Archiving is more than just saving the last version of your project
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By Mitch Gallagher
In this day of fast-and-furious software and operating system updates, it’s disturbingly common to not be able to open a project you created as recently as a year ago — a scary proposition! With each new version, some features are added, but others go away, and support for older technologies and plug-ins is dropped. You’re in trouble if you need to go back to an archived project, only to find that the software synths or plug-in processors you used are no longer supported — or that you’ve sold a piece of hardware that you need to make the mix work.

Fortunately, modern computer-based DAWs support tons of tracks — way more than most of us use for our projects. So put those empty tracks to work: Your best defense against the problem described above is to render all tracks with edits and processing — whether software or hardware — to new audio tracks. Render each track for the entire length of the song, not just the part where there’s audio playing. That way, even if you can’t open an older project in your current DAW, you’ll still probably be able to import the rendered audio files, line them up, and make them play.

But don’t delete the source tracks when you’re finished rendering — make them inactive and hide them from your project window, but keep them handy in case you need to refer back to them at some point.

Here are some tips for what to include for complete project archives that will (hopefully) stand the test of time.

Keep all original raw tracks. At some point you may want to go back and change or re-do an edit. Good luck if you’ve trashed the original straight-from-the-source tracks.

Keep edited tracks. For quick fixes to tracks with edits, it helps to have the original tracks with the edits and fades/crossfades on them. Otherwise, you’ll have to re-create all the edits you made along the way in order to make any changes you want.

Bounce to consolidate any edited tracks. Once you’ve finished editing a track, bounce it to a new audio track and file. This way you’ll have the track preserved in its final mixdown form.

Render any tracks with plug-ins or external processing. As DAW software and operating systems are updated, some plug-ins inevitably get left behind — the company that made them goes out of business, there isn’t enough demand for an updated version, or whatever. If you need to go back and make changes, it may be impossible if the plug-ins you need are long-gone.

For this reason, bounce all tracks with plug-ins such as compressors, gates, limiters, EQs, etc., to new audio tracks and files, including the plug-in processing. It’s a good idea to take this a step further and bounce any tracks that are running through external hardware processors to a new track and audio file as well. Who knows when a piece of hardware might develop problems, or you might be moved to sell it? This way you’ll have a processed version of the track available should you need to re-mix at a later date, even if the plug-ins or hardware processors are gone.

Record any reverb or delay processing. Just as dynamics processors and EQs that get inserted on tracks may become unavailable, so may other processors such as reverbs and delays. Reverbs, in particular, tend to have a “sound” — and you’re out of luck if that specific reverb isn’t around and you need to re-mix.

Record any external instruments to tracks. If you’re using external MIDI-driven synths or samplers, record those instruments to audio tracks. Even if the hardware stays alive, memory gets corrupted, disks go bad . . . any number of things might prevent you from using that hardware in the distant (or not so distant) future. You’re safest if you’ve recorded all external instruments to tracks.

At the same time, be sure to keep the MIDI tracks that drive those synths around as part of the archive. You may need them later if you decide to update the synth or sampler sounds used.

Render any soft synths or samplers as audio tracks. As with processing plug-ins and other types of software, any software synths and samplers you are using may or may not be around when it comes time to re-mix a song or create a new updated version. Render the tracks those instruments are on to new audio tracks. But don’t delete the MIDI tracks that drive the soft synths or the original soft synth tracks; you may need to get back to them later.

Future-proofing your projects (as much as possible, anyway) sometimes requires a lot of effort. But it’s all worth it the first time you need to go back and make changes or re-mix a song long after you’ve completed it and erased it from your hard drive. Go the extra mile, and bounce or render everything to audio tracks — and don’t erase or delete any of the original source tracks or intermediate edit tracks. Archiving means keeping everything — and keeping it in a format you’ll be able to access in the future.

While we can’t plan for what we can’t foresee, we can make our best stab at keeping our files accessible long into the future. Making rendered audio files is your number one defense — don’t skip this vital step when archiving your projects. Future generations will thank you. . . .