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Pro-gaming Techniques For Pro Tools

Starcraft Players of South Korea By Emmanuel Deruty
Published June 2010

The Starcraft players of South Korea are the ultimate computer power users, and their skills and strategies have the potential to transform your DAW sessions.

A televised Starcraft match in South Korea.A televised Starcraft match in South Korea.Photo: Kai Hendry

In a working environment, a digital audio workstation operator must be extremely fast, so it can be useful to refer to other types of professional computer users who also work very fast, to see what they do and how they do it.

Professional video game players, or pro‑gamers, are highly skilled specialists who achieve very high levels of efficiency. Amongst these gamers, the Starcraft players of South Korea set particularly high standards, so in this article we'll try to achieve better DAW skills by applying the strategies that they use to the world of Pro Tools. (This approach can be applied to any audio editing software, but suits Pro Tools particularly well, as it has a very powerful set of keyboard shortcuts that are the same on all systems.)The original Starcraft from Blizzard Entertainment: 12 years old, and close to becoming a national sport in South Korea.The original Starcraft from Blizzard Entertainment: 12 years old, and close to becoming a national sport in South Korea.

Starcraft, Starcraft II and Warcraft III are three extremely popular real‑time strategy (RTS) games from Blizzard that work on shared principles and are played in international competitions. Professional players, especially the South Koreans, are fast and merciless. In this article, we'll deal with Pro Tools the Korean way, covering macro‑management, micro‑management, actions per minute, and the division of keyboard shortcut sequences into 'focus' and 'action'.

RTS Games & Pro Tools

Starcraft is an RTS game that was released in 1998. It has gradually become a national sport in South Korea, where Starcraft players are celebrities, with high‑profile sponsorships and fan clubs boasting up to a million active members — look up Lim Yo‑Hwan on the Web. Professional Starcraft players are ruthless athletes, who live where they work, and train 10 to 12 hours a day. To a lesser extent, the same phenomenon applies to Warcraft III, released in 2003, and is likely to happen with Starcraft II, the most recent Blizzard game, still in the public beta‑testing phase.

Playing Starcraft and editing in Pro Tools are, at first glance, two very different things. Only at first glance, though. Pro Tools editors want to keep their Session well organised; RTS players want to keep their units well organised. Pro Tools editors use shortcuts; so do RTS players. Pro Tools editors know basic recipes and procedures they adapt to each situation; so do RTS players. Let's get more specific.

Macro‑management & Micro‑management

Just as many professional Pro Tools operators use special keyboards (top) with the shortcuts printed on the keys, so too are dedicated Starcraft keyboards (above) available. Just as many professional Pro Tools operators use special keyboards (top) with the shortcuts printed on the keys, so too are dedicated Starcraft keyboards (above) available.

Gamers often use the terms 'macro' and 'micro', both being notions that are fundamental to RTS games. Macro is short for macro‑management and micro for micro‑management; these, respectively, mean game‑scale management and event‑scale management.

Amongst other things, game‑scale management deals with the player's economy: his/her ability to accumulate resources efficiently and spend them wisely. In other words, its continuous planning. Event‑scale management primarily deals with real‑time combat phases, during which the player must be fast, precise and efficient. In Pro Tools, we'll translate 'macro' as referring to Session‑scale management, and 'micro' to edit‑scale management.

Macro‑management In Pro Tools

Starcraft II is in beta‑testing at the time of writing.Starcraft II is in beta‑testing at the time of writing.

The backbone of pro‑gamers' success is their ability to organise. They know how to manage their economy, and when to make expansions. They master the technology tree, know the right counter for any combination of enemy units, and are constantly aware of what their adversaries are doing. As a result, they can deal with crises before they actually happen, without losing time, without stress. When trouble arises, they don't have to think: they've done the thinking well in advance.

