The World Wide Studio

Nobody can deny the tremendous impact that the technologies of MIDI, digital audio, and desktop production have had on the music industry. For many musicians
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Nobody can deny the tremendous impact that the technologies of MIDI, digital audio, and desktop production have had on the music industry. For many musicians and producers, the ability to create professional-quality tracks in a personal studio has been revolutionary.

For many studio musicians, though, these technological advances have come with a significant downside. Once-abundant session scenes have shrunk considerably, with players losing work to synths, samplers, and loops. Drummers, percussionists, bassists, string players, and horn players have been particularly hard hit.

Many producers are now doing much or all of their work in home setups. That change has led to the closing of many commercial studios, which were once hubs of work and networking for studio players, and culminated in a decentralization of the remaining session work.

Economic factors have also contributed to the decline in studio work. The financial downturn after the 9/11 attacks hit the commercial recording industry particularly hard. Technological changes, however, have clearly been the most significant single factor.

But all is not doom and gloom for studio players. A growing number have discovered a way to harness personal-studio technology, in conjunction with broadband Internet access, to create a new kind of studio work — remote sessions.

Far and Wide

A broadband Internet connection, with its ability to quickly transfer relatively large files, makes it much easier for musicians to work remotely. They can offer their services not just to producers and songwriters in their area, but around the entire world.

Savvy players are setting up Web-site interfaces that allow them to solicit clients, procure client information, facilitate payments, and, most importantly, send and receive music files. It's too soon to know if this development will be the way of the future, but it's certainly promising. The profiles scattered throughout this story provide a variety of examples of musicians who now include remote sessions as part of their income stream.

But remote recording isn't just for session players. Recording musicians of all types are discovering that they can collaborate over long distances using the file-transfer capabilities of the Net, or even by snail-mailing CD-Rs or DVDs with their tracks. Remote recording changes the dynamics of collaboration because, at least for now, the playing is done mainly in an “offline” fashion, with the musician (or musicians) working separately from the producer and from other musicians. That offers both advantages and challenges for all involved.

That Far Away Feeling

Remote recording sessions aren't a completely new phenomenon. Since the early '90s, ISDN lines have been used in some commercial studios to record distant talent. Perhaps the most groundbreaking example was Frank Sinatra's CD Duets (Capitol, 1993), on which producer Phil Ramone paired Sinatra with a host of remote duet partners. ISDN is expensive, however, and not easily accessible to the average musician.

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FIG. 1: Digital Musician.net is scheduled to launch in August 2005, using DSL lines to move data. According to the company, it will offer CD-quality audio, and videoconferencing among its features.

Some less pricey alternatives are available, but all use audio compression. Users of Pro Tools TDM or LE can get Source Connect 2.1, developed by Source-Elements (www.source-elements.com). This plug-in allows streaming of audio (using an AAC codec) between multiple remote systems using cable, T1, or DSL, and also has instant-messaging capabilities. The plug-in can be purchased for $1,495 or rented in a rent-to-own program.

A brand-new service, Digital Musician.net (www.digitalmusician.net), is scheduled to debut in August of this year (see Fig. 1). It will use DSL to transfer MIDI and audio files (256 kb MP3 files) in real time, and has videoconferencing capabilities.

Simultaneous, multistudio recording appears to be the wave of the future, but for now, the most practical way for personal-studio owners to record uncompressed audio remotely is to do it offline and transfer files back and forth using the Internet. That method is the one this article focuses on.

Do Your Own Thing

First, I'll explain what you will need to do a remote session. I'll assume here that you are the studio musician, and that the person you are working for or collaborating with is the producer (although the situation could be reversed).

As the musician, you'll need a studio setup that's good enough to record your instrument with professional results. If you play an acoustic instrument, you'll need a good mic or two and a decent mic preamp.

You and the producer should both have broadband Internet access. Unless you have the patience to send tracks through the physical mail or by an overnight delivery service, one of the parties should have an FTP site or the equivalent for transferring files that are too large to email. (If either of you have Digidesign's DigiDelivery system, which is expressly designed for sending session files of all types over the Internet, so much the better. Only one of you needs DigiDelivery for you both to use it. It requires an investment of several thousand dollars to get the gear, though.)

A great thing about working remotely is that the producer and the musician can have different DAW software because audio-file formats are so interchangeable. For most situations, there's no need to send application-specific files. The producer can send MP3 reference tracks to the musician, and the musician can send uncompressed audio files back to the producer.

All the remote-recording musicians that I talked to for this story had DAW-based studios. There's no reason, however, that you couldn't do it from a PDS (personal digital studio), as long as it's able to import and export WAV, AIFF, or SD II files. You'd still need a computer for uploading and downloading, though.

The Planning Stage

A remote session requires more advanced planning than a conventional one (see Fig. 2). First, the producer should email you an MP3 reference mix of the song. (Some musicians prefer AIFF or WAV files as reference because of their better fidelity. In most cases, however, MP3 is fine, and the files are generally small enough to email.) After you've had a chance to listen to the file, it's essential that you and the producer work out a number of details.

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FIG. 2: The workflow for a typical remote session.

One important point to clarify is which uncompressed audio-file format you'll deliver your final tracks in. Most likely you'll use WAV or AIFF, but you might use Sound Designer II. You'll then need to determine whether your gear can record at the same sampling rate and bit depth as the original session (which I'll refer to as the “master session”); if not, the producer will have to upsample your recorded parts.

In addition to resolving the format and resolution issues, it's crucial that you and the producer discuss the artistic direction and sound that's expected of you. This is the time to request a particular element (or elements) that you'd like to hear louder or softer than normal in your reference mix. Remember, if you don't like the mix, it's not just a matter turning a knob to change it. You'll have to request a different mix from the producer, who will have to make it and send it to you, which could take some time.

Sync or Sink

It's critical for the eventual syncing of your recorded parts with the master session that when the producer makes your stereo reference mix, it starts right at the absolute beginning of the sequence. In bars, beats, and ticks, that would be 1/1/000 (or 0:00:00 in hours/minutes/seconds). If your part calls for you to start playing at the top of the song, the producer should make sure that the song itself starts at least a measure after that 1/1/000 starting point, to make room for a count off, which should be included on the reference mix.

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FIG. 3: To ensure easy syncing back into the master session, it''s critical that the audio file containing your part starts at the absolute beginning (1/1/000 in bars/beats/ticks). The guitar overdub in this example starts at the fourth measure, but the start of the file is 1/1/000.

The tracks that you send to the producer also need to start at 1/1/000. That is true even if there are several measures between the point when the file starts and when you start to play or sing (see Fig. 3). If need be, paste a short piece of blank audio at 1/1/000, and then use your sequencer's feature for connecting noncontiguous audio regions (for example, the Consolidate feature in Pro Tools) to join the rest of your track to that region without changing the time of what you recorded, relative to the reference track.

With your newly recorded track starting at the same point as your reference track, it will be a simple matter for the producer to sync it back up. He or she needs only to import it into the master sequence and set its start point to 1/1/000.

From the Downbeat

Once your presession planning is finished and you've received the reference files from the producer, you're ready to roll. If you're working on a project that has multiple songs, you can save yourself time by making a template that has the proper audio resolution set and the tracks created for both the stereo reference file and the audio to be recorded.

It's helpful to get the tempo setting from the producer for the song or songs that you will be working on, especially if they were recorded with a click track. With your tempo set the same as that of the master session, the bar lines will automatically line up with the music, which will make your life a lot easier.

If the song wasn't recorded to a click track, you'll have to do without the measures lining up. In either case, you should add markers into your sequence in order to delineate the various verses, choruses, bridges, and so forth.

If both of you use the same sequencer program, the producer could opt to send you sequence files rather than just audio files. That would allow you to record directly into a copy of the master sequence. In that situation, it's better for the producer to send the file with only a 2-track submix of the existing audio tracks. If you were to be sent a sequence containing all the individual audio tracks, the file could be very large.

Make sure that you get charts from the producer for any and all songs that you're working on. Because he or she won't be in the room with you when you're cutting your tracks, having charts is essential for keeping you on course — even if they are just simple chord charts. When you're recording your parts, no one will be there to answer questions such as “How many measures after the bridge is it before my solo comes in?” The charts should have measure numbers on them that correspond to the sequence, and they should be easy to navigate. Otherwise, you might have to spend a lot of time familiarizing yourself with the arrangement before you're ready to nail your part.

If the song doesn't clearly specify at which places you are supposed to play your instrument, make certain to discuss that in advance, too. (Hopefully, that will be indicated on the chart.) Otherwise, you could waste time playing during sections that won't be used in the final mix.

Unless you have videoconferencing facilities (Apple's iSight, for example), one disadvantage of working remotely is that the producer can't see or hear you while you're playing, and therefore can't “produce” you. Whereas in a conventional session you might be asked to try several different directions for your part, you get no immediate feedback when you work remotely. To minimize the possibility of recording tracks that don't fit with the producer's vision for the song, make sure that musical direction is part of your presession planning.

Rough Stuff

Once you've recorded your part, send the producer an MP3 of it (either by itself or combined in a mix with the reference track) so that he or she can approve what you did before you upload the full-bandwidth files. To avoid too many revision requests, agree on a revision policy in advance (see “Curb Their Revisionism”).

I recently recorded a remote session for an album on which I was playing multiple lead instruments on a variety of songs. My part of the project took longer than I had expected, because I spent so much time messing with effects and other mix variables on the rough mix in order to make it all sound as good as possible.

Another subject to talk about in your preproject discussion is that of effects. It's usually best to leave off ambient effects such as reverb and delay, unless it's a delay that's a big part of the sound you're going for, such as a slapback. Let the producer and engineer add those when they mix.

If, however, any effects are integral to your tonal signature (in the way that, for example, distortion or overdrive is for a guitarist), they should be printed on the tracks that you're sending. Don't count on the producer to get them right. Your sound is part of your musical personality, and it's a big part of why you get hired. Don't cede that control to somebody else (see Jean-Luc Ponty's take on this topic in the sidebar “Strings Across the Ocean”).

Curb Their Revisionism

The issue of revisions should be clarified prior to any remote session. In a conventional session, you play until the producer (or the client) is satisfied. If he or she doesn't like what you played, you'll be told and asked to do it over. The process is usually quick, and your time is limited to the period of time you were booked to play. Especially if the session was put together under the auspices of the musicians union (which is always preferable for the musician), any overtime would result in higher pay.

The session players that I spoke with who have commercial, Web-based, remote-studio services spell out the revision issue in their basic agreements. Los Angeles percussionist Michito Sanchez offers several different packages; as the number of revisions goes up, so does the price (see the sidebar “Percussion to Go”). Frank Basile of Live Studio Drums, offers revisions as an extra (see the sidebar “Smart Drums”). Drummer Dave Weckl offers them as part of his service when he's recording final tracks (which he charges more for), but not for demos (see the sidebar “A Drum Legend Goes Remote“).

If you don't work out the revision issue before you start the session, you're at the mercy of the producer. The process could well end up taking considerably more time than you had expected.

Working Together

Up until now, I've been discussing musician-for-hire scenarios, but what if you're involved in a collaborative project with others in different locations, with each player contributing from his or her own studio?

Many of the issues are the same, like figuring out the file formats and audio resolution. But without the monetary part of the equation to worry about, you're much freer to revise, experiment, and work together toward creating the best possible product.

Remote recording is also used commonly as a preproduction tool. For example, I recently interviewed Kevin Hearn, the keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist from Barenaked Ladies. He described how before he and his bandmates get together to track a CD, they record ideas in their personal studios and then send the files to each other to review.

You Got to Get It

Like other types of studio work — and virtually any other type of work in the music business — getting remote-studio gigs depends largely on your reputation and your contacts. That's why somebody like Dave Weckl is able to charge top dollar. For him, the only hurdle to getting remote gigs is letting people know that he's available for them. He uses his Web site as one way to promote that side of his work.

Most musicians aren't lucky enough to have the kind of reputation Weckl does, so they have to work a lot harder to get session work of any type. If you do have a Web site, by all means use it to promote that you're available for remote work. If you get traffic to your site for other music-related reasons (if, for example, you're also a performer and people come to your site for information on your gigs), you can push your studio work. You never know what might come of it.

If you have any connections with musicians or producers who might have a need for session players, contact them and let them know that in addition to doing traditional sessions, you're set up to work remotely. It couldn't hurt, and it gives you an excuse to get in touch with them.

The Short Answer

Continued developments in technology are sure to make remote recording even easier in the years ahead. Odds are good that “offline” remote sessions will recede in importance as live videoconferenced sessions become the standard.

But even with today's capabilities, working remotely is viable and within reach of most recording musicians. Whether you're trying to expand your session work or just do some long-distance songwriting, you can now conveniently collaborate with musicians from across town or across the ocean.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor. He wishes to thank Frank Basile, Jean-Luc Ponty, Michito Sanchez, Ira Siegel, Dave Weckl, and Ron Franklin.

STRINGS ACROSS THE OCEAN

Although he doesn't actively seek out remote sessions, jazz violin legend Jean-Luc Ponty (www.ponty.com) has done his share of such work, both as a session player and on collaborative projects with other artists.

His studio is based around a Digidesign Pro Tools HD setup, with a ProControl console as the centerpiece (see Fig. B). One thing he's very particular about is his sound, and when he does a remote session, he's careful to deliver tracks with his signature tone already on them.

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FIG. B: When he does a remote session in his studio, Jean-Luc Ponty carefully EQs his violin sound to his own demanding specifications before sending the file to his client.

“My sound is part of my musical identity, as important as colors in a painting,” he says. “I send it [his violin signal] already EQ'd through Metric Halo's ChannelStrip plug-in, which I really love,” he says. “It's so efficient and easy to use. I have saved EQ settings for each of my electric violins in ChannelStrip, and I just do minor adjustments to fit the track if necessary. So I am sure that my sound is exactly as I want it.”

Ponty enjoys the freedom that remote recording affords him. “I like the fact that I can take my time to experiment without worrying about using studio time. Also if there is no hurry, I can record fresh improvisations on different days, because after a few tries the spontaneity disappears.”

When interviewed, Ponty had just released a DVD called In Concert (Navarre Distributors, 2004) and was about to begin a collaboration with Stanley Clarke and Bela Fleck called The Trio. The three were planning to start rehearsing soon.

“The idea is to play and record altogether so that we can catch as much interplay as possible, especially for our improvisations. Then, if we need to, each of us can take copies at home and put some final touches, each in our respective studios.”

PERCUSSION TO GO

Michito Sanchez is a well-respected percussionist in the highly competitive Los Angeles studio scene. Sanchez's impressive session résumé includes the Rolling Stones, Don Henley, Raul Malo, and Eric Burdon, among others. In recent years, he's experienced firsthand the decline in session work.

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FIG. C: Machito Sanchez realized that his Los-Angeles-area studio could be more than just a place for songwriting, it could be the hub of his remote-studio business.

“I noticed that sessions had been dropping and dropping,” he says. And it wasn't just the number of dates, but the quality as well. “Instead of going to big recording studios, I was going to a lot more home studios.” So he decided to do something about it. “I felt there was a need for something revolutionary to happen in the music-recording industry.”

Early last year, Sanchez built a Pro Tools — based home studio at his house with the idea to use it for songwriting (see Fig. C). Then one day a friend called him and asked him to play on a CD project. “I said, ‘Sure, do you want to do it here, or should we do it at your house?’ And he asked me if I had Internet access. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘How about if I just email you some files and you play on them and put them on a CD-ROM, or send them back over the Internet.’“

Doing his first remote session led Sanchez to an epiphany. “The light bulb went on,” he says. He realized that by using the Web to transfer files, he could work with clients from all over the world. “I talked to some friends on the technology side of it, and they said ‘Sure, if you have a fast enough connection, it can be done. It's not impossible at all.’“

So Sanchez brought in a Web designer and a programmer who helped him design a custom Web site (percussiontracks.com), which acts as a front end for his remote-studio business.

Sanchez offers different packages to his clients, with pricing dependent on how many tracks and how many revisions they want. Clients upload stereo reference mixes in AIFF or WAV format (or email an MP3), which he loads into Pro Tools. He then lays down percussion parts from his huge collection of instruments, and sends back an MP3 with a rough mix of his percussion tracks and the client's reference track. If the client wants a revision, Sanchez will do it and send another reference. If the client approves, Sanchez uploads the AIFF or WAV files of the percussion tracks he recorded to a server, and sends his clients links from which they can download what he recorded for them and add it to their master sessions.

“You can send me tracks from anywhere in the world, and I'll put my stuff on them and send them right back to you,” Sanchez says, “and that's the beauty of it.”

Sanchez has even arranged it so that his sessions are sanctioned by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, so he won't lose out on the health and pension contributions he gets when he does conventional sessions. Overall, remote recording has proved to be beneficial to both Sanchez and his clients.

BIG APPLE REMOTE

Ira Siegel (www.irasiegel.com) is one of the top session guitarists in New York (see Fig. D). His list of credits includes appearances on CDs with artists ranging from Jewel to Marc Anthony to Chaka Kahn to Sinead O'Connor. He's also played on countless jingles and on TV and film soundtracks.

Siegel got a Pro Tools rig back in 2000 on the advice of a colleague, and he has supplemented his conventional sessions with remote ones ever since. “Most of the time, people send me an MP3 file to play to that has a click track on it,” he says. “I don't need anybody sending me a WAV file or an AIFF file or a Sound Designer II file. Most of the time they'll want me to send them back a full bandwidth file.”

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FIG. D: Ira Siegel performing in New York City, where he''s an in-demand session guitarist for conventional and remote sessions.

