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Learn Music and Audio Production | iZotope Tips and Tutorials

File Management and Organization for Music Production

by Erin Barra, iZotope Contributor June 7, 2020
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One of the best things you can do to streamline your music production process is to design your creative space in a way that promotes a smooth workflow. While many of our workspaces have gone digital, the need for organization continues to be an important factor in reducing mental clutter so we can stay creative. That’s why audio pre-production and file management is so important in your music production practice. 

Read on for more on: 

  • A recap of audio pre-production 

  • The importance of file management for music production 

  • Steps for effective file management and organization

A recap of audio pre-production 

Audio pre-production is the organizational prep work you do before starting a new track or mix. While organizing your digital workspace is not the funnest part of making music, it can determine whether music production feels fun. The last thing you want is to get thrown out of your creative flow because you’re having trouble finding the files you need, you’re overthinking things, or you lack time management and a sense of creative direction. Audio pre-production consists of a few different steps that are meant to help you streamline your music production, such as: project brainstorming, session file organization, time management, and scheduling. In this article we’re going to cover session file management and organization. 

The importance of file management for music production

The main benefit of file management for music production is giving yourself easy access to all the tools and materials you need to create. Here are a couple of big benefits you’ll gain from an easily navigable workspace: 

Speed

You want to be able to execute and test new ideas quickly as they arise. We’ve all experienced the frustration of having an idea dissolve into thin air because we took too long to execute it or some distraction got in the way of action. When it comes to music production, that distraction is usually workflow related because we let file browsing get in the way of acting on ideas. So it’s always good to categorize and ‘favorite’ your most used presets and plugins, and set up templates that allow you to jump in and create. 

Finding Your Sound

A big part of finding your sound as a producer is being able to curate your own sound. This process, however, usually takes time and it requires you to organize your samples, presets, and templates in a way that allows you to refine your sound over time. You should be able to easily cycle through your files to find what you like and delete what no longer works for you.  

Steps for effective file management and organization 

Now that we’ve covered the benefits of file management for music production, let’s dive into how you can begin organizing your library.

1. Choose your storage destination 

Use an SSD

The first thing you need to consider are your storage options. When it comes to where you’ll be storing your files, we recommend using an SSD drive because they can launch and run applications faster and they significantly speed up the file transfer process. If your main hard drive is not an SSD, you’ll experience a slower music production workflow.  

Leave enough space 

Storage devices slow down as they reach storage capacity because they have to work harder to retrieve the data you’re looking for. Try to avoid filling your storage device to the brim so you can leave enough room for moving files around. The recommended buffer of unused storage you should leave is around 25%. So plan on using around 75% of your SSD space, while leaving the rest unused to maintain high performance. Once again, this isn’t a hard rule, as some say using up as much as 90% of your SSD space is fine. But the main idea is this: if you find your computer slowing down, it may be time to delete or export some files to an external drive or cloud-based storage solution. 

Keep the Essentials 

A great way to ensure you maximize the amount of available space on your hard drive is to routinely purge it of unused or unnecessary files. Not only will this help maintain the speed of your storage device, but it will also help limit your options so you can make quicker decisions. 

2. Plan your file hierarchy

In order to start managing files inside your sessions, you need to plan their structure and hierarchy. Planning out the file hierarchy will help you keep a mental image of where things are located which will help you find things faster and keep things organized in your DAW. Here’s an example of a file hierarchy:

So let’s cover each folder. 

Parent Folder

Your parent folder is the folder where all files related to music production work will be stored. Give it whatever name makes sense to you—in the diagram above, we labeled it “Music Production” 

Projects Folder

Each DAW titles its files and folders a bit differently, but the idea is the same.

Your projects folder is where all of your DAW session files are stored. To make your project folder easier to navigate, we recommend categorizing your session files in some way to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. Consider having three different types of folders for your projects: 

  • Ideas

  • In Progress

  • Completed

 Within each of these, create a folder for each project. Each folder should hold all the files associated with the project including different versions of the session, all audio, backups, and more. If it’s a part of your session/song, it belongs in this folder. A common pitfall is saving different songs and sessions into the same project folder, so that your entire digital music life gets intermingled.

Inside each project folder, you’ll usually find several other files and folders:

  • Session Files: Each time you “save” and then subsequently “save as” in your DAW, you’re creating a session file. Each session file contains information that tells the software what to recall from the audio folder and when; MIDI, automation, and tempo data—information that’s specific to the session you’ve opened up. Every time you “save as,” you place a bookmark in the process that will allow you to jump around and revisit your previous work.

  • Audio Folder: When you’re finished mixing a project, it’s usually wise to bounce your tracks or stems to audio files so you can have them ready for remixes, mastering, live performances, and more. Additionally, having audio files of your tracks is a great way to back up your work in the event that a software update happens, a plug-in license lapses, or people need to access different files—sometimes years later. An audio folder within your project folder should contain all the audio that’s associated with your session. Each DAW has different names and ways of organizing all this audio, but the function and hierarchy are very similar across platforms.

