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Navigating Pro Tools With Ease

Avid Pro Tools Tips & Techniques By Julian Rodgers
Published December 2021

The Universe Window is an efficient way of navigating your project, but it’s best used in Pro Tools’ Classic Mode, not Dark Mode.The Universe Window is an efficient way of navigating your project, but it’s best used in Pro Tools’ Classic Mode, not Dark Mode.

Navigating the Edit Window is key to speeding up your Pro Tools workflow.

I’m pretty much exclusively a Pro Tools user, though I am aware that many people are users of multiple DAWs, and some people are effectively DAW agnostic. I both admire and am a little confused by such people, as while I can give the impression of superficially knowing my way around other DAWs, I know this veneer of competence to be paper‑thin. The first hurdle for me is basic navigation, and it’s only when I’m in the relatively unfamiliar environment of a different DAW that I appreciate just how thorough my knowledge of navigating the Pro Tools UI really is. This is a big subject but once the absolute basics of starting, stopping, drop‑ins, edits and the like are dealt with, I start to control what I’m seeing to be able to properly see what I’m doing.

Here are some essential tips for changing and controlling what you see in Pro Tools. I’m going to concentrate on managing track height and display, as this is something which is central to the user experience if you favour the Edit Window.

Scroll With It

I’m often surprised when I see big‑name mixers who, during mix walkthroughs, never change their track heights and just scroll up and down the Edit Window. Of course this is a perfectly acceptable way of working, and you can’t argue with the number of Grammys some of the people I’m referring to have, but it strikes me as a workflow that could be made so much more efficient with just a few tips. These are options which in some cases represent different ways of doing the same thing, so in the real world it’s a case of use the ones which suit you best. As with almost everything in Pro Tools, there are several ways of performing most tasks.

When it comes to controlling the horizontal range of what you are viewing on the timeline, I’m still old‑school, using R and T for horizontal zoom, but many people use the mouse scroll wheel or equivalent, in combination with Alt for horizontal zoom or Shift for horizontal scroll. Ultimately it doesn’t matter which you use, as long as you’re not using the ironically named Zoom Tool: using it is far too slow to have the word ‘zoom’ associated with it!

Zooming Around The Universe

Once you have a suitable technique for managing your horizontal display, looking after how your session looks vertically can be very straightforward. Without using any modifiers the scroll wheel will scroll up and down the visible tracks in your session, assuming you have more tracks in your session than you have screen on which to display them.

This is the compromise you are seeking to manage. On a typical monitor sessions have to get up to around 50 tracks before they can no longer all be displayed, but at this micro track height, the tracks are unhelpfully small. Increase the track height and you can see more but in fewer tracks. A way of managing this is essential.

There are two approaches: keep a constant, comfortable track height and move through the contents of the session to display the tracks of interest, or take a more dynamic approach, bringing the tracks you want to you rather than you going to them.

Back to our example of the big‑name mixer patiently scrolling up and down the session. This works, and the learning curve is zero, but I’d argue that such an approach can be made much more responsive by using the often‑overlooked Universe Window. Hit Alt+Num 7 to display this overview of your entire session, with the current edit window’s contents displayed as a highlighted rectangle which can be moved with the mouse to display whichever area of the session you wish. Much faster than the scroll wheel and equally useful for vertical and horizontal moves. One niggle with the new and improved UI customisations introduced in Pro Tools 2021.6 is that the selection in the Universe Window is difficult to see in Dark Mode [see earlier screenshot], and this selection brightness is one of the few things which isn’t customisable in the revised Color Pallete. The closest you can get is to turn Waveform Brightness up, but that affects the content of the timeline too. The solution, if this approach appeals to you, is to use Classic Mode, in which the selection is much easier to see.

Changing Track Heights

Changing track heights can be done in one of two ways. The mouse‑driven way is to click the disclosure triangle to the left of the track name and select one of the seven preset track heights (Fit To Window is a special case). Any selected track will be affected by this operation, so adding Alt will change all track heights and Alt+Shift will only change selected tracks.

