Photo: Marla Cohen
Recently, a friend who runs a music production company called to ask if I still had the individual tracks from a composition I had written for his music library a couple of years back. A client wanted to use the piece for a commercial but requested that he substitute a piano for the lead guitar on the original mix.
My initial thought was, “Uh oh, I bet I don't have those anymore.” With trepidation, I started searching my recording drive and was pleasantly surprised to find the original folder for the project containing the sequencer files and all the audio files. Because it had been recorded in the same DAW that my friend uses, it was easy to just FTP him the song file. Then, all he needed to do was open the file, mute the lead guitar and add the piano part.
Fortunately, I had enough foresight to have clearly labeled those files and left them on my hard drive (and my backup drive), though I'd long since finished the project. I say that it was fortunate because, although I've always been an advocate of organizing one's studio material (including project files, session notes, effects settings and so forth), I haven't always practiced what I preached. Why? Because in the hustle and bustle of a recording session, it's easy to do what's expedient when it comes to naming and storing files, which can lead to an unorganized recording drive with confusing project names and files all over the place.
The best way to avoid this is to establish your own naming and file-saving conventions that you follow with all of your music projects. Naturally, there's more to it because disks fill up and then you're faced with having to archive your material, and that too requires a system. (I'm not even getting into backup and archiving strategies, which are subjects worthy of entire articles.)
Ideally, my approach to song naming is to give the song's original file and each incremental save a name that includes song title, version number and creation date. It might be something like “My Song 1 052409.” (Note there are no slashes in the date because some DAWs don't allow it.) I should mention that the reason I do incremental saves as I go along is to make it easy to backtrack. Whenever I make an important change, I'll save the file with a new number. This is especially useful when mixing, when I sometimes go off in a direction that I don't end up liking and want to be able to easily get back to a previous version of the mix.
It's also important to have a system for naming your audio files or you can create a lot of confusion. For starters, it's crucial to get into the habit of naming audio tracks (e.g., “lead guitar” or “Mike's vocal,” etc.) before recording so that the files generated from those tracks are clearly labeled for what they are. Otherwise, they'll all have generic names like “Audio 1” and “Audio 2,” and going back and reconstructing a track or finding a particular part could be a nightmare. Though your DAW would likely add its own numbers to the various takes and sections of a particular track, naming the track first would ensure that these files have an identifiable prefix.
It's also key to make sure that you save each song in its own separate folder. If you start a new song without doing so, you could end up with audio files for several songs commingled in the same folder, which is a recipe for confusion. In addition, if you have multiple pieces of music in a single project, save all of those folders in a master folder for the project.
I'm sure a lot of you already have systems in place for file naming and storage. But if you don't, I highly recommend that you institute them. That way, if you do get that call asking for files or a remix from an old project, you can answer immediately and with confidence, “No problem, I can do that.”