Pro Tools-Do I Need it?
Anyone that dabbles in music and is using their computer to record or produce music has at least heard of Digidesign's Pro Tools. Despite having dozens of choices of audio software, Pro Tools remains the audio standard for everything from studio recording, post-production in video and music sequencing. It allows users from all over the world to be able to walk into any Pro Tools equipped studio in the world and open up a session that started in another studio, maybe even your bedroom. It's cross-platform, so whether you work on a Mac or PC, the files are interchangeable and allow for seamless integration into whatever environment you're working in.
There are some significant differences, however, that should be discussed when comparing Pro Tools to other audio programs on the market. First, Pro Tools is a software and hardware system, meaning that their software will only work with their hardware or audio interfaces. Unfortunately, your good ol' Soundblaster audio card won't work with Pro Tools, whereas most other audio programs will automatically locate whatever audio interface you have and be able to utilize it.
Second, there are 2 levels of Pro Tools systems: Pro Tools HD and Pro Tools LE. Pro Tools HD refers to the professional systems found in most recording studios today. These HD systems use PCI or PCI-X cards that are installed into your computer (generally Macs) and these cards handle all of your audio processing tasks. Since the bulk of processing is happening on these cards, your computer doesn't have to work hard at all, resulting in a very stable recording platform. The downside is these "core" audio cards are very expensive and so are their corresponding audio interfaces that allow audio to get in and out of your computer.
The lower priced alternative is Pro Tools LE or a "lite" version of Pro Tools. Again, in order to use the software, you must use one of their audio interfaces. But at this writing, you the consumer have more choices than ever and can purchase a system for just a few hundred dollars, assuming you already have a computer that has enough power to run the program. The main difference here between HD and LE systems is that in an LE system, all processing happens using your computer's processor, otherwise referred to as "native" processing. This requires you to have a very fast computer with a lot of memory to handle all the tasks of recording and editing. A multiple core machine is recommended for stability. This way one processor is working on the audio and another processor can simply work on keeping your computer running smoothly.
With the explanation of what Pro Tools is out of the way, you have to ask yourself do you need it? Why can't I just use Garageband that came with my Mac or a low priced program like Cakewalk to do the same job? The truth is, people make great recordings all the time using all sorts of programs that might not have cost them a penny. For professional studio owners and engineers, the ability to share sessions and files becomes a real factor in choosing what program you work in. The busy day-to-day grind of a commercial studio doesn't allow one much time to convert files from one program before you record a single note, so in these cases, having the same program everyone else has makes trading session files as easy as opening them up off a hard drive. However, if you know there is a very slim chance of having to swap files with others, then by all means, go with something that fits your budget and gets the job done! If you do find yourself having to take your precious sessions elsewhere, refer to the next tip about Format Conversion below to make that process as painless as possible.
Now, let's say we're starting a project at home using your Cakewalk program and want to send that to a friend who will lay some parts on it. Only problem is he is using Pro Tools. How do we get there from here? First, we need to take your audio data and make each track continuous from start to finish. All those edits and punch-ins you did lead to new audio regions being created and those have to be cleaned up. Different programs use different terms like consolidate, render or bounce but the concept is the same, to create one piece of audio per track.
The reason for this is that we will be dragging the audio into another program and trying to reassemble little bits and pieces of audio can be next to impossible. So, if you have 16 tracks in your session you should have 16 pieces of audio. Be sure to make note of your sample rate, bit depth and file extension (.WAV, .AIFF, SDII) to make sure your destination point is using the same settings. Then create a folder, name it and paste the audio data that you just created into the folder and you're ready to take your music anywhere.
This example was going from Cakewalk to Pro Tools so if everything was done correctly we would open a new session (with the same sample rate, bit depth and file extension) and import the audio data. If you have 16 pieces of audio, we would create 16 new tracks and drag the audio files all the way to the left on our time line. If sweet music is the result then things were done properly and if chaos ensues then we need to practice. Every program is different so if you're still getting stuck, email us and we'll troubleshoot it together. Happy transfers!
