5 DAW Tips to Simplify Your Work

Prod512 Logo 2016By Dave Foxx

I am still stupefied when I see how some people use their DAW, when I know that there are vastly easier ways to accomplish what they do. I guess for some, it becomes a habit to do things the way you learn without exploring other possibilities, while others just don’t know that there is more than one way to do just about everything. These are five solid tips that have helped me streamline my work, cutting a typical hour or more spent on a promo to 20 minutes, allowing me a lot more time to fiddle with the creative.

I hope you’ll pardon me for keeping this ProTools-centric. It’s the system I know best. But, if there is one universal truth about software of any kind, from Spreadsheets to Slideshows, Email clients to Digital Audio Workstations, they all have shortcuts; simple keystrokes that take the place of mousing up to the menu bar, clicking on a category, scrolling down to the desired function and then releasing the mouse button. If you use Audition or Logic, your shortcuts will most of the time be different, but they are there. So, I top the list with shortcuts.

1. Learn Your System Shortcuts

I have become pretty good with Adobe’s Photoshop over the years, as I prepared slides for staff meetings and my own presentations at various radio shows. I was working on a staff meeting Power Point one week when the main graphic designer for Z100, Kate Norem walked in and plopped down on my little couch in the studio to ask a couple of questions about something not related to her work. I was right in the middle of designing a slide in Photoshop and asked her to wait a minute while I finished. She started watching what I was doing quite carefully, making me feel a bit anxious as this was the Photoshop guru for the building. I hit [Command]+[Shift]+E to combine the visible layers and she stopped me right away. “Wait. Back up a sec. How did you do that?”

“Do what?” I replied.

She asked, “You just combined three layers into one without using your mouse. Is there a shortcut for that?”

I then moused up to the Layers heading, dropped the menu and pointed to Merge Visible with the symbols for [Command]+[Shift]+E to the right of it. It was like she was seeing it for the first time. In all her experience using Photoshop, she had always just moused her way to Merge Visible, used it and moved on. She looked up and down the exposed menu and saw several other keyboard shortcuts, left the studio (without talking about whatever she wanted to know).

I checked with her later that day and she told me she had spent the previous few hours learning ALL the PSD shortcuts. She told me a few weeks later that it was like she had been blind to those shortcuts her entire adult life. She also said it had shrunk her completion time to a point where instead of feeling like she was constantly inundated with work, she could actually spend some real quality time sharpening her creative work.

Get beyond the [Command]+S {Save}, [Command]+W {Close Window} and [Command]+Q {Quit Program} shortcuts. Learn to merge highlighted audio files into one new file with [Command]+[Shift]+3. Bounce your files with the shortcut [Command]+[Option]+B. One of my favorite combos is [Command]+[Shift]+U {select unused files}, followed by [Command]+[Shift]+B {Delete unused files} to get rid of all the unwanted files in your audio bin. The shortcuts are all immediately viewable by simply clicking on the menu bar headings. Use ‘em a few times and I guarantee, you’ll know them in no time, and you will add horsepower to your skill set.

If you don’t feel like filling your head with all the hundreds of shortcuts, purchase an overlay for your keyboard. However, I gotta say that when I see someone using one of those, I am reminded of the cashier at McDonalds, hunting for the ‘Big Mac’ button, but to each…you know.

2. Get A Multi-Button Mouse

My personal favorite is the Logitech Performance MX mouse with ‘Dark Field’ technology. The thumb rest is a button with two more buttons above the rest, also for the thumb. Your index finger has its very own button, as does your middle finger, and nestled between those two buttons is a scroll wheel that is ALSO a button that can be pushed down or to either side. That’s NINE different functions, which you can program yourself for each piece of software that you use. On my Pro Tools settings, I have one button for RECORD, one button to ZOOM in, one to ZOOM out, Click, Double-Click and a can single-handedly scroll left, right and up and down. I even programmed one of the thumb buttons to undo. And with the ‘Dark Field’ feature, I don’t need a mousepad or even a solid desk top. I use it on my clear glass desk top all the time.

It takes a little time to get used to all the functions being immediately available, but once you have that down, your ability to get to the essential space you need and perform a function jumps into hyperdrive. Of course, there are dozens of companies who manufacture mice, all with varying features, so I highly recommend you spend some quality time in your favorite electronics store and find the perfect mouse for you.

3. Get in the Habit of ‘Name & Save’

One of my all-time pet-peeves is having to hunt for an audio file that’s labelled like all the other audio files in a session. If your files are named Audio-01-00, Audio-02-00 and Audio-03-00 because you’re in too much of a hurry to label them properly, you might think this is counterintuitive, but I can assure you it can save a TON of time. When you go back to revisit a promo and you know that there is a phrase or tune that you can use to update the promo, you could get pretty frustrated pretty quickly. THEN you’ll know I was right. Ha! The habit you really want is to take the extra few seconds and name each new file, then just hit save. You know you can find anything in that saved session.

The second part of this habit (SAVE) becomes important in a couple of different ways. Let’s say you’re in the middle of a masterpiece, recording, editing, mixing and doing everything you do when you’re making magic…and the power goes out, or your system crashes. If you have taken the time to label your files and then SAVING ([Command]+S) every time you create something new, picking up the pieces is immeasurably simpler, and a lot less time consuming once the power is back. I know that most systems can be set up to periodically write a backup file, but doing this manually means your session is as up-to-date as possible whenever disaster strikes.

