You're in the middle of writing your next Academy Award winning cue or remixing a straight-to-the-top-of-the-charts hit song when all of a sudden genius strikes; you've just come up with a brilliant cello line that would be perfect for the introduction.
So you create a new instrument track, try to remember which library your best cellos are in, instantiate a software instrument, wait two minutes for the patch to load, set up a reverb send on the track, adjust the settings… and by now a long time has passed. Are you still feeling fresh and creative after all this technical minutia? And what happens when you need the French horns?
Having a fully comprehensive and functional template project for your digital audio workstation is critical. If you want to stop wasting time whenever you need to set up a new instrument or you want to have your full musical palette ready and available at your fingertips, you need to invest a little time in getting your template configured. The little bit of work you put in now will save you many headaches in future sessions to come.
This tutorial will discuss why it's important to set up a comprehensive and functional template in your sequencer of choice, followed by an example in Logic 8. Before we get started we'll do some planning to figure out what your template will need and we'll then walk through step by step an example of how to set it up.
Why You Should Configure a Template
"For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned." — Benjamin Franklin
Assuming you're pretty comfortable with your sequencer of choice, it probably doesn't feel like it takes very much time to set up a new instrument. But when you consider that you have to find the instrument you want, load it up, set up any auxiliaries and sends you may want to use, and group it together with any other instruments in a bus, you're talking about a few minutes every time you need something new. Multiply those few minutes by every instrument you want to use, and again by every new song or cue you write, and all of a sudden hours and hours of the time that you've set aside for doing "creative work" have become a technical chore.
When that beautiful string melody or exciting guitar lick pops into your head, you want to be able to capture it as quickly as possible. If it's a MIDI instrument you need, you want the appropriate sound to be up and running for you to be able to just start playing. Need to lay down a quick rhythm guitar track? You want to be able to plug your guitar in, hit record, and start tracking. And when you hit stop you want to know that the part you just recorded is in a logical place in your session, properly labeled and bussed so you can start working with it immediately.
The Perfect Template
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." — Albert Einstein
So what makes the perfect template? If our goals are to save time and have everything we need at our fingertips, what needs to exist to make this happen?
Your template needs to be as easy to use as possible. Tracks should be organized in a logical way with similar instruments grouped together, and everything you could possibly need to edit or tweak should be no more than a few clicks away. It also needs to be organized in such a way that new instruments or plugins can be added or swapped out with little effort or disruption to the overall structure. This not only includes clean organization, but also a few blank tracks of all types to allow you to add things in on the fly.
An ideal template will accommodate every type of writing situation you might find yourself in. If your writing a rock track one day and an orchestral one the next day, your template should include all of the elements needed to make either of those scenarios seamless. I used to think that I should set up a "rock template" and an "orchestral template". But who says you don't want a string section on your rock song, or a killer guitar solo in the middle of that epic orchestral piece? As long as you are organized, and especially if you have a way to easily hide or show only what you are working with at the moment, you should include everything you think you could need.
You need to be considerate of your computer's ability to keep up. You should strike a balance between how many instruments you can have preloaded vs. how much RAM and processing power your computer has. If you're on an older machine, it would probably make more sense to have tracks set up and ready to go, with the actual instruments sitting on the sidelines (as a channel strip, for example).
Remember, the idea here is to make this as much about your music and as little about your software as possible. When you're writing, you want to be writing! Anything that takes you out of your creative zone should be eliminated or minimized. Wouldn't you rather be thinking about music than software?
Some Considerations Before You Begin
"Before beginning, prepare carefully." — Marcus Tullius Cicero
We've touched on a few things you need to think about when creating a template, but let's dig a little deeper and get some more concrete answers.
The first thing you have to consider is: what do you do? Are you writing new cues every day under crazy deadlines, or simply loading up your sequencer once a month to lay down a guitar and vocal track?
The more time you put in now, the more you will save later. If you write one song a month it's probably not much of a hassle to set up anything beyond your basic elements every time you need them. But if you're constantly generating a high volume of music under a deadline and need to be as efficient as possible, investing time into building a strong template will save you countless hours when you're in the thick of writing and producing.
What styles do you write (or could you be asked to write)? If you're a film or library music composer you need to be ready for just about anything. Think about all the different situations you could find yourself writing for and make a list of the necessary elements you'll need. Here are some incomplete trigger lists to get you thinking, but you should really brainstorm and write up your own comprehensive list of everything you actually use on a regular basis.
