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