Thoughts on Collaborations from Sound Cloud
by Ed Cunningham
My initial chats with Terry on Sound Cloud let us to the subject of collaborations and an invitation to write a few words on the subject. Seems I have done more than a few, and enjoyed the privilege and fun it has provided since I first started posting tunes on internet sites. I am strictly an instrumentalist and self-taught on the various instruments I make a noise with (guitar, bass, keys). I have been playing since high school cover band days in the 60s and managed to spend time, in more recent years of the the musical path, composing, recording, as well as playing. That has been the most fun and a fantastic source of learning. Its a long story, so I`ll skip to the stuff we want to talk about: "Collaborations"
I will try to keep this down to the area that Terry offered some guidance on and speak to the subject of "Learning" but know I will need to make note of a few other lessons from the journey. But, if doing it your way is fun, just disregard anything resembling advice in my comments.
Some preliminary observations:
GENRES & PREFERENCES: We all carry the influence of the music that moved us in our youth. I think we all stress out wanting to play like our initial influence. However, if you are stuck in a particular era or genre you have chosen to limit your opportunity to learn. In the extreme, its a bit like eating the same thing every meal...your creative mind needs a variety of nutrition and there is plenty of it all over the planet. We all have our preferences...they help us put our particular stamp on how we create and that's a different story. Generes limit the creative process. Its like trying to fit things into a particular box that somebody else made. Don`t consider genre until you have to post and just put it where you think it fits best.
WHO TO COLLABORATE WITH: The best collaborations are often with people who are good at what you don`t do so well but would love to have in your mix.There is a whole international orchestra out there who may be willing to contribute that instrument or voice that you can`t. I think the key is to share your investment in the creative time with people whose music you genuinely like...it may be what they play, the way they play, the compositional thinking, the instrument arrangement or the production.
O.K. a bit of a point-form list on my collaborative learning:
Strike up a relationship with your potential partner first, check out their music, their descriptions, their commentary on the music of others etc.
The collabs I have learned the most from and have had the most fun doing have been with musicians doing genres I had never attempted; one in particular with a jazz keyboardist who invited me to do some guitar on his tracks. He wasn`t at all fussy about commercial grade production values but man did I have fun trying to play my part as he walked through those cool key progressions that left me fumbling on the first couple of attempts. I had to download an app to look up what I had played after I was done. I played rhythm guitar for years & thought I knew all the chords but found I didn`t know the right name for several. We still exchange just for fun mixes that never get posted. But, like most of us, I most often revert to what I like best.
If you are initiating the contact let them know what motivates you to do so and how you think you could contribute to one anothers efforts.
Consider everything you exchange as "Drafts" and stay open to ideas and suggestions. Say what you really think and try to do so in a way that addresses the result, not the person`s performance.
Take any criticism as constructively intended. Most of us want the best result we can get. However, don`t forget the balance. This is how we have some great fun, but the pursuit of perfection can make the fun seem like work we really don`t want. The result will be judged by the listener anyway and if I needed everything to be perfect I would never have anything to post. Real always sounds more genuine to me.
I haven`t found the collabs involving two musicians require advance decisions about who will finalize the mix. It tends to fall out of the back and forth. With more than two in the mix its usually a good idea to agree on who will co-ordinate and pull together the production for review by the others.
How you communicate can be as important as what you communicate. I usually take a pass on requests that include invitations to check out their latest awesome release (usually from the more youthful looper musicians). I am familiar with the meaning of the word ,"Awesome," and have never done anything approaching that level so I would obviously fall far below expectations. Egos are a distraction to those of us who are hobbyists and have been around a while. Nothing wrong with confidence in what you do well, but consider those of us who don`t think we`re soaring with the eagles yet.
I wouldn`t be one to suggest anything but the best quality track(s) you can produce, but MP3s are fine for exchange of initial drafts. The American Music Assoc. did a study that concluded over 49% of respondents could not accurately distinguish between a 160 kps MP3 and a full Wav. file. The same Association reports that to hear the difference between 24 bit and 16 bit music you need excellent hearing, high end reproduction equipment and a properly sound-treated room. There is really no need to bring drafts up to the master level you intend to finish at.
Vocalists, I know many of you don`t really like to share a completely dry voice track (I feel the same about doing a lead guitar bit). You already know all the whys, but if you add reverb just keep it to the minimum and make sure it is in the same space/room as the music. Most importantly, before you are done, open your reverb VST (or go to your outboard reverb processor) and adjust the pre-delay control up to at least 50ms (you can try a bit more). That will put you a step in front of the band and make the words more distinct as they hit the listener just imperceivable before the ambience kicks in. De-essers work fine but I have had as much success using EQ. Just sweep a narrow notch between 5 and 7 k and you should hit the spot you want to reduce. The objective is to make it sound natural not eliminate it. You can pull the S down a bit more if necessary when you do your volume editing to take out those bumps & strange noises or reduce prominent breath intakes. You can make the process easier by using a pop shield and making sure you keep the right distance from the mic. If your partner is composing the music and you have a preferred key range, let them know.
Compress your vocal(s)! No kidding. It will even out the voice and bring up any quieter bits a little. How much depends on the dynamics of the delivery style. I tend to use around 2 - 3 dBs with attack time set around 15 - 25ms.
Guitarists and lead/melody instrumentalists, the vocal is always the star. Don`t play over it and try not to detract from it or compete. So far as possible do your instrument in the spaces between the lyrics and try to embellish it a bit by using complimentary phrasing. You can do your thing where and if an instrumental break is provided.
Always include the tempo of the track in your initial exchange, render it as a one-shot and include all of each track (including the silence) if you are sending individual stems. I have noted that there is sometimes a slight variation in the track grid of different DAWs. If you include the key progression and info on the composition structure (intro, verses, chorus, etc) it will help your partner get off to an easier start. I generally note the chord progression and the track times where they fall.
If your role includes the final Master, consider it a separate project...do it in your mastering software program if you have a choice. The master bus in your DAW is already gain compensated, so if you master in your DAW check the meter setting options and see if you have a choice to bring it up to 0 (or the closest option...sometimes -2dBs) and then reference the meters on your mastering VSTs....that way you can expect a more accurate result in relation to commercial standards. (if that matters)
Aside from all that other mixing information you have in your head...there are a variety of opinions on when and how to use compression and limiting...If your way works...do it that way...Here are my own thoughts:
Spend your time on the mix first..placement, gains, etc...put compression on the tracks that benefit from it (drums, guitar, keys etc) and forget it on the slower attack tracks like pads,
Most audio engineers will put some compression (glue) on the master bus when they render the mix as they use a step-up process to gradually bring mixes to commercial level....I choose to render a premix with nothing on the master bus that changes the dynamics I have already accomplished in the premix...after rendering a premix, I go ahead and and insert eq for fine tuning and some soft-knee compression to the resulting mix and then render again to a pre-master mix.....use the resulting mix for your mastering project.
I think most of us have to manage the time we have available to spend on our music (life & all that)..if so make it clear at the start that you don`t care to do things in a hurry, but stay in contact if it gets to be an extended period of time.
Some of the most iconic and most genuine songs that have been done used 4 to 8 tracks and the artists didn`t have access to all those VSTs and toys. You knew that but there is a lesson worth remembering there.
Ed Cunningham, September 2018
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Ed's music can be found at westtracksmusic on SoundCLoud