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Is Pro Tools Still The Audio Editing King?

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

To see the complete set of Command Focus shortcuts, use the Focus filter button in the Keyboard Shortcuts window.To see the complete set of Command Focus shortcuts, use the Focus filter button in the Keyboard Shortcuts window.

Is Pro Tools still king when it comes to editing audio?

All the major DAWs are more than adequate for typical music production tasks, but it is true to say that the perception of them varies, and each is seen to have its own particular strengths. Of course, to make a straight comparison between DAW features you have to know each DAW equally well, something not many people can really claim. But it’s a common opinion that Pro Tools is particularly well equipped for audio editing and mixing. Other DAWs may have equivalent features, but something about their implementation in Pro Tools makes it as fast, if not faster, than anything else out there. Why is this?

Here are five features which really speed up audio editing in Pro Tools.

Command Focus Shortcuts

Pro Tools has two sets of keyboard shortcuts. The first are the conventional keystrokes, which involve use of a key with one of more modifier keys to invoke a function without having to click on any menu items or icons or drag anything anywhere. Examples of this category of keystrokes would be things like Command+M to mute a clip or Option+Shift+3 to consolidate a selection.

...something which makes Pro Tools particularly fast is the second set of keystrokes which are mostly based around single keys.

All DAWs have keyboard shortcuts, but something which makes Pro Tools particularly fast is the second set of keystrokes which are mostly based around single keys. These Command Focus keystrokes can be switched on and off, either by using the Command+Option+Shift+1 shortcut or by clicking the little ‘a‑z’ symbol in the top right of the Edit window. The reason it’s possible to switch them off is so that you can use one of the two other keyboard focus modes, whereby Command Focus can be used to select and deselect Mix and Edit Groups or to control the clips list. A good tip is to use the corresponding shortcuts of Command+Option+Shift+2 and Command+Option+Shift+3 to access these other modes.

Another historical reason why Pro Tools has enjoyed the status it has as a fast editor is that, until Pro Tools 2022.4, it wasn’t possible to re‑map the default keystrokes. This meant that an experienced user could take it for granted that any Pro Tools system they encountered would have identical key commands to hand. It is now possible to customise shortcuts by visiting the Keyboard Shortcuts window (Setup / Keyboard Shortcuts), which also lets you check the current setup of your shortcuts, and restore them to the default if desired. If you want to check out the available Command Focus keystrokes you can filter them using the Focus button at the top to peruse the complete list.

Tab Fab

Being able to quickly select the audio on which you want to perform an edit is essential if you want to work quickly. You can make selections visually using the Selector tool, or by ear using the up and down arrows during playback. Using the arrow keys is an overlooked way of making selections but is really useful when the visual feedback the waveform is providing isn’t very useful. However, one of the most useful methods of selecting audio is the Tab key.

In its default state, Tab advances the Insertion Point (the flashing cursor line) to the next clip boundary. Use Option+Tab to go backwards, and even more usefully, use Shift+Tab to create or extend an edit selection. If you click the Tab to Transients button (bottom right in the Edit Tools section of the Toolbar), or use the shortcut Command+Option+Tab, you can change the behaviour so Tab will advance the insertion point (or, with Shift, the edit selection boundary) to the next transient in the audio waveform or to the next MIDI note. With the recent improvements introduced in Pro Tools 2023.3 you can Tab to an automation breakpoint too, a long‑awaited improvement.

If you are trying to locate points in a project that doesn’t use a click track or tempo map, and so isn’t usefully editable in Grid mode, you can use Tab to Transients on a drum track to locate the points you need, then move your edit selection up and down to other, less transient‑rich material, using P and ; (semicolon) in Command Focus mode.

Editing Tools

Most of the time, editing audio in Pro Tools involves three tools and, depending on who you ask, sometimes just one: the Smart Tool. The Smart Tool is polarising among Pro Tools users. Some claim they couldn’t work without it, while others actively dislike it, but it is a distinctive feature of the program. With it, a user can flip between the three most‑used tools — the Selector Tool, the Trim Tool and the Grab Tool — and create fades just by moving the tool to different areas of the clip (top half for Selector, bottom half for Grabber, either end for Trim, top corners for fade in/out and bottom corners for crossfades). It’s quick and simple. You can further customise the Smart Tool by choosing one of the variants of the Grab and Trim Tools so, for example, you can have a TCE Trim Tool and the Object Grabber as part of your Smart Tool.

The big limitation of the Smart Tool, and a reason why I used to avoid it, is that you need to display your clips at a reasonably large size to be able to switch functions easily. Very small tracks don’t work well. Something which encouraged me to use it more is that it isn’t an either/or choice; I use individual tools and swap to the Smart Tool much like I would change to any other tool. You can select it in the same way as you would select individual tools from the Function keys. To get the Smart Tool, hit more than one of F6, F7 or F8, in any combination.

Beat Detective

The ability to correct or adjust the timing for a performance is central to the editing process for music projects, and there are various equivalents to MIDI quantise that can be applied to audio content. Elastic Audio enables complex real‑time time‑stretching operations on audio content — anything from conforming loops to a session’s tempo through to audio quantise operations and manual adjustments made using warp markers on Elastic Audio‑enabled tracks. Pro Tools 2023.3 introduced a new algorithm in the form of zplane’s elastique pro, which offers a huge improvement in fidelity compared to the standard real‑time Elastic Audio algorithms and the rendered‑only X‑Form. All the major DAWs have an equivalent feature, but where possible, the best way to adjust timing is not to time‑stretch at all, and Pro Tools has long had a powerful solution for this.

Beat Detective provides an excellent alternative to Elastic Audio when conforming drums to the grid.Beat Detective provides an excellent alternative to Elastic Audio when conforming drums to the grid.

Beat Detective detects and separates the individual hits of a drum performance into clips in a semi‑automated way and deals with the necessary smoothing of the resulting discontinuities between the hundreds of resulting edits as a batch process, meaning that the potential hours of manual editing are condensed into a few minutes of guidance. The drums won’t suffer from the transient‑mangling artefacts of time‑stretching, because they haven’t been time‑stretched.

The Edit Window

The fact that if you zoom in far enough on an audio clip you will be able to edit directly on the timeline, even drawing in new waveforms with the pencil tool, is a revelation to users of other DAWs, which tend to have a separate sample editor. If you want to edit waveforms in full screen use Zoom Toggle (E in Command Focus mode) to really see what you are doing. For fixing simple clicks and pops, it’s the fastest method you could wish for.

Zoom in on a clip far enough and the waveform changes to a single line. At this point the waveform can be directly edited using the Pencil Tool.Zoom in on a clip far enough and the waveform changes to a single line. At this point the waveform can be directly edited using the Pencil Tool.

If you have a pure editing job on a single track of audio you might not even be using any plug‑ins. If so, then there is no need to bounce the results out to a new file. Using the Edit menu’s Consolidate Clip command (Option+Shift+3) renders the selected clips to a new whole file. If you just want that clip for use elsewhere, right‑clicking on it in the clips list gives a contextual menu from which you can select Reveal In Finder to access the WAV file itself. If you need the file in another file format you can select Export Clips As Files and create an alternative version, for example an MP3 or an interleaved file at a different sample rate to the project.

I used to use a dedicated stereo editor in tandem with Pro Tools, but unless you need proper mastering facilities such as DDP, or features such as chapterisation for MP3s, there isn’t much you can’t do right from within Pro Tools.

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