Bands Without Borders - EMusician

Bands Without Borders

Desktop musicians from all corners of the world are joining forces, thanks to the Internet.
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From the moment that modems and MIDI sequencers came into being, musicians have tried to collaborate remotely by exchanging files from computer to computer. Early results were mixed. Incompatible files and differences in equipment and presets often wreaked havoc. Many times the receiving party heard something that was radically different from what the originator had intended.

Today, high-speed connections, advances in digital-audio-compression technology, enhancements to the MIDI spec, and new Internet-based services have brought remote collaboration into the mainstream. It is now quite feasible for two guitar players living across the country or across the globe from each other to work on a song together; musicians can even conduct open auditions for bass players, drummers, and singers to round out a far-flung “band.” Audio and MIDI workstation users can conduct massive multitrack sessions with contributors around the world while maintaining the highest possible standard of audio fidelity and professional production.

So is everything in the world of remote collaboration glorious? Is the process so simple that your mother could do it? Not yet. For all the progress in the area, there are still many ways that an online collaborative project can go wrong, and there are still a variety of constraints to deal with. If you're interested in working with remote partners, it pays to carefully investigate the issues and possible pitfalls and to learn about the dedicated tools and services that are available.

BEST OF INTENTIONS

Your intentions make a tremendous difference when creating music with others on the Internet. If you're simply writing music together, you can often tolerate a certain amount of lost fidelity and some differences in instrument sounds. That flexibility lets you use lower-density data, including Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) and audio with lossy compression (such as MP3) to greatly speed the data transfer.

On the other hand, if you're trying to create a finished audio production such as a CD release, you'll need to make sure that the audio fidelity is preserved and that all members hear the piece as intended. There may be exceptions if the music is to be delivered with lower fidelity; but in general, if it's a finished piece, you'll likely be concerned with making it sound as good as possible.

That can be tough, because the best guarantee for ensuring audio fidelity and retaining original instrument sounds is to use full-resolution uncompressed audio throughout, and that imposes the highest burden on bandwidth and upload and download time. The goal determines the methodology, and that, in turn, governs the selection of tools.

TAKING AIM

Exchanging different kinds of audio and music data files over the Internet is easier than ever. E-mail and FTP services are readily available, and with a little effort, it's even possible to set up a dedicated Web site with provisions for posting and downloading large files.

There are a number of things to take into account when planning a musical collaboration. Understanding the issues can help smooth the path and clarify whether it makes sense to use a dedicated service provider to help in storage and project management.

The major challenges in exchanging music and audio files are deciding what kinds of data will be exchanged, keeping the transfer times acceptable, and ensuring that the files remain compatible between parties. You must also make sure that the playback is the same (or close enough) at both ends and that the projects stay in sync so that everyone involved is looking at the same thing. All of those issues are solvable, but not trivial. The last point, in particular, requires ongoing management.

FILE TYPES

There are three kinds of data that you are likely to exchange in a musical project over the Internet: audio files (compressed or uncompressed), MIDI files, and digital-audio-workstation (DAW) and MIDI-sequencer session files. Each option has advantages and disadvantages for particular applications, and each carries its own set of compatibility issues.

Audio data files are generally the most compatible, with most audio applications accepting a range for Mac and Windows native file types. Some holes still exist, though, and file conversion may be necessary. Be sure to test with small files before you commit to a full-scale project using different audio-file types.

In some cases, file headers can be corrupted during transfer between servers. The classic case involves Macintosh files that lose their resource fork when posted to a non-Mac server. To avoid that problem, transfer audio files as StuffIt or WinZip archives. The design of those archive file formats ensures that audio data, resource forks, and any other critical metadata are received correctly.

Using audio data also ensures that the receiving party hears “exactly” (taking into account the monitoring system) what the sender intended. Audio data can be of extremely high fidelity (24 bits at 96 kHz is now common) as long as you're willing to deal with significant transfer times.

The biggest drawback to collaborating with uncompressed audio files is, of course, their bulk. Full-length files, especially multichannel files, can require an hour or more to download. With common asymmetrical home connections, the upload time may be considerably worse. Raw audio files also convey little of the production information often needed for collaboration.

