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  • Reverse Engineering

    By hcadmin |

    Overcoming New Project Inertia Through Templates


    By Jon Chappell


    I had an experience recently that I’m sure many of you can relate to. I heard a great acoustic guitar patch in Ableton Live Suite, and so wanted to use that in a project I was working on. But I’m not a Live user (not yet, though I plan to be). So when I installed and launched Live 7, I was completely lost. Staring at a blank project window—which looked nothing like Cubase and Pro Tools, the DAWs I’m used to seeing—I couldn’t even figure out how to get my MIDI keyboard to make a sound (despite the fact that I was transmitting MIDI just fine). I wasn’t going to be able to jump in and start working without (oh, the horror!) cracking the manual. And Live is known for being easy to use. It’s just that it was brand new to me and I was under deadline pressure.


    But wait. Instead of doing the unthinkable (reading TFM), I simply opened up a couple of Live projects I found in other places (online, on demo discs, sent from friends). Once I opened a few existing projects, I found one that was almost exact in setup and approach to what I needed. Then I went to work doing something


    I’m really good at: reverse engineering.

    Reverse engineering is for people like me who aren’t quite smart enough to create something new from a clean sheet, but who are savvy at editing—seeing what was done and improving it, or simply changing it to suit the situation at hand. I’ve been doing it my whole professional life, from rewriting articles to “designing” (ha!) my own web pages. Usually, you’re reverse engineering another’s work. But sometimes you can turn that inward so that you’re doing it to yourself.


    Templates on Parade

    You perform reverse engineering every time you work from a template. A template is a file that resembles closely what you’re going to end up with in structure and setup, but where the actual content is completely original. Commonly provided as templates are such files as web pages, newsletters, and résumés. If you’ve ever used a sample of one of those as a starting point, you know how a template—or reverse engineering—works. Simply dump the guts but leave the skeleton intact and put your own stuff in.


    So I went back to the audio programs that I use a lot, and thought hard about making templates. I’ve been using Pro Tools lately, so I’ll use that as an example, but these techniques her apply to all DAWs. It’s just that Pro Tools is good for explaining template concepts, because its interface is fairly intuitive. Even if your DAW does things differently, you can readily see what’s going on by seeing how PT handles things.


    First rule of templates: opening a blank project to begin anything is a huge waste of time. Better to have 10 templates to choose from than one blank project window. In my own case I know I’m almost always going to immediately set up 90 percent of my projects this way: four audio channels for a principal guitar and three overdubs, five MIDI instruments (piano, bass, drums, percussion, pads), and at least two click tracks (one with a pulse according to the meter and one based on subdivisions of that meter for slow recording). This is to say nothing of the additional setups I always use: buses for shared effects (which PT handles as Aux Input tracks), insert effect plug-ins, virtual instrument plug-ins, and the look of the environment itself (windows I like to have opened and positioned in various places on my dual monitor setup).


    It doesn’t matter if I’m doing hip-hop or folk music: I always like to have things look a certain way to begin. And that way is certainly not a blank project window. So my template looks like Figure 1.

    Fig. 1. The mixer window of a basic template, including audio tracks, a MIDI rhythm section, some various click tracks, and an aux and master bus.

    It’s not fancy or complicated, but remember, there’s some work done under the hood as well, such as the tweaking of plug-ins, and such. The point is, you don’t have to do much to create a template that’s personalized and gives you a little jump in overcoming the inertia of starting a new project from scratch.


    A Template by Any Other Name

    If you’re still foggy on what makes a template vs. an actual file, it’s not your fault. Microsoft Word and other programs make the concept of a template needlessly complicated by introducing a new file format. When you open a blank doc in Word, start typing, and realize (quickly, I hope) that you should save your work, you’re faced with saving the file as its own document (.doc) or a template (.dot). Saving as a template means you can never change it, because every time you open it and choose Save, it’s really as Save As. You can’t actually change the template document itself by invoking Save.


    This is usually a good thing for templates, but if you’re careful enough, you don’t need a separate file format. Simply open a document, and do a Save As as your first act. This ensures that you don’t start working on the template and reflexively (as I do) hit CTL-S as you work. By doing a Save As first, you now are working on the specific project, and the original template is safe. The advantage of being able to actually save to the template (which Word doesn’t let you do, except through convoluted means) is that when you discover something that should go into your current project as well as the template, you can perform that easily.


