The World Is Your Workstation
FIG. 1: digitalmusician.net''s standalone DMR application is a multitrack recorder that lets you log in to a session without your browser. You can also use it as a ReWire app in conjunction with your favorite digital audio sequencer.
Almost ten years ago, I produced a MIDI project for PG Music called “The Bluegrass Band.” The work flow started with recording basic rhythm tracks with a MIDI guitar and a custom banjo controller. I would sequence and email the MIDI data to a musician friend who had the rare combination of expertise with a sequencer and the ability to translate his bluegrass chops through a MIDI mandolin controller. He would record his parts into his sequencer, then email MIDI files to me, at which point I checked the tracks, balanced the Velocities, and cleaned up the data. If I needed something different, I asked for another take.
What I didn't know at the time was that the remote collaboration I was engaged in was a precursor to what is now being implemented, mainly with digital audio files rather than MIDI files, by a number of Web-based services. Thanks to the growth of broadband, today's musicians can share digital audio files and utilize Web-based audio-and-video communication technology to create a virtual studio environment with others in remote locations. These days, many musicians independently engage in online collaboration, especially for session work. All that's needed is a reasonably fast connection and a bit of file-transfer savvy.
Sensing a business opportunity in facilitating online collaboration, an increasing number of Web-based companies have emerged, offering a wide variety of services and features ranging from the hiring of session musicians to social networking to two-way MIDI programming, online jamming, live-band showcases, and more.
It's impossible to fully cover all the online collaboration services in the space allotted, so, given EM's focus on recording, I have narrowed my scope to those for which recording is the main activity, or at least a major one. I'll provide a basic overview of what these services offer and what you'll need for a successful and fruitful collaboration. I'll cover digitalmusician.net (DMN), eJamming, eSession, Indaba Music, i-Studio.net, and SessionPlayers. To get firsthand experience using an online collaboration service, I did a test project in eSession, which I'll talk about later in this story.
What You Need
It may be obvious, but I'll start by saying that at minimum, you'll need a high-bandwidth Internet connection. The speed of your connection will affect not only download and upload times, but also any audiovisual and data-streaming features you may use. Dial-up is, of course, out of the question, and cable and DSL remain the most popular choices, although fiber-optic service (FiOS), if it is available in your area, offers higher and relatively consistent bandwidth. If you can afford a T1 line, go for it — you'll enjoy much faster and steadier transfer rates.
Because each company examined here differs somewhat in its features, your system requirements and hardware choices may dictate which one you use. These companies are working hard to accommodate all popular platforms and baseline audio systems.
The basic modes of operation for these online services are remarkably similar. Some share conceptual roots in the Performing Artist's Network (PAN), which was arguably the first collaborative online musical network.
Although a few of the online collaboration services offer real-time monitoring and communication during the recording process, the promise of real-time, full-bandwidth-audio recording for the masses across the Internet is not yet a reality. However, compressed streaming audio is, albeit with some latency. Many of the services support in-session audio-and-video conferencing and instant messaging (IM).
For two-way audiovisual communication during a session, you will need at least a FireWire- or USB-capable Webcam. Some services allow any ASIO-compliant microphone as an audio connection, but of course, the better the audio interface, the better the outcome.
According to Joey Finger of SessionPlayers, “An Internet camera complete with a microphone can turn your computer monitor into the control room window. Production ideas and arranging can be every bit as easy as if you were in the same room.”
Digitalmusician.net (DMN) provides three applications tailored for online collaboration: Digital Musician Link (DML), Digital Musician Messenger (DMM), and Digital Musician Recorder (DMR; see Fig. 1). DML is a VST plug-in for Mac OS X 10.3.7 and Windows XP computers. Inserted on a single track, it transmits time-stamped MIDI and audio data between computers connected to the DMN site. Real-time playback is compressed to MP3, but high-resolution files can be sent through DML when the recording is finished.
If you only require real-time monitoring with post-take audio and MIDI file sharing, you can use the DMM plug-in. It supports a wider range of formats than DML, including AU, VST, and RTAS. It provides for monitoring of the master output of each participant's sequencer, and, like DML, communication through video and IM. DMR is a standalone 16-track recorder that can be used as a ReWire client.
That functionality lets you audition tracks in sync with your main recording software, without having to import them. It also has facilities for finding players, buying and selling tracks, and more.
