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How to collaborate online
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How to collaborate online

Bands are amazing things. There is no feeling in the world quite like being in an 8x10 sweatbox with people you love playing with. You become a family, with all the squabbles and all the spoils that come from it. If you’re lucky (and you so desire), you might get to take that little family and travel the world, playing your music for adoring fans in multiple countries. Or, you might get that same rush from playing covers in the local of a weekend!

However you take enjoyment from performing, one problem is about to become incredibly pertinent: that 8x10 sweatbox is far too small (and, often, unsanitary) to effectively social distance. There is nothing clear about what comes next for the music industry, but the close quarters in which it operates means that restrictions are likely to remain in place for a while, with alterations becoming more and more commonplace. With that in mind, Sam Cross takes a look at how you can collaborate online effectively...

Livestream Rehearsals 

The first port of call for most will be to link up online to rehearse. It’s the 21st century, right? Everything can happen online. Sadly, video conferencing applications are rarely suitable for rehearsing with other musicians due to something called latency. 

Latency means how long data takes to transfer after its function is executed. Translated into human (or at least, musician), that means the delay between pressing a button on a MIDI keyboard and hearing the note. Latency can exist in anything digital, including your speakers and your audio interface. This means that you are likely already experiencing some latency, although at a level that is less noticeable. 

When it comes to rehearsing online with video conferencing software, the small amount of latency that you already have, coupled with the additional latency from audiovisual recordings being shared amongst a group, makes it almost impossible to effectively rehearse in real time. There are some things that you can do to help, such as using an ethernet connection instead of WiFi, and removing video content when it is not needed. However, these options may not be suitable for everyone, and still don’t guarantee a usable connection. 

There are a few companies that claim to offer solutions for this, such as JamKazam, who suggest that their software/hardware combination allows for real-time rehearsal and collaboration “as if you are sitting in the same room”. It certainly looks appealing, and seems to have a cult following, although there are also some reviews which have struggled to find it as effective. The software is free, though, so it is definitely worth trying for yourself.

The bottom line here is that conferencing a rehearsal doesn’t seem to offer optimum productivity, so what other options are there?

Recorded Collaboration 

The most commonly effective means of collaborating with other musicians is to record individual parts and share them online. Although it’s not live, it does allow you to rehearse with a specialised backing track, complete with any key changes, arrangement modification or other inflections that you might include when performing together. Recording independently also allows you to work when it suits you, allowing you to work around your own schedule more effectively.

You will need to know a few things to record independently. You’ll need to know the track fairly well, and you’ll need to know things like the key and the tempo to get an accurate click track. Generally, once one part has been recorded, it will get shared with the other members, as listening to a real track can be a great help when recording.

It can be daunting if you’ve never recorded before, but the good news is that the process is relatively straightforward, and there is plenty of quality advice out there. To begin, you’ll need a piece of software called a DAW. A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is a fancy name for software that enables you to record and manipulate audio. Audacity is possibly the simplest cross-platform DAW available, although it does have some limitations. On a Mac, you may well find Garageband already installed; on a Windows machine, there are a wealth of free DAWs available - my personal favourite is Cakewalk by Bandlab . Whatever you decide to go with, I’d recommend taking a look at some YouTube tutorials. There are loads of top quality content creators out there who offer basic introductions and deep dives on most DAWs out there.

Once you have something to record into, you’ll need something to record through. This will vary depending on your instrument and will usually take the place of an audio interface, like the new SSL 2+, which records your instrument and converts it to a signal that your DAW can recognise. Audio interfaces will normally have combo jacks for XLR and Jack, meaning guitarists and bassists can plug in directly with a jack cable. Another option for some will be a USB microphone, such as the new AKG Lyra, which connects directly to the USB port on your computer. These can be much easier to operate, but may limit how much can be done at once, where an audio interface can offer more inputs. For example, a vocalist may only require one microphone, but an acoustic guitar may sound better in stereo; a drummer could record with just one mic, but micing each drum will offer better separation.

It’s also a good idea to have something to listen back with. Whilst your everyday earphones or laptop speakers will do a job, they aren’t really going to offer suitable fidelity for listening to a full band mix. If you want to do this more regularly, you’re going to want a decent pair of speakers or headphones. There are a lot of options here once again; new tech from AKG brings wireless headphones with a whopping 5Hz to 40kHz audio range (that’s a bigger range than the human ear has!) to the table, in the form of the K371-BT headphones. If you’d prefer some studio monitors, you’re still left with an overwhelming amount of choice. Most of the big names trade sound quality for cumbersome size and equally cumbersome price tag, which just isn’t suitable for everyone. Fortunately, if you’re tight on space and don’t want to bust the bank, JBL’s 104-BT reference monitors offer crystal clear audio in a tiny package, with the added benefit of Bluetooth capability. No more wiring hassle!

This article isn’t intended to be an introduction to recording, and, again, there is a wealth of quality content available to help you with this for the first time. I would strongly recommend looking at articles and videos that help with recording your instrument, if you are unsure.

One final tip: don’t get too bogged down in absolute perfection. It’s easy to agonise over what effects you can use in your new recording software, or whether one particular note could have been pushed by a semiquaver. The bottom line is that it won’t matter. You want to be good, but studio quality perfection is not necessary here, and you can generally afford a little ruffage around the edges, in terms of production.

Creating for tracks for other instruments

If you want to go one step further, you can start creating tracks for other instrumentation. This can be used to compensate for a member who can’t record, or to showcase more of a track, if an idea is new. For example, if I have a new track to show my band, I will create tracks for all of the instruments and send it across. By doing this, they can hear an example of what I imagine their part to sound like, whilst getting a better sense of the direction of the track as a whole.

To create tracks for other instruments, you will need a way of controlling the software. Most of the time, this will take the shape of a MIDI controller, which looks like a keyboard [ s-keyboards]. Depending on which model you choose, you may find pads, sliders and knobs as well as the keyboard itself. These aren’t essential, but can be useful in making certain instruments more realistic.

Once you have a controller, you need some software. Most DAWs will include some instrument software, but the quality of these can vary. The great news is that, in 2020, there are a wealth of free instruments that are great quality. There are far too many to list, but some digging will unveil well crafted lists of VST instruments that are available for free. I’ll also link a few of my personal favourites below:

These are just some of the hundreds of plugins on the market. It can be very easy to give yourself too many options here, and hours can be spent agonising over which drum kit plugin sounds better than the next. In the end, the music made with it will always be more important. The bonus here is that with a small collection of VST instruments, you can have whole bands’ worth of musicians at your fingertips. But that’s another story...

Sam Cross

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