How I composed my submission to the Westworld Spitfire Competition in a day!
Look at that! That's one heckin' big session if you pardon my French! Would you believe me if I said it's all done in 10 hours? Well hopefully you will by the time you finish reading this! All I can say is, I couldn't have done it in the amount of time I had if I hadn't done my homework, so a pat on my own back for that!
I heard about the #westworldscoringcompetition2020 with one day to go until submissions! Despite already having a busy schedule and being the middle of recording an album, as well as my first attempt at making a music video, the prize was just too good to pass up!
Here are some tips on how I was able to get this project to the finish line so quickly:
Make a modular Template!
Having a template for composing and mixing music is essential and the amount of time and headache you save yourself is incalculable! Not only do you save time, but taking the time to do your homework beforehand, means you can jump into projects and competitions like this and actually get straight to the creative stuff. Without my template, it would take me until the deadline just to get set up!
Thanks to the wonderful customizability of Reaper, I have created a template that I think is far superior to what other DAWs make possible. Here are some reasons why:
-Reaper allows you to save entire rows of tracks, with all their routing and plugins, etc. and recall them easily! This is great news for me, because I always found it impossible to create a one-template-fits-all system for all film music compositions. Not every film I write for needs a string section, some need smaller orchestras and some need synths, guitars, or some could have a mixture of all, which is why I like to assemble my template in a modular manner.
-A quick right-click brings up this menu, and from there I assemble my palette of instruments based on the project's needs. I can bring up a woodwinds section, a Percussion group, or a synth group, or a recording mini-template to record my own instruments and synths. I have a good 100 of these, and each and every one of them can co-exist in a project seamlessly!
-For this project, I quickly brought in a full orchestra, as well as some synths, and of course it makes sense that I would pander to Spitfire and use LABS instruments as well! I also added some Iranian instruments in there!
-Each module has all the instruments, each with all their articulations, each bussing to a reverb and parallel compressor, with sidechain structures set up where needed, and comes with their own group bus and VCA.
-This allows me to compose in a fluid way, and then quickly print the tracks and mix them, all in one project! When I finish writing, I freeze all tracks, pre-mix them, and print each section as Stereo or 5.1 audio, and then I can mix an entire orchestra from a handful of tracks and master it. I will do a video tutorial of this soon. Just waiting for my video to hit 1000 views (help that happen by clicking here!)
A template isn't the only thing standing between you and an efficient workflow. Beyond tracks, plugin presets, and busses, You also need your DAW to to be set up in such a way that helps your workflow. Your DAW shouldn't stand in your way. It should hasten your process while keeping out of your way. This is another reason why I love Reaper, and while all DAWs have some version of a screenset, whether it's layouts, markers and configurations in Pro Tools (click here for my tutorial on configurations in my video series 'Pro Tools Witchcraft'), Screensets in Reaper and Logic, or even the Session and Arrange views in Ableton, Reaper definitely takes the cake in terms of how much customizability it offers.
I have a completely different screen-set when I compose for films than when I compose music, or edit tutorials. My video composition screenset is beautiful and I'm very proud of it, and I can access it with a quick hotkey. The birds-eye view of the project is already Up there, but let's take a closer look at each module as well:
The overall look of the screen-set should be familiar to anyone who also does video editing. This was inspired by Software like Davinci and Premiere Pro. If you have a single screen, this layout is a godsend, but even with two screens, I'd rather be able to look in the same direction to see the video and mix, rather than glance back and forth. The video is up top and always visible (rather than having to toggle it like you would in Pro Tools) and most of the auxilliary windows I need to see quickly are put on both sides, with my arrange view still occupying most of the screen, and never obstructed by extra windows and pointless clutter. Below the video are also tabs to show my system performance for those 11th hour mix sessions when you can hear your computer weeping!
On the left of the video, and above the Tracks, are windows that deal with audio and tracks in some way. Makes for easier dragging and dropping.
-My track manager allows me to quickly show, hide, freeze, or add/remove FX to/from my tracks, and re-name and re-color them (though coloring is already set using SWS auto-coloring, another thing that requires some prep time) and so on.
-My FX Browser is in the second tab, and from there I can quickly search for and place plugins on the tracks.
-My automation toolbar is third. This is a toolbar I created, and includes most of the controls that Pro Tools Ultimate has, plus some extra stuff. I can change the automation mode on selected or all tracks, Write to end, selection or beginning, and has many options for quickly copying, expanding and pasting all automation from track to track. It's also where I have my MIDI learn controls, so I can quickly assign my faders to any parameter and automate away!
- On the right side of the video are windows that deal with session organization and arranging:
-Region/Marker Manager window helps me quickly look at and navigate through my regions and markers. In reaper, markers are tied to one point in the project and regions to a portion of the project. I use Markers to quickly place record punch locators, or identify frames where a change needs to happen, or where the audio clips as I hear the project through to tackle later on. I use regions whenever there's some selection I need to make quite often, or in the end to organize the project by cues. Again, Reaper allows you to rename, colour, and adjust bounds of Regions from one window. It even has features to quickly bounce stuff within a region with specific rules, which is super useful for Game Audio Assets (more on that in later blogposts)
-Media Explorer is Reaper's answer to Pro Tools' Workspace, and what an answer! Media Explorer does everything Soundminer does, except for free (or technically, it comes free with the regular cost of Reaper which is still super-low). Workspace is clunky, takes up too much space and performs not-so well. Media Explorer allows you to import snippets of larger audio files, audition things dry or through monitoring FX, and even let's you do Basic DSP to audio files like pitch shift, reverse, de-noise, de-click, all before even importing the file. It comes with its own hotkeys, and I can talk forever about how much I love it!
