Avid’s Pro Tools is a beast. Over its 34-year lifespan, the popular editing app has continually added more features. And now? It’s packed with functionally that even an entire career in audio post may never uncover. Just the same, tucked away within the thousands of features are valuable tricks to help work faster and wiser.
Some of the most valuable Pro Tools tips are those that deal with the laborious tasks of mixing and automation. How do you automate your mixes better? How can you uncover cool Pro Tools mixing tricks?
The staff at Pole Position Production wondered the same. Thankfully, Pole sound editor and designer Eric Thorsell shared 3 cool Pro Tools tips at our staff linear workshop earlier this year.
Let’s learn more.
Pro Tools Tips and Tricks for Mixing and Automation
When it comes to audio post and mixing dramatic projects, having a tight grip on mixing and automation is vital. These projects can easily sprawl to host hundreds of tracks. Eric has decades of experience working with these kinds of projects. Over time, he has discovered time-saving productivity optimization tricks to help control mixes and wrangle automation to work faster, better, and cultivate a streamlined workflow. Here are three of his top Pro Tools tips for mixing and automation:
- VCA faders.
- Suspend automation preview mode.
- Grabbing automation lanes.
NOTE: we use MacOS key commands in this post. For the equivalent PC keystrokes, swap “control” for “command”.
Huge sessions can quickly grow out of control. Imagine a post-production session with dialogue, music, Foley, and effects, each with dozens of tracks within them. Perhaps you’ll create a Pro Tools “group” for every one. Some, like the effects, may have sub groups, such as groups for ambiences, for a gunshot sequence, for a vehicle chase, and more.
Organizing each of these categories of sounds into Pro Tools groups allows you to adjust the levels of each track in that group as one. It’s simple, group the similar tracks together (command g), then drag the fader for any one of the tracks on the mix desk. The levels will all rise and fall together. That way, 5 stereo pairs of ambient traffic, crowd, rain, and so on can be ganged together to increase and decrease in gain as one.
But what if you want to tweak those ambiences a bit? Maybe your original settings were a bit off, and the gain of the rain needs to be diminished. Normally, you would suspend the group (command shift g). That allows you to adjust an individual track. When your touch-ups are done, activate the group again to return to normal.
It’s simple enough, however over the course of a mix it can quickly become annoying. Fear not, VCA faders are here to help.
VCA (Voltage Control Amplifier) faders were originally found on hardware mixing desks. They allowed mixers to control volume levels of several mixer channels with only one fader. In Pro Tools, it does the same: the VCA controls the level of all the tracks in a Pro Tools group. The cool thing is that once a group’s tracks are assigned to a VCA fader, you can also adjust the individual tracks without affecting the others. So it has the best of both worlds: adjusting the level of all tracks in a group, but allowing independent control of each track.
How to Create VCA Faders
- Select the tracks you would like to control: click on the first track, hold shift, then click on the last.
- Create a group (command g) and give it a name.
- Create a new track (command shift n). The new track window will appear.
- Select VCA Fader from the drop down.
- In the mix desk, find your VCA fader. Click the “no group” button to display your list of groups, and choose the group you created in step 2.
That’s it! Now every track in your group is controlled by the VCA fader. Raising and lowering the VCA gain will affect the level of every track in the group.
This way, with our ambience tracks all assigned to a VCA fader, we can adjust the gain for them all at once, and also pop into the rain track to tweak its individual level. No more need to suspend or activate groups.
Here’s a YouTube video that explains more:
It has been said that VCA faders would be redundant with the introduction of folder tracks and routing folder tracks, since those can now easily solo or mute all of their members among other useful things. But VCA faders are different than Pro Tools’s aux or routing track folders. How? Well, no information is actually sent to the fader. That’s why the VCA track doesn’t have inserts, sends, inputs, or outputs. Instead, the VCA track is purely about allowing ease of control. The VCA fader will adjust the separate level of each track in the group, whereas a routing folder fader will adjust the mixed sum of all tracks that are assigned to its bus. This means that if you have dynamic processing such as compression involved in your bus chain, the VCA will affect how hard the compressor is actually hit while the routing folder approach would just change the output level of its bus.
