Gina Fant-Saez has taught me much about the wonders of Pro Tools, so I know first-hand that imagination is what drives her throughout her career. I first met her during a phone conversation back in 1999, when I was looking for a Pro Tools operator for a project in the Austin neighborhood, and she was in New Orleans working on a Soul Asylum album. In less than an hour, she managed to convince me to abandon my old analog prejudices, invest in a Pro Tools rig of my own and to hire her as my operator. She simultaneously edited drums, taught me the ins and outs of the software she was using and kept her sense of humor about the 16-hour sessions we were doing. By the time we finished, I felt like I'd known her all my life. Since then, Fant-Saez has been more than generous with her time, making herself available for tech questions — even in the oddest hours of the night — while also helping many others like me embrace the new technologies that shape our industry.
With a master's degree in Interactive Telecommunications from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Fant-Saez left New York and the jingle industry in 1997 and relocated her recording studio, Blue World Music, to Austin. In the ensuing years, she has worked on projects in various capacities, from engineering to mixing, for numerous successful artists, including U2, Jimmie Vaughan, Sting, Shawn Colvin and Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails, Tweaker).
In her latest incarnation as muse of all things digital, Fant-Saez has created an online music collaboration network called eSession.com. It promises to be a multifaceted music file-sharing device for high-profile writers, producers, musicians, engineers and mixers who want to increase their visibility and accessibility via the Internet. While she visited with me at my home recently, updating my Pro Tools rig with the latest HD hardware and software, I had an opportunity to ask her in some detail how eSession.com will work.
The Rocket Network was an early experiment in online music sharing that failed. What makes you think that you will succeed?
Willy Henshall started [Rocket Network], and while the concept was great, all it did at the time was MIDI collaboration across the Internet. Back then, it was called Res Rocket and you were running on 2,400-baud modems, which is one one-hundredth the speed we have now. The limitations were that [Emagic] Logic, now owned by Apple, could only work with Logic, [Steinberg] Cubase could only work with Cubase, and [Digidesign] Pro Tools could only work with Pro Tools. Those were the only applications that had Rocket built in. Also, they charged for bandwidth! And who can keep track of how much bandwidth they're using?
So I'd meet somebody on Rocket, and say, “Hey, you want to play guitar on my song?” And there were times I'd get some 1970s doodle all over my vocal tracks, which I had to pay to download. I kept telling them for years, “You've got to combine talent with the technology! You're giving people technology, but you're not giving them any talent to use!”
The home page for eSession.com, which will debut at Summer NAMM in July.
So based on my experience with Rocket, and based on experience using my private FTP server, which I worked on with other writers and musicians for many years, I started creating eSession.com. I asked myself, “Why don't more people work this way?” The answer was, they don't have a huge resource of talent, and file transfer is too complicated for most people. So then I asked myself, “What does everybody use?” Everybody uses the Internet. “What does everybody use on the Internet?” A browser! So, I designed eSession.com to be a Web-based, cross-platform collaboration system with a database of world-class talent, providing a simple drag-and-drop solution for file transfer so that anybody using Cubase, Nuendo, Logic, Digital Performer, Live or Pro Tools will be able to use it in one cohesive working space. It's a global network of talent.
Many contemporary artists are releasing albums made using multiple producers and engineers, relying on the final mix engineer or even the mastering engineer to pull the final product together into a cohesive whole. Now you're offering a means to employ a different engineer for each track! How will any quality control be maintained in a production that relies exclusively on eSession?
Perhaps what I'm doing is giving people an opportunity to change engineers in the middle of a project, if they want to. But I still think it's up to the producer to say, “Hey, [this guy's] mixing this album and here are the 10 songs.” If something changes or if they don't like the mixes, then they can log on to eSession.com to [find] a different engineer. Maybe they hire a pro to come in and fix something. It's just another tool. It's totally not my intention to take any cohesion out of the music business!
But just as there are minimum requirements for a PC to function, shouldn't there be minimum requirements for a good recording or performance?
Well, from the talent side, our database comprises professionals who have spent their careers dealing with clients. For quality-control purposes, my partner, Kevin Killen, and I have been going around to our various talent members' studios and looking at their gear, helping them to get the cleanest sound possible. Kevin usually tends to their mic placement, mic pre's and outboard gear, while I take on their computers. We're a great tag team. We're slowly making sure our talent members have all they need to create great-sounding work for our clients.
On the client side, I think there are going to be professionals who know how to use a mic pre and get good sounds, and there are going to be those that have no idea how to mike or record their instruments at all. However, when a client contacts you for the first time [on eSession], the client is required to complete a negotiation form along with the submission of their material. These negotiation forms ask, “Your project was recorded on what, using what software? Is it recorded in a home studio or in a commercial studio? What's your bit rate, sample rate, et cetera.” So an engineer or musician can get a good idea before they even accept a job how professional the client is. Just as one can look at a musician's profile in eSession.com and [find] their studio, mic preamps and all their instruments, the same holds true for clients.
Let's say you're hiring a bass player for an overdub. Is there a way to audition the sound before paying for a performance?
Absolutely. You'll have a real-time plug-in. It's an RTAS plug-in for Pro Tools and a VST plug-in for Cubase and Nuendo. We also have an Audio Units plug-in for programs like Logic. It's an approximation of the glass in the studio — a plug-in you can turn on in Pro Tools that's an audio/video window. So in one window you see yourself, and in the other window you'll see the person you're working with. You can listen to their performance while they're playing in real time and produce the performance remotely. Right now, the plug-in is using MP3 compression. It's 256k, so you wouldn't really use it to record, but we do have a lossless version because 50-megabit Internet has just come into New York and L.A. Right now, we're forced to use compressed audio in this plug-in due to slow Internet speeds — most people are only getting about 1.5 [megabit] at most. But in the next year or two, we're going to be able to do complete lossless recording, so we'll be able to use this plug-in for real-time recording as opposed to just pre-production.
I've worked on projects where even a single copy of a mix is not allowed to leave the studio. With eSession.com, all of the album's files will be out there. How will eSession address security concerns for un-copyrighted material?
Well, eSession has two forms of encryption, and every song is only accessible and downloadable by the owner of the project; it's all permission-based. So we're creating the site to be ironclad as far as anyone stealing someone else's material is concerned. But, as you know, there are hard drives floating around all the time and FTP sites with files accessible to anyone with a log-in and password. Each individual song on our site will have its own set of permissions — who gets in and who can upload or download. Currently, we're in discussion with ASCAP about a possible partnership, which would inevitably help eSession address copyright issues.
Fant-Saez’s studio, Blue World Music (Austin)
How will eSession clients arrive at pricing for their work?
Everything is negotiable. When the client pays $25 to contact a talent member, he or she receives a negotiation form [called a Work Request]. If it's going to a musician, it asks how many tracks the client wants, what he expects, what he's looking for, et cetera. The client then replies with what he or she wants. So before the talent member even makes a bid, they get to see what the client is looking for. The talent assesses all this and, again, gets to see how professional the client is, and then comes back to that same negotiation form, saying, “I'm going to bill you a flat rate or an hourly rate or a daily rate,” or whatever. That goes back to the client, and the client may say, “I only have ‘x’ dollars.” They can renegotiate as much as they want.
We're not setting fees because, as you know, a friend might call and say, “Can you do this for me? I only have $500,” and, if you're not busy, you'll do it. We're starting to see some copycat sites instituting $300 fees. One site suggested starting at $250. We feel that musicians devalue themselves by subjecting themselves to fixed rates. Projects vary in time, size, complexity and range of use — i.e., a demo or final master; rates should be variable, as well.
How does eSession get paid?
