In the world of music production, collaboration makes the world go round. Nowadays, it is becoming less common to see a recording project take place entirely in one location or studio. To make transferring your digital project files a little easier, I wanted to highlight a few basics about different DAW (digital audio workstation) file formats and discuss when it’s appropriate to “commit” to a studio.
What’s in a Project File?
Both commercial and home recording studios are faced with a plethora of options for software workstations and hardware components. Fortunately, for most projects, you have the ability to move your project from one platform to another as your creative instincts see fit.
I should start by defining what a DAW really does. At its heart, a Digital Audio Workstation ( like ProTools, Cubase, or Logic) allows you to record audio from multiple hardware inputs simultaneously while keeping the generated media files separate from one another. Essentially, every “track” in your software records its own audio file when you hit the red button. If your project/session has 32 tracks connected to 32 hardware inputs, you are creating 32 audio files every time you hit record. All these audio files get stored somewhere in the specified project folder— typically inside another folder labeled “Audio”, “Assets” or “Resources. When you’re finished with the project, every clip and every take will have its own audio file, resulting in dozens, hundreds, or thousands of files in that projects Audio folder. Your DAW software allows you to record, edit, and arrange all these files with a graphic user interface. When you save your project at the end of the day, you are basically saving a snapshot of how your DAW will be playing back all that multitrack audio at once. This “snapshot” file is usually pretty small and most correctly titled a “project file”. The Project File contains no audio information, and thus will not function unless it can find the projects specified Audio folder. What the Project file does include are things like audio positions, edits/fades, volume, pan control, automation, effect inserts, virtual instruments, etc. Because each DAW on the market offers a different toolset, each DAW saves its own type of project file.
With so many Digital Audio Workstations on the market it might seem like proprietary project file formats would stop people from moving projects between different systems… not the case.
Moving via Batch Export
There are 2 primary methods of taking your project to another platform. The first and most obvious is to export multitrack audio files. Programs like Cubase include a “batch export” option which allows you to export equal length audio files for each track at the same time. Meaning that if you have 24 tracks of audio that are heavily edited, looped, spliced, and re-arranged, that you can batch export to a folder of 24 audio files that are all identical in duration (probably the length of your song). This folder of files can then be imported to any other DAW as audio and saved into the new platforms project file type. Note that this method forces you to commit to your edits and splices and gives you the option to export the files with or without plugin processing (EQ, compression etc.).
Moving via OMF File
The second method is to save your project as an Open Media Framework (OMF for short) file. Not entirely unlike your DAW’s proprietary project file format, OMF files save data like edits, audio timestamping, track names, volume, and panning. OMF files also include ALL YOUR PROJECTS AUDIO FILES. This means OMF files are big, but a single file contains all the resources necessary to open on another DAW! All Major DAW platforms support OMF import and export, making it the easiest way to quickly switch systems. Because OMF files do not include plugin information, you’ll want to use the aforementioned batch export option if you effects processing and automation to transfer.
When to Settle Down
It is unlikely that every computer you come across will have the same 3rd party plugins installed, so at some point you will want to commit to a single machine for the mixing process. If you try and transfer your project after you’ve already begun inserting plugins like Waves, UAD, FXpansion, IK multimedia, Native Instruments and the new computer doesn’t have the very same plugins installed, your project will give you a million error messages when trying to load and nothing will sound the same. Bottom line: once the mixing process has begun, you’ve chosen your final resting place.
Good project file management is an important skill that becomes absolutely necessary if you’re planning on taking work from one studio to the next. I hope this post has helped clarify the types of files your DAW actually creates, and what your options are to move music projects between platforms. As usual, please contact us with any questions!