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July 20, 2009

Pro Tip: Use Markers to Speed Your Work in Pro Tools

Written by Jeff Sobel


Everyone loves slick plugins, magical time and pitch stretching, and the incredible power of having a collection of virtual instruments so vast that owning their real-life counterparts would cost more than most people’s houses. But pros know that it’s mastering the little features that make you a power user. These unglamorous techniques are what make you the guy that gets the job done, not just better, but faster than everyone else.

One of the most essential, if unhyped, features in Pro Tools is Markers. Markers allow you identify important sections of a project, jump to them quickly, and a whole lot more. In this blog I’m going to show you how to create and adjust Markers, and how to quickly jump the playhead to them in the timeline. Markers are a type of Memory Location. As such, they are capable of doing a lot more than simply marking a place in time.  In the next blog I’ll show you advanced uses of Memory Locations such as presetting zoom levels, track views, groups, and selections. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

In the figure below, you’ll see a short song open in a Pro Tools session. Because the tracks are well-organized it’s fairly easy to see that there are distinct sections to this song. However, there are currently no Markers.  Let’s add some.

All images can be embiggened by clicking them

Marker functions are primarily accessed on the numeric keypad of your keyboard. There are ways to get around this on a compact keyboard that lacks a numeric keypad, such as those on many laptop computers, but some of the speed gained from using Markers will be lost. For any intensive editing tasks it is highly recommended that you work on a full-size keyboard.

One of the best ways to add Markers to a song is to do it while listening to playback.  Return the playhead to the beginning of the song (press the Return key), then start playback (press the Spacebar). This song begins with a long intro, then Verse 1 begins at bar 21. When the playhead reaches the start of Verse 1, press the Enter key on the numeric keypad. This brings up the Markers dialogue, but playback continues in the background. Quickly type “Verse 1” in the Name field and then press OK.

A Marker has been placed approximately at the start of Verse 1, and named.

(if the Markers ruler is not currently shown, activate it either in the View menu or, if you’re using Pro Tools 8 or higher, by Control-Clicking in the Timeline Ruler and selecting Markers)

Meanwhile, playback continues, as does the flow for anyone else who might be in the room listening, and you’re quickly working through the song. When the playhead reaches the next section, the 2nd verse at bar 41, hit the Enter key again, name that Marker, and continue doing this until the whole song is marked. This is a 3 minute song, and that’s exactly how long it will take to create and name all the markers for it.

Pro Tools also color codes the space between Markers in the Ruler, making it easy to identify each section of the song.

All the Markers are now roughly placed. Placement can easily be fine-tuned by simply dragging a Marker in the ruler. If you are in Bar|Beat Grid Mode and have snapping on it is very easy to place a Marker precisely on a beat.

Remember to place your markers where they will be most useful.  For example, the verses in this song have pickup notes, so placing the marker directly on the verse’s downbeat would cause a little of the vocal to be cut off. To avoid this, you may wish to set the markers back by a half-note.

Now that the Markers are set, let’s use them. Markers can be viewed and edited in the Memory Locations window. You can bring this window up by pressing Command-5 (on the numeric keypad), or by selecting it in the Windows menu.

The Memory Locations window lists all the Memory Locations in the session as well as their attributes. Clicking any of them will cause the Memory Location to be recalled. For the Markers that were just set in this example, click the Memory Location in the window jumps the playhead to the Marker. If the transport was in motion when the Marker is jumped to, playback will continue from the Marker.

There is a faster way to recall Memory Locations. You’ll notice in the Memory Locations window that each Marker has been assigned a number. A Memory Location can be recalled by using the numeric keypad. Type a period (.) then the location #, then period (.) again. As soon as you hit the period the second time the Memory Location will be recalled. To jump to Chorus 1, for example, I would type period > 3 > period. This is a powerful technique for quickly navigating a session that almost every pro makes extensive use of.

In the next Pro Tips blog, I’ll show you how you can use Memory Locations to not only jump to a place in the timeline, but to recall zoom settings, track views/heights, and groups, and how this makes editing certain sections of a song, or groups of instruments, 1000 times faster.

The Pro Tools session shown in this blog is from the song “Lot in Life”, featured in Fury of Solace: Episode 1.  Fury of Solace is an on-going, interactive, multimedia comic.  To hear the song, watch the video, read the comic, and get involved, visit www.furyofsolace.com

To discuss this blog, or to share your own Pro Tools power tips, visit the Lennon Bus at its Facebook Fan Page.

Next entry: Day in The Life: Producer on the Lennon Bus

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