Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Staying organized: labeling tracks and clips, part of Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering.
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I truly believe an effectively organized session--or what I like to call good Pro Tools hygiene--can take a lot of the mystery out of the mixing process and can really help you stay focused and on the task at hand. Rather than racing around a huge session looking for unnamed mystery tracks labeled audio 7 or sorting through a list of thousands of unused clips, a clean and organized session is not only an efficient way to work, it's an absolute necessity when working on collaborative projects with other engineers.
Let me show you a few things that I do to every session before I even touch a single fader. Now, the Take Me Down session that I have open right now is a really good example of a session that's already been organized. But to take you through a roadmap of what I would do is that always start a mix by doing a Save As. So, File > Save As, and I'm just going to append a new version name to this session. And what this allows me to do is it allows me to archive my mix process, or separate the mix process from the editing and recording processes, where I can actually go back like little breadcrumbs and find my way back to different parts of the mix.
And what I do is I create different revisions as I'll go and do a Save As, and we know that a Save As does not save the audio, it just saves the session document as a new file. So all this session is doing is pointing back to the same audio files in the audio files directory. So I'm going to call this my initial mix, and if I was doing a revision, I might do something like rev1, 2, 3, 4, et cetera. That way I can always get back to the clean unmixed session--or if I'm mixing for a client, I can always get back to what their mix sounded like.
So, if they said, "Hey Brian, I kind of want you to have the vocal a little bit more like I gave you in the rough mix." If I'd just blown right over their mix and just started saving right into the same document, I wouldn't really have that reference anymore. Now, once I have done a Save As and I have a new file to work on, I'm going to start by working through the labeling of the tracks and the clips. So if any tracks aren't labeled--let's say they are called audio 1, audio 2 as opposed to Kick, Snare, Hi-Hat-- what I'm going to do is I'm going to double-click on the track name and label it.
Here I also have the option of giving a comment to that track. Now I want to pay attention to these comments. If I need to make any notes I'm going to make them in the Comments, but I also want to make sure--if this isn't my session--I want to see if the engineer before we had left any comments. Now, you can show the comments in either the Edit or the Mix view by going to View > Edit Window View > Comments or in the Mix window, View > Mix Window View > Comments, and you can edit them simply by just clicking and typing.
It's that easy. So, I use comments quite a bit to take notes as I'm mixing. Now, once you've labeled all your tracks, you also want to manage the labeling of your clips. So, a track name here doesn't necessarily have to share the same clip name of any clips that live on that track. So what I can do is to label a clip, I can use my grabber tool and I can double-click on any clip and I can choose to see Tomborine. That's wrong. I'm going to change that to Tamborine, and I'm going to name the clip and the disk file.
That's actually going to name the file on the hard drive. Now, if I wanted to access this file on older sessions, I might choose to only name the clip Tamborine. I don't want to rename the actual disk file in case I'm pointing to that disk file from other sessions. So, I'm going to click OK there. Now, the other thing I'd like to do with my clips is if I have a high edit density--that is to say, let's say I had a track that had quite a few edits or cuts in it, like so.
Now the problem with that is that creates an issue for pulling those files from the hard drive, especially if we've got lots of little clips playing back-to-back and they're representing lots of different files on that hard drive. What happens is your hard drive has to pull this file, then it has to pull that file, and that can really slow your system down, especially when you have 50-60 tracks with high edit density in your session, like you did beat detective to your drums or something like that. So, what I'll do is I'll actually consolidate the clips before I mix to make things a little easier on my computer.
So, I'll just triple-click to select all the clips on a track, and then I will choose Edit > Consolidate Clip. And what that's going to do is going to fuse all those clips together into one new audio file on the hard drive, and that makes it a little bit easier on the hard drive when streaming that back. Now, inevitably what I'm going to have in any big session that's gone through a lot of editing is quite a few extra clips in the Clips List over here, ones that I'm not using. So if those are distracting me from the task of mixing, I'm going to go ahead and I'm going to clear out the unused clips by choosing the Clips List pop-up menu, and I'm going to choose Select and I'm going to choose Select > Unused.
Now I can also choose Unused Except Whole Files, and what that's going to do, it's going to select everything that's not a bold region or representing a whole file or a wave file on the hard drive. Now I can actually choose from the Clips pop-up menu, Clear, and I can remove all that mess. Now, you might get a little error message that says, "Hey, that's used in the Undo queue," or that's something in your clipboard. Well, in this case this was just using in my Undo queue, so I'm just going to go ahead and say Yes.
And here's a little trick to keep the menu from keep popping-up saying Yes, Yes, Yes. You can hold down Option on the Mac, or Alt on the PC, and that says Yes to All. And so that'll clear out my Clips List, make everything really clean and organized for me to continue on with the mix. Now, something that a lot of mixers like to do before they start mixing is change the order of the tracks as they display in both the Edit window and the Mix window. Now, if we switch to the Mix window, what we know about Pro Tools is that the Mix and the Edit window are kind of tied hand-in-hand so that the order in the Edit window is going to be the same in the Mix window.
