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Just what do people mean when they talk about Pro Tools?

Just what do people mean when they talk about Pro Tools?

The term "Pro Tools" gets tossed around a lot these days, and with good reason: The computer-based, digital recording software is used on the vast majority of pop, rock, country and rap recordings made in the world today. The software, or comparable digital programs like Nuendo or Cubase, has replaced analog tape and other digital devices as the standard recording medium in the music industry.

Audiophiles like Pro Tools because it produces recordings that are free of tape hiss and other noise. Recording engineers use Pro Tools because it's cheaper and more efficient, and the software has greater storage capacity than analog tape. It also affords producers and engineers, including amateurs working at home, virtually limitless possibilities when editing recordings. Imagine seeing the actual waveform of the sound you recorded on your computer screen and being able to cut and paste those waveforms however and wherever you want them to go.

Most people don't know it, but this editing capacity is what they're talking about when they bandy the term Pro Tools about in conversation. They're talking about how the software's digital editing capabilities can alter and reconstruct a performance and, secondarily, about pitch correction, the controversial practice of fixing a singer's vocals while mixing a track.

Strictly speaking, though, Pro Tools isn't what producers and engineers are using to, as they say, "fix it in the mix." They're using programs like Autotune, which can be "plugged in" to the Pro Tools software and utilized to correct or otherwise manipulate some aspect of a recording. Made by Antares, Autotune first came to international attention with Cher's 1998 blockbuster single "Believe." The most popular software of its kind in use today, Autotune most commonly is used to "tame" poor pitch for singers who habitually flub notes or sing off key.

Time was that musicians had to play or sing every note on a recording all at once in the same room in a single take. Pickers on country sessions still play most of the notes today, just not necessarily at the same time or even in the same place. With Pro Tools, overdubbing—the practice of laying newly recorded tracks over preexisting ones—is so easy that two people can make a record by sending tracks back and forth via computer file.

Nowadays, choruses sung only once are "flown" around and "dropped" into a song every time a chorus comes around. Mistakes are fixed by "editing in" another take, phrase or syllable, sometimes not even from the same place in the song, or in the same pitch. Sometimes musicians don't have to play a song all the way through to get a finished product. Multiple vocal takes are whittled down into a composite or usable vocal track. Not all professional recordings are made this way, but most rock, rap, pop and country hits are.

All of which begs the question: When does the music stop being real?

—Ed Pettersen

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