MAKING TRACKS: Good Audio Housekeeping

Hard drives continue to increase in speed and capacity, giving recordists lots of extra storage room for their audio files. But with this extra “closet space” comes the danger facing closets everywhere — extreme clutter. Audio projects can create a seemingly

Hard drives continue to increase in speed and capacity, giving recordists lots of extra storage room for their audio files. But with this extra “closet space” comes the danger facing closets everywhere — extreme clutter. Audio projects can create a seemingly unlimited number of files that can become lost if you don't follow the application's rules of organization. Those people blessed with innate good housekeeping skills seldom lose files, but the rest of us don't have it so easy. For anyone who has ever misplaced an important audio or song file, here are some organization tips I've learned the hard way.

Follow the Path

Anyone recording digital audio needs to know where audio files are being stored. I've known musicians who install software and immediately start recording without considering where the digital audio is being stored. Later, after a spate of folder relocating, file copying, and trash emptying, a message pops up onscreen as the engineer tries to load a project's title cut. This message — something like “Please locate file Audio 01_01” — means the software can't find a needed file in its expected location. Understanding how your DAW software “thinks” is the key to avoiding that problem.

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FIG. 1: Most popular recording applications create an Audio Files folder within the main project folder, such as the Pro Tools Song folder shown here.

When you create a new song file, your application places the file inside a folder of the same name. For example, the Pro Tools file called My Hit lives inside a folder also called My Hit. Pro Tools and similar DAW applications such as Digital Performer and Logic also create subfolders inside the project folder to store crucial files. The most important subfolder is usually called Audio Files, and is created to house the expected audio recordings. Other subfolders include Fades and Plug-In Settings.

Any audio that you record for My Hit will go into the Audio Files folder (if you haven't specifically redirected it elsewhere), and whenever you reload My Hit, the software will happily find all pertinent files located within that folder (see Fig. 1). The directory path to these files looks something like this: My Drive>Documents>My Songs>My Hit>Audio Files. As long as you don't move, copy, or rename the folders, all is well.

Trouble can arise, however, if you rename the Audio Files folder something like My Hit Audio. Although this sounds like a good idea because all the My Hit audio files are inside this folder, that confuses the application because the original path was to the Audio Files folder. If you copy the entire My Hit folder to another drive and then try to load the song from the new drive, the application can be confused again. The original audio path, which is stored in the My Hit file with all the song data, is not the path you want. You must tell the software to place new audio on the new drive, or the application may decide for itself where to put the next batch of files.

Talk to Me

Following two simple rules will eliminate most file location problems: first, don't change the Audio Files folder's name or remove it from the song's project folder, and second, remember to tell the song file where the new audio goes when copying audio files to another drive. If all the audio files are in the same folder, locating one file will usually enable the DAW to find all the audio for that song. Once all the audio is located, saving the song will store the new path and eliminate confusion.

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FIG. 2: Pro Tools'' Disk Allocation window clearly shows where the audio for each track is being stored and allows you to ­reassign the files to a different folder.

One way to be sure your audio files are going where you want them to is to check the file assignments in your software before you start recording. In Pro Tools, that can be found in the Disk Allocation window under Setup in the main menu (see Fig. 2). If you've copied your song to a new hard drive, you must use this window to change the audio path and target the new Audio Files folder inside the song folder on the new hard drive. Pro Tools will direct the audio properly if you just select the proper hard drive. Holding the option key when you click to reassign a track will redirect all the tracks.

In Digital Performer, the record path can be verified or changed in the Audio Monitor window. The default path, as in Pro Tools, is to the Audio File folder inside the project folder. In Logic, when you press Record, the software asks you to name the audio and direct its path. Logic doesn't create a song folder around your file, so you have to create one yourself, along with your own Audio Files folder (optional but highly recommended). You can rename the audio later in the Audio Files window and redirect audio to a new recording path if you wish.

Name That Tune

Speaking of naming, DAWs usually name the audio file after the track on which the file is recorded. Subsequent takes on each track have numeric extensions. So, if your first audio track is called Audio 1 (the usual default name for a new track), then your first take will be called Audio 1_01, your second take will be called Audio 1_02, and so on. Track 2's audio will be called Audio 2_01 and the second take will be named Audio 2_02. If you have several songs with multiple takes, one file misstep spells disaster. Audio 1_01 from one song may be vocals, while in another song the same filename could refer to an alto sax track. If you inadvertently redirect the file to the wrong audio you will have sax where once you had vocals. The easy way to avoid this kind of conflict is to name the tracks before you start recording.

I take it one step further. If I am going to record multiple songs for a project, I assign a number to each song in its title, such as “1_I Really Love You,” “2_Night and Day,” “3_Harvest Moon,” and so on (see Fig. 3). In the track names, I put the same number in front of the instrument name before recording, which imprints that number into the audio file's name. After recording, I know that all the audio files for “1. I Really Love You” begin with 1 — for example, 1.Kick_01, 1.Snare_01, and 1.Bass_01. If you are recording a live session with a lot of musicians during a hectic production schedule, this technique can save your bacon. Even in the relative calm of your own project studio, numbering songs within a project really helps avoid confusion down the line.

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FIG. 3: Using simple identifiers like numbers and dates in file names gives every file a link to its original project and avoids duplicate file names when recording ­numerous takes on multiple projects.

The same principles apply when creating subsequent versions of a song as it develops. I have a simple way to keep from altering a file, saving over it, and losing previous work. First, I always include the date in the file name, for example, “1. I Really Love You 12/20/04.” Then, before I open that file the next day to alter it, I create a duplicate file and change its name to reflect the current date. This way, all my edits, levels, plug-in settings, groups, whatever, are still intact from the previous session.

If I tweak the new file and make a mistake, I can go back to the previous day's version. If I make a major edit, like removing the bridge, I will tack a higher version number extension onto the file name. “1. I Really Love You 12/05/04 1.1” is a different edit than “1. I Really Love You 12/05/04 2.0.” If I decide that the edit wasn't a good idea, I can always return to the previous file.

Organization techniques like these may seem obvious, and in practice they may feel tedious. But the first time you keep 50 musicians and one impatient producer waiting while you search hopelessly for yesterday's killer sax solo, you'll see the logic in practicing good housekeeping.

Dave Darlington won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album of 2003 for his mixing on Wayne Shorter's Alegria. He recently completed work on a new album by Joan Osborne.