Collaboration Tools

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Chances are if you are someone who is involved with music in any way—a musician, producer, songwriter, engineer—that you are not flying solo 100%. Collaborating, communicating and just keeping things straight can get to be a challenge pretty quick. There are a few tools that I have found to be very useful in collaborating with others, whether they are in town or another part of the world. But it’s not just the tools, but it’s how you use them and getting everyone involved to use them too. The fact is that these are just tools used as part of a process. If the people you are collaborating with do not use the tools, then the usefulness of those tools decreases.

For me and the people I work with, I set up Dropbox to share media files such as MP3’s, DAW files and any images or artwork, Evernote to share lyrics, charts, notes, set sheets, documentation, etc. and Facebook Messenger for conversation. There is nothing magical about these tools in particular, just that they are ones that I use and have found to be invaluable in our workflow. Dropbox, in particular, allows us to collaborate on recording projects, which is our primary focus, while we live spread out between here and Nova Scotia. I can drop a mix into Dropbox for our Canadian bassist and get his bass track back in as much time as it takes him to lay the track down—a thousand miles away!

For text-based files I use Evernote. I use this tool extensively in all areas of my life, including collaborating with the guys. This allows us to craft song lyrics and charts and then share them instantly. Evernote is available on just about every desktop and mobile platform out there, and we all have smartphones which we do most of our interaction with, except for working with DAW files. Both Dropbox and Evernote have sharing capabilities that allow me to share a Dropbox folder or Evernote notebook with the guys. Any time a file or document gets updated, we are notified of the change.

We use Facebook Messenger for messaging, mainly because it seems to flow better and has a better group conversation experience than simple text messaging, especially with a mixture of platforms. Again, there is nothing necessarily magical or irreplaceable about any one of these tools—there are plenty of competing apps out there that do the same basic things. The important thing is that there are tools available, and all of the ones I have described are freely available even though I do pay for additional Dropbox storage, and Evernote Premium for features that I don’t necessarily use in music collaboration.

This is truly the greatest time to be alive as a musician as technology has not simply leveled the playing field and torn down barriers to the average musician, but has introduced so many great apps and platforms that allow us to do what even the “big guys” couldn’t do 20 years ago. There are so many other tools out there that can be used to make our musical lives easier and help reduce the amount of time we spend mucking around with things just to be able to make music, instead of actually making music, which is what it is all about.

What tools are you using to make your musical lives easier, better and more productive? Just drop a line below in the comments and share what is in your toolbox!

Analog Workflow in a Digital World

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As I have been getting back into the recording side of music over the past several years, I have been re-learning a completely new toolset—a digital one. While I am like a kid in a candy store with all of the tools that are now available (and affordable), I just haven’t found that joy I experience when behind a physical mixing console. Being able to visually scan an array of channel strips and make fader adjustments on the fly on multiple faders using all of my fingers is just one example, it’s like playing another instrument. On a screen, I can’t do that unless it is on a touch surface, but again, that lacks the tactile feel that an actual physical mix desk offers. As for my DAW, I have been using Reaper for quite a while now, and I love it. The Reaper team has approached the tooling the right way, and made it very affordable.

But a new contender came onto the scene a couple-3 years ago and brings a new approach to the DAW. Harrison Consoles released Mixbus, which is based on the open source Ardour engine, incorporates modeling of the components in their famous consoles. What I love about this package is that it has a “knob per function” mixer layout based on Harrison’s music consoles, laying it out exactly like a physical board. Additionally, the channels provide processing that would normally be gotten by using plugins, and again, this processing is modeled from Harrison’s boards which for just about all of us are out of financial reach (their boards cost about the same as a modest home).

Version 4 was just released and with it a lot of tweaks and improvements that previous versions lacked and kept me away from really adopting it. I am beginning the process of figuring out how to move my projects from Reaper to Mixbus, or possibly just use Mixbus during the mix and master phases. But I would love to use Mixbus through the whole process, so in the coming weeks I will be working with it to do some comparisons with the Reaper workflow. I have successfully brought over my key plugins and validated that they work in Mixbus, both VST and VSTi (virtual instruments). I have not yet worked with the MIDI editing features, but they look comparable to Reaper.

Either way, I am excited to work with Mixbus and the modeled signal path, tape saturation and metering features that set this DAW apart from the rest. It appears to have everything that I need and at the same time brings me closer to what I have really been missing from the “analog”/physical world. My long term objective is to integrate a physical mix console back into my workflow, and have it drive Mixbus. This would bring the workflow processes that I “grew up on” back and give me the best of both worlds.

What does your workflow and tooling look like? How well does it work for you? What would you change? Leave a description of your rig in the comments below!

Virtual Sound Check Technology

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The virtual sound check is a relatively new concept that is definitely going to become more mainstream as the gap in the latest live digital audio technology closes, and it is actually closer than it seems. In fact, it is not restricted to only the high end gear. This feature is available on several digital audio consoles, and opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the average band. In fact, I would even argue that it offers as much relevant value to the rest of us as it does the full time pro uses in that it chops the time needed to ring out a room during soundcheck, and therefore reduces the stress level for the operation as a whole and gives the band more time to set up and less time focusing on working with the FOH engineer to get the system ready for show time.

The concept is simple: digital audio systems that have integrated DAW functionality–in other words, can record the audio signals that are running through the console, can capture the audio running through each of the channels and save each one individually as a separate track. These tracks can then be used at future gigs in place of the actual band playing, allowing the audio engineer to do a virtual soundcheck without the band even being involved.

This takes the stress off of both the engineer and the band, allowing each to focus on their tasks simultaneously, essentially creating a nice chunk of time that would normally be compressed into an already tight time frame. When you get off of your day job late on a Friday afternoon, it is typically a mad rush to get home to get your gear, get ready and head to the gig–you already have little time to get things set up and ready. Virtual sound checks get rid of the engineer’s dependency on the band, giving him (or her) the ability to even sound check and get the system ready before the band arrives! This is HUGE!

While this is just one simple example of what this technology can do, the point is that there is a significant opportunity to shorten the amount of time and effort it takes to get all systems to the point of being ready for showtime, and giving everyone on the team that much more space to get things set up and that much less stress in doing so, which all adds up to making for a better performance.

At the end of the night, that means more physical, mental and emotional resources for everyone to focus on what really matters, and that is pulling off the best performance possible. Technology and its creative and intelligent use can make playing in a band a much more sustainable–and enjoyable–experience over time, and that is what it is all about.