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Online Music Collaboration
Cal DiFalco

Online music collaboration has become a very powerful force in the world of music recording. The world wide nature of the internet , coupled with new technologies available to musicians, the declining cost of producing quality sound from home based recording equipment and the capabilities that these technological advances offer, has made online music collaboration a powerful way to make music.

Online music collaboration may have many flavors. Some artists will have a song already written, and will collaborate online to solicit the various musicians needed to make the song whole. Others will collaborate right from the conceptual stage, to the actual writing of the song, often times progressing to the recording of the song, while using a collaborative model throughout the process. 

So, what do you need to effectively collaborate online and how does it work?  First, you will need a computer that has a sound card and an internet connection. Your computer should be as powerful as you can afford to make it. Sound files and the process of recording and mixing music, takes a large toll on a computer's storage and memory capacity.  A high speed / broadband internet connection is highly recommended. The uploading and downloading of audio files can be painfully slow with a dial-up connection. Although using dial up is possible, you may find it a very frustrating process. You will also need software that enables you to record and/or mix sound files. There are a myriad of software packages out there that will do that, and much much more. The cost of software ranges from freeware, to professional grade software. Packages like Audacity are an example of freeware, while Pro Tools and Cubase are examples of professional grade software. Doing a search of free music recording software, should give you a good start to finding the right software for your needs and budget. Often times the more expensive packages are richer in functionality. Having said that, it is quite possible to acquire software at a very reasonable price, that will support the basics of on-line music collaboration. 


So, how does it work?  At a rudimentary level, if you know people in other locations who have an internet connection, who are musicians, and who want to collaborate on a music project with you, then it is just a matter of contacting them and exchanging musical tracks electronically.


What is a more common approach, is the use of  web sites that host online collaborations. These are web sites that are specifically set up to allow people to seek out other musicians to work on music projects together. There are many flavors of these sites. Many offer free membership and some will also allow a limited about of free web space to which to place your music files. Others are paid memberships which may offer distinct features not available at free sites. There are too many possibilities to mention, but an internet search on keywords such as “online music collaboration forums” should yield some good starting points to explore.  

Once you have signed up to a music forum, you can begin to explore collaboration possibilities. Often times this starts with posting a rough idea for a song, or perhaps an unfinished song, or maybe even lyrics or a melody that has been floating in your head. There are many different types of musicians who frequent these forums. Some are wonderful music writers who cannot write lyrics as well. Some are great lyric writers who need music writers. Still others may simply be expert guitar players, keyboard players, drummers etc., who are simply looking for a good song to play on.


The diverse needs and abilities of those who frequent collaboration web sites, represents the strength of online music collaboration. It is like having access to musicians and writers across the globe, which you would otherwise likely never have a chance to meet, let alone collaborate with. I have heard people liken online collaboration forums as a “musicians’ heaven” or like being “ a kid in a candy store”. 


Assuming you have posted an idea and that you have garnered some interest in your idea from others, the next step is to build the collaboration. By way of example, let’s assume I wrote a song entitled Collabs Rock. Let’s also assume I posted a rough mp3 version of it, simply to test the waters in terms of interest.


My initial post may read something like this “Here’s a song I’ve been working on. It’s just a rough version. It’s called Collabs Rock. It needs drums, guitar, bass, piano and a solo. I’m open to ideas. Anyone interested?”


Once there is an expression of interest from other musicians. It is important to proceed in an organized way.  Here are some steps that I normally take:


Make sure that the first track that is submitted is played to a “click” track, or metronome track. This is critically important. A click track will ensure that everyone has the same reference and are playing to the same time.  


It is often helpful to let people know what BPM (beats per minute) you would like to use. In fact, it is a good idea to record a click track and ask the musicians to use it while laying down their tracks. 


For example, if the rhythm guitar player was the first to submit a track, he/she would load the click track into their recording software (multi-tracker). As he/she is playing the guitar, they are listening to the click track, which is really a series of regular beeps, ticks or other sounds that defines the tempo to which you are laying down your track.  


