I did one of the first co-writing sessions I’ve ever done earlier this month.
Co-writes are a pretty common thing for songwriters to do, but normally they involved being in the same room as the other songwriter(s), so that you can bash ideas back and forwards quickly. With this co-write, though, I was in Manchester, and my co-writer, Grace, was across the Irish Channel — on the West Coast of Ireland.
Skype for Songwriting
We used Skype to do the audio conversations, and brainstormed the lyric of the track. Google Docs was perfect for this. In fact, for any collaborative editing, whether songwriting or putting together a travel article or report, it makes things super-easy. Words that you type on-screen appear on the other person’s copy of the document within a second or so. You can see the other person’s cursor, and both be typing out ideas as quickly as you can say them.
But when it came to writing the melody and put the song together, things got more difficult. It’s tricky to use Skype for this. We tried recording the session and jamming it out, but it’s hard to follow what the other person’s doing, and it’s only really easy to record your own side of the conversation.
There are ways of recording an entire Skype session and doing clever routing of the audio to the other side. Soundflower for Mac is a good example. But it’s a little clunky.
And when it comes to actually recording the thing, Skype and other telephony solutions are a no-go, because the quality isn’t there, and the latency is unworkable. We started looking for better collaborative recording software. And surprisingly, it was really difficult to find anything.
Trying out Mantis Recording Software (Indaba)
I initially looked at Mantis, by Indaba. On the face of it, this looks like an incredible, realtime, web-based recording system, and reviews of it were good. There were even detailed guides on Indaba’s site. And a massive community that seemed to exist around it. But I couldn’t find the actual software on their site, and it turned out it’s been discontinued. Quite why, I wasn’t able to find out, but perhaps it didn’t work as well as people hoped. Good, solid audio software that allows you to collaborate over the Internet, certainly seems like a tricky problem to get right.
Trying out OhmStudio’s collaborative recording software
And then I stumbled on Ohm Studio. This bills itself as an online “Collaborative DAW” (Digital Audio Workstation). Rather than a web-based application, it’s a desktop program, so it’s running natively on the computer you’re sitting at. Versions exist for Mac and PC (though sadly no Linux version yet).
It works great on the Mac, although the only plugins supported are VST ones, which means that Logic / Garageband plugins won’t work with it. That’s apparently because of the collaboration aspect… Since PCs can’t run the Mac AudioUnit plugins, they’ve stuck with plugins that will work across both systems.
As a standalone DAW, this is pretty powerful already. The interface is similar to Logic or Cubase. The difference is that your projects are stored online (“In the cloud”). Which means the first thing that you do when opening the program is to login:
That’s a pretty quick process, and files must be cached on your own computer, I’m sure. Adding tracks and recording is a snap — Just like it would be on logic:
To add a collaborator, all you do is hit that share button at the top right. When they load up their own copy of OhmStudio and join your project, they’ll be effectively seeing the same screen as you. And they can begin recording their own takes right into the project. A few seconds after they finishing recording, the project seamlessly updates, and that new track’s available to all collaborators.
So it’s not 100% realtime collaboration, but it was near enough for us. And because everything is synched, there’s no more sending of Logic project files via Dropbox, or anything like that. There are also no latency issues. There’s an internal click-track, and when your collaborator records, they’ll hear everything just like you did, and everything stays synched.
Grace uses a PC, and I was using a Macbook Pro – so it was a good test of the two systems working together. Things seemed to work pretty smoothly, and it was very easy to create a bounce-down of the project, which could then be easily shared with other people who weren’t using the software.
Mirroring the session
Pretty much everything is mirrored between collaborators. Even tweaks to the VST plugins you use, will be mirrored on the other person’s computer. It’s like Google Docs but for audio, which is what we wanted.
And it looks like there’s a great community. Every week, they have a new collaborative project, which users are encouraged to get involve with. I checked out one of the recent projects — which was to make a “hit”. When I loaded it up, about 20 people were busy working on it, recording vocal takes, bass and tweaking the levels.
Back in our project — we’d set this to private initially, until ready to unleash it on the World. I made a bit of a mistake with the settings though, and half way through the recording session, we started to get friendly people popping up on the screen and listening through it. There’s a chat interface, so messages started coming in with people who’d had a listen. It’s quite cool to know that there’s an army of potential collaborators / musicians out there who might be up for adding their takes onto projects in future. Lots of possibilities there!
Realtime jamming online?
One thing it wouldn’t be useful for, would be real-time jamming. The idea is that the recording happens in real-time on your own computer, and only when you’ve finished that take, does it get synchronised to everyone else. Synchronising collaborators across the World is tricky, and perhaps the problems caused with latency and bandwidth are enough for it not to be workable right now. But I’d love to have a solution that works for that. I’m sure eventually there will be one… But until then, Ohm Studio is a great recording tool, and worth checking out.
It seems to be completely free whilst in Beta (and there’s no indication of how long that process will last), but if you want it long-term, then you can pay monthly or buy a lifetime subscription. Though lifetime option is apparently is only a limited offer. Definitely worth having a play with it first, while it’s freely available!