In this Weekend Workshop, we won’t be making a single sound in our DAWs, but the work we do might well take your productivity to new heights. Making DAW templates might just be the least sexy part of producing music, but there’s a great logic to getting one made this weekend.
When you’re staring down a blank canvas and trying to put a new tune together, you should aim to be in the most creative state possible; searching for plug-ins, creating tracks and setting up routings is a sure-fire way to kill the mood. If you’ve got a tune in your head, you need to get it out as quickly as possible – there’s no time to lose.
Templates can be completely different depending on the sort of music you make. One producer may need a handful of synths and a drum machine with a complex sidechain routing set up; another might need an 80-piece orchestra ready to roll. Either way, we’ll tell you what to consider to make a template that fits you perfectly.
Things you’ll need
- Your go-to plug-ins installed: instruments, effects, analyzers and anything else you regularly use
- Some successfully completed projects to reference
- Your DAW’s manual, if you’re unfamiliar with how its templates work
1. Master channel
It might be strange to start things off on the master bus, but some of the most essential tools live here. You won’t want to forget them, and what’s the point in setting them up time and time again?
Add a limiter
The first thing here to cover is the most important: if you just have one element in your template project, make it a limiter at the very end of your master bus. This limiter isn’t to mix into – it’s for safety. If a feedback loop or a slipped knob in a plug-in suddenly bring the output level too high, you can damage your equipment or your ears.
Setting the Threshold to +6dB, if you can, should avoid your sound going into the limiter and being affected unless something goes wrong. Make sure the limiter is the last thing on your mastering chain as we add the others.
Prep your analyzer
Most producers use some form of visual analyzer to get feedback on their sounds. Whether you’re a fan of Voxengo SPAN or you prefer another tool, now’s the time to add it.
Add a filter
No, this isn’t for mean-ass bass drops… although it probably can be. Some producers like to solo and reference only their bass or sub bass regions, often comparing them to other tracks. Having a low-pass filter ready for this on your master bus, bypassed until you need it, is a quick way to check your bass at any point in the project.
Get A/B capable
Referencing is an essential part of the process for most people, and a plug-in like Mastering The Mix Reference or ADPTR Audio’s Metric AB can make it easy. It’s even easier if it’s ready on your master bus with all the reference tracks loaded as soon as you start a new project, though.
If you prefer to load actual audio into your DAW for comparison, load it now on its own track and, if necessary, its own output bus. Remember, you don’t want reference audio going through any mix bus processing.
Some producers may use Control Room software, or have a connection to outboard gear that requires something to be placed on the master bus. It’s worth checking your old and recent projects to remind yourself what plug-ins and settings you frequently use here.
It’s time to add some virtual instruments to your DAW project, if you use them.
Synths and drum machines
Do you have a go-to synth or drum machine that you find yourself relying on constantly? It’s time to add it now. You may want to add multiple instances, if you’re that reliant on it.
If you’re used to using a particular synth for bass sounds, or have a favourite for pads, it’s also worth selecting a reasonable ‘good enough’ preset on each. This will help you find your way more quickly, keeping the inspiration flowing rather than browsing to find the perfect sound before you’ve even laid down a few notes.
All your Instruments?
If you like to try out a million instruments each session, it’s possible to load each of them, ready to try what you like and then delete what you don’t need later. If you’re doing this, make sure you can load each in a bypassed state, so that your template project doesn’t struggle for system resources from the start.
Add some MIDI
Electronic producers needn’t draw a 4/4 MIDI kick pattern every time they start a session if there’s one already in the template. Here we’ve created a one-bar MIDI region with C1 notes on each beat. We can use it to feed an electronic kick drum, or as a sidechain trigger later on. These small touches will same you valuable seconds when you’re in a creative headspace.
3. Audio channels
Is it worth setting up audio channels in your template, considering they’re usually easy to create with a touch of a button? If you’re using samples, you may not need to create your audio tracks first, but anyone recording might find it worth having an audio track with the correct mic inputs assigned.
Another reason to create audio tracks in your template is the ability to load plug-ins onto them later, as we’ll see in the following sections.
4. Grouping channels
Combine channels to be processed together through their own submix channels. Gather different vocal channels, guitar channels, different drum elements or anything else into their own track group and/or channel groups, helping you to take control over all together at once.
5. Finding your channel strips
Chances are, you find yourself using the same effects on the same sorts of tracks, time and time again. Often, loading up an EQ and compressor is almost inevitable, so why not have these ready to go on each track (bypassed to save resources until you need them).
If you have hardware synths permanently plugged into your interface, create an audio track for them. The same goes for other instruments. If you’re regularly plugging an electric guitar or bass into your interface’s Hi-Z input, set up a track with the correct input selected and an amp modelling plug-in with a workable tone.
In addition, vocal channels will likely benefit from de-esser plug-ins, recorded audio channels can be ready-to-rock with high-pass filters, and so on. Check back on your previous projects to discover which processors you tend to load up every time you work.
Suddenly, it looks like creating those ‘unnecessary’ audio channels in the previous step was a great idea.
6. Busses and returns
All those send effects turn out to be quite predictable when you look at your old projects. It’s likely that you’ve got one or two sends set up for delay, for reverb, and likely for other effects too.
It’s simple to create your effects channels in your template, and aim for some likely settings from the get-go. Do you use one short reverb and one long one? Do you use a separate ‘verb for your drums? Do you always parallel-compress your drums? Set it all up now using your favourite plug-ins, and even if you want to make changes in future projects, the basic setup will be complete.
7. Make it navigable
It’s time to tidy your room. Get to work colour-coding, renaming channels and resizing everything based on how important it is, how often you’ll need to find it, and what makes sense in your head. Learn how your DAW hides certain channels if you think this will help to de-clutter.
Some people like to go with set colours for particular instruments, but don’t let anyone tell you that a bass has to be blue or that a synth can’t be yellow. Choose short tracks names that convey the right information but translate to different. Make more significant channels and tracks larger, and make sure the utilities don’t take up too much space.
Once you start asking yourself if a certain synth sparks joy, it’s time to put the feather duster down and move on.
8. Keyboard shortcuts
Depending on your DAW, there’s one more killer step in creating a great template. If you can bypass and engage plug-ins with the touch of a button; if you can bring up a spectrum analyser by pressing Alt-S; if you can show or hide your vocal tracks with one touch of a finger, then yours is the DAW and everything that’s in it, and what’s more, you’ll be a lightning-fast producer.
9. Saving your template
The final step depends on your DAW. You may have to save a project file that’s opened again and again and re-saved as you create new projects; or perhaps your DAW has a ‘default’ project that it can open on startup. Other DAWs will implement special template files that you can select from when opening a new project.
Now that you’re ready to roll with your own personalised template, it’s time to check out how much easier making music will become. Will getting rid of the DAW admin make things flow easier for you? Or will you simply find another excuse to remain in a creative block?
Don’t forget to check out our past Weekend Workshops as well, and look out for more in the coming weeks.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out our brand new 30-Day Production Challenge!