Pro Tools Batch Rename & Regular Expressions

Batch renaming was introduced into Pro Tools at the end of 2017, with the 12.8.2 version. Since then, I haven’t had much of a chance to use this feature since most of my work has been mixing and sound design. Nevertheless, after some recent days of voice acting recording and all the editing associated, I have been looking a bit into this feature.

So this is a quick summary of what you can do with it with some tips and examples.

Operations

There are two batch rename windows in Pro Tools, one for clips and another for tracks. They are, for the most part, identical. You can open each of them with the following shortcuts:

  • Clips: CTRL + SHIFT + R

  • Tracks: OPTION + SHIFT + R

Both windows also have a preset manager which is great to have.

As you can see, there are four different operations you can do: Replace, Trim, Add and Numbering. As far as I can tell, the different operations are always executed from top to bottom, so keep that in mind when designing a preset. Let’s see each of them in more detail:

Replace (CMD + R) allows you to search for any combination of letters and/or numbers and replace with a different one. The “Clear Existing Name” checkbox allows you to completely remove any previous name the track or clip had. This option makes sense when you want to start from scratch and use any of the other operations (add and numbering) afterwards.

For example, let’s say you don’t like when Pro Tools adds that ugly “dup1” to your track name when duplicating them. You could use a formula like this:

Original names New names

FX 1.dup1 FX 1 Copy
FX 2.dup1 FX 2 Copy
FX 3.dup1 FX 3 Copy

You may realise that this would only work with the first copy of a track. Further copies of the same track will be named “…dup2, ...dup3” so the replace won’t work. There is a way to fix that with the last checkbox, “Regular Expressions”. This allows you to create complex and advanced functions and is where the true power of batch renaming resides. More about it later.

Trim (CMD + T) is useful when you want to shave off a known amount of characters from the beginning or end of the name. You can even use the range option to remove characters right in the middle. This of course makes the most sense when you have a consistent name length, since any difference in size will screw up the process.

So, for example, if you have the following structure and you want to remove the date, you can use the following operation:

Original names New names

Show_EP001_Line001_280819_v01 Show_EP001_Line001_v01
Show_EP001_Line002_280819_v03 Show_EP001_Line002_v03
Show_EP001_Line003_280819_v02 Show_EP001_Line003_v02

Add (CMD + D) lets you insert prefixes and suffixes, pretty much doing the opposite of Trim. You can also insert any text at a certain index in the middle of the name.

We can add to the previous example a suffix to mark the takes that are approved. It would look like this:


Original names New names

Show_EP001_Line001_v01 Show_EP001_Line001_v01_Approved
Show_EP001_Line002_v03 Show_EP001_Line002_v03_Approved
Show_EP001_Line003_v02 Show_EP001_Line003_v02_Approved

Finally, Numbering (CMD + N) is a very useful operation that allows you to add any sequence of numbers or even letters at any index. You can choose the starting number or letter and the increment value. As far as I can tell, this increment value can’t be negative. If you want to use a sequence of letters, you need to check the box “Use A..Z” and in that case the starting number 1 will correspond with the letter “A”.

If we are dealing with different layers for a sound, we could use this function to label them like so:

Original names New names

Plasma_Blaster Plasma_Blaster_A
Plasma_Blaster Plasma_Blaster_B
Plasma_Blaster Plasma_Blaster_C

As you can see, in this case, we are using letters instead of numbers and and underscore to separate them form the name. Also, you can see that in the case of clips, you can choose wether the order comes from the timeline itself of from the clip list.

Regular Expressions

Regular expressions (or regex) are kind of an unified language or syntax used in software to search, replace and validate data. As I was saying this is where the true power of batch renaming is. In fact, it may be a bit overkill for Pro Tools but let’s see some formulas and tips to use regular expressions in Pro Tools.

This stuff gets tricky fast, so you can follow along trying out the examples in Pro Tools or using https://regex101.com/.

Defining searches

First off, you need to decide what do you want to find in order to replace it or delete it (replace with nothing). For this, of course you can search for any term like “Take” or “001” but obviously, you don’t need regex for that. Regex shines when you need to find more general things like any 4 digit number or the word “Mic” followed by optional numbers. Let’s see how we can do all this with some commands and syntax:

[…] Anything between brackets is a character set. You can use “-” to describe a range. For example, “[gjk]” would search for either g, i or k, while [1-6] means any number from 1 to 6. We could use “Take[0-9]“ to search for the word “Take” followed by any 1 digit number.

Curly brackets are used to specify how many times we want to find a certain character set. For example ”[0-9]” would look for any combination of numbers that is 5 digits long. This could be useful to remove or replace a set of numbers like a date which is always constant. You can also use ”[0-9]” to search for any number which is between 5 and 8 digits. Additionally, ”[0-9]” would look for any number longer than 5 digits.

There are also certain special instructions to search for specific sets of charaqcters. “\d” looks for any digit (number) type character, while “\w” would match any letter, digit or underscore character. “\s” finds any whitespace character (normal spaces or tabs).

Modifiers

When defining searches, you can use some modifiers to add extra meaning. Here are some of the most useful:

. (dot or full stop) Matches any character. So, “Take_.” would match any character that comes after the underscore.
+ (plus sign) Any number of characters. We could use “Take_.+” to match any number of character coming after the underscore.
^ (caret) When used within a character set means “everything but whatever is after this character:. So “[^a-d]” would match any character that is not a, b, c or d.
? (question mark) Makes a search optional. So for example, “Mic\d?“ would match the word Mic by itself and also if it has any 1 digit number after it.
* (Asterisk) Also makes a search optional but allowing multiple instances of said search. In a way, is a combination of + and ?. So for example, ”Mic\d*” would match “Mic” by itself, “Mic6” but also “Mic456” and, in general, the word Mic with any number of digits after it.
| (vertical bar) Is used to expressed the boolean “or”. So for example, “Approved|Aproved” would search for either of these options and apply the same processing to both if they are found.

