Musicians Collaborate Remotely while Recording at Home
With concerts and recording sessions cancelled around the world, resourceful musicians are getting creative at home and collaborating remotely.
Suddenly, musicians and producers have found themselves with a lot of extra time on their hands. But thanks to technological developments in the last few years, they’re managing to make the most of it.
Glenn Brigman was getting ready to go to SXSW with his psych-pop band Triptides when the disappointing news came that this year’s festival had been called off. But rather than idly twiddle his thumbs, he instead decided to strum strings: So he quickly booked an Airbnb in Joshua Tree and decamped to the Californian desert to record a new album.
“We got the backing tracks down and came back the last night before the lockdown,” says Brigman when I reach him at his home in LA. “I ended up hauling all my gear straight home, and then at midnight the city went into quarantine.”
For the England-based engineer and producer Mark Gustafson, things were a bit more dramatic: he was in Chicago working on an album with indie group Yes Factory when the seriousness of the situation hit him.
“I realized I am not going to be able to get home if I don’t leave now,” he recalls. “I’ve got a wife and two kids, so I had to cut a month-long trip short and get back.”
In the past, such abrupt departures might have cut them off from their music partners, but in 2020 that’s no longer the case. Both Brigman and Gustafson have managed to keep their projects going thanks to a combination of affordable home recording gear, high-speed filesharing and quick feedback via online messaging platforms.
Other musicians finding inspiration in isolation include Berlin garage rock guru Mark Sultan, who put out a call for musicians to collaborate with him on his new BBQ album, and the classical composer Richard Jackson, who is assembling a global choir based on people sending in parts recorded remotely.
“I was lucky that I had all my gear at home already,” says Brigman. “I just set up my preamp, compressor and studio monitors – that’s it. Over the last week or so I’ve been doing the overdubs: a guitar lead here and an organ part there.
“Then I just rattle off MP3s as soon as I make a mix and send it over to the other guys in the band. If they green light – and I get past my OCD about mixing and remixing – then it’s done.”
Gustafson’s workflow with Yes Factory is slightly more complex. Each day the band lays down new parts and sends them over to Gustafson, who adds them into his mix when he gets up the following morning. “There’s a lot of session management – making sure everyone is working from the right files and tracks,” he notes.
He also has to avoid overloading the musicians with too much information: “I’m not trying to make them engineers: I am trying to just let them focus on the creative process. The more I have to teach them about file management, the less time they are spending thinking about delivering something from the heart, a pure piece of art.”
But Gustafson has noticed that working remotely affects making music more generally.
“I’ve found that it is a lot slower process,” he says. “When you’re in a rehearsal room together you can just bash out the song three times, make notes, and then tell the band to rehearse it for a few days before recording. But working remotely there’s a lot more back and forth, just because you don’t have that immediate response.
“The artist also has more chance to experiment before committing to something to record when you’re working in the same room,” he continues. “But it is doable. I can’t say whether or not it makes a record better or worse – it just means you make a different record.”
No More Day Job
Brigman has actually found the opposite applies when you’re recording your own material: working remotely speeds everything up.
“Because everyone is off work, the other two get back to me super fast,” he explains. “For our last album we were in a studio in Hollywood with a really epic live room – The Standell’s record Dirty Water was recorded in there, and Ringo did two of his solo albums out of that space.
“But it took us from August until February to finish it, going in and out making revisions and mixing it. Whereas this time we’ve almost finished and entire album in a week and a half. And that last album cost maybe four or five grand to make, whereas now we spent 400 bucks on the Airbnb and that’s about it.”
Although the global lockdown has forced more musicians and producers to work remotely, Gustafson says this approach has been on the rise for some time.
“App development means that the plugins I use in Pro Tools are accessible on iPads – it’s not an exclusive club anymore,” he explains. “You don’t need fancy equipment to get your ideas out. I’d argue you don’t even need it for the final recording.”
This is something Brigman can attest to, as he keeps a pretty stripped-down setup. “I’ve got my preamp, a Universal Audio 1176 compressor clone and my mics [including] a Shure SM7B – which is great at cutting out sibilance, and I have quite a sibilant voice, so I love using that,” he says. “The monitors are cheap ones that I’ve had ever since I moved out to LA, but they work fine.”
Of course, Gustafson’s rig is a bit more epic, and one that he’s been adding to lately. “I’ve got some new acoustic treatment in my room, as well as extra speakers and a new controller because this project is in Dolby Atmos,” he explains. “I’ve got an Avid MTRX Studio to control the Atmos system, with an ADAM Audio 8AX sub and five speakers that go with it. So basically, it’s now a 7.1.4 system.”
Working from Home
For Brigman working at home hasn’t presented too many challenges – he lives in large house with a roommate who is also a musician – but for Gustafson there have been a few new things to get used to.
“I had to get permission from my landlord and speak to the neighbors because there is going to be more noise, but they were very nice about it,” he says.
There are also interruptions, of course, from his kids, but it’s been great to see his family more.
“Right now, you’re locked in a dark place for days on end with the same people –kind of like every session I’ve ever done,” jokes Gustafson. “But I am definitely missing the camaraderie of the studio, seeing the other engineers and talking about your projects together.”
Brigman concurs: “It’s okay for now, but we’re looking forward to getting back on the road. Triptides are heading to Europe in September and that sounds like it is still going ahead. Hopefully by that time people are just ready to rock again and it will make for some great shows.”