Collaborating online is fast becoming standard practice for musicians around the globe. With barriers like living in distant time zones, working on different DAWs and not being able to communicate face to face, how do you get the best results working this way?
The wonderful thing about creativity is that it knows no limits. In the modern age we are now able to collaborate with anyone we want, from anywhere in the world. Rewind only a few decades and a collaboration with someone living in a different area would at a minimum require a road trip, time away from home and working in the same physical space. Those days are over.
With online collaboration now part of the everyday life, how do you jump the hurdles presented by working at a distance? If you're new to producing this way or have been doing it for a while these tips will help you to make the most of your virtual studio time.
1. Build a solid relationship first - make sure you do lots of video calls and go deep
You might have been chatting to a fellow producer online through emails or direct messages for some time. It's likely you're fans of each others work already and have probably dropped their tracks in your latest mix, podcast, stream or radio show. At this stage is your relationship solid enough to start producing together online?
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. That level of communication will always be a great start but the best creative work comes when you have built trust and a solid rapport with the other person. This comes through getting to know them at a deeper level. We recommend video calling your collaborator and really getting to know them beyond the scope of their music. If you can divulge areas of your personal life and personality with each other, this will help build a stronger bond. Creating a mutual sense of trust will keep any paranoias or artistic self doubt at bay, leading to a much better creative work.
2. Don't let different DAWs stop you
If someone uses a different DAW, don't let that put you off. Using a different platform really isn't much of a barrier for a collab. "But we can't work on the same project, use the same instruments or effects" I hear you cry. While that much is true, there is a simple and in some ways advantageous remedy: work in audio, share stems and MIDI files. If you both own the same soft synths you can always share presets if it helps too.
Although working in audio and sending stems across may seem laborious, it really isn't that much bother if you use certain techniques to speed up your workflow (see below). The advantage of working in audio means you will have introduced some constraints and the fact that you have to commit to your ideas is a creativity booster.
Workflow tips for working with stems:
1. Before you start the project it's good to agree to having no processing on your stereo output channel. Some producers like to create with loudness maximisers on their output channel and go on to master the track using similar settings themselves. This can be problematic when collaborating with stems, especially if you plan on getting it mastered by an engineer later.
2. Before you send the stems, send a mixdown of what you have created and ask the other producer if they would like their stems wet (with FX like reverb and delay added) or dry or a mix of both. They might ask you for specific parts or MIDI files for specific parts.
3. Use the 'export multiple channels' (Cubase), 'export all individual tracks' (Ableton), 'export all tracks as audio file' (Logic) or 'export clips as files' (Pro Tools) feature when bouncing your audio so all tracks are exported at once.
Depending on the DAW, you'll likely have to specify the file type you want to export to e.g. wav, MP3, aiff etc and whether you want to bounce in stereo or mono. Once you have specified your format, you will be able to render all of the tracks in your project as individual stems in one go, rather than exporting each track individually.
4. Make sure you specify the export range and export all tracks from the first bar of music in your project file to ensure all of the audio is captured.
5. When specifying your export range make sure you leave space at the end of the range for any reverb or delay tales to finish. There's nothing more frustrating than receiving a stem from another producer which has the reverb tail cut prematurely.
Tools for sharing stems
There are many useful and easy ways to share files across the internet but the following services are popular among producers. The workflow is smoother if you both agree to use the same service but even if you don't or can't it shouldn't be too much of a hinderance. Try some of the following options;
The services above all feature a free version that lets you send large files sometimes up to 2 gig (Wetransfer & Dropbox) at once, for free. Google Drive, if you haven't filled it up already, comes with 15 gig free storage space in your personal drive. All feature a paid 'pro' service that includes a very large cloud storage capacity and the ability to transfer massive files.