4. Build a Template for Every Occasion

Hopefully, you already have a template you can open and get to work on almost immediately. I would suggest you create a few different templates. Make a commercial template, a promo template, a sweeper template and maybe a special programming template. Each template should be designed precisely to the assigned purpose. If you do a lot of beat-mixing, set up your stereo tracks ahead of time to make time compression/expansion simple and direct. If you have to create a soundtrack for a TV spot from time to time, get the processing exactly the way you need it to be for television. (It’s not the same as radio…really.) If you have bussing capabilities in your system, set them up ahead of time with labels and get all of your sends and receives in sync with your bus manager.

Most of the time, you will use the same processing on all your sessions so that can be the same for each template, but if you have something different you use on sweepers versus promos, there’s another thing to take into account. One thing I would always use is side-chain processing. If you don’t, you’re wasting a huge chunk of time and effort every time you start a new session. In fact, that has a number all its own.

5. Learn How To Use Side Chain Processing

I wrote about this last year and got a huge amount of feedback from producers who discovered how simple mixing becomes when you let the gain on the VO track control the gain on the music and effects. No more ducking the music track when it overwhelms the VO. No more jacking the gain up on a music track for the vocal when the voice track is on pause. It does all that automatically. Clearly, it won’t make the mix perfect every time right out of the box, but one simple adjustment will fix it almost every time, saving you a lot of time and effort.

The setup is a bit tricky, but once you have it done right, save it in your template(s) and know that all mixing efforts have been simplified forever more.

My sound this month is a Lady Gaga in Vegas promo for Most Requested Live. Romeo and his crew have been picking up new affiliates left and right. They’re closing in on 170 stations now, almost entirely because of my voice and production, I’m sure.

Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.

Comments (1)

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I second all of Dave's excellent advise. I was the guy who lobbied to get my group to transition from tape to digital decades ago. As the 1st producer in the building to get a DAW, I had to read the manual and teach myself how to use it. Soon after, I became the de facto "expert" and it fell to me to teach many others over the years. Everybody is different and some take to new tech better than others. I tried to instill shortcut methodology in producers minds, but it didn't always stick. It was frustrating to see people slowly struggling to use a mouse for every operation. A multi-button mouse is a huge time saver. I like trackballs with many buttons, but it's the buttons that matter, not the mouse type. Use your fingers to play your smart mouse like a piano instead of using your whole hand like a catcher's mitt on a stupid mouse. And remember, you have two hands. Your dominant hand will likely be on the mouse. Keeping your other hand on the keyboard to use modifiers and...

I second all of Dave's excellent advise. I was the guy who lobbied to get my group to transition from tape to digital decades ago. As the 1st producer in the building to get a DAW, I had to read the manual and teach myself how to use it. Soon after, I became the de facto "expert" and it fell to me to teach many others over the years. Everybody is different and some take to new tech better than others. I tried to instill shortcut methodology in producers minds, but it didn't always stick. It was frustrating to see people slowly struggling to use a mouse for every operation. A multi-button mouse is a huge time saver. I like trackballs with many buttons, but it's the buttons that matter, not the mouse type. Use your fingers to play your smart mouse like a piano instead of using your whole hand like a catcher's mitt on a stupid mouse. And remember, you have two hands. Your dominant hand will likely be on the mouse. Keeping your other hand on the keyboard to use modifiers and hit additional keys exponentially expands the options and speeds up your workflow. It takes a little while to memorize multiple commands. Don't try to do it in one sitting. Add one a day, or one a week, or whatever works for you. Start with things you do most often and grow your repertoire, Soon muscle memory will kick in and you will be flying without thinking. Pro Tools used to come with stickers, and may still (I haven't had a new boxed version for years). Stick them on the keys and you can find application shortcuts at a glance. I wanted to kick myself the day I put them on my keyboard after years of doing without that visual aid to speed my learning process. I never put them all on, but I picked stickers for the keys I used most (few users need them all anyway). Seeing those colored stickers in my periphery got both hands moving fast, minimizing mousing and reducing the times I had to look at the keys. It is very much like playing an instrument. Most DAWs can also use a footswitch for punch-ins and punch-outs. I never got there, but it's never too late to add a trick. Two hands and one foot beats one clumsy fist any day. Finally, Dave is so right about labeling files. In Pro Tools, and probably other DAWs, it's best to name the PARENT FILE, not the regions created when you edit the file. Record or import a file, name it, then proceed. Regions are generally invisible to the OS and most other programs. Name the file and you can quickly search your drives for existing files which can be imported into new sessions. Recording the same song time after time is a frustrating waste of time. When I first use a piece of music I copy the entire song, not just the pieces I need at the moment, then I label the file. Thereafter, if a song is needed again in a new session I can search the drive in seconds and drag it into the open project. It takes a little longer upfront, but pays big returns forever. Ditto on Dave's other tips. I realize I'm on the verge of writing an article here, not a mere comment, so I'll stop here. That's just my .02 worth. Your mileage may vary.

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Steve (better known as "Lush") Lushbaugh
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