Making Monitor Mixes

Digidesign (Avid) Pro Tools Tips & Techniques

Published in SOS November 2010
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Technique : Pro Tools Notes

Like any hardware mixer, Pro Tools' Mixer can be used to give the musicians on your session exactly what they want...

Mike Thornton

As on any mixer, monitor mixes are set up in Pro Tools using auxiliary sends. Here I'm setting up two monitor mixes, one for the performers and one for the conductor.As on any mixer, monitor mixes are set up in Pro Tools using auxiliary sends. Here I'm setting up two monitor mixes, one for the performers and one for the conductor.

A vital part of any recording session is ensuring that the musicians can hear themselves, and each other, along with any pre‑recorded tracks they're playing along to. This will typically involve setting up one or more 'monitor mixes' to let the musicians hear what they need.

Most mixing consoles provide a number of auxiliary sends from each channel, which can be used to set up both monitor mixes and effects sends. The Pro Tools mixer is no different in this respect — except that, being a software mixer, there is somewhat more flexibility than a lot of hardware mixers provide.

Pro Tools now offers up to 10 different sends per channel, which you can configure in whatever way suits your needs. They are grouped together into two sets of five: Sends A to E and Sends F to J. To see these, enable them from the Mix Window Views in the View menu.

To create a send, click on an unassigned area in the chosen send row, and you can then choose where it is routed to. You could choose an output as a destination, but I always select a bus: this means I can also create an Auxiliary Input track to act as a master volume for that particular monitor mix. I set the input of this track to be the bus and send its output to an output of my Pro Tools interface, which feeds my headphone amps.

Routing sends to buses rather than directly to outputs permits much more flexibility in setting up monitor mixes. Note the importance of naming buses and outputs!Routing sends to buses rather than directly to outputs permits much more flexibility in setting up monitor mixes. Note the importance of naming buses and outputs!It's well worth naming everything, including aux tracks, buses and outputs. You can rename a track by double‑clicking on the track name in the Edit or Mix window and giving it a sensible name. For the outputs and buses, you need to use the I/O option in the Setup menu. To rename a bus, select the Bus tab and then double‑click on the bus name in the name column. Similarly, to rename an output, select the Output tab and double‑click on the output name. Doing this will mean that when you start selecting buses to send to, they will appear in the menus with sensible names.

If you click on an assigned send (such as 'Studio cans' in the first screen), a floating Send window will open. You can place this window anywhere on your screen. From the top you have the relevant routing and assignment info, followed by five little buttons. Not all of these are relevant to creating monitor mixes: perhaps the most important is Pre, the conventional pre/post switch that most mixers have on aux sends. When this button is lit, the aux is fed before (pre) the channel fader. This allows you to create a mix using the main faders, safe in the knowledge that it won't affect the monitor mixes. This is the normal mode for monitor mixes.

FMP is short for Follow Main Pan, and enables you to link the pan controls so that the aux send mirrors the pan settings from the main channel pan controls. Once you enable this feature, you will see that the pan controls in the floating Send window become greyed out.

It's critical that you enable Solo Safe on any monitor mix's aux input tracks: otherwise, when you solo a track on the main mix, it will mute the aux input track that you've got configured as a monitor mix master volume track, and then the performers won't hear anything! To solo‑safe a track, Ctrl‑click (Windows) or Command‑click (Mac) on the relevant solo button(s).

Multiple Sends

Sends used for monitor mixing would typically be set to pre‑fader mode.Sends used for monitor mixing would typically be set to pre‑fader mode.

When a performer asks for "a little more keys”, or "a little less drums”, you can click on the appropriate assignment so that the Send window pops up, make the adjustment, close the send window, and move on. However, this can be a little slow, and there are two possible ways of working that make this process quicker.

Send windows have a Target button just like plug‑in windows, so it's possible to get more than one open simultaneously. Once you have opened the first one, click on the Target button so it's no longer lit red. Now you can open another Send window and the first one will stay open (though the second will usually open on top of the previous one, so you might need to move it out of the way). Another way of opening multiple Send windows is to Shift‑click rather than simply clicking on the relevant sends. You will then end up with a block of Send windows, giving you direct access to all the send-related controls directly.

This is OK if you only have a few sends active, but if you need direct access to a larger number of Send windows, they can very quickly fill your screen. A nicer way, especially if screen space is at a premium, is to choose to enable the Sends View mode in either of the main windows. If you Command‑click (Mac) or Ctrl‑click (Windows) on the little diamond to the left of the assignment name (be careful — clicking on the name instead of the diamond will mute the send!), you will see that all the tracks will display miniature faders, pans, meters and buttons for that send. When I'm tracking I leave my Sends View in this mode, as I can get directly to any send‑related control and make the appropriate tweak very quickly. The only down side is that the controls for a single send now occupy the space previously taken up by all five send assignment buttons. However, a lot of the time you don't need more than two monitor mixes, and you can have two sets of sends displayed in this view by putting one of them onto a send in the F to J group and setting that to the appropriate Send View. If you do need to access a different Send View within the same block of five, Command/Ctrl‑click on the little letter and a pop‑down menu will appear, enabling you to select your desired view.

