Author: Alexandra Petkovski

Musical Meal Prep: Managing Rapid-Fire Deadlines for the Aspiring and Evolving Music Creative

Alexandra Petkovski at her music work station overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo.

Words like “organization,” “time-management” and “prioritization” are perhaps more likely to be first associated with the job of say, an accountant, however at the core, the foundation of the music industry rests on these integral pillars. Having worked as a composer, producer, songwriter, and artist throughout the Film/TV, contemporary, video game and commercial music worlds, I have learned that a good creative creates, a great creative finishes.

In my time thus far as a music creator, I have developed some go-tos when it comes to creating in the music industry profession. In a landscape of rapid-fire deadlines, the ability to create consistent, high-quality music is infinitely helped by preparation ahead of time. Think of it like meal prep. If you have all your vegetables cut and ready to go prior to starting your recipe, you will expedite the cooking process itself. (Et voila, quick and delicious stir-fry!) Here are several fundamentals I’ve come to lean on that help me in navigating through music industry deadlines, multiple project balancing, and multi-tasking generally.

Using A Template

There are a lot of varied stances on music templates and using them in the creative process. On one hand, it calls to question the amount of originality and authenticity present in a music cue or work. Are we just setting ourselves up for the cookie cutter effect? Will all of our work start to sound the same? Will our repertoire suddenly share similar sonic palettes? On the other hand, are we actually fostering and enabling our creativity in providing a foothold moving forward? Giving ourselves a gift – a catalyst for creation – ahead of time? I personally can see the validity in both these viewpoints, and have experienced both as such. Ultimately, I have found that for me, having at least some basic structure and set-up in place prior to jumping into a project provides me with a sense of support, and a better overall mental place to begin from. Below are the typical template elements I try to incorporate, and have “at the ready.”

Digital Audio Workstation Genre-Based Template

“Have template, will travel.”

Without going overkill (but also, feel free to!) having at least a handful of basic templates at the ready for different music directions and/or genres is a solid starting point. I have seen some insanely decked out templates, where all orchestral instrument groupings and their respective sample sound patches have been preloaded, a subfolder within the project designated for the music mix, the master subfolder, and the final stems printing portion (yeah…make sure your machine is equipped for the equivalent of a CPU rollercoaster ride of its life). I’ve also seen some very rudimentary, this-is-the-basic-breakdown-of-a-band ways to do it. I feel it really boils down to the type of project, and even further, what types of projects you really spend a majority of your time doing.

For myself, I like to have a template catered towards “trailerization” endeavors and orchestral projects. For context, “trailerization” is where an original or arranged music work is created in the sonic vein specific to Film and TV trailers, promotions, teasers, and in-show needledrops; although subject to change and definitely can vary, the predominant style of music here plays in the darker, epic and dramatic spaces. I will add that I have used templates to create music for specific briefs (a directive sent to music creator via supervisor, trailer house, advertising, and/or licensing agency outlining a specific musical aim and product goal dependent on project type) within the Film/TV and commercial realms, which I have found to be very helpful, whereas within the scoring to screen world have found that my personal preference is to work from a completely “clean slate.” This is largely in part due to the collaborative levels present in a project, and its overall customization. Scoring music for a film, for instance, relies heavily on the communication and dialogue between composer and director, possibly producer(s), and members of the film creative team in general. Sonic palette, although potentially drawing influence from music genres and references, will often be developed from ground zero. A call for song submissions for an ABC medical drama may be less pointed, and a bit more universal in the musical stylization process. Again, not always, but this has been my current bandwidth of experience. Either way, having a template to open and work from when hit with multiple project types and due dates can be a real time-saver, not to mention emotional crutch. Here’s what I like to have built into my “trailerization” template…