Similarly, when trouble arises in a Pro Tools Session, it will be much easier to deal with if thought has been given to organising the Session. Macro‑management in Pro Tools might include the following notions:

  • Time planning. Try to anticipate time‑consuming tasks in advance. This way, you will be able to better organise your timeand perform necessary actions at the right moment. For instance, re‑pitching vocals can be awfully time‑consuming in certain situations! This is equivalent to knowing when to expand and when to upgrade in RTS games.
  • File organisation. Know how to organise your samples, keep them sorted, and find them when needed. For instance, you could decide to add a standard prefix to all files of specific types such as vocals, drums or keyboards. When you make a decision of this sort, stick to it. Also, be careful not to make a fool of yourself by running out of disk space, so be aware of the state of your hard drives! Running out of disk space is like running out of resources in RTS games: you're stuck, you just can't do anything.
  • Session organisation. Sort your Session into recognisable patterns that you're used to. Use a consistent naming protocol for audio tracks, auxiliary tracks, master tracks and so on. For instance, you might prefix all auxiliary track names with a dash. There's nothing worse than a 72‑track Session with no visible organisation.Better macro‑management: a well organised Pro Tools Session. Notice the track naming patterns, grouping, and use of Markers.Better macro‑management: a well organised Pro Tools Session. Notice the track naming patterns, grouping, and use of Markers.
  • Session hygiene. Before starting a series of edits, clean up and sort your Session carefully. For instance, you don't want many unused files in the Region List, or many unused audio regions on the audio tracks. Keep your working Session clean by removing takes that were not selected (this is where multiple Session file backups can be reassuring), and files created through the unsuccessful application of off‑line plug‑ins, and, indeed, any useless file or region.
  • Copy versus Add. When importing audio files, be careful about the difference between copying and adding them to the Session. This is especially important when working with multiple hard drives, and it can avoid the time‑consuming use of the Relink window when reopening the Session months later.
  • Batch preparation. Try to anticipate when you're going to have to use batch-edit strategies. In Pro Tools, the Batch Rename command only renames regions, it doesn't rename the actual audio files. This means that batch renaming of audio files should be done using an external editor, and that Relink issues will necessarily arise after renaming.

Global strategies like the above represent long‑term preparation for the more immediate challenges that can arise at any time. Like macro‑management strategies for RTS games, they can prevent disasters and help when you're facing any kind of difficulty.

Micro‑management In Pro Tools

Another popular Blizzard RTS game is Warcraft III.Another popular Blizzard RTS game is Warcraft III.

Let's say that at one point during your work in Pro Tools, there is a series of edits you have to do. By now, you know what you're doing globally and are prepared to begin to deal with micro‑management.

RTS pro‑gamers divide micro‑management into two distinct parts: short‑term preparation, and manual dexterity during action. Let's see what that means, starting with short-term preparation.

Before launching an attack, a pro‑gamer will clearly and carefully position their units. For instance, you would always go to battle with the fragile, long‑range units behind and the stout, short‑range units at the front. At the very least, you should know where your units are!

Similarly, before starting a series of edits, a Pro Tools user should be in front of a clear Session, with the relevant regions or tracks singled out and easily accessible. It can be a good idea to create a separate Session just for the edits: a common mistake is performing complicated editing routines inside the complete Session, which can cause problems. On LE systems, there may be plug‑in related slow‑downs, and on both LE and HD systems there can be confusion due to having too many tracks around: amongst other things, this can mean time wasted in useless solo management. Also, complicated edits are… complicated: you don't want to think about anything else when you're stuck into editing, and certainly not issues that arise from completely different tracks.

Manual Dexterity

It's important to master your fingers, a bit like a pianist. Look up "Boxer keyboard view part 2” on YouTube: this guy really knows his routines. Being a power user is about knowing not only individual shortcuts, but sequences of shortcuts that recur often.

Let's say we're now dealing with the edit itself. In an RTS game, we would be handling the actual confrontation between units from both sides. In those situations, the player uses keyboard shortcuts extensively. A good Starcraft player doesn't even think about what his or her fingers are doing, and it should be the same for a good Pro Tools editor: you don't want to think about how you do stuff, you want to think about the result.

Pro‑gamers are obsessed with what they call APM, or actions per minute, the total number of mouse clicks (right hand) and keyboard strokes (left hand) over a 60‑second span. The best Starcraft players, more particularly the South Koreans, exhibit an average 300‑400 APM, with peaks at 500‑600 APM. For a Pro Tools editor, 300APM is a lot: five actions per second is more than what's required, in the author's opinion. That said, when editing a speech track, for instance, 150‑200 APM is a reasonable target.

High APM means that there is no latency between intention and action. Besides being fast and efficient, the editor is also more satisfied: a situation in which the brain doesn't have to be inactive five seconds out of 10 is much more stimulating. This means not only that the work is done faster, but also that you stay more efficient over time.

Focus Versus Action

Keeping file and region names well organised is another vital part of macro‑management in Pro Tools.Keeping file and region names well organised is another vital part of macro‑management in Pro Tools.

In both Pro Tools and Blizzard RTS games, we can divide the operations that occur during editing or battle into two classes: focus and action. We'll address focus, or navigation, first: getting to the area where the action must be performed.

Let's consider the Universe display in Pro Tools. It shows the totality of the Session, and clicking somewhere on the Universe will focus the Edit window on the section that was clicked on. Blizzard RTS games have a corresponding window called the Minimap, which shows the map as a whole. The main display is analogous to the Pro Tools Edit window, showing only a relevant part of the Minimap. Clicking somewhere on the Minimap will focus the main display on the map section that was clicked on.

In Pro Tools, shortcuts are important when navigating the Edit Window: 'R' to zoom in, 'T' to zoom out, '<' and '>' to move the playhead according to the Nudge value, 'P' and ';' to move up and down between tracks, double‑clicking on the Loop Tool to zoom out all the way, and so on. (We will assume that Pro Tools' Keyboard Command Focus is switched on, allowing many shortcuts to be accessed without using modifier keys.)

Similarly, shortcuts are important when navigating inside Blizzard RTS main displays. In Warcraft III, 'F8' focuses the main display on an unoccupied Peon, 'F1' through 'F3' focus on the first to third Warcraft III Heroes, backspace focuses on the town halls. Also, since any unit can be 'hot-keyed', pressing the key corresponding to a unit or a group of units will focus on those units. Inside group units, subgroups are automatically created that gather all units of the same kind. Tab navigates between subgroups. The most important shortcut in Blizzard RTS games is probably the space bar, which focuses the main display on the last mentioned event. The equivalent in Pro Tools would be 'Q', which focuses the Edit window on the playhead.

The notion of an action is easier to understand. Every time you actually cut something, paste it, move a region, and so on, you're performing an action. In Pro Tools, actions can be distinguished from focus commands by the fact that they're undoable; other systems, such as Sonic Solutions, also give the user the opportunity to undo focus commands.

Shortcut Sequences

Micro‑management is not only about knowing individual shortcuts. It's also about knowing shortcut sequences. A single shortcut will not get you very far: you want to be able to efficiently perform complex actions. Such sequences can always be divided into distinct focus and action stages. These examples of shortcut sequences in Blizzard RTS games are divided into focus and action phases and ordered by increasing complexity:

1. In Starcraft, to tell an SCV (human Peon) to build a Supply Depot. Focus: click on SCV. Action: 'B' then 'S' (for 'B'uild and 'S'upply depot).

2. In Warcraft III, to produce two Peasants on the second Town Hall that was built. Focus: backspace twice, then click on Town Hall. Action: 'P' twice.

3. In Warcraft III, inside a group of Orcs hotkeyed on '1', tell one Witch Doctor to back off then cast a Healing Ward, and tell the Grunts to attack. Focus: '1', then repeat Tab until the Witch Doctors are selected. Action: Ctrl‑click on the desired destination, then 'E', then click on desired location for the Ward. Focus: repeat Tab until the Grunts are selected. Action: Ctrl-A, then Ctrl‑click on the front line.

Pro Tools Sequences

Pro Tools shortcut sequences follow the same general pattern, but sometimes include three steps in place of two. In that case, we see configuration preceding focus and action. The additional configuration step applies to the way the Session tools are set up. For instance, the mouse cursor can be set in Selector, Grabber or Trim mode. The Edit window can be set in Grid, Slip, Shuffle or Spot mode, and in Tab‑to‑Transient or Tab‑to‑Region mode. In the list of shortcut sequence examples given below, setting the mode is part of the shortcut sequence, except that Keyboard Focus is always assumed to be on the Edit zone, not on the Group zone or the Region List.

