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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Time is Money -- Working with Composers to Prepare For More Efficient Tracking Dates

Little-known features in Digital Performer can help speed up the work flow

By Les Brockmann

Recently I got called to the beautiful seaside home of a film composer, for a day of recording on his score to an independent film. The composer was a new client for me, and the film was the first feature from a talented young director, very low-budget. As in every film score project, the goal was to make as much good music as possible for as little money as possible. Unfortunately, due primarily to time constraints, things weren't as well prepared as they should have been, and so the budget suffered as a result. I always take very seriously the time and budget pressure of getting things going as quickly as possible, and keeping a session running smoothly, but when it doesn't, the best I can do is to try to find out how to make sure that doesn't happen again to me, my clients, or anyone else.

The composer had a good 40 or so cues prepared as separate files in Digital Performer 4.61, with pre-recorded tracks from various sampler instrument sources, including Ivory piano, some other soft-synth samples, and several external Gigastudios. The goal was to spend a day of recording overdub tracks with a very talented and highly coveted (expensive) studio guitarist. (I'm skipping names because it's not my intention to cast a bad light on anyone; we all did the best we could under the circumstances, and throughout I was treated with extremely cordial professionalism and generosity.) Why would I tell about a session that didn't go as perfectly as possible? Because there is a lot that can be learned from this example.


The guitar recording was scheduled for all day Friday, and so first I was asked to come over on Thursday afternoon to set up. There was quite a lot to do, including setting up microphones, stands, and cables, high-quality microphone preamps and converters were brought in, and a headphone cue system had to be created and installed. The composer had recently gotten rid of his mixing board, as many have, and so all that was left to interface with was several MOTU 2408s. So I got that all set up and functioning correctly.

The composer was under a great deal of time pressure, as he said he still had to prepare printed music parts for the guitarist. I knew one thing that I would have to do was establish new blank audio tracks in each sequence file, and so I took the time to do that in one of the cues to start with, and copied those tracks with their input and output assignments, levels, and aux send reverb settings, to a DP "Clippings Window" (more about that to come). The setup at this point had taken me about three hours, and that was all the time the composer had to spare, so we left the rest of it for Friday morning's tracking session.

Recording Day

Ultimately all the music got recorded, with no performance compromises, and the composer and director were very pleased. But it took longer than expected, and the primary culprit was that it took so long to open and prepare each individual file in Digital Performer.

Even though the sample instrument tracks had been rendered or copied to audio tracks, still with every file the soft-synth instruments were instantiated and so it took precious minutes to wait for those sound banks to slowly load. In addition, of course, before we could record any guitar parts, new blank audio tracks had to be added to each sequence. I was able to add in several previously prepared blank audio tracks from the Clippings Window, but the computer took quite a few bullet-sweating moments to process those as well. The composer told me afterwards, that with an average time wasted of three to five minutes per cue, the total added up to over two hours! In hindsight it would have been nice if we could have found time to add those tracks to each file before our musician showed up.

Let's take a look at a feature in Digital Performer that helped me out that day, and another important one that could have.

The Clippings Window

Consider what happens when you need to add a number of new tracks to a sequence in Digital Performer (or any similar software such as Pro Tools, Logic, etc.). Each track (audio or MIDI) must have its input source and output routing set through the pop-up menus, and you may wish to set other mixer settings as well. Now suppose, as often happens, this same group of new tracks needs to be added to a number of additional files, such as all the cues in a score or songs in an album. If this all had to be done individually, it would be an enormous time sink.

The Clippings Window lets you make a copy of any track or group of tracks, and anything they may contain, save that copy permanently in DP, and then insert it into the Tracks Window of any sequence. You'll need to start by creating a new empty Clippings Window. In the "Project" menu, select "Clippings" and then on the side sub-menu, choose "New Digital Performer Clipping Window". (I like this version because the window will then appear in every Performer file.) Give the window a name, such as "Blank Tracks", by option-clicking on its title bar.

