Erlanger Programm: Size matters

EP_tracklistThe decision to make it “big” (whatever that means) was made when I decided to realize all of this album in one Cubase project. And the fact that I started hitting the 32bit barrier right after that immediately showed that it had gotten big in what four bytes see as “a lot”. But what is a good way to measure the size of a musical project in a DAW, other than the computer’s RAM (which we normally don’t see, as long as we have enough of it)? And much more importantly, who can we deal with it?

What is “big”?

The majority of traditional sequencers (say, mid to late 80s), some of which (like my choice: Cubase, still exist today), visualized a project in a two-dimensional fashion. On your screen, you had time going from left to right, and the individual (MIDI) tracks from top to bottom. Of course, tracks could also be empty for some of the time.
Now of course having a project (or musical work) with a long duration directly affected the amount of time you had to muster for composing/tracking, and also affected the overview along the time axis, but it had no effect on how much “gear” you needed: what was only related to the number of tracks. All in all, not that much different to a traditional music studio with a multitrack recorder and a mixing console (and back at that time, you always had to have one of those for your computer to sit in).
The concept of tracks, as well of the top/bottom arrangement with a left/right time axis, is still present at least as one main view in the majority of today’s DAWs. Today, tracks not only hold MIDI information, but also audio recordings, virtual instruments, send effects, or even tempo or scale info. Another important concept (in Cubase, as well as in others) with close relation to the tracks are the channels of a virtual mixer. Differently to the tracks’ top/bottom arrangement, they are arranged horizontally, just as in a typical mixing console. There’s no 1:1 mapping between tracks and channels: while e.g. tempo tracks do not have a channel assigned to them, input channels don’t have tracks.
Now, when I talk about “big” here, I’d like to look at the “hard to handle” aspect, and more specifically, “hard to handle for the user”. We already know that as a rule of thumb, more tracks = bigger for the computer, but longer projects don’t necessarily make it harder to handle for the computer. In a higher level of detail, audio tracks are “bigger” than MIDI tracks (but not for the user), and virtual instruments and effects can be really big (but again, not so much a problem for the user).
On the other hand, a longer project (if it’s not just a collection of unrelated pieces) makes it harder to grasp for the user (in that context: composer or arranger), and if not that, it definitely doesn’t fit onto the screen as well, although zooming in locally works around that.
But having a good overview (and being able to control them with an UI device) definitely becomes problematic for a large track count – although the number per se is again of limited use and may need to be “weighted” (e.g. an instrument track in Cubase is about as complex an thus “big” as a MIDI track plus a rack instrument).

Actual Numbers

With Erlanger Programm, we’re currently at close to 45 minutes and ca. 130 tracks. Is that big? Typical project studio-kinda projects tend to have a few dozen tracks for a duration of roughly 3 to 7 minutes, so let’s call it big for now.

Dealing with Size

The following is a list of some guidelines I’ve found to be helpful (not only) in working with larger audio projects (but also in more complex computer-based stuff with about anything, e.g. circuit simulator, what have you…). All examples here relate to Cubase, but the approaches are generic.

I. Familiarize yourself with your DAWs concepts.

I already mentioned Cubase’s central concept of tracks and channels: while tracks are (in a very formal view) containers for multi-dimensional vectors with one dimension always being “time”, channels are transfer functions. And then there’s ports on those, and also some (transfer) functions that somehow connect to those – like the transport section which has to do with “time”, and thus with a tempo/meter track.
Try to understand how your DAW handles this – it will in the end help you to implement things at the most efficient place and in the most efficient fashion, reducing apparent complexity of your project.

II. Find your DAW’s tools to handle size and learn to use them.

Pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? In Cubase, there’s a lot of options, which may or may not relate to each other: you can put tracks into (nested) folders, but obviously can’t do that with channels. You can assign colour to a track/channel combo. In the mixer, you can hide specific types of channels (e.g. all MIDI channels, or all input channels). In the visibility view, you can hide tracks and channels, in both views grouped by the track view’s folders. You can save those configurations, but only in the mixer – but then you can sync the track view to it. Track/channel names can be made to be telling – especially important if the limited space on your controller surface’s display should be able to show that.I have already started using some of those options in the past: tracks (audio/MIDI, instruments and possibly related groups or send effects) get a colour based on the signal type (e.g. green for drums, orange for bass, yellow for lead, turquoise for chords etc.). Cubase by default puts effects, instruments and groups into a folder each – I usually stick with that approach. Depending on your choice, you can further order the tracks (with or without folders) e.g. by MIDI, followed by audio.
With that, you can already get a view that works well for a normal project – but you still have the issue that even when you’re only looking at the content for e.g. part b, you’ll have all channels in your mixer, and need to jump forward a few pages to get from the MIDI tracks to the virtual instruments.Something I have started to use heavily right now is thus this option of having visibility configurations: in the mixer, I have configurations for each part, as well as for the entire project. That way, I can have a rather compact view for every section, which always goes from MIDI channels to audio channels to virtual instruments to send effects to groups to the 2bus from left to right – and I only see the channels of interest at a given moment. And syncing the track view to that, the same is true for that view as well.

There’s more examples, but we’ll discuss those later on.

III. Occam’s Razor, proven approach or innovation: finding the best choice.

Often, there’s many ways to reach a certain goal. Should different takes go on lanes, or rather on track versions? Which way to order the tracks? Unfortunately, there’s no generic recipe.
If you’re generally happy with the way you’re doing things, then there’s no need to change your approach – even if the software marketing guys claim that this new function will “improve your productivity” or whatever.
It’s trickier if you’re not happy with the way you’re doing things, and believe the problems you’re facing might even get bigger as project size increases. Researching the topic (e.g. by looking at some videos – efficiency of a workflow can only be judged so much by reading a text) can be a good starting point, as can simply trying and erring.
And finally, if you’re discovering a whole new approach very late in the production, then that should by all means go into your personal “lessons learned” and be used for your next project – but you should also steer clear of imlementing such major changes late in the project.

IV. Use help outside of the computer.

Typically, you’re using a computer setup with two or three twenty-odd-inch screens, so compared to earlier times, there’s plenty of space onscreen. This shouldn’t, however, keep you from embracing the use of oldskool technology to visualize some of the things you think are important.Yes, your individual part’s tonality, tempo and meter are right there on the respective tracks in your DAW – but only if you have the correct zoom setting, and typically really small. Depending on the way your project works, you might need that info very often, if only subconsciously. So why not take a big sheet of paper (I’m talking ’round A2), write the info on it and pin that to the wall behind your computer?
The effect here is twofold: first, you make sure that you have that pivotal info somewhere, always in plain view, and always in the same spot.  What’s more, the fact that to check that you have to look up from the computer and onto that sheet of paper (which might be a few metres away) has a positive effect on your creativity (and let’s not forget it’s better for your eyes as well).

V. Use the tools, part 2: MMI aspects.

When we talked about your DAW’s tools above, we were talking about specific functionalities (such as different views). Here, it’s more of the more elemental parts of you man-machine interface.
Lots of DAWs (and other professional software tools) offer customization options when it comes to aspects such as keyboard shortcuts, as well as dedicated controllers/MMI devices. You’ll quickly discover what you do most often, and then you can assign that to a handy shortcut. And for that, use the available flexibility, maybe even applying additional tools. So you’ve found that you’re zooming in and out a lot, but want to use the mouse wheel for scrolling? Why not try assigning that for that expression pedal connected to your faderbox?
As a starting point, simply read through the keyboard shortcuts your DAW has already implemented – and once you’ve started using them, you can start customizing.
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