These days audio engineers need to be more than just expert knob twisters with leather fanny packs. Experienced ears are of course paramount, but second to that, the ability to operate recording equipment is without a doubt absolutely the most important element of an engineer’s job. Just how quickly an engineer is able to manipulate said equipment is also vital, as that’s the grease that keeps the gears turning. Since the entire recording industry uses Pro Tools, it’s virtually mandatory for all engineers to be able to navigate the software with ease. There are exceptions, however, like the SF indie purists at Tiny Telephone, an in-demand studio that tracks to tape only.
Stubborn exceptions aside, the proliferation of Pro Tools is so rampant that it’s worth familiarizing for even the novice engineer. It doesn’t require much skill to learn the basics of mouse-based Pro Tools navigation, but there’s a higher, faster level of manipulation hidden within the keyboard. When mastered, it cuts down on wait times, expedites the recording process, and gets results faster.
While Pro Tools can be complex at times, the steps to streamlining are fairly straightforward. That said, the path to optimization requires practice, so treat the software like it’s an instrument worthy of some drilling and expect a little learning curve. It’s a matter of memorization, both muscular and mental, and making it automatic. It’s just like learning a scale or a paradiddle.
Assuming there’s already basic knowledge of the platform, the next step is to learn and memorize the best and most useful keyboard shortcuts, and then practice them until they become second nature. Wax on, wax off. Initially the keyboard might slow things down, but the massive power and speed of Pro Tools is completely within the realm of the keystroke, and when an automated keyboard and mouse start working in concert, it’s like adding a nitrous boost to the rig.
Fig. 1 This is the Marker Maker, an excellent means of setting up quick navigation, and can be initiated by pressing Return on the numeric keypad. Be sure to label the name of each marker with its assigned number.
Everybody relies on the mouse for basic operations, and why shouldn’t we? It works, it gets the job done, and the learning curve is nil. But there’s one limitation: It requires simultaneous hand/eye coordination, an element that cannot be easily streamlined into an automatic motion. Within the nerdy tech world there’s a heated feud between mousers and keyboardists. Which is faster? Which works best? Which is ergonomically healthier? Ah, the virgin’s dilemma. The truth of the matter is that everyone’s body responds differently, so whichever flows for you and doesn’t result in carpal tunnel is best. But if you’ve always been mousing around on Pro Tools, you owe it to yourself to temporarily release the iron grip on the mouse and experiment with some of the following key commands. You might be pleasantly surprised at the speed the shortcuts afford.
Thankfully, the designers at Avid have long since heard the calls from their users and have programmed more key-command bells and whistles than a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They’ve added so many, in fact, that the overwhelming options are beyond the ability of any single engineer to remember. The included shortcuts manual is so extensive (47 pages to be exact), that it’s more a piece of coffee-table literature than a manual. Sitting atop many a studio’s toilet, the shortcuts guide is worth every budding engineer’s five minutes of peace.
These aren’t studio secrets and they aren’t the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only problem is that the overabundance of shortcuts makes it a labored process of seeking out the useful ones. Additionally, there are multiple ways of doing the same task, and no two engineers use all the same shortcuts, so here’s a groomed list of the most useful ways of utilizing the keyboard from one drummer/engineer’s perspective.