period of time you wish to bounce, all tracks will be recorded into the bounce.
- Once you’re ready, go to File>Bounce to Disk…This window will appear-
- If you intend to burn an audio CD, make sure that the File Type is either “.WAV” or “.AIFF”, the format is “Stereo Interleaved”, the “Resolution” is 16bit, and the “Sample Rate” is 44,100.
- Once you’ve made the appropriate settings, click “Bounce”.
- You will be prompted to name the bounced file and for a save location. For organizational purposes, you may want to keep your “Bounces” somewhere in your main session folder on your hard drive. You might want to name the bounce something distinctive, such as “MyProjectBounce.wav” or “MyProjectMix.wav.”
- Once the right location is selected click “Save” and the bounce will begin. It happens in real time and you will hear your session play back during bouncing.
Note on MP3′s: If you would like to export MP3′s from Pro Tools, there is an MP3 encoder that must be purchased from Digidesign (a 30-day trial comes with Pro Tools). If you can put up with an extra step, save some money by using iTunes or Audacity to compress an MP3 from your bounced Pro Tools audio file. It’s good practice to bounce to an uncompressed .wav or .aiff file in any case, so you have a full-quality version of your mix, not just a compressed, lower-quality MP3.
That’s it, you’re done!