We explore some handy tools for making the most of macros.
Arguments about which DAW is best have always raged online, and aren’t likely to subside any time soon. For the army of working professionals who are quietly getting on with their work, one of the biggest strengths of Pro Tools is its speed. There are some areas where other DAWs are faster — I can create a tempo map faster in Studio One or Logic than I can in Pro Tools, for example — but for the things I do over and over again in a typical project, Pro Tools wins for me. Part of this is the UI, which is mature and streamlined, and part of it is the comprehensive set of keyboard shortcuts, which crucially aren’t customisable. While lots of people dislike this, a key part of the ubiquity of Pro Tools is the consistency of the interface and the shortcuts.
It only takes an intense session of vocal editing or drum tweaking for the value of a five‑second gain in an operation you perform hundreds of times a day to become painfully apparent. Small incremental gains can add up to very significant time savings. But there are other options for speeding things up besides the keyboard shortcuts. Take EuCon, for example. An S6 is an expensive item but they still sell. There is a reason for this...
Anyone who wants to extend their control over Pro Tools has a very capable free option available to them in the form of the Avid Control app. Paired with an Avid Dock and as many S1 control surfaces as you can afford, this makes an amazing control option for Pro Tools, but even on its own the app is useful. The Tracks page is quite literally a gift, the app is free, and for speedy track operations it’s very easy to get used to, but it is the Soft Keys which I’ll focus on here. The Soft Keys section of the Avid Control app (shown above) contains 150 pages of Soft Keys which offer single‑button control of any of the hundreds of ‘EuConised’ parameters in Pro Tools. This is the term for controls which have been added to the very extensive set of parameters controllable by EuCon.
The strength of Pro Tools is in its ubiquity and consistency of operation: once you know Pro Tools well you can walk up to any Pro Tools workstation and start work...
There is an understandable consistency of approach taken by Avid here. In the same way as the UI and keystrokes are consistent across all Pro Tools systems, so are the Soft Keys, and if you know where to find a particular soft key in Avid Control on one system, it will be in the same place on another. That isn’t to say there is no customisation possible, though. The last four pages of the Soft Keys section are available for the creation of custom commands. Any EuConised parameter can be mapped, and combinations of commands can be combined into custom macros as you would expect.
The experience of using the Soft Keys from a tablet can be disorientating and, rather than learning how to navigate the huge library of preset Soft Keys, I’d recommend setting up a page of custom Soft Keys you know you’ll use all the time, and getting the intended benefit rather than trying to perform all tasks using Soft Keys just because you can, when you can perform them faster using the old techniques of keyboard and mouse. Soft keys and macros are supposed to make things faster and more convenient, but if a learning curve is involved they can make things slower!
I can think of many products in the Pro Tools universe which suffer from this learning curve disincentive. One day I’m going to learn UVI Falcon properly but I’m not taking bets on when that day will be...
One third‑party product which has always offered potentially huge time-savings for the busy Pro Tools user is SoundFlow. This very clever scripting/macro app is usable with all sorts of Mac software, but it started life as a Pro Tools solution and has remained Pro Tools‑centric throughout its development. It started life in 2017 as a rather nerdy solution which allowed people who were comfortable with scripts to semi‑automate laborious or ‘click intensive’ operations and to benefit from the incremental time savings which result.
Subsequent versions have taken a tool which was written ‘by computer people for computer people’ into a much more accessible and mainstream product. The tech remains largely unchanged, but it’s now much easier to use. Prior to version 5 the biggest issue with it was that what you were buying was, in the words of SoundFlow, “like buying a complex synthesizer with no presets”. You had to learn to use it before you could use it. For busy professionals this isn’t great — buying something to save you time, which costs you time to learn. It’s not much better for the aspiring amateur for whom time is arguably less precious, as it’s a complex tool which you have to learn to use before you can use it.
This is why I was so taken with the new version 5. Very specifically targeted to address the ‘learning curve penalty’, which discourages both tech‑savvy professionals and novice users alike, SoundFlow 5 is made accessible through a guided setup process, which takes under 10 minutes, and a pre‑installed tranche of over 1700 Pro Tools‑specific macros over 30 pre‑built control schemes. I tried the new version as someone who had previously passed on SoundFlow precisely because of being in too much of a hurry to learn a new tool. I can confirm that even someone as impatient as me managed to get useful results and a real‑world time saving in Pro Tools in under 30 minutes.
Whereas the Soft Keys in the Avid Control app rely on a parameter or action having been EuConised by Avid, SoundFlow allows almost any action to be recorded as part of a macro. The huge collection of over 1700 Pro Tools‑specific actions means that for the majority of users, if they can’t find what they are looking for in the pre‑installed layouts, they can build their own without needing to get technical.
Macro Macro Man
Macros are sequences of tasks which can be triggered via a keystroke, MIDI or OSC trigger, or even a window being active on screen. While you can use them to create keystrokes you feel are missing from Pro Tools (my vote is for a keystroke to toggle the colour palette), it is in combination with Elgato’s Stream Deck hardware that SoundFlow becomes most appealing. These relatively inexpensive peripherals present a few illuminated LCD buttons and combine the tactile experience of hardware with the visual feedback of a software UI. Stream Decks work seamlessly with SoundFlow, but SoundFlow’s commands can be displayed and navigated via an iOS or Android device too. A perfect opportunity to repurpose that old smartphone.
As for downsides, SoundFlow is Mac only, and subscription‑based. If either of these are show‑stoppers for you then the Avid Control app is free and, if you engage with the custom soft key features, can perform similar tasks. If you like the idea of creating custom shortcuts for Pro Tools then alternatives like Keyboard Maestro are available, though they involve more know‑how to set up with Pro Tools than SoundFlow 5 does.
The strength of Pro Tools is in its ubiquity and consistency of operation: once you know Pro Tools well you can walk up to any Pro Tools workstation and start work with no more to worry about than remembering to reverse your modifier keys depending on whether you’re using a PC or a Mac. Would learning to operate it via a highly personalised set of custom controls isolate a regular SoundFlow user from one of Pro Tools’ key advantages?
SoundFlow would argue not, because your SoundFlow settings are stored in the cloud and if you move to another machine you can simply log into SoundFlow and load up your settings — though that does assume SoundFlow is installed, and that the new machine is connected to the Internet. However, as a new and enthusiastic convert to SoundFlow with Pro Tools, my concern is that I may find it too useful... In the days of landline phones I used to have my most‑used phone numbers memorised, but these days I don’t know any phone numbers at all apart from my own. Will the same happen to my Pro Tools Shortcuts? I really hope not — they took years to learn!