-My action list is also here. If you are unfamiliar with Reaper, the action list is how I would sell it to you: A menu consisting literally thousands of commands that you can assign hotkeys to, or just launch from the window right away. It also lets you create custom actions and chain commands together. Any one thing, or set of things you do often in a project, can be combined into a custom action and performed with a single click or keystroke. Say you tend to cut a bunch of dialogue recordings, strip silence, place fades, then rename them and export them. This can be done in any DAW, but in Reaper, you can automate these tasks and they usually take place in the background, so instead of chaining a hundred hotkeys and mouse clicks together, you press one key and voila! This section also deserves its own post, so let's leave it for now!
During the spotting section, I quickly create markers and regions for key areas, separate scenes and tempo map the project. Now these will change as you work through the project, but an initial tempo map is still a good way of setting up your session. Reaper also allows you to change these automatically when other parameters change.
Again, tempo-mapping is a place where Reaper really excels, as it doesn't work in a linear fashion. If you map the tempo in a project, and want to change something in the middle section, you can set it up so it doesn't affect the future tempo mapping points. I always stressed in every other DAW when it came to tempo and time signature changes, but Reaper has made it so easy that quick tempo and meter changes, or accelerando passages have kinda become my signature move now, as you can see!
The blue line indicates tempo throughout the project. It goes up and down and there are micro and macro changes throughout, which help me hit cues with immense precision, and line up the music to the exact frame I want, allowing me to hit markers without having to make any compromises in the composition. No more 13 bar phrases or 1/8 measure dividers! In this project I start in 7/8 and move through 6/8, 9/8, 5/4 and 4/4 quite masterfully if I may say so myself!
- Here you can glance at my tracks, though all are minimized in order to show the true stature of this mastodonic project! In the end, I had 100+ tracks spread into 6-7 groups. The structure works like this:
Each group has a Parent track (Woodwinds, Strings, etc.) and under each parent are folder tracks containing each instrument's different articulations/techniques as well as all parallel processing busses. So if you open my Strings folder, you would see 1st Violins, 2nd Violins, Violas, Celli and Basses, as well as Harps (though they are usually classified under the percussion group and placed near percussion in scores, to me it's more practical when composing to have them next to each other as I more often need to reference strings, rather than percussion tracks, to write Harps.) Each of these sections are themselves a summing track containing every articulation for each instruments. As you can see in the image above, I have my trumpet track and it contains multiple articulations (Legato, Stacatto, Vibrato, etc.). I can write in one MIDI editor per instrument, and quickly send each note to the MIDI channel corresponding to the articulation I want it to go to. Reaper again makes this effortless and smooth by allowing me to create custom right click menus, so I can click on each note and quickly send it to named channels. I also have it set up hotkeys for changing event channels to 1-16 respectively, plus some other handy shortcuts. The letter choices will make more sense to you if you look at where they're placed on the QWERTY keyboard.
- On the very bottom is my mother toolbar, made entirely by me, all commands having their own icon. It's so beautiful I can cry! Here is where I place commands that I run somewhat often but not often enough to warrant their own hotkey. This is stuff like quickly changing the ruler from Timecode to beats, Changing grid size, and do various operations to all my tracks or a group of them, as well as my favorite, a command for Cleaning up my project, Which is a custom command that consolidates my project, then selects all unused audio, and moves them to a folder in my computer named 'Bin'. From there, I can review and delete what I want, but there's an extra step in case I make a mistake. Much better than having to do it in 4-5 steps as you would in Pro Tools, and possibly losing a piece of audio forever. This blog post is quickly becoming a smear piece for Pro Tools, and an ad for Reaper, but hey what I can I say, every second Reaper saves me is a second I'd have never gotten back if I had stuck with PT as my main DAW! Still love you though, Pro Tools! You're my old bae <3
So to bring all the info above together, hopefully it's quite clear that doing some work away from a project, in a period where you have less work, will save you loads of valuable time when you do have projects with a tight deadline. In the early days of COVID-19 lockdown, I lost my part-time employment, and after finishing my pending projects, was left without things to do for a week or so. This week was spent setting up templates, designing synths and DSP Chains, track groups, plugin presets, custom actions and toolbars, all of which are designed to improve and optimize my workflow. This way, If I'm ever approached for something with a deadline fast-approaching I can do it stress-free, take on big projects, and spend every last precious minute on the project, rather than de-bugging my signal chain or scrambling to find a particular sound I need!
That's about it for today. I will talk more about this project. The winner of the competition will be announced this Saturday. Wish me luck, and if you enjoyed reading this, stay tuned for part 2, as well as please watch, share and comment on my video. A lot of passion and experimentation went into it, and seeing that it still has under 100 views breaks my heart (though I could do more to promote it as well) so, please, if you got 4 minutes to spare, check this out: