Speed up your mix workflow with these handy keyboard shortcuts.
In a recent conversation about control surfaces, I mentioned that my all‑time favourite surface was the Digidesign D‑Control. I’ve used EuCon surfaces and ICON‑series controllers in the past, but in spite of its sometimes impractical size the D‑Control had an advantage none of the others had, and that was an integral keyboard.
When talking about control surfaces and DAWs the conversation often draws a distinction between using a control surface or using the keyboard and mouse. The lumping together of the keyboard and mouse as the default controllers for software is understandable but they are two distinct devices, and when thinking about my preference for Pro Tools over the other DAWs I use, a lot of this preference is rooted in this distinction.
Logic Pro, for all its impressive capabilities, has often frustrated me because many power users choose custom keyboard configurations with their own choice of keyboard shortcut. Studio One is enormously accessible partly because it is so heavily mouse‑driven, but Pro Tools has a fixed set of keyboard shortcuts which are as powerful and useful as they are precisely because of their fixed nature. They constitute a common language, a standard in studios the world over.
Leaving editing to one side, here I’ll suggest why it is that the commonly asserted aim of replacing the keyboard and mouse with a control surface might to some extent be missing the point. Even control surface designs themselves acknowledge this, by including hardware buttons that do nothing more than duplicate the function of a keyboard modifier. And the D‑Control’s big advantage was it didn’t draw a distinction between the keyboard and the surface, the keyboard was part of the surface.
One of the occasions I most value the keyboard, and particularly the modifier keys, when mixing is when it brings functionality I associate with using hardware keyboard controllers into the keyboard and mouse paradigm. ‘Clutching’, for example, is the name of the incredibly useful feature found on fader control surfaces whereby a Mix Group can be temporarily suspended by moving a fader whilst touching another fader. With a Mix Group active, the faders would usually be ganged together, but by touching more than one touch‑sensitive fader cap, the ganged behaviour is suspended. You can replicate this from the keyboard by holding Control on a Mac or Start on a PC while moving a fader with the mouse.
While it’s always been possible on control surfaces to select and instantiate plug‑ins, the experience on older controllers was laborious, involving navigating menus using rotary encoders and viewing the menu a single item at a time. While it was doable, it really wasn’t preferable to using the mouse. Since Pro Tools 2018.7 it has been possible to search for plug‑ins and buses, and this system is so simple and effective that it’s hard to imagine how we got by without it. To display the search field you need to click a slot and hit Tab, but you can actually begin a search by just starting to type. Plug‑ins, plug‑in presets and track presets are all displayed, and icons shown next to the name let you know whether you are looking at a plug‑in, a plug‑in preset or a track preset. Another reason not to abandon your keyboard when you mix!
Command & Conquer
One feature which first made its appearance in Pro Tools 11 and is just so useful it’s hard to remember life without it is the ‘Shift+something’ family of shortcuts, which allow for powerful global bypass toggling. Before these were introduced we could of course bypass a plug‑in by Command‑clicking on it (Control‑clicking on a PC). Option‑clicking (Alt) allowed bypassing of all the plug‑ins in a particular insert slot across every track, and Control (Start) allows bypass to be toggled on that insert and all the inserts which follow. Adding Option to Control brings the fantastically useful option to bypass all plug‑ins in a session. You can of course add Shift to this combination, and that gives you the option to bypass plug‑ins on all selected tracks. An excellent use of this combination is if you want to bypass all your processing apart from on your main mix bus, which is particularly helpful if you are using a limiter there as the level jump caused by bypassing a limiter will make meaningful comparisons difficult.
If you navigate your automation playlists using the Command+Control technique combined with mouse clicks on the relevant control, you can fly around your automation without ever having to see the huge list of automation playists.
Back to the Shift shortcuts introduced in Pro Tools 11. These add useful functionality in that they allow bypassing by type. Shift+A bypasses all the plug‑ins on selected tracks, and this functionality has been introduced in the most recent EuCon update for Avid S1 users. The previously unused X button (Surface Shift + Page Right) now bypasses all inserts on a selected track when displaying inserts on a per‑slot basis. When an insert’s parameters are spilled across the eight encoders, the X button bypasses the focused plug‑in.
Other similar shortcuts include Shift+C for dynamics, Shift+E for EQ, Shift+V for Reverb, Shift+W for modulation and Shift+D for delay. You can mute sends using Shift+Q and mute sends A‑E and F‑J using Shift+4 and Shift+5. These are nice to have, but the really useful ones are Shift+2 (on the alphanumeric keyboard) to bypass inserts A‑E and Shift+3 to bypass inserts F‑J. These can be used to set up quick A/B comparisons between alternate processing chains — and by selecting tracks and adding shift, this can be done across sections of or even entire mixes.
The way to do this A/B comparison is to set up your first processing chain in slots A‑E and your alternative processing on F‑J. (If you’re using more than five plug‑ins on a single track this won’t work, but If I were using more than five plug‑ins on a single track I’d probably be asking myself whether they are all necessary!) Once set up and level‑matched, if you start with inserts A‑E engaged and F‑J bypassed you can alternate between your two alternative plug‑in chains by hitting Shift+2+3 together at the same time. Add appropriate Option and Shift modifiers to do this across as much of your session as required.
Intrinsic to any good mix is automation, and using the keyboard you can jump directly to any automation parameter’s playlist by holding Command+Control (Control+Start on a PC) and clicking on the relevant parameter’s control. To go to pan automation, hold the modifiers and click the pan control; it’s the same for send levels or mute buttons. Volume can be accessed in the same way but actually there is already a single‑key Command Focus shortcut available: just hit minus on the alphanumeric keypad to toggle between waveform and volume. To get back to waveform view use the same modifiers and click the track name.
To display automation for plug‑in parameters, you first need to enable them. By default Pro Tools only offers automation playlists for volume, pan, send levels and mutes. You can choose to enable just the parameters you require (the list can get overwhelmingly long if you enable all available parameters in a complex reverb or synth), but many prefer to hold Command+Option+Control (Control+Alt+Start on a PC) and tap the automation enable button in the plug‑in window’s header to enable everything for convenience. If you navigate your automation playlists using the Command+Control technique combined with mouse clicks on the relevant control, you can fly around your automation without ever having to see the huge list of automation playists. Even better is combining this with a EuCon controller. Using the Command and Control modifiers built into the control surface, the touch‑sensitive encoders and faders can be used to navigate and display automation playlists as you write automation from the surface — an extremely effective system.
On the subject of writing automation, something which can really help getting tricky automation passes bang‑on is to use half‑speed playback. Often first discovered by accident, holding Shift and hitting play will trigger this slowed‑down playback mode, giving you more time to get your moves just right. And it sounds funny, so win‑win! The other secret weapon for nailing tricky automation is Back and Play. There is no convenient keystroke for this so I’d recommend accessing it as a Soft Key from Page 2 of the Shift keys in the Avid Control app.
If you are a current user of a worksurface you’ll probably have already discovered that it isn’t an either/or choice between keyboard and mouse and worksurface, but the current implementation of EuCon, the free Avid Control app, and the accessibly priced S1 and Avid Dock mean that it is perfectly possible to reach the mixing nirvana of not looking at the screen for so long that your screensaver kicks in without you noticing. Just be aware that while you might not be using your mouse, you have brought the most important four keys of your keyboard with you over to your control surface!