Now, some mixers like to have their drum tracks all the way to the left, some of them like to have their vocal tracks or their master fader all the way to the left. It doesn't matter how you organize your tracks. All that matters is that you use a consistent system, so that when you're working on a big session you're not scrolling all over the place trying to find your drum tracks, your vocal, your aux returns. Now for me, if we take a look at the example session, I've got my drums starting at the left, then I move to percussion to the tamborine and shaker, then I've got the bass guitar, the electric guitars, rhythm, the electric guitar leads and tops, my keys, the B3, then I have my lead vocal and my background vocals.
Now, after that, I've got all of my effects returns all the way to the right-hand side of my mix and eventually my master fader. Now, you don't have to do it this way. This is just a way that I like to do it. Every mixer kind of has their own little system, but try to come up with a system that's consistent for you, so that you're not scrolling around all over the place. Now, if you find yourself working in a really large session, a cool trick is this Scroll to Track key command. So what you can do in your Tracks list is you can actually use Ctrl+Shift on the Mac, or Start+Shift on the PC, and click on a track, and that's going to quickly scroll into view-- either the Mix or the Edit window.
So that's really neat if you're working in a 60-70 track session. The Tracks list clearly shows a nice text list of all your tracks, and if I just want to grab the Tele Main electric guitar, boom! There it is. The other cool thing about this is if you're using a control surface, it's automatically going to bank that track to your leftmost fader. Now, some people like to color code their elements, tracks and clips. You can do this via Window > Color palette. It's really easy.
All you have to do is select an element like a track and choose a color. Now, in this session I've done some arbitrary color coding, and again, this is one of those things that you really need to come up with either a system of your own--or if you're working in a team-- come up with a system that works for you. I've got my drum tracks, they're green. Your drum tracks could be yellow. All that matters is that you're staying organized and using a consistent system that you're going to remember. Now, another thing I'd like to label-- and this is one of the things I find that few people take advantage of in Pro Tools--is the I/O pathnames.
Now, you might notice in this session that my sends and my inputs and outputs are actually labeled, things like Bass Bus. So I can see the Bass is going out the Bass Bus, and I'm picking it up on this aux track. That's my return there. I can see when I'm using my reverbs. I've actually labeled them Room Verb, Short Delay. And the trick to doing this is using Setup > I/O Setup, and I/O Setup allows you to label all your Input-Output and Bus pathways, so that instead of seeing Bus 1 and 2, Bus 3 and 4, you're actually seeing a name that represents what you're using it for.
Now, what I'd like to do is a little trick. If I'm inside the mixer, I can right- click on any element and choose Rename and rename it right there without having to go into I/O Setup. Now I'd like to use consistent names in my sessions, but the bottom-line is in a big session, if you're using 30-40 buses, you're really not going to know what Bus 5 and 6 is at a glance. You're going to have to trace it down and see where it's going, whereas if I label my I/O pathways--something like Room Verb-- I instantly know at a glance where that send is going and where it's going to be picked up on the other end.
Now, one thing I do often in a very complex session is something entirely outside of Pro Tools, and that's create a session text document in Notepad or Text Editor. And in that I'll add any additional information that's not going to fit in the Comments view. So, maybe the lyrics, the key and the tempo of this song, maybe some tracking notes about what gear I used, or if I'm using outboard gear I'll have some recall settings. I've even seen engineers take pictures of their mic placement and their outboard gear with a digital camera and they put that in a little sort of session info folder inside the session folder.
So, at the end of the day a well-organized session is going to run efficiently and navigate quickly and effectively. Because it's hard enough trying to make difficult aesthetic decisions in a mix without having to hunt down tracks when creativity calls. This is actually such a big topic of discussion amongst professional Pro Tools users that an official guideline has been developed to help direct you in organizing a Pro Tools session with much more detail than I've outlined in this video. I highly recommend you do a search for the Naras Pro Tools Guidelines in Google.
You'll find a wealth of information on organizing and managing a squeaky-clean session.
- What is mixing? Exploring the past, present, and future
- Mixing "in the box"
- Setting up monitors and ensuring proper acoustics in the studio
- Staying organized with labels, memory locations, and window configurations
- Working with the Pro Tools Mixer
- Building healthy and profitable mixing habits when putting together a final mix
- Using volume and pan to balance the mix
- Employing corrective versus creative EQ strategies to create clarity and contrast
- Knowing when and when not to process the audio of a track
- Working with compressors and dynamics processors
- Using saturation effects to capture an analog-type sound
- Adding reverb and delay to create depth in a mix
- Working with limiting and multiband compression during the mastering process
- Dealing with plug-in delay and latency in a mix
- Using the bundled plug-ins in Pro Tools to add clarity, punch, and width to a mix
- Recording and editing automation to add drama and excitement
- Using clip based gain to control headroom and gain staging