What a boring subject! Why the hell would anyone want to read a blog about file management, let alone write one?! Well, like many things in running your own business, this is one of those things that many people don’t want to consider, but if you do it can make things run much more efficiently. Save this one to read when you’re tucked up in bed if you wish, but do have a read.
Macs and PCs both come with a folder for your work built into the basic folder hierarchy in the operating system. PCs call it ‘My Documents’, on Macs it’s just ‘Documents’. This is where you shove your stuff, right? Well. We all use our computers for more than just work, don’t we? So now imagine a client emails you (or, god forbid, rings you up) and asks if you can resend a job you voiced for them 18 months ago. You know you haven’t deleted it, but how long is it going to take to find it?
If everything you save is just in the default documents folder you’re going to have to wade through hundreds of audio files, family photos, invoices, bills, voice notes, logo image files, system reports, plugin settings files, spreadsheets, scripts and goodness knows what else to locate the thing you’re after. If you’ve come up with some sort of file structure it should take nought but a few seconds to locate what you’re after.
Is that it?
So far so obvious. Put things where you remember they live. Got it. Is that all there is to file management? No it isn’t. Not by a long stretch. We’ll get to other considerations in a bit, but for now, let’s dig a little deeper with the basic bits.
How to organise files
Wait, what??! I thought I wasn’t going to tell you how to organise your files. That’s right, I’m not. I’m just going to put a few thoughts in your head regarding the files you need to keep and how you might go about organising them.
Step one is to figure out what needs keeping out of all the work documents you open or create. Let’s take scripts as an example. Do you keep your scripts all together in one folder? If you’re also a copywriter you’ll probably at least want different folders for the scripts you’ve written and the scripts you’ve voiced. Or do you keep each script alongside the corresponding audio? You could keep it with the invoice for that job? You could even have a sub-folder for every job and keep all assets for the job in the same place. Then because we’re dealing with lots of jobs over the year(s) we need to think about sub-dividing the sorting somehow. Do you do it by client, by year, type of job (commercial, corporate, etc.)? There’s no right or wrong answer for any of this. It all depends on your own workload and workflow. You’ll know you’ve got it right if in the above scenario, it takes less than a minute to find the files you’re looking for.
Aren’t I a good boy!
As an example, here is how I organise my work.
All my audio files are stored on a separate hard drive (more on that later). I work in several different editors/DAWs and at the top of the tree is a folder for each. I use ProTools, Audition and RX10 mostly, so they have their own folder, and I have another folder called ‘Other’ where I put things like Reaper, Logic Pro Audacity, Premier Pro projects etc.
After that I have folders for the years so all work in a particular year is kept together. The exception for that is ProTools, because I use that most I have a folder for the year, and then further folders for the month. I also have another folder for things that don’t need backing up.
All my sessions are named by client, so they group together. All assets for a job are included in the session folder, so when I back up my work (more on that later) all I need to do is drag and drop the folder onto an external hard drive and the entire job is safe and can be recalled easily if needs be. The folder structure might sound a little complex, but it makes life a lot easier.
Destructive vs non-destructive editing
One other thing to note with file management is the different approaches you need to take with your audio depending on your recording software. If you’re using a DAW like ProTools, Reaper, Studio One, etc. your software uses non-destructive editing so you will always be able to get back to the raw file, so if you need to you can start again without having to re-record. If you’re using an editor like Audition, Twisted Wave, Sound Forge etc. this isn’t possible as they use destructive editing. This does mean you have to manually make sure you keep as many stages of recording, editing and production as you need to. I’d advise doing your recording and instantly save the file as ‘XXX_raw’ then before you do anything else do a Save As and rename the file ‘XXX_edited’ and work on that file. This way you have that all-important copy of the raw audio. Similarly when you finish the job always save a full bandwidth version of it as well as whatever format the client has requested. This is because if the client comes back and needs pickups doing it’s always easier to work from a full bandwidth file than it is an 8KHz 8-bit version. You can then decide which versions you need to keep once you’re confident the job’s been finished with. Or you can keep them all – hard drives and storage are cheap enough these days to not have to go through all the folders deleting a bunch of files and your time is more valuable.
Ease of locating things isn’t the only reason you should take file management seriously though. It can impact your computer’s health if you neglect it. Some of this is slightly less important now most of us use solid state drives (SSD), but we still need to pay attention to what we have stored on our machines. Just this last month I went to see a client whose computer was running slow and wouldn’t update. I had a fair idea what the issue might be, and I was right. The computer had a 512GB hard drive in it, and there was only about 10MB free space on it. We very quickly found some files that weren’t needed and freed up a couple of hundred MB disk space, and the computer instantly started running much faster.
