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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Colin MacQueen & Steve Albanese

eclectic reviews and opinions

Colin MacQueen & Steve Albanese

Pro Tools Power!

Mike Collins

Pro Tools 5.1 For Music Production: Recording, Editing and Mixing

Last year, after years of (ill-informed) railing against Pro Tools, I became a Pro Tools user. After doing my first few projects with Pro Tools, I became an enthusiastic Pro Tools user. It's still true that Pro Tools is one of the technologies that enables some techniques for making bad-sounding records, but there is nothing about Pro Tools itself that favors making the sort of bloodlessly perfect recordings I piss and moan about.

One complaint I have about Pro Tools endures though: it's got a steep learning curve. That's probably as it should be: it's a very sophisticated suite of mingled software and hardware, and even in its most rudimentary version (Pro Tools Free), it's got an awful lot of capabilities and -- here's the rub -- the flexibility to approach almost any given recording situation in several different ways.

One of the two primary Pro Tools windows can look quite a lot like a traditional multi-track mixer, and a lot of the Pro Tools terminology -- auxes, sends, busses -- sounds like traditional multi-track recording terminology. But things don't necessarily behave quite as you might expect from your experience in the analog world.

Pro Tools comes with a demo, which I went through. It made me say "wow," a lot, until I got to the end, when I said, "OK, now what?" The demo starts, y'see with a whole bunch of tracks in the system and primed for you to mess around with, and doesn't exactly tell you how to get to that point.

Pro Tools also comes with an online reference manual, which, um ... The authors of Pro Tools Power! spend a bit of time praising the reference manual, but: it is a reference manual not a tutorial; it covers multiple versions of Pro Tools, which causes some confusion; and, like a great many manuals, its organizational scheme makes more sense if you already know what you're looking for: if you want to look up the scrubber tool, fine. But if your question is more along the lines of "where did that window just go, and how can I make it come back?" it's a little harder. And it's hard to flip through a PDF document to find what you're looking for. So I tried to RTFM, honest, but found it heavy going.

(Just FYI: I'm not an expert recordist by any means, but I've worked with bands that recorded in Cakewalk, with some "off-label" digital audio software (SAW), and on a Roland stand-alone digital recorder. I've played with Logic, done some work in Cool Edit and with Radar, and I've used a Tascam four-track for years. My band had a real engineer for our analog 24-track album, but I paid attention and was very involved in the mixdown. So I don't think the fact that I felt a little at sea with Pro Tools is entirely irrelevant; I'd be surprised if a lot of people didn't have the same problem.)

I did what I usually do in such cases and tried to find a book to help me out. I wound up with Mike Collins' Pro Tools 5.1 For Music Production: Recording, Editing and Mixing, and this was that book I relied on to get me through my first few real mutli-track Pro Tools sessions (along with invaluable advice from a friend of mine who happens to work for DigiDesign). But it wasn't a book I found myself eager to recommend. It had a lot of good information, and it was definitely helpful, but it was also frequently oblique, and seemed to presuppose I knew more than I did. For example, Pro Tools has four edit modes: Grid, Shuffle, Slip, and Spot. The differences between them aren't conceptually difficult -- but they weren't clear to me until I read Pro Tools Power! Here is Collins' first reference to the edit modes:

If you want the regions to automatically fill any gaps you create you can use Shuffle mode. Be careful to return to Slip or Grid mode as soon as you have made your moves in Shuffle mode though - it is all too easy to accidentally move a region and have Shuffle mode shuffle your regions to somewhere they shouldn't be. And if you don't notice this at the time it happens you may not be able to use even the multiple Undo feature to get back to where you were.

I found that vague and more than a little intimidating. Slip mode doesn't even appear in Collin's glossary, and nowhere are the different edit modes contrasted or explicityly described. What I retained was basically, "Shuffle bad! Danger! Avoid!"

Pro Tools Power! on the other hand, turns out to be a book I am eager to recommend, with just a couple of caveats. MacQueen and Albanese introduce all four editing modes simultaneously and devote a couple of paragraphs to each. (It turns out to be easy after all. Grid will "snap" a chunk of audio to the nearest grid location, which can be defined by time (e.g., 10 millisecond intervals) or beat (e.g., nearest eighth note). Spot will position something at a specified exact location (e.g., to synch a sound effect to video). Slip allows unrestricted positioning of an audio element. Shuffle is hardest to describe, but easy to grasp when you see it in action: in shuffle mode all the audio chunks "stack" together like a deck of cards -- inserting a new chunk pushes all the chunks after it toward the end of the track.)

MacQueen and Albanese also understand that one of the great strengths of Pro Tools is that is flexible enough to approach a given task in multiple ways, and they seem to feel that this is a point worth emphasizing even in a fairly basic and introductory book. So, for example, they outline two completely different approaches for customizing headphone mixes for performers. Not only does this give the reader two ways to make headphone mixes, it stimulates further thought about the ways in which Pro Tools varied routing capabilities can creatively be used to accomplish tasks, and about how to organize and conceptualize signal paths.

Pro Tools Power! also offers the single best discussion I've yet seen on the practical steps for setting up to record multiple tracks live-in-studio. I wish I'd been able to read it before my first few sessions; I definitely made mistakes this book would've helped me avoid. I spent far too much time, for one thing, trying to figure out how to get a click sound on my Digi001 (answer: enable the Click in Pro Tools; set the Midi output to the computer's native sound card; run from the sound card's line out into an input on the Pro Tools interface; assign that input to an Aux In track).

In addition to material specific to Pro Tools, MacQueen and Albanese's book offers some generally sound studio advice, such as how to use a compressor with a side chain to tighten a bass and kick drum track. Time is also devoted to explaining how to accomplish some "analog" tricks, like backward reverb and tape-like "flange," in a digital environment. There is also valuable discussion of avoiding some of the common pitfalls of digital audio editing, such as making performances excessively stiff.

Pro Tools Power! also deserves high marks for clear treatment of the differences between the versions of Pro Tools, which fall along two lines. There are differences among three levels of hardware: Pro Tools Free requires no additional hardware; Pro Tools LE systems (Mbox, Digi001 and Digi002) use DigiDesign hardware to get a signal into the computer, and thereafter use the comptuer's own processing power; Pro Tools TDM Systems (Time-Division Multiplexing) use onboard processing power. There are also differences between Mac and Windows platforms. These affect what OS version the software requires, what functions are available within Pro Tools, what additional software components (Plug Ins) are compatible, and what external devices (such as external mixing surfaces) are compatible. Pro Tools Power! does a good job of keeping the versions all straight, with the unfortunate exception of external hardware compatability, perhaps one of the most confusing topics in the Pro Tools world.

The biggest flaw in Pro Tools Power! is that it was clearly rushed to market in a hurry -- it was announced some time ago and evidently delayed in order to be able to cover the Digi002 and Pro Tools HD hardware and the accompanying latest release of the software. I suspect there was a lot of pressure to get the book out before the competition. As a result there a few major proof-reading gaffes -- a couple of missing illustrations, a side-bar that ends mid-sentence. These may have already been fixed if the the first printing has sold out, and in any case they don't detract significantly from the book's usefulness.

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