pre-production before a music recording session

Get Your Studio in Order! File Management and Workflow Tips for Music Production Part 1: Pre-Session

James O'Toole

March 24, 2021

What sets real pros apart? Technique and talent, yes—but also careful organization. Recording projects mean juggling varying combinations of personnel and equipment on both the artist and studio sides. Whether you're working with a client or recording your own band, don't forget that pre-production in music is one of the most important steps for getting the most of your session. Handle the business, scheduling, and file organization aspects first—then, when you get down to recording, you can pour all your focus into making the music sound the best it can.

This series of three articles will help you master file management and will offer helpful workflow tips for music production. First things first: here's how you can keep your project rolling smoothly by preparing in advance.

Make the Most of Pre-Production Planning

This is your time to really dig deep into planning before the onslaught of the project work begins. Define what you're doing as early as possible: is it a single, an EP, or an album? How long will you work on it? This will depend on the artist and their budget. Aim to have a clear outline of what will happen if you go over time or budget—no one likes surprises.

If you have access to demo versions of tracks, try to get the session files, or at least a mixed-down stereo version. This will give you a good idea of how well-developed the project currently is. If you can get a DAW project of the demo with separate tracks, some parts may even find a place in the final product. Discuss what you hear with the artist; they'll give you a sense of what they like and what could be improved.

Getting your hands on the demo is part of a larger process of identifying where the project may need additional pre-production. Perhaps a song needs more work, or some songs aren't complete. In order to accurately estimate the time needed to complete the project, you need to know exactly what you're getting into before you set foot in the studio.

Take Stock of Personnel

That clarity extends to project roles throughout the team. As the engineer or producer, you should always be the project owner. Keeping control over the project will make it easier to keep things running smoothly. Particularly if you plan to collaborate with others remotely, outline beforehand how you'll record and exchange files so that everything stays organized. It can also be helpful to use a whiteboard or online tracking sheet with the project mapped out in a grid of songs and parts, so that everyone can see what needs to be done. Then, you can add notes and check off parts as you record.

Account for everyone who will touch the project—make sure you know who needs to be around during each recording session and when, including assistants if you have them. It's often best to have only the players who are actually tracking present in the studio to minimize distractions. Further, make sure everyone's role is clearly defined to them as well. If you're working with a band, ask them to nominate a main contact who can relay group decisions. It's much easier to deal with one person than trying to wrangle a band with four or five different opinions.

Plan the order of tracking and allow sufficient time for each part. If things go really well and you get lucky, you may even have extra time. It all depends on the artist or band and how well-prepared they are, so try to reinforce the need to know their parts inside and out before the project begins.

Secure the Necessary Equipment

Who will be playing on the project? Get a sense of exactly how many musicians are involved and what they'll play. Will they need to use any of your in-house instruments? Do you need to hire any additional gear, instruments, or session musicians?

If you're recording remotely, find out if there are any preferred plugins needed. Ideally, you'll have everything ready to record as soon as the artist shows up.

Unless you have an unlimited budget, stick to using what you know to get reliable results. Many bands or artists will want to experiment with different sounds and techniques during the session, which is great—just so long as they're on the same page about the time it will takes to complete recording.

Specify Tempo, Sample Rate, Bit Depth, and File Type

As you consult with the artist and rest of the team, confirm the sample rate, bit depth, tempos, and file types that will be used for the project to keep everyone on the same page. If you plan to collaborate and exchange files remotely, everyone should know and use the same specifications. Set up a template in your DAW as soon as you have an outline of the project and the players and instruments involved. This way, you can easily jump right in when the recording session starts.

Some artists demo tracks at home, and if the parts are recorded well, it can sometimes be useful to import them directly into a session. So, figure out what DAW they use and flag any potential compatibility issues beforehand. If you and the artist both use the same DAW, then file exchanges are relatively easy. If not, that's another reason to reach out and make arrangements—you'll have to make a plan for how you'll exchange files and in what format.

Ask collaborators to consolidate any tracks so they always line up at the start of the song when they are dropped into a session. Any plugins should be rendered to audio, or tracks can be supplied as raw DI files for maximum flexibility.

Most artists will be comfortable recording to a click, but some may prefer not to use one. Either way, make sure you discuss this before you start recording. If you are using a click, construct a tempo map for each song during this stage of pre-production.

Establish a File Naming Convention

It usually doesn't take much to send a mass of files into a mess of disorganized chaos. Set up a clear, consistent, and sortable file naming convention for every track, including any session versions. The labels "Audio 1" and "Audio 2" are a poor substitute for proper organization.

Naming tracks can be tedious, but look at it as an investment. If you've planned out a naming convention and do it as you create each track, it only takes a few seconds. That's time you'll get back later when you go to export tracks or stems for mixing or mastering.

Leave the creativity to the project itself—your file names should be simple and logical so that anyone can easily understand the structure as soon as they open the file. Color coding your tracks or groups can also make life easier. If you always color your tracks in a consistent scheme, you can see what's in the session at a glance, no matter how complex it becomes. Always name your buses, as well, so you know exactly where signals are being routed and why.

Capture Everything

Even if you're just doing pre-production, record everything. If the artist or band is warming up with a jam or improvisation, record it. It might be rough, but sometimes during pre-production in music you can capture something magical that would be difficult to repeat. Inspiration is unpredictable—if you can catch lightning in a bottle, why wouldn't you?

While you'll want to stick to your structured session, taking some risks can highlight the creativity and expression of the session. The best sessions find a balance between spontaneity and discipline.

In part two of this three-part series on file management and workflow tips for music production, we'll focus on the recording session and what you can do to capture the best performances and audio possible.

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James O'Toole headshot
James O'Toole
A musician and graphic designer, James freelances from his home studio on a range of audio and creative projects.

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