The Virtual Studio

It's been more than 30 years since multitrack tape machines radically changed the nature of recording. In most cases, a recording of a given song no longer
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It's been more than 30 years since multitrack tape machines radically changed the nature of recording. In most cases, a recording of a given song no longer documents a single performance in a single time and place, but instead represents a composite of multiple performances at different times, often in different studios. This divergence of real-time performance from record-making has allowed recorded music to evolve into a distinct art form, and freed multitalented artists from the limits of a single pass. But another result was that the recording process extended from hours to months, entailing endless hours of boredom endured while waiting for others to overdub their parts. A person can only take so much Ping-Pong, pinball and daytime TV before wondering if there might be a better way.

Perhaps it was with this experience in mind that artist, songwriter, sound engineer and record producer Willy Henshall founded Rocket Network in 1995 with fellow British musician Tim Bran and American software developers and musicians Canton Becker and Matt Moller. The trans-Atlantic team came together through the Internet, and their goal was to create a way for musicians to collaborate online as an alternative to the traditional recording session.

Aided by an investment from Vulcan Ventures, a venture capital source controlled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, San Francisco-based Rocket Network has made substantial progress toward bringing the online session concept to life. Now under the direction of chairman Henshall and president/CEo Pam Miller, the company has developed the software tools needed to implement their collaborative model in audio applications. In mid-october, they launched the Rocket Network Web site (www.rocketnetwork.com), which serves as a central meeting place for musicians and studios using the system.

Perhaps the most important indication that the Rocket Network concept is being taken seriously is that the company has convinced several vendors of audio production tools to "RocketPower" their applications. "Steinberg Cubase VST with RocketPower is in beta now," Henshall says. "Emagic Logic Audio will be entering beta in the next few weeks. Several other developers have committed to adding RocketPower to their products, and they will be announcing their support over the next few months." The interface between the audio software and Rocket Network is provided by an open standard API in the Rocket Network SDK (software developer's kit).

The Internet StudioThe basic concept behind Rocket Network is to use the Internet to connect people for collaboration on recording projects without being together in the same physical space. Instead of shipping tapes from place to place or renting high-capacity phone lines, participants in an online session enter a virtual studio, referred to-straightforwardly enough-as an Internet Recording Studio. users record to their local systems, edit the audio or MIDI as necessary, and then "post" their tracks to the Studio, which delivers it to the other participants in the session.

Rocket Network sees audio-related businesses-such as music retailers, broadcasters, post-production companies and recording studios-leasing "clusters" of these studios, called Studio Centers, to integrate into their existing Web sites. And the income from these leases, paid based on the amount of data transmitted across the network, will be Rocket Network's primary source of revenue.

The operators of these branded Studio Centers may in turn lease individual studios to end-users, or simply keep an entire center for their own production needs. According to Rocket Network, facilities such as Frank Serafine Studios, tomandandy, Berklee College of Music, TechRep Marketing and Sony Music Studios have signed up to operate Studio Centers as part of the company's "Charter Partners" program.

A crucial distinction between a physical studio and an Internet Recording Studio is that there is no opportunity in the latter for session participants to actually play together at the same time. "The system is a live collaborative client-server environment," Henshall says. "But it's not about recording together live; it's more like working on a multitrack recording together with other people from anywhere else in the world. That is, however, how most audio is recorded professionally in the physical world."

of course, musicians still record plenty of music, in all genres, playing together live. But there are nonetheless all kinds of audio situations-vocal overdubs, commercial voice-overs or grooves built up from a starting drum loop-where it may not be important for all involved to be in the same studio together. Henshall says the Rocket Network might be particularly useful for "songwriting demo sessions where regular writers are geographically spread, finishing albums while artists are on the road and keeping in touch with old musical buddies," as well as film and TV post, ADR looping, commercial soundtracks and voice-overs.

"Several people working in parallel at the same time makes everyone more efficient," Henshall adds. "It's faster, cheaper and more collaborative than traditional serial recording. People also have more individual control over their working environment, and they don't have to move and re-set up all their gear for each session."

System ElementsA session conducted over Rocket Network requires the presence of several elements to make it work. obviously you need an Internet connection-the faster the better. The company says it is possible to use the system with even a setup as humble as a 14.4 modem, but a connection of at least 56 K is recommended. You also need a browser (minimum Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or Netscape Navigator 4.0) and access to an Internet Studio in a Studio Center.

The system provides access at several levels, governed by "permissions" granted by the studio owner (the entity that has the account with the Studio Center). The level of permission determines whether you are present as an observer or a participant, whether you can grant permission for others to enter the session and whether you have access to the session archives stored on Rocket Network's server, analogous to the "tape vault" of a physical studio.

Another required element is an audio application with RocketPower. As mentioned above, both Steinberg and Emagic have committed to incorporating the system into their digital audio/MIDI sequencing tools, and a RocketPower version of Cubase VST is already in pre-release beta. Henshall says Rocket Network is also in discussions with a number of other companies, including not just software vendors, but also makers of dedicated hardware such as digital consoles.

one attractive aspect of the system is that the participants in a session do not need to be working with the same software or even on the same platform. "You get to use the system without giving up the tools you already know," Henshall says. A participant running Cubase VST on Mac oS (version 8.0 or higher) may currently collaborate with someone running the same program on Windows (95/98/NT). When other audio applications with RocketPower are available, the system will mediate the exchange between any given participant's application (or device) and those of the other participants.