How does he usually get the file to his clients? “I'll either post it up on an FTP site that they have set up, or I'll put it up on my .Mac site or theirs.”

Surprisingly, some of Siegel's clients are satisfied with MP3 tracks and don't request WAV or AIFFs. “I can't tell you how many times I've posted up MP3s of what I've done in Pro Tools for expedience sake, and they end up going on the air.”

Even when he's on tour, he's still able to do remote sessions. “I just bring my laptop and the Mbox. I've done a few of those. As long as you have a high-speed internet connection, you're good to go. Hell, you could do it from the tour bus — and I have.”

As a five-year veteran of remote recording, Siegel has developed some interesting tricks. One is a quick way to post his files using Apple's iChat software. “IChat is another way of putting stuff up,” he says. “An instant message in iChat is one of the fastest ways to suck up a 35 MB file. You just drag-and-drop into the Instant Message window.”

He also uses the videoconferencing facilities in iChat during some of his remote sessions. “What I've taken to doing is having my laptop open with iChat and the iSight camera on so I can videoconference with them while I'm doing it.” Although the quality of the video is far from perfect, it's enough to establish two-way communication during the session. “They can kind of hear what I'm doing. Because otherwise, what if you do these tracks and they don't like them? If you have to do that six or seven times, it's going to be three days before you finish a 3-minute song — which totally defeats any kind of technological aspect that might have made this advantageous.”

Although Siegel takes advantage of remote recording, he doesn't see it as a perfect way to go. “Even though you're at home, it can be a lot more work because you're also the engineer. Truth to tell, that's what takes up most of the time — the uploading and all that stuff.”

What's the future of remote recording in Siegel's opinion? “I think it will find its niche. I don't think it will take over,” he says. He doesn't think it can replace working one-on-one in the studio with a producer. “A producer can work his magic much better in person,” he says. “I don't think anything is going to take the place of that.”

SMART STUDIO

Drumming has been a big deal for Frank Basile (see Fig. E) for a long time. Not only does he play, but he's also the owner of Smart Loops, a company based outside of Boston that puts out drum loops and various instrument loops. Sensing the possibilities for remote-studio work, Basile set up Live Studio Drums (livestudiodrums.com), a remote-studio drumming service. Although he doesn't have a national reputation as a player, he regularly deals with Smart Loops customers, most of whom are looking to buy drum loops and can be convinced to spring for the real thing. That has proved to be a fertile client base.

Before launching Live Studio Drums, Basile spent six months putting together an extremely comprehensive Web interface that's designed to get and provide all the information necessary for a client to order studio-drumming services. “It's pretty different from anything else I've seen,” he says.

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FIG E: In addition to top quality drums and mics, Frank Basile''s remote drum session business features a unique, Web-based interface that makes the logistics of the remote recording process.

The client starts by filling out a checklist and creating an account. “You go through this checklist; you can choose a snare drum,” says Basile. “Click on a snare drum, and you'll hear an example of the particular snare drum that you'll be getting. There's technical information up there, sampling rate, bit depth. People tell me what they're looking for; you can see the other information. Then they submit the checklist.”

Basile's rates are based on how quickly you want the drum tracks turned around. If you can wait 21 business days, he'll do a song for $99. If you want it done overnight, it will cost $199. His standard session is $119, which is turned around in five business days. Additional takes cost extra, but Basile says they're rarely requested. “I probably get less then five percent of people who want a second take,” he says.

Basile's studio is based around a PC running Cakewalk Sonar 4 and a Yamaha 01V96 mixer. He has plenty of drums to choose from. “I'm a Pearl endorsee, so I get lots and lots of drums. That works out great.” His mics include models by Audix, Audio-Technica, Neumann, and Shure.

Basile describes what happens once he records his drum part. “When I'm done doing a recording, and I'm happy with the take that I want to submit to them, I'll create an MP3 mix of their scratch [reference] track and my drum track. And then I'll upload that, and they'll get a message saying ‘Login to your LSD account. Your preview file is waiting for you to approve.’“

Once the client approves, Basile sends them links that allow them to download the nine individual drum tracks for their song from his own server in WAV or AIFF format. “It's not even FTP, it's better than that,” he says, explaining that he initially used FTP but had some problems with certain clients being unable to access their files. His new system has worked flawlessly. “You just right-click the link, and it downloads the files.”

The biggest disadvantage of working remotely, says Basile, is the lack of instant feedback from the client. “But the funny thing is, that's also an advantage in some cases,” he says. “I can be on my own, I can concentrate on the song, I don't have any distractions.”