Trusted by top audio engineers and professional studios worldwide, Pro Tools is the industry standard for audio mixing and editing in pro studios. But wait, it's not just about traditional audio work anymore. Avid recently introduced Pro Tools Sketch, a new clip-based tool that's available for Mac, Windows and iPad.
Obviously inspired by Ableton Live's Session View, Pro Tools Sketch brings a new level of creativity and spontaneity to your music-making process. This nonlinear way of creating music has already been incorporated into Logic Pro in recent years, and now, it's shaking things up in the Pro Tools universe.
Instead of a typical product review, let's dive right into the action and see just how easy it is to sketch out an instrumental beat using Pro Tools Sketch, all while exploring the pros and cons of this new approach of working with Pro Tools.
A great thing about Pro Tools Sketch for iPad is that it’s a free download. And when I say free, I mean completely free… no hidden in-app purchase or subscription fee here!
When you first launch Pro Tools Sketch on your iPad, you’re greeted with a guided tour of the app. It’s a very basic tutorial, but definitely worth a look.
Once you're in, you're presented with a blank Clip Session canvas, featuring 4 horizontal Scenes and 4 vertical Tracks (2 Instrument and 2 Audio tracks). Like in Ableton Live, tapping on a Scene Play button will trigger all clips on that row, and you can, of course, fire clips individually by tapping on them directly. As of now, our canvas is empty, so let's populate it with some clips!
Let's kick things off by giving our project a name. Just tap on "Untitled" in the top left and you're taken to the Settings window where you can set your Sketch Name, Tempo, Time Signature, and Global Quantize and Swing settings. For this project, let's go for a slow groove at 82 BPM. Don't sweat the details too much because you can always fine-tune them later. Click "Close" and you're all set!
Building a drum beat is often a great way to start any new track so let’s do that by double-tapping on the Inst 1 track. The PlayCell instrument will open at the bottom of the screen with the default Piano patch. This sample-based instrument has many patches available in the drop-down menu, including some drum kits, but unfortunately the presets are not sorted by category, which is a bit of a bummer. In this example, I used the Basement Kit.
To keep my session organized, I tap on Inst 1, choose Properties and name the track “Drums”. If you wish, you can also change the track color in the same Track Properties dialog. At the bottom, you have 8 pads to play with, as well as 4 parameters to tweak your sound. You'll also find a "dice" button that allows you to randomize the settings with a simple tap. If you're interested in accessing additional parameters, just tap the small button located in the upper-right corner. For now, I'll stick with the default settings.
Once the magic happens and you press "Stop," you can switch to the Editor to fine-tune your performance. Pro Tools Sketch will automatically tighten up the timing using the Global Quantize and Swing Settings, but you can select different values from the menu if you prefer. Here, I lower the Strength to give more of a human feel and I adjust the loop area with the bar at the top to get a perfect loop.
If you didn’t like your performance, you can always start over. There’s a convenient undo/redo button at the top, next to your Sketch name. Once you're happy with the recording, you can save your Sketch by tapping on the folder menu. As always, it's a good idea to save periodically during your work to avoid losing anything.
When working in the MIDI Editor, you can add or remove a note by double-tapping, resize horizontally by spreading two fingers, and navigate through the pattern by tapping and dragging. You can also resize a selected note by dragging the start or end of the note. To select multiple notes, it’s just a matter of tapping on an empty zone and lassoing the notes. From there, you can shift the position, change the pitch or resize all selected notes. However, you can’t delete selected notes all at once with a double-tap. Also, copy/paste and Duplicate don't seem to be available in the MIDI Editor, at least not in this version. Hopefully, Avid will fix this in a future update. With the first beat recorded, let's give the clip a name by tapping on it and choosing "Properties"... "Beat 1" sounds fitting.
Let's spice up our beat with some loops. Another great thing about Pro Tools Sketch is that it comes with a built-in library of loops, samples and MIDI files to get you started. The sounds are diverse and span different styles. To access it, tap on the menu icon in the top left corner of the interface. You can navigate the browser by tapping on the folders, tapping the arrows. Let’s start by finding a drum loops under Loops > Drum Loops.
The loops are listed in alphabetical order. You should be able to order them by BPM by tapping on "Tempo", but in my experience, that doesn’t work as expected. Not a deal-breaker, though, because the loops will adjust themselves to match your project's tempo. I’d like to find a top loop to layer over Beat 1, so I type in "Top" in the search bar. The “IsoLoop Abra Top 16ths" catches my ear, so I drag it onto the first Scene and I rename the track.
The drum loop is very loud compared to our MIDI drums, but that's an easy fix. Head to the Mixer tab to get a perfect balance. You can also add room ambiance on the top loop by raising up the Reverb and Delay send knobs. To adjust the send FX, go to the Global FX tab.
Now move to the Editor tab to tweak the loop and make it our own. I start by lowering the Pitch to -5 semitones to get a darker sound. To add variation, I tap on Selection and on the Duplicate button to extend the loop to a 4-bar loop.
The Audio Editor offers various options to edit audio. On the left you have the Gain and Pitch controls. And above the waveform you have Selection, Delete, Cut, Duplicate, Reverse, Trim, Fade and Stretch. There's also a Grid option that you can deactivate if you want don't want your edits to snap to the Grid.
Using the Selection button again, I drag the white handles to select the last 2 beats, press the Razor blade icon to cut, and the Reverse option to reverse the last 2 beats. Great, we now have a 4-bar loop with a little variation at the end.
