LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS - EMusician

LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS

As a teenager about 15 years ago, I would dial into local bulletin-board systems with a pokey 24k modem and chat for hours with like-minded musos across
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You can win a free mix from featured company The Mixingbox and also a free mastering session from featured company eMasters. Entering the contests couldn''t be much easier.

The Mixingbox is giving away one free mix session. The winner will be determined by random drawing on April 15, 2007. No purchase necessary; limit one entry per household. To enter, go to www.themixingbox.com/remix.

For your chance at have a track mastered for free either digitally, to vinyl or to CD from eMasters, go to www.emasters.co.uk/remixregister.php. First you register for the site and then answer some simple questions to enter the contest. There will be 10 winners chosen!

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As a teenager about 15 years ago, I would dial into local bulletin-board systems with a pokey 24k modem and chat for hours with like-minded musos across town about the latest computer-recording technology. I fondly recall an Atari 1040 ST freeware utility that let me jam back and forth with a buddy via modem using MIDI keyboards and sound modules, which we thought was too cool. In those early days, actually jamming with acoustic instruments and real-time streaming audio was pure science fiction.

Today, online collaboration is big business — even gaining attention from venture capitalists. In the past year, all sorts of services have popped up. Whether it's finding your next project, recording online, having a song professionally mixed and mastered or schmoozing industry types to find publicity and distribution, online collaboration is catching on fast and closing the distances between musicians.

WRITE IT

Every song or project must begin with inspiration. A great place to start your search for songwriting and jamming partners is Digital Musician (www.digitalmusician.net). Like the majority of online-collaboration sites, Digital Musician is community-based, meaning members sign up and create personal and professional profiles indicating musical experience, artistic leanings and intentions for using the site. For example, hobbyists join in hopes of learning more about songwriting and gear, and working professionals jam and record together with other site members from around the globe without travel costs.

Using the site's Talent Scout search utility, I was able to find so many different musicians from so many countries and diverse musical backgrounds — very refreshing. It didn't take long to spot members with matching tastes and visions. After a few e-mails, we added each other to our musical partners lists and got mingling in the new collective studio.

Obviously, communication and invitation is a huge part of successful online collaboration. Users can organize private and public projects for their partners or general members. The community area features a public forum and a chat section where you can ask technical questions, make suggestions for improvements or discuss anything else to do with making music online.

Digital Musician's secret weapon — as with all collaboration sites — is a proprietary session-hosting tool. The Digital Musician Link (DML) is a VST 2.0 or RTAS plug-in that you insert in one of your sequencer's channels and use it to log in to the Digital Musician server. Through broadband connections, DML allows you to connect with people and jam in real time with high-quality synchronized stereo audio (as high as 256 Kbps), as if you were in a studio together.

Both MIDI and audio streams can be transferred without latency thanks to an embedded time-stamp technology. Via the integrated full-screen video window, you can see and hear your session partner, making it a fully emotive experience. Of course, you'll need at least a basic microphone for the talkback connection and a Webcam for video conferencing. Transport messages make sure everyone's sequencers shuttle and playback in perfect sync.

DML downloads are free of charge, but both you and your partners will each have to be paid subscribers to Digital Musician to enjoy premium services. A DMN Standard (free) account allows using the DML plug-in at a maximum of 128 Kbps with full access to the Website, including a homepage with one picture and as many as three demo tracks. A Pro account (9.90 euros per month; 89 euros per year [approximately $117 per year]) allows a 256 Kbps streaming throughput that sounds equivalent to uncompressed WAV or AIFF material. This account also unlocks DML's file-transfer function, where you can transfer recorded audio in any format and resolution. You'll also receive more space for your homepage and get promotional ad rotation of your profile, so other members can take greater notice of your talents.

Since it's based in Germany and currently most popular in Europe, the majority of Digital Musician members were asleep when I wandered online in the evening, Eastern Standard Time. Once more North Americans join, that will be less of a concern.

Another new service (about 200 members at press time) using proprietary software to host songwriting sessions is eJamming (www.ejamming.com). The system is entirely MIDI controlled and sends MIDI data back and forth — not audio. So you and your collaborators will need to have MIDI controllers (or MIDI converters) to play all keys, guitars, drums, etc.

