Bob Brown has worked with many top tech firms and was part of the team working on collaboration technologies at Avid and more latterly Gobbler. In the first of three articles Bob talks about the concept of creative collaboration, the opportunities and the challenges.
Yesterdays Technology for Today’s Workflows
The tools we use for music production have been developed over the past 50 to 100 years. Musicians and engineers love vintage microphones, analog effects, and the sound of tape; ironically, it’s the imperfections of past technology that sound more pleasing to our ears.
The majority of todays DAWs such as Pro Tools, Logic X Pro, and Studio One are based on designs that evolved from tape machines and the old studio workflow. Additionally, these DAWs are designed primarily around a single user or single operator workflow. In general, there is one mouse and one keyboard controlling the DAW.
Most DAWs are designed to have a person record arm a set of tracks and queue or start the transport recording when the musicians are ready. Many have modes or external hardware that allow the single operator be the musician and start the transport rolling with a count off or a pedal switch. In some cases there may be multiple people mixing simultaneously with a control surface - such as ones that model traditional mixing desks.
When a group of musicians are working together in different studios, they are faced with many challenges including the diversity of DAWs, plug-ins, interfaces, and even outboard gear. Even assuming everyone has the same sets of tools, most DAWs do not have advanced features for cloud-based project or session workflows. Collaboration is often facilitated via sending and receiving whole copies of a project, or important audio bounces (thus limiting editing capabilities between collaborators). With these limited tools, it quickly becomes difficult to track and manage all of the copies of media.
While there are promising new technologies geared toward collaboration using traditional DAW workflows - such as Ohm Studio and Steinberg Nuendo.
Serial vs. Parallel Workflows, What?
The recording process for both solo musicians and bands is often initiated in one of two ways:
The whole band records a song together live in the studio. This is known as a parallel, or synchronous workflow, where all instruments are recorded simultaneously.
Conversely, each instrument may be individually recorded as an overdub layered on existing tracks. This is the serial, or asynchronous, workflow.
Most productions employ a combination of parallel and serial workflows. After recording the whole band together, additional tracks may be added to enhance the original recording or fix issues that might have occurred.
How Space And Time Affect Collaboration
Now that we have defined serial and parallel production techniques and have an understanding of how and why they are used, let’s look at how time and space (or location) come into the production process.
There are two key concepts when thinking about collaboration and information transfer between different studios. First, bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be transferred at a time. A simple way of understanding bandwidth is to think of how big the “pipe” or “hose” is. A firehose delivers much more water than a garden hose. Second, latency, which concerns the speed of data transfer and delay in data delivery. Continuing the hose analogy, the speed at which water travels through a hose is related to how much pressure is forcing water through it.
Most musicians who have recorded have experienced latency; for an example, recall the delay between when you sing into a microphone and hear your voice in your monitoring headphones. When you talk on the phone or use an application like Skype or Google Hangouts, it seems as if everything is happening in real time with no latency. In reality, such applications are simply compensating for latency. If you ever try to sing or play a song with someone over the phone, for example, you will quickly find out the latency is quite high. This latency makes it nearly impossible to perform together over a standard phone or internet connection.
If you are collaborating with other musicians, you will very likely be working with more than one computer. Unless you are moving a hard drive between the computers, you will likely be moving (copying) files around. The minute you copy a file, you have at least two versions that need to be tracked so that they are up to date.
The real challenge for designers creating the next generation of tools is to understand the workflows musicians and engineers want to use, and create tools that guide and allow them to work together.
For more information on latency in computer recordings, see this article from Apple’s developer library.