How to determine the tempo of pre-recorded audio with Pro Tools

Occasionally, you may want to work on a project that includes audio from other sources. It may be a commercially available song, or audio track(s) from an internet collaborator, or any number of other sources.

The question then arises; how do you determine the tempo of the audio track(s) provided if it is not provided by the author of the media, and the information is not embedded in the file and available in the Pro Tools Workspace?

My first recommendation is to request the information from the media’s author. If, for some reason, they cannot provide you with that information (if it’s a collaborator, they should be able to provide this information) or you are in some way unable to obtain it, the following tutorial should help you determine the tempo in Pro Tools. You are going to need to know at least what meter the music is in, however, but most people can do that just by listening to the music in question.

  1. Create a new session at the sample rate and bit depth at which you want to work. You might also want to set the meter, but that is not really necessary at this point.
  2. If Pro Tools is not set to automatically create a click track in new sessions, add a click track.
  3. mute the click track (for now)
  4. Make sure that the tempo ruler is visible (View->Rulers->Tempo)
  5. Make sure that the "Tab to Transient" feature is enabled.
  6. Make sure that the transport is set to "Loop Playback" (this makes it easier to determine that you have a proper measure selected later)
  7. Make sure that the preference for "Drag and Drop  from the desktop conforms to session tempo" (Setup->Preferences Processing tab) is not set to "All Files" and that the audio file that you are importing is not a REX or ACID file.
  8. Create a new audio track in your session of the appropriate type to match the imported file (stereo for stereo, mono for mono)
  9. Make sure that the track is set as sample based, not tick based.
  10. Make sure that the track has any elastic audio turned off.
  11. Drag and drop the audio file you are importing onto the new track
  12. Playback Pro Tools to make sure you can hear the audio track
  13. Determine, by listening, where the downbeat of the first measure of the imported track is.
  14. Place the protools cursor just before that point and press the tab key. Pressing the tab key should place the cursor exactly on the downbeat of the first measure (If not, you need to manually manipulate the cursor so that it is exactly on the downbeat of the first measure)
  15. Press and hold the "shift" key and press tab again to select from the first downbeat to the next detected transient. Repeat this process until you have one or two full measures selected. Pressing play while loop playback is selected will loop over this selection and allow you to make sure that the selection is made properly and is "in time". (If it isn’t, you will have to manually adjust the selection in slip mode. You should definitely know how to manually adjust a selection before trying this procedure 🙂  )
  16. Once you have made the selection properly, and are sure that it is looping in time to the tempo of the prerecorded song, open the Identify Beat window (ctrl + I)
  17. On the identify Beat window, you need to set the start location at 1:1:000 (since you selected the very first downbeat of the very first measure) and set the Time Signature to the value that it should be for the song you imported (4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc), then set the End Location to whatever measure you selected to (if you selected 1 bar, then it would be 2:1:000, if two then 3:1:000), and make sure you select the same time signature as before.
  18. Press "OK"

At this point, you have determined what the tempo is for the selection that you made, and Pro Tools has both inserted it into the timeline for you and moved the song start marker to the first downbeat you selected (also inserted a meter change even if it is not different from the session default). You can now un-mute the click track and check the tempo of the click against the audio. If it does not match, you have done something wrong; either with the selection of the measure(s), or with the time signature selection, or both and you will need to undo and correct.

Many times, especially when music has been recorded to a strict click/metronome, this will be the only thing you have to do as the rest of the song will be at the same tempo as you detected. However, if the original performer didn’t use a click/metronome, and/or the click/metronome from the recorded audio is too far out of sync with the Pro Tools click/clock, or if there are tempo or meter changes within the song, then you will have to go through the song measure by measure and repeat the process. You will need to make sure that when continuing, you not only make sure you make the selection (don’t just select the grid, because that isn’t going to work) and that you indicate on the identify beat window what measure the start and end point is.