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Cheap Pro Tools #1: What the heck is Pro Tools anyway?


Welcome to Pro Tools on da cheap - I’m in no way an expert, and what follows is just “what works for me”. Have I missed something, made a glaring error, or flown in the face of common wisdom? By all means, post a (hopefully polite and cheery) comment and join the discussion.

What is Pro Tools?

Pro Tools is a combination of software and hardware used for multitrack recording, editing, and mixing. It is capable of recording at very high fidelity and is used in virtually every professional recrding studio in the world. it’s the industry standard for digital multitrack recording.

Pro Tools relies on a host computer - either PC or Macintosh. Pro Tools only works on computers with Pro Tools qualified hardware attached, usually through firewire, USB, or PCI. To use the software, you have to have the hardware.

What is “digital multitrack recording”?

Multitrack recording allows you to record multiple instruments or sources, all-at-once, one at a time, or a combination thereof. Each instrument is recorded to individual mono or stereo “tracks”. When you record, say, a vocal, you can listen to the other instruments that were recorded beforehand. Each track can be adjusted for things like volume, tone, and stereo balance, and effects like reverb can be added at specific levels.

Multitrack recording originated on magnetic tape; digital multitrack recording refers to sound being digitized and stored on a digital medium - usually a computer hard drive.

How expensive is it?

You can get started with Pro Tools hardware and software for well under five hundred dollars (plus a computer). You can easily spend tens of thousands of dollars for a professional system. 

Do I need a crazy hot-rod computer?

Not necessarily. People are doing professional quality work on Macintosh G4s and the PC equivalent. The more computer horsepower you have, the more tracks you can record and mix at the same time, and you can record with lower latency.

One thing that will make working in Pro Tools a lot nicer? A widescreen monitor in the 20″ range. Two of ‘em is even better (but you know that if you do a lot of Photoshop or Flash, right?)

Ummm… what is “latency”?

To simplify, latency is the “delay” that can be heard when recording. You might be trying to play along with a recorded drum track, but each time you strum your guitar, it comes through the speaker (or headphones) noticeably delayed, making it very difficult to play “on the beat”. On a lower-powered system, there are workarounds, such as playing back as few tracks as possible when recording.

So, with a decent computer and some entry-level stuff, I can record hit records in my bedroom?

In theory, certainly. In practice, there are plenty of factors that may keep you from that goal.

If you write and arrange music or play an instrument, you likely understand that it’s a never-ending process of learning and growth… it’s an art, a difficult art, and one you may never feel you’re truly “good” at, even as you improve, even after decades of playing.

It’s my belief (shared by many) that recording and mixing music is an art of equivalent difficulty. But having a Pro Tools setup in your bedroom is one way to learn and practice that art.

How hard is it?

Pro Tools software is easily as deep and complex as Adobe Photoshop, Flash, or Final Cut Pro. But, much like those products, it’s easy to get started, to learn a few basic things and grow from there. 

Should I take a Class or go to School to learn Pro Tools?

Though that path is certainly available, it may not be necessary.  Everything on this website was produced primarily with Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, and Final Cut Pro. I’ve made my living for well over a decade with those tools and have never taken a single class. I find the best way to learn is to picture what I want to do, try to do it, and use the manual, after-market books, and the internet to figure it out. Your mileage may vary. Doesn’t mean you’re “dumb” or anything - some people can dive into a complex world happily  - others really excel with some structure and guidance. If you do take a class, you’ll probably learn a dozen things in the first week that I still haven’t figured out.

So what do I need to get started?

That depends to some extent on what you want to record. Essentially you need the actual instrument(s) you want to capture, be that guitar, your voice, drums, etc. You can record guitars directly into Pro Tools (though you may then need some sort of amplifier simulation software). If you’re a drummer, you may need a Pro Tools steup that can record four, six, or eight microphones at once.

What’s the basic stuff you’d recommend?

For most people, here’s what you’ll need:

A fairly current computer, with an internal hard drive (preferable 7200 RPM speed) and a second drive, either internal or external, and at least 2GB of RAM;

A Pro Tools interface (the box you plug mics and speakers into), preferable one with XLR mirophone inputs for low impedance microphones;

Pro Tools Software;

A decent low-impedance microphone (more on impedance below) - if money is tight, I’d recommend a used Sure SM58 or SM57 to start;

A microphone stand and cable (a stand with a boom if you’ll be recording things like guitar amps, acoustic guitars, pianos or saxophones);

A set of headphones made for music recording (as opposed to something that emphasizes bass or treble - check with the big on-line music retailers, plan to spend $50 and up)

Speakers and a stereo amplifier, or self-powered speakers (hopefully those that are made specifically for recording and mixing music… more on this soon). But any sort of speakers will get you started.

