What’s the single fastest way to improve your workflow?
Templates – robust, flexible, constantly evolving templates that are tweaked and refined over time. They need to work for you and your personal style. I call them “living templates” because they are rarely static. Your working method will change over time – you’ll use different plugins, different hardware and interfaces, techniques, arrangements, and explore new genres with different BPMs over the years. Templates should never hold you back. To really use them effectively, it’s worth taking the time to structure them into a well-oiled machine, and this doesn’t happen by accident.
An effective template reduces clicks, provides structure without boxing you in, allows spontaneity, and most importantly, allows you to stay in the creative realm instead of flip-flopping between left & right brain tasks than can derail your flow.
To reduce your clickstream, think about your most common actions. Chances are you waste a lot of time managing your gain structure, setting up common plug-in chains, adding arrangement markers, searching for plugins, and drawing in automation. Keep a log of ongoing changes you want to make to your templates. I keep a notebook handy for this. Are you constantly drawing in pitch sweeps that could be done in advance? Build that data into your template, or create a synth patch that automates this. Then innovate later by changing the sound. Do you work with a large display in the studio, but a smaller screen on the road? Build a custom template for it.
Organizing sounds, plugins, and signal chains
The key is to prepare in advance. Spend an entire day collecting good sounds for each track type – the best claps, the best snares, the best synth presets for leads, bass lines, chords. Rate them, rename, and organize them into special folders. Then put together the best processing chain of plugins relevant to each element.
For example, with my bass lines – I’ll have three soft synths handy – Serum, Trillian, and Sylenth. Each has a processing chain that includes trim, EQ, distortion, another EQ, sidechain compression, leveling compression, and reverb or delay. The gain structure is already in place so each track has the same volume and no peaks are happening. All plugins are set in a default state that makes sense for the instrument – for example, the bass sidechain is set more aggressively than it would be for a lead. You don’t have to leave plugins on, either. Just have them available in the signal chain, and switch them on when needed.
If you’re using DAWs like Ableton or Logic, make use of flexible drag ‘n drop plugin chains. These don’t have to be built into your templates. Your most important chain will likely be the master, but keep it flexible and purpose driven. I make sure that each plugin achieves a singular purpose in a series of steps. My master chain looks like this: 1) high-pass super lows <30Hz for more headroom, 2) narrow stereo imaging of bass up to 150 Hz, 3) add width to mids and highs, 4) add exciter to push the highs, 5) compression for glue and less dynamic range, 6) limiter to chop off the peaks and make it extra loud 7) Sample A/B plugin w/ reference tracks, 8) K-Meter/RMS Meter to gauge perceived loudness
To keep my sessions simple, I’ll create a dummy MIDI track that acts as a timeline. I use 8 bar chunks to make arrangement easier, repeating each region for the length of the song. If I need to cut into the 8 bar chunk for a turnaround or special fill, it’s easy to stay on track and not lose my place in the structure of the song.
As you build and change your templates, include the template purpose and date in the file name. Create different templates for different purposes. I have specific templates for podcasts, album drafts, and remixes. Each template has different arrangement markers, lengths, default plugins, track content, gain structures, I/O labeling and busses. But every template shares similar color coding for instrument type (i.e. blue for drums, red for vocals) and routing structure.
Make sure any BPM sensitive data is set correctly, if it doesn’t automatically lock to the session tempo – for instances, many reverb pre-delays are not locked to BPM, but this is changing with plugins like Waves H-Reverb. Many plug-ins have to be set manually, like release times on compressors.
Variables to consider:
– Tempo (this will change bar length and marker position)
– Key (remember to change key in tuning plugins)
– Track / I/O / Bus naming (distinguish bus names from tracks for easy stem exporting. I use CAPS)
– Arrangement markers and bars (use these for events, and even comments and key/tempo data)
– Color coding (group like items, color code to camelot key)
– Macros & key commands (assign to common functions)
– MIDI assignments and mappings (common hardware assignments, multi-macros)
– Real Time MIDI FX (arp, pitch, quantization)
– Groove templates (keep your favorite alternate quantizations handy)
– Fader position and panning
– Signal flow and routing
– Gain structure (prevent peaks and keep levels consistent)
– Drag ‘n drop plugin chains (great for instruments)
– Return FX (don’t forget to shape and sidechain your returns, if needed)
– BPM sensitive features (pre-delay, release times)
– Sidechain curves (apply relevant curves and multiband processing for appropriate instruments)
– Individual track/Bus/Master chain processing
– Common automation patterns (ex: lowering volume on breakdowns, pitch risers, filter sweeps)
– Screen real-estate (mobile studio vs home studio)
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