DMN's suite of software offers a lot of functionality, but I found the jumble of acronyms and applications to be a bit confusing. I hope they'll eventually develop a single, universal application. SessionPlayers also uses the DMR/DML software and gives you access to Source Elements' Source-Connect, another application for real-time collaboration.
Continue reading about Electronic Musician's evaluation of online collaboration services for musicians.
Listen to Thomas Dolby talk about his experience with online collaboration.
FIG. 2: The Song Page at eSession neatly lays out each collaborator''s tracks, including Stems and finished mixes. Note the chat application on the right side of the screen, and my local drives on the left.
The eSession Song Page (see Fig. 2) offers collaborators facilities to upload and download audio files, listen to MP3 files, and discuss aspects of the project through both blog and chat facilities. At the time of this writing, there is no real-time oversight of the recording process, but the company plans to soon release its Virtual Glass plug-in, which will support AU, RTAS, and VST streaming of audio and MIDI Time Code. (At press time it was in the alpha stage of development.) Virtual Glass will allow you to synchronize digital audio sequencers and MTC-driven devices but not transmit MIDI data.
At Indaba Music, members initiate sessions and post audio files (WAV, AIFF, or MP3) to the browser-based Indaba Session Console (see Fig. 3), which allows mixing and editing but not recording. Collaborators download the tracks to their DAW software, record their parts, and then upload the new tracks to the Session Console, where the session initiator can access them. Indaba Music's founders opted for this offline approach rather than implementing real-time streaming and recording over the Web, a process they feel is currently too problematic.
FIG. 3: Indaba Music''s Session Console gives remote collaborators a central interface to upload and download audio files and audition multitrack material.
Although eJamming leans more toward jam sessions and social networking than recording, it does let collaborators exchange MIDI and 16-bit, 48 kHz audio files (see Web Clip 1). The service offers eJamming AUDiiO, a standalone audio-and-MIDI recorder that can synchronize with other musicians. You can join in on or offer sessions by invitation, which can be in the form of an audition to see if you are up to the task. Up to four players can be in on a session, and each can record a single audio track at a time, or a multichannel MIDI stack. The work flow is not very different from digitalmusician.net's software: although you receive audio from other musicians, the MIDI and uncompressed audio data from each participant is stored on their local drive and is not shared in real time.
Personally, I much prefer non-real-time, offline exchange and compilation of files. Intermediary recording software connecting collaborators over the Internet can add multiple layers of unnecessary complexity to an already complex recording process. There is an inherent amount of latency in streaming audio — compressed or otherwise — which is an issue when playing or recording using streaming online software such as DML or Source-Connect. As a consequence, you must wear headphones, ignore the acoustic sound of your instrument, and compensate by adjusting your playing to try to stay in the pocket. Not an easy way to groove.
What's more, if you don't want to use compressed, low-bandwidth audio in your final mix, you ultimately must resort to file sharing the high-bandwidth audio recorded locally on your hard drive (from your DAW), anyway. Considering all that, I found streaming online recording to be too troublesome to pursue. However, you may feel otherwise. Either way, you still have the option of offline file sharing if streaming proves too difficult.
What's in Store
Another advantage of using an online collaboration service is that any session data you record or transfer through its servers will be backed up, at least for the duration of your project. You can assume that the service takes care of and guards its storage better and more often than you do. Gina Fant-Saez of eSession says, “We operate and maintain our own servers and have 128-bit SSL encryption for file transfers. We've implemented a comprehensive, layered security infrastructure that utilizes industry-standard security authentication and authorization. Data is protected at multiple layers — from the server infrastructure all the way up through the application layer.”
SessionPlayers encrypts your session files before transmitting them, and backs them up to disk. At i-Studio.net, your session data is stored online and backed up to DVD. Some of these services will erase your files from their servers after the project is completed. At eSession, you also have the option to pay for long-term file storage.
What's My Line
If you have ever dreamed of recording with top-tier session players, you can do it through online collaboration. Besides the cachet of working with high-profile, experienced studio pros, you can count on these players to be adept at delivering excellent tracks quickly and professionally.
FIG. 4: A number of online collaboration services offer access to A-list musicians for your sessions. This screen shot shows some of the keyboardists available at SessionPlayers.