- Woodwinds. Flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon. Do you use the extended woodwinds such as English horn regularly?
- Brass. French horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba.
- Percussion. Often a general "orchestral percussion" patch will get you started. You may also need a good snare, suspended cymbal, timpani, etc.
- Strings. Do you write your string parts in a "Full Strings" patch, or like to have them separated out into four sections? Do you rely on pizzicato or other special effects often?
- Special articulations. It's going to be up to you to decide how in-depth you want to go with different articulations. If you rarely use trombones, and only ever as harmonic support like a pad, setting up a "Trombone Shorts" patch might just clutter up your system. You want to include everything you're going to use, but you need to actually use it if it's in there!
- Guitars. Acoustic? How many electric guitars do you usually use?
- Drums. More than one type of kit ready to go?
- Piano/Keys. Any synth patches that you absolutely love?
- Drums/Percussion. Which patches do you rely on for the foundation of your tracks? Perhaps there is not one particular sound, but a library of loops you use often. For example, I always have Stylus RMX set up and ready to go with a blank slate. I don't have any particular loops loaded because I want to find something new and appropriate for whatever I am specifically working on, but having the instrument ready saves me time.
- This category really depends on your regular needs. Sure, there is that rare chance that someone could desperately need some authentic Scottish music for their upcoming documentary, but do you really want to have Bagpipes sitting there taking up screen real estate "just in case" that ever happens? Use your judgement, but remember that part of the ideal template will include plenty of blank space to accommodate for those less often needed colors.
Do you use live instruments often? If so, what are you recording? When doing arrangements for Short Order Strings I often overdub string players many times for a "full section" sound. This means I need at least 24 audio tracks set up and ready to go. What do you need set up to be able to hit record the moment a player walks into the room?
What can your system handle? You need to structure your template around the power of your computer. I will assume that the majority of you reading this are only using one computer, so we wont even get into the complexity of using multiple machines to spread out the processor workload (if you're interested in learning about this, check out Jerome's series on Setting up Mac Minis as VSL farms.) One machine can only handle so many instruments at a time so we need to be selective about what we need "immediately", and what we can have lined up and ready to load. At the absolute bare minimum I need a piano patch loaded so that as soon as Logic opens up I can start sketching out ideas. Think about the instruments you depend on to work, as those are the ones you should have loaded with your template.
The whole point of taking inventory is so that you're aware of just how many tracks you're going to need to set up. You have to ask yourself: what do you use and how often do you use it? It's probably a good idea to look through your sample libraries and plugins to make sure you aren't missing anything critical.
Have you made an inventory list? Do you have an accurate count of how many instrument tracks you need, what plugins you want to use, and what live instruments you want to be prepared for? Then you're ready to begin.
Getting Your Hands Dirty: Template Setup Walkthrough
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do." — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It's time to build a template. We'll use a typical songwriter/composer situation for our test subject. Our writer needs a common and not overly complex setup: he usually writes rock/pop and occasionally likes to use a string section and a few synths. Working on a single G5, he doesn't have unlimited power but a fair amount to work with. The principles we use in setting up this template will be the same no matter what specific setup you've determined you need, the only thing that should change will be the number of tracks you need to create.
We'll start by taking inventory of everything required:
- MIDI Instruments: Piano, electric piano, bass, drums, strings, 2 synths.
- Audio Tracks: 2 acoustic guitars, 2 electric guitars, live bass, lead vocal, 3 background vocals.
- Sends (aux tracks): Reverb, delay.
- Subs (aux tracks for instruments we want to group together): Background vocal bus.
- Other Plugins: Mastering, Guitar Rig on the guitar tracks, compression on the bass and vocal.
Next let's consider what we should leave extra room for:
- MIDI Instruments: Having 10 blank but ready to go MIDI instruments should be more than enough to accommodate even the most prolific fits of creativity.
- Audio Tracks: I usually keep 12 audio tracks ready to go, 6 mono and 6 stereo. These tracks can accommodate an on-the-fly recording or serve as a holding place to drop a reference MP3 or audio loop.
- 4 Sends: Like the subs, these are ready and waiting just in case the need comes up. Let's say you decide that you like a certain reverb on your instruments, but a larger room works better on your vocal tracks. You want this ready to go.
- 3 Subs: At the moment we don't really have a need for extra subs, but we want to be prepared. Suppose in the near future we end up setting up a drum kit and full set of microphones in the studio. We want to be able to send all of our separate drum tracks to a single aux without having to think about it.