Managing multiple regex in the same preset

You sometimes want to process several sections of a name and replace them with different things, regardless of their position and the content around them. To achieve this, you could create a regex preset for each section but is also possible to have several regex formulas in just one. Let´s see how we can do this.

In the “Find:” section, we need to use (…) (parenthesis). Each section encompased between parenthesis is called a group. A group is just a set of instructions that is processed as a separated entity. So if we want to search for “Track” and also for a 3 digit number we could use a search like this one “(Track)(\d)“. Now, it is important to be careful with what we use between the two groups depending of our goals. With nothing in between, Pro Tools would strictly search for the word track, followed by a 3 digit number. We may want this but tipically what we want is to find those terms wherever in the name and in whichever order. For this, we could use a vertical bar (|) in between the two groups like so: “(Track)|(\d)“ which is telling Pro Tools: hey, search for this or for this and then replace any for whatever.

But what if you want to replace each group for an specific different thing? This is easily done by also using groups in the ¨Replace¨section. You need to indentify each of them with “?1”, “?2” and so on. So the example on the right would search for the word “Track” anywhere in the name and replace ti with “NewTrack” and then it would search for any 3 digit number and replace it with “NewNumbers”

Here is a more complex example, involving 4 different groups. If you have a look at the original names, you will see this structure: “Show_EpisodeNumber_Character_LineNumber”. We would want to change the character and show to the proper names. We are also using a “v” character after the line number to indicate that this is the approved take by the client, it could be nice if we could transform this into the string “Approved”. Finally, Pro Tools adds a dash (-) and some numbers after you edit any clip and we would want to get rid of all of this. If you have a look at our regex, you would see that we can solve all of this in one go. Also, notice how the group order is not important since we are using vertical bars to separate them. You will see that in the third group, I’m searching for anything that comes after a dash and replacing it with just nothing (ie, deleting it), which can be very handy sometimes. So the clip names will change like so:

Original names New names

Show_045_Character_023-01 Treasure_Island_045_Hero_023
Show_045_Character_026v-03 Treasure_Island_045_Hero_026_Approved
Show_045_Character_045v-034 Treasure_Island_045_Hero_045_Approved

Other regex functions that I want to learn in the future

I didn´t have time to learn or figure out everything that I have been thinking regular expressions could do, so here is a list of things I would like to reasearch in the future. Maybe some of them are impossible for now. If you are also interested in achieving some of these things, leave a comment or send me an email and I could have a look in the future.

  • Command that adds the current date with a certain format.

  • Commands that add meta information like type of file, timecode stamp and such.

  • Syntax that allows you to search for a string of characters, process them in some way, and them use it in the replace section.

  • Deal with case sensitivity.

  • Capitalize or uncapitalize characters.

  • Conditional syntax. (If you find some string do A, if you don´t, do B).

Regex Resources:

https://regex101.com/
https://www.cheatography.com/davechild/cheat-sheets/regular-expressions/
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4cUxeGkcC9g6m_6Sld9Q4jzqdqHd2HiD

Conclusion

I hope you now have a better understanding of how powerful batch renaming can be. With regular expressions I just wanted to give you some basic principles to build upon and have some knowledge to start building more complex presets that can save you a lot of time.

Interview on La Bobina Sonora

I have been interviewed on the site “La Bobina Sonora” which is dedicated to the spanish and latin america audio community. I thought it would be interesting to translate the interview into english in case you want to have a look. There are some insights into my career history, the way I approach sound design and mixing and the projects I was working on at the time (October 2018). So, here we go!

LA BOBINA SONORA: Before starting with the interview, I just wanted to thank you for your presence here at labobinasonora.net.

JAVIER ZUMER: Thanks you for the invitation, I’ve been reading the blog for years and I’m happy to be able to contribute.

LBS: You are currently based in Ireland, where you do most of your work. It’s interesting to ask, which are the main differences in the audio industry between Ireland and Spain?

JAVIER: The main difference is that Ireland is a country that enjoys a better economical situation. This brings more stability and specialization to the profession.

Having said that, Ireland is an interesting example because it shares some similarities with Spain. Both countries went under during the economic crisis (both with a property bubble). Also, both live under other countries shadows like the UK, France or the US since these have a more mature and stablished industry.

LBS: How are audio professionals treated by the Irish industry? Do any kind of associations or unions exist?

JAVIER: Personally, my experience has being positive. Maybe sound doesn’t get as much love and attention as other departments (that’s kind of universal since we are visual creatures) but in my environment I usually have the time and resources needed to get the job done.

About associations, I am not aware of them but if they do exist they are probably based in Dublin since the industry is mostly located there. (I’m currently in Galway).

LBS: Those who work on this amazing profession usually share an appreciation for cinema, music and even other arts. Which were the main reasons for you to end up building sonic worlds? Maybe your experience in music production brought you there?

JAVIER: Like many other people, the thing that made me consider and appreciate sound was music. Reason was the first audio software that I used in depth and that was when I dropped out of college to study audio.

I still think Reason is a very unique starting point since its design imitates real hardware and it gave me my first notions of how the audio signal flows.

Later, I started to be more interested in audio for cinema and games. I think they offer a great balance of artistic and technical challenges.

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LBS: At the start of your career you were getting some experience with music recording and mixing at Mundo Sinfónico. How do you think this time helped you in your career?

JAVIER: Mundo sinfónico was my first professional audio experience. Héctor Pérez, who owns the place, was kind enough to let me join on some projects during recording and mixing.

During that time I learned a lot about using microphones, Pro Tools, and other software. It was pretty much like discovering how all these things are used in the real world and in real applications. At this time, I also started to learn how to to face a mix.

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LBS: So, how were your first steps as a sound designer?

