The Ultimate Writing Session Hack For Musicians & Producers

For any producers or engineers looking to record some demos, you’re going to want to pay attention to this one. Writing sessions are possibly one of the most inspiring and creative situations artists are placed in, and to get the most out of them you need to remove the roadblocks and open your session up to all of the possibilities.

You want to keep as much at your fingertips as possible when going into a writing session; anything that doesn’t assist you in this approach has got to go. You can’t expect to find a good writing rhythm when you’re constantly stopping to create a new track, route it, or folder dive through plugin menus. By using a writing session template, you can have all of this ready to go so the only thing you’ve got to do is hit record.

So what goes into a good writing template?

Start at the End

Starting where a mix or tracking session usually ends, you should first set up your Mix/Master Busses & a Master Fader when you build your writing template. By doing this, you can get the largest part of your sound out of the way before you’ve added a single instrument. While the instrument tracks are going to be just as important to the sound, your final signal chain is built and ready to go.

For most, I recommend including some bus compression, a stereo widener & some EQ on their Mix Bus. If you’re working with extremely dynamic or aggressive instruments, a clipper like JST Clip can be a lifesaver to have loaded up too. My writing session mix bus usually looks like this: JST Clip>BG-Mix>SideWidener>Stock EQ.

If you think mastering might be required, an additional aux track as a Master Bus can be useful. Adding plugins like EQs and limiters to this track will give you everything you need to do some quick mastering on the fly.

It’s important to remember that everything in your session will flow into the Mix Bus (and then into the Master Bus) so any adjustments made will affect everything. After your Master Bus, everything can either be routed to a stereo track for print down, or directly to your output depending on preference.

Quick Click

The one track that you’ll want to bypass your Mix/Master Busses is the click track since it’s only getting added for reference. While adding a click track is relatively quick and easy in most sessions, it’s something you can have configured and ready to go in any template. This is especially useful if your DAW has multiple click track sounds to choose from and you’ve got a favorite.

Once your click track is in your template, all you’ll have to do is set the tempo and you’ll be good to go!

Sub-Groups for All

Sub-grouping is largely a mixing concept that gets applied by both live & studio engineers. The idea is that a sub-group will be easier to work with than dozens of different tracks. Imagine running front of house at a live show with a hundred individual audio sources. This happens all the time, but when the capability is there, an engineer will set up sub-groups to parse them down to a dozen or so tracks for mixing in broad strokes. Instead of turning up 20 drum mics, they can turn up the drum sub-group instead.

In a writing session, the same concept applies. You’ll need sub-groups for drums, bass, rhythm guitars, lead guitars, clean guitars, production sounds, lead vocals, background vocals, aggressive vocals… the list goes on. You can customize your list to fit your session and writing style. What’s important is to give all of those individual tracks some place to go before they head off to the Mix Bus.

Instrument Specifics

Once you’ve got your sub-groups set up, you’re almost out of the woods! The last major piece of a writing session template is giving yourself all of the individual tracks you could imagine using in a writing session, minimizing the need to create more during writing.

For me, this means plenty of vocal tracks already named and routed to their appropriate bus. It means at least two of every type of guitar so I can layer and pan them as needed. You may want to set up 4 of each if you’re someone who quad tracks often.

For drums and bass, it can be extremely useful to have both MIDI & live tracks ready for your use. Some engineers prefer to maintain a live vs. programmed template, but since most MIDI instruments can be placed on a single instrument track, I find having both in a single session is helpful without eating up too much space.

All of these tracks should be set up with tools you’d commonly use in a session. Things like Gain Reduction on vocal tracks and Toneforge on guitars are very common in my templates. For a full rundown of where you can potentially add certain plugins in a template, check out Nick’s Pro Tools Template below. He’s got some especially useful tips about how he sets up his drum tracks.

The last thing your session needs is a few time-based effects tracks, available for use as needed. By setting up some long & short delays and reverbs of various sizes, you can have virtually any room at your disposal in-the-box. Some engineers will lean toward these tracks as a shared resource for all instruments while others will prefer to give tracks or sub-groups their own time-based effects. Experiment with both and see which works best; you can always take a hybrid approach if that feels most natural.

It’s Your Writing Template

I could go on for hours about what makes a good writing template, and I’m constantly revising and adding to mine as new plugins make their way into my workflow. No matter how you choose to set yours up, I’m sure you’ll do the same.

All that matters is that your template enhances the writing experience and promotes creativity. As long as it does that, it doesn’t matter how yours varies from mine.

Do you have any other recommendations for a great writing template? Come share it with us and the rest of the JST community over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum.