Track Types in Pro ToolsQuick quiz: How many track types are there in Pro Tools?

Anyone? The correct answer is five. Surprising, huh? For some reason I had this idea in my head that there were more, but as it turns out, you only need five types of tracks to do pretty much anything in Pro Tools – Audio, MIDI, Instrument, Aux, and Master.

I think it’s a good idea to go over each track type, since there tends to be confusion among newer Pro Tools users as to how each track type is to be utilized

Audio Track

This is the most obvious track type. The only way to record audio into Pro Tools is by using an audio track.

You could technically record and mix an entire song using only audio tracks. However, as we’ll see below, there are good reasons to use other track types in your sessions.

MIDI Track

To understand MIDI tracks, you need to understand MIDI. MIDI is simply a control language. It tells a sound module what notes to play, when to play them, how loudly to play them, etc.

A MIDI track by itself doesn’t do much of anything (just like a remote control by itself doesn’t do anything unless there’s a TV to go with it). A MIDI track is simply where you store a MIDI performance. The track needs to be routed either to an external (hardware) sound module or an internal (software) virtual instrument.

Instrument Track

The instrument track is actually a relatively new addition to Pro Tools. It’s basically a hybrid between a MIDI track and an aux track.

Historically, if you wanted to use a virtual instrument plug-in in Pro Tools, you needed to insert that plug-in on an aux track, then create a MIDI track to “control” the virtual instrument. The idea was that you should treat the virtual instrument the same way you would treat an external keyboard or sound module. The MIDI track would send performance information to the module, then you would actually listen to the module on a separate (aux) track.

A few versions back (I believe it was version 7) Pro Tools introduced the instrument track. They took an aux track and a MIDI track combined them into one. The instrument track offers the MIDI recording of a MIDI track and the virtual instrument audio playback of an aux track.

The next logical question is “Why would you ever use a MIDI track?”

I’ll give you two scenarios in which you would want to use one.

  1. Multi-timbral virtual instruments – Some virtual instruments, like Native Instruments’ Kontakt, allow you to pull up multiple patches at once. For example, one instance of Kontakt can have two violins, a viola, and a cello. Each of these instruments can be addressed individually from 4 different MIDI tracks. This is helpful in conserving CPU power, since only one instance of Kontakt needs to be open, as opposed to four different instances.
  2. External sound modules – Keyboard gurus with tons of keyboards and sound modules like to be able to use their own hardware sounds in their recordings. In situations like this, a simple MIDI track in Pro Tools is used to trigger (or play) the hardware.

Aux Track

An aux track is a track that simply allows audio to pass through it. It’s commonly used to either group tracks together (like routing all the drum tracks through a single channel/fader) or as an effects channel (a reverb or delay track).

Aux tracks can also be used to monitor external devices. For example, if you’re using a MIDI track to trigger an external sound module (as I mentioned earlier), you’ll need to route the analog outputs of that module to a set of inputs on your interface to allow you to hear it. The way you hear it is by creating an Aux track and setting the input to the corresponding input on your interface. 

Aux tracks are always on, meaning they always pass audio whether or not the session is playing back or stopped. I actually use an aux track to capture my voice when doing tutorial videos. I simply create a mono aux track, and set the input to one of the microphone inputs. This way my voice is heard both while the track is playing and while it’s stopped.

More to come tomorrow…

The final track type is a master track. I’ve decided to dedicate tomorrow’s article entirely to master tracks. I recently did a lot of research on their purpose and how they operate, and I discovered a lot of features and functions that I hadn’t known about before. 

I will also be posting a video tomorrow showing each track type in action.

In the meantime, do you have any questions on audio, MIDI, instrument, or aux tracks? Feel free to ask by leaving a comment.

Next: Track Types in Pro tools Part 2 – The Master Fader

  • Steve

    Hey Joe

    Is there a way to route an audio track to be processed through a virtual instrument? For example, running a vocal track through static created by a soft synth, or using filters on a soft synth to manipulate a guitar track, etc.? I tried bussing the audio track to the instrument track and pulling up a virtual instrument on the audio track, but I couldn’t get either of those to work.

  • Oskar

    I used to record thru and Aux Track. Set the input from my external Pre Amp-DI and the Aux Track output to an Audio Track Input, for record. This way I can pass the signal thru some processing on the Aux Track before record, like DC-Offset filter or and Anti-Aliasing filter, a peak limiter or a Amp Simulation. The question is about delay compensation on PT9, once this aux processing before record add some delay. This added delay can cause sinc problems on my mix or the Delay Compensation feature can solve it? Thanks!

    • Whew…I’m not sure man. Why not just record directly to the track and have those plugins on the track? That way you’re not actually committing those effects to the recording, but they’re still there, and you don’t have to do extra routing.

      That said, I can see why you’d do it the way you’re doing, but Pro Tools might actually kick in the compensation and mess up timing. Simple solution is to turn of delay compensation while you’re tracking.

      • Oskar

        Yep Joe, sure! But I can rec passing thru some processing, as we used to do on the past, with outboard gear (console as well). Using an Aux Track with some plugins (such as Tape Recorder simulation, EQ filtering, or even those SSL modeled plugins) can give to the record these analog feel. After that you do not need to use plugins, saving DSP. You can focus on colour the sound and everything else. I`ll try to desable the Delay Compensation and see if I can get the records on grid correctly. Thanks!

        • But unless you’re running out of CPU power, there’s really no need to “save DSP” by printing the effects to the track. But hey, if you like the results you’re getting, then great!

  • You tell it where to get the audio. It defaults to the main outputs 1-2, but you can set it to a bus/aux if you want.

  • Karim

    Hi Joe,

    Just a question about Aux’s. I recorded a few vocals and spread them out quite wide (Panned them) and I noticed that when I sent them to an Aux, the spread was not as nice as it was on separate audio tracks. Am I doing this incorrectly or do Aux’s naturally recenter audio tracks? Or do you think its something like phase cancellation happening?

    • Hi Karim. Are you using Sends to send the audio to the aux? Or are you actually routing the output of the track? If you use sends, then you’ll have to adjust the send level and pan. It sounds to me like your send it panned to the center, while your track is panned out wide.