A MIDI keyboard if you want to trigger sampled sounds or even drum parts (more on MIDI below)

Yeah, What’s this Impedance Thing?

1/4" "guitar" plug (left) and 3-pin XLR plug (right)

1/4" "guitar" plug (left) and 3-pin XLR plug (right)

I won’t go into the science of it - basically, things like electric guitars run at “high” impedance and use the standard “guitar cable” connector - the 1/4″ mono plug. Low impedance microphones use the bigger “XLR” connector with three metal pins inside a steel barrel. Virtually all quality microphones are low impedance - their wiring scheme reduces noise that’s picked up by the cable itself, giving a stronger, cleaner signal with less noise. You may have a “computer” microphone with a guitar-style plug (or even a headphone-style mini plug) - I’d avoid that route, as a brand new low impedance, general purpose mic can be had for fifty bucks or so.

Another thing about “pro” microphones: some of them require something called “phantom power”. If you own or have access to things like large-diaghragm condenser mics, you’ll need an interface with a phantom power switch.

And what about MIDI? Isn’t that just for goth keyboard players in eye liner?

I’m simplifying once again, but essentially MIDI is a way of transferring data, primarily used for music. MIDI doesn’t transmit sound at all… it transmits, basically, control information. Every time you touch a key on an electronic keyboard, you’re actually throwing a switch - MIDI can spread that info around - what “switch” you pushed, how long you held it down, and how hard you held it. If you twist a knob or stomp a footswitch, it can send that as well. In Pro Tools, MIDI not only gets your keyboard performance to hook up with various musical instrument sounds inside your system - it can allow you to turn “real” knobs (on a keyboard or other controller) that adjust the “virtual” knobs and switches (on your computer screen). If you really love working with a big mixing board, you can control your Pro Tools system with a specialized board, via MIDI.

Wish they sold that when I was a kid!

Wish they sold that when I was a kid!

Can I Just Buy a Package?

Certainly. All the major on-line retailers and place like Guitar Center offer various levels of Pro Tools packages, and plenty of them use Pro Tools LE. Many come with a mic, speakers, and even training DVDs.

What’s LE - is that a stripped-down beginner’s Pro Tools? Does it have training wheels?

Not at all - there are two flavors of Pro Tools - HD and LE. To simplify, they’re both very similar - but Pro Tools HD is a more powerful system, that uses very pricey external hardware (that is still tied to a computer) for higher track counts and sample rates. It has a few more features, but essentially Pro Tools LE is the same experience. On a decent computer, you should have no problem getting 24 or more tracks going - there are limitations to LE’s track count level, which can be found at Digidesign’s web site.

With the current version of Pro Tools and a fairly powerful computer with multiple processors, you can now do some really complex sessions that would rival the high-end studios of a few years ago.

I see a lot of “M-Audio” Pro Tools gear - what’s that?

M-Audio is a division of Pro Tools parent company; they make recording hardware that runs on their own version of Pro Tools LE. The software is the same, and the hardware is generally the most inexpensive way to get into Pro Tools.

Hey, What are Plugins and how many do I need?

Plugins are software programs that run within the Pro Tools environment, providing everything from reverb, equalization, and compression to very convincing “models” of vintage gear, synthesizers, musical instruments, even human voices.

The current version of Pro Tools - Pro Tools 8 - ships with a pretty astounding array of useful plugins. If you go used and get something with Pro Tools 7, it too has all you need to get rolling. But Pro Tools 8 is a pretty killer setup.

SO, what’s your best advice to the Pro Tools beginner?

That’s easy - “use what ya got”. If you have a song you’re aching to get recorded and mixed and blasting out of your car while your girlfriend looks at you with that “I never knew you could do this” look, don’t sit there thinking “I really need a vintage compressor and an $800 microphone to make it happen”… record it now. You can always do it again later. The guy who can get a decent sound with a handful of cheap gear is a guy who can rock the walls when he gets all the bells and whistles. If you’ve got even a humble recording setup, and you want to record… then freaking record. there is never enough gear, y’know? So get going.

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