Audio-data compression can greatly reduce the issues of bulk. However, common lossy compression schemes such as MP3 reduce fidelity substantially. For songwriting and composition, that may not be an issue. MP3's universality, even for musicians not versed in recording or electronic-music techniques, is attractive.

Lossless or near-lossless audio-compression schemes, such as MLP or DTS, can reduce file size and transfer times, but not nearly to the same extent as lossy compression. Moreover, the encoders are expensive. Net-based audio-collaboration services sometimes include lossless compression to speed project updating.

Working with SMFs has its own set of challenges. The data size can be compact, but you must often contend with a wide range of variability in what the originating and the receiving parties hear on playback. The use of MIDI files with Downloadable Samples (DLS) can reduce that variability, but the only way to absolutely ensure matching playback is for each party to use the same gear and make sure that presets and samples are synchronized. For collaborative writing (as opposed to music production), the variability may not be a problem, and the data-transfer speed can make MIDI files an attractive option.

The most complete form of data exchange comes from using session data files from compatible audio DAWs. All parties can have the full multitrack composition, complete with mix information, at the same time. Of course, that comes at the cost of accepting the rather large sizes of the associated audio files. But for serious production, it really is the way to go.

Best results are obtained by using identical workstation applications at all sites. File interchange between different brands of workstations remains an inexact science. If you are going to try to work with different workstations at different sites, be sure to test to assess the real compatibility of files exported from one system to another. If your sequences include MIDI information, you'll face the same issues as for pure MIDI data, and you'll need to make sure that the hardware and software synths that play the data back are identical or close to it. DLS can be helpful in that area.

More sophisticated online collaboration tools work exclusively with DAW session data. That requires that the DAW itself be tailored to the use of the service. Rocket Network is gaining support for its service with the leading workstation manufacturers, but the support is still far from universal.

STAYING TOGETHER

For collaborative projects of any substantial complexity, the biggest problem is in making sure that everyone is on the same page. Some collaborations consist of a project initiator who posts an original track and accepts parts from other individuals in a single round of contributions. In that case, version control is fairly easy because the contributors see only the original.

Once you move past that scenario to real back-and-forth collaboration with multiple parties, you face the problem of ensuring that everyone has the same version. For self-administered projects, that has to be an active process.

In general, audio-production applications are not equipped to update by accepting only the changes in a project, so it's usually necessary to load a complete session file. For audio-based projects, especially multichannel, that can mean inordinate amounts of uploading and downloading. In some cases, an individual track can be exported and imported into the receiver's project, but that approach is rife with opportunities for miscommunication. If a mismatch between the versions in use at different sites isn't caught right away, the problems can snowball. Collaborative facilitation services, such as Rocket Network, are helpful in that area, and it's probably their greatest benefit.

CONNECTION TYPES

Connection speeds vary widely, and that affects what you can do. Dial-up connections of 56 or even 28 kbps can load substantial amounts of data, but if you're working with uncompressed audio, the time factors can quickly get out of hand. For reference, a single 3-minute track at CD resolution takes at least 38 minutes to download at 56 kbps. Multiply that for stereo or multiple channels, and you can see that a dial-up connection may require a rather leisurely production schedule.

MP3s are more manageable but still take several minutes at best to download a full-length track or song. Pure MIDI transmits much more quickly, and MIDI with DLS offers an in-between option.

With cable-modem and DSL connections, MP3s download quickly, and even uncompressed audio is practical if not speedy. The biggest issue with these consumer-type high-speed connections is that they are asymmetrical, with substantially slower speed for uploading than for downloading. You might get your audio file in 2 minutes, but posting your new version would more likely take 20 minutes.

Although home connections may provide downloading rates of several megabits per second and uploading rates of about 1 Mbps, many businesses, including professional recording studios, use T3 lines offering around 44 Mbps in both directions. They make high-resolution audio production on a collaborative basis quite straightforward, especially when coupled with a service such as Rocket Network. On university campuses, speeds of 100 Mbps to the dorm rooms are now common.

