Songwriting in Pro Tools
Illustration by John Hersey

Songwriting in Pro Tools

with David Franz

Video: Starting from scratch in a new project

Let's get started by creating a brand new session. Now, I want to save this.

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Watch the Online Video Course Songwriting in Pro Tools
1h 2m Beginner Apr 25, 2014

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Everyone writes songs in their own way. Some start with a melody or a beat, some start with a lyric. Whatever your starting point, you need to get your ideas down quickly, and then polish them into demos worth presenting to partners, producers, and record labels. Pro Tools can help. It's one of the programs professional musicians and songwriters turn to for writing, recording, and mixing songs. In this short course, David Franz takes you from an initial seed-idea to a great sounding demo song, showing you how to find the best tempo, meter, and key; add in vocals, drums, and hooks; and put together a dynamic mix using effects like EQ, compression, and reverb and delay. These 10 simple steps can guide anyone with an idea and a little musical ability through the process of capturing a song idea before the inspiration fades.

Look for more courses in our Songwriting series in 2014! We'll cover Logic, GarageBand, and other popular DAWs.

Audio + Music
Pro Tools
David Franz

Starting from scratch in a new project

Let's get started by creating a brand new session. I'm going to get Pro Tools up and running here, and I'll go through the session parameters and set up the tracks needed to capture a song idea and build a demo. Then I'll show you how to make a template that you can start working from so you can skip building a session every time you want to work on a new song. So, I've got the Quick Start window open here. And, the create blank session is what we're going to choose. We'll get into the session parameters here, and I'm going to choose WAV files. And for this particular one, I'm going to choose 16 bit and 48k as the sampling rate.

However, you may want to choose a higher bit depth for higher quality recordings. And even so, a higher sampling rate for that same purpose. But I'm going to keep mine at 16 and 48 for now. And not worry about the rest of this stuff, and click OK. Now, I want to save this. And so I'll call this df song template. And I'm going to save this into the exercise files folder. So, now we have blank Pro Tool session. And the first thing you want to do is check the setup. Let's do the play back engine and make sure that's set up for any hardware interface that you might have.

Or, in this case, I'm just using the Pro Tool's Aggregate IO, which is, basically, on my Mac, the input and output from the 8th inch jacks on the side of the computer. We can keep the rest of this the same here and I might actually reduce this down to 128 for the hardware buffer size. That reduces the amount of latency when you're recording. And you can go lower than 128, but we'll just keep it at 128 for now. Click OK, and so, our hardware is definitely set up. Now let's add some tracks.

So, we can go Track>New, and I'm going to add four audio tracks. I'm going to add two stereo instrument tracks. I'll add two stereo aux tracks for our effects loops, and I'll add one stereo master fader track. That's my usual setup for getting started with the session here. So, you'll see, you've got all these tracks. I'm going to reduce the size of these, so I'm going to press Option and click this little area here and drag.

And now we can see all of the tracks in the session. One other track that I want to add is the click track, so if we go to Track>Create Click Track, we'll add a little click track and I like having that actually all the way at the top of the session so that I can see that it's on and turn it off if I need to. Now, let's check some of the basics of what we're looking at here in the window. We're looking at bars and beats, which I think is good. But you can change the time scale if you like. I'm going to just keep it as bars and beats. And, if you need to show any of these other ones, that's cool but I think this is the basic setup we need.

Markers, tempo, minutes and seconds, bars and beats. That's the basics. Also, we want to check the Edit window view selector and see that we have, you know, the inserts here, Sense, IO. We don't really need the real time properties usually. So, let me get of those. Give us more real estate on the edit window here. And now I'm going to go ahead and set the inputs. So, in this particular case, I'm going to be going into the built in input one for all of these. So, I'll just go ahead and choose that for all four of these audio tracks.

On the instrument tracks, we need to set them up with an instrument. And so, in this particular case, I'm going to choose Mini Grand for this track. And it'll load up. And then, down here on the second one, I'm going to choose expand. Because I think I might use that for drums. So, I'll pull those up. So, now we have our audio tracks and our instrument tracks ready for input. What's next? Well, because this is a template, we might as well add some plugins that we might want to use across these tracks. So, I want to add the channel strip here and let me just show you a trick here.

Well, I am going to grab this, press the Option key or Alt on a PC. And click and drag. And now we have the channel strip on there. When we open this up, nothing is happening in here yet. So, we could choose various presets, but because we don't know what track's going to be on here yet, I don't want to choose a preset yet. Close that up. And we'll go down to these aux tracks, and set them up for a reverb and a delay effects loop. So, I am going to go ahead and choose D-verb for this and we'll leave it on it's default setting. We'll choose a delay plug-in here and we'll do the mod delay, again leaving that on it's default.

And to get an effects loop, you need to set the input of the auxiliary track to a bus. Now, I've opened this up, and we actually see that all of these buses have been renamed. So, I don't want to see that in my template. So, I'm going to go to Setup > IO. Go to the Bus tab. Click Default, and now I have all of my buses renamed to generic names. So, I can rename them myself if I want. I'll click OK, come down here, back to the input, choose Bus one and two.

And bus three and four here. I'm going to right click on the name of this and that brings up this menu and I can rename this. And we can call this reverb one. I'll do the same here. Rename delay one. Now, if I go to the sends on any track, I can chose the bus, reverb. And I'll do the same here. So now, I can put reverb and delay on both of these tracks. And the volume is down on both of them automatically.

So, we aren't sending any effects. But what this does is, any audio that's on this track can be sent through these sends to the input down here on these aux tracks and that's how you create an effects loop. Let me show you a trick here too. If I highlight all six of these tracks, so I press Shift and clicked here and then down here, highlighting all these tracks. Now if I press Shift+Option on a Mac or Shift+Alt on a PC, can go to Bus >Reverb one, and it adds that send to all six of the tracks.

I'll do the same for delay. And there we go. So let's test this out really quick. I'm going to record enable this track which has the mini grand on it. And I'll open up the reverb send. I'll play a few notes. Let me add some reverb. You can hear that, and you can also see it Right there, in the aux track. While we're at it, I always encourage everyone to rename their tracks, so that you always know where all your signals are going. And we'll do the same here, piano, this will be, we'll call it drums, we don't know if that's going to be drums or not, but for these other audio tracks, we don't know what you're going to record on there yet, so let's not name those just yet.

And the final thing that I want to add here is the maxim plug in here on the master fader. And I'm just going to do a basic, just drag this down to about 0.6, and this down to about 0.1, 0.2. What this does is it limits the output level so that we never have distortion or peaks coming out of our master fader. So, we'll leave that on there, and now we have a fully completed template that would be great to get started writing a track. So, we'll go over to the File menu, choose Save As Template, and I'm going to go in here to the Categories, and choose Add Category.

I'll call this df Templates. And here it is, df Song Template right there. Click OK. And now, it is saved as a template. So, if we end up closing this session, save it, and if we go to Open a New Session, Create Session from Template, I can choose from my own folder of templates, dfF Templates, there it is. Boom. Click OK, we'll name the new session. Now, this saves you from overwriting your song template, so we'll call this the New Song.

And here it is. Our template opens up, it's ready to record. All you gotta do is plug in and start writing.

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