Recording: Guitarist’s Guide to the Pro Tools Home Studio, Day One
By Adam St James
There are plenty of us guitarists who dabble in home recording, to various degrees. Maybe you record frequently, or maybe you’re just thinking about getting into it. I’m writing this column for those in the Guitar.com community who want to lay down great-sounding tracks -- particularly guitar tracks -- and who are maybe looking to improve their engineering skills, even if just a little bit.
I’m going to focus this column on Pro Tools, though plenty of what I’ll write about can be accomplished just as well on any recording system. I’ll aim for at least one or two columns per month, though I may be inspired to add to that as I lay down tracks.
I’m going to treat this column like a bit of a personal blog, so in the name of sharing info more quickly, some of my entries, videos, or audio samples may take on a less formal approach. I'm also going to begin with a blank slate of knowledge, so even a total recording beginner can hopefully follow the steps involved. Again, I’m just hoping it will help players enjoy their music-making a bit more.
My Recording Background
I’ve been making reasonably high-quality home recordings for most of my life, though I admit I’ve been a bit sporadic at it in recent years, mostly due to the all-consuming journey of parenthood. My Dad got me started way back in my youth with a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder, the hallowed Teac 3340, on which I used to spend countless hours experimenting and song-crafting.
And I’ve still got my old Tascam Portastudio in a case in storage as well, along with boxes of its 4-track cassette tapes full of song ideas and guitar riffs that I laid down in my formative SoCal band days. I’ll have an intern listen to and catalog all of those for me one day -- right after I hit the lottery.
I did do a lot of recording in sometimes very expensive and historic L.A. studios as well -- my favorite memories are from sessions at Indigo Ranch, the studio owned by the Moody Blues, perched on the side of a canyon up in the mountains way above Malibu, where Neil Young recorded much of his early material. I’ve still got crates of heavy two-inch, 24-track tape reels right here in my basement too. I’ve been carting those around the country forever. I’m gonna finish that EP one of these days, I swear!
For much of the 2000s I’ve been using a combination of the recording software Acid Pro (which I primarily used to create drum loops) and a popular stand-alone hard disc recorder, the Akai DPS16. I recorded a lot of music with this trusty device, including all the CDs that came with my many Hal Leonard books and DVD guitar courses, and, of course, my 2003 book, 101 Recording Tips.
I’ve long wanted to get into Pro Tools, and I have finally taken the plunge. In this ongoing column I’ll share my discoveries, my mistakes, my learning curve, and hopefully some useful and time-saving tips that will help you crank up a Pro Tools home studio, and make better recordings of all your best guitar playing and songwriting. And even if you’re using another DAW, you’ll still find a lot of useful info in this column.
Why Pro Tools?
I’ll admit I debated for much of the past year over whether to go with Pro Tools or another brand of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), such as Logic Pro, or any of the other highly-capable recording software packages available today. In the end I chose Pro Tools for a couple of reasons.
For the most part, I went Pro Tools because I’m really a PC guy, and Logic -- the other DAW friends like Jerry Dixon from Warrant were recommending to me -- only works on Macs, while Pro Tools works on either platform. That’s not to mention the feeling I’ve long had that Pro Tools really is the industry standard DAW, as far as major recording studios go. It seemed like choosing any other DAW would only be a warm-up for the inevitable move to Pro Tools.
So I’m going to document my experience with Pro Tools right from the start, beginning with the installation of the program on my computer. As this column goes on, I plan to include frequent audio tracks and the occasional video, but for now, I’m going to just keep it simple and text-based, with a few screen caps.
Let’s get started:
Computer Set-up and iLok
OK: I’ve downloaded Pro Tools 12 HD from manufacturer AVID and I’m going to install it on my computer, an HP running Windows 7. It’s not the super high-end computer I’m sure I’ll one day want for this purpose, but I’m working on a budget, and I picked up the HP for $300 through TigerDirect.com, specifically for audio and video work. The computer arrived at my house within about a day, by the way, even though they told me two to three days. Nice.
I also had to purchase an iLok before I could download Pro Tools. I hadn’t used one before, but it’s basically a USB flash drive that holds encrypted product licenses, like the license for your copy of Pro Tools, and for any license-required plug-ins you may want to install in the future. The iLok cost about $60 with shipping, and I bought it direct from AVID. They were out of stock when I first ordered, so it ended up taking a couple weeks for the iLok to arrive.
As of 2015 you want to purchase the 2nd generation iLok, shown in the photo at right. It holds up to 500 licenses, while the old iLok -- which is now obsolete and won’t work with some modern recording software -- only held about 125 licenses. Why I’ll ever need even that many licenses I can’t imagine, but it is what it is. Again, after I hit the lottery, maybe I’ll buy every piece of recording software and plug-in known to man, and 500 licenses won’t be enough. The old iLok looks a bit like a blue transparent house key, by the way, so there’s no mistaking it from the sleek 2nd generation iLok.
Note: Search for alternative iLok retailers before you purchase because -- as I found out after the fact -- some retailers, particularly recording plug-in software manufacturers, will sometimes include a free iLok with purchase of their software. If you’re going to spend money getting an iLok, it makes sense to get some cool software for the same price and get the iLok for free, right?
In fact, if you are setting up your studio with a boxed version of Pro Tools (as opposed to a download) or AVID hardware with a version of Pro Tools installed, it will include an iLok.
So before you even get as far as installation of Pro Tools into your computer, you’ve got a few basic steps to take:
- Set up a free account at AVID.com/myavid (required for download of Pro Tools)
- Set up a free account at iLok.com (required for use of the iLok -- manufacturers will put their licenses into your iLok.com account, and you must then download them into your iLok before you can use the software, including Pro Tools)
- Purchase an iLok (must be plugged into your USB port to use Pro Tools and other software)
- Purchase Pro Tools and download. (You’ll have to supply AVID with your iLok account name)
Installation of Pro Tools
I would highly recommend you read the documentation AVID includes with your Pro Tools software before you install the software. It’s only eight pages long, and since it’s written for both MAC and PC users, you won’t even have to read all eight pages.
A lot of times I lack the patience to read a users manual, but I must be maturing at long last -- either that, or I’ve been burned enough times because I didn’t and screwed something up -- and I read through this before hitting install. And guess what: It alerted me to things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. What a surprise.
It also raised a bunch of questions that I’m thinking will be resolved as I continue through the process -- and I’ll accept the possibility right now that my use of Pro Tools may be delayed because of some of the things I don’t quite understand just yet. I’ll let you know if there’s anything that trainwrecks me before I’m up and running.
So, after reading through the 8-page manual, I went ahead and double-clicked on the Setup.exe file and the installation was off and running. I did have to click through multiple pages of “Next” and “Continue” and “Yes” type dialog boxes, but they’re all pretty self-explanatory.
The one dialog box that puzzled me, however, is one that said I need to download and install QuickTime to play Pro Tools video files. I thought that would be negated by the fact that I’m using the Windows PC version of Pro Tools, but we’ll see.
OK, installation took about 10 minutes or so. Dialog box said I had to restart computer. After a restart the Pro Tools 12 shortcut was there on my desktop. Clicking on that opened a dialog box telling me I needed to activate Pro Tools. Activation took place easily enough with a couple of clicks which lead to my iLok.com account login.
Windows did pop up a firewall dialog on which I checkmarked two boxes to allow AVID to fool around inside my computer, or something to that effect. Who cares, just get me up and running.
And voila, there it is, the “Create” dialog box, where I can set up a new recording session.
I’m stoked. I’m gonna play around with this and put together another column asap documenting my initial recording efforts.
Watch this Pro Tools demo video for an idea of how the program works: