REMOTE COLLABORATION: Tips on How to Work (& Move Your Work) Between Studios
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Adam Gallant
In this year’s focus on home recording, we’re looking into remote collaboration – the process of working with artists, producers, and engineers on one project from more than one place. It’s a particularly timely subject considering our COVID-19-related reality, though it was a growing trend before the pandemic and, because of its convenience and cost-effectiveness, will likely continue on that tangent to come.
Let’s touch on some tips for setting up your home-based production room, tools to help with file and session sharing, workflows that help avoid redundancies, as well as tips and products that will improve the quality of your productions as they move between studios.
THE HOME STUDIO SPACE
Before we dig into the technical nitty gritty, I thought it best to touch on what I think is one of the most important aspects of a creative space: the aesthetic.
Look & Feel
A creative space can be a reflection of the work being developed within it. Making a room that inspires your creativity takes intention. Most of us have small workspaces – less than a few hundred square feet – which means it can be relatively quick and inexpensive to get things into shape. Options for dim lighting, clever storage solutions, and an ergonomic desk are a few key areas to focus on while setting up your room. Knowing where all of your tools are without having to rummage through Rubbermaid bins will keep the creative juices flowing. Being able to alter the lighting in your space can help infuse more emotion and attention into your work. Setting aside time to focus on your space will make the creative work more productive and rewarding.
Noise & Sound
For those of us needing to record vocals, strings, or other instruments by way of a microphone, we have to consider how much noise is going on around us as
well as how much noise we may be creating for the people who share our households and buildings. Keeping sound from leaving our studios can be a massive undertaking, and having an airtight space with thick walls is not a possibility for most of us. I will not dig into the challenge of sound-proofing in this feature, but rather focus on tips for how we can prevent and clean up unwanted sounds from entering our recordings.
If you are a home-recordist relegated to a noisy environment, a dynamic microphone such as the Shure SM7 or SM57 is a great choice. These microphones have a tight polar pattern and reject noise very effectively when compared to a similarly-priced condenser mic.
Setting up a small vocal booth or dead-sounding corner in your space can help reduce the amount of reverb or room sound on your sources. Even a small room can have an unflattering sound if the walls are bare. Bookcases filled with objects and fabric wall hangings will sound far better than an exposed, painted drywall surface or large images in frames with reflective glass.
Identifying and working around noisy times of day can help manage expectations around what is feasible in our spaces. Simply shifting your tasks to editing or mixing while the environment is at its loudest will save a lot of headache later when you’re confronted with the task of cleaning out noise or having to consider re-recording noisy material.
SETTING UP YOUR SESSION
If you are a Pro Tools user, now is a great time to sink your teeth in and get using Avid’s Cloud Collaborations. It will take a lot of hassle and file management out of sharing full session folders. If you are on Logic, have a look at a product by the name of Splice; it will sync your local project to the most recent version saved by other collaborators.
If you are sharing full sessions and audio folders, here are a few tips on how to streamline the process:
Label and colour-code everything: Make it crystal clear what things are and take the time to colour-code tracks and groups of tracks. This will speed up your work and avoid confusion.
Don’t share more than you need: Clear out any unused takes from
the session and be decisive about what is truly needed for the next collaborator down the line. Only share what is absolutely needed for the production
to grow; this will save incredible amounts of time uploading, downloading, opening, and managing sessions.
Consolidate your audio: Consolidating is simply taking an audio track that consists of many independent clips or edits and rendering that track into one
file with no edits or crossfades. This is particularly useful when moving projects between different DAWs (i.e. Reaper to Studio One).
Use friendly plug-ins: Now is not the time to show off the 600 compressors in your plug-in list. If you are sharing full project sessions, use plug-ins you know
your collaborators have access to. If that’s not possible, commit the sounds you like and keep things light on the processing. Music production takes a lot of computing power and we all have unique systems we create with.
Include reference mixes in the sessions: Since we can’t all be in the same room together, our reference mixes have become a little more important. They let
us know where the productions stand and provide goal posts as well as a bread crumb trail for great moments. Keep a clearly-described reference mix in your
session for quick access and communicate with co-creators about what is good or bad in the reference.
SHARING YOUR WORK
Sharing sessions between two different DAWs can be a little more complicated. Exporting an AAF file can allow for quick sharing between Logic and Pro Tools, for example. To further streamline the process, make sure to commit any plug-ins you
like and take notes of any plug-ins that exist as aux sends that may be crucial to the sound. AAF files do not carry any plug-ins or plug-in settings, just information
like where clips live in a timeline, clip gain, pan positions, and volume automation. If exporting an AAF is not an option in your DAW and you’re looking for a full multitrack production to share, simply consolidate all of your audio so there are no edits in the tracks while making sure all of the audio files start and end at the same time.