Eric found that VCA faders are an excellent way to wrangle control of big drama mixes. They’re easy to stack, and it’s simple to progressively build groups that drill down deeper into the tracks. They’re especially helpful with Foley, since often they send less to reverb when their level is diminished – that’s different than a routing track, where the amount of reverb is constant, regardless of what level the track is set at.
Suspend Automation Preview Mode
Gone are the days when a row of mixers worked side-by-side to adjust levels in real time. Now, mix automation records and recreates these adjustments instead.
In Pro Tools, typically a mixer will write automation, recording level changes to the automation graph. If you don’t like your work, you’ll undo it, and try another pass to get it right. That means every attempt will need to build upon previous automation work.
Wouldn’t it be great to simply try some changes and mix from a clean slate? Then, if you like it, apply it when you’re done?
Enter Pro Tools’s automation preview mode. It allows mixers to test mixing and automation free from existing automation levels. As a bonus, the automation work is saved, and if you like, it can be applied after the playback is stopped. So, those commitment-free real-time changes in playback can be applied to static tracks later.
Automation preview suspend mode allows for easy A/B comparisons. It releases a mixer from committing automation, but allows them the flexibility to apply it if they like.
Eric explained more:
“There are two levels of previewing automation in Pro Tools. If you just hit automation preview you can adjust your mix without committing the changes. All automation is still playing, but you can select things to adjust and have those stop responding to any recorded automation.
“For example, if you have a complicated EQ sweep across multiple bands in one plug-in, you can grab just one of the bands to try different settings while the others keep moving as before. When you’re done you can either discard the changes by exiting preview mode, or write them to update your mix.
“BUT if you’re not sure if you prefer your new settings over the previous ones you can also engage “suspend automation preview” mode. This means your preview settings aren’t gone when you exit preview, like they normally would be. Instead, suspend preview allows you to toggle back and forth between your previous mix and your updates to compare them over and over again, making adjustments to the preview in the process if you want.”
How to Set up Preview Automation and Suspend Preview Automation
- Open the automation window (command numpad 4).
- Click the “Preview” button.
- Playback your tracks and adjust your automation normally.
- Not satisfied? Simply un-click the Preview button and the changes will be forgotten.
- Want to compare your changes to the existing mix? Command + click the Preview button to toggle between the previous and the preview settings.
- Want to commit the preview automation? Select the span of audio for which you’d like to apply the automation, then click one of the Manual Write buttons in the automation window to commit it.
Bonus tip: do you find you like your changes while you’re playing back? Click the down arrow next to the preview button to punch in and write your preview automation during playback.
Keep in mind that the preview mode allows you to adjust any setting at will, but for doing gradual movements such as fades, you’ll have to be in write or touch mode.
Eric finds Pro Tools is excellent for automation, especially for film mixes. The preview automation mode is helpful to tweak filters, volume, aux sends, and more, and do so across hundreds of tracks. It’s an effortless way to try out a completely different balance of the tracks – and if you like the preview, it’s a simple matter to commit the new adjustments. Thorsell has found automation preview mode is excellent when you have clients in the room and need to share with them different mixing options quickly.
Grab Automation Lanes
Over the course of a mix you’ll find you’ll have written hours of automation. Perhaps some of it will be track levels. Some may be panning. Others may automate plug-in changes. The result? Any given single Pro Tools track may have dozens of “lanes” or types of automation. Tracking down and adjusting any of them is not an easy task. It requires sifting through all the automation previously written for that track.
Eric showed the Pole team how to quickly select the proper automation lane and display it in the edit window. Here’s how:
How to Grab Automation Lanes
For this example, let’s imagine we have automated adjusting a dB setting for SoundToys’s SIE-Q. So, we would like to recall that dB adjustment setting, and display it in the edit window for it to be tweaked.
- Bring the plug-in to the foreground.
- Hold down control and command and click the plug-in knob you had written automation. The automation lane will be displayed in the edit window.
Here’s a video that explains more.
Eric uses this quick tip to quickly pop into a track to make adjustments: to draw the automation and shape it, and make quick edits. It saves the hassle of trying to find the precise automation lane, helps him make changes, and get back to work swiftly.