Save time and protect yourself from RSI by learning to edit audio in Pro Tools from the QWERTY keyboard.
If you use a computer all day, every day, you are at real risk of developing repetitive strain injury — especially if you work intensively with the mouse. One of the great things about Pro Tools is that it's possible to edit fast and accurately just from the keyboard, and this month and next we'll be looking at the techniques that power users employ to get work done faster and save their wrists!
There's no point in getting really quick at editing if you take an age to find the right section of your session and zoom in on it. When I watch people working in Pro Tools, I'm often aware that they use a lot of keystrokes and mouse clicks to get to where they want to be, so let's see if we can make this process easier and much more economical on mousing.
Before we do anything, we need to make sure that the Link Track & Edit Selection button on the toolbar is active. We also need to activate the Keyboard Command Focus option, which is in the top right‑hand corner of the Edit window and is one of several 'a/z' buttons around the Pro Tools interface. This enables a whole raft of additional keyboard shortcuts that are going to prove very useful.
To adjust the track height without using the mouse, simply hold down the Ctrl (Windows: Start) key and use the up and down arrow keys to change the track height of whichever track your cursor is on. If you have a set of tracks grouped together, Pro Tools will highlight all the track names and the keyboard shortcut will change the track height of all the grouped tracks.
To zoom in and out horizontally with the Keyboard Command Focus enabled, you can use the 'R' and 'T' keys respectively, remembering that, as you zoom in, Pro Tools will place the cursor at the centre of the screen. This is very useful, but you do end up hitting the 'R' and 'T' keys a lot, so don't forget that Pro Tools also has five zoom presets, which I rarely see folk using. With Keyboard Command Focus enabled, the '1' to '5' keys above the QWERTY section relate to the zoom presets: hit the '5' key and Pro Tools will jump to zoom preset five and so on. You'll probably find the factory presets aren't quite right for you, but these are easily changed. Use the 'R' and 'T' keys to set a zoom level you're happy with, then hold down the Command (Windows: Ctrl) key and click on one of the five number keys. The relevant button on the Edit window will flash to acknowledge that the setting has been saved. You can repeat this for all five zoom settings, and it's probably a good idea to follow the presets in having numbers one to five correspond to increasing levels of zoom.
Remember that zoom presets are saved in your session, not as part of Pro Tools Preferences, so you will need to set them for each session, unless you use session templates. If you do, consider editing your templates with your preferred settings so that any session created from your template will acquire your zoom settings too.
Zoom Toggle is another under‑used but very handy feature. It's activated using a button immediately below the Zoomer tool or, more easily, by hitting the 'E' key with Keyboard Command Focus enabled. Make a selection on a track in your Edit window; then, when you hit the 'E' key, Pro Tools will zoom in, so that your selection will fill the Edit window. The default setting uses the last track height that was set, and if that isn't to your liking you can use the Track Height shortcut — Ctrl/Start and the up or down arrows — to set the Zoom Toggled track height to your preferred height. Then, when you hit the 'E' key again, it will take you back out to your previous zoom setting, but when you reactivate Zoom Toggle, by hitting the 'E' key for a third time, it will zoom in to your preferred track height.
You can also make a system‑wide setting for the Zoom Toggle function in the Editing tab of Pro Tools Preferences. In the lower right‑hand corner, there's a section that configures how the Zoom Toggle will function. My suggestions are to set the Track Height to 'fit to window' and the Track View to 'no change'. These both default to 'last used', which is why the Zoom Toggle can sometimes perform a little oddly. You can also tick the 'Separate Grid Settings When Zoomed In' box to have a different grid setting when you activate Zoom Toggle, and I prefer to have Zoom Toggle Follow Edit Selection as well. The benefit of using 'fit to window' is that when you make a selection across multiple tracks and then hit the 'E' key, all the selected tracks will fit the screen.
You can also use the track navigation buttons 'P' and ';' to move the selection up and down tracks. When you're done, just hit the 'E' key and you're back to your normal view.
Another way to economise on mouse or keyboard actions is to use the left and right arrow keys. Say I've used the Zoom Toggle to zoom in and perhaps zoom in some more; all I can see is my clip start. In this situation, I see many people zoom out, scroll to the end of the selection, and zoom back in, which takes loads of keyboard and mouse operations. But using the left and right arrow keys to the right of the QWERTY keyboard, you can jump from the start of the selection to the end without zooming out — the left arrow takes you to the selection start and the right arrow to the selection end.
Another keyboard‑based navigation tool is the Tab key. When I'm training people, I always describe the function of this key as 'doing what it says on the tin': it moves the cursor to the right until it hits the next vertical line, which in Pro Tools means a region (or clip) boundary. The Tab key thus makes it easy to move the cursor around and have it precisely land on the start or finish of a clip, or at an edit point. You can also make it go backwards: Alt-Tab will make the cursor go left to the previous clip boundary.
With Tab To Transient mode active, Pro Tools will find the next transient event in an audio clip when you hit Tab; you can activate Tab To Transient using the button in the toolbar under the Trim Tool button, or by the shortcut Command-Alt-Tab (Windows: Ctrl-Alt-Tab). This means you can easily trim a region without leaving the keyboard: use Tab To Transient to find the start of some audio, then hit the 'A' key. With Keyboard Command Focus active, this will trim off the start of a clip to the cursor position — neat!
If you add the Shift key to these combinations, the cursor will highlight and make a selection as it moves; this also works when you use the Alt-Tab 'reverse gear' as well. This makes it very easy to highlight from your cursor position back to a previous edit and delete it again, all without leaving the keyboard. (Not only does this save time and mouse use, it reduces the risk of you dragging to make a selection and leaving the smallest clip in the world, then wondering at a later stage why a crossfade won't work.)
If you add Ctrl (Windows: Start) and Tab, as you tab each clip (we used to call them regions but with Pro Tools 10, Avid have standardised on a nomenclature that is the same for their video and audio products) Pro Tools will highlight the next one. This is a fast way of navigating around your session using the keyboard.
Now that you can navigate your session from the keyboard, in next month's issue we'll be looking at the variety of editing actions that can be carried out without the use of the mouse. Until then, happy zooming!