Understanding Pro Tools File Structure

If you’re using Pro Tools you should know this how to manage the music files you work so hard to create. That’s what this article will help you to do.

The Basic Idea

When you say Pro Tools file structure what you’re really talking about is how Pro Tools stores and organizes all of the files used by a Pro Tools session on your hard drive.

It is not a complicated thing. But it is something that can cause serious headaches if you’re not aware of it.

In a worst case scenario, you may accidentally delete important audio or find your backups missing essential elements from your session.

Everything goes in the Session Folder

When you create a New Session in Pro Tools, the software automatically creates a folder named after your session. This is referred to as the Session Folder.

Session Folder

Session Folder

Think of this session folder as the master folder associated with each particular session because all the files that Pro Tools automatically creates throughout the duration of a session are going to be stored in it.

Audio Files

This is what I’d call a vital folder (and that’s an understatement). Any audio that you record or import into Pro Tools will reside in this folder.

Audio Files Folder

Audio Files Folder

If you process audio using AudioSuite plug-ins, it will be stored here too.

If this folder gets misplaced or worse – deleted, it could mean your entire session is toast and you’ll need to start again from the ground up. Right down to setting up the mics again and recording the first note. So be careful.

Naming Audio Files
As a side note. One of the most common session management problems you will encounter is caused by simply not naming your audio files.
The best practice is to name the audio tracks before recording on them. That way the naming of the audio files will be done automatically for you. It will save you having to look through a hard drive full of files with names like “audio_01_01”, and “audio_27_02_11”.

Fade Files folder

Fade files are stored in the Fade Files folder.

Fade Files Folder

Fade Files Folder

Did you know that fades and crossfades in Pro Tools are actually unique audio files? When you apply a fade or crossfade to audio in Pro Tools, the software generates a small audio file, called a Fade File. A fade file is a small audio file of only the faded, or crossfaded portion of audio.

This is smart because it means you can go back later and edit the fade or even delete the fade – all without ever changing the original audio file.

By storing Fades and Crossfades as separate audio files, Pro Tools is able to load sessions with a ton (ie hundreds or thousands) of fades much faster than if it had to regenerate them each time you load the session.

Regenerating Fade Files
If for some reason you accidentally deleted the fade files folder and it’s contents, Pro Tools would still be able to regenerate the missing fade files. All of the information necessary to regenerate the fades is contained in the Pro Tools session file.

Pro Tools Session file (.ptf)

The .ptf (Pro Tools File) IS the Pro Tools session. It contains a map to all of the media (audio and video) files used in the session and all of the editing, mixing, midi, plug-in, and session settings. It really is the brain of the Pro Tools session.

Pro Tools HD Session File

Pro Tools HD .PTF File

Every single session detail – from automation breakpoints to track colors to midi performances to track heights and region definitions. memory locations, track names – almost everything other than raw audio and video files is stored within this document.

The great thing about Pro Tools session files is that they take up relatively little memory (from 20kb up to a few MB) and can easily be copied and renamed. That makes it easy to create as many alternate versions of a session as you want.

Pro Tools LE Session File

Pro Tools LE .PTF File

Whether it’s to experiment with a different arrangement or a different mix, you can just use the Save As command to save a variation of the current .ptf file to the session folder. Each new version of the session file will still utilize the same Audio and Fade Files folders.

Region Groups folder

If you’re using Region Groups in your session, you may decide to use the Export Region Groups feature (in the Regions drop down menu), Pro Tools will create a .rgrp file and save it in this folder.

Region Groups Folder

Region Groups Folder

It doesn’t store any and all Region Groups from your session. By default, Region Groups are saved as part of the session file (.ptf).

Instead the the Region Groups folder is only for the Region Groups that have been manually Exported by you.

Video Files folder

Rather than automatically copy video files into your session folder every time you import video, Pro Tools will reference the video from wherever it happens to be on your drive and remember it’s location for next time.

