One of the most significant and interesting aspects of the Internet is the way it enables us to communicate and collaborate with people from all over the world in ways never before possible. Since music is basically about communicating emotion and is created collaboratively, the Web should allow us to produce music in new and exciting ways.
Enter Rocket Network, an innovative Internet-audio startup based in San Francisco. Founded by an international crew of musicians and software engineers, the company has developed a system that allows musicians to produce songs online in the comfort of their own studios, whether they're in New York, London, Tokyo, or points in between.
RocketPower, Rocket Network's proprietary code, enables a digital audio sequencer to work with the Rocket Network system. By linking RocketPower versions of digital audio sequencers like Steinberg's Cubase and Emagic's Logic Audio to a Web browser via the RocketControl client software, musicians can send digital audio back and forth across the Internet in a bandwidth-efficient manner (see Fig. 1). In this way, the virtual studio is poised to change the paradigm of multitrack recording.
VIRTUAL STUDIO EVOLUTIONI first came across the company a few years ago, when it was called ResRocket and offered a "MIDI only" application called ResRocket 1.4. Promoted as a way to "jam with your friends online," the product used Internet technology in an interesting way and was geared toward a consumer market. At a time when a 28.8 kbps modem was considered speedy, ResRocket allowed people to share MIDI tracks in real time.
For a demonstration of the new digital audio-based system, EM associate editor Gino Robair and I recently met with Willy Henshall, chairman of Rocket Network and a former member of the hit pop/soul band Londonbeat, at the company's headquarters. For the demo, Henshall gave Robair a PowerBook and me a laptop PC. Each machine was running Cubase and wired to the Internet through a high-speed connection. We logged on to an Internet recording studio maintained by Rocket Network and discovered that a number of other people were already there (see Fig. 2).
Although the various musicians were scattered around the globe-one in the United Kingdom, one on the East Coast, one in the next office-we were able to communicate using a chat room built into the RocketControl floating window. When one of the participants uploaded a drum loop (Rocket Network refers to this as posting), the audio appeared in each of our sequencing programs on the correct track and channel, allowing us to hear it. In response, I quickly recorded a piano part with an Alesis QS6.1 synth and posted it.
Upon listening to the results, I was dissatisfied with how the piano sounded in the groove that was forming, so I recorded a Hammond B-3 part and posted that. The piano part disappeared from everyone's screens and was replaced by the new organ riff.
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKSRocket Network couples a client/server application with QDesign's powerful audio compression codec. The resulting speed and transparency create the illusion of a real-life recording session.
Clicking the Post button in a RocketPower sequencer triggers a series of events. First, the QDesign codec compresses the audio from your session (if needed) to facilitate a speedy transfer over the Internet. You can choose from several compression levels. Preview mode provides a 25:1 compression ratio with respectable audio quality. At this ratio, a 2.5 MB AIFF file (30 seconds of 16-bit, 44 kHz mono audio) compresses to about 88 KB. Standard mode gives you a 10:1 ratio, with fewer audio artifacts but bigger files.
Once the codec has compressed the audio, RocketControl sends the Objects (file information such as channel, track, and start point) to the server, followed by the Media (the compressed audio itself). The server then automatically posts the Objects and Media to the other users currently online in the same virtual studio. It also stores the information as part of the current active project. That way, another musician can log on later, pull down the current version of the active project, and add a new track.
When you're satisfied with your parts, you can post a full-resolution version of your source file to the server so that you can do final mixing and mastering with the highest-quality audio. You can send or receive files any time at any resolution that your digital audio workstation and your QDesign codec will allow.
PRODUCING A SESSIONIt's one thing to see a demo of a product but quite another to work with it in a real-world situation. I was eager to try out the system on my own, as a producer, using a salsa tune I wrote called "Red Queen's Race." The track already included a timbalitos part recorded to a MIDI rendition of the bass and piano parts, but the song still needed congas and vocals.
Rocket Network's system has a number of hardware and software requirements (see the sidebar "System Recommendations"). Although my own project studio, Twittering Machine, is built around a Power Mac 7100 with a NewerTech/300 G3 card, I found I was ill-equipped to run the virtual studio. To get up to speed, I had some work to do.
