Remote Music Collaboration: It’s A Small World, After All
These days, you can collaborate with anyone, anywhere
This article about remote music collaboration first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! Also you may come across affiliate links and if you buy something I may get a commission.
The other day, I sent a PayPal payment to my friend Javier for his half of a licensing fee, after our song was used in an MTV reality show. Javier has been a joy to work with. He’s super talented, easy going, and I can count on him for quality. I’ve also never met him.
I live in Albuquerque, NM and he lives in Corpus Christi, TX. We met on a Facebook group and we collaborate entirely remotely. As it turns out, I have collaborations with people from Texas, Canada, Australia…you get the picture. I even have collaborations with local people that weren’t done in person.
It seems remote music collaboration is the new world order, and it makes sense. Digital audio and quick internet make it possible to meet and work with anyone who’s willing, and that means doors that were previously locked are now wide open.
Not Really New
In truth, remote music collaboration isn’t entirely new. In fact, ISDN technology, which is a system of digital telephone connections that allow recording between far-away studios, has been in use since the 80’s, mostly in the broadcast and voiceover worlds. ISDN allows talent to perform in a studio or even in their home on one coast and have the receiving studio on the other coast record the signal in real time. It’s incredibly useful for voice and broadcast work, but it would be hard to perform against a music track that way, as the delay would be prohibitive (more on that in a bit).
What is (sort of) new is the sheer number of ways you can collaborate on recording projects from lands afar, using either normal internet resources, or purpose-built solutions designed specifically for music.
Assuming you’ve got a partner somewhere else and you want to do a project, you’ve got a number of options for how you might collaborate. What tools you use depends on the general method, and there are basically three categories of remote music collaboration.
Probably the most widely used method, “offline” simply means that collaborators use their own tools on their own time and use normal file sharing and communication tools to share tracks and talk about projects. This method comes with its share of potential issues, but is probably the easiest way to start, and offers the greatest flexibility as far as tools used and scheduling.
When simply sharing files, each of you can work in your DAW of choice which is great if you like different systems, because you don’t have to worry about a learning curve. There are some things to take special care about, though, when going back and forth between DAWs.
First off, if you have different DAWs you can’t just share projects back and forth, and you can’t just grab the audio folder and give it to your partner. You’re going to have to export tracks and send them via some file sharing method like Dropbox, Box or Google Drive. This will take some extra time, so plan accordingly. It’s often a good idea to zip files before uploading, especially if there are a lot of them.
You’ll need to coordinate the sample rate and bit depth you’re working on (best to agree on that ahead of time), and what file format you each prefer. What tracks you send to your partner depends a lot on what each of your roles is. Perhaps you’re producing a track and you’ve hired a session vocalist to track a lead vocal. That vocalist might just need an instrumental mix that they can sing against, or they might want you to separate drums, guitars and pianos.
Send Full Length Files (Usually)
In any case, you’ll want to send them direct exports, and NOT edit the front. Make sure what you send and what they send back start from true zero, and make sure each of you is using the same tempo in your DAW. Let your partner know if there’s a pre-roll (space on the track before the song actually starts) and at what measure to expect the song to come in.
In the previous example, your vocalist would end up sending back a lead vocal track, also exported from zero. If you’re in that position, don’t chop off your track to save file space. Send the full-length version, even if there’s a minute of silence before your part comes in.
If you’ve got tempo or time signature changes, be sure to set that map up properly in both DAWs so you don’t end up in trouble.
Pro Tools Pro Trick
If you happen to be using ProTools and you do want to save time by not recording from zero every time and not exporting the whole track audio folder, here’s a slick trick:
- Go forward in the song to a couple measures before where you want to come in.
- Set the playback head to an exact measure, eg: measure 55.
- Rename the track with the measure in it, eg: “lead vox meas 55”.
- Record, and then find the clip in the audio folder named “lead vox meas 55”.
- Send that a long with a note. When your partner imports it, it will be in the wrong spot at the beginning of the file. They can move it to exactly measure 55 and voila.
Note: Not all DAWs name clips this way, but if you know how your DAW names clips, you can manipulate it in similar ways. When in doubt, though, just export your tracks full length.
All in all, there’s a reason simple file-sharing is still the most widely used method of collaborating. It really gives you and your partners the most flexibility, and keeps you working in the environment you’re most comfortable with.
Cloud Based Session Sharing
A hybrid option between extremes, cloud-based session sharing, where collaborators work on the same session online but at different times, is getting more and more popular. This option offers a lot of convenience, and with some tools, the added benefit of social-media style open collaboration.
There are actually quite a few cloud-based solutions. For cloud collaboration using existing DAWs, ProTools now has Avid Cloud Collaboration, Cubase has VST Connect (which also has some real-time capability) and uploading directly to your BandLab account is now built into Cakewalk.
Other tools, like Splice, Bandlab or Soundtrap, are their own DAWs that run online or can be downloaded. Some of these tools offer a unique opportunity to open projects for contribution by anyone in the community. Of course, if you do this be aware of the legal ramifications and communicate clearly.
Splice is like Facebook meets Soundcloud, with an app to download for cloud backup, a web based pseudo-DAW which can create projects and edit in popular DAW formats (like Ableton or Logic), and a lot of options for meeting new collaborators, sharing work, and hearing new music. For a fee, you can also get access to samples, loops, effects and presets, and even rent-to-own popular plugins.
BandLab has a similar social media vibe, and the option to work in an online DAW which includes a bunch of handy (if odd) presets for getting started quickly, like a one button drum machine. And since BandLab recently bought and resurrected Cakewalk, there’s cloud collaboration integrated into that software too.
Cloud collaboration is a great option for working with people across the globe who have vastly different schedules, for keeping things organized, and for opening up a world of new collaborative possibilities.
