E-Mailing it in – Creative Collaboration In The Digital Age
Computers have transformed the music industry, from downloads to autotune. And they can be used to bring artists together to collaborate in ways that wouldn't otherwise be possible. Online collaboration is not simply the domain of famous artists sending files to each other via Wi-Fi from the tour bus. As revenue from CD sales contracts, many artists from all corners of the industry are turning to a new kind of session work to supplement their income, and this means that you too might be able to secure a renowned professional for your next recording project - even if your name is not Clapton or Santana. Let's look at three players who have been involved in such collaborations: Bryan Beller, Razl and Steve Turner.
Razl, a talented jazz-influenced guitarist and official Gibson endorser from Spain, was able to enlist two musicians who mean a lot to him - Zappa secret weapon Mike Keneally and Vai/Dethklok alumni Bryan Beller - for his album Rotonova in 2008. “To be honest, I still can’t believe that these incredible musicians have participated in my album," Razl says. “I thought of it at the beginning of the project in a very naive way and then I saw that all of them were delighted to accept the invitation. I obviously liked their professionalism and how easily they understood my suggestions but most of all, I saw that they were all really great guys. In fact, I had been a fan of Mike for many years, he has always been one of my favorite musicians since he has many of the qualities I like in a guitarist: his unique sound, his sense of humor at the guitar and the ability to move in very different styles but always making them his.”
Razl sent Keneally and Beller the basic tracks as ProTools sessions, giving them a handful of ideas about the songs, as well as chord and structure guides. “Except for that, I gave them full freedom to play whatever they felt like, even the choice of effects or tracks they could do, because for me the most important thing was that they would leave their essence as musicians,” he says. Keneally and Beller sent test tracks back as mp3 files and the musicians would discuss the results until settling on final, definitive versions.
The next project for Razl is Microscopic, which again features Beller, this time on every track. “Once more I am really satisfied with his incredible work and fantastic ideas,” he says. “More over I have also had the collaboration of the guitarist Will Bernard in one of the songs. I met Will in a gig in Spain and I proposed to him to play in my record. With him I worked the same way as with Bryan and everything turned out great.” The album is due in March.
For his part, Beller has been involved in many such collaborations. “All sorts of stuff, really,” he says. “I've done an album for a U.K. progressive rock band called Godsticks, a Japanese hard rock radio show theme song, all sorts of one or two song instrumental boutique projects, a technical death metal album, a male pop-rock vocal album for a friend, the world's most insanely difficult fusion project ever (an English artist named Anders Helmerson), and on and on. I think the first record I ever did completely remotely was James La Brie's first Mullmuzzler album in the late '90s, but that wasn't digital. Same concept, though - a lot of faith on the artist's part and self-production on my part.”
Beller says artists typically send the tune and a chart (if they have one) then simply implore him to do his thing. “Fortunately most of the time it ends up working out fine,” he says. “But I guarantee that the artist will be happy with the results, so if they have requests for changes, I'll go back and fulfil them. It's a pretty painless process for the most part.”
Beller's recording rig consists of a DigiDesign MBox2 with ProTools 7.4.2 on an iMac. “My wife - who's also a musician - and I registered it for our wedding,” Beller says. “It's been a lot more useful than another set of hand towels, or a gravy boat.”
Australian guitarist Steve Turner is currently recording a self-described 'guitar rock with some progressive influences' album, collaborating with drummer Zoltan Csorsz. “I chose Zoltan because I was a huge fan of his work with The Flower Kings and Time Requiem which I think really show very diverse elements of his musical persona,” Turner says. “I think Zoltan is absolutely one of the best drummers in modern music and was really happy to have his sound in my music.”
In Turner's case, he sent Csorsz a DVD with guide tracks for the actual sessions, as well as demos of the tracks programmed on Turner's drum synth. “Some of my ideas he kept, but mostly he did things how he heard them as needing to be done,” Turner says. “There was no need for sheet music - guys like Zoltan and Evan Harris (bass/stick player, who has worked with noted power metal band Black Majesty) really don't need much direction.” Turner says the tracks didn't require much need for back and forth - perhaps half a dozen changes and that was it. “If I didn't think he could interpret my music positively I wouldn't have approached him in the first place,” Turner says. “In the end he sent me back a DVD with one or two takes of each song and they were all recorded in single takes with no drop-ins. I wish I could say that for the guitars!”
Turner says he learned a few key lessons from the project, namely: “Good foundations are absolutely required - write music you enjoy playing and hearing then find the right people to realize the sound to its full potential. Also, that you can definitely sync with another musician via long distance studio relationship.”
When it comes to mixing the project, many big-name engineers and producers are also offering up their services via online collaboration. One such pro is John Cuniberti, who has been behind the desk for most of Joe Satriani's classic recordings as well as work by Kevin Gilbert, Dead Kennedys, George Lynch and many more. Cuniberti offers both mixing and mastering services online through his website, which even offers a client login section to provide a secure and direct hub to facilitate the process.
It's pretty amazing to think that in theory anyone with the songs, budget and time could have a bass player like Bryan Beller, a drummer like Zoltan Csorsz and even a mixer/mastering engineer like John Cuniberti on their recording. Ultimately the Internet is leveling the playing field for those of us who have a musical vision but not the wherewithal to assemble such a crack team of professionals in one room at the same time. With geography and time removed from the recording process, the creative possibilities are staggering. Musicians of every stripe could concoct their own dream band without even anyone having to leave their home studio. As Beller concludes: “I'd really like to see Steve Vai do something remotely on a track I sent him - I know he's a studio rat and the results would probably be fantastic. For keys, Chick Corea. On drums, I think Adam Deutsch, the guy who tracked John Scofield's Uberjam, or Abe Laboriel, Jr. for a rock tune. And for a different kind of tune, I'd love to swap files with Larry Carlton. Of course, if you want to get into totally other idioms, my number one guy to work with remotely would be Trent Reznor.”