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Composer’s Forum: Virtual Collaborations

Gerry Bassermann

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Rules of engagement for getting the most out of remote group music projects

I recently agreed to join with a couple pals in a music creation project of sorts. We had to go through a process of defining what the heck it might be and how the heck it might go. In fact, the first Google doc we produced was titled “WHTA” (what the hell is this about), a kind of strange respelling of the word what. (Just try typing it into any device.)

Often the best way to start a music composition is to know the scope and intention of the project. If it is a commission, then these are already set out in the mandate. If it is a composition you are dreaming up, then imagining the piece and setting some boundaries is vital. Similarly, the first key to a successful music project like this is for the members to coalesce around an idea and to filter out the many possibilities in order to pursue some direction, no matter how broad or how narrow. WHTA indeed!

My fellow conspirators were neither former bandmates nor studio pals, just creative souls whose music I’d always considered inventive and fresh. We were variously located and, because of the pandemic, similarly confined to our domestic arrangements like everyone else and hungry for some novel pursuit. I agreed in principle, and we scheduled a Zoom meeting to work out a plan.

Although I am not a natural collaborator, this idea presented a real opportunity. I looked forward to challenging myself and disrupting my working habits. For the first number of weeks, we developed and tweaked the project: figuring out the goals, roles, and rules of engagement.

Why Are We Doing This?

In starting any music project—writing partnership, songwriters circle, studio album, jam night, or live band—discussing and getting clear on everyone’s goals is critical to success. It’s pretty natural to get together and see where it goes and how it feels for an exploratory amount of time. At some point, though, aligning collective goals and then updating them from time to time really helps keep the wheels on.

Our goals were simple: spend time (virtually) together and come up with as much new material as possible. We decided early on that we would not be using existing (undeveloped) ideas, but rather fresh sounds that we were currently attracted to. 

Defining the direction and setting goals can encompass all kinds of things, from known genres (indie acoustic, hard rock, EDM, spoken word, minimal, etc.) to anti-genres (non-derivative, avant-garde, through-composed, etc.). The more open the stylistic space, the higher level the musical evaluations needed to be. By that I mean that known genres furnish us with a context for what moves us and what does not, what is generally compelling and what is not.  Creating and listening to music outside of familiar accepted forms forces us to reconsider what affects us emotionally or not and how we feel about the experience.

We could also have completely nonmusical agendas that are more philosophical, spiritual, and political in nature, and these can in fact overlap with stylistic filters. This kind of more complex goal-setting requires lots of discussion and sharing of ideas and experiences.

Who’s Yer Daddy?

Roles in any organization can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how they’re enacted. We have all been in situations dominated by one or a few people that end up feeling counterproductive. Sometimes, of course, dominators can be talented and empathetic, and the group dynamics end up being cool and easygoing. Again, it’s good to understand the situation and discuss it openly as early as possible.

In WHTA, we decided the best org model would be for each person to do what they do best and let the rest sort itself out. We knew enough about each other to recognize three strong artistic personalities that did not otherwise have the need to control or dominate.

We decided to simply bring ideas to each other for everything from review and feedback to having other members add parts and sections. An important detail in the agreement was that the originator had complete say in accepting a member’s input—totally, in some part, or not at all. All kinds of discussion were appreciated, but the prime author had final cut. Understanding these kinds of rules of engagement up front guards against bad vibes and the resentment that can form around feelings of rejection. 

Call to Action

We all agreed that the circumstances surrounding the pandemic had fostered a homogenized sense of time in which days drifted into each other. It could feel disorienting and unproductive. We definitely needed some structure. Eventually someone proposed a schedule whereby we needed to bring all new ideas to the group by end of May, and we would then have the rest of the summer to work them out.

In general, this “call to action” approach—call it a deadline—has multiple benefits. That’s because it encourages members to bring ideas that are fresh and undeveloped enough that their furtherance will be more of a group affair. This was particularly important in my case, since I would be the most prone to shining up the sound really well before letting others hear it. The whole point, after all, was to share the more embryonic starter that had caught your fancy, and to work on it in the company of others.

Tech Matters

Each of the WHTA members used different processes for writing music. One was completely organic, an instrument player and singer/songwriter with almost no reliance on tech devices or computers. Another was a skilled guitarist and singer/songwriter with ample knowledge of digital music and technology but little recent use for it. I was a multi-instrumentalist with lots of both in- and out-of-the-box experience along with a profound love of world music.

How does such a motley crew find a platform to share audio tracks, sounds, and MIDI data? It was clear from the start that it would be best to render any MIDI parts to audio in order to share easily (and accurately). If no one wished to change to or learn new software in order to be DAW compatible, then we could always share stems. 

Stems are audio tracks that always begin at measure one, beat one even if the actual audio doesn’t begin until much later. That means many if not most stems have silence at the start. The huge advantage is that anyone using any multitrack audio software can import stems recorded on any system. These will all line up at the head of the song and sound exactly as the sender intended. Simple and reliable: two words one doesn’t use much in the world of music production. 

The closest we came to sharing a platform was Soundtrap, a DAW that runs completely on the web. It provides audio tracks, MIDI tracks, instruments to play, loops to loop, and audio import and export, and it’s set up for groups. And as far as I can tell, it’s completely free.

Come Together

So, there you have a peak into one virtual remote music collaboration. There is no correct way to do these things, but so far, we seem to be having a blast. And no matter what your stated goals are, that outcome is a complete success.

Good luck, y’all… and stay safe!

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