Long Distance Collaboration

Many project and home studio folks do a lot of their work alone. While this means you don’t have to persuade anyone else of the brilliance of your ideas, the downside is that it’s often the collaborative interaction between musicians that results in great music. While Lennon and McCartney arguably came up with some good material in their post-Beatles solo careers, many people feel that a degree of magic was lost when they went their separate ways; once they were each free to chase after their own muses, they lost the advantages and insights the other brought to the table.
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But what if you’re sitting at home in a project studio that’s located out in the boonies — how exactly do you collaborate with someone who is hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away? Fortunately, there are a lot of options for remote collaboration. High-speed parcel shipping services let you back up your project and ship a copy of it anywhere else in the world (if not overnight, then certainly within a day or two). For some types of projects, like sending something to another studio or engineer to mix, this is still a viable way to work. But there are also possibilities that can offer more “instant” gratification.

COLLABORATING IN THE REAL WORLD

The internet revolution and telecommunications advances have significantly reduced the cost, and increased the efficiency, of communicating with people in distant locations. This not only simplifies finding potential collaborators, but it also facilitates the collaboration process. For example, after the devastating tsunami in Asia a couple of years ago, and then the hurricane Katrina disaster, a few of my online friends and I decided to do collaborations on songs and donate the proceeds from their sale to relief efforts. The only problem was we were literally spread out all over the globe, and to make things even more difficult, we were all using different software applications for recording.

To deal with these issues, we used the internet as much as possible — not only to discuss our opinions on the song, its structure and arrangement, but also for file transfers. We started with a basic version of the song in MP3 format supplied by composer Ted Hoffman, a very talented writer/guitarist who lives in Kansas City. We started off with just acoustic guitar and vocals converted to an MP3 file; compared to WAV or AIFF files, the small size sped up transfer times.

Once we had that, we set up an FTP page on one of our servers (most personal websites come with file storage space for this purpose) where all interested parties could download the MP3 and listen to it, import it into their DAW of choice, then track their individual parts. Once these were complete, they were uploaded to the FTP site, where I was able to grab them and import them into the master session. (If you’re concerned about exposing your files to the public, you can password protect your FTP page and email the login information and password to your collaborators.)

THAT SYNCING FEELING

Had we all been using the same DAW, and that DAW supported time accurate spot placement for individual clips and regions, synching would have been simple. But we weren’t, so we went for the easy route and started the song off with four clicks. Not only were these useful for giving everyone a count in, but they also allowed us to align the original tracks with all the overdubs — just have your collaborators record those same clicks to the beginning of their overdubs, then zoom way in with your DAW and align the clicks for all of the tracks.

You could also opt for a hard-panned click track in the original stereo file, with the click panned hard to one side and a mono reference mix panned oppositely. Either way, the clicks make lining up the files very easy as long as all the collaborators re-record or copy and paste those first few clicks from the reference file to the beginning of any new tracks. Don’t forget to “consolidate” any tracks with multiple regions into a single, continuous WAV or AIFF file; this makes it easier to import the overdubs, and simplifies the alignment process.

COMMUNICATION COUNTS

You can use emails, instant messages, online forums, and the telephone to discuss ideas and toss suggestions back and forth. While large file transfers can take a while, it’s still faster than overnight shipping; if you have a fast DSL or cable connection for internet access (don’t even think about dial-up), it’s really not that bad. To speed up the process even further, for the initial back and forth creative process you can use MP3 files, then graduate to larger 16- or 24-bit file transfers when you reach the final stages. While you don’t all have to use the same DAW, do decide on common same sample rates for your MP3s and the final tracks. For online collaboration, I feel 24-bit/44.1kHz files offer the best balance of file size and audio quality for your “keeper” tracks.

With today’s tools, there’s no reason why you have to work in isolation — even if your personal studio trench is miles away from everyone else. Looking for a good place to get started? Then check out the Collaboration Corner forum (moderated by David Holloway) at www.musicplayer.com, as well as other options like Digital Musician.

Phil O’Keefe is a producer/engineer, and the owner of Sound Sanctuary Recording in Riverside, California. He can be contacted at Phil O'Keefe, or via the Studio Trenches forum at Harmony Central.