Mark Dillon is one busy musician. When not on stage or in the studio with the Zinc Kings, his Old Time string band out of Greensboro, NC, he’s organizing events and festivals like the Piedmont One Mic Acoustic Convention in Franklinville, NC. And when not on stage with a banjo or guitar, he’s teaching music technology at Guilford Technical Community College’s Larry Gatlin School of Entertainment Technology, leading ensembles and showing students the ins and outs of music recording.
So Dillon is about as well-versed in Pro Tools as you can get. I was lucky to get a few minutes to chat with Mark about recording with Pro Tools. We talked about the challenges that students face with multitracking, which in Mark’s view is that most future recording engineers have a romantic idea in their head of what recording is. They are influenced by what they see in music videos and television shows without recognizing how much of it is hard work and creativity.
“We’re living in an age where a musician with a little over a thousand dollars’ worth of gear can create an amazing album.”
In Mark’s program at GTCC, students don’t just talk about the music business and recording, they create projects, record in studio settings and busting their humps to get passing grades. They have to know their fundamentals if they’re going to be successful. “We’re lucky to have great recording and live sound faculty that aren’t teaching theory but through practical application,” Mark says. “They’re working professionals with awards and scars to prove it.”
Mark first saw Pro Tools in the early 90s, when he was building and repairing guitars for a living and spent a lot of time in recording studios. He considers Pro Tools the easiest DAW to use and learn. “I know this sounds ridiculous, but I’m in love with keyboard focus mode.” That’s the mode in Pro Tools that lets you use keyboard shortcuts for almost any command function.
“When I first encountered Pro Tools, I was a little dumbstruck by how straightforward it was. Our department head T.J. Johnson is no fan of colored channel strips. I love them. I like that Pro Tools is easy to configure to my workflow.”
Mark says that workflow is everything, and the versatility of Pro Tools to mold to anyone’s use preferences makes recording and editing music much more straightforward. He also tries out every Pro Tools update, including the new midi editing techniques in Pro Tools 2018, as well as the track comping features.
The recording program at GTCC is pretty hands-on, and Mark has students rearranging and adjusting audio in the first week. They do beat-mapping with big band files, and one of the big things Mark tries to emphasize is that in this day and age of quantizing and pitch correction, some of the greatest recordings aren’t perfect. “Rhythms stretch and pull, and pitch isn’t always perfect. I mean, listen to Springsteen’s Nebraska – it’s full of limitations and imperfections.”
Then he takes students in the opposite direction with midi recording. His Electronic Music courses are tied in with three levels of recording classes taught by GMA Dove award winner Jacob Danieley, where students are perfecting their recording techniques on GTCC’s several Protools | HD.
“My Electronic Music I students spend a lot of time scoring for short films while my Electronic Music II students are doing the same thing using our collection of external MIDI synths.”
This year the students will score music for the silent film Metropolis, so Mark has to figure logistics for forty-some students scoring a two-hour film. At the end of the semester, they will showcase their work in the large sound lab with the Avid live sound board that live sound instructor Ron Barrans teaches on.
Mark tells me that one advantage of Pro Tools is that students are most likely to find it in a professional environment, so he’s okay with students creating loops or drum tracks in another tool, as long as they build a foundation around Pro Tools. Another advantage is that Pro Tools is configurable; Mark can set it up the way he wants, someone else can set it up for their workflow and switching between workflows is pretty easy.
“I’ve worked with some other DAWS where I open them up after an update, and I feel like I’ve never seen the program before.”
Mark also likes the Pro Tools subscription option. “Now, I can tell a student, ‘Look, you want to be a professional, throw away the expensive coffee and get the subscription’, and many are doing exactly that.”