Monday, June 22, 2015

Remote musical collaboration: Part I – the what, why, and how of remote collab

The move from analog to digital music recording and production is certainly one of the most fundamental things to happen to music.  We’ve moved from a world where multitrack recording required a significant infrastructure investment, to fitting an entire studio on a laptop (and increasingly, a tablet or a phone).  We now have an entire generation of musicians for whom nonlinear editing systems are the norm, rather than some futuristic technology running on a dedicated desktop system at that studio you can’t quite afford to record at.

So what’s next?  Well, once you have the ability for music to be encapsulated in digital files and loaded in a Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW), you lower the barrier to collaboration.  However, until recently, collaboration has required carrying or mailing music on a portable hard drive or other physical media, long copy times, and sometimes hours of trolling through hard drives looking for a particular version of a file that got corrupted along the way.  Chances are that if you’re a digital musician, you have people in your town, a town across the country, or another country an ocean away that you would like to share the music making process with.  How do you get started and what should you think about?  Read on!

NOTE: We work in Ableton Live, so we’ll be referencing specific commands and functionality that apply to Ableton, though the principles we’re discussing apply to any DAW.

Our story

For Cats Cradle Robbers, we got into remote collaboration in a roundabout, organic way.  We didn’t have a clear vision for what we wanted out of the process at first.  For us music was something we worked on in person, and huddling over one laptop “pair programming” was the only thing that made sense to us.  At that time, we were learning how to create together, coming up with methodologies, musical forms, and ways of communicating. 

As we worked together, it started to make more sense to introduce some division of labor.  Snake would ask DJSE to copy a project onto a portable hard drive so that he could work on a project offline.  Typically, DJSE was doing the bulk of the sound design and recording, and Snake would work on the broad structure of a track to shape an arrangement, taking the raw samples and turning them into something musically coherent.  It made the best use of our individual skills at the time.

However, copying large projects was time consuming and error-prone.  Files would go missing, especially before we discovered “Collect all and save,” or we’d copy more files than needed, including and ultimately duplicating portions of factory packs.  It was a mess!

So, we thought about harnessing the power of the Internet.  Here are some of the things we tried over the years:

Emailing .als files with changes
Simple - .als files are small, and as long as your changes are confined to the .als, it works fine.
Doesn’t work if you’ve cropped, reversed or frozen files, added new samples, and unless you are working with identical hard drive layouts, always results in having to scan for missing media files.
Real-time collaboration using videoconferencing (Skype, Hangouts, GoToMeeting, + Phone)
Good for interactive communication and show-n-tell sessions.
Doesn’t fit well with remote recording of new audio tracks (for Totally Frigid, which we started out during a Skype session, Snake was recording guitar tracks and emailing the files to DJSE for inclusion: it was a painful process)
File-sharing services (Dropbox, OneDrive)
Fine for small projects
Our projects can get to 3gb or more in size – requires long transfer times and paid Dropbox accounts on both ends to share in both directions.
Version control systems (we tried Github)
Works well for file copy of small to medium projects
We ran up against disk quota limitations when trying to use Github.  We made do by stripping out factory packs, but that was a very hands-on process.  Git is not fond of handling large files (something they are up front about).  Also, the benefits of Git for diffing and merging text files don’t work for .als, so for this purpose it is basically a glorified FTP service.
Private FTP
Can handle arbitrarily large transfers, completely under your control.  Like copying to a hard drive, but you don’t have to be in the same place at the same time.
Like copying to a hard drive, only slower.

The mote in thine eye

One key need of collaborators who are separated in space and time is a way to discuss and agree on changes that need to be made, and to track those changes to completion.  Coming from a software background, we see this as equivalent to the process of filing, triaging, and fixing bugs in software.  It’s also similar to the process in theater in which a director gives “notes”.  In fact, we refer to these annotations as “motes” (short for Music Notes), and it’s a key part of our process:  one of us renders our latest version of a shared track, and both collaborators provide their “motes” or comments on what they like and what they would like to change.  

There are several aspects of this that are important: 

  •          The music has to be posted someplace where everyone can hear it
  •          There has to be a way to communicate the motes
  •          There has to be a way to track the status of the motes

While we have yet to find a system that fills all off these requirements, we’ve managed to make do, using SoundCloud or Splice to annotate precise points in the music that we want to call attention to, and tracking progress against those comments in e-mail and using online documents (typically OneNote and Excel Online with documents saved in a shared OneDrive folder).  Nobody has yet provided a way to combine annotations with issue tracking in a way that would satisfy all facets of our workflow.