    You should always have the template in the back of your mind when you’re working on a separate project. In fact, I’m always aware if I’m making a change that could apply to the template. I don’t necessarily close the current project and open the template, but I do jot myself a note and do it at a good break point. I’m especially on the lookout for this when I do something “unusual but global.” For example, when I invoke a seldom-used window (like the MIDI event list editor), I’ll first size the window to my liking and then shuttle it off to my secondary monitor to get it out of the way. But when I open the window again, the program remembers the size and position. That’s how it should be in every file I work on, so that’s one for the template. It’s a little thing, but little things add up!


    Transport Tricks

    Let’s talk about some specific template fodder. The look and feel of the transport is a great candidate for template work. I almost always use bars and beats, so my primary counter is set in musical units, while my alternate counter (called a subcounter in PT) is in minutes and seconds. I also use MIDI a lot, so I like to have PT’s transport in expanded mode, which offers MIDI options as well.


    But some people don’t like the transport window cluttering up their project at all; they would just as soon minimize it or dispense with it altogether, using keystroke equivalents for any transport navigating. Figure 2 shows two ways to set up a transport: the deluxe way, which is what I use, and the minimized way, for less clutter. Note, however, that the movable transport window in the unexpanded mode resembles exactly the permanent transport to the right of the counter up top. If you’re going to minimize your transport to this level, you should just hide it completely. Note also that in my version, it’s bars|beats|ticks as the primary counter and hours|minutes|seconds in the subcounter. In the unexpanded counter, it’s hours|minutes|seconds in the primary, with samples underneath. You can see that the counter is parked at 2 seconds, which equates to 88,200 samples. This means I’m working in a session whose sample rate is 44.1kHz. Your template’s counter should reflect how you work.

    Fig. 2. The transport and counter are configurable is several ways, and should be the first order of business in setting up a template.

    Marker Madness

    Speaking of transports, one of the things that bothered me about PT was that it wasn’t easy to go to, say, bar 33, in a jiffy—at least not on using keyboard shortcuts. But PT does allow you to go quickly between markers by typing period-marker number-period (on the number pad, it’s .#.). This, I realized, was a template opportunity! So I set up my template by placing a marker on every single bar for 128 bars. This is a chore, yes, but it’s a one-time chore, and it’s easy to do. So my template looks like Figure 3 with respect to markers.

    Fig. 3. Pro Tools allows you to go quickly between markers (if not bar numbers) using keystrokes, so just set up a marker for every bar. It’s a one-time chore, which means it’s perfect template material.

    The Marriage of True Mids

    You can set up not just one thing in a template, but a combination of elements as a starting point in a template. For example, I often group a virtual instrument and a plug-in effect. Let’s say I find I use one instrument a lot, but it needs the same EQ (what instrument is ever perfect “out of the box”?). So I keep my EQ plug-in married to the instrument as part of the template, as Figure 4 shows for the bass.

    Fig. 4. In addition to using staple instruments, such as bass, I often couple them with an EQ curve in my template. The virtual instrument and effect are treated as a single unit as far as the template.

    Fix the Mix

    You can even set up dummy tracks or things that you won’t necessarily use every time but are there as place holders should you need them. A good example is the use of plug-ins. You can’t load up a template with a hundred active plug-ins because they’re a drain on the CPU. But you can set up a lot of plug-ins, disable them (or the channels they’re assigned to), and save the template in that state. Then when you open the template, in its default state, it won’t be sucking on the CPU from the outset. In Pro Tools, you choose “Make inactive,” which allows you to see the channel (with all the labels appearing in italics, as shown in Figure 5) without the plug-ins (or any program material) loading down your CPU.

    Fig. 5. Note that the four guitars on audio tracks each have an insert reverb (D-Verb) and EQ. The tracks have been made inactive here, so that I can still see them but where their plug-ins won’t be a drain on the CPU (something Bypass doesn’t accomplish).

    Template Temperament

    After you get in the habit of setting up templates, you realize it’s like your music creation wardrobe: you’ll have something for every occasion. Stuff your templates full of material and then delete what you don’t need as soon as you open them. But having a loaded template provides you with a system check. For example, I always have a bit of audio and MIDI, and effects buses (if they’re separate tracks, as they are in PT) loaded in my templates to make sure the system is “firing on all cylinders”—in other words, whether the project loads and passes audio correctly, including the plug-ins. You should have something in different types of tracks, preferable pleasing to the ear, even if you’ll dump the stuff as a first step. If you’re not hearing the audio track and its associated effects as soon as the template finishes loading, you won’t have to wait until you’re in mid project to troubleshoot the problem. So if you want to really impress someone, don’t just tell them your favorite DAW tips. Show them your template!


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