Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Organizing Your Computer Workflow

Hey all. Interesting blog today, and corresponding podcast soon about COMPUTER MANAGEMENT. Why is this important? Well, though you may not think about it, without your computer, most of you would probably die of boredom/sadness/frustration. Computers are everywhere these days...they've become a part of our lives, in our phones, in our iPads/Slate PCs, in our homes, work, schools...recording studios...

The Computer has become an absolutely ESSENTIAL tool in the studio. With mixing in the box becoming more and more standard, people are relying on their computers to be complete studios with recording software, effects, processing, mastering rigs, tape machines, and reverb chambers. It has become literally your entire control room. With a properly managed computer and well placed drive setup, you can streamline your performance and improve your safety and workability in the recording realm. Here are my six big tips for computer management:

1.Separation of Powers - Always the Right Decision. What do I mean by this? This is one of the most important things you can do on your computer. First, install your Operating System, Plugins, Software, Effects, etc. onto your main hard disk, mostly it is called "C:\" in the PC world. From that point on, don't ever record on that drive. Ever. Buy a separate hard drive and use it as a dedicated "RECORDING" drive. Anything that you record, any project files, edits, fade files, etc., store it all on that drive. Do not put any recording projects on your main drive. Then, set up a third hard disc for media only. Media = Pictures, Music (yes, your iTunes library), and Video. This will ensure you have complete separate of duties in your computer.

Many people suggest using external (firewire) drives only for recording. I prefer to use internal drives because they have a faster transfer speed (and I don't have to mess with power cables and firewire cards and compatibility, just works). 

Once everything is installed the way you want it to be on C:\, make a disk image backup of C:\ and store it on a backup drive (preferably external). For this I use a program called Acronis True Image (and on my laptop, Seagate DiscWizard--powered by Acronis). This way you know that, if nothing else, you have a backup disc image of your computer from a point when everything was installed and everything DID work. That way if something goes wrong later down the line, you can just revert back to this part of your computer. Again, a great reason to have your recording files / data on separate drives. This way when you restore, you can restore your C:\ drive without affecting the other two.

2. Back Up your Projects! Why would you not do this? I don't understand why some people just never create backups. Hard discs are so cheap these days (you can get Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 500GB drives for something like $45. I have four of these, they work great!) I also have external drives that I back up my work to. You can get a program to do backups daily (e.g., every day at midnight your computer will back up any changed files to your external drive) and most of the programs work great. Otherwise, you can simply do it yourself by dragging your entire recording folder into your backup folder, and just say "replace" to any old files." This will ensure a definite backup of what you have exactly to date. And for the record, never delete anything from the backup folder. There is no need to. Just keep it all.

3. The Keyboard is your friend! Learn keyboard shortcuts. LEARN THEM. By the way, learn keyboard shortcuts. Have I made it clear enough? The mouse is slow compared to how fast you can use your fingers on the keyboard. Learn the keyboard shortcuts for all that you can, not just within your DAW, but also within your OS. For example, here are some little known Windows Shortcuts:

Right Click, W, F - Creates a New Folder.
Alt+Tab - Switches between Windows
Alt, F, C - Close program/Folder (in most apps)
In Firefox: Type website, then press CTRL+Enter (for example, type Google then ctrl+enter)

Not to mention the VAST amount of shortcuts that you can control yourself and change within Windows to open up folders, programs, etc. I have almost every program I use bound to a shortcut key so that I can simply use the keyboard to get started. I got the opportunity to work with a fantastic producer on a high-dollar record. We were all sitting around at the studio one day and he looked around and said to someone, "you know, I never use the mouse. My work speed doubled, maybe tripled, when I switched to only keyboard edits and keystokes." And he was really fast in Pro Tools. I mean...unbelievable.

4. Organize your Plugins by Type. Set up folders in your primary VST Plugins folder called "Compressors" and "Reverbs" etc., so you can quickly access all of your plugins. It will take a while to organize, but you will be SO glad you did. It makes things very easy to find when you're looking for a specific plugin to do the job. You don't have to go through the big list of "So-and-So Brand Plugins" and search through all the ones you don't know.

5. Reinstall your entire computer every couple of years (or sooner)!  This will ensure a clean start, getting rid of programs that you don't need, only installing the things you use. With hard drives being so cheap these days (2 Terabyte External drives are only around $150) you can back up your entire computer onto these drives, format your old hard disks, and start CLEAN. No viruses, no errors, no fragmentation, no corrupted files. I did this recently when switching to Windows 7 and it was the best decision I ever made.

6. Understand Your Computer.  I can't tell you how many times knowing how to change a hard drive in and out has saved my life. For example, I was in a session with a singer-songwriter from out of state who only had a few days left to record. About midway through a session, my hard drive started failing (which I knew how to diagnose). I ran up to BestBuy (I dislike purchasing from Bestbuy because they are so overpriced) and I got a new drive, I came home and cloned my recording drive to the new drive, and he and I were back recording within a few hours. If I had not known how to do this, I would have freaked out, not been calm, probably made a fool of myself in front of this guy, but instead I was able to say, "alright, so here is the deal, I've got a failing hard disc, don't worry your stuff is completely backed up and safe, I've got to run to Best Buy, and we'll be back in business shortly after a few transfers."

This applies to Mac as well, not just PC. People get hung up on the idea that Macs don't have problems. They do, and you should be aware of them! Part of the job description is to understand your tools. You know how a mic works, how a preamp works, how an amp works, how sound works, at least to some degree, and you can get a basic concept of what you're doing. The same goes for computers. If you understand how to diagnose and repair problems, you can be one step closer to comfortable, and if a problem arises you can remain calm and get the job done quickly. In the words of my brother (computer repair tech.), "Every computer problem has a solution." Though seemingly obvious, it is true. There is no problem that is "unfixable." The more problems you know how to fix, the better.

7. Have a consistent file saving pattern. By this I mean, don't just save things in any old folder named "sfasttqoeitjt" that you just typed really quick to get it over with. Get in the habit of saving things in their proper place, at a place where you can easily find them, and so you won't have to go searching all over your computer for that project file or those channel settings. For example, in your recording drive, you could put up different folders for the different artists you record, and then within those folders, different folders for each song (where the project files are stored). It's that simple. Keep that organizational mindset for everything on your computer, and you will have a clean and easy to navigate system.

I hope this has given you a nice overview of how to mange your computer. It is extremely important to consider these things, because as I said, in the digital age, your computer is your engine room. It's your front end. It's your big block. It's your entire core, essentially. There would be little digital recording without computers.  Keep it tight, keep it organized, do it right from the start.

As always, email with questions or comments.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review of Minimal System Plugins

So I was searching around on the net for some new plugins. I had been debating just caving in and buying the UAD cards so that I could make use of awesome plugins and not sacrifice any CPU power. I said to myself, well, what am I really wanting here? I think the answer was that I just wanted some great sounding plugs that didn't cost a whole lot. Though they sound fantastic, the UAD cards are not cheap. Anyway, I was looking around and I stumbled upon a company called Minimal System. Mac users beware--all their plugs are PC only, but that doesn't mean they will be PC only forever.

Plugins from Minimal System

This is a screenshot taken from their website. Their three flagship plugins are the SSi Pro Compressor, the SSi Pro Analogue Noise Gate, and the SSi Pro Expander. Obviously, these are SSL-type emulations. I own the Waves SSL bundle, and I like the SSi compressor from Minimal System better than the Waves SSL compressor. The only thing I like the Waves SSL Compressor on MORE is the master bus, which is sort of what it is intended to be for.Their plugs are all very cheap...the most expensive one they sell is I think something like 20 GBP or about $35 USD....what what what???? That's it? Great plugins for cheap? What a concept!

They also have an array of "studio series" plugins that are cheaper...but that certainly doesn't diminish their quality. These include a synth, a 3-band EQ, two reverbs, two compressors, a Moog emulation, and a mastering channel strip. These plugins vary in price from 20 GBP ($35 USD) to as low as 1.49 GBP ($2.31 USD). They also have four free plugins available for download with a donation box set up with Paypal. As you may have realized by now, this is a British company, so you have to probably have paypal to even think about buying their products. I doubt there is any other way, actually.

Other than the SSi Compressor, my favorite plugin by far is the "PUNCH" compressor.

"PUNCH" From Minimal System

If you don't feel like spending the money to get an 1176...or even the Waves 1176...or the UAD 1176 plug...why don't you open up your wallet to this plugin. It costs a whopping 5GBP, or about $8.00. Yeah, that's right. An $8.00 plugin. This thing sounds FANTASTIC. It works great, looks great, works just like the 1176. I compared a track I recorded with a real hardware 1176 next to this, and they sounded VERY similar. The main difference was that the old 1176 was a bit warmer (less highs), but understandable seeing as they were designed way back when and the circuitry was not meant for digital audio's high bandwidth. 

Punch can sound like an 1176, making drums punchy and fat, with lots of attack. You can crush the living daylights out of a room mic, or smooth out a dynamic vocal performance. It's actually unbelievable how good this plugin sounds for the money. I mean, come on, it's $8. If you don't but this, you are pathetic. It's too good to pass up. 

I like the EQ, but I am not a huge fan of how it works. It sounds great honestly, but just the design of the interaction between the different bands is a little bit confusing and frankly bothersome. It's one of those "everything affects everything" plugins, where the high knob also affects the midrange, and the low knob affects the's that sort of interaction that I personally DISLIKE in an EQ, but that's just me! I think that plugin costs about five bucks though, so how can I complain any further.
The expander/gate plugin costs about $25, and I was pretty pleased. As a general gate plugin, it's very cool. It's got controls for essentially an expander running into a gate, so you can really control the sound pretty well. It doesn't have a sidechain, which I would LOVE to have, especially for drums. If this plugin DID have sidechaining filters, I'd use this for everything.

The plugins are all very low cpu and also very low (if not zero) latency. All work so smoothly with Nuendo it's like I've been using them for years. I could do a whole mix with these things!

One thing I also like about these plugins is that they don't have a numbered meter. That is typical of the British style of production where the meters are disregarded, only the sound is judged. If it sounds good, it is good. I love that mindset because too many times we get caught up in "mixing with our eyes," and we say "okay I usually do about 4-6dB of compression on the snare drum..." when logic asks, why get in such a habit? Shouldn't you do what sounds good? Isn't every single track recorded differently? Isn't every single TAKE different? Of course.

These plugs are easy on your computer, great looking, greater sounding, and overall a joy to work with. They were downloaded instantly after payment from Paypal, and I was using them in minutes. I am going to continue to use these plugins on all kinds of sessions, and keep checking with MS to see when they release new plugins. 

As always, email for questions or comments!