There are a lot of ways we can share our work and while none may be as satisfying or productive as having a collaborator in the same room, there are workflows and products that are tremendously helpful.
A shared project calendar can generate a lot of productivity. Staying on-task has become a hurdle for a lot of creative people – especially those who haven’t worked from home in the past. A simple calendar shared between collaborators presents a friendly amount of accountability and Google Calendars can hold a lot of information in a very small space. Mix notes, goals, meeting times, reminders, links to reference material, links to relevant documents, and many other details can be associated with events in your calendars’ comments and elsewhere. Effective use of calendars can save a lot of document hunting and email searching, all while keeping the time-related goal posts of our productions front-of-mind.
There are many products out there for streaming audio directly from our DAWs over the internet to clients or co-creators. Many of these will require hard-wired internet connections and some will take a bit of configuring in your local router to operate.
Source-Connect is one product that is often relied upon by the professionals among us. The Audiomovers Listento plug-in is a relatively new subscription service that is brilliantly simple. Basically, you put the plug-in on a track and it will generate a URL that you can share with clients and collaborators. It allows you to select the quality of the audio stream. For example, if your connection is great, you can send PCM 32-bit audio over the net, and if your connection is less than ideal, you can dial the audio quality down to reduce latency and avoid the possibility of dropouts. This kind of streaming plug-in is perfect for getting final approval on mixes in real-time. I will often set up a call on my cell, share the link via Google Calendar, and the process has been seamless. The cell call doesn’t eat up any bandwidth on my internet connection and the real- time feedback is as close to an in-person session as you can get.
Remote productions can easily lose steam because there exists more technical work than we may be used to. While working in a studio, a lot of the set-up and routing is handled by one person at the desk as clients and collaborators are standing by. With most of us at home working solo, a lot of that mind-numbing setup and routing lands in our laps. In order to reduce the amount of non-creative time, I’ll lay out a few tips on how to unroll your productions.
Keeping things in sync: Start with rhythm tracks and only roll out new layers once the timing has been corrected on the current layer. I can’t stress this enough. Musicians need to play to really well-presented material. That presentation often revolves around meter and groove. Make sure there are no timing discrepancies before moving on to the next layer. Don’t rush this and don’t get ahead of yourself.
Making space for others: It’s okay if your part sounds a little empty at times. You want co-creators to be able to quickly imagine a part and get inspired. That comes more easily when we intentionally leave room.
Watch out for redundant layers: It can be very easy for two collaborators to be painting the same colours in the same areas on a track. If two instrument layers are in the exact same register, have a close listen to them and ensure there is room for both. The earlier you carve out your orchestration, the more freely the track will unfold.
Expressing needs and maintaining communication: If you have clear ideas of where you want your collaborators to go, express them to avoid unnecessary back and forth. If you don’t have clear ideas, give collaborators the freedom to deliver what they feel is right and keep an open mind about the final product. Follow up with your creative team and keep in communication. Music is a social craft and now more than ever we need to be checking in on our friends and bandmates.
TECHNICAL HURDLES & SOLUTIONS
Harsh vocals, harsh electric guitars, clipped audio, audio with background noise, and overly reverberant source material are common issues with home recordings. While there are a lot of factors that cause these issues, my focus now will be more on repairing them and less on preventing them. With that said, I suggest readers have a look through our previous Home Recording and Microphone Basics features to help refine the process of capturing great material at the source.
When it comes to repairing a lot of these issues, iZotope RX is the industry standard. Particularly useful for removing background noise, mouth clicks, and clipped audio, RX is unparalleled in the variety of tools it offers. RX 7 is currently on the market and RX 7 Advanced will give you a lot of control over the traffic in the background of your favourite vocal take or the hum in your electric guitar track.
Taming harshness is a very common task of the mix engineer. For this job, it is not uncommon to dial in a de-esser with a very sharp Q and notch out frequencies
around the 2K to 5K area. Soothe by Oeksound is possibly the most useful plug-in for taming harsh material. Another great tool is FabFilter’s Q3 equalizer. Its frequency graph is very useful for spotting peaks in harsh areas and its built-in dynamics can be put to work in a second.
The microphone suggested early in this article for reducing background noise, the SM57, can get a little harsh-sounding on some sources with its natural frequency boost around the 6 kHz mark. Keep this attribute in mind if you are layering many tracks using the same microphone over and over again. Getting creative with placement and EQ can help mitigate build-up in this harsh area. For example, while recording vocals, step back from the microphone for background vocals and get in close for lead lines. Avoid pointing the microphone directly into the centre of an electric guitar cabinet, but rather a few inches off to one side.
MIXING IN HEADPHONES
There has long been a stigma against mixing in headphones. Thanks in part to Andrew Scheps admitting that he has done many commercially-released albums in his trusty Sony MDR7506s, we find this stigma is becoming less and less of a reality. Don’t let a lack of nice speakers or room treatments prevent you from mixing your collaborations. Get one reliable set of headphones and learn them really well and I guarantee you will still output great mixes. Most of our music is consumed via headphones anyways, and so long as you are referencing lots of music as you mix, you should be in fine shape. Share your mix drafts with your co-creators and compile notes. If you share this QA process with your peers, you will realize that mixing is not as mystical a task as we often feel it to be.
THE BENEFITS OF COLLABORATING AT HOME
While it can be easy to highlight the creative challenges that arise from working in isolation, it’s the creative pluses I’ll touch on here.
If you are the type of musician who loves to take their time when composing parts, chances are you love the extra time and privacy that working from home provides. Being able to put in the extra hour on your own time without the pressure of a studio’s operating hours is often a bonus.
With more free time at home, it has become easier to strike while the iron is hot. Having more flexibility over our work schedules can have tremendous positive effects on the quality of our creative output. More work-life balance has been a very positive result of the pandemic in my own household. Less evening work and less weekend work has made weekday, daytime hours far more creative and productive. Keeping an active calendar and carving out time for creative exploration with no real productive goal has also been a positive outcome.
I encourage our readers to reach out to your bandmates, creative peers, and others in the community to get the ball rolling on work you may feel has to happen with others in the room. You may be surprised at the level of productivity we are capable of from our modest home studios.
David Bottrill is a Grammy-winning producer and engineer boasting credits with Peter Gabriel, Tool, Rush, Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, and countless others. Now based in Toronto, he still spends much of his time working with artists in various international locations. www.davidbottrill.com.
Tips for remote work…
Advance preparation is key. One of the most important things is to make sure the communication devices you are working with are reliable. If you are doing a live remote session, it is important for it to feel as natural as possible. The artist should feel as if you are there at the session, or that they are there in your studio. Treat the session the same way you would if you were there in person. Clear communication between you and all the band during the session is key.
When doing a tracking session, make sure you have the arrangements sorted and that, as the producer, you’re well-versed in the song. If it’s a vocal session, have the lyrics ready beforehand. Discuss the process with the artist well in advance of the session.
Also, scheduling a setup session beforehand can be quite helpful. It’s very important to keep the session moving. There are always technical problems in every session, but excepting those, it’s important to keep the session flowing.
In the case of a mix session, once you have your first mix sent to all the members for review, it’s important that all the artists involved in the subsequently scheduled review session come prepared with clear and concise revision notes.
Alysha Brilla is a Juno-nominated artist and producer currently working on her fifth album, The Body, which blends acoustic and electric sounds from India, East Africa, and her home on the Grand River in Southern Ontario. She has also been offering production workshops that focus on home recording techniques. www.alyshabrilla.com.
Tips for remote work…
I am currently working on a collaboration with an artist in Zimbabwe. I think connecting initially and really laying out the vibe/form/energy of what you want to create will set the intention for how the song comes out. Like in any relationship, clear communication is so important.
Cool remote results…
Artist/yoga teacher Desirée Dawson and I have been remotely creating songs for our online yoga and live music classes. We would each start with an idea and send it to the other, who would take over and shape up the song. I think if we were together, it would of course be magic, but because we were apart, there was a special quality to the music. I am a big advocate of the land you live on informing everything and since she was on the West Coast and I was here in Southwestern Ontario, we were each bringing the energy from the waters that are near us, the fields we would walk in between recordings... It can all be heard on the songs.
Colin Buchanan is a producer and mixer based in Charlottetown, PE. Working primarily out of The Hill Sound Studio, Colin has collaborated with such East Coast staples as Paper Lions, Sorrey, Kinley, Coyote, and Adyn Townes. www.thehillsoundstudio.com.
Tips for remote work…
Organization! It’s so, so important to keep your own session organized but also make sure the artists or producers you are receiving files from are labelling, comping, and generally sending you tidy sessions or stems.
Tools for remote work…
Google Drive. It’s free and is fully integrated with my main means of communication, Gmail, and my main means of organization, Google Calendar. I know there are other sites that can handle bigger file loads, but Drive just makes it so damn easy.