JAVIER:  At some point, I knew I needed to invest in my own gear in order to work in projects and I had to make a decision. I could either invest in music recording or in location audio gear. I decided to go for the latter since building an studio would lock me into an specific location but I could do location audio anywhere. Also, by that point audio for cinema interested me as much as music production.

With this gear I did many, many short films, some documentaries and TV stuff. Naturally, I would also work on the audio post for some of these projects and this was the way I went into sound design and mixing.

LBS: Is there any specific moment in time when you feel you made a big leap forward on your career?

JAVIER: Maybe the way I got my current job. By that time, I was living in Galway, which is quite far away from Dublin (impossible to commute). Since all the industry is really in Dublin, this was an issue if I wanted to get work but those days I was just working on freelance projects here are there.

One day, I decided that it would be cool to find people in my city interested in going out and record sound effects. I sent some emails to local audio folks and one of them was Ciarán Ó Tuairisc, who was the head of sound for Telegael, a company that was super close, like a 5 minute drive from my place.

I went there to meet him and see the place and he gave me some episodes so I could do a sound design test. Some days later, I came back with the results and I was offer a job there. I was maybe expecting that they will consider me for freelance work at best but the whole thing was kind of a job interview where I was successful with no need for a CV or a tie.

LBS: What are your main goals when facing a sound design project? Which of them are esential to your workflow?

JAVIER: When doing sound design I like to first do a basic coverage pass. Just have a sound for every obvious thing without taking much time with each. Once this is done, the real job begins when you start thinking about how the sounds you already have work together and which ones are important enough to spend more time and thought on them.

LBS: When crafting a sonic world, which are the processes (artistic or technical) that deserve the most attention and detail?

JAVIER: The elements that drive the story forward defintely deserve the most attention. Also is very important to give detail to any element that helps with world building.

If the story takes place in a special place or there is a relevant object is important to think how these should sound like. Of course, ideally this should work on subconcious level for the viewer.

LBS: Talking now about all the different processes that build a sonic world (dialogue editing, ambients/fx, foley, mixing…), which is the hardest for you and which one do you enjoy the most?

JAVIER: Probably foley is where I am the least confortable. It is a true art that requieres experience, coordination and sensitivity to get it right. I don´t have a lot of experience doing it and I am not into the physical part of the job although I know that that appeals to other people.

The process I enjoy the most is mixing since this is when all elements come together to create a cohesive whole that moves towards the same artistic direction.

LBS: Do you usually think about mixing when doing sound design? Do you use sub-mixes or pre-mixes on certain elements? Or do you prefer to start the mix completely from scratch?

JAVIER: It depends on the situation. When I´m just doing sound design I try to give the mixer as much control and options as possible so I don´t usually do sub-mixes although sometimes they makes sense.

If I´m mxing and also doing sound design I tend to pre-mix things as I go and even apply some EQ or compression here and there on elements that I know are going to need it. For this, clip effecs on Pro-Tools are great.

LBS: Talking about something omnipresent and unavoidable like technology, which is the gear you usually use when doing editing, sound design and mixing?.

JAVIER: I use a Pro Tools Ultimate rig with a S6 M10 desk. In terms of software, I use the usual stuff, most of my plugins are either from Avid or from Waves. For dialogue editing, Izotope RX is a must.

LBS: Which was your last technological discover that improved your workflow the most?

JAVIER: Probably Soundly, although this wasn´t that recent. It is a library management software that maybe doesn´t offer as many features as Soundminer but I think is a great option. It is more affordable (in the short term) and also offers online libraries that are kept updated and growing. It offers more than enough metadata capabilities and good integration with Pro Tools.

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LBS: A big portion of your work is focused on an area that is maybe a little unkwnown for some of us but very important and clearly rising in relevance. How did you get into video game sound design?

JAVIER: I grew up playing games and this was always an area that interested me when I got into sound design.

One day I saw an ad for a crowdfunding from a spanish game, Unepic. They were looking for some money to record some voice acting and I emailed them asking them wether they would also be interested in some help with sound design. I had really no idea about how this kind of work would go and surprinsingly the were interested and we started to work together.

Six year later, Unepic has sold more than half a million copies between consoles and PC, being the first spanish indie game to get into Steam. It was a project that taught me a lot and I have kept working with its developer, Francisco Téllex de Meneses and many others since.

LBS: What are the main differences between working on video game sound design and just working on traditional media?

JAVIER: The main difference is that traditional media is linear. Once you finish a mix, it is going to be the same for all viewers, the only differentiating factor would be the reproduction system but the mix itself it would be the same forever.

On the other hand, video games are interactive so there is no mix in the traditional sense. You just give the game engine every audio asset needed and the rules that will govern how these sound are played. So the mix would be created in real time as the player intereacts with the world of the game.

The real power in video game sound design comes from the fact that you can connect audio tools with parameters and states within the game world. For example, imagine that the music and dialogue are connected to a low pass filter, a reverb and a delay and they change as your health gets lower. Or a game where you build weapons that wear out as you use them so their foley and FX become darker (via an EQ) and more distorted in the process.

I have an article on my blog with more information for someone who wants to start to do video game sound design.

LBS: Let´s talk about your work on field and SFX recording. We can find some interesting libraries on your website made by you, some of them dedicated to something you call “audio explorations”.

How important is field and SFX recording for you?

JAVIER: It´s something I consider very important beacuse once you have access to the big libraries the industry uses, you realize that there are many sounds that are over used. Once you start to hear them, they are everywhere!

So, I think is important to bring a more unique and personal approach to sound design. Also, when you record and create your own sound effects you force yourself to be more adventurous and to experiment with thechniques and ideas.

LBS: How do you usually plan a field recording session? Are they done within the context of a larger project or do you plan free sessions just to experiment and play around?

