How to be a better producer: Templates

The aim of this article is to help you build a maintain a good production template in your DAW of choice. I use Ableton Live, so this is the DAW I will be using for this tutorial. Most of the things I cover will be transferable to other DAW's but might require a bit of research on your part to achieve the same results.

Why a template?

As you are no doubt aware, inspiration at its best is fleeting, and at its worst seemingly non existent. An idea might pop into your head for a few minutes and if you don't get it down quickly, its gone. Or you might be familiar with the feeling of boredom and despair as you open up a new blank project in your DAW. What do I do from here? Where are my sounds? Spending a heap of time finding sounds and devices you regularly use is not only frustrating, its a big time waster and it doesn't do your muse any favours. Having a good template in place means you are always ready to work as soon as inspiration strikes, with sounds that you know you like, and everything is ready to go. It removes another layer of decision making, and another obstacle to being in a flow state.

What makes a good template?

In my opinion a good template has the following;

  • A basic set of sounds that you can use right away to start capturing ideas and inspiration as soon as it strikes

  • A bunch of plugins or settings set up in a way that some of the more mundane production tasks are done for you

  • Enough content to get going, but too much content that you are repeating yourself and making cookie cutter music

  • A set of arrangement tools to help you with structure.

Many templates (both paid and free) that you will be able to get from various sources online to me usually tend to contain too much content. They will essentially be pre produced tracks in their own right and while this can be useful for learning it generally leads to cookie cutter music and a lack of originality on your part. So, we want something that sits somewhere between the two extremes of a blank project and a finished production. I'll run through my personal production template below, and explain my thought process behind it so you can create one specific to your needs. While I started with one template, I have now created a bunch of different ones for different tasks, for example I have a production template, a remix template (similar to my production but with more audio tracks and less of my own devices and settings), multiple arrangement templates of songs that I like and know work on the floor, a sound design template and so on and so forth. Just create one for now to get used to the process and then move on from there.

My Production Template

This is the screen that I am presented with when I load up a new project. My though process behind this was, “What do I need to get going straight away? What do I use all the time in my music and what are certain things that I find myself doing all the time?”

Lets break it down -

Tracks In General: For all of my tracks there were a few things I did. Referring to my thought process earlier, I made default audio and midi tracks set up how I like and made them default. First, I expanded the width of each track out so I could see the dB numbers on the meters, which I always do when mixing. Then I levelled each track to -12dB so I know that I'll have good headroom, this prevents clipping and is also for mixing. I also then loaded any instrument racks that I know I would need (more on this when we get to specific tracks) and then loaded an EQ8, Compressor, and Utility device on each track, and I use these pretty much every time on every track. I also then disabled them so that they wont all load up at once when the project opens, saving more time. Once I had set one one midi track, and one audio track up the way that I liked it, I right clicked on the header and went “Save As Default”. That means that whenever I make a new audio or midi track the same settings come up each time.

Drum Tracks: I looked at all my previous tunes and worked out what I commonly used. I have two kick drum tracks, with 4/4 floor clips programmed in off the bat. I have one for a 909 coming from Drumazon (check out my video on kick drums here), an 808 coming from the default Ableton rack. I've mapped all the controls that I use the most into racks so that I can quickly put together variations on 909 and 808 kick drums ready to go in my tune. I've also got my Kick Verb send set up and ready to go. I levelled the hi hat tracks down a little because I tend to find they sit below my other drums, so its a good starting point. I've got a off hat (on the 3 of every beat) and a 16th (one every 16) programmed and put into each track so they are ready to go. These a pre loaded with basic 808 and 909 hats, with racked macro controls to get instant variation on my hats. I have a ride channel set up in an identical way. Then I have 2 percussion channels set up – with a empty simpler on them ready to load different samples. I haven't been using many claps or snares lately so I haven't included them. I also haven't grouped my drums together. This is just the way that I like to work, if you do commonly use drum buss compression or would like them to be grouped together by all means to that, there's nothing wrong with that I just prefer to do that later if I need to. The final thing I did for my drum racks was to name them all, and colour them according to my colour system (see my post on organisation here)

Bass Track: Next I have my bass track. On here I've got an instance of the excellent TAL Bassline 101 which is a recreation of the Roland SH 101. I recently got this plugin and have been rinsing this for basses for the last couple of months. I've yet to rack it up as its super easy to program. I used to have Operator on here but feel free to put whatever you most commonly use for bass on here.

Idea One & Idea Two: These are my main core ideas or themes for the track. I find that usually I only use one or two main themes in my tracks, so I put two tracks in. This is a good example of providing a halfway point. They don't contain any sounds yet because those main themes could come from a bunch of different places, a plugin, a sample, a bunch of recorded or re sampled audio – but it gives me a place to capture them and helps me to mentally be aware that I need to move on from my drums at some point

(I spend AGES making drums).

Pad / Texture: I'll almost always have at least one pad or texture sound in my music. Often times I will start with a big pad or texture to provide me with some context while I start writing the other elements of my track. I might replace it later, or keep it the same, but either way I usually use Omnisphere 2 for this task, so I have that loaded with a blank patch ready to go.

Empty Audio Tracks: More and more these days I am getting into re sampling and found that I was often having to create a bunch of different audio tracks. I usually re sample my kick verb, and often generate ideas by running sounds through things like Reaktor or a bunch of free mangler plugins that I'll record back so I have created 3 channels ready to go.

Sends / Returns: I then have my basic sends and returns set up. On A I have a small room reverb that I tend to use to gel my drums together and add space. I often change this depending on the track later but any small room is a good starting place. Then I have a similar reverb set up but for longer spaces, and I've dropped EQ's after them to clean up the bottom end and roll off a little of the tops. Then I've got a delay coming from Echoboy, so I've got some basic delays running when I need them, and then the kick verb mentioned earlier. I've also taken these channels down by 6 dB or so to make sure they aren't filling up the mix when mi writing.

Master Channel: On my master I've got an instance of the excellent Molot compressor which I use to glue my mix together. I'll usually set this once 'I've got something going that I like. I'm nearly always using the same settings so I've set a good starting point on this that I can adjust to the track later on in the process. That goes into Izotopes Ozone Limiter. Its not active by default, but at the end of the mix process ill just drag this down a bit so I'm getting an impression of some basic mastering. That runs into smexoscope so that I can easily see what's happening with the transients of my track (incredibly useful in all stages of production) and then finally a spectrum analyser that I can look at.

All of my instruments, samplers, sends and returns, and mastering channel plugins (except the limiter) are on by default when the project loads. The rest of the plugins are disabled to help with loading times. I've also set the temp to 130 which is usually what I am working on these days. When I had all my gear (I recently moved to Australia so its all back in the UK now) I have everything routed into my sound card and all other relevant routings in the I/O section ready to go.

This is a really good middle point for me – the things that I know I use all the time (basic drum patterns and certain instruments and effects) are all there, but I am not looking at complete arrangements and pre programmed midi parts or samples that are going to lead me in certain directions.

Once I set everything up how I liked it I then when to Preferences → File Folder and went “Save Current Set as Default”. I also made a Templates folder and saved this as Production Template in there, along with my other templates mentioned earlier on.

This is one of those things that you can do when you're not necessarily feeling inspired to write a tune, and will massively speed up your workflow when you start using it. I usually update my template when I start using a new plugin or technique regularly, or I am feeling bored and want to switch up the way that I'm working. So – get your template sorted, and get back to capturing those ideas and making music!