SessionPlayers and eSession host a dazzling roster of top-shelf musicians, but each takes a different approach to the process. SessionPlayers hews more closely to the model of a production service than a two-way musicians' network: you pay a membership fee, hire your choice of musicians from an array of first-call players (see Fig. 4), fill out a form listing contact information and session details, and upload MP3 reference tracks and charts. SessionPlayers will then contact you and discuss your recording options and offer production suggestions. If your needs (or your finances) are more modest, it can arrange demo sessions from a cadre of musician-programmers who will develop your arrangement with a sequencer using synthesizers and samplers. As with any of these services, musicians may choose to decline your project; Robben Ford, Leland Sklar, and Peter Erskine may think twice before playing on your hip-hop version of “Beer Barrel Polka.” Then again, anything is possible.
A laissez-faire approach guides the work flow at eSession. You become a member (at present, membership is free for a basic account with 250 MB of data-storage space), locate your talent, and submit a work request, an MP3 demo of your song, and a flat $25 fee, and the offer goes to the talent. If they choose to play, the talent can set the rates on a project-by-project basis, and you are free to negotiate until you can come to an accord (or not). Negotiations have their own page with a record of the transactions — a great idea should any disputes occur later. If the talent can't accommodate your project, your $25 fee is refunded; if they agree to play, you must arrange a 50 percent payment before the recording can begin.
I particularly appreciated eSession's elegant, clean organization of the entire online collaboration process. From account information to the Stem Banks to plentiful video tutorials to drag-and-drop capabilities for uploading and downloading of tracks, eSession's browser-based application really becomes part of your workstation. Other than the company touting its features on its home page, there are no flashing, animated banners or ads to distract (which you find with some of the others). The company offers a WebEx-based orientation that explains how its service works. You can sign up for this scheduled live tutorial — where you're free to ask questions whenever you want — as many times as you like.
Continue reading about Electronic Musician's evaluation of online collaboration services for musicians.
Although i-Studio.net (see Fig. 5) offers the least frills of the services I looked at, it gives you access to plenty of top-shelf players, which is its primary mission. You may recognize several of the names involved in it from the popular Discrete Drums sound libraries. In fact, i-Studio.net is a spin-off of Discrete Drums, and now even offers custom sessions set up in the same multitrack arrangement as the original sound library.
FIG. 5: One of the player profiles at i-Studio.net, a service that doesn''t offer a lot of extras but has a stable of solid studio players that you can hire.
The elite team of players at i-Studio.net have worked with an impressive list of artists, including John Lennon, Johnny Rotten, Pat Metheny, and Bob Dylan. The musicians ply their trade at select studios in New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. This limited set of recording facilities ensures a consistent level of quality from project to project. At the i-Studio.net site, you can listen to MP3 demos of the various musicians' work to help you determine whether they're right for your project. The musicians start with a negotiable base fee of $250 for a three-hour recording session, and will record multiple takes for you within that time frame.
At DMN and eJamming I recognized fewer high-profile players, but you can choose from a menu of musicians from around the world to collaborate or jam with. The DMN home page lists projects, musicians in search of other musicians, special DMN events, the latest forum posts, and more. Projects can be free and completely open to participation, or closed sessions with a wide range of fees offered by the Administrator, who can be the owner of the project or a participant designated to grant access to the files. Because DMN is more global in scope, I found not only pianists, drummers, guitarists, and bassists to play rock and pop, but also banjoists, accordionists, and mandolinists looking to play progressive bluegrass and fusion (my musical styles of choice). This more eclectic approach can be useful when you are looking for less conventional instrumentalists, although it is advisable to audition potential collaborators' MP3s first, to make sure you are on the same page, musically speaking.
Indaba Music boasts a membership of around 5,000 (about 25 percent of which are from outside the United States), and the site's extensive social-networking facilities make it easy to find and audition potential collaborators. You can ask any of the members to play on your project, or keep your session totally private. “We give the session owner complete control over who can download which files, and who they let into the session,” says cofounder Matt Siegel.
With every service except i-Studio.net, you have the option of bringing in musicians who are not signed up with the group, either by recruiting them as new members or by granting them temporary access to your files on the company's server. With a paid Studio account, DMN lets you set up as many as seven subaccounts for nonregistered musical collaborators.
