One of the most widely used, and effective, features of Pro Tools has been around longer than most of us, Playlists.
The ability to re-record and re-edit a part, while keeping the previous takes, has allowed us to experiment and edit in ways never possible with "tape-based" recording. One of the first practical applications of playlists is the ability to record multiple passes, while never losing access to each previous recording. No longer were musicians and producers locked into using the singular take on the tape. Multiple variations of each track could be recalled at any time, or could even be combined together into an entirely new performance. From a creative point of view, this allows for greater flexibility and experimentation without the fear of losing, or undoing, and previous ideas. Let's take a look at how you can use Playlists in your own workflow. Keep in mind that although I'll be referencing Vocals for my explanation, you can do with with any audio track.
Playlists: What Are They?
First of all, let's define what makes a Playlist in Pro Tools. Simply put, it is the "Audio Files" that play back on an Audio Track, much like tape. However, the audio file does NOT live on the track, it lives on a Hard Drive. The audio files you see on a track simply instructs Pro Tools as to which file to playback from the hard drive. Even when you record a new pass, the audio file you create can be moved to any track, not just the one you recorded on to. When you place several different audio files across a track, you're creating a "List" of files to "Play", hence the name Playlist. Because the audio file that live on each Playlist are never tied to the physical track, and because we're on a computer, you can have any audio file live on any playlist, as well as create an unlimited number of Playlists per audio track. Furthermore, the audio routing of the track, Inputs, Outputs, Plug-Ins, Sends, are unchanged. This allows us to keep all of our audio routing intact while quickly being able to change between any number of Playlists. Let's take a look at how to begin using this feature.
Let's first take a look at the most fundamental way to create and access Playlists. By default, the name of an audio track is the playlist name. This is why it's so important to name your tracks, it will help you stay organized when the work accumulates. Double-click on the "Track Name" and make sure you're name the tracks in a way that makes sense to you. Congratulations! You've created your first playlist. Feel free to record vocals, guitars, bass, synth, whatever sound or instruments your heart desires. You can also import any audio files from your library onto this track as well. Let's now assume you're not fully satisfied with the recording, whatever the reasons. Instead of deleting or ever re-recording on top of the previous take, let's record the new material on a seperate playlist. You'll notice to the right side of the Track Name a downward point arrow, this is the Playlist Selector. By clicking on this button, you'll be presented with a menu of possibilities.
New... - Creates an entireley new playlist on that track
Duplicate... - Creates a copy of the existing playlist
Delete Unused... - Deletes any "unused" playlist across all your tracks
Notice that the current "name" of you track is selectec as the active playlist at this point. Once you create new or duplicate playlist, you'll be able to select which one is you "active" playlist on that track. At this point the only viable option for you to choose are "New..." or "Duplicate...". Once you select either option, you'll be presented with a dialogue window asking you to give the playlist a name.
New Playlist dialogue window
Duplicate Playlist dialogue window
As a default, Pro Tools automatically adds a numerical extension to you existing track name. For example: If your audio track is named "Vox", the dialogue window will automatically appear with "Vox.01" as the default. You can choose to change the name to whatever you like, however, many engineers stick to this numberical naming scheme to help them determine take numbers. Using this technique, you could create a new playlist for each take on a track. This would allow you to go back to each playlist and pick which take is the one you want to use. All of your playlist on each track are available to choose from the Playlist Selector. In the example below, we have created and edited across several Playlists, some are noted as having an alternate melody.
Now that you have several playlist to choose from, be aware that the "active" playlist is the one selected (check mark). However, you can choose to make any playlist active simply by selecting it, even during playback of the session. Another thing to keep in mind is how easily you can copy / paste between playlists. Often time, you will find that you prefer different parts from different takes. An easy way to copy / paste between playlists is to copy the area, switch to an alternate playlist, paste the copy. Pro Tools never loses the original selection lenght in time when you switch between playlists. This is amazingly helpful when copying music takes, as artist timing is crucial to the feeling of the music. This method of combining several different take together is generally known as a Comp, or Composite. See example below:
Playlist 1: Copy selection
Playlist 2: selection area identical for Paste
One of the newest features added to Pro Tools 12 is the addition of a Playlist Indicator. Whenever there are multiple Playlists on a track, the Playlist Selector button turn blue. Although this might seem inconsequential, engineers have been asking for this feature for many years. Since many of us work of projects in a collaborative environment, it's nice to look at a session and quickly see which track have Playlists, as opposed to clicking on each track's playlist selector to figure it out. The feature saves time and frustration.
Playlist Indicator actively shows you if there are any background playlists on the audio track
In recent years, Pro Tools has developd newer capabilites allowing more efficient ways to work with Playlists. You can choose to see all of a track's Playlists at once, by changing the track display. In the example below, you can see the main track Playlist area at the top, with each subsequent playlist directly below it.
To view your track Playlists this way, change the Track View from "Waveform" to Playlists. Click on the Track View Selector located below the Record, Solo, & Mute buttons of the track. Once the menu appears, select Playlists as the track view.
Track View Selector
Track View Menu
Once you select "Playlists" as you track view, all of your background Playlists expand below the track. This view has proven to be quite helpful when we're creating a Comp. Not only can you see the different takes, you also have the ability to Solo each one, allowing you to listen back to each individual Playlist without having to make them active or inactive. Each Playlist has it's own Solo button. This feature even overides the main Solo on the track! All of the singer I work with use this feature to decide on which recording to keep and which need to be redone or discarded.
Another reason Playlist view can be helpful, especially with Vocal arrangements, is how easy it is to create a Comp. Once you figure out which parts you like, you can build an new Playlist from each of these pieces. First, start by selecting the area you want to copy to the new Playlist. Once you have a selection, you'll see an up-arrow (next to the Solo button) illuminate. This button is known as "Copy Selection To Main Playlist", literally. It will make a copy of your selection and place it on the main track Playlist. In the picture below, notice how the Copy arrow is active only the the Playlist lane I have selected.
Copy Selection To Main Playlist
Using these tools, you can take the time necessary not only to record your parts correctly, but also to create a roadmap for yourself of all the various takes throughout the recording process. Don't be afraid to create as many Playlists as necessary to make sure you capture everything you want. Most every songwriter, musician, and vocal arranger I work with uses Playlists religiously. Some people even use it purely as a creative tool. Songwriters for example, might have several different melody line ideas, which they'll record to different Playlists. I've been in sessions where different parts from different ideas were pieced together into a final Comp. My point is this: don't be afraid to try every idea you have, you might be surprised at where your inspiration leads you.