remote music collaboration

Remote music collaboration: Create great music with partners anywhere

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Thanks to digital recording and high-speed Internet, it’s easier than ever to collaborate on recording projects with fellow musicians who may be across the city or across the world.

In “Remote collaboration: Nine tips for sharing music tracks,” I talked about best practices for remote music collaboration. I recently had the opportunity to put many of those ideas into practice once again while working on a new song production project. Included here are additional tips I picked up along the way that can help you streamline your own remote music collaboration.

Chart it out

Are you asking your guitarist buddy who lives a thousand miles away to lay down some country twang or your expatriate drum wizard to help you with an acid groove? Set your remote collaborators up for success by giving them a written road map for what they’re going to be playing and recording.

Even if you’re working on a simple tune with two chords and a predictable verse/chorus structure, it can still be helpful to have some sort of written music on hand for remote collaborators. Whether it’s a fully-notated orchestration in Finale or a simple, hand-written chord chart, it all helps — the less time your collaborators have to spend wrapping their heads around the arrangement, the more energy they can put towards coming up with and recording amazing parts.

Charts can be particularly helpful for more complicated songs. My recent project had plenty of unusual timings — some measures of 6/4 and 7/4 thrown in here and there. When my collaborators were recording their parts in their home studios, they found it very helpful to know what meter changes to expect and when.

Talk about click (or lack thereof)

My project started without an established tempo and then locked into a steady groove about a minute in. Again, my collaborators found it helpful to know how and when the tempo would change ahead of time, as they were coming up with what parts to play; knowing what to expect tempo-wise also helped them set up appropriate tempo maps and metronome settings in their recording programs.

Be flexible with your reference mix

When it comes to providing the framework of your song over which your collaborators can record, what should you send — a full session, individual tracks bounced, a rough mix high-res audio file, or something else entirely?

The answer depends almost fully on what will give your collaborators what they need to add great parts to your music. Most of the musicians I’ve worked with have simply requested a rough stereo mix; in one situation where a friend was recording bass, I included both a stereo mix with and without a rough bass track that I had recorded myself, as well as that rough bass track isolated as a separate track, just in case he wanted it for reference.

If you’re working with singers or drummers who are recording remotely, they may request something different — perhaps a mix with the bass elevated or instrument stems so they can build their own rough mixes to help them with inspiration and context. In short, be sure to ask ahead of time and provide what’s needed.

Give references

Sending your track-in-progress and simply saying “do what you want!” can be cool — or not. The reality is, the less guidance you give, the more you leave the results up to chance.

Even if your references are obscure and not directly related, giving some level of artistic guidance can help your remote collaborators nail the vibe and direction you’re going for. For my song, I cited Tori Amos, Beck, David Bowie, and U2 as production references; for certain vocal sections, I told my collaborators that I had Queen in mind and, for an epic outro, I cited Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited.”

On an anecdotal level, I found the more I talked with my collaborators ahead of time to give them an overall picture of what I was thinking for the song, the more spot-on their parts were in the end.

You don’t have to use everything

The first time I produced a song with remote collaborators, I felt like every note I received absolutely had to be used, somehow, in the final song. I’ve long since learned to think differently, and my productions have benefited greatly from the realignment.

Remember that, when you ask musicians to record tracks for you remotely, they are providing you with tools, tones, and textures to help you build your song as you see fit, and it’s your call to use as much or as little as you like. Even if you end up only using one bit of feedback distortion from your guitarist friend, as long as it enhances your track, then it’s time and effort well spent.

Be available for feedback

On this recent project, I had one collaborator play ideas for me over the phone so I could give instant feedback — but the possibilities extend much further. If it works for all involved, don’t hesitate to get on FaceTime or Skype with your collaborators so you can comment and produce from afar. The audio quality may not be the highest coming through your smart phone, laptop, or tablet, but you can give meaningful feedback, in a timely manner, to help your remote collaborator nail his or her part.

File format

If you recorded all your tracks at 24 bits, 96 kHz, tell your remote musicians so they can track at the same resolution. Doing so makes life easier, and makes sure that all of your parts stay at the same level of quality and consistency throughout.

Start and end all of your tracks at the same point

I made this point in the previous remote music collaboration article but it’s worth repeating — rather than wasting time having to figure out how tracks line up, as long as all tracks are the same length and start and end at the same point in the song, it’s a simple matter to line them up in your recording program. It may seem like a waste of space to bounce an entire five-minute high-resolution track just for a single synth hit or sound effect that happens four minutes in, but the enhancement this practice can offer to your workflow is entirely worth it.

Sleep on it

When you add a new recorded part you’ve never heard before to your track, you may initially love it, hate it, or have zero opinion at all. Regardless, it’s usually a good idea to come back to the part a couple of times and see how it feels to you as you get more used to it, rather than making a snap judgment. Someone else’s interpretive additions to the song you’ve been living with for weeks or months can seem shocking on first listen — so give it some time. Once you’ve lived with it for a little while, you’ll be in a better place to use, edit, or discard it based on its merits, and not just it’s familiarity or lack thereof.

Do you have any tips on getting great parts with remote music collaboration? Share them in the comments below!

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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