When we think of a computer running efficiently we tend to think about the speed of the processor and the amount of RAM installed. But free space on the hard drive is another important factor. All will run well until the hard drive gets near being full, and then things will quickly grind to a halt. Think of it like this, you’re doing a job you have a bowl in one hand and a spoon in your other. How are you going to crack an egg? You need to put something down while you briefly take care of another aspect of the job. If the kitchen table is cluttered up with audio files, family photos, invoices, bills, voice notes, logo image files, system reports, plugin settings files, spreadsheets and scripts you’re going to struggle to find somewhere to put the bowl and spoon. Same with computers. They often need to temporarily ‘put something down’ mid-task and they use spare bits of the hard drive for this. In the olden days when we used physical hard drives, this was around the outside of the drive and was known as the Swap File. We mostly don’t use physical hard drives anymore, and we have bigger, faster processors and RAM, but things will still need to be put down. There’s usually no need to hang onto all the old audio and scripts if we know the job won’t come back, so backing up these things will free up space on the hard drive and help make things easier to find.
One other thing. This isn’t such a big deal anymore for those of us using SSD drives on our machines, but when we all used physical hard drives that actually had spinny disks in them it was advised that we keep our audio on a different drive to the system drive. If you still have spinny hard disks then you still should. This is because spinny disks have a ‘head’ that moves around the disk and locates and reads the data it needs (like a CD player does, or a record player if you’re old enough to remember those). Audio data is a constant stream, but if your, audio is on the same drive as your operating system that drive head is having to work overtime darting around reading audio data, and system data, and your word doc data and audio data and browser/email data and audio data…. It makes the drive work extra ‘hard, potentially slowing down your computer’s performance and shortening the life of your drive. In practice, the sessions we run as voiceovers aren’t anywhere near as complex as those producers recording music or mixing TV or film work so you could argue that this is unnecessary, but the separate drive for audio is still best practice if you have an older machine with spinny drives. Or just cos it helps you remember where your audio files are.
One other thing. Cluttered desktops. Just don’t! I think it’s still true that every icon and file on your desktop uses a small amount of available RAM because your operating system assumes that you’re going to use that file soon. So those people who don’t have a single free pixel space on their computer’s desktop are compromising their machine’s performance before we even consider the CPU speed, RAM and hard disk space available. On my travels when I encounter machines ‘organised’ as such, it gives a handy clue as to what any IT issues may be, so you might argue that it’s a useful indicator. But I would counter that argument by saying that if you organised your computer better and cleared your desktop you may not have had to call me out.
I’ve mentioned backups already, but now’s the time to think about them properly.
This genuinely happened to me last week.
I’ve already explained how I organise my files, but last week when I was backing up my October work I noticed that the 2021 folder was missing from my back-up drive. An entire year’s worth of ProTools work missing. It was definitely there previously, and I have no idea how and when it disappeared. Not good. I also remembered that I’d deleted the 2021 folder from my Mac’s audio drive a week or two before that, so I knew it was gone from there as well. Now, it doesn’t happen very often, but I do sometimes need to find a session from that far back, so I wasn’t willing to just say ‘Oh well!’ and get on with my day. As I run a Mac OS I have a hard drive set up to run Time Machine backups, and my audio drive – where all my work is – is one of the drives that Time Machine backs up. So I was able to restore the 2021 folder from Time Machine back onto my audio drive, and then back it up from my audio drive onto my back up drive. I can now re-delete it from my Audio drive because I know it’s safely on my backup drive. I’m not as meticulous with my backups as is often recommended, but my backup regime has saved my skin more than once.
Aren’t I still a good boy
This is what I do. I keep my backups on a hard drive which is only ever plugged into my computer when either backing up or restoring a job back onto my system. At the start of every month, I plug it in, and because my work is all in folders all I need to do is drag the last month’s folder onto the backup drive (the file structure mirrors that of my system) and when it’s copied over I unplug the hard drive and put it back on the shelf until I need it again. I could then delete the folder I’ve just backed up from my system, but I don’t as I have plenty of space on the hard drive I’m using for my work, but when space gets tight I know everything old is backed up, so I can safely delete. Also, as I’ve stated I’m running Time Machine, which constantly backs up onto a different dedicated hard drive that’s attached to my system and making backups several times a day. This is a part of the Mac OS and is extremely easy to set up. There is a version for PCs as well called File History. The price of hard drives these days is ridiculously cheap and these programs are very easy to set up and run in the background without impacting the speed of your machine so there’s no excuse for not running at least Time Machine or File History to keep your work safe.
Those who work in IT recommend 3 copies of everything. 1 on your hard drive, one backup on an external drive and another that’s kept off-site – be it a hard drive at a friend’s house or – more likely – cloud storage.
How important is backing up?
We all know that computers enjoy screwing us over at the worst possible moment, but you can make that much harder for them by making sure you’re saving your work as often as you can and backing up. Whenever I get a call from someone who’s lost work and I have to tell them that as they’ve not backed they’ll need to start the job again I can hear the sadness and annoyance in their voice.
And that’s all I have to say. Well done for sticking with it. I hope it’s because you’ve very smugly been saying to yourself ‘I already do that’ as you’ve been reading. But if that’s not the case then go and buy yourself some external hard drives, get to it and re-read this blog in 6 months’ time when you can also be smug.