1. Covering the Sonic Spectrum – Sample Sounds and Sonic Palette

In my experience with “trailerizing” music cues and songs, having a definitive low and high end present in the sonic spectrum helps generate the dichotomy between tension and resolution throughout a piece of music. Contrast in sound creates musical pulse; a high airy synthesizer juxtaposed with a low oscillating bass can help evoke “anticipatory” “dark” tones, the pairing of rapidly rhythmic strings with low booming impacts, and subby hip-hop infused beats can create feelings of “epicness” and motion. In all cases, starting with a template where this sonic spectrum is represented (having respective sample sounds and patches preloaded) has been an excellent jumping off point in my work processes. The basic instrument and sample sound groups I’ve incorporated in my “trailerization” template are as follows: high synth, woodwind textures, choral/choir, piano (usually a felt piano), strings (high and low), electro percussion, orchestral percussion, band percussion, electro drums (beat kits), orchestral drums, basic drum kit, sub bass, low synth, FX (sweeps/impacts/crashes), and vocals. This is not to say I don’t add or take away instruments and patches dependent on where project creation takes me – maybe I decide to layer my bass with low brass, or I don’t want to use piano – but having something to start off from, and having instrument presets loaded already, really makes the whole creative process more efficient and thus enjoyable. Additionally, part of what makes a good template isn’t just having samples preloaded and/or designated instrument group tracks, but organizing within each patch/instrument grouping. Without diving into too much of the minutia, an example of this would be the way I approach my vocal groupings. Instead of just having all vocals organized as one large entity, I like to create labeled subsets consisting of leads, doubles, harmonies, BGVs (background vocals, often in the form of “ooh’s” “ah’s”), and ad libs. I do this simply by colour coordination of audio tracks, however whatever technique works for you is totally acceptable. A straightforward way of keeping groupings organized in the template is via track stacks. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Track Stacks

Track stacks–and/or folders, dependent on the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)–are the gifts that keep on giving. Although they are a supremely simple notion, you’d be surprised at how long it took for me to catch on about their existence. (Well, I did – and now I’m never going back!) In essence, one selects a particular number of MIDI and/or audio tracks in their project, and can right click, select create track stack – and boom! – organize said tracks together in one folder. In Logic Pro, the DAW I work within, there are two types of track stacks to select from – a “folder stack” versus “summing stack.” For these purposes, selecting “summing stack” is the desired course of action. The beauty of this lies beyond just the obvious visual benefit, but can actually anticipate and set up the process for printing audio stems down the line. (There could be an entire segment on the process and description of printing stems, but for this article’s purposes, let’s just keep it simple and say that track stacks can become the stem buses printed to audio final stems.) The takeaway – track stacks are where it’s at.

3. Signal Flow Set Up; All Aboard the Bus(ing)

Having desired signal flow paths predetermined, particularly in the form of presets and busing to auxiliary channels, enables one to create polished, industry-standard products at a faster rate, and allows one to (at least roughly) mix tracks simultaneously to composing and producing. This applies to all types of project templates generally. In a music mix, there are a couple options to consider. One may incorporate auxiliary channels to mix wet signal with dry signal on initial tracks, which is what the basis of parallel compression is. Respectively, one can also stereo output track stack groupings to auxiliaries, enabling the ability to add group compression, reverb, delay, and any desired effects. On this note, typically different instrument and/or sound groupings will have a varying kind of compression, parallel compression, EQ and/or reverb and delay assigned to them. In any case, if one has these respective buses set up ahead of time, it expedites the process of taking a fully composed/produced piece of music to its mixing stage. In my “trailerization” template, I like to incorporate at least a couple different reverb and delay types/presets assigned to track stack groupings, and have parallel compression ready to dial in for all. I’ve found through experience the ability to send stems dry (without effects) and wet is also an important one, so that if another mixer becomes involved with the project, one can send them dry stems so that they may apply their own respective effects. Overall, I find that having bigger reverb chamber sounds and mild delays helps create the “dramatic” tone of a trailerized cue. There may be other effective ways to set up signal flow, however, this template component works fairly well for me.

4. Presets and Chains

I find presets and “go-to” chains are a great way to save time, and especially beneficial regarding vocals. I like to have certain chain effects on the track, at the ready, but I also like to have presets saved for vocal specific busing too. For instance, in my trailerization template, I have a Vox FX 1 preset saved, which contains “Vocalsynth” – a means for creating a lower octave double on vocals. I have a Vox FX 2 and Vox FX 3 that I’ve got saved to help expedite real-time production and mix of vocals as well.

Additionally, as far as presets go, I find that having a mastering preset to apply quickly to a demo product (when sending a song or cue to a client for instance) of the music mix helps take a cue across the finish line, and also can help it stand out generally. This doesn’t have to be fancy at all, and in fact, my own “trailerization” master preset is super simple, consisting of Izotope’s plug-in Ozone 8 (for all our racing-against-the-clock mastering needs). For those unfamiliar, Ozone 8 essentially allows one to try out different cue sound outputs, playing with potential project polishing including but not limited to EQ, compression, and limiters. Especially in limited time perimeters, it is a reliable and user-friendly method of heightening one’s music work. In a similar vein, creating vocal chain presets is also a huge time-saver under rapid-fire deadlines.

