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Avid Pro Tools: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Avid Pro Tools: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Avid’s Pro Tools is the industry standard DAW in professional recording facilities around the world.

It was one of the first digital audio workstations to convince engineers to shift their workflow to computers.

But Pro Tools is a popular DAW for emerging producers too.

So what exactly makes this classic recording software so well-liked? What are its most important features, and how can you decide if it’s for you?

If you’re just getting started with music production it can be difficult to get a clear picture.

In this article, I’ll break down everything you need to know about Pro Tools in 2022 and how to decide if it’s the right DAW for your workflow.

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Pro Tools basics

Pro Tools is a DAW that can trace its roots back to the first era of digital recording technology.

Originally developed by Digidesign, the modern-day recording and mixing environment began as a limited audio editing and recording program called Sound Tools in 1989.

As computer technology improved, Pro Tools emerged as the first-choice DAW of professional studios. By the early 2000s it was widely adopted by the industry in the majority of commercial facilities.

The original Pro Tools relied on companion DSP hardware to work. These are special computer chips designed specifically to handle audio tasks.

DSP was necessary at the time since ordinary computers couldn’t sustain the high track counts needed for professional workflows.

Pro Tools is a DAW that can trace its roots back to the first era of digital recording technology.

Systems like this are still available, but DSP hardware is no longer required to run all versions of the software. This means it’s less expensive than ever for emerging producers to start using Pro Tools.

However, Pro Tools relies on the iLok standard of license management. That means you’ll need a hardware iLok to on hand whenever you plan to use it. Some users might be put off by this requirement!

Today, Pro Tools comes in a variety of editions that cater to every skill level, despite maintaining its pro features.

In a nutshell, Pro Tools is probably right for you if:

  • You record traditional musicians and instrument parts on a linear timeline
  • You need the fastest and most flexible audio editing workflow available
  • You need a no-compromise mixing environment
  • You’d eventually like to work as a professional engineer in a commercial studio

Why is Pro Tools so popular?

As I mentioned above, Pro Tools was among the first DAWs to gain traction in the commercial studio industry.

That gave it a big advantage in the market since most professional engineers knew and preferred its workflow.

But Pro Tools has a number of qualities that make it a great choice for producers with particular needs.

Preview of youtube video


I’ll break down the main benefits Pro Tools has over other DAWs.

Pro Tools pioneered the basics of non-destructive audio editing in its early days.

Audio editing

First off, Pro Tools pioneered the basics of non-destructive audio editing in its early days. It’s still one of the best platforms in this crucial area thanks to features like Beat Detective and Elastic Audio.

Pro Tools makes it extremely easy to manipulate audio for any situation you’d encounter in music production.

Aligning material to the tempo grid, comping, copy/pasting and merging entire sections of music are fast and easy once you learn the basic functions.

Applying fades, managing multiple versions of tracks and other important organizational tasks are just as seamless.

If you need professional-level editing capabilities, you may find Pro Tools has the best workflow.

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Stability

Pro Tools was built to meet the needs of demanding professional audio engineers.

For expensive paid sessions, downtime due to technical difficulties wastes precious time and money.

It’s one of the main reasons Pro Tools is among the most stable DAWs for core activities like recording many tracks at once.

If you’re using your DAW for critical tasks where failure isn’t an option, Pro Tools should be on your list to try.

Hot tip: Every home studio setup is different. Performance and stability are never guaranteed, so make sure you test with a trial version of Pro Tools if these issues are important to your workflow.

How to buy Pro Tools

Pro Tools has evolved since its early days into a complex ecosystem of products with different tiers, price points and capabilities.

Like many software giants in the creative tools space, Avid recently updated its pricing to a subscription model.

This certainly raised some eyebrows among long-time users, but it allows the company to offer its standard and introductory editions for an extremely low price yearly or month-to-month.

On top of that, Avid recently changed their naming conventions for Pro Tools products, so I’ll also refer to the previous designations of each subscription level to clear up any confusion.

Here’s a quick guide to each tier, including their price, hardware requirements, limitations and upgrade paths.

Pro Tools Intro

Avid debuted the first ever free edition of Pro Tools in 2022 with Pro Tools Intro.

The only thing you’ll need to access this limited version of PT is an active iLok account.

Pro Tools Intro is a fully functional DAW with heavily limited track count, so you can think of it almost like a demo version of the software.

But if you’re looking to learn this sometimes challenging DAW without paying a dime, you now have a way!

