Anyone with a Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunications who studied music theory at Juilliard and has worked on projects for Sting, U2, King Crimson, and Shawn Colvin is well qualified to comment on the state of music technology. That’s Gina Fant-Saez. After ten years in New York City’s jingle, film, and multimedia houses and eight years in Blue World Music, her respected Austin recording studio, she has plenty to say about the benefits and hazards of using computers for music.

Gina and SSL Console Gina Fant-Saez during her previous life as a large-format mixing console owner. Laptop computers have shrunken—and expanded—her studio drastically.

Fant-Saez has recorded and mixed projects for Jimmie Vaughan, Nelly Furtado, Walt Disney Pictures, and Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails, Tweaker) and has remixed U2’s smash “Elevation.” Many of today’s best session and touring musicians, including Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Seal), Mark Egan (Sting, Joan Osborne), Gerry Leonard (David Bowie, Suzanne Vega), and Jerry Marotta (Gabriel, Tears For Fears) respect her technical savvy so much that they’ve become friends. Countless others call her first with every digital audio and MIDI query they encounter. She’s currently writing a book called Pro Tools for Musicians & Songwriters and collaborating with German producer Oliver Adolph on the second album of her project, Rumacea.

Collaboration is a theme with Fant-Saez, who was an early advocate of the groundbreaking Rocket Network, which enabled musicians to trade overdubs online to build up finished pieces. In fact, she’s building a new online collaboration system on Rocket’s ashes. We called her to get the details.

Tell us about your new approach to online musical collaboration.

The whole experience with Rocket inspired my new company, eSession. It is similar in concept but differs from Rocket in many ways. First, there’s a database of all these great session players, Grammy-winning engineers, producers, and mixers: the best of the best. Anyone producing music—labels, artists, bands, producers, songwriters—can log on to the database and say, ‘Okay, I want a great guitar part from the session guitarist in David Bowie’s band for this song.’ They pay $20 to send him an audition of their song over eSession; if he likes it, he’ll say yes, and [then] we handle all the file transfers between the client and the session player for the final product.

Why do you think eSession will work?

First, there’s been no solution to bring professional people together to trade files back and forth since Rocket went away. Also, there are so many musicians I know trying to work from home like this. All my friends who are famous musicians are in their 40s now and getting married and wanting to be around their kids more instead of flying all over the world to make a living. What I’m trying to do is find a way where we all can stay home and still get lots of session work right from our home studios—or accomplish the same goals when we’re on the road.

What are you doing that’s different from what Rocket Network was trying to accomplish?

Rocket Network was a proprietary software built into only [Emagic] Logic and [Steinberg] Cubase and, very briefly, [Digidesign] Pro Tools. Rocket was built so the masses could collaborate together. It was a brilliant technology, but the operation and the pricing were just too complicated and expensive for the common musician. You never knew what kind of parts you would get back [from collaborators], yet you had to pay for it regardless. Also, the Rocket user could only work with someone using their exact same software [i.e., Logic users could collaborate only with other Logic users], and if the user didn’t have the same hardware and plug-ins as well, it was very difficult to work.

eSession is not software but a web site that will provide a database of the best professional session players and a means to work with them. eSession is a technology with a specific purpose, which is to allow anyone, professional or amateur, the ability to have world-class musicians play on their music. It is perhaps geared more towards the professional because it does cost a few hundred dollars or more to get someone like Tony Levin playing on your song.

New Blue Studio Fant-Saez and Oliver Adolph work on Rumacea 2 in the newly re-designed Blue World Music studio.

Other companies besides Rocket failed to make online collaboration work. Why do you remain excited?

Ultimately, I feel that the web is like a pipeline into everyone’s home. Why not use it to record music? How many great session players are in smaller towns? Is it really worth the extra expense to fly in a player, put him up in a hotel, and hire a studio? Why not try a new way of working that costs less while giving you a much wider base of musicians to choose from? That’s my thought behind eSession. Sometimes I, and many writers I know, will get a call from a company that needs a two-minute theme for a TV show or a last-minute jingle; hiring players for last minute projects is sometimes impossible. eSession will be invaluable for situations like that.

I’m also hoping to help take demos, final masters, and songwriting production, in general, to a higher standard. I’ve heard thousands of demos of good songs that don’t work as well as they could because the songwriter is trying to sing every part and play every instrument on it. That’s one of my goals with eSession: that songwriters with a great song idea will end up with higher quality parts on their demos and final products.

Describe the genesis of your journey from Rocket evangelista to eSession entrepreneur.

I’ve been working with session musicians via the Internet for about five years now; I just never understood why more people didn’t. I’ve been working with computers for so long that networking and using FTP apps have become second nature. I sometimes don’t realize that [dealing with] all the steps it takes to send a song, receive the new tracks, and import the new tracks is just too overwhelming for most people. So, I got the idea: What if I could create a Web site that would do exactly that but would also provide the musicians and engineers?

