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  • Writer's pictureJoe Chris

Templates I: Schools of Thought

Templates are the backbone of a media composer’s set up. They are the main purpose for all of the set ups detailed throughout this book and above. That being said, not every composer needs a template, nor does every template need to be incredibly large. And regardless of the size of your template or style you produce, there is no standard. Templates are incredibly personal and every composer designs their template to best suit their own workflow.

Goals/ Why create a template

Templates provide a reliable, consistent, and efficient starting point for writing music. Composers usually use templates pre-set with specific instruments all pre-routed and set up (and possibly pre-mixed) so that when they open their DAW, they can just get right to writing without the need to do the same repetitive tasks each time. And though almost every media composer uses templates, no two templates are the same as they vary between the sample libraries and plugins the composer owns and uses, as well as their preferred workflow. That being said, there are generally only a few schools of thought for each parameter and most templates fit in with each of the ideas/guidelines outlined below – so you can design and build a template to your exact needs and preferences.

! It is also important to note that while templates are a great starting point for a project, many composers spend time in the pre-writing phase of a score re-designing their template to include specific elements that will be used in the specific score. So for example, saving a variation on the template that includes all of the synth patches, custom sample libraries, signal chains etc. for a specific project to be used throughout. So the original templates are just starting points for further templates, rather than a default to be used on every single project without change.

Schools of thought:

1. Varying sizes of templates vs. one master template

You could have templates for different sized ensembles or one master template with all of your sample libraries (or at least the most commonly used ones) loaded. As a film composer, generally you want at least a template that has your orchestral set up included. You may or may not include auxiliary instruments here, but at least you have a general starting point for any score that includes orchestral elements. Game composers more often tend to have multiple smaller templates (in addition to their large orchestral one) to cover the wide array of genres they are expected to produce without needing all the clutter of extra instruments they may or may not use on a project.

Having a single master template has the benefits of containing easy access to anything that you may need, saves you time without needing to re-route everything for each project, and consistency between cues and projects. Though, the issues present include lots of time to set up, “defaulting” to specific sounds and being less creative due to this, and the large amount of resources it can take up – especially prominent in smaller rigs.

! There is a sort of hybrid approach between the two of these we look at later in this list, stemming from the idea of “modular” templates. Essentially, you create templates for specific ensembles or groups of instruments and drag them into your working template as needed. This is a very modern approach that is gaining popularity amongst many composers.

2. Kontakt instances: multi-timbrel vs. single instance

This is a hotly debated topic, especially when trying to maximize and optimize the absolute limit of your CPU’s potential. Do you load one instrument per kontakt instance, or do you treat Kontakt as a multi-timbrel instrument with multiple instruments inside of it and multiple midi tracks connected? Despite lots of chatter online, there is no “real” answer here. These days, the CPU difference between the two options is incredibly negligible, though the larger the template the more of a disparity there is between the two as it compounds as it grows. Personally, I find that multi-timbrel instruments take more time to route, but can ultimately save time when using resource management techniques.

3. Single Articulation vs. Multi-articulation patches

Continuing from that last idea: How are you going to structure your MIDI tracks? Do you want each articulation to have its own track (and potentially its own kontakt instance), or do you want to have each instrument to be one track and utilize key switching/expression maps to navigate between articulations?

A single instrument track per instrument is generally the “first” or most basic set up a composer will use. This gives them access to all of their articulations via keyswitching (KS) or articulation maps and makes it easy to navigate the template, as there aren’t potentially dozens of tracks per instrument. This can make your workflow much quicker, though there are some performance drawbacks.

!! Some composers, especially those that work in musical theatre with live players and use the DAW to write, set up their instrument tracks as one track per player. So for instance, if the Sax player was doubling on clarinet – they might set up a VE matrix that has the ability to switch between instruments, as well as switch between articulations. This sort of complexity via KS’s is rare and can only be achieved through specific sample libraries (Vienna Symphonic Library for example).

Separating out your articulations allows you to set different negative sample delays for each articulation (though with DP’s articulation map feature you can set different delays per articulation. This feature is not available yet via Logic and Cubase’s versions of expression maps). This provides more consistent note-on triggering across all your libraries. Separating out your articulations also allows you to mix your short and long articulations separately. Some composers find this helpful, especially when mixing as they can apply different amounts of reverbs to different types of articulations.

