Remote Recording: Beats from Afar

I remember it well ... the day things changed.

It was Monday afternoon, November 30, 1997. Typical for Oregon at this time of year, it was raining and cool. I was nursing a cup of coffee and trying to get motivated to do some work. My concentration was shattered by the electronic ring of my phone ... a call that would change the way I work forever.

The call was from a good friend, someone I often work with in the recording studio; work that has included three CDs for Mercury Records. He was in the middle of a mix for a local guitar player who was making a regional album that would have at least some visibility. I had played some drums on the basic tracks, but at the last minute they needed more, another drum element to complete one particular song. As usual, being a drum and percussion mercenary, I was happy to help. After all, the mortgage payment was due the next day.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Producer: “Hey Mike, what’s happening?”
Me: “Not much, just hanging.”
Producer: “Cool. We’re mixing this tune today and need a funky brush groove. Are your drums set up and miked?”
Me: “Yup.”
Producer: “Great, here’s the feel we have.” He held the phone out towards the speakers on his end. “The tempo is 98 bpm. We need a few different flavors of a funky brushes-on-snare thing, and make sure it loops well. Do you have time to do it?”
Me: “Of course.” This is the standard answer to anyone offering work. “Do you want me to drop it by the studio?”
Producer: “Well, we kinda’ need it now. Can you email it to me?”
Me: “Ah, sure. It’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
Producer: “Wonderful, I’ll let you know how it works out.”
Me: “Okay, bye.”

So I went to work. I fired up the computer, checked some levels on my drums, and recorded the loop into Digital Performer, the multitrack hard disk recording software I use. After a bit of EQing and some compression, I had a stereo mix done. I exported it from Digital Performer as a stereo audio file and opened it up in BIAS Peak, a great audio editing program. I then trimmed the loop to a perfect length and sent it off through the Internet by email to its final resting place, a mix I had heard only minutes before for the first time over the phone. Shortly thereafter a check was crawling its way towards me via snail mail. Technology rocks.

To this day, I still haven’t met this artist face to face, but I’ve worked with him on a record. Little did I know at the time, but this is the way much of my subsequent recording has been done — working from home, actually phoning my part in without ever getting out of my jammies.

MIDI vs. Audio.

I’ve been online since the mid-’80s, beginning with PAN (the Performing Artists Network), moving to CompuServe, then to AOL, and finally the Internet through an actual ISP (Internet service provider) in 1993. In those early days of telecommunication, the speed at which modems connected computers to one another and the Internet was incredibly slow. The only file types it was practical to send during those years were those that were very small in size. This limited the files we worked with remotely to MIDI files. This was an okay option at the time, but after you sent the MIDI file to the person you were collaborating with, you had no control over the final sounds. Your performance could be incredible, but you could be made to sound awful by the wrong choice of sounds on the receiving end ... but we all know that never happens.

Although using MIDI is still a viable way to work remotely if you and your client are using the same synthesizers or sampled drum sounds, the wide availability of high-speed (broadband) Internet access has now made it possible to work remotely using a digital multitrack recorder. This is the coolest of cool — you can work from home or studio with someone anywhere in the world.

So What’s the Process of Working Online?

Working with producers via the Internet may seem more intimidating than it actually is. Put in its most simple outline, the process goes something like this:

  1. With the person you’ll be working with, you decide on the recording format you’ll use. This is crucial in making the data transfers go smoothly. I’m reminded of what my father used to tell me: “Measure twice, cut once.”
  2. Have the audio files you’ll be working on transferred to you, either to your own server space or to the sender’s (from which you can download it using FTP or a standard Web browser).
  3. Download the files to your computer.
  4. Record some crushing tracks! Acoustic, electronic or hybrid.
  5. Do a quick mix and send it back to them in mp3 format. If the files aren’t too large, mp3s can be attached to email. (Check with your client before emailing large attachments.)
  6. After final approval, upload the files to your server or the receiver’s server space.
  7. Receive a check (the best part).

Fig. 1. This Digital Performer file, received from the composer via an FTP site, contains a rough stereo mix that I’ll play with while tracking drums.

Fig. 2. This is what the DP file looks like after nine individual tracks of drums have been recorded. This is the file sent back to the composer.

What Gets Transferred to Me to Work With?

After deciding on the recording format, instead of having the composer send all the individual audio files for me to work with, I generally have them send a rough stereo mix of enough tracks to represent the music I need to play to. This makes for fewer files for them to upload and me to download (see Fig. 1).

What Do I Transfer Back?

When I’m done recording, I’ll first do a rough mix and export from my multitrack it in mp3 format. I send the mp3 to the composer or producer. They then listen to and, hopefully, approve what I’ve done. I use Peak to do the conversion from .wav or AIFF to mp3: This software can translate just about any formats you’ll run across. [Ed. Note: Peak is a Macintosh program. If you’re using a Windows computer, Steinberg Wavelab is comparable.]

After approval, I’ll bundle and compress all the needed files (compression for PCs and Macs is discussed later), and upload them to my server. Fig. 2 shows my drum tracks after completion. Note that all the drum tracks start at exactly the same point. Although technically I don’t need to do this, I do it that way if an individual track accidentally gets shifted, so it can be corrected by aligning it with the beginning of the other drum tracks.

Audio Recording Format & Software.

Let’s look at the tools needed to work remotely with a multitrack audio format.

  1. Audio recording software to record your tracks.
  2. Optional but desirable: Audio editing software to edit mono and stereo audio files (see the Vol. 11, #7 issue of DRUM!).
  3. A computer with a broadband Internet connection.
  4. An email account, a Web browser and FTP software.

Audio Recording Software.

The recording format is arguably the most complicated part of this process to navigate. There has never been much agreement among software companies regarding a common, interchangeable multitrack audio format. The first stab at a universal audio exchange format for multitrack digital hard-disk recorders was OMF (Open Media Framework). Most of the makers of software-based digital recording programs, with the exception of Digidesign (makers of Pro Tools), have updated their software so it will open OMF files coming from other programs. The translated files probably won’t contain all of the information, such as audio crossfades, automated mixing changes and plug-in settings, but the audio will be there with the tracks labeled, and audio chunks will be in the right spots along the timeline.

I must admit, I haven’t tried all the combinations of software and platforms (Mac or PC), so I can’t comment on popular applications like Steinberg Cubase, which is cross-platform, or on Cakewalk Sonar (PC only). Before you find yourself facing a tight deadline, it’s a good idea to experiment with the person you’ll be working with. The process of working remotely takes some trial and error to perfect. Just last week I was trying to transfer a simple stereo audio file via email, and after trying the many different transfer options, I couldn’t get it to work. I still don’t know why — guess the Internet Gods weren’t smiling on me that day. I ended up sending a CD FedEx to New York, a real bummer. The point is to exchange a few test files with someone before you’re under time constraints, or Murphy’s Law will get you.

This year’s AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention saw further agreement on another “universal” format called AES31. I’ve heard that Digidesign has climbed aboard this bandwagon and signed on to use this format. Since they’re a dominant force in the recording industry, others will soon follow. Being part of a standard format will only make software with less market share more attractive to the consumer.

Time will tell how well this new exchange format levels the Tower of Babel that now exists. For now, if you’re not using the same multitrack recording software as your client, the safe method is to exchange only stereo audio files, in which the mixing and plug-in effects have already been “printed to tape.” [Ed. Note: If you work regularly with one client and you’re both using the same multitrack software, you might want to consider the streamlined uploading and downloading services offered by Rocket Network, ]http://www.rocketnetwork.com.]

Digidesign Pro Tools.

This is the most commonly used audio recording software among professionals. It does audio very well, but its MIDI implementation has limitations. Pro Tools is cross-platform, meaning you can easily share files created with Pro Tools on a Macintosh with someone using Pro Tools on a PC.

There are a few things to keep in mind before starting a Pro Tools project that’s going to be used remotely. Macintoshes primarily use the AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) or SDII (Sound Designer II) file format. Some PC software can’t read AIFF or SDII, so if the Pro Tools session has a chance of ending up on a PC, make sure to set the default audio file format to .wav (the audio format used with PCs). Mac software is generally more forgiving and can read the .wav format. If you forget to make the preference change at the beginning of the session, you’ll probably be able to translate the audio format later, but it’s time-consuming. If you’ll be sharing files with someone who’s using the same computer platfrom you are, you can probably use any stereo audio file format found in the preferences.

Now for the bad news: Transferring most other companies’ multitrack formats into Pro Tools requires a separate software program from Digidesign called DigiTranslator. It’s not free, but if you need to do this type of transfer, it can be done. Digidesign doesn’t seem to want to make it easy.

Emagic Logic Audio.

Although it’s a great piece of software, I’m going to leave this program out of the discussion for now. Apple Computer recently purchased Emagic, and the dust is still settling. Apple has discontinued support for the Windows version of what was originally a cross-platform product. This leads me to believe that they have other plans for Logic Audio, but time will tell. If anyone at Apple wants to fill me in, please e-mail me.

Mark of the Unicorn Digital Performer.

This is my software of choice. I’ve used Performer since the mid-1980s, when it was just a MIDI sequencing program without the digital audio side. Most of the people I currently work with, both in town and remotely, use this software. It’s a Macintosh-only program, so if you’re using a PC and want to use DP, your only option is to buy a Mac.

DP seems to import, to varying degrees, the OMF file format. So you can open up most Mac-created multitrack audio files in DP. I haven’t tried opening OMF files that were created on a Windows program, so I can’t comment on how well it works.

I’ve imported Mac-created Pro Tools sessions into DP as OMF files, and although fades and automation information didn’t get translated, all the track names and audio placement were correct. But beware, you won’t easily get the session back into Pro Tools after working on it in DP. I plead ignorance on being able to open up a Windows-created Pro Tools session. There are some tedious ways you can get audio over to another multitrack program, but they aren’t very elegant. Do this only as a last resort. I’ll touch on this topic again after we look at the next Steinberg Nuendo.

I’m not one to jump ship and use another piece of software unless there’s a compelling reason to do so; Nuendo may be that reason. From what I’ve seen, this is the up-and-coming multitrack software. It handles different audio file formats (.wav, AIFF, mp3, Broadcast .wav, and other more obscure formats). It’s available for both Mac and Windows. It’ll import a myriad of audio file formats, as well as importing OMF and Cubase files. A report from Bob Stark, a recording engineer I both trust and admire, gives it high marks for sound quality. I’ll be checking it out in more depth soon.

Oops, the File Transfers Aren’t Working ... Help!

If you’re working with someone remotely and can’t seem to translate the entire multitrack file as one complete unit, don’t panic. There is a way out. It involves a bit of work, but you can transfer individual audio tracks to and from any software format or computer platform. Here’s one way to do make the transfer happen.

What you’re going to do is:

  1. Bounce or extract each track as a complete, end-to-end audio file.
  2. Save or export the file in a file format the remote user can read.
  3. Email or FTP upload each file individually.

Fig. 3. Fragmented tracks are created by multiple takes or by editing the audio, so that on the CD you sound like a better player than you actually are. Isn’t technology grand?

Fig. 4. After the tracks have been bounced to disk, they become complete and seamless chunks of audio that all have exactly the same beginning point.

First, individually bounce any tracks to disk that contain multiple audio fragments or edits (see Fig. 3). Make sure to bounce all of the tracks so that they have the same start point. I always include the bar before the first bar of the track in which audio appears. This way, if the downbeat attack is a bit before the beat, the entire downbeat will be there. Because the tracks have the same start point, when they’re aligned to start at the same place in the remote user’s software, they’ll be perfectly synchronized with one another (see Fig. 4). When re-assembling individual tracks, you have to be careful not get any of them out of sync, as very strange audio problems can arise, especially if stereo recordings have been saved as dual mono files (separate files for the left and right channels).

If you’re going to be sending multiple tracks to your client, make sure each track has a descriptive name, like “kick drum, inside,” “top snare,” “left overhead, audience perspective,” etc. This will at least create a fighting chance that the tracks end up being reconstructed and mixed properly. When you’ve saved the files this way, they can be imported into digital audio programs one track at a time, or even into stand-alone hard disk recorders like Roland’s popular VS-2480 (which uses .wav files).

Bundling and compressing multiple files as one .zip (PC) or .sit (Mac) file is a good idea. That way you can be sure that the receiver gets all the files, and they won’t take quite so long to upload and download.

The Connection to the Internet. Almost any computer with an Internet connection will work for the transfer, but if you don’t have a high-speed (broadband) data connection, you’ll spend a lot of hours twiddling your thumbs.

A dialup connection (via a standard phone line) is not suitable for working with anything but the smallest files. ISDN is an older high speed technology, and provides speeds about twice as fast as a typical 56K dialup connection. Still not good.

A DSL connection is typically four to ten times the speed of a 56K dialup connection. This is an “always on” connection, so you’ll still be able to use the phone line to make and receive voice phone calls. If you can get it in your area, go for it. In my opinion, it’s the best connection.

Cable is now a very common and affordable broadband connection. Although the download speed is blazing, the upload speed is only about two times fast as a 56K dialup connection.

T1 is an extremely fast connection to the Internet, generally not found in homes but available in some commercial studios. A direct satellite link is not yet a viable alternative. (Darn.)

If High Speed Access Isn’t Available.

T-Mobile Hotspot is a wireless T1 connection that’s showing up in many Starbucks locations. This joint venture between the wireless provider T-Mobile and Starbucks allows anyone with a wireless network card in their computer (most often a laptop) to purchase online connection time under a variety of plans. So if you can’t get a broadband connection at home, just do your recording, copy the files to your laptop (if it isn’t your music computer) and go have a cup of coffee while you upload your files. You can also download files with this connection. I use this service when I’m on the road.

If all else fails, you can burn a CD-ROM of the file(s) and use overnight delivery to send the file(s). This is always a last, but functional option.

Transferring Files via the Internet.

Until you’ve experienced it, transferring files can be an abstract and confusing part of working remotely. But after you’ve gone through the process a time or two, it’s no problem, a piece of cake, easy as pie, a walk in the park.