In this way, if everyone is playing to the same tempo, when it is time to layer the tracks and mix them in with one another, they will all line up. Conversely, if a click track is not used, it becomes very difficult, if not, virtually impossible to ensure that the tracks line up and sound good together. (trust me on this ;-))


Assuming everyone is working with the same tempo (BPM), the process of auditioning tracks begins. Auditioning means submitting a contribution for consideration. For example, a guitar player may submit a rhythm guitar track. Adrummer may download that guitar track and add a drum track to it.  Etc etc.


During this process, it is helpful to be clear as to  who’s in charge of the project. Often times it is the person who started the project. It is also wise to ask the members of the collaboration for their opinions and input during the auditioning phase. 


As tracks come in and are accepted, it is usually the host of the collaboration that constructs new mixes,  and posts the mixes to allow others to hear the incremental way that the song is being completed. This is an important step.  For example, if you were a collaborator who was  to add a guitar solo to a song, you’d probably be wanting to hear a mix that includes the drums, bass and guitar. 


Auditioning  means the process of submitting tracks, and the process of deciding which tracks will be used in the final product. So, for example- a guitar track may be accepted outright, or it may be sent back for adjustments (e/g: please play that riff at 0:20 seconds differently and resubmit.)


Although there are no hard and fast rules that dictate what type of file formats to use during the process of collaboration, here are a few useful guidelines:


Mp3’s and wma’s are normally used in the audition phase. This is because the file size of these formats is much smaller than a full sized wav file. The tradeoff for the small file size however, is that the quality of sound is not as good as a wav file. Still, for initial auditions, the small files size that a format like mp3 offers and its associated sound quality, is sufficient.


One nuance of mp3 files is that they will often times introduce a few seconds of silence at the beginning of the track. This may make it harder to line up these tracks to other tracks in the multi-tracking software.  Despite that, mp3 files and wma files are normally used during audition and those doing the mixing can easily compensate for the mp3 nuance by manually aligning the mp3 track(s).


When final tracks are being recorded, a wav file or an ape (Monkey’s audio file) may be requested. This is because a wav file has no loss in sound quality. Mp3 is a file format that uses compression. While it reduces the file size, it also degrades the quality of sound. Ape format  (Monkey's Audio) is believed to be a compression format that does not lose any sound quality. You can find it here


Despite these guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules. You can create an effective collaboration simply using mp3 files during all phases. Ordinarily however, sound quality counts during the production of the final product (especially with audiophiles) and people will normally opt for a lossless format at that stage. There are also other file formats, not mentioned in this article, that are valid.


In many instances, collaborators work on songs together simply to produce good music. However, people may have varying interests or objectives. To guard against disagreements in the future about who owns the song, who has the copyright, and what compensation (if any) is due to the musicians; it is best to have an agreement up front or to read the conditions set by the web site's host (if any are in place).  Collaboration can be quite a rewarding experience when everyone is clear about the "ground rules."  When in doubt, and if you think you have a "hit" in the making, it's best to have an agreement that is tangible.


The following are some tips, if you're hosting a collaboration:


Be respectful of people. They are contributing two precious commodities- their time and talent.


Couch feedback in a positive way.


Take the time to contribute to other people's collabs, in any way you can.


Collabs are supposed to be fun and rewarding; try to keep it as such.


With technology, it is quite possible to create different versions and mixes of songs. Rather than exclude a particular guitar player , for example,  because another guitar player's track is a little more suitable, there is nothing to prevent you from using both, albeit in different mixes of the song.


Be judicious about how many collabs you host or contribute to. Sometimes it is easy to take on too many things at once. The experience is not supposed to be stressful.


Make sure you celebrate the accomplishments. Post the final product if possible. Send all contributors a thank-you note and a copy of the final mix.


Be flexible. Accept that others may have different or better ideas for your project. Always put the song first.


Build relationships. People will be more open to helping or receiving help from you in the future.


Make sure your project is managed and organized. People work better when there is a sense of purpose and outcome.


Give honest feedback and be open to honest feedback-good or bad. It will help you grow as a musician.


Most of all, have fun!


Cal DiFalco is a published author and a published songwriter. To reach Cal, email him at



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