First I had to install a digital audio sequencer equipped to work with the Rocket Network system. Recent versions of Cubase incorporate RocketPower, which gives a program the code and menu options that enable it to talk to the RocketControl client software. I, however, chose to install Emagic's Logic Audio 4.0 because I knew it would work well with my Digidesign hardware and TDM plug-ins. The version of Logic Audio that included Rocket Network features was in its final beta-test phase. I wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of learning a new digital audio sequencer-especially a beta version-but with a little help from Rocket Network's Andy Russell, I was able to get up and running without too much trouble.
After that, I registered as a new user at Rocket Network's Web site (www .rocketnetwork.com) and downloaded the latest version of RocketControl. This application is the glue that holds the whole system together. It provides a gateway for sending and receiving digital audio data to and from the Rocket Network servers, controls log-on and chat functions, and launches the required Web pages.
This is where I first ran into problems, as the dynamic HTML pages that display the available online studios would not load in Netscape Navigator 4.5. At first we suspected that my system did not have enough RAM (the site recommends 128 MB and I had only 88 MB). I then installed additional memory, but to no avail. Installing the latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and making it the default browser, however, solved my problem.
I'm no stranger to using beta software, so I wasn't too surprised that simultaneously opening the sequencer, the Digidesign Audio Engine, the browser, and RocketControl caused my whole system to collapse occasionally. Excellent tech support from Rocket Network's Kriss de Jong (aka TekNoSan) helped me work through the bugs, and things stabilized after a while.
CREATING A SESSIONMy plan was to set up a virtual studio on the server, create a new project, record the conga player from the Rocket Network offices, and track the vocalist from Henshall's home studio. To simulate a situation in which the participants are on different continents, we tried to communicate using only the online chat functions. In addition, none of the musicians had heard the song prior to the session. It was a grand experiment, and I was both thrilled and skeptical.
I fired up the RocketPower version of Logic Audio, which looks and acts just like the regular version 4.0 except that it includes a new RocketPower item under the File menu (see Fig. 3). I selected that option to launch the RocketControl client software, which asked for my user ID and password. RocketControl then started the Web browser, logged on to the Rocket Network system, and took me directly to a Web page that displayed the studios I had access to, my bookmarks, and other relevant information. There we created a new virtual studio called Twittering Machine.
For the purposes of this article, Rocket Network provided me with a virtual studio. Normally, I would have to go to a third-party source such as HarmonyCentral.com, Steinberg, or Emagic to lease studio space of my own. These companies buy large blocks of studios from Rocket Network and rent them out to individuals. I'd pay a yearly fee for a certain amount of bandwidth and storage, the same way I pay an Internet service provider to host my site.
As the studio owner, I control who has access to my studio and which users may contribute audio to a session. I can also enter profile information that lets other users know which instruments I play, what music I work with, and what hats I wear (composer, producer, and so on).
To begin the session, I selected New Project from the RocketPower menu and uploaded my piano and bass MIDI tracks to the Rocket Network server so that the conga player and vocalist would have something to listen to while recording. Because the amount of MIDI data was so small, the transfer was practically instantaneous. However, I had no way of knowing how the tracks would play on the other users' sound modules, so I recorded the audio output of my Roland SoundCanvas and posted the resulting two-minute AIFF file.
Because everyone involved with this session had fast Internet connections, we decided to use the Standard compression mode and upload the full 16-bit, 44 kHz AIFF source files when we were done. A buggy implementation of the QDesign codec in my beta version of Logic Audio caused the compression step to take a very long time, but this problem has since been corrected.
AUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGSMichaelle Goerlitz of the band Wild Mango arrived at Rocket Network headquarters just as my audio files finished posting. An excellent player, she was able to lay down an impressive conga track in just a few takes (see Fig. 4). Andy Russell compressed and posted the track, and it soon arrived on my computer.
I had something of an epiphany when I pushed Play and heard Goerlitz's track for the first time. Although I had found the online demo only somewhat interesting aesthetically, producing an actual song over the Internet turned out to be an extraordinarily compelling experience.
Through RocketControl's chat functions, I asked Goerlitz to take a solo after the coro of the tune. Soon, my audio disk started chugging away, and five tracks of smoking conga solos showed up in my session. At this point, I was ecstatic.