Finally we're ready to start. I apologize to the non-Logic 8 users among you, but the rest of this section is pretty Logic 8 specific. You are welcome to follow along as the ideas and concepts should apply everywhere, but the specific steps probably won't.
1. Create a New Project
Once you have Logic open, go to File > New to create a new project. Choose any collection from the left menu and then choose Empty Project from the templates section.
2. Create New Tracks
You're immediately prompted to create some tracks, so begin by creating your Software instruments. We decided we want a total of 17 (7 preset and 10 blank but ready to go). Enter Number: 17, make sure Software Instrument is selected, leave the output settings at default, and hit Create.
Before going any further we should save our session. Call it anything you like, but remember to save regularly as we go along.
Next let's create our Audio tracks. In the upper left of your arrange window is the "New tracks.." button. It looks like a + sign and is to the right of the words Global Tracks.
First we'll create our mono tracks. We'll need 7 for our previously chosen instruments and 6 extras. Enter 13, choose Audio, Format: Mono, and Create. Repeat the same thing for 6 Stereo Audio tracks.
3. Set Up Your Instrument Tracks
Let's go through our new tracks, label them and assign icons. For complete clarity in naming, each of your tracks should be labeled by the corresponding channel strip number (note that this number is not usually the same as the Arrange order, it just happens to be for our first 17 tracks). This small extra step of numbering keeps you from ever having to think "Oh, was that Inst 12 or 13?". It may seem trivial now but every step we can take to keep things orderly helps. The shorthand for Software Instruments will be i#, so the first will be i01, the next i02, etc. Let's assign our first 10 Software Instrument tracks as the blank "backup" tracks. Label them i01 though i10 by double clicking the track name on the channel strip.
Now we'll set up our actual instruments. Label i11-i17 for the piano, electric piano, and so on (for example name the piano track "i11 Piano").
Let's help keep things easy to look at by assigning icons to each of these instruments. Expand your channel strip if it is not already (the little triangle next to the track name should be pointing down) and click on Icon to select an icon for your instrument. You're welcome to be creative but I think your choices should be pretty intuitive. A small step, but see how much easier it is now to see where your drums are?
Next we should put some actual instruments on these tracks. Since this is a rather small setup we'll assume that our computer can handle having all of these instruments up and running at once, and that it won't take terribly long for a new session to load. Although perhaps not the best samples in your collection, for this example I'll just use the Garageband instruments since everyone is sure to have them. You're welcome to use whatever you think sounds good.
4. Set Up the Audio Tracks
Time to set up the audio tracks. Our shorthand for the numbering will just be the numbers themselves, but we'll also want to mark wether the track is Mono or Stereo. Logic has a strange way of handling a stereo file on a mono track, so it's critical that we know we're putting the right files in the right places. Using "1 MONO" as a guide, label Audio Tracks 1-6.
Next label the rest of the mono audio tracks according to the instruments we decided on and set appropriate icons. You probably want to differentiate the "Live Bass" track from the "MIDI Bass" we set up earlier.
Although we don't have to load instruments, there may be plugins that you always want to use. Now would be a fine time to go ahead and instantiate anything you are pretty sure you're going to need regularly, such as compression on the lead vocal or a Guitar Amp on the electric guitar tracks.
Finally label our 6 backup Stereo Audio Tracks. For an added level of clarity I would suggest giving them a different icon from the Mono tracks.
5. Set Up Your Aux Tracks
Next we'll set up the Aux Tracks. We'll be using Aux Tracks for sends and for subs, so let's start with the sends. It's time to dive into the environment! (Don't worry, we're not going in too deep.)
Choose Environment from the Window menu and you should be presented with a long row of instruments. Under New, choose Channel Strip > Auxiliary.
Do this 6 times. Thankfully Logic is smart enough to keep them grouped together for us. Assign each track a Bus input in sequential order (Aux 1 should have Bus 1 as its input). I'm going to break out of labeling convention a little bit, but all for the sake of simplicity; it makes most sense to keep these names short and to the point. Label our first aux "Reverb", the next "Delay", and leave the rest as is. Next instantiate a reverb plugin and a delay plugin in each appropriate track and choose your preferred settings (the defaults are fine for now).
Now let's set up our subs. These are used to group instruments of a similar type together for easy mixing. In our case the Background Vocals will be the only thing we'll bus to a sub, but we'll also create 3 more just in case. Create 4 more new Auxiliary tracks like we did before. Label them Sub 1 through Sub 4 and set their inputs to the next available Busses (Bus 7-10). Finally let's add "BkVox" to the name of Sub 1 so we know what it's for.
