A good musician is a good librarian. A good composer is a good librarian. A good engineer, producer, DJ, or (fill in the blank) is a good librarian. This statement can be applied to nearly any creative endeavor, but most certainly is applicable to modern musicians, composers and engineers who are constantly switching between projects, applications, presets, and even platforms. This tutorial will give you an overview of what it means to be a good librarian - one who has a functional system for keeping track of everything from performance notes, to song lyrics, to presets and samples.
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Song Idea Management
So you're a composer, musician, or songwriter. You have a great idea for a new song in the middle of the night - what do you do!? For most of us, the flash of creative inspiration often comes at the most inopportune times. That's why it is important to always have some means of capturing these ideas close at hand. For most of us that leaves a couple of options:
- Laptop or Desktop Recorder: If you're fortunate enough to be quick on the draw, or close enough to your DAW, by all means - capture your song idea right into your full recording app. Remember to give the song a memorable name - something you'll recognize so you can come back to it.
- Voice Recorder: A simple voice recorder - standalone or as a phone or PDA app - can be a great, handy tool for capturing your song ideas on the go. Some of these recorders have naming functionality so you can label your songs appropriately. If not, be sure to promptly download your ideas to your computer and label your songs as soon as possible so they don't become lost or forgotten.
- Standalone Multitrack Recorder: Perhaps you already have a compact, standalone multitrack recorder, such as those made by Zoom, Tascam, Korg and Fostex. These are great ways to capture song ideas - provided you have a way to label and categorize the ideas once you've quickly recorded them.
- Manuscript: Some of you might be skilled enough to be able to write your music down on staff paper, without an instrument or recorder handy. If this is you, remember to jot down notes and labels so you can file or expand upon your ideas at a later time.
It is important to remember that capturing your song idea is merely the first step. It is critical that you develop a system to follow up on your song ideas, categorize them, label them, name them - whatever it takes to actually put them into your production work flow when the time is right. For some this can be simply organizing them into a set of folders/directories on their computer, that are checked regularly for ideas from which to build new songs. For others, this could take the form of a calendar reminder that 'tickles' you one month after recording the idea to go back to it and see if there is anything there worth working on. Perhaps you have a sophisticated system of post-it notes or a white board to capture ideas and organize workflow, or a computer-based 'to-do' system.
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While it may seem simple and mundane, managing your song lyrics is an important step in librarianship. After all - not every song is written the same way, and what may begin as lyrics for one song may eventually morph into lyrics for a different song.
From this perspective, think of managing and organizing your song lyrics as a separate and distinct art - apart from managing your musical song ideas. Here are a few ideas on how you might organize song lyrics:
- Database: For those savvy enough to do so, a simple database system makes a great way to organize song lyrics. You can easily create several searchable fields including song text, song title, song themes, and 'tags'. Then, when you decide you want to work on a song about topic X, you can search your database to see if you've got any lyric ideas that might be a good starting place.
- Word Processor: A simple word processor or text editor is a fine way to manage lyrics, provided you've created a folder/directory system that makes it easy to find what you're looking for. Fortunately, todays operating systems make it relatively easy to search within a file - so even if you forget the title of a song, remembering one or two lines may make it possible to find the file through a system-wide-search.
- Paper + Pencil: Believe it or not, many songwriters still prefer to write lyrics the old fashioned way. I keep several notebooks handy to write down ideas for poems and lyrics. I come back to these books periodically and pick out the ideas that deserve further consideration and transcribe them into my computer.
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Perhaps the most in-depth and critical aspect of writing music in the digital age is that of managing samples and presets. Fortunately, the vast majority of major software music applications acknowledge this, and have implemented systems for creating, saving and finding your source material. That said, here are some applications and ideas you may consider to assist you in your quest for library domination:
- Native File Systems: Believe it or not, many creative types simply use their native OS filesystems to find and organize files. With a smart folder/directory structure, and appropriate management of metadata, most modern OS's make it possible to find your content without too much additional work, and no extra cost.
- Asset Management Systems: For people with massive amounts of sample data, original field recordings, and so forth, a dedicated sample management application may be in order. There are numerous varieties, and they range from simple and inexpensive to massive and "cost a fortune". In no particular order, here are a few standouts:
- Iced Audio Audiofinder: A Mac-based asset management system that acts as a 'hub' for all your samples. Allows auditioning across pitches, beat detection and tools for editing. Only $70 - highly recommended for Mac users.
