Collaborating Online – Not a Pipedream

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Engineering, Music/Audio, Tech 3 Comments

As I ramp up my chops for my fifth go at the CaPE challenge over at Mixerman‘s forums, I got the idea to do a post about collaborating online with other musicians.

Collaborating is a fantastic way to not only trade ideas and open up new opportunities, but it’s also great for meeting new and interesting people who, I find, inject new perspectives, styles and workflows you just don’t get working on your own.

It’s been so long that I forget what the acronym “CaPE” stands for, but essentially, it’s a multi-month event where forum members are randomly assigned to online “bands” and produce, record and mix a song.

I tell people about this experience a lot and play them the tracks that have resulted from them:

  • On The Hill” – CaPE VIII Team Adversity
    (keyboards and backing vocals)
  • Doesn’t Matter” – CaPE VII Team Superphonic
    (keyboards, horns, backing vocals and kazoo)
  • Plane to Catch” – CaPE VI Team Chckn8r
    (keyboards, backing vocals, producer)
  • Belly of the Beast” – CaPE V Team Odyssey
    (keyboards, producer, songwriter)

Barring the fact that I’ve purposely reduced my “management” involvement in these endevours as the iterations have progressed, I’ve quite enjoyed meeting and working with other musicians from around the world.  In some of these efforts, the entire team has only communicated via text (and musical – obviously) means.

When I talk about online collaboration, I get a lot of raised eyebrows and the inevitable “How can that be done?” questions.  It’s come a LONG way in the past ten years or so, but given the state of technology in the digital audio world, there are so many options available.

The Good ol’ Days

Granted, none of these options compare to sitting in the same room to bounce ideas around with fellow musicians, but I can say that it does wonders for keeping the travel budget down.  There are a couple of different ways in which online collaborations can happen.  Ever since the late ’90’s when Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) started to make inroads into personal as well as professional studios, the dream of electronically hooking up musicians through the internet (rather than through expensive dual ISDN connections) started to become the twinkle in many the bedroom producers’ eye.

I remember the fanfare and promise around the launch of the “Rocket Network” around this time.  It was even licensed as part of CuBase at one point.  It was a MIDI-based collaboration system as internet connections were typically through dial-up modems, so you were unfortunately limited to General MIDI sound palettes.  This also meant that if you were a guitarist or drummer, then you needed to rely on MIDI controller versions of your instruments to participate.

Jump forward 10 to 12 years and we have connections to the internet that can support hi-bandwidth connections, we have audio compression algorithms that can stream an “acceptable” quality of audio and the adoption of digital tools to record and manipulate audio being quite high for musicians.  All this adds up to being able to facilitate online music collaboration.

Options, Option, Options…

Keeping it Real

There area number of ways that you can hook up with other musicians – a big drive has always seemed to be the need for services to facilitate real-time (or at least very near real-time) collaboration between users.  Obviously, lag over the internet is a major factor as even a lag of 10 milliseconds is noticeable to the average listener.  There’s only so fast that electrons will travel down wires and adding switches and other package routing hassels that come with the Internet, it’s not too hard to figure out why real-time collaboration over the internet gets to be unpredictable.

Still, there are a few sites that attempt to support “real-time” collaboration:

Besides the real-time lag issue, one of the biggest hurdles facing real-time online collaboration services is that there is no easy way for users to make use of their own software to access and use these services.  There is no industry-standard Internet-based audio codec, format or API to hook into DAWs and shuttle all the necessary audio and meta-data associated with it.  Add to that, the fact that every DAW user will undoubtedly have their own set of instrument and audio processing plug-ins they prefer to use … well, it’s much more than a rats-nest you start diving into…

Users of these sites are unfortunately “forced” to use a standard interface and a standard toolset to manipulate audio while in collaboration mode.  At some point in the process, the group will undoubtedly make the decision to break from the online “sandbox” and take the work off-line and finalize it there.

Take Off (eh?)

The majority of collaboration activity seems to be off-line.  There are numbers of online forums and bulletin boards that have sections dedicated to songwriters and musicians putting up help-wanted, services offered or just general networking areas.  They can be found at songwriting forums, audio engineering / mixing forums, and many other music-related forum boards.

