A well-known producer friend of mine has a post-it note on his video monitor that says 'CLOCK!' I fully understand this; it's a reminder to make sure the clock is set when working on a session.
We need reminders to make sure that we start a session and then don't find we have made a mistake that is hard to fix later on.
If you are new to Pro Tools or indeed a seasoned Pro Tools professional then these five tips may be helpful to you. If nothing else it ensures we get into healthy habits and once they become habits, they become second nature.
So here are 5 things you should do every time you start a Pro Tools Session.
1. Find The Right Place to Store the Session
Did you know that saving you Pro Tools session on your system drive, while not the end of the world, is a bad idea?
Here are a few reasons why;
- It can slow down performance as both the Pro Tools application and the session data is using the same data drive.
- It can lead to a loss of data. There are endless stories of people storing a Pro Tool Session on their desktop and then in a moment of house-keeping have trashed the folder. The next time they come to find their Session it is gone!
- Pro Tools is a hard disk recorder and is making constant writes and rewrites to the drive. You need a drive that is both fast enough and sufficient to handle this kind of activity. Your drive needs to be 7200rpm or above and also needs to be a sufficient quality to be able to deal with what is essentially a professional workload. Many internal drives, especially on laptops are SSD drives which may also not be suitable for this kind of long-term wear.
So the first piece of advice is to purchase an external drive to store all of your Pro Tools sessions on. The drive needs to be, as already said, fast enough so 7200rpm and robust enough to handle you working with it every day and perhaps throwing it into your bag.
Once you have a reasonable place to store your external data then use this for all your Pro Tools Sessions and when you start a new Pro Tools Session make sure you store the Session at this location. See the image below. You can see at the bottom of the New Session Window you have two options 'Prompt for location' this is where Pro Tools asks you where you want to store your Session each time you create a new one, or it chooses the location you have set by hitting the 'Location' button. You can see in the example that the data is stored on an external Volume called 'Audio' and in a subfolder called 'Sessions.'
2. Set up your Session with the settings you need
The New Session window in Pro Tools is a helpful reminder to set up the Session with the settings you need.
If you've never started a session using Pro Tools before then when this Window appears you can leave the name as 'Untitled' and press the 'Create' button - BUT ONLY IF YOU ARE A MORON.
WARNING! Do not hit the 'Create' button without naming it appropriately and making sure the settings are right.
The new Session window ensures that you give the Session a name that you can find it with later on - if you call every Session Untitled, Untitled 1, Untitled 2 etc. then you are asking for trouble when you need to find that killer song in a year. So name it with a meaningful name, the 5 seconds you save calling it 'Untitled' may cost you hours at a later date - it's a fool's economics.
But it is not just the name you need to get right.
Then make sure you've selected the right file type, if you are not sure then leave it as a WAV, WAV is short for Wave format and works on both Mac and PC computers.
Next, choose the choose Sample Rate. There is no rule but generally (and partly down to history) most music engineers would opt for 44.1 kHz and post engineers 48 kHz as the sample rate they use for sessions. However (and depending on your audio interface) you can select even higher sample rates of up to 192 kHz. Of course choosing a higher sample rate will increase the amount of space you need to store your session files. The next selection is bit depth, the default is 24-bit, and in most cases, this should be suitable for most sessions.
The other choices for your Session are I/O settings which relate to the way your audio interface is configured to work with Pro Tools, we will be covering this further on in this article, but once set you should be able to leave this setting as 'Last Used' as long as you are a single user, working on one system. If you work in a suite of Pro Tools systems or with other users using the same Pro Tools system 'Last Used' is the last option you want to be choosing.
Finally, there is a checkbox with the word 'Interleaved' next to it. If you want Pro Tools to treat stereo files as a single audio file, then check this box, if you want both the left and right channels of the signal stored separately then leave this unchecked.
Now you can go ahead and press the 'Create' button in the knowledge that the few seconds you have taken to make this setting to the session will ensure you don't find yourself having to make changes to the Session later. This changes may not be impossible but are best avoided with some simple pre-flight checks.
3. Check the Pro Tools audio interface settings
So far we've talked about the storage side of setting up a Pro Tools Session, now we move onto making sure the interface you are using is set-up and ready to work for the session.
Is the interface physically connected to your computer with the right cable? That's always worth checking before you disappear down a rabbit hole of wondering why you can't set-up your audio interface in Pro Tools, even the best of us sometimes get caught by a cable we have forgotten to connect to our computer or a wire one that got pulled out by the dog.
Setting up an audio interface in Pro Tools is done in two places. First, we have to select the right interface, and that is done using the menu 'Setup/Playback Engine...'
Once you have this window open use the drop-down menu at the top of the window that says 'Playback Engine' and then select the interface from the list that matches the one you want to use. There are some more options we will return to, but for now, that's all we need to do.
Then you need to make sure that the inputs and outputs for your interface are going to mapped to the Pro Tools software. To do this go back to the menu 'Set-up' and this time choose the 'I/O...' option. The I/O stands for inputs and outputs.
Depending on the interface you use the I/O window will show a different display as it graphically represents the physical connections that are on your interface. Below are a couple of examples of the same window showing what happens when I select the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt interface and then change my interface to the Avid Eleven Rack. A quick tip. Hit the Default button on the bottom right of the window to set the inputs and outputs for the device to their standard settings. You will see along the top of the window showing Input, Output, Bus, Insert, Mic Preamps and H/W Insert Delay, each tab allows you to check and change settings to suit your needs. In some cases you will not need to make changes especially if you are not using Pro Tools HD hardware.
The purpose of checking the audio interface settings is to make sure that when you open Pro Tools to start recording that you have the right inputs and outputs available to both record and play back on.
You can see in the image below how the inputs are now showing up in Pro Tools for the Apogee Ensemble. These are accessed by using the drop-down on the I/O options for input and output above each fader in the Pro Tools Mix window.
4. Check the H/W Buffer Settings
It takes a little time for a computer to process audio, it has to take the analogue audio, convert that to digital, process it, and then convert it back from digital to analogue so you can hear it. The time required to do this is referred to as latency, and this can differ in length depending on the interface you are using, the type of connection used and the speed at which your computer can process the data. The more powerful the computer then, the better it is at processing this information which means you can record with smaller hardware buffer settings.
The aim of the H/W Buffer (Hardware) settings in Pro Tools is to give you the option to choose the lowest possible latency during record. If you are using a Pro Tools HD or HDX system then this does not matter as much as DSP processing on cards deals with this and offers almost no latency.
However, for those not using Pro Tools HD/HDX systems, the aim is to set the buffer to the smallest number of samples. On many modern computers with modern interfaces this can be as little as 32 samples, which means when you record the delay between playing or singing and hearing it through your speakers is tiny - as you set the buffer to higher numbers the delay gets higher and in some cases makes playing or singing almost impossible.
When you come to mix you can adjust the buffer to a much greater number, as latency no longer matters, at this point you need as much horsepower as you can get from Pro Tools.
So open the Playback Engine using the menu 'Setup/Playback Engine...' and then use the drop-down menu set it to the lowest possible number you can use without that affecting any audio or performance of the session - try the smallest number first and see if that works. If you get things like distortion or error messages, then increase it until they no longer occur.
One thing to note, many interfaces offer a way to monitor the audio without any latency, so you do not need to worry about the size of the record buffer. If you do have this option, then remember to monitor using the software supplied with your interface but remembering not to monitor from the Pro Tools mixer. Monitoring both will create an effect like an echo or chorus as you hear the same signal twice but one of them has a small amount of delay.
5. Name Your Tracks
You might want to get working fast, but if you just create tracks and leave them with the name 'Audio', you are asking for trouble.
A Pro Tools session can contain thousands of audio files, and if you don't name your tracks, then those tracks will be called 'Audio 1', 'Audio 2' etc. When you press record, Pro Tools will use the track name to give the audio file a name based on that. Every time you edit a piece of audio a new file is created based on the original name.
Not naming your tracks means that you can end up with a folder, or folders full of files with the name 'Audio' prefixing them and that can run into thousands. They could be the Bass or the Vocalist; they could be any of a number of takes - trying to find something in a session like that is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Save hours now and take a second to name your tracks before you hit record - ignore this advice at your peril!
This Pro Tools guide has been written to help you get the best from Pro Tools, most of the advice is simply a case of creating healthy habits that you should get used to adopting for your recording workflow.