A great many people now spend a good proportion of their lives online, whether they’re social networking, researching, watching videos or playing games. We are used to the idea of being connected to other people (especially in the worlds of gaming and video chatting) and we take for granted the fact that we can hook up with someone on the other side of the world and enjoy a face-to-face chat for free.
Musical collaboration over the internet is something that threatened to take off a decade or so ago as people began to move from dial-up to broadband. The problem was that although a one-megabit internet connection was much faster than dial-up, it still wasn’t really fast enough to achieve anything very practical in terms of real-time recording. The global network of servers and pipelines that make up the internet simply wasn’t robust enough to make it stable. Even only five years ago, video chatting was still a bit hit-and-miss in terms of reliability and quality. Early attempts to implement collaborative working in DAWs – such as Cubase with its Rocket Network – never really took off, even though the Rocket technology was later acquired by Avid.
MIDI-based projects, of course, have always been far easier to share since they rarely clock in at more than a few megabytes in size. This is one of the factors that made Reason so popular, and even now, with its live sampling features, it’s still easy enough to share projects. Reason now has the ability to make all its samples, even those from within a ReFill, ‘self-contained’ within the project file along with samples you record yourself, so coupled with the ‘in-house’ approach to modules and lack of third-party plug-ins, this makes Reason the perfect MIDI-based sequencer for online collaboration.
As broadband speeds improved it became more feasible to exchange project files and their associated audio, either using peer-to-peer software or file storage websites (though you still usually had to leave an upload running for several hours). The limiting factor has generally been upload speeds. Even over a fast home broadband connection you almost always get a much slower upload speed than download speed.
This is partly to combat illegal file-sharing, and also because most households just don’t need fast upload speeds. But now, if you pay for it, you can unlock faster upload speeds. Studios, businesses and universities may already have faster connections – perhaps via ISDN, ADSL or cable – and for some online jamming services you need only a relatively modest upload speed for a single audio stream, though this varies by application and increases for multiple streams.
Raw speed is less important for dumping a big Zip file onto a server – when you can go out and leave it going – but far more important for real-time online collaboration. Anyone who tried this and gave up a few years ago, when it was a flaky process, might be surprised to see how far it has come.
The whole world of music technology has been moving slowly towards more collaborative possibilities, whether it’s batch export in DAWs for the easy outputting of stems or real-time recording straight to the internet. There are a range of options open to you when it comes to collaborating online, from composing using supplied loops to recording audio parts and uploading them for others to add to, or even jamming and recording with people around the planet in real time. Or, if you take the more traditional route, exchanging project data privately using file transfer. The good news is that uploading stems is no longer the only game in town and there will be a tool that suits your particular needs.
Audiotool is a Flash-based online DAW that is mostly focused on programming MIDI parts, using the excellent arsenal of tools that you can drag and drop into the production area. There’s a great selection of free loops and samples available from Loopmasters, and virtual effects pedals, drum machines, synths and other elements can be freely routed by patching virtual cables between them. Mixes and tracks can be saved online and published for others to listen to or remix.
The Traditional Method
It has been possible for a while to collaborate with people in other studios using ‘offline’ methods that involve burning files to a CD or DVD and posting them. This is still quite widely practised, although now people tend to use file sharing websites such as YouSendIt, Sendspace, MegaUpload or a service like ADrive, which offers up to 50GB of storage – more than enough for a DAW project.
To share projects in this way, it helps enormously to be running the same DAW as the person you are collaborating with – you may then be able to transfer the project files and folders directly and they could well open properly on the other system. In reality, though, this is quite rare and even if you are mostly in sync there’s the issue of plug-ins needing to be present on both systems. Many DAWs now support the OMF file format, designed for moving audio data between different applications. It’s a passable solution and includes things like audio file positioning on the timeline and a few clip-based parameters, such as volume and other basic information. The exact details of what you can export in an OMF file depends on your DAW and what version of the OMF standard it supports.
