With all the myriad plugins and virtual instruments we have access to today, and the many DAW's available to work in, one aspect of working on projects is quite often overlooked: keeping them tidy.
I can't tell you how many projects I have exchanged with other producers, and I always take note of people's organizational skills when opening up their projects. It is true, the way people maintain their computers/desktop/projects is quite often a good indicator of their general attention to order and cleanliness in the physical world. With that in mind, I have developed some simple but effective workflow habits when working on my own projects that have made my life a good deal easier in the digital domain, so I thought I would share a few tips.
I always write in the channel notepad exactly which virtual instrument and patch each file feeds.
1. Creating and working with multiple project files
First and foremost, when beginning a song, let's say it is called "Constant Pollution", I start it as "Constant Pollution for drums" since drums are the first thing I usually begin building with instrumentally. I use Nuendo/Cubase, and have it set up so that the program automatically autosaves every 3 minutes (and creates 2 different backups), and I definitely recommend enabling this or a similar feature if your DAW supports it, as it has saved me several times when an unexpected crash happens. Once I move on to bass, I save a new project, "Constant Pollution for bass" and begin working off of it.
This not only creates multiple projects in case one project file gets corrupted and saves me from losing the entire project, but also lets me know which project to go back to in order to do any fundamental re-adjusting of parts at the beginning stages. Then on to "for guitar", "for vocals", etc. This also makes it very easy to know which stage I am at with any project at a quick glance.
Believe me, no artist wants to sit there while you try to recall or find what sound you used for any given track.
2. Organizing MIDI and audio files
Since much of what I do is working with samples, MIDI file management is a big part of keeping my projects orderly. So, upon beginning a new project, I always make a folder track for all of my raw audio files that feed guitar amp sims like Vintage Amp Room or Bass Amp Room, as well as all of my MIDI files. I choose to name this "prebounced", but of course use whatever works for you. I do recommend settling on something you can use in every project for the sake of ease of use.
Whether working with MIDI files or audio files, I always write in the channel notepad exactly which virtual instrument and patch each file feeds, and once I process the file to audio, the original tracks all go down into the "prebounced" folder.
So, if I have an artist in the studio who decides that they don't dig the guitar tone I chose, I can pull the prebounced audio track out of the folder, re-assign it to Vintage Amp Room and recall the exact sound I used for manipulation in a matter of seconds. Believe me, no artist wants to sit there while you try to recall or find what sound you used for any given track, and in addition, if you find yourself listening to a finished mix you did months after completion and want to use the same sound on a new track you are working on, this makes things very easy to remember.
Having a singer in the studio wanting to edit their final vocal is certainly not uncommon...
3. Keeping "the" take
Since in virtually every style of contemporary music the vocals are most important, I find it key to keep a good order to my vocal tracks.
Firstly, I always keep all of the takes in a separate "vocal takes" folder. You never know when you will have to go back to sub a different word, part of word, or breath into a vocal track to get it just right.
Secondly, once I have comped a vocal together (usually involving using several different takes) and before I bounce the comp to one contiguous audio file, I duplicate the comped track, and keep the original comped vocal in case my edits in between words (crossfades, breath removal/cleanup) don't sound as good in the final mix as they do in solo mode. This has saved my butt several times when needing to make adjustments to regions during a mix.
Next, I always save the pitch corrected version of all vocals as a unique file extension (I use Melodyne usually so "ScottvocalMELO" would be how I name a vocal track). This also lets me see from a project view which vocals are final vocals and which are in the process. That being said, I also take care to keep all my Melodyne project files in the same folder as the Nuendo project, for easy tweaking and recalling later on down the line if the vocal tuning needs more adjustment. Having a singer in the studio wanting to edit their final vocal is certainly not uncommon, and having all of these steps lets me know exactly what I am working with, and how to quickly get back to all stages of the process instantly for quick edits.
4. Plugins, plugins, plugins
We have access to so many great plugins these days that it is easy to get lost in your own collection. When I am mixing, I like to think and work quickly, and not have to spend a bunch of time thinking about which tools I have - rather, which is best for the job. So, to make this easier, I have 2 different setups for my plugin listings within Nuendo.
When tracking/building, I have all of my plugins listed by vendor, so I have a Softube folder with all the great plugins these guys make, along with all the other plugins I have.
But when mixing, I don't always remember exactly WHICH eq's, compressors, etc. I own. So, I switch my plugin listing to display by category rather than vendor. I realize this is not a feature all DAWs have, so if yours doesn't have this feature, you can simply make a document file on your desktop which lists your plugin set by type of tool.
It might also help to categorize each plugin specifically by sound or style, like "color EQs" for, say, the Tube-Tech ME 1B Mid-Range Equalizer, "channel strips" like the new and killer sounding Tube-Tech Classic Channel, and so on. I have surprised myself several times by switching my listing during mixing, and finding plugins to use that I either forgot I had or just hadn't considered in combination with others. Also, by breaking all the plugins down specifically and categorically, I dig deeper into the aesthetics of each plugin and learn more of what each is capable of while deciding how to categorize it.
So, while keeping your virtual room tidy may not be the most exciting thing to consider, taking some time to establish some good habits will most certainly aid you in working quickly and efficiently over the years to come. After all, computers aren't going away anytime soon - so it is worth considering the ergonomics now.