Video Files Folder

Video Files Folder

To be sure, it’s not a bad idea to create a copy of your video file(s) and keep them with all of your other Pro Tools session files. In case you decide to do this, Pro Tools thoughtfully creates the Video Files folder within the session folder and leaves it there, conveniently waiting for you to use.

WaveCache file (.wfm)

The WaveCache file has one purpose: it stores the information that Pro Tools has calculated and stored to draw the waveform overviews that you see in the Edit Window. Since the data is simply loaded (not re-computed), Pro Tools is able to load your sessions that much quicker.

Pro Tools WaveCache File (.wfm)

WaveCache .wfm

Like fade files, if the WaveCache file is deleted, Pro Tools will be able to recalculate and draw the waveform overviews. But again like fade files, the WaveCache file makes the loading a session much faster.

MIDI Files folder

Pro Tools has features for sending MIDI tracks in your Pro Tools session to Sibelius or G7 notation software (if you happen to have either one).

MIDI Files Folder

MIDI Files Folder

If you use the Send to Sibelius command (File > Send To Sibelius…) Pro Tools will send the exported files to the MIDI Files folder within the Session Folder.

Rendered Audio Files folder

If you’re using Elastic Audio in Pro Tools, you’ll have the option of using either Rendered Processing or Real-Time processing. If you choose Rendered Processing, Pro Tools puts the rendered audio files in the Rendered Files folder.

Rendered Files Folder

Rendered Audio Files Folder

If you Commit to a rendered audio file that is currently being used in the session, Pro Tools will convert it into a new audio file and place it in the Audio Files folder. Then it will delete the rendered file from the Rendered Files folder.

Once again, this highlights the fact that in Pro Tools the editing is non-destructive.

Session File Backups

Pro Tools has an Auto Backup preference (Preferences > Operation). If you turn this on, Pro Tools will periodically save a backup version of the session file. These backup session files will be named “(session name).bak.00.ptf, …bak.01.ptf, …bak.02.ptf ” etc. and automatically saved in the Session File Backups folder.

Session File Backups Folder

Session File Backups Folder

You’re already a better Pro Tools operator

Now that you know where and what Pro Tools is saving for each session, you’re already a better Pro Tools operator.

Now you can keep track of your Pro Tools files and can back up, import or copy Pro Tools sessions without costly mistakes.

Comments

  1. Chas Obrien says:

    Most helpful. I glossed over these important points and now I have a better understanding of files and folders. Thanks, Chas

  2. I discovered that PT only keeps any file ONCE – meaning if you decide to create a copy of a session by a “Save As” – the files are not replicated – so if you were to delete a file in the 2nd version, it is also gone from the first! I believe this is true and have been bitten by that since it is different than how Windows typically handles Save As versions.

    Please correct me if I am wrong here…

    Bill

    • Chris Bryant says:

      That is correct Bill. It’s actually a feature. If Pro Tools created a duplicate of the audio for every alternate Mix or Edit session doc you created, your drive would fill up in no time. So, Save As will always reference the original audio.

      Save Copy In, will create a complete copy of the session and will give you the option of copying all of the audio files to a new location on your drive.

      Hope that helps.

  3. Hi, thanks for this thread.
    I’m a relatively new user of ProTools and working on a full-scale project that is a bit of a mess! So I’m trying my best to learn about PT file structures. Particularly, session back-ups and, while I’m at it, Digidesign folders that appear everywhere (like animal droppings).
    So my basic question is, when PT makes session back-ups, how does it number the back-ups. In my project there are some back-ups that were created a year ago, while this is not possible. Is that some kind of error?

  4. Great article! I just want to stress that naming your tracks is one of the most important ways to keep everything organized. I have had nightmare issues with that.
    Thanks!

  5. Great article thank. Just a note to say each file in Pro Tools has a unique number (you don’t see it but it is there), so if you misplace a file, Pro Tools can still search all your drives and find it, even if it name audio_01_01 like 20 other files.