Online Music Collaborations (Part 2)

I’m coming to the end of a musical collaboration with my initially online and now real-life friend Boofa (from Wellington, New Zealand).

We began our collaboration ‘12000 Miles as the White Crane Flys’ in 2005 and met via MySpace and it’s only now that this record is finally at the stage where the last mix is being done – three years later!

In between I’ve finished three other records and it’s now time to write the Part 2 of the blog on online music collaborations (see part 1 here)

Boofa and I have learned alot during the collaboration and I thought I’d share a little bit of it with you.

It seems that the collaboration we did had a few distinct phases to it :

1. Flurry of ideas : this was the beginning phase where we threw lots of files back and forth. This is easily the most ‘fun’ section and it’s exciting to get regular musical deliveries in your inbox. We were careful not to use any proprietary software so that what we heard was the same. We used the out of the box Ableton Live software with no 3rd party plugins…just what came with the software.

2. Flesh on lots of bones : We had around 15 tracks in a very basic state and this phase was to put some more work into them. The way we approached it was to take half the tracks each and spend more time trying to develop the ideas.

3. Switch: We swapped the tracks with each other and did a little more each.

4. Agree on the tracks to jettison: we both produced a top 10 list. We only had one or two disagreements but were easily solved.

5. Hook up : Boofa came over to the UK and he stayed at my place. He arrived with a big beard and a massive neon suitcase. It was great to meet up. My band was playing and we used it as an excuse to test some of the 12000 material on a live audience. We hooked up some midi controllers and practiced performing the tracks as they were. We only had a day to prep and then perform in the night.

6. Taking the candidates to the next level : over the lifetime of the recording we discussed the concept we were looking to hang the album on – it was something to help us understand what we were doing. We came up with the idea of Cranes and both liked the metaphor of our files thrown back and forth being like some sort of migratory birds flocking between Manchester and Wellington. I had been working with Iain Dixon the legendary flute player from Manchester and it struck me that nothing would communicate birds wings on the air better than a flute. I popped round to Ians with a laptop and recorded him playing to what we had. His single takes for each track added a super useful navigational tool to lead us to the final arrangement. I did a bunch of editing and once I was demented with the sound of flute I threw the tracks over to Boofa. At this stage file sizes were beginning to swell so DVD’s were used to send data.

7. Some crackhead broke into my place and nicked my laptops. This was a setback and Boofa worked on the tracks adding calm and coherence. I moved house/town a few times in between before settling and getting more recording gear.

8. The final furlong : Mix time. By far this was the most difficult phase of the project and I think this is where Boofa and me had the most disagreements. In retrospect this is understandable as mixing is often a matter of taste and the final ‘render’ of the tracks is something that we both had a vision on. This is the one part of the process that I think would have been better sitting next to one another – we got there but not without some blood on the tracks.

But all the time and pain dissipated – we both feel it sounds great. It was worth the 100 transfers, the fights and the frustration. It’ll be available in April 😉

In Summary..

  • Don’t be too precious – whole tracks, complete mixes, great performances are all subject to your partners opinion. Keep your eye on the prize and let some bits you care about hit the cutting floor.
  • Credit the collaboration equally – writing and arranging and mixing. Even if one of you did more than the other for a track or the whole thing breaking it down into who did bit ‘x’ will only lead to bad blood.
  • Have patience. Life gets in the way when you are working on a big project that is online. If you are trying to make something that is timeless then it doesn’t ultimately matter how long it takes….if you are trying to make something that is ‘now’ then perhaps online isn’t the best approach for a big project
  • Don’t use the tracks you are working on for some other reason without consulting your collaborator

Tools Used
Here is a list of tools we used for our online music collaboration. I’ve listed them in the order that we used them….

  • Ableton DAW software – this was he workhorse of our tracks. Can’t recommend highly enough. I notice that now we are finished Ableton have announced new collaboration features. Three years too late for the benefit of this project though.
  • – this is a great free service that allows you to exchange large files
  • -when it’s all getting to be a bit too impersonal it’s nice to do a video call and shoot the breeze. Keep it human.
  • Google Documents – we used this for track notes and developing the text for the album cover. Google docs is a great service – don’t be fooled by the tag ‘Beta’ as it’s been in use for years
  • – This is a great tool and worth even a basic subscription. This online service allows you to upload tracks and exchange mixes with one another. The best feature is that you can see the waveform of the track and click anywhere to make a timed comment. This allows for simple exact commenting such as “that cymbal sounds wack”

Don’t let them tell you it’s all Gloom