How to setup your Digital Audio Workstation(DAW)
DAW Setup and Organization
If you read my last post on five simple ways to make your home recordings radio ready, we talked a lot about things to do before you actually start recording. Now it’s time to talk about the actual recording part of the process. A lot of this will be organizational, but if you’re planning on sending your tracks off to someone to have it mixed, or you plan on doing it yourself, these are all things that can help streamline the recording process and make the mix process a lot easier.
Organize Your DAW Session
Nothing is worse than recording something and, because you simply added a new track and didn’t bother to rename it, you can’t find it when you get to post. While I’m very strict about assuring all of my tracks are named properly before I start recording, it still happens occasionally when we are furiously duplicating tracks to try something new and it’s incredibly frustrating. You end wasting a lot of time digging through takes trying to find that sacred sound file.
Consequently, when I’m about to start a recording project, I assure that I setup all of the tracks, assure they’re grouped and named properly, and organized in a logical fashion so that I’m never blindly recording something or digging for something after the fact.
For example, from left to write in the mix window, I usually create and name the tracks for my drums, then the bass, then the guitars, then any other instruments, and then the vocal. I’ll then have my busses setup, and, last but not least, my master bus and my main output. I do this for every session I setup. In fact, even when I get tracks to mix from other parties, I go through and reorganize and rename all of the tracks so that they are in a layout that I’m familiar with. Ultimately, I see the drums and bass as the bottom of the track and the vocal as the top. Consequently, left to right, I’m working from the bottom up on the track.
Time (and Click) is Money
Once I’ve got my tracks setup, I’ll make sure that I adjust the meter of the session and record to a click using grid mode so that recording is taking place on a specific note versus randomly. I know this seems basic, but I’ve received a number of tracks over the years to mix that were not recorded to a click, which makes stuff like editing, comping, and time based effects a nightmare. Sometimes, I’ll just receive WAVs and have no idea where they go. I’ve received files in the past that had WAVs that didn’t all start at the same point in in the timeline and I’ve had to manually work to reorganize them based upon artist feedback. Set the meter when you open your song session and make sure all of your recordings either start at a common point or are consolidated to a common point when you’re done tracking and editing.
Delay Compensation Can Ruin Your Day
A lot of DAWs offer some sort of delay compensation. Pro Tools has it and it has other names with other DAWs. That being said, make sure you’re tracking with Delay Compensation turned off and you’ve removed plugins on individual tracks. Delay Compensation adjusts playback based upon the processing requirements of bussing and plugins in the signal path. Consequently, if you track with it on, as subsequent WAVs are layered on top, they could be moved in time in a way that you wouldn’t be able to get them to line up easily. Trust me on this one, it’s a pain to fix and can really ruin your day.
Use Takes, Not New Tracks
Like delay compensation, a number of DAWs use some sort of take management methodology. In Pro Tools, it’s called a playlist and, once you create tracks and have recorded the first take, you can create a new playlist and record the second take. Then, after you’ve a number of takes, you can use the playlist view in the edit window to comp your different takes together. It’s super simple and assures everything lines up and stays organized.
I have received sessions in the past where, instead of creating a new take or playlist, someone has just duplicated the tracks for each take. When I go to mix, that makes it extremely difficult to identify what takes were actually supposed to be used and also to get a clear picture of what tracks were intended to be mixed. Obviously, there are going to be times where you want, say stereo guitars on a chorus instead of just one, so you can use duplicate tracks for that, but doing that for all takes makes the mix process confusing and painful.
Session Templates Streamline the Process
When we are recording more than one song for an artist at a time, after I’ve finished tracking the first song on the album, I’ll create a tracking session template in Pro Tools so that I don’t have reconfigure things like tracks and I/O, the levels or panning of individual tracks, headphone sends, track layout, etc. This saves a ton of time when I move on to the second song of the album because I can just open a new session exactly where we left off before and start tracking immediately without having to do a lot of adjustment or new track creation and organization. It even keeps my headphone mix data depending upon how you setup sends.
Save, Save, Save
When recording, I save after every take. When I mix, I save all of the time as well. I’ve also setup the auto-backup function of Pro Tools to backup the session every three minutes instead of five.
At the end of the day, I transfer all sessions recorded from the recording drive to another storage drive to assure there’s a backup on the local machine. We also have two different backups: an offsite backup that leaves with me at the end of the day and an onsite network backup.
We try to be as redundant as possible when tracking because losing recorded sessions can be heartbreaking for an artist, especially when you’ve worked hard for extended periods of time to get everything tracked. Redundancy is incredibly valuable.
All of these are steps that you can use to speed up and organize your home recording sessions. When you get to the post-production process all of these steps will make the process move much faster and more creatively.
John Shelton is a recording and mix engineer and founder of Edgewater Music Group and johnsheltonaudio.com. John is a member of the Recording Academy and a voting member of the GRAMMY Awards. As part of Edgewater Music Group, his engineering work is exclusively distributed via RED Nashville, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. John has recorded and mixed a wide variety of music including rock, country, roots rock, and Americana genres. John has worked with a number of artists including National Park Radio, Spacebear, Charlie & the Regrets, the Drugstore Gypsies, Grand Old Grizzly, Blu Swayze, Cody Joe Tillman, Kahe, Jarrod Morris, Electric Heights, and Lane Thomas. John is also a talented session guitarist and has performed for numerous artists, record labels, and production companies around the world.