Rock On: Online Music Collaborations,101

Unless you’re a closet musician that strictly enjoys playing in their private spot, creating music with your bandmates is what excites you most. The ‘give and take’ of live collaboration is exciting and often unpredictable (especially the way I play). There’s no question that many bands find success by getting together in someone’s garage or a studio. But even the Beatles, especially later, often recorded tracks separately and layered them using a mixing board and multi-track tapes to create the final product. In 2020, you don’t need a studio — or even a professional mixer — to collaborate and create some really interesting results. As a musician, here’s my guide to collaborating online — and getting some great tracks out of it (even during a time of social distancing).

The challenge is finding the right platform for your collaboration; the advent of mobile apps has answered that call. One popular example is an app called “Acapella” by Mixcord. This application runs on your iPad tablet and allows you to record audio and video from up to 9 instruments or musicians. The free version allows 30 seconds of recording, which is plenty of time for you to try it out. One musician begins by recording their video and then shares that with another musician, who then adds their part. The video from each for the musicians can be displayed via “picture in picture” format that allows you to see everyone performing concurrently. You can then share this final product on your band page or social media platform. Upgrade as a paying user, and you can record longer sets and gain access to a wider variety of effects. There are other apps similar to “Acapella,” such as “Smule.” Plus there’s a host of karaoke applications (Karaoke 365, Karaoke Online, and Singa) if that’s your thing. With those, you can sing along with your favorite backing track and share the results with family and friends.

Recording and sharing tracks on a computer requires an analog-to-digital conversion device, and iRig is one of the most cost-effective products out there. This little fella plugs into your computer via either the headphone audio jack or a USB connection. Then you can plug any ¼ cable jack into iRig and record it in say, Audacity. This includes plugging in musical instruments and microphones.  Add Amplitube to your computer or mobile phone and you can introduce a variety of effects; your phone becomes a portable amplifier. You can then record your track and share it with the band to incorporate it into a complete song. Or, you can upload it to a music sharing site.

One of the most popular music sharing sites is Soundcloud. This site allows you to upload music and share it with musicians around the world. You upload your MP3 track onto the platform and publish it for others to enjoy or collaborate with. There are plenty of good alternatives to Soundcloud, including Bandcamp, Mixcloud, and Audiomack. All provide comparable and competitive features. And all provide a small chunk of free space, and then you can pay for additional megabytes. Some websites are specifically used by musicians to provide music that can be used by other musicians. Popular sites include Splice, Blend, and Kompoz. With Splice, musicians upload a variety of song parts and share those with others. As a Splice subscriber, you download these song snippets and add your layer to create something better. Musicians can form a band from across the world, each recording their part for an eventually completed song.  Or, a guitar and bass player can put in a request for a drummer to record a percussion track for their song.

Personal Experience / Technical Setup

Recently, my band has started remotely collaborating and sharing various tracks for the instrument each of us plays. I want to share my setup because it’s relatively low-cost and has been effective. I use iRig HD to capture analog signals from my instruments and for vocals as described above. Because I’m on a Mac Pro laptop, I can download Garageband at no cost. Garageband lets me apply effects to instruments plugged into iRig, including a host of stomp and effects, and record them as tracks. I can also apply effects to any vocal tracks I record, including auto-tuner (thank God!). I use QuickTime to record my video and audio. I use iMovie (free on Mac also) to create a single music video with the assembled video/audio tracks showing all of us playing together. The very first person to record a track (often the drummer) sets the BPM for the track that we all must play to. You can then use a metronome and play to a click; a better option is to listen to the already- recorded track on headphones while playing your instrument (or singing) and recording your own overlay video/audio track. If every musician does that, it’s just a matter of assembling all of the video tracks into iMovie and syncing them (there are tutorials on YouTube on how to do that last part).

Related: “Kirsty MacColl: An Appreciation”

To accomplish this, I downloaded and install “Soundflower” on my Mac. I used my Audio MIDI setup app to create an aggregate output device that sends audio to both Soundflower and my headphones. I then configure Garageband to send its output to the aggregate output device. I queue my bandmates’ video track in QuickTime and then launch a second QuickTime to record the audio. On that second QuickTime, I select the little dropdown next to the record button and choose “Soundflower” for audio input before recording. Remember that Garageband is taking input from iRig, applying effects, and sending the output (using the aggregate device) to both my headphones and “Soundflower.” That’s my setup. To record, I plug my headphones into the laptop audio jack. I press “record” on QuickTime, switch to my bandmates’ track (queued in the other copy of QuickTime), and press “Play.” Then I play or sing while listening to the already-recorded track via my headphones. Press “stop” on both QuickTime’s when you’re done, and you’ve got a track that should line up exactly with your bandmate’s supplied track.

Related: “‘Abbey Road’: How Much Do You Know? (Part 1)”

Just know — being away from your bandmates doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate online and create wonderful music, just like the Beatles did over 50 years ago!

-Will Wills

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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2 comments on “Rock On: Online Music Collaborations,101

  1. Stephen Caldwell

    Hey Al –
    Thought you might be interested to know that I have been doing this kind of recording throughout the entire quarantine with some friends, some of which are professionals, turning out music and adding video. One such recording, “A little help from my friends“, went viral (w 12k views and counting! This is a new artform that is catching on, if you ask me! The potential for this is enormous! The link for this video is below. Check it outcThis is a new artform that is catching on, if you ask me! The potential for this is enormous! The link for this video is below. Check it out:

    -Stephen Caldwell

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