REAL-TIME JAMMING

As constituted, the Internet has little control over timing, and timing is critical for music and digital audio. Streaming works because chunks of data, arriving at uneven intervals, are buffered and then played out as a steady stream. That entails substantial latency that kills interaction at the rates needed for musical jamming. For the time being, Internet-based musical collaboration is a post-and-respond affair, though the interval between the two events can get down to seconds depending on the work.

Other types of connections, including ISDN and Virtual Private Networks, achieve more predictable results, but latency remains an issue. EdNet (www.ednet.com), for example, is an ISDN-based professional service that has been in business for a number of years. The costs of these high-speed connections are generally out of reach for personal music production but are justified in some professional situations.

Because of the technical hurdles, real-time jamming is simply not in the cards at the moment. However, Internet2 is an active initiative that promises increased bandwidth, mechanisms to reduce latency, and guaranteed timing. There are many technical and infrastructure problems to be solved, but some authorities predict that within five years, audio jamming on the Internet will be a practical option. Visit www.internet2.edu for more information on these developments.

MP3-BASED COLLABORATION

Two Web sites, nowRecording (www.nowrecording.com) and Tonos (www.tonos.com), offer services to facilitate collaborative composition and songwriting through the use of MP3 files. NowRecording is a free site that focuses exclusively on musical collaboration. Tonos is subscription based but also offers music-business services. Of the two sites, nowRecording offers the better interface for identifying and auditioning projects.

NowRecording uses a community model in which projects are posted openly to solicit parts from other members. You can also search the membership list and invite specific players into a project. When you first visit the nowRecording home page, you can simply browse the site or search for current projects according to the genre and the requested instrumentation (see Fig. 1).

Once you have joined as a member (it's free and easy), you can download any project's MP3 file for audition (see Fig. 2), create projects of your own, and audition for any project that you've downloaded by posting your proposed part as an MP3 file at 128 kbps or higher. The owner of the project can listen to your part and decide whether to add it to the project, posting a new “mix” as parts are included.

It's a simple concept, equally suitable for electronically oriented musicians, traditional players, songwriters, and vocalists. The members are enthusiastic and active, and the musical quality of the projects, while variable, is fairly high.

According to site cofounder Henry Hutton, nowRecording came into being when his Raleigh, North Carolina, band broke up, and he and his partners found themselves holding a 40-song book with no one to record them. They decided to post their tunes on the Web and solicit contributions. A strong response convinced them that this was an idea whose time had come. “We may eventually offer advanced services for pay,” Hutton says, “but for now we are just having a blast being in the front lines of the revolution in online musical collaboration.”

Based as it is on MP3 lossy compression and a highly public user model, nowRecording is better suited to demos and songwriting than to serious production. Of course, nothing prevents users from taking their projects to other venues and continuing the effort with other tools. The site has identified and addressed a need, and the community spirit is infectious. (NowRecording has recently added several new features, including private projects, uncompressed file uploading and downloading, and track-for-hire services.)

One suggestion for the members, though, is to post their projects at higher MP3 bit rates. In my view, 128 kbps is just adequate, and some postings are hard to listen to. The improved sound is well worth the increased download time at 192 kbps or higher. I'd also like to see the site add provisions for including chord and lyric charts with a project.

The Tonos Studio section of the Tonos Web site offers services similar to those of nowRecording (see Fig. 3). However, it's more difficult to sort through projects on the site to determine which are active and worth considering. You have to jump through all the hoops of actually joining a project before you can even find out if it is still active. The site charges a subscription fee of $11.98 per month, but that includes other music-business services.

ROCKET NETWORK

The big dog in audio and music collaboration services is Rocket Network (www.rocketnetwork.com), and it is truly one of a kind. Started as ResRocket in the early 1990s, Rocket Network began life as a free service focused on MIDI-based collaboration. Over the years, its founders and engineers have developed a keen appreciation for the real issues of serious production-based collaboration on the Internet. The company has evolved into a decidedly commercial venture with funding from the likes of Avid Technologies and Vulcan Ventures.

