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Pro Tools: Metering Options

Avid Pro Tools: Tips & Techniques By Julian Rodgers
Published October 2023

In the Options menu, you can globally switch your metering to pre‑ or post‑fader.In the Options menu, you can globally switch your metering to pre‑ or post‑fader.

Pro Tools’ metering options can help you stay on top of your levels.

The meters in your DAW are probably something you take for granted, but the way they behave can make a significant difference to your experience, particularly when things go wrong. In this month’s article we take a closer look at the meters in Pro Tools.

In the floating‑point environment that almost all DAWs now offer, the dynamic range available is vast, but even if your levels are out of the red when they reach a D‑A converter, you still need to make sure you’re not running too hot if you are using plug‑ins that model hardware. While other DAWs might offer basic options such as control over the return time or how long peaks are displayed for, Pro Tools Studio and Ultimate provide a rich variety of metering types, and all versions have useful options that are very worth getting to know.

Pre‑fader metering is useful for monitoring headroom but doesn’t reflect what the listener hears.

Track Meters

The first thing to establish is exactly what it is that the track meters are showing you. Pro Tools has the option to display either pre‑ or post‑fader levels, switchable globally. When in pre‑fader mode, the level displayed is post clip gain and post insert, but pre‑fader, meaning that gain changes introduced as a result of compression or EQ are shown but the influence of the fader position is not. Pre‑fader metering is useful for monitoring headroom but doesn’t reflect what the listener hears. As a result, some people favour pre‑fader metering during tracking but switch to post‑fader metering during mixing.

The orange gain‑reduction meters, which are displayed next to the track meters, merit a mention here. They have five modes in which they can operate: compressor/limiter or expander/gate only, summed, or prioritising comp/limit or expander/gate. Unlike pre/post metering which is switchable from the Options menu, the gain‑reduction meters are set up in the Metering tab of Preferences, a tab which is well worth checking out as it contains so much useful customisation.

The gain‑reduction meter can show either compressor or gate activity, or both.The gain‑reduction meter can show either compressor or gate activity, or both.

Meter Types

Pro Tools Intro and Artist booth offer four metering types: Sample Peak, Pro Tools Classic, Legacy (the type used in old versions of Pro Tools), and VENUE Peak and RMS. VENUE refers to the extremely successful live sound consoles first marketed by Digidesign. Pro Tools Studio and Ultimate offer much more comprehensive facilities, with two types of linear meter, two styles of VU meter, another RMS option, five variations on the PPM from the world of broadcast and three versions of the ‘K’ metering system created by mastering engineer Bob Katz.

The Metering tab in Pro Tools’ Preferences lets you select the type of metering for both tracks and Master Faders.The Metering tab in Pro Tools’ Preferences lets you select the type of metering for both tracks and Master Faders.

A breakdown of the differences between these metering types is available in the Pro Tools Reference Guide, but if you try some different styles you’ll soon get a feel for the practical difference they make to your mixing experience. To access them, right‑click on any of the meters and select from the pop‑up menu. The change is global, so you can’t select different meter types for different tracks; the exception is Master Faders, which can have their own metering type assigned. As monitoring headroom is more important on outputs, where converter clipping might occur, the Sample Peak meter might be a good choice on your Master Fader, whereas a VU‑style meter might suit you better on individual tracks if you prefer your meter to represent perceived levels rather than focusing on the peaks.

MIDI tracks have MIDI activity meters which show the velocity of incoming MIDI data and look very peaky compared to audio meters. If you want to find the corresponding MIDI meter in an instrument track you have to click Show Instrument in the show/hide section of the Mix or Edit page. The meter by the fader on an instrument track is a standard audio meter.

VCA Metering

The meters on VCA tracks (which are only available in Studio and Ultimate) are a special case because, while the meter types changes with the global selection along with the other tracks, the varying track ‘widths’ (ie. channel formats) can be confusing. The track width works as follows. If all the tracks in the group to which the VCA track is assigned are the same width, then the VCA track will display that width. So if all member tracks are 5.1, for example, you’ll see a 5.1 meter on the VCA. If the tracks are of mixed widths the VCA meter will be mono, regardless of the widths of the member tracks. So if you have lots of stereo tracks with a single 5.1 track, the VCA meter will be mono.

The level that VCA tracks display differs from that found on Routing Folders or Master Faders, which display the sum of all the tracks feeding them. A VCA meter shows the level of the loudest individual member track, reflecting the fact that while a VCA controls its member tracks, it doesn’t sum their audio together.

The track meters show level, and they are of course crucial for monitoring levels, but much of the time they are just as useful as indicators of activity, particularly when troubleshooting or when the output is intentionally muted.

Folder tracks exist in two flavours: Routing and Basic. While the Routing Folder is a welcome update to the time‑honoured system of bussing submixes through aux inputs but without the illogical solo behaviour, Basic Folders are purely organisational, and their ability to easily hide groups of tracks is the reason they and their Routing variant have a pair of very minimal meters just under the Mute button. The top one is green and shows the presence of audio from any of the member tracks, and the other flashes orange indicating MIDI activity. If you choose to, you can also show gain‑reduction activity on inserts courtesy of a tiny GR meter on the insert slot itself — useful for differentiating between expansion and compression when both are displayed on the main GR meter, but even more useful when, for example, compression only is displayed on the main GR meter, because it means you can still monitor gating activity without opening the plug‑in UI.

Colouring In

The Preferences menu gives you control over the levels at which meter colour changes occur (between dark green, bright green and orange). The break points change between the different meter types and the defaults are well chosen, but if you want to alter them, you can. The same goes for Integration Time, ie. the time it takes meters to return to ‑∞dBFS.

The numbers that appear under the fader in the Mix window are relevant here. The left number displays the current fader position, while the right number displays the highest peak value on that track. This display persists until it is cleared by clicking on it. Use Option/Alt‑click to clear all. You can set up peak hold and clipping indicators in the Metering Preferences, with a choice of none, infinite or three seconds. The three‑second option is the default for peak hold and, in combination with the peak number at the bottom, makes monitoring short‑term peaks and total headroom easy. Clip indications are infinite by default and can be cleared by clicking, but if, like me, you find clip lights distracting, the Option/Alt+C keystroke to clear them all is worth knowing.

The metering options are extensive in Ultimate and Studio, but these advanced metering types were introduced before loudness workflows were as well established as they now are, and the absence of any loudness metering option working in LUFS is notable. Access to tools that can measure integrated short‑term and momentary loudness is essential in these days of streaming, and if you have access to Avid’s Pro series of plug‑ins you have these facilities already available in the Pro Limiter. An excellent addition to this plug‑in is the AudioSuite Loudness Analyser, which can do offline loudness measurement. An alternative is the excellent free loudness meter from YouLean, which adds a histogram and loudness history. Highly recommended.

Lastly I’ll share a trick which, while in the manual, isn’t directly referred to in the GUI. If you feel your meters could do with a bit more visual presence, hold Command+Option+Control (macOS) or Control+Alt+Start (PC) and click on any of the track meters. They will grow to approximately twice their width!

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