Getting Ready for the Studio
One of the most common questions asked is "how long will it take to record my project?" With different styles of music and people's habits of recording, this is a difficult question indeed. However, there are some recommendations we pass along to make the session productive and fun.
First, be prepared. Have an idea of what you want to accomplish during your time and know your material. Pick a manageable number of songs to record for your budget because it's better to have 3 songs that sound great than 14 songs that sound mediocre simply because you ran out of time. All too often people spend their recording budget on tracking and leave little to no time for mixing and mastering. The mix is what people will put in their stereos and if this is rushed, it shows.
So take your time, this is supposed to be fun for everyone involved, remember? A well polished band can generally track and get decent mixes on 3 songs in a day. Sequenced music like hip-hop or R&B can go quickly and someone that is prepared can complete 6-7 songs per day. Everyone is different though and some people are faster and some are slower, it's hard to say until you really begin recording. Let the engineer know your recording plan and he can also help keep you on track. The more communication there is, the better the project.
After putting the final touches on our precious mixes we've worked so hard on for hours on end, what happens next? Mastering is the last stage of production and the first stage of manufacturing a final product that is ready for sale. So what is it? Mastering is the process of making that collection of songs (now stereo tracks) sound like a cohesive project where all the songs are equally as loud as the next and is competitive with other CD's on the market. Applying compression, equalization and limiting all help to acheive this goal of uniformity.
There are some things to consider before taking your songs to a mastering engineer to make sure that the engineer can do their job. Perhaps the most important thing is to really keep an eye on your stereo bus to see how loud your mixes are. In digital land, zero is as loud as she goes and there is no higher. One objective of mastering is to keep that level as close to zero without going over and still maintain some dynamics, try not to do the mastering engineer's job for him. Mixes that are to be mastered should have peaks of about -3dB to -2dB leaving the engineer some room to work and apply their processing. In our constant attempt to make our mixes louder and more powerful we often apply plug-ins and outboard gear but resist on the mixes going to mastering.
All too often tracks come to us that are completely slammed to zero with absolutely no dynamics. Whether you meant to or not, you have essentially mastered your songs. In which case you will get a call from your friendly mastering engineer requesting another mix of your songs that have less processing on them. If this was the only existing version of your material then we are sorry to report it's either re-mix time or you get to live with what you've done. So the lesson is to lighten up on the processing and let the mastering process put the polish on your music.
Pop and rock mixes are full of delay effects, repeating a word at the end of a phrase or extending a musical line. Achieving this effect can be done in a variety of ways but here's one that is quick and easy if you're working in the digital world. Let's say we want to create a vocal delay on the last word of each verse of a song. First we need to set up an auxilary send, feeding our delay processor and return this to our mixer. We could automate the return of the delay to only come on during those words we want to delay, this works well. We could also automate the send to feed the delay on those words but each of these techniques takes some time to set up and in a busy studio setting, time is against you.
A quicker way is to simply create a new track, copy only the words you want to delay on the new track and this is important, unassign this track from your Left/Right mix or else the words you planned to delay will be very loud because they will be playing on two tracks. Now set up your auxilary send to the delay and return it to the mixer assigned to the Left/Right mix. Now simply dial in the proper delay and how loud you want it to be by adjusting the return faders and you can simply leave the track alone during the whole mix! No automation and no chance of forgetting to turn something on or off. The delay trigger can save valuable mix time and create a very cool effect.
Choruses Made Easy
With recording budgets shrinking, projects need to be completed faster and faster. A common timesaver in many styles of music is to create one great chorus and copy that to the rest of the song. While using this technique, it is a good idea to have more parts than you think you need, which will give you some options to vary each successive chorus.
Once we have that one great chorus, we could copy the chorus, put it in approximately the right spot and nudge it until it feels right. This works but it can be a little tedious and time consuming. Instead, copy the chorus and the music, find your insert point and paste the whole thing. This way your chorus is perfectly in sync with your music! Your singers will love you and your clients will appreciate the money you save them.