To keep all participants hearing the same sounds, the eJamming Studio software includes an internal General MIDI Sound Set programmed exclusively for eJamming by world-renowned sound designer, Sonic Implants. You can, however, use any sound set that supports the GM spec. As you jam, you can record your performance, load previously recorded MIDI files into eJamming overdubbing or export the newly recorded files to any DAW for offline audio overdubs, editing and mixing.

Musician profiles show their location, influences, favorite genres, main instruments and studio-gear list, so you can search for compatibilities. Members also list what time of day or evening they're typically online.

The Jam Scheduler calendars your sessions and rehearsals and sends out e-mail reminders. It even lists all public Hosted Jams and special sessions, all on one interactive calendar. JamVites is an Instant Messaging system used to invite other musicians currently logged into eJamming to join in your writing or playing.

Day-passes to the eJamming site cost $4.95, and renewable subscriptions cost $14.95 per month, $75 for six months or $150 for a year; the software is free to download.

RECORD IT

Both Digital Musician and eJamming provide the ability to record what you've written on the spot, but two other online services cater more toward getting things down “on tape” than merely jamming out ideas.

Though still in its early testing stages, eSession (www.esession.com) is most similar to Digital Musician in that it offers real-time collaboration between musicians over high-speed Internet — but with an exciting twist. The site aims to be an Internet database of the music industry's top musicians, engineers and producers — hired-guns if you will — and is designed so that users around the world can hire members of that database (what the site calls eTalent), communicate with them and work in real time. The company states that, with the desire and budget, you'll be able to hire Peter Gabriel's bassist or Alanis Morissette's guitarist to lay some hot tracks on your projects.

Registration is free, and getting started is easy. Once you've browsed through categories to find the instrument, production or engineering talent, you create a work request. Here, you upload an example of your project, or the song you want them to contribute to, as well as complete a form that helps them decide whether to participate and what to charge you. Deadlines and technical details are negotiable as much as necessary. All this could take anywhere from minutes to hours, days or weeks for the busiest talent. Once you both agree, the talent will send you a fee schedule, including the 50-percent deposit amount you must pay at the time of acceptance. What's really cool about this is that you're always dealing with the talent, not some intermediary sales dude.

Then it's on to the fun and creative part of eSession: the Song page. This becomes the organizational workspace you use to send and receive files and communicate with your collaborator. I loved the Audio Bin, where you can drag-and-drop files to and from your Song Page and computer hard drive. There are six of these bins that you can use for various stages of your collaborations. The Stem Bin, for instance, is where you'll upload stems for each of the instruments in a project, and your hired talent can grab those to work on them. In turn, they'll create their own eTalent bins and upload their takes.

You can work with more than one eTalent at a time, each working on individual schedules or, if you're fortunate, sitting right there with you live and communicating via the eChat Buddy List audio/video/text chat tool. eSession also has a plug-in for this interactive method of real-time production. The audio/video plug-in works on Mac and PC and is available in RTAS, Audio Units and VST. Once you both have the same set of stems lined up in your DAWs, you can press play in Logic and your long-distance drummer would hear playback in his Pro Tools session. You can watch, hear and record everything he does and even communicate production changes on the fly.

Because these are consummate pros with major-league track records, your bill may be steep. But if you think spending several hundred dollars for a few hours of guitar tracks by a known player is justified to give your track a boost, I can't think of a better method, short of sitting in studio, than eSession.

Another fun alternative, Sonoma Wire Works (www.sonomawireworks.com), has a new version of the RiffWorks software ($129; Mac/PC) and online jamming platform that allows you to create, collaborate and podcast your music in a seamless flow. Previously bundled with Line 6's GuitarPort, the multifaceted recording software has taken gigantic leaps and bounds, making it an ideal guitarist-recording tool and a great “sketch pad” for noodling out ideas with others online.

RiffWorks looks and feels like a vintage multitrack tape setup, complete with a suite of vintage guitar VST effect plug-ins, including IK Multimedia AmpliTube LE.

The software is extremely easy to use and acts as your stand-alone sketch-pad recording environment and online collaboration client. Clicking on the RiffLink button lets you test a free 60-day trial of the collaboration service, where any musician (as many as four at a time) can join your session and work with you on the same song. Each instrument layer is streamed to participants' computers, as well as saved on the Sonoma server for users who wish to contribute later. As song changes are made, they are instantly uploaded by that user's RiffWorks client and displayed to the other musicians only when fully downloaded. It all happens behind the scenes, appearing transparent and instant. Though not a real-time collaborative effort, it is live and functional. It's a great way for musicians who are shy of live performance to perfect their parts before shuttling them out to the rest of the team to hear.