Soundcloud annotations provide a way of anchoring motes to specific moments in the track.

Online Community meets Collab Software

Only in the last handful of years has software started to catch up to the need that we’ve been filling using a series of stopgaps.  Here’s a survey of a few that we’ve tried and a few newcomers that we haven’t. 


DJSE found the crew from Splice at SxSW this year, and the Splice software has become an integral part of our production toolkit.   While their DAW support is limited so far (Ableton Live, FL Studio, Logic Pro, and GarageBand), we’ve found that their approach to project collaboration matches the way we work to a tee.  We used Splice to build our latest album Seen and Unseen, and we were pleased to be featured in their blog when we released Laudanum Escapade for remixing on their site.
The features in Splice that we find most useful are:

  •           Version tracking (every save in Ableton is tracked as a version, and you choose which versions are flagged as important.  Every version can be annotated and have a separate audio preview)
  •           Unlimited storage (with the sample-heavy tracks that we build, our projects can grow to as large as 6gb!)
  •           The DNA player: a visualization of the Ableton project structure that allows annotation on each track

The powerful and versatile Splice DNA player, showing track-specific annotations

While Splice works for both Mac (DJSE’s platform of choice) and Windows (like Snake’s Windows 8 system), the Mac client seems more robust.  The Windows client can be a resource hog when uploading changes, and the Splice window can’t be minimized when activated.  We’ve also found that the version tree can get confused when working with multiple versions of the same project on one computer.  Still, Splice is the closest match to our requirements, and we’re happily using it today.  We’ve found the Splice team professional and receptive to feedback, so who knows, perhaps we’ll have everything we need within a few versions.


The project list

Before we got onto Splice, we tried out, another collaboration site.  Like Splice, Blend works with standard DAWs – they handily beat Splice in the number of DAWs supported – and both systems allow working with raw stems.  Blend supports versioning as well, though versioning in Blend is not so granular:  a new version is created only when pulling the project explicitly.

Blend seems like a good choice when your main goal is to share music with the community – their system encourages sharing and collaborating publicly.  However, if you are looking to collaborate privately, their hard limit of 3 private projects is a buzzkill.  Also, their version tracking is confusing – it can be difficult to understand which version of a project you’re looking at.  Finally, Blend uses Dropbox for storage and sync, which limits the size of your projects.  If you go over the 2gb space limit in the basic account, then all collaborators using that project need to pony up for the pro account.  Even with small projects, Dropbox’s file locking will block you from saving while files are uploading.  If you save frequently, this quickly becomes an annoyance.

Blend offers no way to annotate the project or the audio directly, so you’ll need another method to track your feedback.

DAWs that come with collaboration build in

Ohm Studio and Soundtrap are taking a from-the-ground-up approach to online collaboration by creating new DAWs that support all of the online collaboration features you need.  While we haven’t spent much time playing with these tools, the marketing materials and into videos seem compelling and for entry-level musicians, this seems like a great option for starting out. Only time will tell whether these tools evolve into something with the complexity and power of Ableton Live or ProTools.  Building a DAW to meet the needs of professional producers is a daunting prospect.  Ohm Studio, a client side DAW, seems closer to that track.  Soundtrap is an online-only tool and seems more oriented to beginning producers who want a quick and easy solution to build loops using prebuilt pieces.

Of course, we can all hope that Ableton and ProTools come up with their own built-in collaboration system, either alone or in collaboration with Splice or another partner who can handle the storage and service layer of the system.  In the meantime, we can count on companies like Blend and Splice to work hard to bridge the gaps.

Doing it in Real time

Where all of the systems mentioned so far shine is in their ability to enable asynchronous collaboration.  But what about synchrony?  Is it possible to link musicians in physically distant locations and work out the complexities of latency so that they can record new tracks in real time? 
While we’ve tried some limited experiments, we haven’t found it necessary to move beyond asynchronous collaboration.  I’ll defer to SoundOnSound for a discussion of the state of the art as of about a year ago: .

Into the future

With demanding day jobs and evolving families (DJSE is in the throes of discovering the joy of fatherhood as Snake types this article), our music is increasingly dependent on software to make everything faster and easier.  Cats Cradle Robbers’ next release will be largely built in the cloud, by two busy dudes who are trying hard to snatch bits of free time when they can.  Splice and other online tools will be a big part of that process.


Next up…

So you have a project and one or more collaborators.  Some of you are on PC, some on Mac.  One of you has a cool new plugin that the others can’t afford.  How do you put it all together?  Stay tuned for our next article!

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