There are sites that focus specifically on facilitating the networking and online collaboration project pipeline with public and private project areas, message boards, file storage and even promotion and distribution:

Offline collaboration allows participants to use the tools that they’re comfortable with, but with the major dis-advantage of time consumption.  Shuttling files around, comments, Skype calls, interim mixes all take time and if not managed, the iterations can be (very) time consuming.

Making it Work

I, personally prefer off-line collaboration – the “thrill” of jamming in realtime online – personally, it doesn’t push my buttons.  I like to collaborate in some sort of iterative think-it-through kind of way – crafting music with some planning and polishing.

Collaborating, can easily be very rewarding or it can fall very flat, very quickly. Here are some tips to get the most out of an online collaboration:

  • Working with people who you know you CAN work with – the group of people you’ve hooked up with (it doesn’t have to be a group two is more than enough) their interest, work habits and skills have an impact on the success or failure of a project.  Don’t be discouraged, I’ve come across a few “duds” who have the talk and initial interest only to not be heard from when the “work” starts.  The flipside is valid as well – if I commit to something, I make sure that I follow through or at the least, keep expectations current.
  • Know who’s making the decisions – any group that works together to produce something will need a vision (or at least a general direction) and over the course of the endevour, will undoubtedly come across some decisions that need to be made.  Making sure that everyone knows who the leader (it can be more than one person) is and is comfortable with that, will go a long way.  I’ve seen groups fall apart with bickering and passive agressive tactics because everyone had a different idea of who was making decisions.  Ego’s do come into play – especially with creating art – but the challenge as a group leader or a group contributor is knowing how to deal with egos and keep them in check.
  • Meeting places and communication – You’ll need some sort of online meeting room – or at least some sort of off-line message board to communicate with other collaborators.  The sites mentioned above usually have forum platforms to make use of, but if you don’t have that, old-fashioned email should work fine up to a point.  Tools such as Google chat/talk, Skype, Facebook, etc. can also be used to discuss things in realtime voice or text.  Oh yeah, good ol’ phone calls will work too… 😉
  • File Management – The fantastic thing about off-line collaboration is that you get to use the tools that you’re familiar with.  The downside is, it’s extremely rare that EVERYONE in the group will be using the same tools as you.  So, until an open standard for trading the raw project files between DAWs becomes a reality (see: pigs flying), you’ll most likely be dealing with bouncing out individual or stems of audio tracks and trading those back and forth.  These typically are in the form of MP3 files when you’re hashing out ideas and then, when you’re ready to go to final takes and mixes, lossless audio files such as AIFF or WAV are the files of choice.
    Everyone can have access to the files so that they can all hear what’s going on and make their own rough mixes, but you might want to set up some sort of version control / rough mix release policy.  File naming conventions are a good idea too – at the least everyone should adopt filenaming formats such as: [Instrument Name]_[Take #]_[Date].XXX
  • Technical Details – In addition to deciding what format of files your group should be working with, you’ll probably get into nitty-gritty stuff such as tempo, tempo-maps (if the tempo or time signature changes in the project), bit-rates, sample-rates, stereo versus mono tracks, printing with or without effects and possibly even RMS and Peak dB levels of files.  Getting those things out of the way will definitely help eliminate some headaches down the road.
    You’ll also be wanting to decide on a way to synchronize the individual tracks.  One method that’s frequently used in the CaPE sessions is to have the producer (songwriter/decision-maker/grand pooh-bah) provide a “scratch track” of the project with a two-bar click intro at the beginning of the file.  The intent of this is to have every member of the group include this two-bar click at the head of each the tracks they submit so that when all the clicks from the individual tracks are lined up, then (theoretically) everything should synchronize.

There are some other things that a group might want to cover up front such as songwriting / publishing credits, revenue sharing (if that’s a possibility) and anything else that you can think of when you dream of “making it big” with your work.

What it’s all about

A collaboration is all about sharing and learning.  I like to come to the table with the expectation that I’ll learn something new and perhaps be able to share a trick someone else hadn’t been aware of.

I don’t typically come into a collaboration with any hard and set ideas about what needs to come out the other end.  The journey and finding out what the final destination … sounds like … is the fun bit.

Be flexible, be open to new ideas, have fun and most of all …

Be excellent to each other!

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. I’ve been working for my US company from India, with colleagues from Argentina, across the US, and the Philippines, so it (online collaboration) certainly can be done 🙂

  3. Pingback: If Music Be Thy Dream Of Filthy Lucre, Press Stop | TechCrunch

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