RiffCaster Internet broadcasting service is the latest addition to the package. Once your song is complete, a click of a button converts it into a podcast-ready file with its own URL that the RiffWorks server hosts.

MIX IT

At this stage, your song has likely gone through many collaborative hands, each receiving mixing tweaks along the way. Now it's time to nail it all down in one professional mix. Enter The Mixingbox (www.themixingbox.com).

Track mixing is often a scary and nerve-wracking process even for seasoned musicians. Finding a competent professional who shares the same vision about your music is often half the battle. “Many end-users don't even know where to find a professional to help mix and improve their music,” says Scott Church, co-founder of The Mixingbox. “If they do find someone, issues such as schedule and price make working with a producer even worse. Many top-notch engineers won't take on the end users who may not be at their level.”

This fear of rejection, as well as the hassle of negotiating, is more than many musicians are willing to undergo. The Mixingbox, in partnership with its exclusive online-sales partner audioMIDI.com, brings accessibility to professional mixing services with unprecedented convenience. Users can submit projects created using any major DAW and receive high-quality mixes, vocal correction and drum editing by a professional team of Digidesign-certified mix engineers.

The Mixingbox offers four levels of service. The most specialized, Drum Fix ($225), assesses the performance, timing and groove of all drum and percussion tracks, correcting where necessary to get your song sitting truly in the pocket. Similarly, Vocal Fix ($225) is a multistage process in which the timing, pitch, amplitude/dynamics and timbre/tone of your lead and background vocal tracks are individually assessed and fine-tuned with sensitivity to the mood and aesthetic of the song.

For full song mixing, Session Mix ($649) mixes tracks as provided, while Session Mix Complete ($849) adds the highly detailed scrutiny of Vocal Fix and Drum Fix. You can send tracks by Digidesign's DigiDelivery system, by email or on CD-R to The Mixingbox's studio.

A great approach is to order Drum Fix first, before you record final takes for the rest of your project such as keyboards, vocals and so on. Send The Mixingbox all of your individual drums tracks, including any auxiliary percussion tracks (as many as 18 tracks total), along with a stereo bounce of the full mix for reference. Within two weeks, The Mixingbox will have your drums in time and ready for download to import them back into your project. Move on to record the rest of the tracks, and head back for Vocal Fix or a full mix.

When the mix is finished, you'll receive a 24-bit/44.1 kHz audio file of the mix, as well as a bounce with the lead vocal or instrument muted and 192 Kbps MP3 by e-mail for approval and/or Internet use. If you're not happy with the initial mix, Session Mix or Session Mix Complete includes one round of revisions. Just fill out a project-revision form with the changes you want, and the engineers will get busy. And even though your song receives complimentary mastering as part of Session Mix or Session Mix Complete, you'll also receive an unmastered, uncompressed WAV file to take to a mastering house.

It's a real team effort once you hand over a song to The Mixingbox. Each member of the engineering staff does what they do best — from corrective edits to tonal treatment and leveling. The entire project is rebuilt in Pro Tools|HD.

Unlike other mixing services, The Mixingbox not only delivers a bounced version of the final project/song, but it also returns the entire Pro Tools session, including the individual tracks and stems. The company works exclusively with McDSP and SoundToys plug-ins, which are available in TDM and RTAS versions, so end users can open the session on a Pro Tools system and learn from The Mixingbox pros if they choose.

And yes, you do get what you pay for. The results are pretty amazing. You can hear every single transient of every drum track being handled with TLC by The Mixingbox engineers, always preserving the feel and guaranteeing a groove. The company will even do drum replacement as needed. These two processes alone are what major-league producers pay megabucks to have done on every song you hear on the charts. You can't underestimate the importance of tedious timing and pitch correction in getting that tight, polished, professional sound.

The Mixingbox team also knows how to make lead vocals really pop and backgrounds that are smooth, tight and spacious in the stereo field. If you're curious, simply check out the online samples, and you'll be sold.

At the time of project submission, there's a simple but comprehensive questionnaire that you fill out to help The Mixingbox engineers understand your artistic goals. You can instruct the engineers on how far to take certain aspects of your mix. For example, whether to do subtle pitch correction of truly bum vocal notes, moderately fix things to sound pleasantly in tune or go for broke and turn you into robotic perfection. Likewise, if there's a spot where you want all tracks muted except for a wicked drum fill — tell them. The more detailed you are with instructions, the better. The Mixingbox crew is really into achieving your artistic goals.

MASTER IT

UK-based eMasters (www.emasters.co.uk) is the online division of The Soundmasters International, one of the world's leading mastering studios. Co-founded by veteran mastering engineer Kevin Metcalfe (Oasis, Bowie, U2, the Who, Sex Pistols, Orbital, Duran Duran and more) and Streaky (OutKast, A Tribe Called Quest, Erasure, Depeche Mode, Fatboy Slim, the Stone Roses, Groove Armada and more), the two have more than 50 years of major-label experience between them.

In 2004, the duo launched the online mastering service aimed at independent producers, musicians and labels, with Streaky as chief mastering engineer. This was the first time a leading mastering studio in Europe provided a fully online approach to professional mastering, and the client base stretches across 60 countries.

Online mastering works simply and can save you tons of money compared with attending sessions. Upon free registration, you receive 1 GB of secure server space (£5 per month or £50 [approx . $98] per year for each GB thereafter) to upload AIFF, WAV, MP3 or SD2 files. You can upload any file to the library, in case you want to back up album artwork or other important digital files online. eMasters accepts any audio between 44.1 and 192 kHz in either 16- or 24-bit (the company's Pro Tools platform isn't 32-bit compatible). Select the tracks you want to be mastered from the My Library area, choose the medium you want them mastered to and fill in your payment details.

After placing an order, a blue light appears in your library next to the pending tracks, and you get an e-mail when the mastering is finished. Within five working days, you get them back by download or regular mail (if your online connection isn't fast enough).

Of course, mastering should always be a highly communicative process between the artist and the engineer. That's why eMasters scores big points for its willingness to go back and forth with the customer. From the time you submit, the site includes dialogs where you can leave detailed, song-by-song instructions for the engineer, who responds promptly to your comments and suggestions as many times as it takes to make sure things progress as expected.

The fee for this mastering service is extremely reasonable at £65 (approx. $127) per track, and eMasters can supply you with CDs (as many as 200 copies; £2 each), vinyl lacquers (£75 per side) and an acetate/dubplate (£50).

RELEASE IT

Schmoozing is a huge part of the music industry. Whether you're a songwriter, recording artist, DJ/producer or mixer/remixer, your talent and craft will never be heard or reach its fullest potential if you don't promote and sell yourself. That is where the true power of online networking can come in handy on sites such as Nextcat (www.nextcat.com). This brand-new community's slogan, “It's all about who you know,” underscores the importance of reaching out and finding the right people to help propel your career, whether it's with someone in your home town, a town you're going to hit on tour or a foreign country. Nextcat provides the missing link between the creative, business and grunt-work aspects of what we do as independent musicians trying to make a living.

Connecting everyone related to the entertainment industry helps people in specialized career niches network with entertainment professionals. From music, film, television, stage and modeling to fine arts and literature, Nextcat offers editorial and forum-based assistance for newbie and experienced industry folk alike. Fans and enthusiasts in the public can also view profiles, take part in special forums and search out talent based on their tastes.

For musicians, Nextcat acts like a big press kit complete with bio, photo gallery, song jukebox, professional and personal info and user comments. There's nothing outlandishly innovative about these provisions — MySpace would probably send more eyeballs to your page — but Nextcat's bet for success hedges on its all-encompassing talent pool and one-stop-shop for industry insiders to hook up and do business. Need dancers for a video? They're there. Need a director of photography? Check. Want to hire a live-sound guy in Iceland? Well, give it some time.

There are a number of ways to see how your profile is being received. Networking indicators beside each profile — dots that spoke outward from the center hub (you) — indicate how many friends, colleagues and general admirers you have in your camp. In general, the more there are, the better the artist is — though it obviously depends on the age of the profile as well.

You can request to become a “featured talent” and receive higher profile rotation, or link to your Nextcat profile from your own site using precoded banners. As early in the beta stages as the site may be, the currently registered talent in all categories is highly experienced, and the site looks and feels very professional. Joining and using Nextcat is free, though you'll have to put up with “annoying” (the owner's description, not mine) ads that offset the costs involved with running the site.

The future of online music collaboration is so bright, you may have to wear virtual-reality goggles. But even at the present time, you can already work with top-flight talent without leaving your home.