At the start of December 2017 my wife Georgie, who is a prolific songwriter, asked me to teach her how to use Pro Tools. She was keen to learn Pro Tools as she knows full well that Pro Tools has been at the heart of my music production workflow for many years. Prior to this, my wife occasionally used our personal Mac Mini for demo recording acoustic guitars and vocals using Garage Band. She didn't like Garageband much because she found audio editing to be a bit of a pain, as did I.
Luckily, I had a spare iLok with a Pro Tools 11 licence on it that I gave her. I started teaching her some basic Pro Tools operations only to quickly realise I was not teaching her effectively... I was, in essence, showing her how to run before she could walk. I had to first teach her some fundamental digital audio subjects before we even got into the basics of using the Pro Tools application
In this article, I share a handful of fundamental digital audio recording topics I taught to my wife which helped her to learn how to track with an audio interface into Pro Tools. This article has been written to be as simple as possible without getting into heavy technical details. The simple and straightforward approach worked for my wife who is now, only six weeks into using Pro Tools, rather confident now with tracking in Pro Tools.
Audio Interface - Inputs & Outputs
I lent Georgie my Focusrite Scarlette 6i6 USB audio interface. This audio interface features 4 anolog inputs (two inputs with "Gain" preamps on the front of the interface, two on back without gain control) and 4 anolog outputs. This information is fairly meaningless to someone who doesn't know the basics of I/O (Inputs/Outputs) or even what an audio interface is.
What Is An Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a device that brings everything together in a recording studio environment. It brings together what audio is going to be recording either down a microphone or jack cable into a DAW (Pro Tools software in this case) and what comes out of Pro Tools through either monitors or headphones. The audio interface will always be at the heart of any tracking or mixing scenario.
Getting Sound In & Out Of An Audio Interface
Audio Outputs are the easiest aspect to explain because outputs don't commonly change in stereo home recording setups. Outputs in stereo recording/mixing applications are very much "set it and forget it". Outputs are used for outputting signal from the Pro Tools Software through to monitors (speakers) or headphones. In Pro Tools, audio Inputs and Outputs are assigned numbers by default - Outputs 1/2 (1 is for Left and 2 is for Right).
This basic labelling system is a very similar affair for the audio Inputs on the front of our Scarlette 6i audio interface, inputs are labelled numerically - 1, 2, 3 & 4. To record with either a microphone or jack lead plug a cable end into either one of the inputs that have gain pot preamps and that will be the number input that will need to be assigned with the I/O (Input/Output) box of an audio track in Pro Tools. The 6i6 has two inputs with pre-amps, Input 1 and Input 2.
- Input 1 Interface (A1): Jack cable from acoustic guitar (DI - Direct Input)
- Input 2 Interface (A2): Microphone for vocal (Condenser microphone)
Mic/Instrument Level, DI, 48V - What Do All These Mean?
Modern audio interfaces such as the Focusrite 6i6 really do make life as easy as possible for the home recording newbie. The physical connectors for the inputs in these Scarlette interfaces feature combi XLR/jacks meaning users can either connect an XLR cable for microphone recording or TRS Jack for instruments (keyboards/bass guitar/acoustic guitar/electric guitar) in the same port.
The terms Mic Level and Instrument Level were once very important subjects to understand, and still are today in some applications, but I don't believe knowing the technical differences between the two are worth worrying about in the early days of recording - especially for the home recording newbie who just wants to get sound into an audio interface and through into Pro Tools.
The only function that I recommend needs to be engaged on an audio interface is, again "set it and forget it" 48V. 48V sends power from an audio interface down XLR to XLR cables to condenser microphones. If you use a condenser microphone and 48V isn't enabled the microphone will not work, however, dynamic microphones such as an SM58 will work without 48V.
Gain staging is a difficult topic for the home recording newbie to get their head around. I like to think of gain staging as Volume Managment. Whatever sound is recorded through an audio interface into a DAW, such as Pro Tools, has to be managed carefully throughout the following stages of production:
- Tracking (recording)
- Mixing (Setting levels with faders and using plug-ins)
- Exporting (Bouncing a final MP3/WAV audio file to disk)
When tracking any source instrument/vocal, a sensible preamp level needs to be set with the pre-amp gain knob on the audio interface. As a rule of thumb, I recommend an input preamp gain to be set at a level which corresponds to the level in the Pro Tools Mixer averaging around the halfway mark. This gives space (headroom) for louder sections of a performance to reach without digital clipping. Digital clipping is represented by a small red dot at the top of each meter. The sound of digital clipping is a very distinctive digital distortion sound - avoid at all costs.
Once several audio tracks have been recorded with an appropriate preamp gain, which leaves audio tracks with headroom, the Master Track (audio outputs 1&2) within the Pro Tools Mixer Window should be loaded and watched closely. It is very easy to turn up one or two audio tracks for balancing levels but users can easily run the risk of clipping the Master Track which will sound clipped and distorted.
Most newbie recordists get the first bit of the recording process right, they record at a good level into a DAW, which avoids clipping. However, many pay little attention to internal clipping. Internal clipping happens when the Master Track (final output) has too much signal being sent to it from all the tracks in the session. This can be caused because too many tracks are turned up to nearly the fullest position which overloads the master. This not only sounds bad but also limits mixing options. My rule of thumb for if you struggle to hear a track in the mix you should try turning down some tracks. This approach retains the Master Track headroom which will avoid internal clipping of the output.
Those are some fundamental pointers for getting audio in and out of Pro Tools in a tracking situation using a good quality (entry level) audio interface. Avoid clipping, always follow your signal flow from the source (instrument or microphone) through to the audio interface pre-amp through into Pro Tools I/O and you'll be well equipped to record great sounding music all day long!