Updated: May 6
In this post we’ll look at how musicians have worked across distances in the past, and the tools available today to help us continue making music together.
The global lockdowns brought about in response to Covid-19 have brought remote working and distance learning into the mainstream. Even the most Luddite among us have become whizzes at videoconferencing, collaborating on shared documents and spreadsheets, and the etiquette of dressing from the waist up.
This has come about because even though we can’t be in the same room, we still need to keep the wheels turning.
The same is true for music. Although we may not be able to get together in recording studios or rehearsal rooms, it’s still possible to make music together. As a matter of fact, musicians have always been at the forefront of remote collaboration.
What Is Remote Collaboration?
Remote collaboration can be defined as working together on the same project at a distance - either synchronously (at the same time) or asynchronously (at different times). When it comes to music, that can encompass writing, rehearsing, recording, editing, and mixing - basically all the things we normally do in person.
Why Is Remote Collaboration Important?
At the time this was written, most of the world was facing lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This has had an outsized impact on music making - it’s difficult to play together if you’re not in the same room. Along with workers in other fields, musicians are having to find a way to continue to work while separated. Particularly since live performances are not likely to resume for several months.
Even without a global pandemic to contend with, there are a lot of good reasons to work remotely. Modern communication technology has made geography irrelevant in many ways - we can now connect with musically sympathetic people from around the globe. But technology hasn’t made distance irrelevant. It still can take a very long time to travel from one side of the planet to the other. Unless you’re planning on recording live as a band, spending lots of time and money to sit in a studio together and lay down one track at a time, why not have everyone work from the comfort of their own homes, at the most convenient time for them? This ends up saving money, saving time, reducing stress, and allowing for more focus on creativity and less on managing logistics.
Real Examples Of Remote Collaboration
An early example of remote collaboration was the Frank Sinatra album, "Duets," recorded in 1993. His producer Phil Ramone wanted to record Sinatra singing with 13 performers located all over the world.
Sinatra, who was 78 at the time, wasn’t interested in traveling. So he laid down all his parts at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Then Ramone used a system called Dolby Fax to transmit the recordings to Aretha Franklin in a recording studio in Detroit, Tony Bennett in New York City, Charles Aznavour in London, Bono in Ireland, Liza Minelli in Brazil, and so on. This collaboration resulted in Sinatra’s only triple platinum record.
WuTang Clan’s Ghostface Killah did a remote collaboration with the band BADBADNOTGOOD, in a more decidedly low tech fashion.
In an interview with Billboard Magazine, Bassist Chester Hansen described the process:
“The album itself took over three years to make. We were going back and forth and working on the beats with [producer Frank Dukes]. Then we would send them to Ghostface, he would send back verses, we would change the beats, etc. It went through a lot of periods of evolution. The first time we met we didn’t even talk before playing. We were playing our own set. He shows up while we’re playing and just gets on the mic.”
In the same article, the group’s drummer Alexander Sowinski pointed out that the process wasn’t all that different from most modern hip hop and pop collaborations, which speaks to the gradual move towards remote recording in the music industry:
“Most of the collaborative tracks you hear on the radio these days -- some of those people aren’t even in the same continent when they record their parts. But it all sounds like they were standing beside each other at the time. Everything was done remotely -- but we met up, we did shows together and we just talked everything out so much, the collaboration felt every bit as special.”
Tips And Reminders For Remote Collaboration
The most difficult part of remote collaboration isn’t making music, it’s keeping everything organised. Here are a few tips to help make your collaboration successful:
Keep your files organised. Any piece of music will go through multiple versions on its way to becoming a finished track. When you’re working on a project across multiple time zones on multiple devices, having files called, ‘audio00384934.wav,’ ‘this_one.wav’ or ‘final-mix-v2-v3-this_time_for_sure.wav,” is a good way for at least one project member to end up in a quivering heap on the floor when it comes time to do the final mix
Stay on track. Make sure that everyone involved in your project knows what they are expected to do, and when then need to deliver.
Keep everything, including notes, ideas, and communication in one place. If you’ve got things spread across different folders, apps, emails, messages, and chats, it becomes difficult and time consuming to wade through everything to find the great take or perfect lyric you need.
Making great music can be hard enough when you’re in the same room as your collaborators, let alone a thousand miles apart. If you take the right approach and use the right tools however, remote collaboration doesn't have to be daunting, and can even offer many advantages - working from the comfort of your own home, not having to watch the clock as expensive studio time ticks away, and the ability to work when inspiration strikes, even if it’s in the middle of the night for your collaborators.
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