Thursday, March 02, 2006

Online Music Collaborations

When that search for musicians in your local area is going a little slower than you'd hoped why not get your fix from a satisfying on-line collaboration in the interim?

I'm currently in the middle of my first online collaboration with a fella called Samasta from New Zealand. Didn't know him from Adam before his email but we are now on our third track of demos and intend to have an album done by the summer. It's a nice extra that neither of us expected and recieving the little zips of files or updates in the mail is great fun - we can work whenever suits us and the legistics (the one achilles heel of getting musicians together) is practically painless.

They way we do it is :

  1. Someone sends a file through with a simple idea consisting of two or three parts. Importantly there are no text descriptions with the package. Let's be honest there's no point in being precious...the other person is just going to do what they do.
  2. File bounces back and forth a couple of times with slight increase in text notes. No point in overworking it and anyway by the time it gets the the fourth version or so the collaborators will becoming slightly attached to the parts they have put in. Best get the butchery out of the way in the first few passes.
  3. It's parked at the fourth round and left as a demo for a vocalist to work on next. It's easy and it's just one way of collaborating online as a musician.
Online music collaboration isn't a new thing and there are albums out there at the moment made this way - one such example is Ben Gibbard of pop band Death Cab For Cutie agreed to an initial collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello, the track was such a success that an entire album was conceived this way, released under the name The Postal Service by the SubPop label. Of course I'm sure Brian Eno has already been collobarating remotely with the electrical resistance of snails in China via the internet for years....I suppose there really is no limit...

As we are using the same music software and it's built in synths along with small snippets of sound the file sizes are small and not prohibitive to send. It's also good for rigour that we don't have the same plugins and fx meaning we don't rely on tricks - it's all mood, arrangement and flow. Of course the bandwidth and management issues can get more painful when you start adding vocalists or guitars but we intend to do that in my studio in the summer. So far I'm finding it an easy way to work and it is genuinely bringing out a new sound between both of us. Admittedly it's not as much fun as being in the same room but this is something different - a different context.

...and it got me to thinking about the nature of on-line collaboration and it's different forms. There are really two ways of doing this - live and non-live.

What exactly does 'live' mean? It's an interesting one. Without getting into discussions about the time it takes from the light to leave your middle finger and reach the drummer and the time it takes for the soundwave of "get stuffed!" to reach the singer we shall say that live is just like a rehearsal room - like wot we normally do. This is live in the analogue world of fag butts, cold rehearsal rooms and guitarists who have left their special pedal at home. Things happen immediately... or not..

Let's look at the different flavours of on-line live collaborations

Live - Really Live - Instant
The holy grail must be where the drummer can finally leave his kit set up in his studio in Cowdenbeath and simply login to the rehearsals taking place on a server in California somewhere. Nobody has to smell his fart and he doesn't have to smell the singers new perfume even though he keeps calling it aftershave. The drummer puts his headset on and he looks left and right to see the others looking at him...he counts in a 4 count on his sticks which they all hear at the exact same time through their headphones and they all come in bang on time for the first bar.....the guitarist isn't even wearing trousers....

The name for this is transparent telepresence and is often defined as the experience of being fully present at a live real world location remote from one's own physical location. Someone experiencing transparent telepresence would therefore be able to behave, and receive stimuli, as though at the remote site

I love this idea .....but it's just not there yet and by a long way aswell.... something to do with physics. This is the stuff from Star Trek that they haven't managed yet. Remember that Live TV isn't really live - it's delayed by a few seconds out of choice for bleeping profanities and then also by the physics of having to get the light and sound particles/waves off the stage in LA, down the screen and into your TV in Wolverhampton. Live TV is a one-way's just nowhere near as complicated as transparent telepresence.

Musicians need to be time-synced and able to respond in a manner of milliseconds to events if they are to be groovy and in the moment. Without transparent telepresence we will never be able to do this ... at least in an analogue way.

