Why File Management Matters for Music Producers and Audio Engineers

Before digital audio workstations, before computers, and before storage came in the form of a disk, audio engineers and music producers worked in analog. Tape, reels, and cabinets designed to handle finished projects and works in progress. These tapes could be logged alphabetically, by date, by artist, etc.

Back in the day, when kids wanted to make a mixtape, they had to hold a recorder next to the radio and hit “record” at the right time. Those of a certain age will certainly remember shoeboxes filled with cassette tapes loaded with their favorite music. With two tape recorders, they could even make multiple tracks, alternating between recorders.

In an instant – historically speaking – all of that changed. A century ago, if an audio engineer wanted to record a song, everybody needed to be in the same studio, playing their part, all as one cohesive unit. If the pianist, banjo player, or singers made a mistake, the recording needed to start over.

Because of this, instruments and singers needed to be positioned in a certain way to get the best sound possible from everyone. In the mid-1920s, specially designed microphones were introduced, allowing singers to be heard over the instruments and putting instruments on level footing for recording.

A few decades later, multi-track recording was made possible with magnetic tape. Now, each member of a band could record their parts separately and an audio engineer or music producer would bring them together later. The number of tracks available to audio engineers grew exponentially.

More Tracks, More Problems?

When digital options appeared a few decades ago, the recording process featured technical aspects that allowed them to truly make the sounds they wanted. Experimentation grew, musical ideas changed, and the music industry had to make room for new genres of electronic sounds: Hip Hop, Electronic Dance Music, and New Wave.

Other genres followed, including house, trance, and techno. Those sub-genres gave birth to sub-genres of their own. As the price of computer software and hardware decreased, so did the space needed for a recording session. It didn’t matter if you could sing, play an instrument, or understood music theory. Anyone could get into music production.

It was hard to keep straight. With new acts coming to improve their sound, audio engineers had to grow with the times. Master tapes used to be tangible, easy to access media that was usually stored in a single room lined with shelves. Although mixing and mastering were more cumbersome then, the number of tracks was more manageable because there just weren’t quite so many tracks to deal with. Today, there’s no limit to the number of tracks you can create.

While large reels were a pain to lug around or reload, they were easy to find. Electronic files, on the other hand, can be scattered around a hard drive, hidden in folders within folders, within folders. Now, more than ever, file management is an integral part of being an audio engineer or music producer.

Why Organization Matters

It Reduces Anxiety
With organization, you won’t be stressed out about finding files needed for an upcoming client, worried about deleting necessary tracks, or working unnecessarily hard to prepare for the next client after finishing with the previous one. Do yourself a favor. At the start of the day, make a list of the projects for the day and get those files created i.e. named and saved into the project file. That way you’ll be ready for work with the file architecture already handled.

Having all of your files – even the ones you don’t need right away – at the click of a button or two makes preparing for an upcoming project that much easier. Instead of spending an hour or two before the day, a few keystrokes will set you up for a marathon 18-hour day.

Creativity isn’t necessarily a fast process. Different artists have different processes. So while you can’t prepare for every quirk, you can set yourself up to move on the fly regardless of the situation. When it comes time to hand the project off to a mix engineer or mastering engineer or producer, everything will be ready to go.

Nothing strikes fear in the heart of an engineer or producer like a missing file. Asking yourself “Where is that file?” is usually followed by a wave of dread. Dread causes uncertainty before a session. Uncertainty leads to second-guessing yourself while with a client. If you’ve already lost your confidence, it won’t take long for an artist to follow suit.

Being able to find files when you need them is super important and can’t be overstated. Lose files enough, and it can and will hinder your chances of success. Why? Because you’ll be seen as a risk. File safety and security might not be a sexy topic but it is the very medium you are in business to record, mix, master, and send off into the world. The long and short of it: it’s everything to you and to the artists you work with so maintain those files even years after those sessions.

How to Manage Your Files

There’s no one way to manage your files, presets, or virtual instruments. Just make sure you consider your day to day workflows, kinds of clients and projects you tend to work on, and then pick or devise a plan that works for you. Then, stick to it. Try to keep it simple and logical. If someone other than you needs to access these files, you don’t want to send them down a labyrinth wrapped in a maze.

Good file management is about more than knowing where to find tracks, unfinished projects, or even contact information for your clients. It also includes setting up your digital audio workstation (DAW), like Ableton, Logic Pro, or Pro Tools, including presets, instruments, and loops in a well laid out and manageable fashion which enables you to quickly store your files in the correct manner which you have laid out for yourself.

That way, you can focus all of your attention on that vocal you’re recording, that song you’re mixing, or that bassline you’re fattening up. Although it may not seem like it now, file management is a stressor that can greatly reduce your ability to stay present and function at your most receptive and creative best. Mentors like Gio of The Record Shop are gurus on the subject of staying organized and in peak performance and that most definitely includes how they manage their files.

Make backups and establish a system for storing and locating them. You can save Google docs, Word docs, or some other written file containing instructions and information about the system you’ve established. When first starting out, it can be easy to forget this sort of stuff, so get it typed out and saved somewhere. You can even print those docs out and save them in a three-ring binder. It’s how many of our Recording Connection mentors fly, so chances are, it’ll work for you.

Separate but Equal

No matter how you set up your file management system, keep your operations separate from your storage. The desktops and laptops of today can be outfitted with an incredible amount of power and storage. But they can still be pushed to their limits.

When the little fan in the computer starts to go into overdrive, that’s a sign that you’ll need to stop what you’re doing and save whatever you’re working on. To make things easier for storage and your operating system, keep the two separate.

By doing so, you can set up your computer with DAWs, software, apps, and anything else you need for your clients. Once the computer is set up for optimal use – lock it down! No more littering the desktop files. Keep it clean and purring like a kitten.

You’ll still need a way to save your projects. Quality external drives that can be mounted to the main operating system are an ideal solution. Yes, we said to keep the main computer free and clear. All this is really doing is providing a path to the expanded storage area where you will save your files. Also, read up on how to properly care for external hard drives. They’re heartier now than they were 5 years ago but you still want to exercise considerable care in plugging them in, and how you physically move and store them.

Start the file management process as soon as possible. After you figure out naming conventions, folder hierarchy, and such, use those steps to start a project, name it, and save it to storage. Some DAWs will save your progress as you go and most can have their saving settings customized to suit your needs. Once your file management system is in place, make sure to save changes, versions, and finished projects where they belong.

Color-coding presets and instruments in your DAW and/or folders and project files will make it easy to find any projects you’ve loaded on your external storage. It’s hard enough to make great sounds, beats, or music during the production process without adding the stress that comes from losing or misplacing files.

A well-organized audio engineer or music producer is confident, efficient, and better equipped to handle surprise situations. The Recording Connection Audio Engineering and Music Production Program will show you the ins and outs of how to operate in the studio. Just remember Rule #1: Stay Organized!

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