So a few months ago, I started looking for Web designers and came across this one site that blew me away. I contacted them and asked who designed their site, and now I’m working with a New York City company called Coolbirth. They’re an extremely cool, cutting-edge team and they believe as strongly as I do in this idea.

Right now we have the temporary site up explaining what eSession is and how it will work. We’re hoping to have the fully functional site up and running in early 2005.

In the meantime, I’m experimenting with ways to record in real time using the Internet. I recently invented a way to use an Apple G5, which has digital [audio] ports, in conjunction with iChat [instant messaging] to record realtime music directly into any DAW [digital audio workstation]. It’s not very complicated. iChat uses MP4 compression, so it’s not full resolution, but it works.

My dream is for eSession to provide realtime, full-resolution recording via the Internet without any external hardware or software. So far, MP4 is the best I can come up with in regards to file size and sound quality, but we’ll see....

How does the MP4 format sound to you?

It sounds good. I did a live voiceover session for a post-production studio final in San Francisco directly via iChat, and it was great for them. For most people, it’s good enough, at least for auditions. So, for instance, say you’ve got a song—maybe it’s just a demo you’re working on—and MP4 sounds okay to you. You can record the musician live over iChat directly into your Pro Tools session, and you’re done. It’s really cool.

How many players will be accessible via your database?

We’re starting out with about 100, the best of the best, and for now, it’s mostly guitarists, bass players, and drummers. But eventually, we’ll be adding horn players, vocalists, keyboardists, voiceover talent, and others. The hard thing is going to be the average guitarist in his garage who, via eSession, will envision himself becoming a big session player when perhaps he’s not that good. The players are going to have to have some sort of major-label discography or substantial existing session credits to be listed on the database.

Could it be said that eSession is a virtual booking agency?

Sort of, though I don’t like calling it that. Recording budgets have dropped almost 70 percent the past five years, so this is a great and less costly way for the labels to find and record the talent they need. It’s too expensive to fly someone in to a studio to play one great guitar track. eSession is perfectly geared for those situations.

Gina's poolside studio Fant-Saez demonstrates her portable music rig.

So far, we’ve talked about what’s positive about technology’s effect on creativity. What’s the single worst thing about it?

It has put music in the hands of the masses that think using [Apple] GarageBand automatically makes them a songwriter, that throwing a couple of loops together and never learning about chord structure and music theory is all it takes to write a great song.

And the result is all the watered-down music we hear on the radio.

There’s a lot of great stuff on the radio these days and there’s a lot of crap. I do think that technology has negatively affected the craft of songwriting because it’s so simple to cut and paste a song together these days. It’s also negatively affected the talent required to make an album. If someone can play in time for two bars, that’s about all that’s required for much of today’s music. There should be a balance between talent and technology, and I guess that’s what I’m hoping eSession will do.

But regarding radio, that’s a whole other thing. Clear Channel [which owns hundreds of American radio stations] is limiting so much of the great music that’s out there even more now. You used to need only talent to get on the radio, but now you simply need money. I’m hoping that satellite radio and perhaps internet radio will eventually change that.

But won’t eSession be open to all the new “GarageBanders” willing to pay for a good player? What if that guy or girl in their garage happens to write some heartfelt lyrics and stumbles upon an amazing chord progression?

Absolutely! The process will be that the artist or songwriter, regardless of their experience, will send an audition to the player. So, the choice about whether to play on a track is up to each individual player. As long as the player likes the song, they can choose to play on anyone’s demo or record. The musicians will name their own prices; so one guy might say $150 for a guitar track and another, $250. There will also be a fee for the artist/producer/songwriter to submit an audition of their song to the players. That may end up around $20, to get a song to a Shaun Pelton or a Tony Levin. If those guys like it, then that will make that GarageBander’s good song sound even better.

There’s nothing like a great musician to make a song even greater. Like I said, the site is actually geared more towards the music professionals, but I will happily help the beginner as well. I hope that eSession will end up becoming an “eBay for musicians.”

Wisdom the dog One of the joys of eSession collaboration and home recording: Fant-Saez with Wisdom, one of her seven Labs.

Gina Fant-Saez: Music Examples

From a project called Broadband, which was written, produced, and recorded over the internet with musicians from Seal, David Bowie, Aimee Mann, and Shawn Colvin’s bands:

A collaboration with Oliver Adolph for the upcoming Rumacea album:

From Rumacea’s first album, produced and written by Gina Fant-Saez, co-written with Pamela Sue Mann:

Written and produced by Hanno DiRosa; co-written with Marco Gherardi, Enrico Friedlevski, and Andrea Ciacchini; lyrics and melody by Gina Fant-Saez via Rocket Network:

Gina’s QuickTip #1: Name Your Tracks First

“I can not emphasize this enough,” Gina Fant-Saez says. “Once you’ve finished recording a track in Pro Tools, the audio file is automatically named on your hard drive. If you don’t name your tracks before you record, you will have a folder filled with generically named audio files. That can be the ultimate nightmare if you ever have to rebuild that session or open those files in another program. How can you tell that ‘Audio 1-01’ is the kick drum and ‘Audio 2-17’ is an acoustic guitar?”