I’d like to add another audio loop to beef up our beat. While the built-in library is great,you have the flexibility to explore beyond it. I've chosen a drum loop from Splice that I'd like to integrate, and I've already saved it to my iPad through the Splice app. To add it, switch from the Sound Library to Browse, locate the folder where you stored the loop, and simply drag and drop it onto an Audio track.
Oops... when playing the 4-bar loop, Pro Tools Sketch mistakenly plays it at half speed as an 8-bar loop. If this happens to you, simply use the Stretch option in the Editor tab and resize the loop accordingly. Don’t forget to adjust the loop zone as well.
Let’s add another loop and see how far we can go with audio editing. I’ve added a vocal loop I downloaded from Splice to a new Audio track and pitched it up 2 semitones. Using the Selection option, I chop the loop into multiple sections and used Trim, Stretch, Duplicate and Delete to create something unique. Note that these editing options are only available in Audio Editor. The Selection, Duplicate and Stretch editing options would be perfect for MIDI editing, but they are not available.
Here’s the Sketch so far… now let’s record some audio!
When it comes to recording audio, you have the option to connect a USB microphone or audio interface to your iPad. Alternatively, you can use your iPad's built-in microphone instead—just make sure to use headphones to avoid audio leakage or feedback.
Recording audio is as straightforward as laying down MIDI—simply arm recording, press play, and hit the record button on the clip. You can then adjust the loop length and edit the audio.
Here, I've recorded a 5-string electric bass guitar and would like to apply compression. To add audio effects, go to the Mixer or Track tab and select an empty FX slot. You have a variety of effects to choose from: Chorus, Compressor, Crunch Crusher, Delay, EQ, LoFi, Multimode Filter, Reverb, and Saturation. Let’s add the Compressor to the bass channel. Interestingly, I find the "Advanced" mode visually more intuitive than the XY Pad of the "Simple" mode. I add some Drive, and adjust the settings to taste. A visual indicator for the amount of gain reduction would be helpful, but, unfortunately, it's not available.
Next, let’s add a synth pad. Unlike some other iPad music apps, Pro Tools Sketch lacks compatibility with Audio Unit effects and instruments. That means you can't use 3rd-party plugins with Pro Tools Sketch. That said, the app comes with a versatile 2-oscillator virtual analog synth called SynthCell.
Unlike the PlayCell instrument, SynthCell's presets are thoughtfully organized into various categories: Arpeggios, Bass, FX, Leads, Pads, Percussive, Plucks, and Poly Synth. After browsing a few presets, I select the Sorrow presets from the Pads section. I tweak the Amplitude ADSR envelope under the Env tab to turn the pad into a plucky sound. In the Arp tab, I activate the arpeggiator and set it to three octaves.
Rather than recording a new musical part, I look into the loop browser to search for a suitable MIDI pattern. You can preview the MIDI loops by tapping on them, although they will play with a generic synth sound rather than the sound of the MIDI instrument on the selected track. I also add a Chorus effect on the track, and raise the Delay and Reverb send knobs to give the synth more depth.
To go beyond the 4-bar loop, let’s do some "subtractive" arranging. Simply tap on Session 1 and choose Duplicate a few times. It would be convenient if the duplicated Scenes automatically renamed themselves to “Scene 2,” “Scene 3,” and so forth, but this is not the case.
I delete some clips in some scenes to create an Intro, a Verse 1, a Verse 2, and a Chorus. I've added an extra pad sound, an additional reverse cymbal FX and deleted the end of some clips to create transitions. Once all your Scenes are ready, building an arrangement is as easy as dragging them in the order that you want in the Arrangement section at the top, and specifying how many repeats of each section you want.
When you're satisfied with the arrangement, you can tap on the "..." menu and choose Export Arrangement. To include the reverb and delay tail in the export, it's necessary to add an empty MIDI clip in the very last session of the arrangement, otherwise the song will cut abruptly.
Here's the full arrangement...
Switching between the iPad and Desktop when working on a Sketch is a breeze since both versions of the app operate identically. The only difference is that on a computer you have the option to sync your Sketch with a standard Pro Tools Session.
Don't expect the same easy workflow when switching between your Pro Tools Sketch and Pro Tools Session as with Ableton Live's Session and Arrange views (where a simple tab press does the trick). In Pro Tools, the Sketch opens in a separate window, and you need to activate the Sync option to play it in sync with the BPM of your Pro Tools Session. Essentially, it feels a bit like having two projects opened at the same time.
It's possible to drag your clips (or even your entire arrangement) from your Sketch window to your Pro Tools session. However, when doing so, it won't transfer the insert and send effects, nor your clips' Gain and Pitch settings, and software instrument will be converted to audio. Avid will likely address these issues in a future update.
With Pro Tools Sketch, Avid is clearly aiming to hit a sweet spot with the music producer and beat maker community. The app is completely free, so this is an amazing way to create music at home or on the go and get introduced to the Pro Tools universe. With Pro Tools Sketch, it's easy to start a project on your iPad, and then continue working on your Desktop using the free Pro Tools Intro. Plus, existing Pro Tools users will discover a new inspiring way of creating music. Of course, this is a first release and there is room for improvement, but overall Pro Tools Sketch is a breath of fresh air for the Pro Tools ecosystem. Give it a try, it's free!
Pro Tools Sketch for iPad: https://www.avid.com/pro-tools/sketch
Pro Tools: https://www.avid.com/pro-tools
Learn Pro Tools: https://ask.video/library/application/ProTools