JAVIER: This is something I´ve been thinking about for a long time. On one hand, when something specific is needed, I just go out to get it. But with time I have been thinking that in those cases is not very convenient to explore and record interesting stuff since you have deadlines and many other things to work on.

As a solution, I´ve been going on what I call “explorations”. I just pick a technique, prop, place or software and I try to create interesting stuff while trying to learn how it works. I´ve been blogging about them and also releasing free mini-libraries with the results.

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LBS: Any particular piece of advice to keep in mind when doing field recording?

JAVIER: At the begining of every take, always explain what your are doing with your own voice. Take videos and picture if you can. I guarantee you won´t remember everything you where doing later when you are editing.

LBS: What kind of gear (recorder, microphones…) and techniques do you usually use when doing filed recording?

JAVIER: Nothing too special or obscure. I use a Tascam HD-P2 that works great after seven years of use and is able to record at 192 kHz although it only has two pre-amps so sometimes I need other recorders as a reinforcement. The microphones I use are a 416, Oktava 012, Rode NT4, SM57, Sanken COS-11D and some more exotic mics from JRF (hydrophone, contact mic and a coil pick up).

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LBS: Which project would you consider a highlight on your career in terms technical or artistic merit?

JAVIER:  Recently, I have worked on the sound design and a good portion of the mix for a documentary series about the lighthouses of Ireland that was premiered on RTE (the irish BBC).

It was a very interesting project with beautiful helicopter footage. I needed to recreate the audio for 200 minutes of aerial shots so loads of waves, wind, storms, seagulls and things like that. I tried to give each location and lighthouse its own personality and sound. Some of them are really astonishing and true masterpieces of engineering while others are situated on amazing natural locations.

I summary, one the most beautiful projects I have had the chance of working on.

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LBS: Is there any cool anecdote in your almost decade as a professional that you would like to share?

JAVIER:  While I was trying to remember an anecdote I thought I could share something that happens to me from time to time and I wonder if it´s something thar other people experience too.

Some times, when I´m looking for a particular sound. I bring some audio just by chance or even by mistake and it works great just like that. I guess that when you spend many hours editing audio, these things are going to just happen from time to time but it always feels like you were touched by the goods of sound design for a moment.

LBS: Is there any project on your near future?

JAVIER:  I´m about to get immersed in Drop Dead Weird, a live action comedy about three australian teenagers that move to Ireland and their parents turn into zombies. I am mixing the show, which is a co-production between Channel 7 (Australia) and RTE (Ireland).

It´s a cool crazy project with a lot of action and sound design and many people on each scene which is always a challenge in terms of dialogue editing.

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LBS: To wrap thing up, any advice for someone who is mad enough to be interested in this beautiful profession?

JAVIER:  When I look back at my career there is a pattern that repeats itself: I was able to make a leap forward when I was on the right place at the right time. The problem is that you never know when and where this is going to happen, for each of these moments of success I´ve had many more that just were unfruitful.

So the best way to go then is to be persistant and throw as many seeds to the air as possible while always improving as a professional. Something will bloom.

LBS: Thanks again for your time, Javier. Best of luck on your future projects which we will keep an eye on here on labobinasonora.net.

JAVIER: Thanks to you, Óscar for having me. My pleasure.

Figuring out: Gain Staging

What is it?

Gain staging is all about managing the audio levels of different layers within an audio system. In other words, when you need to make something louder, good gain staging is knowing where in the signal chain would be best to do this. 

I will focus this article on the realm of mix & post-production work under Protools, since this is what I do daily, but these concepts can be applied in any other audio related situation like recording or live sound.

Pro Tools Signal Chain

To start with, let's have a look at the signal chain on Protools:

Untitled Diagram (10).png

Knowing and understanding this chain is very important when setting your session up for mixing. Note that other DAWs would vary in their signal chain. Cubase, for example, offers pre and post-fader inserts while on Pro Tools every insert is always pre-fader except from the ones on the master channel.

Also, I've added a Sub Mix Bus (an auxiliar) at the end of the chain because this is how usually mixing templates are set up and is important to keep it in mind when thinking about signal flow.

So, let's dive into each of the elements of the chain and see their use and how they interact with each other.

Clip gain & Inserts

As I was saying, on Pro Tools, inserts are pre-fader. It doesn't matter how much you lower your track's volume, the audio clip is always hitting the plugins with its "original" level. This renders clip gain very handy since we can use it to control the clip levels before they hit the insert chain.

You can use clip gain to make sure you don't saturate your first insert input and for keeping the level consistent between different clips on the same track. This last use is specially important when audio is going through a compressor since you want roughly the same amount of signal being compressed across all the different clips on a given channel.

So what if you want a post-fader insert? As I said, you can't directly change an insert to post-fader but there is a workaround. If you want to affect the signal after the track's volume, you can always route that track or tracks to an auxiliar and have the inserts on that aux. In this case, these inserts would be post-fader from the audio channel perspective but don't forget they are still pre-fader from the aux channel own perspective.

Signal flow within the insert chain

Since the audio signal flows from the first to the last insert, when choosing the order of these plugins is always important to think about whatever goal you want to achieve. Should you EQ first? Compress first? What if you want a flanger, should it be at the end of the chain or maybe at the beginning?

I don't think there is definitive answer and, as I was saying, the key is to think about the goal you have in mind and whichever way makes conceptual sense to your brain. EQ and compression order is a classic example of this. 

The way I usually work is that I use EQ first to reduce any annoying or problematic frequencies, having also a high pass filter most of the time to remove unnecessary low end. Once this is done, I use the compressor to control the dynamic range as desired. The idea behind this approach is that the compressor is only going to work with the desired part of the signal.

I sometimes add a second EQ after the compressor for further enhancements, usually boosting frequencies if needed. Any other special effects, like a flanger or a vocoder would go last on the chain.

Please note that, if you use the new Pro Tools clip effects (which I do use), these are applied to the clip before the fader and before the inserts.

Channel Fader

After the insert chain, the signal goes through the channel fader or track volume. This is where you usually do most of the automation and levelling work. A good gain stage management job makes working with the fader much easier. You want to be working close to unity, that is, close to 0.

This means that, after clip gain, clip effects and all inserts; you want the signal to be at your target level when the fader is hovering around 0. Why? This is where you have the most control, headroom and confort. If you look closely at the fader you'll notice it has a logarithmic scale. A small movement next to unity would suppose 1 or 2 dB but the same movement down below could be a 10 dB change. Mixing close to unity makes subtle and precise fader movements easy and confortable.

Sends

Pro Tools sends are post-fader by default and this is the behaviour you would usually want most of the time. Sending audio to a reverb or delay is probably the most common use for a send since you want to keep 100% of the dry signal and just add some wet processed signal that will change in level as the dry also changes.

Pre-fader sends are mostly useful for recording and live mixing (sending a headphone mix is a usual example) and I don't find myself using them much on post. Nevertheless, a possible use on a post-production context could be when you want to work with a 100% of the wet signal regardless of how much of the dry signal is coming through. Examples of this could be special effects and/or very distant or echoey reverbs where you don't want to keep much of the original dry signal.

Channel Trim

Trim is pretty much like effectively having two volume lanes per track. Why would this be useful? I use trim when I already have an automation curve that I want to keep but I just want to make the whole thing louder or quieter in a dynamic way. Once you finish a trim pass, both curves would coalesce into one. This is the default behaviour but you can change it on Preferences > Mixing > Automation.

VCAs

VCAs are a concept that comes from analogue consoles (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) and allows you to control the level of several tracks with a single fader. They use to do this by controlling the voltage reaching each channel but on Pro Tools, VCAs are a special type of track that doesn't have audio, inserts, inputs or outputs.  VCA tracks just have a volume lane that can be used to control the volume of any group of tracks.

So, VCAs are something that you usually use when you want to control the overall level of a section of the mix as a whole, like the dialogue or sound effects tracks. In terms of signal flow, VCAs are just changing a track level via the track's fader so you may say they just act as a third fader (the second being trim).

Why is this better that just routing the same tracks to an auxiliar and changing the volume there? Auxiliars are also useful, as you will see on the next section, but if the goal is just level control, VCAs have a few advantages:

  • Coalescing: After every pass, you are able to coalesce your automation, changing the target tracks levels and leaving your VCA track flat and ready for your next pass.

  • More information: When using an auxiliar instead of a VCA track, there is no way to know if a child track is being affected by it. If you accidentally move that aux fader you may go crazy trying to figure out why your dialogue tracks are all slightly lower (true story). On the other hand, VCAs show you a blue outline (see picture below) with the real affected volume lane that would result after coalescing both lanes so you can always see how a VCA is affecting a track.

  • Post fader workflow: Another problem of using an auxiliar to control the volume of a group of tracks, is that if you have post-fader sends on those tracks, you will still send that audio away regardless of the parent's auxiliar level. This is because you are sending that audio away before you send it to the auxiliar. VCAs avoid this problem by directly affecting the child track volume and thus also affecting how much is sent post-fader.

Sub Mix buses

This is the final step of the signal chain. After all inserts, faders, trim and VCA, the resulting audio signals can be routed directly to your output or you may also consider using a sub mixing bus instead. This is an auxiliar track that sums all the signals from a specific group of channels (like Dialogue tracks) and allows you to control and process each sub mix as a whole.

These are the type of auxiliar tracks that I was taking about on the VCA section. They may not be ideal to control the levels of a sub mix, but they are useful when you want to process a group of tracks with the same plugins or when you need to print different stems.

An issue you may find when using them is that you may find yourself "fighting" for a sound to be loud enough. You feel that pushing the fader more and more doesn't really help and you barely hear the difference. When this happens, you've probably run out of headroom. Pushing the volume doesn't seem to help because a compressor or limiter further on the signal chain (that is, acting as a post-fader insert) is squashing the signal.

When this happens, you need to go back and give yourself more headroom by making sure you are not over compressing or lowering every track volume until you are working on manageable level. Ideally, you should be metering your mix from the start so you know where you are in terms of loudness. If you mix to any loudness standard like EBU-R128, that should give you a nice and comfortable amount of headroom.

Final Thoughts

Essentially, mixing is about making things louder or quieter to serve the story that is being told. As you can see, is important to know where in the audio chain the best place to do this is. If you keep your chain in order, from clip gain to the sub mix buses, making sure levels are optimal every step of the way. you'll be in control and have a better idea on where to act when issues arise. Happy Mixing.

Pro Tools Functions, Tips and Tricks for Sound Design

Here is a compilation of tips and tricks for sound design and editing with Pro Tools. Some of these shortcuts could be obvious to the seasoned Sound Designer but you’d never know, you might learn a new trick or two. For the purposes of this post, I’ll assume that most readers are Mac users, although most of this content should also be PC-compatible.

The post contains short videos which demonstrate the shortcuts discussed in each section. If you have Pro Tools at hand, I would recommend that you open it and follow along. Let's go!

Use memory locations to mark sync points and scene changes.
Pretty basic but worth mentioning. You can add memory locations to your timeline and use them to mark certain key moments. As you import new clips to your session, these markers will be very helpful in lining up different layers. You can also jump between markers with shortcuts, which is particularly useful in long sessions with multiple scene changes.

Shortcut Function
Enter (numeric keyboard) Create new marker at playhead position.
Cmd + 5 (numeric keyboard) Open the memory location window.
Opt + Click on marker Deletes the marker.
"." (numeric keyboard) + marker number + "." (numeric keyboard) Jump to a marker location

Note: If your numeric keypad is on Classic Mode you can skip the first "." when recalling a memory location.


