Database software might not be as exciting as the latest virtual instrument or DAW — but it can be even more effective in helping you get work finished.
After about 20 years of producing jingles and cues, my hard drives are crowded with sketches, projects ready to mix and complete tracks. Finding the right track can be a nightmare. Having all those tracks hanging around also makes me less productive, because I don’t have a good system for rating sketches to decide whether they are good enough to be finished or if it should be binned. The result is that I have lots of half-done projects that, with some effort, could have been finished and making money for me.
This article describes my search for the ultimate way of organising my tracks: a single system that can hold all the information I need in one place and make it easily accessible. Let me start by describing some solutions that I have tested through the years, but have stopped using for various reasons.
A well-organised hard drive is, of course, a good starting point. I recently came across an old hard drive with partitions named ‘Ringo’, ‘Paul’ and so on. In retrospect, naming your hard drive after your heroes isn’t very helpful when dementia strikes some 15 years later. I also have a ring binder with nicely organised notes for each project. Back in the CD burning days, I used to attach a backup of the project to the note sheet. Today I keep the ring binder mostly for nostalgia, but it was a pretty good analogue database. The main issue with this system, though, is that it isn’t very searchable.
My problem, as a composer for library music, is that I want to work fast to keep my production numbers high. After a month spent working on perhaps 20 or more tracks, I can’t remember what each track sounds like just by looking at the project name. (This isn’t so much of a problem when I produce pop music, where the lyrics and melody are merged together in my memory.) I tried putting the projects into folders named according to the musical style, but where should I save the track that is a reggae/hip-hop instrumental with a touch of funk in the bridge?
I used to have an Excel document with basic information about each project. This met a lot of my needs: it can hold lots of information in one place, and Excel gives you the opportunity to search through all the data. I used it for a year but eventually gave this up too, mainly because of the aesthetics. I like to have one nice-looking page for each project, and Excel isn’t very good when it comes to longer text fields.
Searching for an alternative, I remembered that I used a database package called Bento some years ago, to organise my DVD collection (which today seems like a waste of time, as my DVDs are stored in the cellar). Bento went out of business in 2013, and although the long-established FileMaker is still kicking, it’s evolved into a suite of applications that is really overkill for this task. Eventually, after hours of Googling, I came across TapForms 5.
TapForms calls itself “the digital filing cabinet of your life”. I would go even further and say that a good database could well be your digital brain, storing all the information you need in one place. (I wish I had set up a database for all my carpentry tools as well, but then the hardware store wouldn’t have sold me that third hammer...)
Opening a database application for the first time can be quite intimidating. Many, like FileMaker, seem to be made for IT professionals — but the ease of use in TapForms is excellent. I was up and running with a version 1.0 of my studio database in no time. The user interface conforms very much to Mac OS design conventions, and reminds me of Apple applications like Pages and Keynote.
TapForms is made by a single developer in Canada, who is very active on the user forum, helping the users with different issues. During the writing of this article TapForms got an update to version 5.2.5 with some handy new features and bug fixing. I have noticed some minor bugs in TapForms, and it has crashed a couple of times — but every time I have reopened it, I have been pleased to find all the data in place, even the very last information I put in just before the crash. (As is common in database utilities, you never have to save anything in TapForms; the current state of the database is always stored on disk.) Last but not least, the price is just about right. At €56 it certainly is a bit of an investment, but if you have lots of tracks laying around on your hard drive, I’m sure it will pay off. Of course, adding the details of an existing catalogue of tracks to a new database is time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be done all at once — I try to do 10 minutes each day, or more if I have the time.
TapForms also has a lot of other features under the hood that I personally don’t use, mostly because I use other applications for the same jobs. You can keep a client log, set up reminders, create to-do lists and so on, and producers on the move can sync the database to all your Apple devices through iCloud. The iOS version even lets you record audio and sync it to your database.
Most database applications work the same way. You store all your data in fields, which can be thought of as being similar to the columns in a spreadsheet. In the kind of database I’m talking about, you might have one field for title, one for genre and so on. A collection of entries in these fields makes up a Record, corresponding to a row in a spreadsheet. You can actually view TapForms data as a spreadsheet, but then you could just use a spreadsheet; where the database excels over Excel (pun intended) is in its ability to create different layouts to show your data.