We take 15 percent of whatever the talent charges. Also, every time somebody contacts you to mix something, they pay $25. Ten dollars of that goes to the talent [and $15 goes to us]. We're hoping that it might be [worth] $1,000 a month or $12,000 a year, just for the talent to assess whom they want to work with! Imagine if you had $1 for every time someone asked you to listen to something — well, now you have $10.
Tell me about this new facet of eSession.com that's calledeSessionwriters.com.
eSessionwriters.com is a subscription-based service for accomplished songwriters and composers. For eSession.com, we will require everyone to have at least 15 major-label credits to be part of the database. The eSessionwriter.com database will comprise writers with similar criteria, such as five Top 10 hits or two major film credits. We haven't worked out the details for membership yet, but the site is going to allow songwriters and composers, regardless of location, to collaborate. They can scroll through the database of successful writers and find others to co-write with across the Internet. We've created a virtual writing space, where they'll have free access to our chart application, which is an application to create fast and easy chord charts.
What is eSessionIndie.com and eSessionLite.com?
eSessionIndie.com will be for players who may not have the 15 major-label credits required to be part of eSession.com, but who have the talent and experience working on various indie-label projects. So clients on a tighter budget can perhaps hire guys for less than they might be on eSession.com. eSessionLite would be for the amateur market. Anybody will be able sign up, and it will be subscription-based.
Do you see any danger of your site becoming overburdened with too many choices?
Hopefully not. At some point, we may have to close the sign-up. I don't want to overwhelm people with 300 guitar players. But right now it's okay. We have about 280 people as of today, and we get about 10 sign-ups a week. By the time this article comes out, we should have around 350 musicians and engineers. Eventually, we'll be adding a producer database, as well.
Michael Barbiero is a producer/engineer/mixer with credits on a slew of albums by top artists, including Ziggy Marley, Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Gov't Mule, Maroon 5, Counting Crows and Blues Traveler.
Want more Gina?
Here, she shares more details about her new eSession.com service and chats about some other recent projects.
I understand that, in eSession.com, once clients have agreed to work together and agreed on price, you're set up so that work will not begin until half the monies are paid in advance. How is the talent, either musician or engineer, guaranteed final payment?
We have a page called the Song page, which is a drag-and-drop ftp page. Each person hired to record or mix a track has his or her own bin. When you've dragged and dropped your final tracks in there, the bin is locked, so the client cannot get in to access your final full-resolution tracks. They can hear your rough mix via MP3 streaming, but they cannot get inside your bin. If they try to click on your bin to download, [a prompt] tells the client [that payment is required]. The money then goes immediately to the talent, who has already set up his or her bank information when signing up for eSession. We can mail a check, put a direct deposit in a bank account, send money to a Pay Pal account, whatever, but it goes immediately right to the talent, so there's no more waiting 90 days to get paid.
Is there a refund policy for incompetently performed or unusable work?
Again, we feel that our talent members have made their careers creating enduring relationships with clients like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, etc., based on competent work. I'm sure there are going to be times when a client's not happy because performances and mixes are all subjective. But we're thinking that a client is hiring a talent member based on a discography. We're hoping clients will know what to expect when they hire someone and often will be hiring a specific talent member because they want a certain style or sound based on work they admire. For instances, when a client is not happy with a performance or mix, we have created what we call a Change Order. Before a session begins, it will be very clear how many revision mixes a client will receive or how many tracks they're requesting. But let's say somebody hires you to mix, they've used up all their revision mixes and they're still not happy because the vocal is a little too low, or whatever, and they want one more mix. The client creates a Change Order for one more mix, vocal up. That goes to you, and you can say, "This guy's been really cool. I'm not going to charge him." Or you can decide the guy's been a pain in the ass and charge him accordingly. We have the Change Order built in, in case there are problems or a client doesn't feel like they got what they wanted. I'm sure there are going to be issues where maybe someone's not happy with a kick drum sound or something. In some cases, we would compensate people. We're going to be fair, regardless. We know music is subjective and potentially problematic when working in separate locations. It's going to be a transitional process with growing pains. We're not naive about that.
Will you interface with the unions?