Pro Tools Intro is limited to 8 audio tracks, 8 audio tracks, 4 aux channels and 4 simultaneous recording tracks.

Pro Tools Artist

Pro Tools Artist replaces the free Pro Tools First as the least expensive edition of Pro Tools.

It’s aimed at emerging creators who need the best possible value in a DAW.

Pro Tools First was a notable free recording app that came with significant limitations. It was the successor to Pro Tools LE, which was packaged with early audio interfaces like Digidesign’s own MBox.

Unlike these earlier editions, Pro Tools Artist does not require any proprietary hardware other than iLok.

However, it’s limited to 32 audio tracks, 32 auxes, 32 instrument tracks, 64 MIDI tracks and 16 channels of simultaneous I/O.
It’s a fair bit of horsepower for beginner and intermediate producers that feels like a solid introductory deal for $99 USD / year.

Pro Tools Studio

Formerly known as Pro Tools, Pro Tools Studio is the middle-tier edition of Avid’s DAW.

With few limitations and no hardware requirement, it’s the most enticing option for the majority of serious creators.

With few limitations and no hardware requirement, Pro Tools Studio the most enticing option for the majority of serious creators.

You’ll still find some limits on tracks and I/O, but the maximum audio track count has doubled from 256 in the previous edition to 512.

With 64 channels of simultaneous I/O, Pro Tools Studio will fit the needs of all but the most demanding workflows.

This tier comes in at $299 USD per year, which may seem like a daunting commitment for emerging producers.

Even so, it’s still great value for one of the best DAWs available today.

Hot tip: Whichever pricing package you choose, Pro Tools software revisions are now named according to the year of release. As of this writing, the latest version of the software is Pro tools 2022.5

Pro Tools Flex

Replacing the hardware-only Pro Tools Ultimate is the top-tier Pro Tools Flex.

With this edition of Pro Tools, Avid has focused on bundling hardware to meet the needs of large facilities and post-production audio professionals. It’s the reason why the systems for sale today include the Pro Tools Flex Software, HDX cards and Avid I/O interface in one package.

Of course, this version of Pro Tools requires HDX or HD Native DSP hardware to function.

HDX cards are made to be connected inside your computer in PCIe slots while HD Native cards are available in a standalone enclosure with Thunderbolt connection.

Both include proprietary connections to Avid interfaces that provide the fastest possible connection with Pro Tools software. They also allow tracking in real-time with Avid’s AAX DSP plugins that are unique to the HDX ecosystem.

This extra DSP power makes it possible to run the truly enormous sessions required to record orchestras or mix film soundtracks.

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As such, these Pro Tools configurations aren’t usually recommended for emerging producers or even small studios.

Additional benefits of Pro Tools

The main Pro Tools software application isn’t all you’ll get with the new subscription editions of Pro Tools.

Each package includes a robust selection of included AAX Native plugins. You’ll find Avid’s respected take on some classic hardware with the BF76 and BF2A, along with their emulations of the Fairchild compressors and Pultec EQs.

Add in a utilitarian channel strip, digital EQ and dynamics suite and all editions of Pro Tools come stock with enough plugin firepower for a full mix.

Not only that, subscribers to all tiers gain access to Avid’s Inner Circle program which includes free offers from a wide variety of third-party developers.

Subscribers to all tiers gain access to Avid’s Inner Circle program which includes free offers from a wide variety of third-party developers.

You’ll find excellent instruments, effects and sound libraries from companies like Antares, Baby Audio and IK Multimedia.

You’ll also receive partner promotions for exclusive deals and discounts on audio software to help you build your studio collection.

Hot tip: Avid Inner Circle members get two free months of LANDR Studio and LANDR FX Bass. LANDR Studio includes the greatest hits of the LANDR platform for the best price ever. You’ll get monthly mastering credits, unlimited distribution, samples credits, plugins and more. Check out everything Studio has to offer here.

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Getting started with Pro Tools

No matter which version you choose, getting started with Pro Tools means learning your way around a few key functions.

I’ll break down the basics to give you a tour of the essential features.

Tracks

Pro Tools allows you to create 9 distinct track types. They are:

  • Audio
  • Aux input
  • Master
  • MIDI
  • Instrument
  • Video
  • VCA
  • Basic folder track
  • Routing folder

Audio tracks are the basic type you’ll use to record or manipulate audio files on the timeline.

Aux inputs are for routing signals within the Pro Tools mixer and do not include audio recording functions.

Both tracks come in mono or stereo configurations depending on the type of source used.

Hot tip: Adding a new send on a mixer track in Pro Tools won’t automatically create and route an aux return input like in some DAWs. You’ll have to set them up yourself and configure the correct inputs and outputs.

Instrument tracks allow you to send MIDI to virtual instrument plugins and apply inserts and send effects.

MIDI capture MIDI data from a control and route it within Pro Tools or to hardware MIDI gear.

Hot tip: Double clicking a MIDI region on the timeline will bring up the piano roll editor window for fine tuning MIDI arrangements.

VCA tracks allow you to control multiple faders without linking them in a group or passing audio through an aux channel. They’re helpful for managing levels and automation in large sessions.

Folder tracks let you tuck away groups of related tracks to keep your project organized.

Video tracks allow you to add video files to the timeline for soundtracks and post-production work.

Finally, Master fader tracks create a mix bus track that’s set up to serve as the main output for your entire session.

Playlists and comping

As I mentioned above, Pro Tools has a unique system for managing multiple takes of a performance.

When you create a multi-track recording, each musician has their chance to record their part individually. Most players make several passes of each section and punch in to fix problem areas.

This process results in dozens of takes with only short segments of usable material within them.

When Quick Punch is active, tracks that are record armed will capture audio regardless of whether the transport is in playback or record mode.

Luckily, Pro Tools allows you to store multiple takes over the same segment of the timeline with the playlists feature.

By creating a new playlist for each pass, you can choose the best moments from each and promote them to the main take. This process is called comping and it’s a fundamental skill for any producer to learn.

Preview of youtube video


Playlists can also be duplicated, allowing you to preserve earlier versions of any audio file in your project.

This helps make sure you never lose important material, even if you perform a destructive editing operation.

Quick Punch

Quick Punch is a unique feature in Pro Tools that’s made to help with overdubs and punching in.

When Quick Punch is active, tracks that are record armed will capture audio regardless of whether the transport is in playback or record mode.

That means you can start playback and punch in on the fly just like an old-school analog tape machine. However, since recording begins as soon as the transport is active, you can drag the left corner of the region back to find an ideal edit point.

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Beat Detective

As I mentioned before, Beat Detective is a respected Pro Tools feature for editing audio.

It’s most often used to align percussive material to the tempo grid.

But unlike methods based on pitch shifting or time stretching, Beat Detective works by detecting transients in the recorded material and slicing the file into new clips.

With a precise cut made at the transient, these new clips can be quantized like samples to bar and beat divisions.

To stitch it back together, Beat Detective automatically extends the edges of the regions and creates crossfades for seamless playback.

Elastic Audio

While Beat Detective is perfect for percussive sounds, Elastic Audio is Pro Tools’ editing tool for tonal material and sustained sounds.

It makes time stretching notes and chords easy and transparent to help you get your tracks in time.

New in the latest Pro Tools

Avid’s update to the Pro Tools Range includes some new features to help users get the most out of the DAW.

Here are a few the highlights in Pro Tools 2022

Hot tip: It’s worth noting that despite being available for more than two years, Apple computers with M1 chips still aren’t natively supported in Pro Tools 2022.5. That doesn’t mean they are incompatible, you’ll just have to use the Rosetta translation layer to run Pro Tools software until native compatibility is introduced.

Preview of youtube video

Heat

Many engineers miss the warmth and subtle saturation of an analog console’s summing bus when working in a DAW.

There’s an ongoing debate in the pro audio community about the quality of the signal summing itself, but there’s no denying the positive effect of subtle saturation that some analog gear can produce.

Pro Tools 2022.5 includes the new Heat control that can add the flavor of analog summing to your session in measured amounts.

Preview of youtube video

Dolby Atmos

Spacial audio is the latest multichannel format redefining how listeners experience music.

Dolby Atmos is a specification for the medium that promises to deliver the most immersive sound yet.

Naturally, mix engineers are looking to current generation DAWs for audio production tools for these new formats. Pro Tools 2022 offers a variety of features to help you if you decide to dive into three-dimensional audio.

Professional tools for all producers

Pro Tools is one of the deepest and most mature audio production software suites on the market.

Learning it may seem like an enormous project, but it’s not as daunting as it appears. After all, every function in Pro Tools is there for a single purpose—making music!
If you’re looking for a DAW that meets the professional standards of the commercial recording industry, there’s no other choice.

But even if you’re just looking for a solid production environment with great features for working with audio Pro Tools should be on your list to try.

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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