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.
There are dozens of reasons to get into Pro Tools (or one of the many competing systems). You might want it for songwriting, to add audio to flash animations, to do sound for independent films, or to do crazy experimental audio stuff.
I use it for all of those things, but in the next couple posts I’ll address what I guess are the two most popular uses for people coming to this website - the “I have a band” person wanting to avoid studio costs for an existing musical group (next post please), and the “one man band” kind of guy developing songs.
“Hey, that’s me - I want to develop songs at home and then bring in other musicians to make ‘em rock! Man, this was getting really boring…”
Pro Tools is a pretty fabulous tool to do just that.
For starters, take a look at the intro page for a rough overview and an idea of the basic stuff you’ll need.
So I can really do this at home?
Sure. You can get started for a few hundred bucks, and if you purchase wisely, you can build a steadily more professional setup around your early purchases without a lot of selling and trading. But first…
What’s the main instrument you play or write with? For a lot of us it’s guitar, maybe you’re primarily a singer or a singer songwriter. Pro Tools is a pretty fantastic system, but one thing it can’t do is make a recorded voice or instrument sound wildly better than it sounds “live”. Keep that in mind - if you have a $200 acoustic guitar, it’s going to be difficult or impossible to make it sound like a $2000 Gibson. If you play electric guitar and your sound is anywhere in the blues-to-metal category, it may be hard for you to get a great guitar sound without playing very loud.
If you’re a so-so singer, you may be singing on your tracks just to get a song to the point that a “real” singer can come in and do his/her thing. Pro Tools can be a big help there, as adding compression, EQ, reverb and even pitch correction can, at the least, make you a little less embarrassed to pass those tracks around.
That said, you can record, develop, arrange and mix your songs in Pro Tools and do some remarkable things.
In my experience, there’s a lot of songwriters who write primarily on guitar and keyboards and desire bass, drums, harmonies - essentially a recording of how their song would sound if played by a band. Let’s start with adding drums, as that’s often the most difficult thing.
RECORDING LIVE DRUMS
Recording a drum kit is possibly the most complex and costly thing to do right, and the next post deals with bands who want to record with Pro Tools. However, if you’re dead set on recording “real” drums at home, there’s always the “Glyn Johns” method. Glyn Johns was a recording engineer from the sixtiess through the eighties, responsible for some hit songs from the royalty of rock. He pioneered a technique to record drums with only four microphones which is still used today. Google “glyn johns four microphones” or take a look at this tutorial.
For many of us, access to real drums (and the ability to play them) isn’t an everyday possibility - and Pro Tools allows you to write and record every day, when the mood strikes. Having a realistic drum track going sure is inspiring - so what else can you do?
Pro Tools ships with BFD light, a decent drum software package. With BFD you can assign drums to various keys on a MIDI keyboard and write that way, or use included “loops” - sections of complete drum parts that may represent a verse, a chorus, or a break. By ordering these parts along a timeline, you can have a realistic drum performance.
There are also collections of recorded drum loops you can buy, and arrange them into songs. I’m no expert on that, but a lot of people love it.
My drum software of choice is Strike, made by Digidesign and designed for Pro Tools. Strike has hundreds of pre-recorded styles of kits and parts, which you can “chain” into complete songs. You can also edit every individual part, moving drum hits around to match your song. It can sound extremely “real”, and if you’re up for bit of a learning curve, it’s a powerful instrument. (Powerful enough to bring a slower computer to its knees though… keep this in mind, and check out the “latency” post for some work arounds).
For starters, nothing sounds quite like a real bass guitar. Pro Tools ships with XPand!, which is sort of a sample-based synthesizer with a range of bass guitar sounds… you’ll need a MIDI keyboard to use it properly, like this one:
… and there’s plenty of others out there.
But, if you’re a guitarist, consider buying a cheap bass and learning to play it. I find writing and playing bass parts to be a lot of fun. I’m not the greatest bass player, so I record three or four takes and cut and paste a track together, which is usually good enough to get the feel and idea across (and show a “real” bass player what I’m after!)
WHAT ABOUT STRINGS, PIANOS, PERCUSSION, CHOIRS…
XPand! has a pretty nice range of all those sounds. And there’s a world of third party software out there that plugs right into Pro Tools, too, from crazy ethnic instruments to choirs to… well, you name it. But XPand! is a great songwriter’s tool, not only for those huge swelling string sections, but also for simple seasoning like shakers and tambourines.
The latest version of Pro Tools also ships with some other cool things:
a basic drum machine
A monophonic vacuum tube synthesizer - think retro synth leads and techno.
A set of sampled grand piano sounds.
DB-33 tonewheel organ emulator (think Hammond B-3) with rotating speaker simulation
A limited sample player
A guitar amp emulator - plug your guitar straight into Pro Tools, out comes a Marshall stack - that’s the idea anyway.
All of that stuff adds to the Pro Tools learning curve - but it’s easier than you think to get started.