I was in a New York hotel room, working on a new song. Because it was a New York hotel room, I had barely enough space to open my laptop without hurting myself. Luckily, that was all I needed to begin using eSession.com, a new "virtual recording studio" founded by engineer, songwriter, and Pro Tools guru Gina Fant-Saez.
Gina, as it happened, was on the phone from her studio in the Texas hill country outside Austin. She had invited me to give eSession a try, and over the course of a 45-minute training session, she showed me how it would allow me to find and communicate with top professional talent, negotiate agreements, share (and protect) files, and make payments—all the things I would normally do in a studio, but online, from anywhere. eSession promises to let anyone create world-class recordings from New York hotels, Hong Kong high-rises, or anywhere in between.
Esession isn't the first attempt at making this possible. You may remember Rocket Network, which linked DAWs such as Pro Tools, Cubase, or Logic over the Web and enjoyed a burst of promise before fading into Avid/Digidesign in 2003. The idea didn't die there, though; Source Connect, Ninjam, mH20, and other web outfits have since been pursuing roughly similar ventures.
Even before most of us were on the Internet, audio pros could perform remote recording and editing via satellite or dedicated, high-bandwidth phone lines using ISDN connections. A leading example of the latter approach was EDnet, which is still connecting audio and video studios for clients such as the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Going back even further, radio producers came up with a technique called the double-ender—an interview conducted over an ordinary phone line, but with high quality mics and recorders running simultaneously at both ends. After the call, the interviewee's recording was shipped to the producer, who mixed the questions from one recording with the answers from the other. This is still done when high-bandwidth links are not available.
Esession is descended from that collaborative lineage, but it represents a big step forward. The site supports not only recording, but the entire music-production process, with a design that is among the most complete and best integrated I've seen.
I got a chance to learn about that design very thoroughly by beginning as a newbie and working my way through a full production. I chose to record "Nowhere Motel," a song I wrote with my brother Owen. It's the title track for a project I'm producing for my band the Desert Mothers. (Appropriately, the Mothers are a virtual band—me plus whichever musicians I'm working with on a particular song.)
It turned out that my life during this project made for something of an acid test: I was traveling all over the place, and location was definitely a problem that needed solving.
The eSession Song page: (A) primary menu tabs. (B) song tabs — Files, Details, Team, and History. (C) Bank and Bin buttons, which link to various kinds of song files. (D) Buddy List for the chat tool (Tom Roady is online; the camera icon indicates he has a webcam). (E) A file browser for my local hard drive, Loretta. (F) Bin buttons linking to the different kinds of files in the Mix Bank.
My first task was finding players through eSession's eTalent database. Here was an early indication of what makes the service different. While many virtual studio sites aim to connect players at all skill levels — an openness that has its own merits — eSession limits eTalent membership to accomplished pros, usually those who have at least 15 major album credits. (Any user can be listed as a regular member of the eSession community.) This means you aren't likely to find any eTalent who aren't very, very good at what they do. Given that signing up as a user is free, this instant augmentation of your contact list is a heck of a deal all by itself.
You can find eTalent in two ways. From eSession's main page, you can choose among tabs labeled Musicians, Engineers, Production, and eStudios, and then browse subcategories by instrument or by other specialties such as recording, mixing, mastering, or producing.
Or you can construct a search query, such as for a Musician whose specialty is Guitar who has worked with David Byrne. That would in fact bring up Bruce Kaphan, a wonderful player I was able to hire for "Nowhere Motel." I was hoping to use steel guitar in a non-traditional way, and I found Bruce while browsing for steel players who had played alternative rock or alt-country.
Each eSession member gets a publicly accessible profile page listing credits and recording setup.
As you can see from the screenshot of Bruce's page above, each eTalent page has tabs for Discography, Biography, OS/Computer, Images, Outboard Gear, and Audio Samples. I was interested to see that in addition to David Byrne, Bruce had played with Sheryl Crow, the Black Crowes, American Music Club, and the Red House Painters. But what sold me on him were the audio samples from his own album, Slider: gorgeous, free-floating ambiences that painted a whole new picture of what a steel guitar could do. I liked Slider so much that I paid it the ultimate digital-era tribute: I paid for it (on iTunes).
