Sooo the virus…
Oh. You’ve heard about it already?
OK. Great. We can skip that part then.
I’m writing today to share a few tips on how to collaborate on music remotely.
“Isn’t that related to the quarantine?”, you ask.
Ok, maybe a little.
Whether you’re cooped up away from the people you normally create music with or just looking at this as an opportunity to find new collaborators, learning an efficient remote workflow will come in handy.
Remote music collaboration is something I do very regularly. My studio, Calm Frog Recording is set up for exactly this type of work and over the years I’ve tried several different tools, systems and techniques to make this as seamless as possible.
Today, I’m going to share some of these tips and tricks with you.
1. Agree on key session parameters in advance
Transferring audio files back and forth and between different systems can actually be incredibly easy. If you and your collaborators agree on a few key parameters up front, you won’t even have to ask about what system they’re using. Literally, they can be using Logic on a Mac and you can be using Reaper on a Windows unit and things can be extremely smooth. Here are the parameters to think about:
Bit depth: Unless you’re recording on your cell phone or onto some system that doesn’t give you decent quality anyway, you should pretty much be using 24 bit audio. Your collaborator should do the same.
Sample rate: This one can vary according to preference as long as you make a decision and stick with it. 44.1kHz is the Red Book standard for audio – meaning that it is the sample rate used for distribution of CD quality audio.
Some people like to record right at 44.1kHz and there’s nothing wrong with this. I myself have used this sample rate for the last couple of years - although I'm now considering switching to 48kHz because of some convincing my DIY Recording Guys podcast cohost did on Episode 9. 44.1 kHz is fine though. You will get good sound quality.
Some people like to go higher – up to 48kHz, 88.2kHz and even beyond. I do NOT recommend going beyond 88.2kHz. The audio quality will not be noticeably different and the file sizes start to get unreasonably large – which makes uploading and downloading more tedious. Stick with either 44.1kHz or 48kHz and be consistent.
If you accidentally load a file into your session at a different sample rate than the rest of the session, the file will play at the wrong speed and things can get weird.
Audio format: again, consistency is really the key here. Most DAWs are pretty flexible and can open various audio formats. Try to use a “lossless” format when transferring files if quality is important to you at this stage (it may not be if you're just writing and exchanging quick ideas).
An MP3 file is small but is considered “lossy” because it strips away certain audio information in the interest of saving space. The most common lossless file format is .WAV for PC and AIFF for Apple. If in doubt, or using mixed systems, I recommend going with .WAV
2. Mind your stereo and mono!
A lot of DAWs will export audio as stereo files by default.
If a file is “stereo” that simply means that it has 2 channels of audio instead of 1 channel of audio (for a mono file).
Of course this means that the stereo file has twice as much “information” as a mono file and will therefore take twice as much drive space.
So if you have a 40Mb stereo file, the mono version of that file would be 20Mb.
Why is this important? Because most of the tracks in our DAW session are actually mono!
This may be surprising but it starts to make sense when you think about it. The output of your guitar is a mono signal. So is the output of almost every microphone. This describes most of our sources in a typical session!
There are some genuine stereo applications, like synths, keyboard outputs, and maybe sources miked up with a stereo mic pair – like drum overheads.
Accidentally exporting a mono file as a stereo file isn't the end of the world but it means that:
Your files will be twice as large as they need to be. They’ll take twice as long to upload
They’ll take twice as long to download
The person you’re collaborating with will not be sure if they’re actually stereo or mono and may lost time trying to figure it out and then converting to mono if required.
3. Set up a tempo map and click track and build everything on top of them
Some music is intended to be a little less rigid and less “to the grid”. The problem is that this type of music is usually best performed together, in the same room.
When working remotely, a free-form temp can be very difficult to match.
That’s why using a well-developed tempo map and click track is a good idea. Let’s say you’ve written a couple of riffs on your primary instrument and are pretty happy with the general feel of those parts. You go ahead and record them into your DAW and then record several other tracks (harmony parts, rhythms, additional instrumentation, vocals, etc.,).
You’ve gone off the grid!
When you send your files to your partner, they will load them and not be able to easily set up a click. This will make it harder for them to add/record additional parts – ESPECIALLY if tight rhythm is required.
