Pro Tools Fundamentals - Tempo

06-21-2014 09:00 AM

Many users’ first experience of Pro Tools will be using MIDI and virtual instruments, their prior experience of other DAWs will have been based around the assumption that they are going to be overdubbing MIDI parts using internal sound sources. When I’m introducing novices to Pro Tools there are always a few who will dive in, creating MIDI tracks and asking how to set up a VI, only to find out they probably wanted an instrument track. The one question I’m not usually asked until much later is how to set the tempo. Needless to say I’ve heard an awful lot of 120 bpm music!
Manual vs Conductor

There are two tempo modes in Pro Tools: Manual, or using the Tempo Ruler (also referred to as the Conductor Track). The Conductor Track toggle button is found on the transport bar (bottom right, picture of someone waving a baton - obviously).

Manual Tempo

With the conductor track toggled off, Pro Tools is in manual mode. Besides the button changing colour, the other significant thing which happens is that the tempo field in the transport window is activated and can be changed directly. In manual mode your song can have only have one tempo throughout. For many (most?) projects this is all you need.
The manual tempo can be set in a few different ways:

  • Typing it in - By clicking to highlight the current tempo and typing.
  • Click and drag - By clicking in the tempo field and dragging up or down.
  • Tap tempo - Click to highlight and tap the desired tempo using the T key. This is possible with Pro Tools stopped or in playback. The Tempo updates in real time.

Conductor Tempo

When the Conductor Track is toggled on in the transport window the tempo field turns white to indicate it cannot be changed directly. When the Conductor Track is enabled, the session tempo follows the tempo events in the tempo ruler. To show the tempo ruler go to the rulers drop down (very top left of the edit window, under the edit modes) and select Tempo. By default a 120 bpm tempo event is created at the beginning of your session. The point of the conductor track is to enable tempo changes during a song. A tempo change can be created at the insertion point (or timeline selection start) by clicking the “+” in the tempo ruler. It can be more convenient to create tempo changes by Cntrl (Start) clicking in the tempo ruler with any of the edit tools.

Doing either of these will open the Tempo Change dialogue. This window is largely self explanatory with the exception of the resolution setting. This setting tells Pro Tools which beats it is counting to determine the tempo. For example for tunes in 4/4 or 3/4 it should be left at 1/4 note but in a compound time sig like 6/8 it should be set to dotted 1/4. If you are working in 4/4 it can be left at the default crotchet setting.
Editing The Tempo Ruler

To review and make changes to the tempo events on the ruler it is easier work with the graphic Tempo Editor. This can be shown by clicking on the disclosure triangle in the tempo ruler. Bpm values can be edited directly using the Grab tool. The Trim tool is useful for trimming the entire, varying tempo track up and down but the most flexible tool is the Smart tool. This functions as the Trim tool at the top of the editor, as the Grab tool on the tempo line and as the Selector everywhere else. This Selector tool can be used to make a timeline selection, the tempo line goes blue and tempo breakpoints are created, when selected on these new breakpoints a diagonal Trim tool appears. This tool can be used to trim a tempo change up or down within this edit selection - Handy!


Excuse the Italian - Ramping tempo up or down is easily achieved using the pencil tool in the tempo editor. Changes are stepped and the density of these changes can be changed from a rather coarse 250ms to a much smoother 50 ms or to note values down to 32nd note.
Ticks vs Samples

Tempo changes will inevitably lead to conversations about tick-based tracks and sample-based tracks. That is coming soon so watch this space. If you find audio clips and song markers are mysteriously moving when you change tempo, don’t worry. They will, and if you understand the difference between ticks and samples you’ll understand why.