I Heart ProTools VCA Faders!

I’ve been using ProTools since day one, in fact since before day one. When I left film school at the end of 1990, the guy I got a job with as a trainee had just bought a Mac SE30 & the first Digidesign Sound Tools to arrive into New Zealand. Sound Tools was basically a stereo AD, DA and the Sound Designer II program and we had it chasing LTC SMPTE timecode off video along with a multitrack reel to reel. So eg cutting ambiences would involve digitising some wind onto the 100MB drive, cut it into regions in a playlist & then lay it off to tape. Delete the wind off the drive, load the next file & repeat.

Next came ProTools in its very first form, as two seperate programs ProDeck and ProEdit. Now ProEdit worked reasonably well but the two programs only really worked together in theory, eg you would switch to ProDeck & record something, then switch to ProEdit & new audio should be sitting on a track. Notice I say ‘should’ because it rarely worked. At this time I was doing a lot of foley recording (recording to analogue multitrack in lock to a video deck) and every time a new version of ProDeck & ProEdit arrived we would excitedly load it up, hoping like hell that it worked well enough for us to use it to record foley… but it was quite some time before that day arrived. In fact it wasn’t until the two programs were merged into ProTools 1.0… So if you have ever wondered why the ProTools feels like the Edit view & the Mix view feel slightly like two seperate worlds, its because they once were.

Anyway the point of all this nostalgia of the bad old semi-functional days came about because this week I learned a damn handy new technique with ProTools. Now it isn’t that I am an expert with ProTools but I know enough to do what I do and accordingly I dont go diving into the manual like I used to…. I have learned ProTools in an incremental fashion over the last 17 years & a lot of those early years were spent discovering every new feature like the trainspotter that I probably was. So whats the new feature? VCA Master Faders! Its a ProTools HD only feature (bah humbug!) but heres how I am using it…

For the past few weeks I’ve been doing a first pass on ambiences for the film. I built a session organised in sets of tracks to feed stems when we predub; so Ambience stem A is fed from 4 x C tracks, 3 LR tracks and a Surround LR and ditto for stems B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I… I tend to checker-board the stems so scene 1 is on A stem, scene 2 is on B stem etc so that I can do overlaps to make the crossover between scenes work smoothly… Heres a screenshot of my current session (click to enlarge)

As I layer elements for the ambiences for a scene I manually balance them between themselves using volume automation and I also split elements across a number of stems to give us control in the final mix, so a beach scene might have waves on stem A, wind on stem C, insects on stem E and seagulls on stem G…

Now where VCA Master Faders come into use for me is for monitoring. I selected all the tracks on stems A & B and made a group (lets call it GroupAB), but a Mix-only group, not an edit group. I then add a VCA master fader to the session, assign it to GroupAB. Then I do the same for the other pairs of stems ie group tracks of stems C&D, E&F, G&H…

Why this works so well for me is partly because I have a MotorMix, which has 8 motorised faders along with solo & mute buttons. By moving the VCA Masters to the top of my session the MotorMix faders then control overall level of Stem AB, Stem CD, Stem DE, Stem FG & Stem HI… I’ve also since added a VCA master for dialogue guidetrack and another for music guidetrack and will use the other two faders as FX masters.

Another aspect of why this works for me is the fact that I’m using Mix-only groups. So while the VCA is controlling the overall level of all the tracks of stem AB, I can still dive in & tweak edits on say the third centre track on Stem B without having to suspend grouping to do it.

To anyone who uses a Digidesign control surface I guess none of this is news, but it is a revelation for me, as I am an editor not a mixer & I am not mixing so much as controlling my monitoring in an efficient manner. When I pull the level on say stems A&B I don’t want to over-write any of the volume automation on my individual edit tracks…

Where I can see this setup being very handy is when I’m having run throughs with the director eg say I play him that beach scene & he says ‘I don’t think we need crickets” – I can just pull the MotorMix fader & zero the VCA Master Fader for the appropriate stem & see what the impact is immediately before committing to it.

Of course VCA Masters can be automated like any other track & as I get used to using them more that may be worth investigating…

Heres a bit of info borrowed from Digidesigns site:

“VCA groups allow you to control multiple faders without mixing their signal paths. It’s a feature modeled on many large-format analog consoles, where VCA faders located near the center of the desk can be assigned to set master levels for a group of “slave” channel faders. In a music mix, for example, you’d have one VCA fader assigned to drums, one to backing vocals, one to guitars, and so on. Moving the VCA fader lets you “ride” the level for the corresponding group of slaved faders.

In Pro Tools HD, the VCA track type replicates this useful function. All VCA tracks can be easily and simultaneously accessed from any Digidesign control surface, and on ICON systems, VCA faders can be “spilled out” to show the individual tracks that make up the VCA group. These discrete tracks can then be adjusted individually and collapsed back to the VCA master. Mixers who are used to working on traditional consoles will love this function.

VCA faders can also be automated. This overall automation is graphically superimposed on each track within the VCA group; the cumulative level is displayed as a blue line that indicates the track’s volume automation combined with the VCA volume data (see figure 2).

At any point the VCA master volume and mute automation can be “coalesced.” The VCA fader volume and mute data is combined with the existing automation of the corresponding tracks within the VCA group, and written as new combined automation data for each group member. Coalescing causes a VCA fader’s data to be flattened back to zero, ready for further rides if required.”

Theres also an article here in Sound on Sound magazine about using VCA Masters…

9 thoughts on “I Heart ProTools VCA Faders!

  1. Joe G

    This is a fantastic explanation! I had been using Aux channels to submix my groups, and eating up all sorts of processing power to accomplish it. I’m going to start incorporating VCAs on my next project…which as it happens, starts this weekend!


  2. Cormac

    Nice one Tim, I’m just getting in to VCA’s for the short film I’m working on and it is, as you say, a bit of a revelation not having to suspend groups and worry about automation being lost.

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  4. Nick R

    Pardon me for being a little OT, but I have a bit of a beginner question for Tim. Do you take this whole session to the Mix Stage,with the FX-A, B etc stems being simply submixes of live individual tracks, or do just separate out pre-mixed stems and combine them with Dialogue and Music into a mix session?

  5. tim Post author

    For most films we do seperate predubs of each component, so on a typical film mix schedule:
    Dialogue predub = 5 days
    Ambience predub = 2-3 days
    Foley rpedub = 3 days
    FX predub = 1-5 days

    So for ambiences, I will take this session to Park Road Post, boot it up & assign all the tracks to direct outputs which feed into the Euphonix desk & the mixer then works through the film, scene by scene premixing the ambiences. So he will route all my source tracks from what I’ve labelled as Ambience A out to a recorder, which will record a 5.0 stem… ditto for source tracks B-> I

    If the dialogue predub has been done before ambience, we will play it into the desk monitoring system so we can work in context & make sure the ambiences sit with the dialogue & feel real/appropriate… but even if the dialogue predub hasn’t happened, we would still use a dialogue guidetrack of some sort…

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