With more up-and-coming engineers being self-taught, I feel that many have forgotten, or just disregard, some of the systems of organisation that were always mandatory when working in a studio.
Given that many small studios now only have one engineer, there’s a lack of accountability to other people, which makes it very easy to cut corners on things that don’t necessarily have an audible effect.
Being an artist myself, I understand that it’s difficult to use your left-brain’s organisational skills while trying to be creative, but there’s something to be said for wrangling in the chaos from time to time. Also, should you ever need to collaborate, it’s a good idea to have your session-etiquette in place. This is where having systems becomes incredibly important.
The DAW era presents a new level of complexity to the recording process, however, it also gives us a means to stay better-organised. Here are some systems that I have found to be essential, and even at times, session-saving.
• Start by creating and labelling all your folders: one for each song, all of which go into a master project folder. Within each song folder, the session files should be clearly, and logically, labeled. This is usually the song name and the version, for example: “amazingsong-01.ptx”. It’s good practice to “Save As” a new version after each significant advancement in the session. Each new file you create will indicate which version it is through a numeric advancement in the file name. Some people even like to note what was recorded in that version. For example, “amazingsong-04-guitars.ptx”. These revisions allow you to go back to previous versions of the song if needed, and on occasion, will give you a fallback should a session file ever get corrupted.
• Keeping your sessions organised is vital. Before recording anything, rename your tracks. This will ensure that all your files are appropriately labelled, because there’s nothing worse than “Audio 1_04.wav”. The more descriptive these are, the better and the sooner you commit to a naming system that works for you, the better. Group all similar tracks together (Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitars, Keys, Vocals, Backup Vocals, Effects, etc.), then colour coordinate them so the session doesn’t look like a bowl of Trix cereal. This makes it much easier to find your tracks as the track counts increase. Make sure to also add markers for all the sections of the song (ie. Intro, verse, chorus, etc.). If you’re looking for extra merit points, create sub-groups of alike tracks (ie. kick drums, rhythm guitars, backup vocals, etc.), send them to AUX or VCA tracks, and create views (memory locations), for each group so you can view that group on its own.
• When patching everything, use tape and a Sharpie to mark all of your outboard and faders with what’s being run through them. There’s nothing worse than having to think through your patching when you need to make quick changes.
• Keep detailed notes about the session and what you’re recording. What instruments, mics, preamps, outboard, etc. were used? What were your I/O settings? What parts of the recording takes were the best? Did you or the artist have any ideas along the way that are worth exploring? A track’s comment box is helpful for some notes but most of the time I like to use the future-proof .txt file for all my notes. I then save that .txt file in the song’s folder. While you’re at it, take some digital photos of your setups. It’s always great to see how your drums were exactly positioned when you want to recreate the sounds on another session! In case you haven’t caught onto the pattern here, put all those photos into a folder within the song’s folder.
• If you have plugins that are necessary to a sound within the session, take screenshots of the settings, as well as save the plugin settings, putting both in a folder within the song’s folder. That said, it is still good practice to print the effects to an audio track as well. This ensures that you can always get the same effect, even when the plugin becomes obsolete.
I’m going to close with a bonus tip: Keep your work area clean and organised. It gets out-of-hand really easily but not having cables entangled everywhere, guitar pedals hiding under road cases, or curry take-out containers atop your session notes, makes you look more professional and helps you work more efficiently. No one will ever fault you for being too organised, but it may just be the one thing that gets you your next gig.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
Ryan's websites: www.bitcrushing.com / www.acalmercollision.com
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Photo: London's Ravenscourt Studios
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