OMF doesn’t do plug-ins, though, meaning you will have to bounce down audio versions of tracks with plug-ins applied and export any MIDI files separately. This is clearly quite limiting in an environment where MIDI plays at least some part in many projects (and often a major role). By rendering down MIDI tracks as audio you lose editability and by rendering down versions of audio tracks with effects on you also lose the ability to remove those effects later. One solution to this is to render wet and dry versions of audio tracks, something that higher-end DAWs support as part of the batch export process (though it will greatly increase the amount of data that you have to transfer).
Originally developed for video post-production, OMF isn’t actually all that great at coping with the kinds of information that a modern DAW uses (such as automation and plug-ins) and can also be hit-and-miss when it comes to working as expected. The issue really is that there is no incentive for developers to make it easy for you to simply move to a competitor’s product. Inconvenient for the user perhaps, but a reality of the business world.
A better solution than OMF, in many cases, is simply to batch export the data from your project,
a feature that’s supported by most recent DAWs. Let’s say you have tracked some drums and other instruments. You don’t actually need to export all the tracks individually unless your collaborator needs to mix or edit specific ones. It’s advisable to define your roles at the beginning of a collaboration, at least in broad terms: there’s no point in sending fully editable, multitracked drums in 24-bit/96kHz resolution – with the resulting huge file size – if your collaborator just needs to hear the beat! If they are going to lay some other parts over your backing then send it back to you, it’s quite possible either to create just a stereo mix or submix elements such as drums down to stereo tracks then send other parts as individual tracks so that the other person can solo or mute them as they compose. You can also get away with high-quality mp3s if they are just for reference as all DAWs are able to convert these on import and they are much smaller files.
What’s crucial is that you keep settings constant as you pass data back and forth. Keep your left and right markers set at the same positions, keep the BPM and sample rate the same and you should find you’re able to load up the tracks you send each other and they will be perfectly in sync. If you’re working with loops, simply make sure they are in time and then tell the other person where to put them on the timeline. See Ten Minute Master No177 (Issue 88) on importing/exporting audio for more on this.
Mantis is the online DAW associated with Indabamusic, itself a great resource for social and collaborative music-making. The software itself looks like a regular DAW with which you can record directly into audio tracks that are saved to your own space on the company’s server.
A more recent development has been the emergence of websites and applications that enable you to compose and collaborate over the internet in real time or near-real time. The line between website and application is blurring and even if they are not yet approaching the feature set of a regular DAW, there are some incredible online tools that offer far more flexibility than you may imagine and that are actually usable in real-world situations.
This is largely down to the capabilities of the Flash plug-in (on which these services are based), which has for a while now been getting better and better at hooking into your computer’s hardware for recording video and sound and streaming these directly to a server. These new apps and services fall into a few broad categories, although all require a pretty fast net connection to work at a sensible pace.
Some, like Kompoz (www.kompoz.com), work by providing a community-based service. You record audio parts on your computer, upload them and invite others to add their own parts on top. Others have a similar approach to putting you in touch with people, but also provide online DAWs to help you actually program and record online.
Indabamusic.com, for instance, offers the Mantis web-based DAW: an adept and professional-looking sequencer that offers access to loops, the ability to directly record audio tracks, add effects, automate and mix. In fact, it’s easy to forget that you’re working in a web browser. Like most of these services it works by transferring recorded audio to a central server, making it accessible to others involved in your project more or less instantly and enabling you to access projects from any net-connected computer.
Soundation.com is another web-based DAW written in Flash, which also offers hundreds of loops and samples from PowerFX that can be previewed and dragged into a project. There’s a virtual keyboard and a small selection of synths and a drum machine that you can program, plus a piano roll editor with quantization. There is a range of audio effects, automation and also the ability to record audio straight into a track and either store your projects online or export an audio mixdown to your computer. It’s incredibly easy to use and great fun.