- Audioease Snapper: Similar to Audiofinder, Snapper is a Mac-based app aimed at making your content easier to work with. While it isn't really a 'management' system, Snapper is built as a kind of extension to the Finder allowing instant auditioning, editing, and manipulation of files.
- Soundminer, NetMix, Sonomic, Basehead: These apps are all robust, database driven sound management apps, with a wide range of features and capabilities. They also vary widely in price, but for someone with a huge library of sounds, the amount of time they save in finding content can be a real lifesaver. I have personal experience with Basehead and Soundminer, and both are excellent applications.
- Proprietary Systems: Standalone systems such as Native Instruments Kore takes the whole library concept one further by encapsulating all of the Native Instruments content into one wrapper/controller system. Native Instruments claims the Kore+Komplete system offers over 7000 sounds to explore, and gives easy access to searching, browsing, auditioning and editing these sounds. There aren't many variations of this type of system on the market, but if you love the NI stuff, this might be a good choice for you.
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So now that we have some song ideas, some lyrics, and some source content - what's next? Production! And once we enter into production mode, we must begin to consider how we'll manage and organize our projects. As with sample management, the vast majority of DAWs already incorporate some form of basic project management, including automated backup of files, versioning of files, unique folders for source and final audio, as well as fade and waveform data files. Applications such as Logic Pro take it one step further, allowing you to copy FX presets, samples and certain software instrument presets to the Project Folder, allowing near-complete portability of your files from one system to another. Even so, it is still important to take the following into consideration:
- Production vs. Completed: Think about how you'll organize and archive songs that are in progress vs. songs that are complete. If you've finished songs and don't expect to come back to them anytime soon, incorporate a system for backing them up and removing them from your primary work drives.
- Portability: If your projects need to be portable - think about what type of compatibility you'll have on the receiving end. If the applications are the same, make sure to bring all your source files, as well as any proprietary instrument presets or samples that you'll need. If the applications are different, make sure to bounce all your tracks out individually, and possibly even consider exporting the files to a standardized format such as OMF.
- Future Proofing: Without a doubt, there will come a time when, in the future, you'll want to go back to a song from an old version of some applciation that you can no longer run. The result is hours of work lost, or worse...If you truly love the work you do, and value your time, do yourself a favor and archive your songs in such a way as to allow yourself to come back to them. For most of us that means two things: bounce out all your audio tracks as individual track files and export all of your software instrument tracks as MIDI. While your FX and software instrument settings may not carry forward, at least you'll have the most basic building blocks of audio and MIDI to work with.
A relatively new concept, performance management software continues to make waves both in the studio and on the stage. This type of software allows the performer to organize virtual 'racks' of software instruments for manipulation and playback during performance, on a song-by-song basis. Some standout applications in this space:
- Logic Audio's MainStage: This application offers users the ability to configure sets of instruments, effects, loops, and prerecorded tracks into an intutive and easily controlled interface. The layout is completely customizable, and it is easy for users to map parameters and controls to external MIDI hardware.
- Rax: This app from Audiofile Engineering (which acquired the software from Plasq in 2007) is similar to Apple's mainstage, but is application agnostic - you provide the plugins, instruments and effects. You organize racks into songs and songs into setlists. It can easily be controlled via Apple Remote and MIDI.
- Ableton Live: The entire basis of Ableton's flagship software is to make it easy for musicians to perform and create on-the-fly. Live features a powerful two-way view - Session and Performance - that allows the musician to, in a way, change the way they visualize their music. Some prefer a more classic, linear approach, some prefer the realtime or modular approach, and Live accommodates this well.
There are a number of ways that musicians, composers, producers and engineers can improve their skills and workflows. Becoming a great librarian is an important step in the process, because capturing, managing, editing, and working with your ideas should be second nature. Rather than spending hours trying to find the right sample, or recall the right lyric, if these systems are in place, you will find it is easier to write and record your music.
I'd love to hear what tools, applications, and methods you use to organize your song ideas, lyrics, samples, presets, projects and performances. Please let us know in the comments!