Streamlining Pro Tools For Engineering Efficiency

Streamlining Pro Tools

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.

Streamlining Pro Tools

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.

Mouse Vs. Keyboard

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.

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Streamlining Pro Tools

Fig. 2 This is the transport. To open, type Command+1 (numeric), or Cntrl+1 for Windows users. The pre-roll function is on the left and can be easily turned on and off with Command+k (Cntrl+k for Windows).

Playback And Record

If you operate Pro Tools, then you probably already know this, but the spacebar is the best way of starting and stopping playback. Forget the transport, forget any control surfaces, the spacebar is big, easy to press, and requires zero visual localization. To initiate recording, however, there are three great ways to “roll tape.” Try recording using Command+Spacebar (Cntrl+Spacebar for Windows), F12, or 3 on the numeric keypad (the first two shortcuts may require overwriting of other Mac commands). To go back to the beginning of the track, hit Return (Enter for Win).

Hot Keys!

If you haven’t already stumbled on it by accident, Pro Tools has an überquick shortcut setting called Hot Keys — just press one key and huzzah! Something happens! Magic! No special command, option, control, or A-A-B-A-up-down-START needed. In order to activate the Hot Keys, click on the tiny little black box with the “a/z” in the upper right corner of the edit window.

Starting with simple navigation, the two most useful actions are t and r, which are particularly fast at zooming in and out, respectively. Just click on a region somewhere and give it a shot.

For editing, hot keys has the basics covered:

b – splits a region in two.
c – copies a selected region.
x – cuts a selected region.
v – pastes a region.
f – crossfades a selected edit.
d – fades in.
g – fades out.
z – undo!

For practice, open up a current session in Pro Tools, save it as an alternate file so as not to ruin anything important, and start going through the order of these commands, moving regions around with the keyboard.

Streamlining Pro Tools

Fig. 3 The Smart Tool, a combination of stretcher, selector, and grabber tools is turned on by clicking at the top of the three buttons. The Tab To Transients feature, a highly valuable editing tool, is engaged with the bottom left blue button.

Markers And The Numeric Keypad

The numeric keypad to the right of the keyboard is also an incredibly useful tool, particularly for organization and navigation. To fully utilize the potential of the keypad, it’s essential to first map out the parts of the song with markers. To insert a marker, press Enter on the numeric keypad and Pro Tools will mark wherever the timeline cursor is, whether it’s playing, recording, or at a standstill (note that if it’s in grid mode the marker will be perfectly aligned with the grid, as opposed to the real time of exactly when Return was pressed). Also note the sequential order by which each marker is given a default number, as it’s highly recommended to add that number into the name of the marker (i.e., 3verse, 12bridge). This will lead to much easier navigation when there are lots of markers.

After all the markers are in place, begin navigating to different sections of the song by pressing period+marker number+period. To clarify, let’s say we want to navigate to the second verse, which has marker number 4 on it. Just using the numeric keypad, type in a period, the number 4, and another period. Voilà, the cursor should be at marker 4. Not only is it easy to navigate through the parts, but now any engineer should be able to sit at the helm and make sense of the session, thus enabling you to take a break!

Pre-Roll

Since musicians always need a little playback before a punch-in, it helps to have a quick method of setting up pre-roll so that Johnny McFicklefingers Guitar can get his bearings. In order to set up the pre-roll there are a few easy methods; either click the cursor somewhere before the desired punch section, rewind by pressing 1 (numeric), or set up an automatic two- to four-bar pre-roll by pressing Command+k (Cntrl+k for Win). To see whether pre-roll is on or off, type Command+1 (numeric, Cntrl+1 for Win) to see the transport. Here the amount of pre-roll can be adjusted to the desired amount. Using the automatic pre-roll is a great way to punch in because it sets up a system in which the pre-roll always starts in the same place but can be eliminated to save time when listening back.

As practice, try navigating to a marker section with the keypad, initializing a two-bar pre-roll either using Command+k or 1, and then recording with 3. Look, Ma, no mouse.

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Streamlining Pro Tools

Fig. 4 Grid modes on the far left and tools on the right.

Tools And Grids

To go further into the matrix of editing, one can engage the left hand on the keyboard as a means to aiding the mouse with changes to the type of cursor-tool and the type of timeline (both are located in the upper left corner of the edit window). To switch between various cursor-tools, type Command+1, 2, 3, or 4 (Cntrl+1, 2, 3, 4 for Win) to toggle between the magnifier, trimmer, selector, and grabber, respectively. To switch between slip and grid timelines, type Option+2 and Option+4.

The following is a step-by-step process for a basic edit using key commands. At first it might seem a bit too much to memorize, but over time, with projects that require lots of edits, shortcuts tend to sink in. For this exercise let’s assume there’s a verse in a song that needs to replace another verse, that it was tracked to a click, and that it has already been appropriately labeled with markers.

Shortcut Editing Exercise:
1) Start by navigating to the good verse with the numeric keypad (period+marker number+period).
2) Turn on grid mode with Option+4.
3) To select the entire verse, type in the numeric navigation for the very next marker while holding down Shift. At this point the good verse should be highlighted.
4) Press c to copy.
5) Navigate to the bad verse with the numeric keypad.
6) Press v to paste.

