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Approaches to Distance Recording

Step by step instructions for collaborating on music recordings and videos when singers and musicians are in different places

With social distancing, musicians can’t get together to jam, rehearse or record.  There’s a growing interest in collaborating and co-creating music even with the restrictions.  With some experimentation I’ve come up with a few different approaches. The document is meant to help musicians work through this process.  If you have questions or want to provide tips from your own experience, send an email to Rusty Williams — rusty@milesapartmedia.com — or just comment at the bottom of this page.  

Special Request to NPR Tiny Desk Contest Participants: Would You Be Interested in Sharing Your Tips? If so, click this link to be part of a compilation of video interviews produced with AnswerStage.

There are some other helpful articles on the web.  Here’s just one:

https://reverb.com/news/ways-to-collaborate-on-music-remotely

Introduction:

Before taking a somewhat complicated and time consuming approach, you may want to check out some apps that enable you to produce karaoke style music videos.  Two that I know about are: Acapella and Smule. (I haven’t used either so I can’t point out pros and cons, but there are plenty of sites on the web that have).  

This summary below is for more elaborate recording processes with more control over the production process. 

For “Producers” – people who want to serve as the point person for a project

Equipment and software: 

You’ll need to be reasonably proficient with the use of video editing and music editing software. Garage Band and iMovie are both suitable for many projects.  There are higher end options for both multitrack audio and video editing.  For projects referenced in this document, I’ve used Movavi (about $60) and Adobe Premiere (about $20/month) for video editing.  Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro are considered the top-tier options.    I’ve heard from several people that Davinci Resolve is a good option.  For multitrack audio, I use Studio One by Presonus.  There are other good options in the same price range.  

For the first version of this document, we’re going to focus on what it takes to create a collaborative video.  Audio is essentially a subset and many of the same techniques will apply if you’re just recording music.  

Step 1: Create a “Guide Track”

A Guide Track is what your other collaborators will be playing along with while recording their portions or “tracks” of the song.  

A Guide track can be simple — such as a singer songwriter playing along with his or her guitar.  Or it could be more elaborate such as a full rhythm section. 

For more official recordings it’s useful to have a consistent tempo so a click track is often helpful when creating this Guide track.  Some programs also have drum beats that you can use.  I find playing along with a basic drum beat to be easier than playing to a click track.  Some software programs and keyboards can provide basic beats too.  Don’t worry if it doesn’t fit the style of your song.  You’ll be discarding it after the other instruments are in place. Here’s an example of a 130bpm beat from YouTube: 

It’s not essential, however, to use a drumbeat, metronome or click.  You may want to have an organic feel to your song. 

In many cases it will also be helpful to have a count-in for the song. This is essential if many members of the band are going to play from the start. But if the song starts with a lone guitar riff that could serve as the cue for everyone to start. When you need to sync the beginning, my recommendation is to count, snap or clap six beats and then keep two open before you start playing.  

So, you’d have an eight beat lead-in to your song. You’ll count it or clap it like this: 

1 , 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (quiet), (quiet). 

You want this for two reasons:  to help all the instruments to come in together and the clicks will help you synchronize the video and audio.  

Once you have the Guide Track ready, upload via email to your collaborators or upload it to Dropbox and send a link. 

Note: You CAN simplify  

Even though a Guide Track is very important and is the foundation of your song, you don’t need to be so formal about it.  For example, you could just record yourself playing a song and then send it to a friend to use Option A below to sing along.  It would take you 10 minutes to record your part and a few minutes for your friend to sing harmony or add an instrument and you’ll be done. You don’t have to use a count-in, drummer, click track or anything.  It’s more like the “coffeehouse” or jam session approach to working on a song together.  So, in some cases simpler could be better. 

But back to the main thread….  

There are two versions of the instructions you can send to your collaborators. The first option (A) is for people who don’t have multitrack recording software.  They can record themselves using their phones.  It’s simpler, but the audio quality isn’t quite as good.*  The other option (B) is for people who have multitrack recorders.  Note that you can mix and match both approaches if you have people with different skill levels and equipment.  For example, it may make sense to use option B for the musicians and option A for harmony singers.  It’s up to you. 

* Note that you can enhance phone audio using some quick tricks. See my other post about these techniques.

Step 2: Invite others to contribute to the song

A) Here’s what you should send to phone-only participants: 

1. Download my track to your computer or phone,  

2. Set up your phone for video – selfie mode is best so you can see how you’re framed.  Vertical (portrait) orientation is probably best but landscape can work (especially for a drummer piano or other wide instrument). 

3. Have my track ready to play on your computer or other device.  Use earphones with just one side in so you’ll be able to hear my track and also hear yourself well.

4: Press record on your phone and then click play for the audio 

5. When you hear the 6-beat count-in snap your fingers or clap along but be quiet for the last two (this helps me sync your video with mine) 

6. Press stop when the song is over and then send your video file to me. 

F. You can usually do this by finding the video in your Photo Album on an iPhone or the Gallery on an Android.  Then click the video and look for the share icon (usually a square with an up arrow or a wishbone).  After clicking that you’ll see options that could include Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, or Google Photos one of those should work as a place to upload it. Once uploaded, send me the link so I can download it.   Sending the file by mail or text does NOT work.  