Scroll back and find your three Background Vocal audio tracks, select them all, and choose Bus 7 (Sub 1 BkVox) as the output.
6. Set Up Your Sends
Now that we have all of our tracks in the session we can set the Sends. Starting from the beginning of the Environment, drag and select over every Audio Track and choose Bus 1 for Send 1 and Bus 2 for Send 2. Do the same thing for your Instruments and your Subs.
7. Create a Spacer Track
The usefulness of this will become much more apparent once we organize the arrange window, but for the moment just trust me and follow along. Under the New menu choose Instrument to create a MIDI instrument. Rename it to "--------". This will serve as a spacer to keep everything organized.
The last thing we can set up in the Environment is default mastering settings on our main output. Find your main output track (probably all the way to the right), if it has a weird name like "Output 1-2" consider naming it "Main Out", and choose a mastering setup from the Setting menu (these are Channel Strip Settings). You'll want to tweak these plugins to your liking once you find what works, but these default settings are a great place to start.
9. Add Your New Tracks to the Arrange Window
Head back to the arrange window and let's add all of the tracks we created that we want to be able to see and use. In our case that would be the Reverb and Delay, the Subs, the spacer, and the Main Out. Select your last track and hit F1 to create a new track with the same channel strip. We'll then use this new space to find and choose each of our new tracks. Ctrl+click on the name (eg. 21 Stereo) and choose "Reassign Track Object". Choose the track you need, and then hit F1 again and repeat until you've added everything. If you find it helpful, choose some icons for these tracks
10. Organize the Arrange Window
Everything is finally here, but it's a bit of a confusing mess. Let's drag our tracks around to reorder them in a way that makes sense.
Decide on an order. For me that would probably be:
- Piano and Electric Piano at the top
- Guitars and basses
- Lead vocals
- Background vocals (preceded by the Background Vocals sub)
- Strings and synths
- Our extra/blank instruments
- The extra audio tracks
- Reverb & Delay
- Main Out
Perhaps the opposite makes sense to you. It doesn't matter, as long as everything is organized and you can find it as soon as you want to.
Next we'll incorporate the spacer track for even more clarity. Choose the we track called "--------" and hit F1 to create copies, then drag them to the appropriate places. See the images for an example.
Sure, they make your overall session bigger, but it's so easy to find everything! We'll deal with that space issue in a moment anyway.
11. Hide Tracks You Aren't Using
The Hide feature in Logic makes it so easy to have everything we need readily available without it having to clutter up our session. Press "h" to bring up the Hide option and click the small H icon next to the track to hide it. Hide anything and everything you don't want to be instantly using. I'd recommend leaving at least 1 representative from each section, such as i01, so that when you're ready to Un-Hide something and incorporate it into your session you have a reference point of where to look. Hit "h" again to hide them.
Here's how I would probably set this up, all nice and cleaned up and ready to use:
12. Save It As a Template
Last but not least we need to save this as a template. Simply go to the File Menu and choose Save As Template, give it a catchy name, and you're all set. I would then suggest going in to your Global Preferences, choosing "Create New Project Using Default Template" as your Start Action, and setting your new template as the Default. Now whenever you boot up Logic you'll be presented with a nice clean workspace to start creating music with.
Keeping Your Template Current
"So I said to the Gym instructor, 'Can you teach me to do the splits?' He said, 'How flexible are you?' I said 'I can't make Tuesdays.'" Tim Vine
We left open space and room to grow for good reason; if you don't allow a little flexibility for change and adjustment you'll make it difficult to create new tracks and fit new ideas into your template. If you can't make easy changes and fixes, you'll be stuck in the frustrating position of having to wrestle with technology instead of writing.
It's critical that you keep your template updated and current to the way you work and the various instruments, plugins and methods you're using. Whenever you add something to a session you should ask yourself "Hmm, do I want to ever use this again in another song?". If the answer is maybe, then you should probably take five minutes out of your day and update your template (or even better, keep a list and make all your fixes once a week). Notice that you keep creating the exact same screenset? Save it in your template. Got a cool new reverb plugin you keep going back to? Save it in your template.
Remember, the whole point of creating your template in the first place is to make your life easier and your workflow smooth. The less mental effort you need to spend on software, the more creative energy you have for writing inspired music.