Next I hit the "Click Here to Hire Bruce Kaphan" button and began the process of sending Bruce a Work Request. This consisted of information about my song, a description of the work I was asking him to do (on dobro as well as steel), and a link to an uploaded MP3 demo.
The first step in starting a project is to fill out a Work Request. Prices are negotiable.
Here we discover the answer to a question that may have occurred to you when I mentioned how nice it is to get access to all these great players for free: what's to protect them from being inundated with offers they don't want — musical spam?
Answer: A clever eSession filter. You get access to the eTalent and regular member databases for free, but if you want to send a work request to one of the eTalent members, it costs $25 each time. (As of this writing, there is an introductory offer of free work requests and extra disk space beyond the 250MB basic allotment).
I think that's just fine. It's no more unreasonable than being asked to pay for an estimate, and it forces you to think before uploading a demo that isn't ready. Furthermore, if you find some people who are sympatico with what you're doing, the $25 may amount to a one-time introduction fee, kind of like with a dating service. Meanwhile, there's no fee for sending work requests to non-eTalent, so amateur, experimental, or jam-oriented connections are supported as well.
If the eTalent to whom you've sent a work request wants to do your song, he or she replies by sending you a bid. That bid could be as low as $100, if it's part of a promotion, but a more typical charge would be in the neighborhood of $250 to $300. (Disclosure: Since I was getting a journalist preview, I didn't have to pay for eTalent out of my pocket.)
Here's an excerpt from the first sketch I uploaded for this project. No vocal yet; the melody is played on electric piano:
I recorded my sketch using Apple's GarageBand, which I like for its combination of speed, simplicity, and surprisingly good sounds. I'll usually start a song with GarageBand and then switch to Logic if I need to, or just take the GarageBand sketch to a studio. In this case I ended up keeping the GarageBand guitar all the way through to the final mix, even though it was a stock sound, played via keyboard.
I used to be more anxious about my sketches, often laboring over them for days, throwing in all kinds of arrangement and production detail. But I've found that the better the musicians I work with, the less I want to tell them exactly what to play. My feeling that one of the most important abilities a producer can have is simply to recognize greatness when you hear it — recognizing a great idea (great to you, at least), and recognizing great talent to execute it.
Once you've found the talent, give them a little bit of (clear) guidance and get out of the way for a while. Then you can respond to what you hear, which will often contain surprising gifts, and nudge whatever needs nudging towards your objective.
I also posted a chart of the melody, chords, and lyrics:
(Click to view full-size PDF.)
Although eSession provides its own eChart feature (which supports lyrics and chords), for this song I thought it would be helpful to have the melody written out as well. So I made my chart using the free Finale Notepad.
To my delight, Bruce Kaphan was up for the song. (After listening to Slider repeatedly, I knew I wanted to feature him in the arrangement.) I set about assembling the rest of the band, browsing through the 750-member eTalent database with help from Gina and Director of Talent Relations Ryan Chahanovich. When we found someone, I'd send them a work request, they'd respond with a bid, and once I had clicked to pay a 50% advance, they would show up as members of my Song Team. Here's the lineup I started with:
Joining Bruce Kaphan were:
I've already spent some time raving about Bruce and I don't want to bore you with gushing, so let me just say that each one of these guys is terrific: inspiring as a player, and a pleasure to work with. I've found that it's often true that the better the player, the humbler the attitude. Note the slogan on Byron House's MySpace page: "Is there no beginning to this man's talent?"
The first team member to record was Tom Roady. At his Nashville studio, Tom downloaded the 24-bit, 44.1kHz stems (i.e., submixes, in this case of drums, bass, guitars, and melody) that I had uploaded from my home studio in Monterey, California.
Note that by encouraging users to work with stems, eSession can be DAW-agnostic. It doesn't matter if different team members use Pro Tools, Nuendo, Logic, or whatever if they're dealing with uncompressed stems, at an agreed-on sample rate, that start from sample 1. Since all DAWs maintain perfect sync among tracks, there's no problem with compatibility. (Working with MP3s is discouraged for this purpose, since MP3's have header information that offsets the start point of the audio.)