Using X-Form + Elastic Properties
This is my preferred method for quick clip pitch and length changes. It doesn't work very well for big changes but is good enough for small adjustments and you can tweak both parameters independently This is not a real time process, the changes are rendered offline and you'll keep the original version if you need to go back to it.

To use this method, you will need to activate X-Form in the track elastic properties, it's just under the track automation mode. (Video Bellow)

X-Form pitch changes work great when you have a sound that is similar to what you need but you feel it needs to be a little bigger or smaller in weight. The results are not always natural sounding, but adjusting the pitch can sometimes bring a clip close to the sound you're looking for.

Also, being able to change the length of a clip makes your library instantly bigger. Now your clips may work on more situations as you can make them shorter or longer to fit in context.

And don't forget this tool could be also used as a creative resource. Listen to the following clip where some plastic bag impacts are extremely slowed down, creating a weird, distorted kind of Sci-Fi sound. You can hear bellow the original sound first and then the processed one.

Shortcut Function
Alt + 5 (numeric keyboard) Opens the elastic properties for the selected clip.

Tab to transients. 

Again, pretty basic but super useful. When activated, (under the trim tool or with the fancy shortcut) you can use the tab key to jump between transients instead of clip boundaries. Very handy when editing steps, gun shots or impacts.

This function is great when working with just a few short clips, but If you just want to create clip separations on transients on a long file with loads of steps, the best to do this would be to use the function "Separate Clip on Transients".

Shortcut Function
Opt + Cmd + TAB Toggles "Tab to Transients" on and off.
TAB Jump between transients or clip boundaries.
B Separate Clip.
No official shortcut, but keep reading for a workaround! Separate Clip on Transients

Shortcuts in the ASDFG keys (cuts and fades). 

Naturally, my left hand is usually in a WASD position but when editing in Pro Tools, your fingers should be on the ASDFG keys to allow you to quickly trim and fade clips. It might take some time to get used to using these, but in no time at all, it will become second nature. Remember that you need to be on keyboard focus to use these.

Shortcut Function
A Trim Start
S Trim End
D Fade In
F Cross Fade
G Fade Out

Ctrl + click to move a clip to the playhead position.

To align two clips, select the clip to which you want to align the other(s) and then press Ctrl + click on the second clip to align them.. Also works on markers. Simple and neat.


Move a clip from one track to another without changing its sync.

Just press and hold Ctrl while moving a clip from one track to another and it will keep its timeline position no matter how much you horizontally move your mouse.. Add Opt to the shortcut to also duplicate the clip.


Fill gaps. 

This is very useful when you have an unwanted noise on an ambience track.

To eliminate the offending noise, first select it and press Cmd + B to remove it. Then select and copy another similar region in the audio clip, ideally longer than the gap you have removed. Lastly, select the area to fill and do a paste special repeat to fill selection. You can then cross fade the boundaries to make it seamless.

You can use this method rather than copying a section of audio and having to adjust the clip manually to fill the gap.. this shortcut does that tedious work for you!

Last thing, if your selection when copying is smaller than the gap itself, Pro Tools is going to paste the same clip several times until the gap is filled. It will also create crossfades between these copies of your selection. This won't probably sound very smooth but it may work if the gap is not very big and/or the scene is busy.

Shortcut Function
Cmd + B Clear or remove selection from clip.
Opt + Cmd + V Paste special repeat to fill selection.

Easy access to your most used plugins 

You can select your preferred EQ and Compressor plug-ins by going to Setup > Preferences > Mixing.

You can also select you most commonly-used plug-ins to appear at the top of your inserts list, by holding Cmd and then selecting the relevant plug-in in an insert slot. This also works with AudioSuite plug-ins.


Have Audiosuite plugins at hand with window configurations.

The previous trick will allow you to have your AudioSuite plug- ins at hand but there is an even quicker and better way to quickly access AudioSuite plugins.

First, open the AudioSuite plugin of your choice, you can even do this with more than one plugin at the same time. Now, create a new window configuration using the Window Configurations window or the shortcut. You can then call that window configuration to summon the plugin or even incorporate it in a memory location as you can see in the picture on the right.

Keep in mind that window configurations can do much more than that, you can save any edit and/or mix window distribution set up and easily toggle between them.

More info.

Shortcut Function
Opt + Cmd + J Open Window Configurations.
"," + Number from 1 to 99 + "+" (Numeric Keyboard) Create new window configuration.
"," + Window Configuration Number + "*" (Numeric Keyboard) Recall window configuration.

Or impress your friends with custom shortcuts...

Memory locations + Window configurations are very powerful. But there is hidden feature that may be even better for accessing Pro Tools functions. You can create your own custom shortcuts for unmapped commands and without any external macro software.

As far as I know, this only works on mac. Just go to Apple > System Preferences > Keyboard > Application Shortcuts and add Pro Tools to the list if it wasn't there already. Now you can create (Plus symbol button) a new shortcut to any Pro Tools function your heart desires as long as that function appears on any Pro Tools menu. Even AudioSuite plugin names. You just need to type the exact name and then add the shortcut you want to assign to that given function.

This blew my mind when I discovered it, you can now access loads of functions even if they are buried under 3 sub-menus.
Here is a list of some of the custom shortcuts I'm currently using, I tend to use Control as the modifier key since Pro Tools doesn't use it much:

Shortcut Exact function name Description
Ctrl + C Color Palette Pimp those tracks!
Ctrl + S Izotope RX 6 Connect Opens the window to send audio to RX
Ctrl + R Reverse AudioSuite Reverse Plugin
Ctrl + V Vari-Fi AudioSuite Vari-Fi Plugin
Ctrl + T At Transients Separates a clip on its transients
Ctrl + E EQ3 7-Band AudioSuite EQ Plugin
Ctrl + G Render Renders Clip Gain
Ctrl + P Preferences...
Ctrl + D Delete Deletes empty tracks
Ctrl + Opt + D Delete... Deletes non-empty tracks
Opt + Cmd + S Save Copy In....
Ctrl + Opt + Cmd + B QuickTime... Bounce to Quicktime

As you can see, you need two distinct shortcuts to delete tracks since the dialog is different depending on the contents of the track. With the set up I have, using "Ctrl + Opt + D" will always delete the track, regardless of its content, but it will only show the warning window if the track has content on it.