If you need something in‑between these preset track heights, hover your mouse over the border between two tracks and, when the cursor changes to a line with two vertical arrows, you can drag to increase the height of the track above by as much as you like. As before, adding Alt changes all tracks and Alt+Shift changes only selected tracks. These two modifier additions make this a really convenient option.

There is also the option to control track heights from the keyboard, but this is potentially a little confusing as it works slightly differently from changing heights using the track header. The keyboard shortcut is Ctrl+Up/Down (Start+Up/Down on a PC). Hitting this shortcut cycles through the 7 preset track heights. You might expect that selecting a track and using this keystroke instead of one of the mouse‑based techniques would work, but it might not depending on the status of the Link Track and Edit Selection button.

If you want to control multiple track heights using the keyboard shortcuts, it helps to enable the Link Track and Edit Selection feature.If you want to control multiple track heights using the keyboard shortcuts, it helps to enable the Link Track and Edit Selection feature.

Changing the track height from the track header is based on Track Selections, indicated by which track names are highlighted. The keystrokes to control track height are based on which tracks have an Edit Selection in them, as indicated by either an actual Edit Selection or by a flashing line on the timeline known as the Insertion Point. By using P and ; you can move the Insertion Point up and down tracks, and if you hold Shift you can extend the number of tracks included by your Insertion Point up and down. Whichever tracks are covered by the Insertion Point will be affected by the keystroke.

That is the situation if Link Track and Edit Selection are unlinked, but if this is all too much of a faff, you can link them and then whichever tracks are selected in the track headers will also be included in the edit selection, and vice versa. It sounds complicated, but after a quick experiment with this setting in Pro Tools it will make sense.

Making Memories

If you find you want to quickly toggle between a detailed view with a large track height and an overview of your whole arrangement with a small track height, a really quick way to achieve this is to set up Memory Locations. In the New Memory Location window, accessed using the Enter key on your numeric keypad, if you use a MacBook Pro, you can hold the Fn Key to momentarily turn your Return key into an Enter key — a very handy tip! In the New Memory Location window, select None in the Time Properties and Track Heights in the General Properties, and your specific track heights will be recalled.

Memory Locations are a great way of toggling between zoomed‑in and zoomed‑out Edit Window views.Memory Locations are a great way of toggling between zoomed‑in and zoomed‑out Edit Window views.

A nice way to use this is to have all your tracks at Medium in one Memory and all on Micro in another. Save them to memorable Marker numbers and use them as track height presets in your template.

Unlike some DAWs, Pro Tools doesn’t have, or need, a dedicated Sample Editor. For detailed work all you have to do is zoom in far enough, and you can even draw waveforms in using the Pencil Tool (something you must try if you’ve never done it!). The quickest way to jump in and out of this detailed view is to use Zoom Toggle, but to get the best out of it it’s important to set the preferences up right.

Go into the Editing tab of the Pro Tools Preferences and set track height to Fit To Window. Once this is done, detailed editing in the Edit Window is as easy as making an Edit Selection across the relevant selection; the selection can span multiple tracks, just rubber‑band them with the Selector Tool. Once your Edit Selection is made, hit E and the selection will fill the screen. To toggle back out, hit E again. If this doesn’t work it will be because your keyboard focus isn’t set to Command Focus, as indicated by the little ‘az’ symbol in the top right of the timeline being grey rather than yellow. Click it (or hit Command+Opt+1) to change the focus of the keyboard and it will work fine, but if you prefer to leave things as they are add Control (or Start on a PC) to any of the single keystroke Command Focus commands and they will work irrespective of the keyboard focus setting.

With these track height shortcuts under your fingers you’ll be quicker around Pro Tools than some seriously big‑name mixers are, and will have more time to work on getting those Grammys!

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