Rocket Network focuses on meeting the needs of professional productions in which time is money and savings in production and travel add up quickly. At the same time, the company makes a strong effort to satisfy the needs of individual producers of more limited means.

Rather than sell its services directly to the end-user, Rocket relies on partners referred to as Studio Centers. A number of these are in operation, including one managed by EM's parent company, Primedia. It's accessible from the EM Web site as netStudio. (See the sidebar “Rocket Launchpads” for a list of other Studio Centers.)

To use Rocket Network, you must have a workstation or sequencer program tailored to work with the company's technologies. So far Digidesign Pro Tools 5.2 (Mac version), Emagic Logic Platinum, and Steinberg Cubase VST and Cubasis offer direct support for RocketPower, the name for the end-user component of the service. Partnerships with Euphonix, Mark of the Unicorn, SADiE, Tascam, and WaveFrame have also been announced, but the products have not yet been released.

Rocket Network maintains several large data centers to hold projects and media data for its customers. In a Rocket Network project, the master version of the project is maintained on the company's server while local copies are maintained on the computer of each project team member. Changes made by any member of the project are mirrored to the other users (see Fig. 4).

Audio data can be uploaded to the server automatically and loaded to other collaborators at full source quality or using lossless or lossy data compression to minimize transfer time. Thus, team members have a complete copy of the project with all the media data locally on their system at all times, yet with the assurance that their version precisely reflects the master project.

If you're the end-user, the biggest limitation you face with Rocket Network is that you must use an audio-workstation application that supports the network. Emagic and Steinberg have free versions of their software (Logic Rocket on Mac or Windows and Cubasis InWired for Windows, respectively) that support RocketPower. Within the family of Rocket-enabled products, exchange of session files is supported, but to what extent is up to the development partner. Logic, Cubase, and Cubasis users are reported to be able to exchange data fairly freely.

The process of using Rocket Network starts with establishing an account at the Web site of a Rocket Studio Center. If you are already using a Rocket-enabled workstation connected to the Internet, you can sign up by selecting Rocket Network from the application's File menu. That launches the RocketPower log-in screen, where you can open a new account or log in under an existing screen name. Rocket has three levels of user accounts: a Private account is required to initiate and maintain a project; Pro-User accounts allow you to audition and contribute to projects maintained by others; and Free User accounts let users experiment with Public Sessions.

Once logged in at the Private level, you can create a new project (see Fig. 5). When creating a project, you also define who the other collaborators are and what their level of access is — from listen-only to full read, write, create, and delete.

Having established the project, you then define Sessions within the project. In general, a Rocket Session corresponds to one document on your workstation. Once you establish the Session, you can start the work by posting the Session document from your workstation using a drop-down menu in the workstation application (see Fig. 6). When you do that, the complete document, including all audio media files, is uploaded to the Rocket Network server. The Session document and all its source files are then transferred directly to any other Session members who are logged on. Members who log on later will load the current version of the Session at that time.

With the current Session document open on each of their workstations, members of a project can make changes locally and then use the Rocket Network drop-down menu to post the changes. When an updated version is posted, the Rocket Network server compares the new version of the document to the master version and uploads only those media elements that are new or changed, using a lossless, near-lossless, or audition (lossy) compression level as defined by the project's owner or administrator. The server's master copy of the project is updated to reflect the changes, and all project members are automatically sent updates, again downloading just the media elements that are needed.

The Rocket Network menu also provides for posting of MP3, WAV, or AIFF audio files, called Mixdowns. These files can be used in the early stages of a project to develop ideas or as actual proposed mixes as the project progresses. The system includes real-time messaging, mail, and bulletin-board services that can keep all members in contact for the duration of a project.

In use, Rocket does seem a bit magical, with new parts evidently appearing by themselves and all collaborators in constant and easy contact with each other. When using MIDI data rather than digital audio, the effect is especially striking, because new parts can show up almost instantly.

Part of the Rocket interface is maintained as a Web site, with screens to list, create, and delete projects, Sessions, and Mixdowns. Account holders can access the site while logged on to a Session or at any time from a Web browser (see Fig. 7).