Yes. A lot projects these days are bypassing the union because it has become so antiquated and the paperwork is so complex. We're working with a facet of the union called the RMA, the Recording Musicians Association. They're helping us create the union section of eSession. So when somebody does a session, the talent can opt to say, "I only do sessions through the union." Many musicians are in their 50s and they really could have very healthy pension funds, health insurance and a special payments fund, but because the union has become so antiquated, they're not getting this security for their futures. So we're encouraging people to do union gigs, and we're making it where eSession does all the paperwork for you and files all the union contracts for you, so more of these musicians will have pension funds and health insurance as they get older.
With eSession, rom film applications, to songwriting applications, to recording, to licensing through ASCAP and even conferencing (which is what Microsoft is up to these days, but on a less-specialized basis), you're offering a full-service Internet network.
Yes. eSession.com was developed to help musicians. Budgets aren't what they were 10 years ago. Everybody can't afford the big studios. But many people have professional-quality home studios, and they all have high-speed Internet. Why not create a network of all these people to work together? [It's the] same thing with the writer community.
What kind of support will you provide for clients?
For the eSession.com talent members, I'm going to be doing personal support. I'm helping a lot of our talent members buy Pro Tools systems and learn how to use them. As you know, it's something I've done for years, and it's almost second nature now. I have my assistant, Ryan Chahanovich, who I've been training to provide support, and he's just amazing. Kevin Killen, my partner and a brilliant engineer/producer, is also well versed in Pro Tools, and we're hiring a company called Obedia.com for additional support for clients. I know more than most people about how important it is to provide technical support for our talent and clients, not just with the Website, but with their hardware and software, as well. If our clients or talent members can't use their gear, they can't use eSession. It's as simple as that.
Blue World Music, your studio in Austin, recently parted with its SSL console in favor of a completely in-the-box HD recording system. What makes you so fearless when it comes to adapting to the pace of our rapidly changing music industry?
I guess it was a financial decision, in that the console wasn't paying for itself anymore. I was using my SSL with the faders at unity, like a big summing system, so when summing systems started coming out, my first purchase was the API. I had that in my studio for a week or two, but each channel had its own volume knob, and so I was recalling again. Then I learned about the Dangerous Music System. I swapped the API for the Dangerous, and I now have a 32-channel Pro Tools system that goes out to a Dangerous Music summing box and then through an Apogee to an Alan Smart Compressor and then back to Pro Tools. The Dangerous is like a console in a rack. Most everything [I do now] is done through the Dangerous system. I still keep a rack of analog compressors and EQs inline with the Dangerous system, which makes it worth a client's while to come into to my studio and mix.
You've been at the leading edge of the digital recording ever since the early '90s and an outspoken proponent of Pro Tools over other far-less-expensive hardware and software systems like Nuendo, Digital Performer and Cubase. How do you respond to critics who argue that cheaper systems are as effective and sound just as good?
I feel that Pro Tools is the only program, except for Nuendo, that was created as an audio recorder. Digital Performer was a MIDI program that added audio. Logic, Cubase-all these are MIDI programs that have a capability of recording audio. Pro Tools, to me, was created with the ease of use of a tape machine. I used Digital Performer for years. I know Logic really well. I know Cubase fairly well, and I have played with Nuendo: I really like the sound of it, and think that it's the second-best system for recording live musicians, but I see it geared more toward post audio work rather than album and music audio.
And I understand that you have a book coming out, as well?
I'm thrilled to have a book coming out in March called Pro Tools for Musicians and Songwriters. I've been working on it over the last year, and it's written using Pro Tools 7. Peach Pit Press is publishing it, and they've been really great. My editor, Jim Aikin, is a renowned MIDI guru. I'm hoping this book can create even more technically savvy musicians, who then become my eSession clients. I know what a huge difference for my own music and for my own projects learning digital audio has been. Sometimes I feel like a digital audio evangelist. I guess I feel like I've found Jesus (feigns southern accent) and I just have to preach it!