Here are the notes I gave Tom in my work request:
Spare, in support of drums: shaker, maybe light hand drums, accents on triangle.... The thumbnail description of my production approach for this is atmospheric, cinematic Americana. As you'll see, the chords are a lot more jazz-based than would be usual for Americana, but my aim is to keep the spareness and directness of roots-oriented music, where every note means something.
Tom started with a simple shaker track that played throughout the song, and ended up serving as the arrangement's pulse:
He came up with a surprise for the 2nd verse: a dumbek, an instrument that would never have occurred to me for this song, but which I thought worked perfectly:
Tom also added accents with a caxixi (a kind of shaker) and a custom-made instrument he called "silver solder hands":
I loved his first take, and after a couple of minor tweaks here and there, Tom was done. He uploaded his full bandwidth tracks, I paid the balance due, and that unlocked his files for my download. eSession's clean, disciplined system for handling transactions makes sure that ownership of files stays under control, that everyone gets paid, and that talent is spared having to be in the collection business.
Pat Mastelotto pokes a Roland MIDI pad. (Photo: Ryan Chahanovich)
Next, Pat Mastelotto added drums. Pat was at his place near Austin, while I was now on vacation in a little village on the coast of Nova Scotia. My net connection was over modem at 28.8kbps, useless for eSession, so I would go sit in the parking lot of the local elementary school when I needed to borrow some higher bandwidth. I asked Pat to take my sketch drums as an indication of a light, supportive groove, but to evolve it over the course of the song.
He did that and then some, giving me something far more detailed than I had in mind, but it ended up working beautifully. I was at first a little worried about the risk of virtuoso playing distracting from the song — the "this guy is too good" problem. In particular I asked myself if Pat might have stepped a little too far outside during the bridge:
But my instinct was that it would work — and if it didn't, I could always edit it or go for another take. It turned out that when all the tracks were layered, the drums were great all the way through. I kept the whole performance as it was.
eSession provides a Messages interface and a Chat window. Messages allow you to send and receive email with your eTalent without either side revealing their email address unless they choose to. The messages are routed via eSession.com addresses — another way of protecting one or both sides from spam. I found that most of my team members switched back and forth between eSession's messaging and just emailing or phoning me directly, depending on what seemed easiest at the time. The Chat window allows you to chat with any of your team members, or other buddies, who happen to be online at the same time as you, and allows video chat for the webcam-equipped.
Pat's recording impressed me as well. Any time there are a lot of mics open, as when recording drums, there's a risk of phase interference among the mics making the sound smaller and mushier. Since eTalent usually record themselves, it's important that they have some skills in this area or else it will be a weak link in the chain. No problem with Pat. An interesting detail: he uses no separate hi-hat mic, "like Zep, the Beatles, and Motown," as he noted.
Byron's bass was next, recorded at his place near Nashville (I was back home again in Monterey). I'd used a sampled fretless bass for my sketch, and we decided to stick with fretless for the real one. I loved Byron's first pass, and after a little experimentation we had just what I'd been hoping for: a part that was spare, deep, and grooving, locked in with the kick, and featuring a lyrical, melodic solo climbing up out of the rhythm section during the bridge. (I would later have the steel take over the second half.)
By this time I'd normally be getting the guitars under way, but Bruce wanted to hold off recording his steel parts until after the vocal was done. He told me he's found that because steel playing features so much sliding in and out of chords, it can throw off singers who try to sing to it. So my next step was recording the singer.
The trouble was, I wasn't sure yet who the singer was going to be. Not me — I write 'em, but I don't sing 'em. While I was pondering this, Gina made a surprise offer: could she have a crack at it? This hadn't occurred to me, since I'd been assuming the singer would be male, but I'd heard Gina's songs and loved both her writing and her voice. And looking again at my lyrics, I didn't see any reason why a woman couldn't sing this song — especially one who sings like Gina.
Vocalist and eSession CEO Gina Fant-Saez has extensive experience producing music online. See her O'Reilly article "The Digital Songwriter: Better Music Through Computer Collaboration."
She began recording her vocals at her Blue World Studio, a facility that's been used by U2, Sting, Shawn Colvin, and others. She got a lead and an initial pass of backgrounds done in short order, and that allowed Bruce to make a start on guitar at his studio in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I was knocked out by what each of them did. Not knowing how to play steel myself, I'd been a little anxious about whether all those jazz chords would be negotiable on that instrument. But Bruce had no trouble building a beautiful, atmospheric, and evocative track on steel and dobro. He played a great solo to boot, as you'll hear in the final mix.