Fine Tuning

After making the edit, it’s time to finesse it with crossfades and make it sound seamless:

1) Put it in slip mode with Option+2.
2) Zoom into the beginning of the edit using either the zoom tool (Command+1) or r.
3) Switch to the trimmer tool with Command+2.
4) Drag the edit start so that it does not occur in the middle of a note.
5) Switch to the selector tool with Option+3.
6) Using the mouse, select a small amount of both sides of the edit.
7) Press f to crossfade.
8) Repeat these steps at the end of the edit.

Smart Tool

Some engineers swear by it, some engineers swear at it, but the Smart Tool, which is essentially the three main editing tools combined into one, is worthy of a mention. It eliminates many left-hand shortcuts by switching tools automatically with Pro Tools predicting which one is most likely needed. There’s barely any learning curve to this automatic-transmission engine, so give it a shot. To turn on the Smart Tool, click in the space just above the selector button to highlight the trimmer, selector, and grabber functions.

Streamlining Pro Tools

Fig. 5 Grouping saves tons of time when editing multiple tracks at once.

Grouping

Most editing can be expedited and simplified using groups. In order to create a group, select the desired tracks and type Command+g (Cntrl+g for Win). Label appropriately. This is particularly useful when editing a drum performance and all 12 tracks of the drums need to be moved and crossfaded identically. Another less-obvious yet incredibly useful shortcut is Command+Shift+g (Cntrl+Shift+g for Win) to turn groups on and off. This comes in handy when doing things like muting unnecessary audio from sparsely used tom tracks, or switching between editing the entire session and individual tracks. {pagebreak}

Setting Up A Session

When creating a session with lots of inputs things can get a little tedious when changing parameters track by track, so here’s a fast keyboard-based method to starting a new file, setting up the tracks, and prepping them for drums.

1) Type Command+n (Cntrl+n on Win) for a new session.
2) Name it, save it.
3) Type Command+Shift+n (Cntrl+Shift+n on Win) to create new tracks.
4) Use the up and down arrows to select how many tracks, or just type in a number.

*Side note: To create other types of tracks (like a stereo aux track) within the new tracks prompt window, hold down the Command button and toggle between left and right arrows for mono or stereo, and up and down arrows to select audio, aux, master, MIDI, or instrument tracks.

After creating the tracks, it’s time to start changing their inputs and outputs. Since the inputs are usually all different, there’s no fast way of assigning them unless the tracks are being imported from a previous template. Outputs, however, are commonly rerouted to the same destination (like sending all drum tracks to an aux drum bus channel). Rather than painstakingly change them one at a time, here’s how to change multiple outputs at once: Select the desired tracks while holding down Shift. Then holding Option+Shift (Alt+Shift on Win) use the mouse to select a different output for one of the tracks. By doing so, the outputs for the other selected tracks should change automatically.

Option+Shift is a useful shortcut for other additional multitrack changes. It’s a great way to add plug-ins (it never hurts to have identical plug-ins on every drum track to eliminate delay-based phase issues), insert additional sends, and most importantly to record-enable multiple tracks at once.

Tabbing And Tightening

One of the cleverest navigational maneuvers in Pro Tools is the Tab To Transients feature. By turning it on in the upper left window, the Tab key will instantly take the cursor and place it at the beginning of the next transient. This makes editing, especially in a song that was recorded without a click, as easy as it is precise.

Have a sloppy bass player and want to move all the notes to match the kick drum? Using the tab feature, strip silence, and the grabber tool, it takes very little “eyeballing” to line up the notes. Here’s how to take one sloppy performance and line it up with a better one (assuming that their parts are supposed to be in rhythmic unison):

1) Select the sloppy bass region.
2) Type Command+u (Cntrl+u on Win) to open the Strip Silence window.
3) Adjust the Strip Silence so that it separates every note into individual regions. (Strip Silence doesn’t work so well with more legato parts, so that may require some manual separating of notes.)
4) Put the cursor just to the left of the first kick note.
5) Tab to the beginning of the kick transient.
6) Type Command+4 to engage the grabber tool.
7) While holding down Control, click on the first bad bass note.
8) The sloppy bass note should now be moved to where the cursor was, thus lining it up to the beginning of the kick.
9) Repeat for all flams.

Prepping For Transfers

With remote recording situations audio files are constantly being sent back and forth, occasionally crossing platforms. The following few shortcuts will cut down on packaging time and prep the files for any session.

For the smoothest of transfers all files need to be consolidated and start at zero so that the engineer on the other end can open the files and easily line them up with the start of the song. To do so, start by selecting the last region within a single track. Press Shift+Return (Shift+Enter on Win) and all the regions up until the start of the session should be highlighted. Now consolidate the regions into one file by pressing Option+Shift+3 (Alt+Shift+3 on Win). Pro Tools will create a new audio file that is perfect for transferring.

To drill and memorize every shortcut mentioned in this article is not the best method of honing those shortcut skills. Instead, use these as spring boards to finding whatever shortcuts work best for you. That said, you don’t need to dive very deep to fool everybody else in the mix room. As Fast Hand Lewis points out (see sidebar), “You only need to know a couple of things and then you look like a pro!”