Recently, I got hired to put some guitar tracks down on a song. The only problem? We live more than a thousand miles away from each other. Here’s how we did it. . .
- He sent me what’s called stems (individual, recorded tracks).
- I pulled those tracks into my DAW (Reaper), recorded my parts, and sent him my stems back.
It Works With Most DAWs
We used different DAWs (he has Logic, I believe). But almost any recording software has a way to export stems. Here are some things you need to watch out for to make sure the process runs smoothly.
- Make sure your project settings match. Do they record at 44.1kHz and 16 bit depth, and you at 48k/24 bit? It’s best to match them up!
- You’ll need something like Dropbox as a way to transfer files back and forth.
- It’s best to keep the length of the song the same. If you need to change the song length (to add a count-off on the beginning, for instance), when you send the files back, remember to delete that, and change the song back to its original length. Otherwise, the tracks won’t line up time-wise.
- Make sure your DAW is set to create stems the entire length of the song for all tracks. You don’t want to have to line everything up manually.
- You might be better working with rough mixes. For part of the project, I was sent all the track projects. I had to pull them up into Reaper, and get a reasonable mix. That was necessary as the arrangement wasn’t set, and there had been some rough guitar parts that needed to be muted once I duplicated them. But in many cases, you’d be better off just working with a rough, stereo mix. It’s quicker.
- If I’m doing guitar tracks for somebody, I record a direct signal, straight into the DAW — no amp sound, no effects. That way, they can shape the sound the way they want to. I’ll also duplicate that track, get a sound I like and send them that track too. If they like the sound, it can save them lots of time. After a bit, you’ll get a feel for whether they dig your sound, or are going to change it up.
- If you’re writing the part (as opposed to playing a part that’s given to you), send your ideas early, and make sure you’re on the right track (pun intended). Otherwise, you can spend hours working out what you think is the perfect part, only to have them say, “It’s not what I was looking for”. It also helps you get early feedback such as “Can you hold out that last chord, and hit with the drums on that crash?” Sometimes, you might want to send over a couple of different ideas. Get the part locked down before you spend time getting the take perfect.
- Work out all the deets beforehand. If and when there’s going to be any payment, schedule, who is responsible for what — work out as much of that in advance as possible.
- Name your tracks something that makes sense. ‘Piano Chorus L’ and ‘Piano Chorus R’, will let your partner know that those are the piano parts for the chorus, and that they should be panned left and right.
- Communication is key, and misunderstandings can happen. If you’re not a good communicator, it’s probably better to skip this kind of collaboration. The person you’re working with may not be the best communicator, either. Get used to using language that leads toward an agreement on a finished part. “Is there anything you would change?”, “Can we call that good?”, “Where’s my #%$@&$&**** money?” are all good questions to ask.
I had fun with this project, and the customer was thrilled. Working with musicians long distance is half about musical skills, and half about communication.