First, you create all the different fields you’re going to need. In TapForms, this is done by selecting Forms and Fields in the right column. When you create a field, you also have to choose what type of data it is going to store: text, number, attachment and so on. From the Lists tab in the Preferences menu, you can also easily create lists of metadata tags to apply to different Records. In my database, I mostly use multi-value popover pick lists. These are lists that let you select multiple entries, so you can tag things like what instruments the track contains, the mood, and so on. The list itself is actually a text field, so it’s easy to add new lists to your database.
When you have created all your fields, it’s time to create the layout. Press the Layout button, and drag in all the fields you want to show. Remember that you can have more than one layout for different purposes, showing different fields in different arrangements. For instance, you might want one layout for tagging instruments, mood and genre, and one layout just for making notes, or to keep track of where you’ve submitted each track. You can always add more fields to your database and your layouts later, so don’t feel you need to have everything fully worked out before you start using it.
In my studio, I keep TapForms open on my second monitor all the time. When I save a new Logic project, I give it a working title based on the mood or the musical style of the initial sketch. At the same time, I also make a new record in TapForms with some basic information, and I attach the Logic project to the form. I never change my working title in Logic or TapForms. Bounced files often get other names, because the project may have evolved in another direction or I come up with a better name for the track. The final name goes into its corresponding field in the database, so the connection between the Logic project and the bounced file is always searchable. This is useful when a client finds a track on my Soundcloud site and wants a new mix or some other changes, and I need to remember the working title of that five-year-old cue.
One big time thief in my studio is having to open a Logic project in order to remind myself what a track sounds like. A sample-heavy project can take around a minute to open, even on my decent Mac Pro, and it’s frustrating to wait for this to happen just to find out that you opened the wrong project. This is where the File Attachment field comes in handy. As I said, I attach the Logic project to each record in TapForms. I also attach an early bounce of the project, to let me quickly preview the track. The attachment is just an alias to the file on disk, so that the database does not grow too large over time. I don’t bother updating this attachment if the track evolves during production, as this is just a raw reminder to myself. To preview the track, you have to click the link, and it opens in the Mac OS Finder; one feature on my TapForms wish list is the ability to play MP3s directly from within the database.
To keep things tidy, I keep all my bounced tracks in the automatically created ‘bounced’ folder within each Logic project. This also goes for different edits or mixes of the track. If I’m sending multiple tracks to a client, though, I make a folder in Dropbox and copy the tracks here. The original bounced file always stays in the Logic project folder.
I can also use the database to store the metadata for any music libraries that require this to be created by the producer of the music. For instance, I have an account at Pond5 where I upload all the tracks that have not been used in other projects, reasoning that it’s better for them to make me some money than to collect dust on my hard drive. The tagging procedure on Pond5 is based on the same comma-separated values that TapForm uses, so when I add the track information on Pond5, I can just copy it from my database. This saves me lot of work, and I have the metadata locally on my computer if I should put the tracks on some other music library.
I also have a generously sized Notes field on the layout. Here goes everything that I think needs to be done with the track: thoughts about how I can develop the arrangement or things that need to be fixed in the mix. Sometimes I take note of guitar amp settings or mic positions, if I think that I may want to do more tracking with the same sound later on.
Probably the most important feature of a good database program is smart search: a search that automatically updates the findings based on a number of chosen terms. I use smart searches all day. They keep me focused. In my to-do app, for instance, I use it to filter out tasks that need to be done today at my office, so I don’t see what I need to do at home today (which is in another smart search).
In my studio, the smart search function of TapForms helps me be more productive. On days when I don’t have the inspiration to make a new track, I have set up a search for less creative work. This will find tracks that need mixing, or which need to be cut down into 10- and 30-second versions for libraries. For days when I don’t feel like producing music at all, I have a search for projects that need to be registered with the Performing Rights Organisation. This way, I always find things that need to be done!
TapForms is Mac-only; another Mac option worth checking out is Ninox Database. There are lots of alternatives for Windows users. Microsoft’s own Access is well known, and should let you make a similar database to the one I have described. The freeware suite OpenOffice has a database application called Base, which looks quite easy to use, and there are lessons on YouTube for those who want to give it a go.
There are several online solutions as well, including some free ones, but personally I feel more comfortable having my database stored locally, in case the online database provider should discontinue their service.
TapForms runs in the same language as your operating system, but I prefer to run it in English rather than my native Norwegian. This can be done by running the following in Terminal:
defaults write com.tapzapp.tapforms-mac AppleLanguages ‘(“en”)’