Copying & Moving Sends

To save having multiple Sends windows open, the Sends A‑E and F‑J sections of the Mixer window can be set to display miniature controls for a particular send.To save having multiple Sends windows open, the Sends A‑E and F‑J sections of the Mixer window can be set to display miniature controls for a particular send.

To help you set up a monitor mix quickly, it's easy to move or copy sends around. To move an assignment to a different row, say from 'A' to 'C', simply click on the send name and drag it to your desired location. Similarly, if you wish to copy a send assignment to another track, click and drag the send name while holding down the Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) key. Moving or copying a send maintains all its routing, level/pan/mute settings, automation and output format.

If you need to free up DSP and mixer resources, you can make a send inactive either on a single channel or across all channels. To make an individual send inactive, click on the send name while holding down Ctrl + Start (Windows) or Command + Ctrl (Mac). If you want to make a send inactive across all channels, simply add the Alt/Option key.

On Pro Tools HD only, you can copy various settings and automation from the main track up to a selected send, enabling you to easily copy the rough mix from the faders to the sends as a starting point for a monitor mix. To do this, choose the Copy to Send option from Automation in the Edit menu. Then a Copy To Send dialogue box will open, from which you can decide what parameters you want to copy, and whether you want their automation to travel with them.

Note that when you click OK, a warning box will pop up if you are about to overwrite any automation. If you would rather not be troubled with this warning, holding down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) will bypass it, and of course you can always undo this process if you realise you made a mistake.

Keep It Simple

An easy way of setting up an initial monitor mix on a Pro Tools HD rig is to copy the fader levels of all tracks to a send.An easy way of setting up an initial monitor mix on a Pro Tools HD rig is to copy the fader levels of all tracks to a send.

I'm a strong advocate of keeping monitor mixes simple, and resisting calls from performers for "a bit of this” and "a bit more of that”. You invariably end up with a mix where the musicians can no longer hear what they need to hear and the headphone feed gets louder and louder and starts to cause spill problems. Try to keep a monitor mix down to the key parts the performers need to hear to perform. Usually this means some drums or percussion for timing, bass and basic keys or guitar for tuning, and not much else, unless there is a specific part they need to bounce off.

When tracking vocals, I am often asked to turn up or down the 'track' — ie. everything but the vocalist. This can be a pain, as normally there isn't a single fader to adjust for this. So I either have to nudge up or down every track's send level a little — except for the vocal track, of course — or push up the send master a bit and drop the vocal level by the corresponding amount, neither of which are particularly ideal solutions.

What I do is to create a 'track' submix in the headphone monitor mix so I can make the appropriate adjustment with one fader. I change the send routing for all the tracks in the session except any vocal‑related ones to a new set of buses and label it 'track to cans'. Then I create an aux input track, label it 'track to cans' and configure its input to pick up the bus I have just created. The output of this track is then, in turn, routed to the normal headphone bus. I leave all vocal‑related tracks routed directly to this bus, so now when the vocalist asks for a little more track, I have a single fader that brings up all the instrumental parts only.  .

Automation & Monitor Mixes

All send levels, pans, mutes and so on can, of course, be automated, but I tend to steer clear of this, as once automation is activated, you can't adjust the level by simply moving the fader — if you try, it will simply spring back to the saved position. There is one exception to this. A lot of my clients prefer to play a rallentando at the end of a song naturally, rather than following a programmed click. To make this possible, I use automation to mute the Click track at the appropriate point, so they can then all feel the 'ral' together.

Latency & Monitor Mixing

Any monitor mix that you set up in the Pro Tools mixer is, of course, subject to the input‑output latency of the system. This is unlikely to be a problem in HD systems, which have very low latency, but if you're using an LE or M‑Powered rig, you might need to experiment with buffer sizes to reduce the latency to an acceptable amount. Note that if you use Pro Tools LE's Low Latency Monitoring feature, any record‑enabled tracks that are set to Low Latency Monitoring will automatically have all sends bypassed, so can't be used to set up separate monitor mixes independently of the main mix. If you use the low‑latency monitoring features on M‑Audio hardware, meanwhile, you'll need to set up your monitor mixes in their control panel software rather than in Pro Tools. Sam Inglis


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