  • Video Folder: Many people create music that needs to be synched to video or timecode, and this is where those video files live. They function similarly to audio files in that they’ll be referenced by the session according to whatever version is currently in use.

  • Session Data Folders: These folders contain information that your software needs in order to do its job properly. Given that there are differences between DAWs, this will vary the most across platforms. Session data may contain automatic session backups, folders which contain all the fade information for audio regions, project info, analysis files, and/or MIDI data. These are files you don’t typically need to concern yourself with, as long as they’re inside the project folder.
  • Any Additional User-Created Folders: Lots of users like to create their own additional folders to hold files that don’t fit into the categories above, such as different versions of a mix or master, final masters, and stems.

Sample Folder 

Within your music production parent folder, you want to have another folder that contains your sample library. Organize and categorize them in whatever way makes sense for you but some common methods include organization by:

  • Sample pack name/company 

  • Genre

  • Type (melodies, drum breaks, kicks, snares, guitar, etc.)

  • Favorites

Plug-in Folder 

Having all your plug-ins in the same folder will make them easily accessible from your DAW. Within your plug-in folder, you’ll usually have separate folders for VST2 and VST3 plug-ins, etc., as well as folders of plug-ins by company. 

Presets

If you’ve created a go-to sound or effect chain, you’ll want those to be easily accessible for you. Presets are useful when you want to jump straight into creating and not spend time on a process that has nothing to do with your intention. For example, if you just want to compose, it’s good to minimize the amount of time that mixing, sound design, or some other process gets in the way. Your preset folder should contain folders for session templates, synth sounds, instrument effects chains, and any other pre-made elements that may help you make quicker moves. Later down the line, you can have sessions exclusively for editing and dialing things in. 

MIDI Data 

Another folder you may want to have is for midi data. Saving midi data can help reduce repetition for things like writing chord progressions, drum grooves, bass lines, and drawing effect automation patterns.

3. Decide on a file naming and versioning formula

Versioning is the act of creating multiple iterations of a DAW session, preset, or template. There’s no hard rule about when to create a new version, but it doesn’t hurt to do it anytime you make edits, especially when you’re about to go down a path you may need to retrace. 

For example, from start to finish, you might have as few as 2–3 versions of a session—if you’re just cutting a rough demo—or as many as 20 versions by the end of the project.

The question then becomes, how are you going to keep track of all these versions? In the same way that there’s no rule for how often you should create a new version of a file, there’s no protocol for naming the sessions or any of the files you create. For the most part, naming protocols are passed down from producer to producer, and you’ll see many variations on the same theme if you take a peek into another person’s files. The only certain thing is that you need to be able to navigate and understand your own naming protocol—and it’ll also be great if someone else could do the same.

Here’s some important information that you might want to include when naming your sessions:

  • Name of the song

  • Key of Song

  • BPM

  • Date

  • Location

  • Some sort of numbering system (e.g. 1, 2, 3 or 1.0, 1.1, 1.2)

  • Short description of significant changes (e.g. vocal tracking, comping, freezing)

  • Name of the person who worked on it, if the files are being shared

Whatever way you decide is best for you, keep the formula consistent and apply it to all your files. People tend to get especially tripped up when they think they’re at the ‘end’ of a mixing process and they start naming files “Final Mix,” and then “Final Final Mix,” and then “For Sure Final Mix,” and so on. Save yourself and your mastering engineer some aggravation and stick to a reliable naming scheme.

Additionally, you should ask yourself how many versions of a file you need to sleep at night knowing your files are safe. If your project folder only lives on your computer, you’re being risky. As a minimum redundancy, you should sync anything you’re working on to the cloud for safe keeping, or an external hard drive to back up your data

4. Curate your files and refine your file management system

Once you have the proper storage solutions, you’ve planned out your file management organization system, and you’ve decided on a file naming formula, you’ll want to make sure you’re refining and maintaining it over time. 

As mentioned earlier, it’s important that you curate your files and purge your hard drive to make it easier for your computer and yourself to find what you need. In addition, limiting yourself to the essentials can help your creativity by limiting your options. Too many options can actually cause decision-making anxiety.  

Another thing to keep in mind as you’re building your file management system is your user experience (UX). There’s an unofficial design rule in the UX community called the 3-click rule. The main idea is, if it takes users more than three clicks to find what they need, they’ll likely become frustrated and leave the app or site. So keep this in mind as you’re designing your file management system. While you may need more than three clicks to find what you need when it comes to music production files, the main goal is to improve navigation and accessibility so it’s not getting in the way of the creative process.

Conclusion

File management for music production is an artform, and one that requires a thoughtful approach. By tightening your filing practices, the music making process can march forward, unhalted by technical issues or missing files. By creating and following a protocol that works for Now You, Future You will be very pleased.

 

Learn more about managing your digital audio experience:

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