The component that handles the interchange between participants is a piece of software from Rocket Network called RocketControl (currently version 2.0). A "client" of the Rocket Network server, RocketControl relays digital audio and MIDI from any audio application that has RocketPower directly to other participants in an Internet Recording Studio. It also provides the interface for the system's "chat" capabilities, which allow the participants (and observers) to communicate with each other during the session by typing messages back and forth. This instant messaging approach may be more cumbersome than a "talkback" switch on a console, but at least it provides a way to discuss the project with others in the session. RocketControl 2.0 requires a 200 MHz CPu (Pentium for Windows or PowerPC for Mac oS).

The online SessionTo initiate or enter an online session, a "RocketPower" button within an application (such as Cubase VST) launches both your browser and RocketControl, and prompts for log-in to the Rocket Network, loading your personal "My Rocket Network" Web page. The page includes a searchable directory of Studio Centers and Studios (categorized according to an editable user profile), a knowledge base for information and help, and any bookmarks you may have created on previous visits.

To enter a session, you select a studio or a group of users from your Web page and join with a click. once you've entered the Internet Recording Studio (presumably you've been granted permission), you have access to the current "active project," made up of audio or MIDI parts already "posted" to that Studio by other participants. You "receive" the individual parts (each track labeled with individual participants' names) as tracks and sequences in a new project window in your audio application, just as if you had opened a project or song from your local drive. If you are reentering a session in which you previously participated, the system compares the parts cached on your local drive with the current parts on the server, and updates your local parts without re-transferring the entire session.

As the received parts become tracks in your current project (in your audio application), you work the same way you would if you had recorded all the parts locally. You listen to existing parts and overdub a new one, recording to your local drive. After editing your new audio or MIDI track as necessary, you "post" the track to the studio for the other participants to hear. They comment via RocketControl's chat facility, you modify the track accordingly, and you post it again. Meanwhile the others are each doing the same thing on their end, and you are receiving the results of their efforts as they post them. It's as if everybody were overdubbing to identical multitrack masters in their own studio, and each person's overdubs were showing up on the others' master. Everyone could be working the session at the same time, or the process could take place over days or weeks, with each participant logging in to make a contribution whenever their schedule and their inspiration allows.

Given the limited bandwidth offered by the connections to which most users are likely to have access, one could easily wait hours to post or receive a set of individual parts at full fidelity (uncompressed 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM). But the system allows you to set up three different levels at which you receive (and post) data, and to define the situations at which each level is used. For each level, you define the codec (compression algorithm) and the amount of data compression (if any). The QDesign Music codec is included; compression modules for other codecs (such as MP3) will be available for purchase from the Rocket Network Web site.

If intended for professional use, the audio recorded to each participant's local drive would normally be stored at full fidelity, and posted at full fidelity when the producer is satisfied with the session and needs high-quality parts for the final mix. But by supporting multiple levels of compression for posting and receiving, Rocket Network enables a session to be conducted mostly in a sort of "draft mode," where the fidelity is good enough for everyone to hear what everyone else is doing musically, but the data rate is low enough to minimize the time spent posting and receiving.

"The quality used for transmitting the audio is dependent on each participant's Internet connection speed and what that session will be used for," Henshall says. "There is no point in users waiting for a full-quality download of 14 tracks over a 56K modem when all they're going to do is a small background vocal part. In this case, the studio owner would post a highly compressed stereo mix for the singer to work with."

In some situations-a voice-over for an ad agency, for instance-an approval is required from someone who does not need access to the session. The system includes a feature referred to (less than succinctly) as "Mix down to current Rocket Network Internet Studio Web page." An audio mix of the current state of the project is posted to that page, where it may be auditioned by anyone who has both access to the page and a player for the codec used (MP3, for example), without the need for a full audio application.

A Viable AlternativeCertainly there are situations where the limitations of the online session are less than ideal-and not simply because you can't play together in real time. Consider, for instance, a session involving a producer in one place and a performer in another. The producer can't hear the performance in real time, and therefore can't give any feedback until the take is posted in one place and received in the other. Aside from conceivably making the session take longer, this scenario could be problematic for commercial voice-overs, where the producer's job involves guiding the talent toward the desired inflection for every word.

Another difficulty from a producer's point of view is ensuring the recording quality of remotely recorded parts. If a session is conducted at draft quality, poor tone or unwanted noises in a part might not be noticed by the producer until the full-fidelity version is posted after the session is completed. Further, musicians are often inspired not simply by the notes that their colleagues play, but by subtle qualities in the timbres they hear, qualities that may not come through when working at less than full fidelity.

None of these problems are insurmountable, and the point here is not to suggest any fatal flaws in the Rocket Network-but to explore the frontiers it offers. Imagine the collaborative relationships that might develop when people around the globe can contribute ideas to a project wherever and whenever the spirit moves them. And consider the projects that artists might say yes to that they would previously have declined because they had neither the time nor the inclination to be away from home. It's almost beside the point, then, whether the virtual studio works as well as the physical for all types of recording. As with many new technologies in audio history, the true value of Rocket Network-if it takes off-is less likely to be found in overthrowing the existing order than in expanding the creative possibilities of those who make and record sound.