Blog: From the Ground Up

I've been thinking of starting a blog (again) and also releasing a bunch of new and remastered music in 2017, so why not go through the processes in parallel?  So here's a blog on how to begin - setting up your DAW efficiently so you can get this creative process moving as quickly as possible.  Remember these aren't rules, this is just how I've decided to work and it's helped me while working on electronic music.

A cardinal sin of mine (and MANY a producer) is being utterly disorganized.  Artists are sloppy!  The perfection lives in an artist's finished work, not in the process, right?  That's an argument held for a later post I guess but if you hand off your work to a studio engineer for mixing and mastering, this will cause a lot less headache later on.

Anyway, in the past I've often gone about making music in a very freeform way.  What does my track need?  Kick drum?  Make the track, lay the MIDI down, then add synths then other drums, then etc, etc, etc.  Need to route something later on?  I guess I'll get to it when I need it.  I work minimally and often end up with over 20-30 tracks within a project - other artists I know end up with over a hundred or more.  How these tracks interact with each other is very important at the mixing stage.  For you to get there, you need to have some semblance of order.  

Here's the big problem - computers, DAWs, plugins - they all change over time.  You can't really future-proof these things perfectly but with the right setup at the beginning it'll be a lot easier.  Opening a project I made in 2005 is going to have a few problems today (2017) because I've changed computers (from an 2003 eMac to a 2013 Mac Pro), DAWs (Cubase SX3 - Cubase 9/Ableton Live 9) and my plugins and versions are all different.  Nobody wants to open a project and see that half their virtual instrument tracks are missing and they can never be fixed without using that old setup again....


Cubase 9 sample layout

So how do we go about this without making it incredibly tedious?  What if I don't know how many tracks I'm going to have in my project?  Or my tempo or key?  Let's start with the basics.

First and foremost, more importantly than even having a name for the track or a musical key or tempo it'll be in, let's just make a space for it on our computer and make sure all our assets go there.  This is usually done by creating a new project in your DAW of choice.  Open it up, select Save As... and make sure you create a new folder for that project to be in.  Usually I'll have a folder on an external drive named 01 New Project > 01 Song Name.  Second song of the project?  Create a folder named 02 Song Name, etc.  Not rocket science but it'll help.  Once you decide on a  song name/key/tempo, include that in the project name if possible.  

The example above is the track named Overclocked 135BPM CsDsE for the root notes.  The project name matches the folder it's in.  Easy.

Within the project itself is where we need to get dirty a bit.  We don't know how many drum, synth, MIDI or vocal tracks we're going to end up with.  That's OK.  What we do know is that we're most likely going to have them.  If your DAW allows you to make folder tracks (Cubase) or group tracks (Ableton), make one track for each, then make a folder for each type and put those tracks in them.  Make sure they get a distinct color so you know orange = drums, purple = synth, etc.  Make sure every new track you make gets put into the folder track and colored the right color.  Next comes the REALLY IMPORTANT PART...

You have to route the audio from these tracks to their own individual bus tracks.  Sound complex?  It's not, and it will save you TONS OF TIME AND HEADACHES when you go to mix down later.  Rather than send everything straight to the master bus as is the default, having all these similar tracks funneled through to a single track will free up a lot of processing power.  How?  Well, rather than running a compressor on twenty drum tracks individually, you can just compress the drum bus itself to get each individual track to fit.  I'll get into this in another post later on, but trust me routing the audio properly within your DAW is the most important part.  You can even sub-bus these (though it makes things a little more complex) if you know you're going to have say, lots of piano and pad parts in your synth folder, so you can EQ those appropriately when the time comes.

You may also want to take this time to set up a Send/Return effect for reverb/delay effects.  It's the same principle as the mix bus mentioned before - it will allow you to save processing power and cut down on redundancy in the project.  I usually don't use send/returns but that's my preference (and yes, I know a lot of people would think I'm in the wrong for not using them).  

The MIDI folder would just be a container for any MIDI tracks you create.  Copy MIDI parts into tracks there for safekeeping and make sure you bounce out any audio from your virtual instruments so you don't lose those sounds!

OK, wrapping up, you can save this as a template to use on other tracks, just make sure you Save As... after setting it up and changing the directory you save to as in the first step above.  

Have a question or a comment?  Let me know below!