Making Playlists

Another excellent tool which I feel helps promote efficiency, thus creative flowing of juices, is the simple yet effective act of making playlists. In short, no matter the project, it is extremely beneficial to put together sonic references in the form of songs, music cues, score, etc. to turn to for creative inspiration. Further, when working with clients on projects, it is so helpful to have material to refer to when communicating about energy, feelings, vibe and direction for a music piece or score. There are many ways to go about doing this; some people like to have general playlists at the ready for their own creative reference contingent on music genre type or stylization, others will primarily create playlists once a dialogue with a client is underway, shaping said playlist as a result (sometimes this playlist may actually already exist in the client’s mind, unbeknownst to them, on a subconscious level of what they’d like to hear. This is up to us to investigate and coax out). For me, I like to partake in both schools of thought, where I have several playlists in place specific to a project type, which ironically were developed as a result of client-communication and creative collaboration dialogue. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Who cares – does it sound good?

A Creator is Only as Good as Their Calendar

Well, in the music industry this may not always be the case. However, in the story of my professional (and personal for that matter!) life, one of the most undeniably sexy leading characters has revealed themselves to be…*drum roll please*…my calendar! It’s funny, but it is fundamentally true. I have found that keeping an up-to-date, organized calendar is essential. My recommendation: use a calendar on a technological device, like your phone. Every time a new deadline comes down the pipe, or a new project is underway, write that down. Have a color-coding system. Instead of just having a to-do list, which outlines the work that needs to be done but doesn’t convey much else in terms of saying when it’s getting done, a calendar creates a visual image for the day-to-day activities. When a new deadline arises, one is able to see what they can possibly move around on their schedule in order to meet it, and/or prioritize the level of importance a project has in real-time. I’ll leave it at this. Your calendar is your friend. Use it. Cherish it.

Applicability to the Wide Music Project Gamut

Anticipation and preparation techniques for managing rapid-fire deadlines specific to creating music for media-related projects are also very applicable and relevant to a wide gamut of music project types generally. In the case of templates, one is able to use this model, for example, in instances of writing a musical, composing an orchestral work for live performance, and/or arranging a piece for a band or recording gig. The key ingredient in all these cases is creating a foundational framework to use in a consistent manner. For instance, The Jones Family, a roughly two and a half hour musical which I wrote, composed, cast, and recorded, began with the development and solidification of my sonic palette, and the instrumental decisions of what would comprise its sound. Once I determined the instruments that would weave the fabric of the musical, I was able to use that template again and again, employing it for respective musical songs. Further, in the process of translating produced instrumental mock-ups to initial notation (for live instrumental performance purposes) having a consistent outline of instrument groupings, and organized MIDI data, expedited “putting the music to paper” overall. In addition to templates, making playlists to help spark creative fire or provide sonic reference to a music genre can help lend perspective and context for projects like composing for a string quartet, illuminating music elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm to better serve industry expectation. Having a strong understanding of the industry standard helps better inform the music direction and choices you make. Whatever the music project deadline type, you want to equip yourself to the best of your ability regarding the landscape you are working within. Beyond this, you want to use the tools at your disposal to cut down time and better achieve your goals. This is why using a calendar to help outline, organize, and solidify your schedule and manage your music project deadlines is so beneficial (and I cannot emphasize enough – so simple!)

Above all, managing rapid-fire deadlines in the form of organization, time-management and prioritization is in service of making art to the best of one’s ability. I feel it important to also note that one of the underlying key elements of managing deadlines is consistently working on something, no matter what. Anticipating the play is half the battle. Although it can be supremely difficult sometimes (seriously) try to always have something on the go – if you’re feeling less creatively motivated (and the deadline allows it) perhaps shift gears for several hours, focusing on admin or “house-keeping” to-do lists. Understanding how you maximize your productivity, and where your time is best spent, is vital to always staying as prepared as possible for when new deadlines arise. I believe that what partly defines a sustainable, long-term profession in the music industry is the act of honoring one’s craft and time, ultimately setting one up for success. As we all continue on our musical and artistic journeys, I hope these techniques and tips can provide some help navigating the landscape forward.