Preventing the BIG Disaster – Tech

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Part 2 of the ongoing series Assisting Composers.

Any step you can take to mitigate problems is probably a good one. The best method is to be like a scout and be prepared for anything that could go wrong. Without any prior experience though, it can be a challenge to think of every possibility. Here are some tips on how to manage some of the common issues that come up in composer studios as well as the occasional big one.

More similarities than you think

From the tech side of things, while a successful composer probably has a studio that looks like something out of The Matrix compared to yours, you’ll find after a short time that there are more similarities than differences.

As an example, despite all the jaw dropping technology that could be in the room, the composer will probably just be stationed in the front of the computer for the most part, working within the DAW just like you do. So start with everything you know about your own setup at home and ways you could improve on making your own workflow better and less prone to issues.

Solve problems at home

It is probably assumed that you know and use the same DAW, so use your time at home to see if you can recreate and solve any errors you might have noticed in the studio (without the presence of a boss breathing down your neck). It’s also a good opportunity to see if any workflows could be automated or done more quickly.

Implement workflow changes sensibly

Before you run back to the studio and shout, “Stop the presses!” to present some shortcut or trick you found, you should be familiar with the studio’s protocol for introducing new workflows. This is because there’s always a chance that trick you figured out might not work on the studio’s machine(s) and it really doesn’t make sense to implement it in the middle of a moving project.

You’ll want to make sure you can test it when it’s safe to do so and then be sure the composer has the time to learn it from you along with learning what to do in case something goes wrong. And there should always be a reliable method of reverting back to the old way if necessary. If there’s no protocol in place, then the best thing is to wait for the right opportunity and don’t force it.

Take care of small issues before they become big

There are so many great things about working for an established composer, but one of the nicest things is that when a piece of equipment is faltering, it can usually be fixed or replaced at the drop of a hat as long as the cost isn’t ridiculous. So the moment you see anything fishy with the technology, like a display that has weird glitches on the screen (faulty graphics card) or a hard drive that is much noisier than usual, you probably can and should get it taken care of immediately! Habits like this with the small stuff will translate well to prevent the big stuff from going wrong.

Know your DAW

Most of the common studio issues will be DAW related. Sessions crashing, Vienna Ensemble Pro crashing, notes that get stuck “on”, virtual instruments malfunctioning, the list goes on. The more well-versed you are at solving these on your own system, the better off you’ll be at preventing disasters on the bigger system, because they are pretty much the same.

Verify compatibility

If your job is to keep the tech side of things in good order, you can mitigate a lot of issues by verifying that all the software and hardware is compatible. First, determine exactly what version of the DAW the composer wants to use. Version 10, for example is not enough. You need to know at least whether it’s 10.2 or 10.4 (as an example) and then check compatibility lists to see what computer operating system (OS) works best with that version (and subversion ex: 10.4.3) and be sure the computers can handle that OS. In a studio with multiple workstations, it’s good to have all the systems running the exact same hardware, OS, firmware, and software versions if possible.

Managing data

Probably the most common big problem is data loss. You should be well-versed in making clones and backups of all the important data.

Backups 101

Ideally, it’s best to have at least 2 on-site backups and 1 off-site backup, which could be an internet or cloud-based backup (note: any data/content that is not under authority of the composer, like video or game files should NOT be stored on the cloud or transferred over the internet for backup). Since any downtime basically cripples the studio, the on-site storage clones should utilize the same kind of hard drives that are in the machines so they can be swapped out instantly and everything is back to normal right away.

Files organization

For the assistant who works with the DAW session files (MIDI Programmer, Audio Editor), think about how best to handle the current projects themselves. The composer will likely have a plan in place and you should definitely know that plan inside and out.

Some common things are that you’ll want to have a good file folder system to organize all the cues/pieces as well as a backlog of at least this (and perhaps the prior) year’s completed projects in case the composer wants to open a session with something he/she did recently and save-as or transfer that data into a new session for the current project.

If the composer works on sequels or spinoffs, you’ll definitely want all the data from the original or projects of the same franchise handy. If these aren’t readily available, it can be a nightmare to try to recover and organize them at the last minute. Not only that, but some of them may have been created on older versions of the DAW or worse, another DAW altogether. Make sure you take the time to get these sessions updated and running smoothly in the current setup.

File-saving and naming convention

You’ll want to make sure there is a good file-saving and naming convention (if not, suggest one!). The idea is not only for organizational purposes (which are hugely important), but also so that you can trace back all your work to each and every point where you and the composer exchanged session files. There will be so many cues and versions and revisions and it’s possible that you could be juggling up to 1,000 session files for a single project. Thus, using a robust version numbering system can really help you keep track of what’s what.

For example, if the composer writes a cue and uses the version number v1.00 and hands it off to you, the first thing you should do is save up to v1.01 and begin your work. At every significant musical change you make, save up again. By the time you hand it back to the composer, it could be v1.08, v1.19, or even v1.33 depending oh how much you added or changed. This way, if the decision is made to go back to a certain version or idea, you have it all there, without having to fish through tons of unorganized auto-saved backups (and be sure not to throw those auto-saves away either).

Coming up next

The aforementioned guidebook, Assisting the Composer, has more on this and how to handle many other the tough situations one might encounter. Make sure you check the next part of this series: Preventing the BIG Disaster – Recording. Thanks for reading!

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Kenny Wood

Kenny Wood

Kenny Wood is media composer from Los Angeles, whose experience in the field aided him in writing the Assisting the Composer guidebook with the help of an exceptionally talented and diverse team of contributors. He has composed scores on a number of feature films, video games, and the Oscar nominated short film, Oktapodi. He worked as an assistant to Mychael Danna, Heitor Pereira, and has provided additional music for Brian Tyler and Keith Power among others.

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