Rocket Network has done a good job of identifying and addressing the difficult issues of version control and transfer time. The system is pretty robust and scales well to any level of fidelity and project size needed. Compatibility issues are resolved primarily through the restriction of requiring Rocket-enabled applications, which is a reasonable trade for the benefit.

It is true that there is no free lunch, but you can sometimes get a few snacks. That's the case with Rocket Network. Each Rocket Studio Center offers a free account level that allows access to “public” projects posted on that center's site. At the free-account level, you cannot create projects or join the projects of other Rocket members; public projects are created only by the Studio Center and offer an opportunity to check out the system.

As mentioned before, Rocket offers three membership categories. Prices vary from one Studio Center to another, so the following rates are approximate. Pro User accounts cost a one-time fee of $29.95 and allow for unlimited participation in existing projects (at the behest and permission of project owners).

At the level of Private user, you can create and administer projects of your own. Pricing for Private-level accounts covers a wide range, from a pay-as-you-go plan to $10 to $1,200 a month, depending on the amount of storage space and data transfer provided. As with cell-phone plans, there are provisions for additional charges if you exceed the storage or transfer limits of your plan.

A matrix of plans and pricing is provided at the Studio Center, and it's not hard to see how much data storage and transfer come with each option. The difficult part is understanding what you can actually do with any amount of either. For example, at the DigiStudio Studio Center maintained by Digidesign, $10 per month gives you 50 MB of storage and 300 MB of data transfer per month, whereas the top-of-the-range plan offers 10 GB of storage and 60 GB of transfer for $1,200 per month.

At CD-standard resolution and sampling rate, 50 MB corresponds to about five track minutes. Depending on the audio-compression level, that might extend to around 30 minutes before fidelity suffers appreciably. At that level, you may be able to do some real work, but practical production will be limited to short-form material, repeating sample loops, MP3 files, or pure MIDI. With 10 GB, on the other hand, you can probably cover a couple of albums' worth of multitrack material.

Between the two extremes, each Studio Center offers slightly different options, with tiers aimed at various budgets. Rocket Network and the Studio Center partners do allow for account purchases or upgrades of an existing account on a month-by-month basis. If you have a big project, you can sign up for enough access to meet your needs and then cancel or revert to a lower level when the need diminishes.

Rocket's pricing, though a little complicated to figure out in the beginning, seems to be fair and addresses the needs of personal production and professional users who can justify costs. Rocket points out that getting the most from whatever account level you use requires some active management. If you typically leave lots of outtakes and unused tracks in your projects, you'll want to learn to curb that habit.

WHAT'S AHEAD?

Making music collaboratively on the Internet offers much potential for artistic satisfaction and professional benefits, although it's necessary to consider the pitfalls and options available. For tomorrow, expect to see facilitators such as Rocket Network in more and more DAWs and hardware-based workstations. The same ideas will be increasingly applied to video production as well. In all likelihood, community-based services such as nowRecording will also expand, with more options for active collaboration.

Ongoing developments on the Internet will eventually bring another big bump in bandwidth. If the Internet2 initiative gathers momentum, you may see greatly reduced latency. Real-time jamming on the Net could become a reality.

If you're new to the idea of collaborating online or have worked only with individual partners on a roll-your-own basis, take a look at nowRecording and Rocket Network. Some exciting territory awaits you, and the time is ripe for exploration.

Gary S. Hallplays keyboards, designs effects-processing networks, meditates, and cooks a mean curry.

ROCKET LAUNCHPADS

If you're interested in exploring some Rocket Network Studio Centers, there are several from which to choose. Here's a brief list of sites to consider.

Digidesign
www.digipronet.com

Emagic
www.emagicstudios.com

Futurehit.com
www.futurehit.com

Musician.com
www.musician.com/rocket

Music Player Network
www.musicplayer.com/thetrackexchange

NetStudio
www.emusician.com

Rittor Music (Japanese language)
www.astrosession.net

Sorinetwork (Korean language)
www.sorinetwork.com

Steinberg
www.inwire-studios.com