Lin Gardiner is an engineer, writer, and producer who works predominantly out of her studio, The Sound Garden Retreat, on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. She also directs music for video games, so she’s no stranger to working remotely with collaborators from around the world. www.thesoundgardenretreat.com.
Tools for remote work…
I’ve found SourceConnect to be very reliable. I’ve used it to co-direct some orchestral sessions in Europe as well as some voice sessions in L.A. and it has worked really well. Audiomovers Listento and Sessionwire look cool and I’m looking forward to trying them out when I get a chance.
Cool remote results…
I’m co-writing some electronica-dub type tracks with an Irish singer based in Vancouver, and am pretty excited about the tracks. We’ve been tackling the process in a piecemeal way, sending each other files when we get a chance. I think there’s something really neat about receiving takes with absolutely no preconceptions as to what you’re going to get, which is quite different from the writing process when you’re both in the room.
Another thing that’s surprising with this project is even though they’re recorded on a not-fantastic-quality headset mic in her apartment, I’m quite enjoying the raw sound of the vocal takes. I’d never dream of recording vocals with a mic like this in a session, but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s something about these vocals that just might make it to the final product!
MARIANA HUTTEN CZAPSKI
Based in Toronto, Mariana Hutten Czapski records, mixes, and masters in various studios, including Artscape Daniels Launchpad, where she also works as a studio technician, and Lacquer Channel for mastering work. She’s currently preparing to open a studio of her own. www.mchcmusic.com.
Tools for remote work…
For tracking, Source-Connect Pro. For mixing and mastering, I use Audiomovers Listento, which is amazing. The client doesn’t need an account, doesn’t need to buy anything – you just send the streaming link and they can hear the audio as a high-quality WAV file.
Cool remote results…
I think doing mixing revisions remotely has actually reduced the number of revisions I get since they can approve things on the spot and the artists hear them with their own speakers. It avoids the “taking it back home” effect where the client listens to the song on their system and it sounds different from how it does in the studio.
Dajaun Martineau is a producer, songwriter, mixer, and engineer based in Toronto. Current projects include the upcoming studio album from Moist and the next EP from Havelin, which he’s co-producing with Gavin Brown. He recently finished mixing Lydia Ainsworth’s latest LP and an industrial pop album with Chris Ning. www.dajaun.com.
Tips for remote work…
Over-communicating isn’t a bad thing when managing a remote session. I have found that saying what I’m doing out loud while I am doing it helps my collaborator understand what’s going on every step of the way. If they’re left in the dark, your collaborator can start getting off task, which can then pull you off track. Quick updates on what elements you’re working on and what you’ve completed is all that’s really required, but without clear communication, remote sessions can get frustrating and devolve really fast.
Tools for remote work…
OBS has been an invaluable tool while working remotely. While conferencing software is fantastic and real-time, the low quality makes it difficult for artists to be able to make any immediate decisions when doing mix revisions. OBS is a streamer that was made for gamers to livestream to websites like Twitch, Twitter, or Facebook. By using the gaming platforms, I am able to output 1080p video and high-quality audio for clients so that they can see and hear what I am doing with only a 10-30 second delay. This means that I can execute mix revisions with
clients without having to print and send dozens of files.
Working primarily out of Jukasa Studios in Ohsweken, ON, Jill Zimmermann has collaborated with artists including Alice Cooper, Three Days Grace, Alexisonfire, and July Talk, as well as decorated producers like Bob Ezrin, Gavin Brown, Mike Plotnikoff, and Ian Davenport. www.jillzimmermann.com.
Tools for remote work…
As simple as it is, I found that using Skype or Zoom during a session where the producer is not available is a great tool. This way, you can be sure the session is going in the right direction sonically and that the producer gets what they want out of the artists by being able to coach them. For this, I believe it’s crucial that the video program is fed the console or DAW output and not just picking up ambient sounds through a laptop mic.
Cool remote results…
I believe that some artists benefit from recording remotely as they have less pressure than with a producer that comments on every single take. I’ve had several remote sessions where the artists have a little setup at home to record backing vocals or instruments and the musicians seem to have better performances since they have more room to be creative and work longer on the perfect take, as opposed to “watching the clock” [in the studio.] Usually, the little uncertainty whether it’s going in the right direction by not having immediate feedback makes them record more takes with different styles to choose from. This has proven to be interesting at times!
Adam Gallant has worked in all facets of digital audio production, from music composition to location and post audio for television and film. He currently owns and operates The Hill Sound Studio in Charlottetown, PEI.