Fant-Saez adds that the entire edit screen in your Pro Tools session will be covered in regions—onscreen representations of those files—named ’Audio.’ She notes that it is so much easier to work with a song if you can see the individual track and song parts named according to the individual parts you’re working with. Here’s how she suggests overcoming this common error:

“If you forget to name a track before you record, simply highlight the audio region and hit Command-Shift-R [Control-Shift-R on Windows] to rename the region on the screen. If the region has not been edited, it will rename the actual file on the hard drive. If the region has been edited, it simply changes the name on the screen.”

Fant-Saez uses the Command-Shift-R function frequently to help her organize things onscreen. “I rename regions all the time as I work. For example, I will take an imported drum loop and rename it ’VsLoop125,’ meaning this is a loop I use in the verse, and it is 125 beats per minute. Now, when I’m looking at the song on the edit screen, I can tell which waveforms belong to which instruments and what parts and regions of the song they play in. Being as organized as possible in your naming protocol while creating a song saves you hours in the long run.”

Gina’s QuickTip #2: Loop-Recording Vocals in Pro Tools

Loop recording is a great feature in Pro Tools that is rarely used. It is found under the Options menu. You simply have to enable it, set an in-point and an out-point, then grab the mic and hit Record.

“Some people misunderstand the term ’loop recording’ and think it only applies to drum loops or pieces of audio that loop within a song,” says Fant-Saez. “But loop recording is simply telling Pro Tools to record over and over in the exact same place; in other words, to record in a loop. For example, sometimes it’s easier for a singer to sing a song in sections, as opposed to singing from beginning to end. I find that singers frequently lose their voices when recording a song as a whole. Often, the choruses are higher in pitch and require more effort and emotion, and by the end of the fifth take, their voice is strained.”

Fant-Saez suggests setting the track’s recording in-point two bars before the first verse starts and setting the out-point one bar after the verse ends. Turn on loop recording, and let the vocalist sing the verse over and over until there is a “keeper” take worth saving for the song. On the Pro Tools session screen, it will appear that each take is being recorded over and erased, but that’s not the case.

“Simply highlight the last region recorded, choose the I-beam tool, and hold down the Command key [Control key in Windows] over the region. You will see a list of takes in numerical order. Simply choose one from the list. Sometimes while a singer is singing, I take notes and write down which verses were sung best so that afterwards I don’t have to waste time listening to 15 takes. When the singer is done, I know the first half of take number 8 should be used, for instance, with the second half of take number 6.”

Fant-Saez also points out that pre-roll does not work in loop recording. [Pre-roll refers to making playback start a little bit before the section where you want to record.] “You will only hear pre-roll on the first take; from there, it starts recording at your in-point,” she notes. “So, you have to create your own pre-roll by setting the in-point at a place the vocalist can comfortably work with.”

SIDEBAR: Taking It with You

“I just love being portable. It is so creatively freeing,” says Gina Fant-Saez, who last year produced an all-online recording of the group Broadband. “I’ve got Bluetooth, and everywhere I travel has wireless, so I’m always on the web. For music, I’ve got my laptop, an M-Audio Oxygen keyboard [USB controller for software synths], and Digidesign’s Pro Tools. In fact, I just sold my SSL [mixing console] and replaced it with the new Dangerous Analog Summing System, which to me, is like an SSL in a rack. I feel that large consoles are just not a necessity with today’s technology. In six rack spaces, my Dangerous System does everything my SSL did and more. I also find myself using Logic a great deal these days; it has greatly improved since Apple released it.”

The Ultimate Portable Studio Fant-Saez’s portable rig with prices (click for larger version).

Gina’s 7 Essentials for Portable Recording

  1. Macintosh laptop computer
  2. Digidesign Mbox with Pro Tools LE multitrack software
  3. La Cie 80GB FireWire hard drive
  4. Altec Lansing inMotion speaker system
  5. M-Audio Oxygen8 USB keyboard
  6. Microphone
  7. Headphones

Gina’s 7 Recommended Extras for Portable Recording

  1. Additional computer memory
  2. Software effect and synth plug-ins
  3. Apple iPod
  4. InCase guitar/tour bag
  5. Apple iSight camera
  6. High-speed Internet connection
  7. Microphone stand with pop screen

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