Of course, these are only the ones I currently have, I change them all the time. There are many other functions that you could hook up like I/O, Playback Engine, Hardware, Make Inactive (for tracks). Go nuts!


Automation Follows Edit is your friend.

By default, is a good a idea to keep this option on, so when you move a clip, its automation moves with it. But sometimes, especially when doing sound design, you want to swap a clip with another without moving the automation so you can hear how the same processing affects a different clip.

Just remember to turn this back on when you finish or you may mess things up badly. In newer Pro Tools versions like 12 the button will go bright orange to remind you the function is off which is very handy.


Moving through the session

My workflow is based on the mouse wheel because that's what I had when I started with Pro Tools. It might not be the fastest or most efficient way of working but it’s what I’m used to and I can move pretty fast through a session with this method. 

I use the mouse wheel to move horizontally and I like to use the "Mouse Wheel Scrolling Snaps to Track" feature (Pro Tools preferences > Operation > Misc) so every mouse wheel click is a track's length.

To move horizontally, I use Shift + the mouse wheel. To zoom, I use Alt + the mouse wheel or the R/T keys.

Shortcut Description
Shift + Mousewheel Move Horizontally in the timeline.
Alt + Mousewheel Zoom in and out.
R Zoom out.
T Zoom in.

Automation

You don't usually need to do complex automations while designing but here are some handy shortcuts to speed you up so you can focus on the actual sound design. One of the most tricky and annoying things is to move automation around and to automate one or more parameters on a plugin. These shortcuts may help. For accessibility, I'll avoid talking about HD features.

Shortcut Function Comment
"," "." Nudge automation. Select a section of an automation curve and nudge it to position.
Really useful when you are early or late on a automation pass.
(Pictured in the video bellow).
Ctrl + Opt + Cmd + Click Enable automation. Use it on a plugin parameter to make it "automable" or on the "Plugin
Automation Enable" button to enable everything.
Ctrl + Cmd + Click Show automation lane. Shows the automation lane for the selected parameter. Saves me hours.
Ctrl + Cmd + Left & Right Arrow Keys Change Track View Flip through track views. Very handy to go betweeen waveform,
volume and pan views.

Import Session Data

This is a very powerful and somewhat overlooked feature that allows you to import audio and other information from any sessions.

The key concept is that you can bring different elements independently. You could, for example, bring one track's plugins or its I/O without bringing any audio. 

If you decide to import audio, you can choose between just referencing the audio from the other session or to copying it on your current session's audio folder which would be a safer option.

You can also bring memory locations and window configurations. Remember those fancy window configuration shenanigans I was talking about above? You could import your little creations from other sessions with this!


Show number of tracks

Just go to View > Track Number. Very simple, but sometimes you want to know how many tracks you have used so you can brag about your unreasonable layering needs.


Miscellaneous useful shortcuts

And finally, here are some random shortcuts and functions:

Shortcut Function Comment
"*" (Numeric Keyboard) Enter timecode. Lets you type in the counter window so you can jump to any point on the timecode.
Also, this counter acts as a calculator so you can type + or - to jump a certain
amount of timecode forward or backwards.
Shift + Cmd + K Export Clips as Files A somewhat hidden feature (it's on the clip list window, not the main menus
that allows you to quickly export any clip as a separate file. You'll be able to
choose the settings of the new audio file but remember this is not the same
as a bounce, inserts and sends won't be considered.
Alt + Cmd + "[" or "]" Waveform Zoom Changes the waveform zoom in or out. Very useful when you need to work
with a zoom level that makes sense with the material you have. 
Ctrl + Opt + Cmd + [ Reset Waveform Zoom Resets the waverform zoom in case you want to see how loud a clip really looks.
Ctrl + Shift +
Arrow up/down or mousewheel
Nudge Clip Gain. It even works with several of them at the same time. A must if you use clip
gain a lot. Keep in mind that you are going to jump in a determined amount of
dB that you can change at Preferences > Editing > Clips > Clip Gain Nudge
Value. I usually use 0.5 dB but sometimes I like a smaller value.
None, Double Click on a
Crosfade and select
Equal Power.
Equal Power
(Crossfades)
Use this when there is a drop in volume on a crossfade. This setting will make
the transition much smoother.

That's it. Questions? Suggestions? Did I forget your favourite trick? Leave a comment!

Ghost 1.0 Sound Design Postmortem

Hi there! Here is a brief summary of my sound design work on the game Ghost 1.0
Since this is the first one I write, I'll go into some extra detail about my workflow but I'll try to always keep it related to Ghost 1.0

The Project

The game was developed by Francisco Téllez de Meneses (Fran). We had already worked together on Unepic, a pretty successful metroidvania RPG published on Steam and consoles.

I had worked on Ghost 1.0 on and off between April 2014 and June 2016. To give you an idea of the size of the project, here are some numbers from the audio folder where I did all the work:

-23K files in total.
-37 Gb in size.
-Around 200 Pro Tools folders.
-386 unique audio files in the final game (not including voice overs).
-Over 1000 lines of dialogue for each language (English, Spanish and Russian localizations were made).
-Around 230 sound events covered in the game.