3. Sometimes less is more, leave your collaborator space for their ideas
If you're working on parts to send to another producer it can be very tempting to through too much at them at once. It can feel like you're being helpful but it can also be a little overwhelming if you are on the receiving end. Also if you send someone something close to a completed track then that leaves no room for them to add their creativity. Send ideas that have enough substance for your counterpart to vibe off but also leave enough space for them to add their touch as well.
4. If you use the same DAW try Splice
If you and your collaborator use FL Studio, Logic Pro, Garage Band, Studio One or Ableton, Splice Studio is a fantastic way to collaborate. With Spice you can share and work on the same project file in the same DAW with updates each of you make being synced to the cloud.
If you both have the same software instruments and effects this can be a very easy way to work together. If you don't you can still use your DAW's 'track freeze' feature to freeze tracks allowing your partner to still hear the audio and work in the same project file instead of exporting stems.
If you live in the same time zone or can arrange mutual times to work together try this: each of you have the project open with one person making the edits at a time and also have a video call running between you. This can almost feel like you are in the same room together.
5. Step out of your comfort zone - it might feel different but that's ok, embrace the space
Working on your own, as part of a collaboration, can feel a little bit strange sometimes especially if you're used to getting direct feedback with other people in the studio as you're creating. Without that feedback loop you might develop a sense of uncertainty especially as you know someone else will be sent your work for input soon. Use this time push the boundaries of your own comfort zone and make sure you commit to ideas rather than endlessly trying to find something 'better'.
Working like this also gives you space to create at a time and pace that suites you rather than having the clock ticking away at a studio or another parson's house, before you have to depart. Embrace the space and freedom you have working like this, relax into it and get in the zone.
6. Connect with new people using online collaboration tools
The online collaboration boom has brought with it some innovative new ways of reaching people and collaborating online, even if you don't yet have someone to work with. There are tools suitable for total beginners and seasoned pros alike.
If you're new to music production and looking for a place to get started, Bandlab is a free online DAW that features a large library of sounds and loops to work with and what's more it's a great collaboration tool too. If you start a track in Bandlab and want someone to join in, simply click 'start session' and share a URL. This allows you to work together, in real time in your web browsers.
If you're a solo artist or producer and you are looking for other musicians to feature on your tracks or even develop your musical sketches, services like Kompoz allow you to 'crowd source' your ideas with other musicians around the world. If you have a great idea but need a guitarist, drummer, producer, a keyboard player or a...you can have musicians from around the world feature on your song.
Pro Collabs works in a very similar way to Kompoz. You start with an idea that gets uploaded and shared, collaborators can then choose to work with you on your track. Pro Collabs also allows access to engineers that can mix and maser your work and publishing features so you and your coauthors can share your music online, take all of the profit from the sale and be guaranteed a fair split.
The online collaboration space is now filled with similar programs and applications, each offing a slightly different take on an online partnership. A quick Google search will bring up many options.
One final tool that's worth talking about is our trusty friend Zoom. Zoom's meeting features allow you to have a face to face video call with each participant being able to share their screen and computer sound. Audio can also be routed from your DAW into a Zoom meeting allowing for remote mixing. Working this way requires one person to be in control of the project in the digital audio workstation rather than both updating it and having it sync to the cloud, like with Splice.
To set up a Zoom collaboration follow these steps:
1. Schedule a Zoom meeting, invite your collaborator and agree who will host the project.
2. In the Zoom meeting's audio settings (click the microphone icon) set your microphone input and speaker output to the audio interface/sources you are using so that you can hear your computer's audio and your counterpart can hear you talk.
3. If you are the 'master' running the project in your DAW, share your screen, select the window for your DAW and make sure you tick the 'share sound' option.
4. Switch back to your DAW's preferences and make sure your audio output device is set to 'Zoom Audio'.
You should both be able see the project file and hear audio from it in Zoom. If you have problems with the audio being in mono, follow these steps to activate stereo sound in Zoom.
If there is one key take away from this read it should be this: start collaborating now and don't let distance or technology hold you back! Happy creating.
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