One drawback of this set up is that it takes more time to set up. Also in terms of orchestration, sometimes you can unintentionally be “less realistic” with your orchestration due to having access to say 19 “whole 1st violin section” tracks rather than just 1, as well as when you are converting your midi data to notation (or passing it off to an orchestrator), you have to spend more time consolidating tracks before being able to export your midi to your notation software. With keyswtiches, you need to delete the single note for each articulation change but it is all on one track already.

4. Organization

How you organize your tracks is going to make a big difference into how you find what you are looking for. Generally, the rule of thumb is to follow orchestral score order (at least for orchestral instruments). This should be an efficient and pretty standard way to find the instruments you are looking for.

But what happens if you have multiples of the same instrument, but from different libraries? You can either have them both in the same folder:

Woodwinds > Flute 1

> Flute 2

Or you can separate out your instruments by library and then have the instruments organized inside:

Woodwinds > Berlin Woodwinds

> VSL Woodwinds

Some benefits of the former is there are less folders to navigate and its easier to audition the differences between each library. The benefit of the latter however, is that once you choose which library you are going with you typically will remain in that library for the whole family and spending less time auditioning tracks.

5. Pre-mixed or not, and where?

Pre-mixing your template is also known as “balancing” and is about setting up your template in a way that the different sections sound relatively decent against one another (especially in terms of volume). A first violin should not sound louder than a French horn, etc. Pre-mixing or balancing can also include setting up your reverbs, standard signal chain, etc. Anything that gets you closer to a rough mix that likely won’t be varied as much creatively throughout the project.

It usually isn’t a matter of whether or not you will pre-mix, but instead where will your pre-mix take place? Are you mixing it in the DAW or in your VEP session? Are you mixing it via MIDI (setting CC controllers for pan and volume etc) or doing it on the mixing board (if your DAW separates out MIDI and audio)?

6. Stems & Stripes

Stems, stripes, and sub-mixes are somewhat of a confusing topic for many composers and engineers. Originally, stems and stripes had different meanings: stems being a collected group of instruments (say all strings or low percussion) printed on one track whereas stripes are the individual instruments routed and print to their own individual tracks. As digital production took off, and the barrier of entry became a lot cheaper, the difference between the two became a lot more blurred. Generally in media composing, when we talk about stems we refer to it with the original meaning. That being said, there are uses for both as a composer and can be worth setting up your template to accommodate either (more on this in a later post).

7. Extras: pre-routes, synths, effects and auxiliary instruments

Some other things to consider are whether or not you want to have some pre-loaded and empty instances of kontakt, synths, or other effects locally for if you want to do some sound design and/or have a blank starting point when starting a session. Some composers save patches they use often in their session, others include disabled synths ready to be activated at the click of a button (some synths utilize the CPU even when not “performing”), and some choose to not include any synths at all in the template and instead add them as needed. Same goes auxiliary instruments to your basic orchestra set up as well as any other instruments you yourself create. If you do a lot of live recordings in your DAW (ex: you are a guitar player and layer those parts in yourself while writing) it also may be worth including a few audio tracks pre-routed and ready to be utilized.

8. Modularity

The idea of modular templates is growing in popularity these days. A modular template is essentially a blank slate that you have the ability to load sections of a template as needed. For instance, starting with an empty DAW and dragging and dropping a file into your session and suddenly you have all of your tracks for strings loaded, routed, and ready to go. Should you want to include wood winds or another group, it is as simple as dragging and dropping as well.

This approach is sort of a hybrid between the one master vs. many smaller templates outlined in point 1. It can be great for efficiency as well as providing enough of a blank slate to be creative, but not enough that you have to essentially start over each time.

Regardless of how you structure your template, remember that it is a tool and not a product. Director's don't hire you because of your template, they hire you because of the end result you (potentially) create with it. Be wary of spending so much time obsessing over productivity, especially if its causing you to never produce! Pick a template that works best for your workflow, get a very basic set up going, and make changes/improvements as needed. Typically I keep a note pad next to my desk where I take notes on changes I'd like to make on my next "template day". But don't waste time not working on projects because you are spending forever designing the "template to end all templates." Tools are great, but they need to be used in order to have any value.

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