Be aware that those shortcut sequences are but one possibility for each action. Other sequences may be available to achieve the same results. These sequences are, again, ordered according to increasing complexity, and work on Pro Tools 6.4+ on Macintosh, on a standard US QWERTY keyboard.

1. To remove the beginning of a region. Config: 'F7'. Focus: click where the new region start should be. Action: 'A'.

2. To loop a region 50 times. Config: 'F8'. Focus: click on Region. Action: Alt-R, then '50', then Enter.

3. To delete eight consecutive ungridded regions. Config: enable Tab‑to‑Region mode. Focus: click just before first region, then Tab, then Shift-Tab eight times. Action: backspace.

4. To copy all regions from a given time to the end of Session to the clipboard. Focus: click on Timeline at given time, then Alt-Shift-Enter. Action: 'C'.

5. To lower the volume for one region only. Config: 'F7'. Focus: click anywhere on track, then '‑' (dash), then double‑click inside region. Config: 'F6'. Action: click and drag to reduce volume.

6. To select an ungridded region plus the silence until the next region and move it to the exact same time on another track. Config: enable Tab‑to‑Region mode, then 'F8'. Focus: click on the region, then Shift-Tab. Action: Ctrl‑click to the desired track. An alternative solution: Config: 'F7'. Focus: click just before region, then Tab, then Shift-Tab twice. Action: Ctrl‑click to the desired track.

7. To add a stereo Auxiliary track that's Solo Safe. Action: Shift-Command-N, then Command-right arrow, then Command-down arrow, then Enter, then Command‑click on the Auxiliary track's solo button, then Routings.

8. To cut a region at note/drum hit attacks without using the Beat Detective dialogue. Config: enable Tab‑to‑Transient mode, then F7. Focus: click just before region, then Tab. Then repeat Focus: Tab, Action 'B' until end of region.

9. To trim a region and put fades on both sides, with fade durations that equal session Nudge duration. Config: 'F7'. Focus: click on projected region start. Action: 'A'. Focus: Command-'+' (plus). Action: 'D'. Focus: click on projected region end. Action: 'S'. Focus: Command-'‑' (minus). Action: 'G'.

10. To remove a bar from a complete arrangement across all tracks. Config: enable the Bars:Beats Timeline as the main Timeline, 'F4', then 'F7'. Focus: click and drag on the Bars:Beats Timeline to select appropriate duration. Action: 'X'. Then, to store it at the end of the Session in case it is needed again. Focus: 'R' until the end of the song can be seen, then click on target location. Action: 'V'.

11. To delete all content in a track for the length of region named 'A' that's in another track. Config: 'F8'. Focus: click on region 'A', then 'P' or ';' until selection has moved to track on which you wish to delete material. Action: backspace.

12. To synchronise multiple copies of region named 'A' to a sequence of target regions from a different track. Config: 'F8', then Focus: click on first target region. Action: Ctrl‑click on region 'A'. Focus: click on second target region. Action: Ctrl-Alt‑click on the new region 'A'. Focus: click on third target region. Action: Ctrl-Alt‑click on the new region 'A'. Repeat until the end of the target sequence.

On paper, those sequences may seem complex. In use, they are not, and with practice it's easy to remember them. If you have trouble with that, concentrate on the action part. The configuration and focus elements will come naturally.

Play Up, Play Up...

Transposition of RTS pro‑gamer techniques to Pro Tools can greatly increase your productivity, helping you to stay well organised at all time, avert problems, and move quickly when necessary. In fact, pro‑gamer techniques may be needed even more in Pro Tools than they are in RTS games, since Pro Tools editing routines can be a lot more complex than RTS micro‑management, and since pro‑gamers seldom have clients to report to!

Blizzard RTS games are exciting, and so is audio editing. After all, manipulating audio content with Pro Tools is a lot like playing music on a piano: a solid technique is essential, and it is only once the technique is mastered and forgotten that the music begins...    

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