Note: if you’ve chosen to not bother with the count-in, omit #5 when sending this. 

B) Here’s what you send to multi-track proficient participants:  

1. Upload my track to your recording software

2. Set up mic and/or instrument to record your track in your recording software. 

3 Set up your phone or camera for video.

D. Play my track through headphones and record your track (in digital audio workstation “DAW” software like Garage Band) and video (with your phone or camera) simultaneously.

E. When you hear the 6-beat count-in snap your fingers or clap along but be quiet for the last two (this helps me sync the audio and video)

F. Send your audio and video files to me. Make sure that you export just your audio track from your DAW.  Don’t blend my original track with yours. 

G. Sending large video files can be tricky. The best option is Dropbox.  Other options are Google Drive, Google Photos and iCloud.  When you’ve uploaded it to one of these cloud services, just send me a link and I’ll be able to download it.  

Step 3: Assembling “tracks” created by multiple people

Hopefully all goes well with the recording and your band members or collaborators have sent you links to their tracks.  At that point, you download them all and organize them into folders on your computer. Then you’re ready to start importing the tracks into your video editing software.  It will look something like this:

The screenshot above is a video editor with multiple video tracks imported from the different musicians.  You can see how the “bumps” of the sound waves will help you align each clip.  In this case I selectively “hid” or muted various parts to create the switching between singers.  Below what he screenshot shows is the audio for the Guide Track which is providing the sounds of the instruments. 

Each participant followed the instructions above in version A recorded their track with their phone and sent a link to the file.  The result ended up looking like this.  (Notice the one earphone approach by all of the singers). 

The background is just an image added to the timeline and extended to be there for the full song.  Other types of media can be used for backgrounds including videos.  I experimented with this but it ended up looking too busy for this video but could work in others.  You’ll probably want to add fade ins and fade outs for most clips because sudden appearance and disappearance looks too jarring.  

Producing a high quality “Studio” recording (option B): 

Another example is a project I worked on with Sarah Joy for a song she wrote called “The Little Things.” In this case, we used the B technique because we really wanted to get studio quality sound.  To do this, I created a Guide Track with the chords on piano and guitar. This is where I used a steady drum beat to make sure that the tempo was steady and locked in.  I sent that to Sarah (without the drums) and she imported it into Garage Band and sang along and then sent me back her vocal track as an audio file.  We did that several times as “takes” and as she learned about the exact style she wanted for each section. 

For the video, we used an “MTV” approach which is essentially good lip syncing. The secret to doing that is to play the music loudly in the room while you capture video of you singing or playing along.  I should emphasize that you should really sing and play along.  Lip syncing doesn’t mean fake singing or playing. It means recreating your performance for the video. In this case you don’t need headphones or even worry about being perfect singing or playing.  Just play along or sing along to the music.  It just has to be very close to what’s already been recorded. Bad lip syncing looks really bad so make sure your recreation of the performance on video is good. Another good trick is to use two cameras at the same time to record the lip sync’d videos — one close up and one further away from a more of an angle.  If you don’t have two cameras you can do two different takes from these perspectives.  Having these two views will make your video look more professional and also enable you to obscure any bad lip syncing by transitioning from one view to the other on that word or phrase.   

The audio track from the lip synced videos will be used to sync them all together on the video timeline, but it will be muted in the final production.  As a side note, there’s a feature in Adobe Premiere that automatically syncs tracks based on the audio. If the sound is loud enough in the lip synched video, it can be used to immediately align it with the studio audio.  I highly recommend using an editor that has this feature if you’re attempting to do this type of video.  

The audio was mixed with Studio One with separate tracks for drums, piano, guitar, congas, main vocal, harmonies etc. In fact several of the instruments were doubled to create a nice stereo effect with one panned left and the other right.  The tracks were individually EQ’d and reverb was applied.  The screenshot below is hard to read but shows the many tracks. 

Once the audio was ready and the lip sync videos recorded, the files were combined in Adobe Premiere.  The audio track from the videos was used to synchronize the clips and then muted. The bright green track in the screenshot below is the stereo recording that had been exported from Studio One.  All of the other audio tracks (seen at the bottom) are muted.  The assets used in creating the video are seen in the lower left.  

The resulting video looked like this: 

The same lip syncing technique was used to create this video of Little Drummer Boy as a musical Christmas card.  You’ll notice that the singer, John McGah, and bass player, Bob Salitsky, do a great joy recreating their performance so there’s only minor indication that it’s sync’d.  I did a pretty good job too on drums which is often hard to sync correctly (which is one the reasons there are only a few cut-away shots of the drums).  It becomes clearer later in the video that it’s not a live performance when we start goofing around. 

Other information will be added to this summary over time.  If you have comments or suggestions, send them to rusty@milesapartmedia.com or record a quick video of your experience which will be included in a compilation of interviews related to distance recording.

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