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Session File Management

by Erin Barra, iZotope Contributor June 8, 2020
Keeping your files in order isn’t easy!
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Managing your session files is perhaps the least sexy part of making music, but it’s something we’ve all got to do. Most of us don’t start following best practices until we’re confronted with a professional situation serious enough to make us look like amateurs. The moment you lose an important file or can’t go back to a previous point in the process—even when it would solve all your problems—is the moment you reform and start taking session file management seriously. 

Hopefully you haven’t run into a situation like this yet, and can avoid it with these tips. In this article, we’ll cover best practices for organizing your session files and streamlining your production.

Session file hierarchy

In order to start managing files inside your sessions, you need to understand their structure and hierarchy. Each DAW titles its files and folders a bit differently, but the idea is the same.

At the highest level you’ve got your Project Folder. The project folder holds 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 the project folders, 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: This folder contains all the audio that’s associated with your session. This will be audio that you’ve recorded, imported, consolidated, or edited in some way that caused a new file to be created. 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. Let’s dive into this one a bit more.
One way to name and organize your session files
One way to name and organize your session files

Versioning and naming

Versioning is the act of creating multiple iterations of your DAW session. There’s no hard rule about when to create a new version, but it doesn’t hurt to do it anytime you’re opening it up to begin working, and especially when you’re about to go down a path that you might need to retrace. From start to finish, you might have as few as 2–3 versions—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 your session, 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
  • 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 forward you decide is best for you, apply it to all your files, not just versions. 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 the entire project folder 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 harddrive. For more on that, refer to this article.

Collecting and organizing

If all of your files live in the same place and they’re easy to find, life gets better. For starters, you want to make sure to collect and file any audio or files that aren’t already in your project folders. This applies to audio that you’ve dragged in from other applications, or any rogue files that didn’t go where they should have gone. Most DAWs will have a built-in function which will do this, as long as you haven’t closed the session before collecting. This will prevent you from having to relink the files or search for them later.

If you’re the type of person that creates multiple exports or additional session files, make sure you can find those too. See ‘Any Additional User-Created Folders’ above for details. Keeping the folder clean and easy to navigate can save you a load of time searching for files.

Freezing and stemming

Once you’ve completed your work, it’s wise to create track groups or stems: audio files for each track in your session.

Software updates happen, plug-in licenses lapse, and people need to access different files for a lot of different reasons—sometimes years later. Just to make sure you’ve covered all your bases, it’s a good idea to freeze any tracks that have software instruments or effect devices inserted onto them, or any associated routing which might give you an issue down the road. Freezing is a non-destructive form of editing that suspends a track and renders it as a new audio file. You can then unfreeze if you need to go back and make adjustments.

Alternatively or additionally, you should create stems of all your tracks or sensible groups so that you’ll have them ready for remixes, mastering, live performances, and more. Stems are handy in a lot of ways, and provide another layer of backup to the Freeze files.

Of course, when you do this, the size of your sessions can quickly swell. It’s usually better to be safe than sorry, but you can eliminate any unused files to reclaim hard drive space—just know that once you do that, there’s no going back.

Conclusion

Managing files and being organized 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.

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