Disclaimer: if you are not keen on taking a small step outside of your comfort-zone, this guide might not be for you. However: if you’re willing to spend a few hours (and perhaps a few bucks, depending on your current setup) you might find it very handy and a headache-remover.
Let me paint you a picture: you have a powerful PC or Mac at home on which you do all of your DAW-related tasks – recording, composing and mixing. You have your expensive studio monitors, your MIDI-keyboard, perhaps some outboard gear or physical synths. I have all of that, and yet, what I end up using most of the time is just the computer and my DAW of choice plus VSTi soft synths and some sample CDs.
In this loosely-formatted guide I’ll show you how I manage to take most of my studio-life on the road on my laptop without much hassle. The trick lies in what tasks you perform where – and a little bit of technology and internet wizardy. Note: my examples will be based around my own usecases (which is: Windows-PC at home, Macbook Pro when travelling), but if you’re using the same OS in both places you can just skip over those bits.
1) Picking the rights tools for the job
More often than not, the tools are there for you – to aid and assist you, to comfort and help you along your way. This is not always the case with audio software though. Even so-called cross-platform bundle-files from Pro Tools, the perhaps most recognized name in audio technology today, does not always work the way it should. Take a session-file from a Mac and move it to a different Pro Tools version on a PC, and it might be broken, or not even open.
The first step is choosing a DAW to work in that handles their files the same way, no matter the platform. For me, that DAW is Reaper, but it could also be Cubase or Logic which are known to be good in that regard. Your mileage might vary, so check the compatibility before you begin. Also be aware that some DAW suites do not allow you to install the license on two machines at the same time, which is a dealbreaker if you indeed plan to use your laptop when you’re out of your home studio.
The second part is to make sure you use plugins that have both a Windows and a Mac version. Not all plugins offer cross-platform compatibility (or two different versions) so be sure to check that out before you begin. Generally, Native Instruments are a good bet if you want to use the same software on both OSX and Windows. Bonus: their licenses do indeed allow installation on two machines at the same time.
2) Freedom is not free..
In this guide I’m using Dropbox to keep files and folders in sync. There is a free version that you can use if you just want to experiment a bit, but if you want to really cut loose from your home studio, you’ll quickly find that the 2 GB space included will come sort of your requirements. I have the 50 GB version, which is $9.99 a month, and considering I also use it to sync work-files and other non-musically-related stuff, it’s a goddamn bargain.
If you have never heard about Dropbox, allow me to take 30 seconds to explain it to you: Dropbox is centralized storage (in the cloud, as they say in these Web 2.0-days) which is a copy of the files and folders you choose to host there. If you install Dropbox on more than one computer, the same files and folders are synced down (read: copied down from the cloud) to all of the computers you use Dropbox with. If you change or add a file to any one of your “Dropboxed” computers, that file is almost instantly added to all of your other computers.
If I totally failed at describing the concept, watch this video. If you need a guide to installing it, I found one on YouTube which might be of assistance.
Note: It’s not exactly iron-clad, but as a very remedial sort of backup, Dropbox keeps a couple of revisions of your stuff, so if you accidentally delete an important file from your laptop, and it then also disappears from your home computer, just log into the web interface for Dropbox and restore the file from there. Now, the revisions don’t go that far back, and the more space you use on your Dropbox, the less it revisions it will keep. It is STRONGLY suggested that you back up all of your stuff regulary to a more conventional destination, such as an external harddrive, or better: a 24/7 automated online backup service such as Mozy or CrashPlan. I have personally used both and while there are not much difference, my personal preference lies with CrashPlan.
The second part is hardware-based. Now, this might be skippable for you, but I find that having the same soundcard with me, and the same set of headphone as well, really let’s me work as if was at the same machine the entire time. I use a Fireface 800, but you’re free to go with whatever gets the job done. My reasons for picking the Fireface 800 was that it has stable drivers on both Windows 7 and OSX.
3) Centralize your storage
This one is a biggie. If you’re anything like me, you like to keep your files organized in a certain manner. Luckily for me, the way I do it is very easy to mobilize. This is what my directory structure looks like on the PC:
For project files:
Under the project directory I have two sub directories: “assets” and “renderings”. In “assets”, I keep loose files such as individual samples for that particular project, and in “renderings” I keep the final rendered WAV-files as well as MP3-versions of them for quick auditions on a variety of platforms (I’ll come back to this).
This makes it very easy for me to set these master folders up as shared in Dropbox. Sharing the folders will make them automatically sync betwee the computers if there are changes to them or any of the sub directories or files.
4) Pick your battles. Don’t go into this thinking that the road is the ideal place for all tasks. There are some things (like proper monitoring and mixing) that are best suited to being done in the proper environment. Leave those tasks for when you are in your home studio. Tasks suited for the road are: composing, working with others, recording and live performances of course.
If you’ve read so far, you probably guess where this is all heading – there is no magic button or secret sauce. All you have to do is to make sure you use software that play well on both platforms and keep your files in sync between them. However: after having done this for a while I’ll share some small, personal tricks with you that might make things even easier:
- Only sync what you need to. Try to just sync those sample-CDs you find yourself always reaching for, and the projects you’re currently working on. Don’t include “Bernard Huffy’s Brass Band Gold” from your sample-CD directory unless you actually use that on every project. In which case there is no hope for you anyway :)
- Use the Dropbox mobile clients to take your music with you everywhere. This is why I always keep an MP3 in the “renderings”-directory of my music projects at all times. I can then play that over the air via Dropbox on my iPhone. I can even “star” it to keep a local copy at all times. Fantastic for previews and sharing your latest track with friends in bars.
- Use some sort of remote management software on your main home studio computer. This is for the times when you discovered that the sample or project you wanted wasn’t in the shared folder and you need a copy of it ASAP. I use LogMeIn Free because it’s very good, works on both Windows and Macs, in addition to being totally cost free. For ultimate freedom, you can also get the iPhone/iPad version of the client, but the price at time of writing is $29.99, making it sort of a luxury for most. Note: even though it says you’re signing up for a “Pro Account”, you’re really just starting a trial. After 30 days it’s converted to a “Free Account”
- You can disable syncing of certain folders temporarily, if you know you’ll be abroad, roaming on some hellishly expensive 3G-modem or something.
I hope this “guide” was of some use to you. Take care!