Near Live - Publish Model
This is the compromise for live and here is how it generally works (screenshot of Emagic Rocket Network app below) :

  1. Users login to a live session or 'studio'. This means a high-end server with good bandwidth and some special collaboration software.
  2. It's a blank canvas so a drummer records a groove in a specific tempo and then uploads his contribution.
  3. The other musicians hear a ping or see an alert and it says 'new drum part by Bob'. They update their 'view' in the studio to include the new drum part. This may only take a minute from Bob hitting stop on his record button. Remember that the 'band' are in different places all over the world.
  4. The guitarist and bass player both post parts after hearing the drums update but of course they haven't agreed the key. It's chaos. The singer quickly sends a broadcast message to all musicians saying make it the key of G because he sings well in that key (oh yeah)
  5. Old parts deleted and new ones uploaded.
  6. ....the song develops...
I joined one of the first versions of these on-line colloboration tools released by Emagic almost 6 years ago. I paid my £30 but the thing folded the next few weeks. It was ahead of it's time and I'm not sure there are many other options other than something that ProTools make. I'm sure that these will slowly become more prevalant and that a unified platform will be developed in the same way that the Propellorheads software ReWire hooked up applications on the same computer...a remote protocol will come too...

Non-Live - Collaborative Composition
This is essentially PingPong back of forth of the track data until you are happy. It's more like collaborative compositon more than anything. It's the method that Samasta and myself are using. It's free to do and there are no subscription charges for special servers or software and as long as you have the same music application all you need is the abilty to send an email to one another with an attachment. We are even working between Mac and PC without noticing any issues in the file transfer however the main drawback with this is the time between feedback from the other musicians. It could be 20mins or it could be a week. You don't vibe off one another and bring the music into being dynamically instead you modify and build on what's been done. The spark or excitment comes from that new ZIP in the post and the first listen back.

Top Tips for a Successful Remote Collaboration

Here are my tips, so far, on making your online collaboration/composition work out from a musical, technical and legal perspective.

  1. Name the jams at the beginning - even if you change it later on. You will both have different associations with the track so come up with a common descriptor otherwise you will enter the world of confusion that is "the second mix of the fifth track we did".
  2. Don't put anything other than the music files in the first few passes back and forth unless it's someting tech to watch out for. Work on sound and music not concepts in an email.
  3. Don't have too many iterations. I reccommend between 4-6. Anymore than that might make it stale.
  4. Be cool and calm. If it aint happening it aint happening - you'll know. If you are an ego-maniac stay away from this kind of collaboration as you will have a hernia with the lack of control or 'your bits' being binned. Things change - sometimes the bit you thought was just an intro will become the verse and so on. Your loud and clear drum groove may now just be a pulsing sound coming through a filter....remember - it's not about who did what bit - just whether it's any good or not.
  5. Agree how the tracks are to be finished off and mixed. It's likely that one of you will have better gear so they are the one to do the mix probably. Normal rules still apply for making good mixes - good track, an acoustically treated room, good speakers/desk and experienced brain and ears. Hey why not buy that plane ticket and eventually meet up and mix it together.
  6. Work with someone in a different style than you. Why not? You might never get in a room with a Goth and their bass gear but you might dig their bass playing. This is the beauty of the internet. Embrace the multiplicity of it.
  7. Two or three people is a good number - more than that can get complicated quickly. Remember when doing non live collaboration it's more like a shared composition....too many cooks bro...
  8. Be Righteous Brothers and Sisters. Agree that the work you do is used only between you (unless specifically agreed) and the resulting tracks are to be credited equally for writing and arrangement. Otherwise you're a scumbag.
  9. Pull your weight - if you are only twiddling hi hat sounds and the other person is doing structure, arrangement and chords.....chances are this might be your last collaboration.

The Future
Keep an eye on those gaming consoles. The reason that young folks are addicted to them is not just simply the shooting and violent power trip - it's the feeling of telepresence they get with online games that really flips them from habit into obsession. Acting coherently online is very exciting indeed and this is the arena where most commercial on-line collaboration and virutal technologies are at the forefront - gaming consoles. Mobile phones and email are just the beginning of how we can collaborate. Of course we have physics to contend for telepresence solutions but things are changing fast.

Don't be surpised that the Sony and Microsoft's are working on fully pimping these gaming consoles - each successive generation of console has more power, realtime rendering and internet functionality. The interfaces getting hooked up to them are as weird and wonderful as they are the ones we connect to our computers and music programs. These computing and hardware giants are trying to make the silicon 'crystal ball' - but this time it's not the future they are trying to look into - it's the present.

Yeah I liked that ending too.


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