Any file smaller than about 3 megabytes (roughly 35 seconds of mono CD-quality audio) can be sent as an email attachment. Simply launch your email program of choice, type some niceties to the receiving person, attach your file, send the email and you’re done. The 3MB limit is because most email servers (the computers that control and distribute email) limit the size of a received email messages and attachments. Anything larger and the email message will get returned to you as undeliverable (big bummer) or simply swallowed up in Internet oblivion (bigger bummer).

If you need to get multiple files around this size to someone, your could use multiple email messages, each with a file attached. As long as they download each message from their email server before you send the next one, their mailbox won’t fill up. Even so, I wouldn’t suggest this method. If the receiver tries to check their email on a dialup connection (read: slow as molasses), it might be awhile before they talk to you again, as the file download could take decades.

Using hard drive space on a Web or FTP server is the best option when transferring large files. Dedicated FTP software is used to upload and download the files. As for what FTP software to use, I use Fetch for Macintosh. It’s available in a free “lite” version, or as a more complete shareware version. If you’re using Windows, FTPExplorer has been recommended to me. This freeware program is easy to use and fully functional.

Whether they know it or not, almost everyone with an email address that’s not a work email address has space to host a small website. Once you’ve set up your site, you’ll be able to upload the files you’ve been working with. Although a basic ISP account won’t give you enough space to upload the large files you’ll be dealing with, the amount of space allotted to you will vary widely from ISP to ISP, so check with your provider to see how much space they offer, and what they charge for a larger allotment. Again, each minute of mono CD-quality audio is about 5MB in size. That being the case, eight individual tracks of drums for a four-minute song will total 160MB! Trust me, you won’t have enough server space. But all is not lost: Your ISP will gladly rent you more.

If you need large amounts of server space on a frequent basis (and are kinda vain), consider getting your own domain. This is very easy to set up and relatively affordable, roughly $10 to $40 per month. In addition to impressing friends and family, you have direct access and control over your domain. In addition to using the domain as a file transfer site, you can put up your own website. You’ll generally also get an email address like .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

The process of uploading files is rather simple, but you’ll need to do it a few times before it becomes second nature. If you have your own server space, and want to upload file(s) so that all the receiver has to do is click on a URL (uniform resource locator) link, do the following.

While connected to the Internet with a broadband connection, open your FTP transfer software. Although you can upload files to the FTP section of your site, I usually upload files to the “WWW” directory of my site. [Ed. Note: Other Web hosting companies use different naming conventions for their directories. They’ll gladly provide details when you set up your account.] It seems to me that more people have experience with downloading files from websites than straight FTP sites. The server I host all my sites on has software that allows me to password-protect certain folders (directories). So when someone clicks on http://mikesnyder.net/drummag/hdfiles/example.mp3, they have to enter a username and password before they can download the file(s).

Fig. 5. The FTP software allows you to log onto the Web server maintained by the company that hosts your website. After logging on, you’ll be able to create and navigate through the directories, pretty much the way you would on your own computer’s desktop.

Fig. 6. Here it is, an audio file (albeit only an example) uploaded and ready for the the composer to download: All I have to do is email them the URL.

Fig. 5 shows a screenshot from Fetch after I’ve logged on to my website. Only the person with the username and password for the site can do this (unless they’re a pretty good and relentless hacker). Notice the WWW folder (directory). After opening this directory (double-clicking it), I’ll create a new directory in it named “drummag”, then open that folder and create another directory in it named “hdfiles”. This folder is where I upload the “example.wav” audio file as raw data (see Fig. 6). When you, as the receiver, click on the http://mikesnyder.net/drummag/hdfiles/example.mp3 URL, you’ll be prompted to enter a username (use Drum) and a password (use Mag). These names are case-sensitive. Log onto this URL and see how it works in real life. The audio file will download to your computer. What a wonderful and exciting world we live in!

Here’s a tip to keep in mind: Although your FTP software is probably set this way by default, make sure text documents, such as HTML files, are uploaded as “text” and all other files, such as audio files, are uploaded as “raw data” (also known as “binary”). This will ensure that the file(s) can be used across many platforms.

The WWW directory of a server isn’t the only place you can put files for transfer, but it seems to me to be the easiest. They can also be transferred from an FTP site, but it’s a bit more complicated and confusing. I’ll leave you to wade through those waters on your own.

Very little is absolute when dealing with technology. There are countless ways to make technology work for you, and many pitfalls and land mines lying in wait. Experiment with the technology and talk to the people you actually work with about how they’re using it. It can open new and exciting possibilities for working, and living. As you’ve seen, you don’t even need to be physically present to collaborate with someone!

Mike Snyder lives with his wife Maggie in beautiful Portland, Oregon. He’s able to do so while still playing drums for a living, because of technology. Give him a vanilla latte and broadband Internet access, and life is good. He can be reached through http://mikesnyder.net.