Fully Real Time
It is possible with the right software and good enough internet on both ends to do a recording session in real time, as if you were sitting in the room together. This is the hardest option to implement, but productions take a lot less time when you can sit together at the same time, and you get the benefit of almost real human interaction.
A surprising number of tools exist to accomplish this, among them the aforementioned VST Connect by Steinberg, Source Elements Source Connect and OhmForce OhmStudio, to name a few. The thing to remember with real-time tools is that both parties’ internet connections need to be fast and reliable enough. For example, Source Connect requires 300kbps upload AND download streams, and VST Connect requires 256kbps upload speed.
Making Real-Time Work
For real-time to really work, you’ll want to connect to your router at the fastest possible speed (preferably using Gigabit Ethernet), and if possible, connect using wired ethernet rather than WiFi. Check into your upload speed as well as your download speed. You should try for at least 20Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speeds.
Try also to minimize the amount of other activity using bandwidth, such as browsers, Skype or other internet connecting software. If you’re in a home studio, you might also need to minimize the amount of other internet activity going on in the house, such as streaming videos or downloading music.
Once your internet is humming right, you’ll have to coordinate which software to use. Source Connect runs as an app which allows you to route audio from whatever DAW you prefer to your partner’s DAW. With VST Connect Pro, one person can run the main DAW (Cubase 7 or above) and a performer on the other end can run VST Connect Performer, which is free to download.
Other packages like OhmStudio can be used real-time or asynchronously and have the added bonus of opening up projects to community members who are signed up for the service. OhmStudio is also a standalone DAW.
One thing to note: In almost all cases having more than two parties in the “room” is either impossible or unrealistic. And of course, you’ll have to schedule sessions like you would in person, which may be difficult if you’re in vastly different time zones.
Pitfalls aside, it can be a pretty cool thing to get back to real-time communication, making changes together on the spot, and being in engaged with a real live human being. And when it works, this method is certainly faster than others. It’s worth giving a try if your gear is right.
To dovetail a bit from the section above, what if you want to play together with a group of people? Maybe you like that vibe, or you want to rehearse, or for whatever reason you’d like to sync up like musicians tend to do, but from across the world.
This is technically possible, and a few real-time collaboration tools allow it, if your connections and computers are robust enough. Contrary to what seems intuitive, you can’t jam together over something like Skype or Zoom (you could do a simple writing session that way though). The latency in normal communication apps is too great, and you won’t be able to sync up. You certainly can’t record together that way.
There have been tools cropping up for online jamming for quite some time. Jammr and JamKazam have been around for a few years now but by far the most experienced and developed group is the team over at JackTrip. Of course, to do it well, you may have to upgrade some hardware, but that’s doable.
If you want to learn the real nitty gritty on this topic, there’s a free online course offered by Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music And Acoustics (CCRMA) which will teach you how to set up online jamming using open source tools. Learning these techniques will give you a deep understanding of the process and problems of online sync, and really deepen your knowledge of issues like latency and audio related networking.
Finding New Collaborators
You may be collaborating long-distance because your favorite guitar player moved to Tallahassee, or you may even be doing remote music collaborations because your drummer had a baby and can only record at his house while you’re at work, but more than likely, you’re looking to branch out and find new people to work with.
There are as many ways to find new partners as there are new partners, but there are some tried and true methods. First, you can meet people when you’re out in the world at a conference, or touring with your metal cello quartet, or whatever it is you do.
You might also meet people on Facebook groups. There are hundreds of Facebook groups dedicated to production. You might also find new people on LinkedIn, Twitter or other social networks. And of course, you may find new collaborators by opening up your projects to others as mentioned above.
Another option is to search for players on platforms like SoundBetter.com or even Fiverr or UpWork. There’s even a cool service called Audio Hunt (theaudiohunt.com) which can pair you up with gear owners so you can run your tracks through that coveted analog compressor or tube preamp you just can’t afford.
The thing to remember in all these cases is that you want to vet people and make sure the working relationship will be good. It may be a good idea to get to know a person for a while, check out their work, interact with them in a public forum like a Facebook group, and maybe even meet them in real life at a conference before you decide to work together.
Be Clear About Business
Even you don’t take a bunch of time, you want to talk business first, or at least very early in the process. Make sure everything is clear up front and you’re on the same page about the project. Is it your act? Theirs? A duet? Who will be allowed to pitch the track, and who will control distribution? What are the master rights splits and what are the songwriting splits? How do you want to handle a third party who may come in to contribute? Define everyone’s rights and responsibilities ahead of time so that there are no surprises and put it in writing.
Music may be just a hobby to some of your partners (or to you), but it’s also a business, and though it may be tedious, getting the paperwork out of the way ahead of time will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Plus, talking business first can help weed out shady people before you go too far down the road. Once that’s out of the way, you can let the creative juices flow, and being open-minded about your partner’s contribution is usually the best way to go about things.
A Small World
It really is a small, connected world. Before writing this, I sat on my back patio looking at flowers, cats and bees, relaxing back while I nonchalantly discussed arrangement changes to a new song over Facebook Messenger with a collaborator who is 1000 miles away. Using my phone, I was able to send him a rough mix through Box.com and without breaking a sweat or leaving my lunch, I had all his notes and ideas, ready for the afternoon session.
Working remotely will never replace the vibe of multiple people creating together in the studio, and it doesn’t have to. But it’s a great way to open new options, keep connected to great partners who travel or move, and in general just add a whole new flavor to the process of making tracks. Perhaps you’ll be my next collaborator!
I live in Albuquerque, NM, but it doesn’t matter. I use Cakewalk, MixBus and Ableton but that doesn’t matter either. Find me to present a collaborative idea at aaron @ aarontrumm.com or on Facebook @AaronJTrumm or Instagram @AaronJTrumm