BEING THEREFor me, there's a big difference between tracking a rhythm part like the congas and tracking vocals. To get just the right feeling, I like to coach a vocalist while I'm working. Here, I had to communicate entirely via the chat window, which proved difficult-especially when the other studio's computer crashed. For most of the session I really missed being there, and sometimes I even felt a little left out of the loop on my own project.
On a technical level, too, the vocal session didn't go as smoothly as the conga session, again due to problems in the prerelease software. Earlier, I had given the lyrics to vocalist Al Owens of Motion Music and uploaded a MIDI flute line of the intended melody as a guide track. When Owens arrived at Henshall's home studio, Henshall logged on and told me he was getting set up to record.
Under "normal" recording circumstances, I would have taken this time to go over the song with the vocalist, explain what I was looking for, and make suggestions. As it was, all I could do was sit and wait until the chat window said, "OK, we're going to record now." Once the first vocal take posted, I listened to it a few times and made some critiques, requests, and suggestions using the chat window. I was still waiting for a reply when I got the message "OK, we just did three more takes!" Apparently they had received my directions and acted on them without actually telling me they were doing so, which I found kind of confusing.
Then we hit a patch of technical difficulties. Henshall had to reboot a couple of times, the compression took forever, and then all the audio data (not just the vocal tracks Henshall had recorded) got compressed and uploaded-twice! The result was that I didn't get to hear the subsequent takes or the harmony parts for almost two hours. At that point, the vocalist had already gone home. Fortunately, Owens is an excellent singer and I was quite happy with his tracks, but the overall experience was a little disconcerting.
I went into this project knowing that bugs were still being ironed out, so I wasn't surprised that the sessions weren't technically flawless. These troubles aside, I came away feeling that Rocket Network's system has great potential.
FUTURE REVSRocket Network has big plans for the future. The company is creating a new browser interface and redesigning the RocketControl user interface to make navigating the system easier. Users will be able to customize their studio's Web page to a greater degree. A new Bounce to Web feature will let any user with a Web browser hear a project's current mix without installing sequencing software. Rocket Network is working up a database of registered musicians that will be searchable by a broad range of criteria and able to generate contracts and arrange for payment through an escrow service; online catalogs of sound effects and production music will allow producers to quickly audition and purchase audio for commercial spots; and QuickTime video capabilities will speed the production of TV and film scores.
Professional recording facilities such as Tomandandy, the Berklee College of Music, and Serafine Studios are already lining up to rent Internet studio suites for internal projects. Third-party developers like Euphonix, Digidesign, and G-Vox are building RocketPower into their products, and more developers are coming on board every day.
ONE GIANT LEAPThe ability to collaborate quickly and cost-effectively with an international pool of musicians is certainly a compelling reason to look into this new technology. For me, the biggest drawback to recording online is that I'm not in the room with the musicians during the session. On the other hand, the idea of working online with musicians I would never otherwise have the opportunity to meet is pretty exciting.
I did have some technical problems, but those stemmed from the beta version of the digital audio sequencer I was using, and those bugs will have been corrected by the time you read this. Nevertheless, you will have to meet some hefty hardware and ISP requirements to use the system. (Don't try this with a 14.4 kbps modem, folks.)
Like everything that involves the Internet, the Rocket Network system is a work in progress that will continue to evolve as each new development partner signs on and adds features. Still, it's clear that the Internet recording studio is an idea whose time has come.
Peter Drescher is a composer and the owner of Twittering Machine, a project studio in San Francisco. You can hear the final mix of the song described in this article at www .twittering.com/EM/rocket.html.
Many applications have to work together to make recording on the Rocket Network system possible. System requirements depend on your digital audio sequencer and Web browser as well as the RocketControl application.
If you're running Windows 98 or Windows NT 4.0, Rocket Network recommends using a Pentium/300 with 128 MB of RAM and 20 MB of hard disk space. You'll also need access to the Internet and either Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 or Netscape Communicator 4.0 (or later).
Macintosh users need at least a PowerPC 604e/200 running Mac OS 8.1; Rocket Network recommends a G3. You'll also need 128 MB of RAM, 20 MB of hard disk space, Internet access, and either Internet Explorer 4.5 or Communicator 4.0 (or later).