Into the Fray
My eSession project (see Web Clips 2 through 4) started with a MIDI arrangement of a spooky old modal mountain tune whose general melodic contours were easily adaptable to a modern electronic arrangement reminiscent of Weather Report — at least, that's what I had in my mind's eye. Fortunately, I found my old friends and collaborators Jimi Tunnell (guitar) and Jeff Ganz (bass) on eSession, and was able to negotiate a very reasonable fee. Because they were familiar with my eclectic mind-set, we were able to hash out the details of the arrangement quickly.
Each musician worked with three reference files: an MP3 of a full arrangement, an MP3 with its instrumentation stripped down to the basic rhythm-section instruments, and a 24-bit, 48 kHz stereo stripped-down mix of the track minus their particular instrument. We then sent suggestions back and forth either through phone calls, email, or the eSession chat application and fleshed out the details. We were not set up for a simultaneous online recording session, and I preferred to give my collaborators time with their ideas without pressure, so this method suited me perfectly (see Web Clip 5).
Despite the best of intentions, it's impossible to account for every individual musician's computer configuration, and collaboration through a Web browser can add a few layers of complexity. Don't be surprised by the odd hurdle here and there. Everything else being perfect, I found that my browser (Netscape on my PC) was not fully supported by eSession. It was an easily remedied problem (I downloaded a new browser), but it underscored the need for patience, a modicum of Web savvy, and a bit of research into the system requirements of the service that you choose.
A problem occurred when one of my Stem Bank files was inadvertently clocked to 44.1 instead of 48 kHz. This is where online collaboration shines. As soon as I discovered the problem, I converted the problematic track to 48 kHz, re-uploaded it, and deleted the original. In all, correcting the problem and getting the new file online took ten minutes — compare that with the best overnight delivery offered by your favorite carrier.
In another instance, one of my collaborators could not get my files to play back at the right pitch or tempo. Of course, this was another word-clock problem (for more on word-clock issues, see “Timing Is Everything” in the August 2007 issue of EM, available at www.emusician.com), and eSession's technical support was able to track it down to an incompatible word-clock setting in my partner's preamp.
Connectivity problems can be hard to troubleshoot. For example, one collaborator couldn't log in to respond to my work request. As it turned out, it was a matter of needing to update Java and Flash applications. Fortunately, eSession's well-informed customer support solved the problem quickly.
Customer support (in the form of email, forums, and sometimes phone support) at the various online collaboration services is generally willing to help you track down problems whether they are due to bugs in their system, browser difficulties, connectivity problems, software or hardware glitches (with the third-party hardware and software in your setup), improperly configured audio drivers, or pilot error. Such support provides a wide-ranging body of knowledge issuing from one source, and it beats having to seek out customer support from the manufacturers of the individual products in your recording chain.
I can't say enough about how Web-based collaboration has helped me to realize ideas that have been in my head for years. I came to this story as a skeptic, and although none of the services are glitch-free, I'm convinced that the benefits of online collaboration outweigh any of its drawbacks.
Most of the services discussed in this article make it extremely easy and inexpensive to jump in and get your feet wet. If you are a composer in need of talent to realize the jingle that is due tomorrow morning, a songwriter up in the wee hours looking to develop the bridge you've just written, or a studio pro looking to find more work, there is sure to be something for you in one of these services. In fact, you'll probably find much more than you anticipated.
Downbeat magazine once labeled Marty Cutler's music as “Eclectically Madcap.” The MP3s from this project proudly substantiate the claim. You can visit his Web site and get in touch at
ONLINE COLLABORATION SERVICES COMPARED
||Fee for Studio Musicians
||Online Storage for Audio Files
||Optional Open Collaboration
||free, Pro membership from about $13.50/month
||audiovisual chat via DMR, DML, and DMM software
||via DMR and DML software
||email, forum, phone
||free during beta, $9.95/month afterward
||chat via eJamming AUDiiO
||250 MB (free) to 150 GB
||chat and blogging through Song Page, audiovisual chat via Virtual Glass software (not yet available)
||via Virtual Glass software (not yet available)
||email, forum, phone, Web conference, video tutorials
||free, Pro membership $10/month
||250 MB (free); Pro: 10 GB
||messaging and blogging
||negotiated/suggested base rate $250 (for a 3-hour session)
||varies per player; $250 minimum
||audiovisual chat via DMR, DML software
||via DMR and DML software, Source-Connect
Read the Electronic Musician interview with Thomas Dolby about his experiences with remote collaboration
Indaba Music www.indabamusic.com
The PAN Network http://pan.com
Source Elements www.source-elements.com