Now go to the Tracks Window and create and label a group of tracks to work with. Set the input and output assignments, and any settings in the Mixer you may want, such as levels, panning, aux sends and assignments, and plugins. On the Tracks window select and highlight these tracks, including a region of time (any length will do as long as the tracks are completely empty). Then in the "Edit" menu select "Copy to Clipping Window" and at the side, "Copy to Blank Tracks" (Fig. 1a). When the clipping appears in the Clippings window, option-click on it and give it a name such as "Blank Guitar Tracks" (Fig. 1b).

Fig. 1 a & b

To use this in a different sequence, find your Clippings Window (select it under the "Windows" menu if it's not already showing on the desktop). Select the clipping and simply drag it over and drop it into the left half of the Tracks window. All of those tracks should appear, with their settings intact. The track names will have the word "copy" appended; option-click and delete that if you want.

Notice this is a quicker way to add new tracks to a sequence, but it doesn't happen instantly. On a sequence with a lot of tracks and "bundles" (available input/output and bus assignments) it can take up to a minute or more for the computer to process a group of new tracks added from a Clipping. So, it's still a good idea to do it before the musicians arrive!

The V-Rack in the Mixer Window

In DP, let's take a look for moment at the Chunks Window. Many composers work with just one sequence (cue or song) per file, but it's possible to have many. Instead of the whole file being "1m1", for example, you could make the file be "Reel One", and then have chunks "1m1", "1m2", "1m3", etc. What's the advantage of this? It can make it much quicker to go from one cue to another, they can all share the same video Movie, and they can all access the same group of soft synthesizers and samplers using a V-Rack.

Lots of people these days are using software plug-in synths and samplers such as Ivory, Stylus RMX, EWQL Orchestra, etc. These products give access to wonderful sounding sample libraries, but they can take a long time to load when you open a different file. You can always go for a cup of coffee, but that's hard to do when someone is standing there waiting, such as a musician, or your client!

The V-Rack can help with that. It works best if you establish it at the very beginning of your composing process, before you have recorded a note. What we're going to do is instantiate all the soft synth instruments just once, and share them across many or all of the cues, which will be in separate Chunks within the same file (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

The old "normal" way of working would be to instantiate each new soft synth in the Tracks window by selecting under the "Project" menu, "Add new track > Instrument track > Ivory" (or whatever). But in this case, let's not add those instruments here in the Tracks window. Instead show the Mixer window, and on the top bar of that window, click on the small "V" symbol in a circle.

Now you are looking at the V-Rack section of the Mixer. Now, go to the "Project" menu and add one or more soft synth instruments (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

What's the advantage of this? Now, within any of the sequences (cues) within that file, if you add a MIDI track you can access those plugin synths. This works especially well if the synth is playing a patch that can be used in common among several cues, such as a string pad. It's as if you had a rack of synths sitting there, plugged in and always live. The V-Rack is also a good place to put Aux tracks with mixing effects you may want in common for all the cues, such as plugin reverbs and delays. Click on the "V" symbol again to hide the V-Rack and reveal the other tracks in the Mixer, for that particular selected sequence.

Advantages and disadvantages: It's much easier to go from cue to cue by selecting in the "Chunks" window (or, better, the pop-up in the upper left corner of the Tracks window), and you don't have to wait for samples to load. The only reason to ever instantiate a soft synth in the Tracks window would be if it were for a unique sound that will never be used in any of the other cues. However, if you have a great number of cues as chunks within the same file, the computer may start behaving as if it's dealing with a very huge file, with slow saves, etc. A comfortable compromise might be to have a new file for each separate reel or section, with a few cues in each one. Then, the more you can organize your recording session to work with several cues in a row from each group, the less you will have to wait for sequences and sample libraries to load.

And so...

The way we compose and record has come a long way from the days when the engineer would thread and wind a reel of multitrack tape, and we would wait for each new piece of music to be located. Computers have given us a lot more power and convenience, but it seems the pace at which we need to work has speeded up, and it's annoying to have to wait. Learning new tricks and increasing your expertise with your tools (or having an expert at your side to take care of those details) can help relieve the stress and make things go more quickly and smoothly.

This is not intended as an advertisement for any product. All products mentioned are trademarks of their various manufacturers. ©2006 by Les Brockmann

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