We help you keep your ever–growing Pro Tools sessions manageable!
As Pro Tools projects grow larger and larger, it becomes very easy to lose your way and get confused. In Screen 1, I have a Pro Tools mixer that won’t fit on screen unless I use the Narrow Mix Window option in the View menu. Whenever possible I prefer to work in the normal view, as I can see more detail, especially when it comes to routing labels and plug–in labels. So what can we do to help keep big sessions under control?
One of the most powerful tools for managing large sessions is grouping. Any set of tracks can be grouped. The first step is to select all the tracks you want in the group. If they are all together in the Edit or Mix window, you can simply click on the first track header and then Shift–click on the last to select them all at once. If they’re not contiguous, Command–clicking (Windows: Ctrl–click) on any track will add or remove it from the selection without affecting other selected tracks.
Once you have your tracks selected use the Group option in the Track menu, or press Command-G (Windows: Ctrl-G). The Create Group dialogue box will appear, already populated with the tracks you selected. Don’t worry if you missed a track — you can add it here. Make sure that you rename the group to something useful. In Screen 2 I am grouping all of my drum tracks, so I will call the group ‘Kit’. Once you are happy, then click OK.
Once tracks are grouped, whatever you do to one track will happen to them all. So an edit selection will extend across the grouped tracks, pressing a solo or mute button on one track will enable that on all the tracks in the group, moving one fader will move all the faders in the group, and so on. If you want to adjust just one track within an active group without affecting the others, simply hold down the Ctrl key on a Mac or the Start key on Windows: any fader, solo and mute changes you make with this key held down will be applied only to the track you’ve clicked on, not the rest of the group.
One of the benefits of creating groups is that with one click, you can show just the tracks that are in a group. Make sure you have the Tracks and Groups Lists showing on the left–hand side of the Edit or Mix Window. If you hold down the Ctrl key on a Mac or the Start key on Windows, then click on a group in the Groups list, the Edit and Mix windows will hide all the tracks except those in that group. If you want to show multiple groups, hold down Shift too. This enables you to very quickly simplify the Pro Tools windows to show just the tracks you are working on.
Another way to help manage larger sessions is to use subgroups. These are aux channels through which multiple audio tracks are routed, so that you end up with one fader controlling the overall level of all those audio tracks. To create subgroups, add an aux track. When you add a new track in Pro Tools, if no tracks are selected, Pro Tools will add it to the bottom on the Edit window or to the right–hand end on the Mix window. However, if you have a track highlighted it will put the new track or tracks underneath it on the Edit window, or to the right of it on the Mix window. By convention, most people tend to place their subgroup auxes to the right of the tracks feeding them.
Once you’ve created an aux track, use the output routing to route all the source tracks to a mono or stereo bus. Then select that bus as the input source to the new aux track, and name everything appropriately. In Screen 3 I have routed all my drum tracks to a stereo aux that I have named ‘Kit Sub’. It’s also worth naming the buses, either in the Bus tab of the I/O Settings window in the Setup menu or, more easily, by right–clicking on the routing box on a track and selecting Rename.
In a large session where all your audio tracks are routed into subgroups, it is often worth creating a track group that just contains all the subgroup tracks. Then you can use the Ctrl/Start–click trick described above to display just the subgroup tracks, because once you have the internal balance of each of the groups correct, you can often mix the song just using the subgroup faders.
Another benefit of creating subgroups is that using the Offline Bounce feature added in Pro Tools 11, you can create stem mix files quickly and easily. To create a stem file of a subgroup, right–click on one of the group’s track output routing boxes and select Bounce. The Bounce window will appear. Double check that the Bounce Source is correct, then set the File Type, Format, Bit Depth and Sample Rate appropriately, tick the Import After Bounce option, make sure you give the stem a sensible name, and don’t forget to tick the Offline option before hitting the Bounce button. Pro Tools will then do an offline bounce of that subgroup and bring it back into the session as a new audio track. As with any Import audio option, you can choose whether you want the stem file to be added to the clip list or on a new track.
The inserts on subgroup aux tracks are pre–fade, as they are on every track type except one. What that means is that if you have a compressor on a track insert, the amount of compression remains the same whether the fader is all the way to the top or right down. The point at which the signal is fed out of the channel to the compressor and then fed back into the channel is before the fader, hence the name pre–fade.
The one track type that has post–fade inserts is the Master Fader. But did you know that you can have more than one Master Fader track in a session, and that they can control subgroups?
First, we need to add a Master Fader track, and it makes sense to put it next to the appropriate subgroup aux track. Having selected the appropriate subgroup track, choose New from the Track menu and create a Master Fader with the same number of channels. You will now see a Master Fader track next to the subgroup aux track. Rename the Master Fader appropriately and then set its output routing to the bus you want it to control — you can have multiple Master Faders, each controlling a different bus.
If you then insert a compressor on the subgroup aux, you’ll notice that adjusting the subgroup aux’s fader doesn’t drive the compressor more or less hard, because the insert point is pre–fade. But if you adjust the Master Fader linked to that bus instead, you will see that you can now adjust how hard the compressor is driven. You can also add processing on the insert points on the Master Fader track as well.
You might also want to experiment with pre– and post–fade metering. The default is that the track meters are pre–fade so that even with the fader all the way down, the meter still displays the audio level on that track. However, if you go into the Options menu and deselect pre–fade metering, the track meters will display post–fade levels, which can sometimes help when checking levels and routing through the mixer.
I hope the techniques outlined in this workshop will help you stay in control when handling bigger sessions. As a final point, don’t forget to explore the options that Pro Tools offers for colouring your tracks. Appropriate use of colour can really help to identify the different sections of the mix and different track types.
When tracking sessions we often use aux sends to create headphone mixes. In a big session with lots of tracks, creating a headphone mix from scratch on the sends can take time. Happily, there is a neat feature that enables you to copy the main fader levels and more up onto aux sends as a starting point. In the Edit menu, under Automation, you’ll find the Copy to Send option. Make sure the appropriate tracks are highlighted, using multiple selections if necessary, and then choose Copy to Send. You’ll get the option to choose whether to copy the current value or the automation, as well as a choice of other data to copy across such as Pan and Mute, and you can choose which send you want to copy to.