Audiotool (www.audiotool.com) is another browser-based sequencer, this time MIDI- and loop-focused but with a gorgeous interface and a drag-and-drop modular design that is easy to get to grips with. Sonic Producer (www.sonicproducer.com) is an online tool dedicated to making beats.
Ohm Studio is a great collaborative DAW
There’s another kind of application for online collaboration, and that’s a full application that you install and run on your computer but that has access to the internet for file transfer and storage. EnergyXT (www.energy-xt.com) is one such application, a lightweight, cross-platform DAW that supports VST plug-ins and has a professional feature set that includes timestretching, beat slicing, audio processing, batch export and a full mixer. It’s able to hook into the popular SoundCloud website so that you can upload your files for others to hear.
OhmForce is developing Ohm Studio, a standalone DAW that promises a comprehensive feature set but is focused on one or more people collaborating in real time over the net. It incorporates a number of excellent plug-ins that are available to everyone working on the session and also seems to implement some new paradigms when it comes to the way the DAW works. You can mix and match virtual instruments on the same track, edit several patterns at the same time and freely route MIDI and audio within a project. From the demos at www.ohmstudio.com, this is definitely one to watch out for.
Sonoma’s Riffworks is a guitar-oriented app with multiple effects and loops plus built-in online collaboration features; like other similar software it employs a clever technique of storing material on a central server and sync’ing it to others working on the project. eJamming is similar, using a downloadable app that provides an interface to all users so that they can contribute to your project, which is streamed across the net as you record.
The final category of online tools can be loosely categorised as plug-ins that live inside your DAW or apps that stream audio but only have a small, simple interface. Ninjam (http://ninjam.com) is fairly simple but enables you to sign in to a central server and invite others to join a session. You then configure a mix of the audio streams involved, set up a recording and can save a stereo mixdown or separate tracks for mixing later in a DAW.
Virtual Glass (http://esession.com) is a plug-in that supports audio/video streaming. It’s currently RTAS for Mac only, but other versions are coming soon. You can connect to other users and record over the net inside a session, and interestingly, although it uses compressed audio streams, you can use the eSession website afterwards to replace these with full-resolution versions of the audio files.
Last but not least, Source Live (www.sourceelements.com) is a plug-in for Pro Tools and VST-compatible software that lets you stream a mix of an audio session directly to a client for them to hear it. Actually, this is possible with a few free plug-ins/apps as well, but Source Live also offers professional features like password protection.
The World Is Your Stage
Collaborating with other musicians online is easier now than it’s ever been, and for the first time it is possible to actually jam and record in something approaching real time, even if that does require a hefty internet connection. With home broadband able to reach 10Mbps and the option to ‘unlock’ faster upload speeds, your connection is nowhere near the limitation it used to be.
The latest programs and services offer near-real-time working and they all have their own unique features, whether it’s an undo facility, the ability to accept or reject submissions, roll a project back to a previous state or set up online sales systems for people who want to buy or license your music. The advent of faster net connections and browser-based applications mean that real-time recording of audio across the internet is also now possible – whether it’s a collaboration between you and one other person, or you and ten others.
Clever tricks are used to create as near to real-time collaboration as possible, usually involving a centralised server, and while this means you may not get to store the audio locally until it comes to mixdown, it also means that you won’t lose it if your laptop dies or is stolen, and you can work on it from any computer with an internet connection.
With eJamming you can connect into an online music world, start up online jam sessions and invite others to join in.
The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Collaborative
The technology isn’t perfect, of course, and there are still limitations – most people recommend using an Ethernet rather than a Wi-Fi connection, for example, due to latency issues and online DAWs don’t have the functionality of standalone ones yet – but as things evolve these will become less and less of an issue. Although few of the leading commercial DAWs have really integrated online sharing yet, it will be interesting to see whether these kinds of features begin to pop up in the next couple of years as the technology improves.
Whether you’re taking the more conventional approach of sending big project files across the net via YouSendIt or masterminding a writing and recording session with people you’ve never met face-to-face, there’s never been a better time to expand your musical horizons by getting involved with online collaboration.