Meeting Topic: Advanced Pro Tools Clinic
Speaker Name: Phillip Nichols (CRAS Pro Tools Instructor)
Meeting Location: Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences 1205 N. Fiesta Blvd Gilbert Az
We had a full house tonight in Gilbert Live Sound! Pro Tools is the industry standard, and an essential skill set to have as an audio engineer—naturally, students were interested. The school is very fortunate to have Phil as the resident Pro Tools expert to teach us advanced workflow tips and tricks. He noted that he will discuss his workflow and general recommendations, but everyone's approach is different and valid as long as it works for them.
Before he opened Pro Tools, he spoke at length about proper file management. He stressed the importance of keeping the original session files sent by a client. Although the session name convention may not make sense to you, renaming the original files according to "your system" may confuse the client. Every time he opens a session he would create a new session file, since the session files themselves are not very large. It would be a good idea to keep a simple txt file logging what was done in each mixing session.
The Bounce folder discussion was interesting, as Phil had multiple nested folders within the default Pro Tools folder. Interestingly, he also mentioned that it might be good to rename the folder as "Mixes" as "Bounce" is an audio engineering term that the clients may not recognize. Within the folder, he had multiple folders, including "Processed", "Clean", "16-bit". The explained that usually a client would want multiple versions of the mix for various purposes. The processed version would have bus processing such as compression. The clean version would have no bus processing, and would be ideal for sending to a mastering engineer. The 16-bit versions would be for printing CDs.
Phil opened his Pro Tools mix template. There were submix tracks for various musical parts, two master tracks, aux tracks for metering, and two stereo audio tracks for printing. One of the master channel was for the "Processed" mixes, and the other was for the "Clean" mix. Very importantly, he had a track for reference tracks. He emphasized the need for a reference track as a "reality check" to gauge whether the mix is going in a good direction. He noted that reference tracks are already mastered so they will sound "louder" than your mix. Although as a rule of thumb you should mix for loudness, but sometimes loudness is a factor depending on the song. This template can be imported into any client sessions, saving countless hours.
He then highlighted a few mixing tips. Phil generally does subtractive EQ first, compress as needed, then boost desired frequencies with another EQ if needed. He also uses two compressors, one with a high threshold and ratio to control the transients, then low threshold and low ratio to control dynamic range. Vocalign is a powerful too for getting thick, double-tracked vocals. It can automatically analyze two similar audio tracks and line them up to get a tighter performance. Strip silence not only is good for removing bleed but it will lighten load on the disk as it does not need to play back the silence. If you are working on projects that require a lot of time stretching it may be worthwhile to invest in a good time stretch software such as Serato.
With in-the-box mixing, it is easy to be lured into mixing with one's eyes instead of ears. Phil recommended trying to mix using plugins that do not have any numbers, graphs, or meters. It will force you to mix with just your ears.
Using CPU-demanding plugins like iZotope will cause Pro Tools to overload. Phil recommended to "freeze" tracks that have processing-heavy plugins. Avid added this feature in Pro Tools 12.4, so be wary of sessions that need to be opened in multiple versions.
Finally, Phil talked about needing to "take chances" in mixing. Computers have become so powerful with great tools so accessible to just about anyone. However, the one thing technology and machines cannot do is listen to a track with a creative mind—we need to stand out by incorporating our "tastes" along with just cleaning up audio. Using interesting effects like vocal stuttering and pitch/speed shift might be what a track needs to get the attention of listeners.
There was a question about recommended resources, to which Phil mentioned a few such as Pro Tools Experts, Recording Revolution, Produce Like a Pro, and Avid Pro Audio Community. Also, mixing can be done in manageable stages, such as: edit / clean up track, mix drums, mix instruments, and then mix vocals.
A big thanks to Phil Nichols, and we look forward to another clinic in the near future!
Written By: CRAS AES Secretary - Takuma O.