 

Game & Audio Engine

For this game, we were using the Unepic engine (written in C) which already manages audio using DirectSound. This API allows cross-platform audio and, in the case of Unepic, allowed us to port the game to the a big variety of systems including WiiU, Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac & Linux. Ghost 1.0 is also planned to be ported to some of these systems in the near future.

DirectSound works nicely but sometimes I missed some middleware features like "live" layering, more complex randomization capabilities and better loop management. I realised that not using middleware forces me to really work on the SFX within Pro Tools and only bounce when everything seems perfect. Going back and forth between the game and the DAW is very common. On the other hand, with FMOD or Wwise, I often find myself just casually creating the SFX layers knowing that I can put them together and even EQ or compress them within the middleware environment.

This difference in the workflow is something to keep in mind while switching between projects with or without middleware.

Sonic Style

I began by working on some general sounds to define the game's tone and style. Footsteps, the starting weapons and initial character skills were the very first things we focused on. The basic, primary blaster pistol was one of the SFX that went under the most iterations. It's the gun every player starts with so we wanted to make sure we had the right sound for it.

Here you can have a listen at how the starting gun SFX evolved. At the beginning, we were just trying out different styles until settling with a more mechanical and simpler sound. Version 9.3 was the one used on the game.

One of the main priorities creating this sound was to avoid being annoying through repetition. Sometimes you think you have a cool sound but you have to remember that, if the SFX needs to be played over and over again sometimes you are better off with a simpler, shorter SFX. Also, we made it feel a little weak with the idea of making the player feel powerful when switching to better weapons.

The room where you start the game and try your primary weapon. I've been here too many hours.

After this initial phase, Fran would then ask for new sound effects as the game grew and expanded over time. The nice thing about this way of working is that the project doesn't require constant attention but what it does require, is an ability to adapt quickly once again to the tone of the game when work does need to be done.

In this way, it was a very organic process, usually without strict deadlines, that allowed us to spend the proper amount of time creating the right SFX.

Keeping track

I used a spreadsheet, to gather every relevant piece of information including the name of the SFX, its duration, how it was triggered (one shot or loop), its location in the game, description and examples. This was crucial to be able to keep track of dozens of sound effects at the same time, I'd usually found myself constantly going back to the spreadsheet to note down ideas or check on things.

Whenever the sound was going to be triggered by an animation and needed precise timing, I'd record a short video of the animation using OBS and then use it as a reference in Pro Tools

SFX Approval

Any given SFX would need on average around 2-3 versions to be approved. Usually language is not very good to describe the abstract world of sound so I always tried to get as much information as possible (the spreadsheet is great for this) to get close to the idea Fran had in his mind.

Weapons and power-ups are a good example of a SFX that can vary greatly in its style. Sometimes just knowing is a "Cloaking device SFX" is not enough information to get the SFX right. Should it feel powerful? Quiet? Electric? High Tech? Is there an example from other game or movie? Making these kind of questions is crucial.

I always took extensive notes through meetings, or, even better, recorded the whole thing. Having all the information and context for a given SFX in a video that you can go back to was a blessing. I never trust my memory and you probably shouldn't either.

Versions, versions, versions...

File Management & Version Control

I had a separated Pro Tools session per sound effect and usually even separated sessions per version of a given SFX. It would often happen that I had to go back to a previous version or combine layers from some of them so giving every version its own session is the safest way to go about this in my opinion.

For version control, I keep a very simple but effective system. I would use the sufix "_v1", "_v2", "_v3", etc. at the end of a sound file name. I recommend this system or a similar one and I'd avoid using terms like "_final" or "_last" because you never know when you are going to need to go back and change something, even months later.

A sequential numeric system keeps everything tidy and clear. I would sometimes use sub versions like "_2.1" or "_2.2" when the sound design was essentially the same but there was a small difference in volume or EQ, usually to make the sound sit better in its context.

 

Implementation

Basically, testing new sounds was as easy as swapping the audio files in the game folders. To make work easier, I had access to a developer copy of the game that allowed me to have instant access to the whole map and to cheats like being invincible or give myself any weapon or power-up. 

Having access to these kind of tools is key to speed up work and helped me a lot to focus on the sound design and testing SFX.

Developer map screenshot

I first worked on Ghost 1.0 using a Mac mini to do the sound design an run Pro Tools. I used bootcamp partition with Windows to run the game. I also had the option of emulating Windows but when working with a game still in development  things can be unstable sometimes so running the game on Windows natively was the most reliable option. 

Going back and forth between two operating systems is quite slow and usually breaks your creative momentum when working and testing new sounds in the game.

So I later upgraded to a dual computer system. I still use my Mac mini as a Pro Tools and Soundly machine and then I custom built a PC to run the games I'm working on. I share files between both computers via Ethernet and the keyboard and mouse using Synergy's Seamless which sometimes can be a little problematic, especially if you are using an old mac OS version, but in general, I would recommend this set up.

Distance, Panorama & Reverb

A comparison between Unepic and Ghost 1.0. Both have a similar point of view.

Both Unepic and Ghost 1.0 use a classic metroid style 2D Side-scrolling view that is particularly wide so our hero looks pretty small on the screen. This presented some challenges in the stereo sound placement and also in terms of getting the distance right.

If we use a completely realistic approach, with the listener on the camera, all sounds should be pretty much mono and somewhat far away but of course, this would be quite dull, since we wanted to convey information about enemy placement using the stereo field. So, what we did was to imagine that the listener was somewhere between the camera and the character. This way, we have some stereo depth but keeping also a sonic perspective that works with a wide camera angle where you can see several enemies and platforms at the same time.

We used baked-in reverbs since all the action happens in a very similar environment, the space station hallways and chambers. I may have used bigger reverbs for certain SFX that only play in large rooms, like boss rooms. 

Sample sounds

I leave you with some weapon, User Interface and environment sounds from the game. If you have any questions or want me to expand on anything further, feel free to leave a comment.

Thanks for reading!