Set up a tempo map and use it as the backbone of your session. This means doing a couple of things
Set the tempo in your session before recording anything you’ll be sending to someone else
If there will be tempo changes, map those out in advance
If possible, map out all of the time signatures as well so that the click follows the time signatures
Leave room in the beginning for a count-in
Record all of your parts to the click
When bouncing your files out, bounce three versions. One of just your parts, one of just the click track and one with your parts and the click track together. This will give your partner the most flexibility and allow them to set their grid up to match yours
Some DAWs let you export a tempo map that can then be imported to other DAWs. This is a more advanced option and can be useful but the other ones above should serve you well. Here is a quick video on how to do this in Studio One
4. Consolidate Clips
This one is so important. It should probably have been #1 but its too late to change it now.
Here’s what it means.
Imagine your session has two tracks. Both tracks are guitar parts but one track has a long clip where the guitar is playing the whole time while the other one only has short clips for choruses.
If you just found these clips in your file explorer and sent them to your partner, it would be the same as sending them a box of loose puzzle pieces and asking them to work on the picture. They'd first have to assemble it!
When they loaded the clips, the clips would all come in starting at the beginning of the session. In other words, things would not be lined up.
If you and your partner are using the same DAW, you can get around this because they can just open your session file and all of the clip location information is embedded in that file.
However, a helpful trick is to “consolidate” all of the clips in your DAW to make them all the same exact length and starting at 0:00:00. In other words, you would have something like the image below where the Guitar 2 clips have some silence included to make them have the same starting point as the Guitar 1 clip - making everything easy to line up.
This way, when your partner loaded the files, everything would already be aligned.
5. Share files securely
There are many good file share options out there. Google Drive is probably one of the easiest. Set up a folder dedicated to your collaboration and give your partner access to this folder. They will NOT have access to the rest of your Google Drive folders – which is good. Then in the collaboration folder, create folders for each song. You’re off and running
6. Be meticulous with file naming and revision control
Do not add suffixes like NEW or OLD to your file names. This is confusing. It is one of my pet peeves. File naming is a matter of taste but my preferred system is “Song Name_R0” where R0 means revision level 0 or “initial version”. From there I just count up “Song Name_R1”, “Song Name_R2”, etc., This will make things SUPER easy. You can say things like, “Did you like the drums in R1 or R3 better?” and your partner will know exactly what you’re talking about. Once I get into Mastering, I add an additional suffix “Song Name_R1_M2”. This means that I’m on Rev 1 of the mix and Rev 2 of the master. Choose your own system and remember: consistency is your friend.
7. Talk over video chat.
It’s amazing how much a visual component helps when communicating. This is doubly true for communicating about something creative or artistic. You know the options here: Google Hangouts, Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime, etc., Use them!
8. Use some purpose-built consumer tools
You and I are not the first people to have thought "Hey! It'd be cool to collaborate remotely". There are, of course, industry tools for this sort of thing and some of them allow for real-time, remote recording and monitoring. One powerful solution is Source Connect.
Another platform making some noise is Splice. This is a cloud-based collaboration portal that allows for sharing mixes, finding new sounds and now even has some very basic DAW and sequencer functionality for actually creating beats and basic arrangements.
Instagram also has a feature that allows multiple people to stream simultaneously. If considering this option, I would recommend investing in a supplemental microphone. Companies like Rode make very affordable, small diaphragm condenser mics that can give you significantly improved sound quality over your phone's built-in mic.
Finally, a more upscale version of the Instagram Live feature is JamKazam which describes itself as being able to:
Play music live and in sync with others from different locations
Rehearse without travel or space
Co-write and produce music live
Join open sessions to jam with others
Record and live broadcast sessions
Connect with other musicians and bands
These type of products are sure to continue improving and providing great collaboration options for remote musicians.
Remember, your first priority is the health and safety of your community, your family and yourself. Your second priority can be to make some awesome tunes during this unusual Spring.
For more, check out my FREE DIY Recording eBook
and the DIY Recording Guys podcast
Vadim is a mixing engineer based in the Greater Philadelphia area. His passion for recording and mixing was sparked through playing guitar and writing prog rock as a teenager. Today he operates Calm Frog Recording where he helps artists get their songs to sound as good as they possibly can. He loves sharing his passion for recording and producing music with others.
You can check out Vadim's work at www.calmfrogrecording.com