Gina's lead vocal hit a combination of intimacy and intensity that felt just right to me, and she built up some beautiful background parts by overdubbing — singing along to her lead on separate tracks. We spent some time on just how to approach the harmonies in the choruses. With those chords, parallel motion led to a lot of fourths and fifths, a little of which I liked a lot, but too much of which sounded medieval.
An alternative approach, based on shared notes, close voicings, and contrary motion, led us into what I think of as "Stevie Wonder territory," which was just fine by me. We ended up mixing some of the openness and strangeness of octaves, fourths, and fifths with the richness of the "Wonder" sound.
In the midst of vocal tracking, the time came for Gina's vacation in Nantucket, but she took some gear with her. I was now in Nashville, working with singer-songwriter Bob Rea on his upcoming album, and with another talented songwriter, Jim Quealy. (Yes, those were both plugs.) No problem! Gina finished recording and uploaded from the New England seaside, I downloaded her tracks in my Nashville hotel room, and I used Logic to make a rough mix of what I had so far:
And since I was in town, I arranged to have coffee with Byron and lunch with Tom, both whom turned out to be just as nice in the real world as in the virtual one.
"Nowhere Motel" was now close to complete, except for my parts, which were currently represented only by the GarageBand guitar and a dobro intro I'd put down as a reference for Bruce. Time to listen and think about what might still be needed. I'd be doing that at my next destination, the Big Island of Hawaii.
There are good studios in Hawaii, but it sure highlighted how far things have come to be able to stay fully connected with Austin, the Bay Area, New York, and Nashville from the middle of the Pacific. I took along my Stratocaster and Line6 POD XT so I could work on ideas while I was there.
Bruce Kaphan (Photo: Mr Monkey Fingers)
I loved the sound we had, and yet I felt the arrangement was missing some kind of glue to link the rhythm section of drums, percussion, and bass with the steel and dobro.
Although I had planned for my guitar parts to be fairly simple, I experimented with them for a day or two, trying to make them "be the glue." But it became hard work, and I find that's always a sign that I'm looking in the wrong direction. (Hawaii, bless it, is a good place to remember things like this.)
I stepped away from the song for a few hours to let my mind wander around the subject of what was missing. And sure enough, the answer came to me during a hot shower, as answers often will: I heard a subtle shaker overdub accentuating offbeats in the choruses, and an electric piano throughout. A deep truth: don't beat yourself up trying to solve a shaker-piano problem with a guitar!
Back in Monterey, I picked up recording again. I found a shaker loop I liked that was bundled with Logic Studio 8, and edited it to fill in part of what I thought the choruses needed:
For piano, I emailed a favorite player in Nashville, Gene Rabbai, inviting him to join eSession and play on my song. You can invite anyone to be a member of eSession, and if they meet the qualifications, they can become eTalent. Gene qualifies in my book: he's played with Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and Vince Gill, among many others.
But Gene gave eSession a try and decided he'd prefer to work the way he's been working for some time, using email plus YouSendIt, a simplified FTP service. eSession's success will depend in part on decisions like that. Some users — Tom Roady, for example — have been rapid converts, finding that the value of eSession's bundle of services outweighs any difficulty in learning how to use them. Others, like Gene, may already have a system that works for them, and might be a harder sell.
So Gene and I used a hybrid of eSession, YouSendIt, and email. I gave him a sketch track of what I had in mind, telling him my main goal was to provide rhythmic support on some of the offbeats, which I thought would work with the shaker overdub to pull the groove together. He works fast: I sent him my stuff in the evening, and by morning I had a very strong track back. I made a few suggestions; the next morning I had another excellent take.
I comped the two piano tracks (meaning I chose my favorite parts and edited them into one master take) and then tried adding some of my sketch part for the choruses. I liked the effect: my non-piano-player's approach added an edge of strangeness to Gene's smooth expertise:
We were now pretty much there. I had hoped the song would give a sense of both spacious stillness and motion — a potential paradox, but a good one, I believed — and I felt that's just what we had. Now I could add my guitar parts.
The Final Mix
By this time Ryan and Gina had found me a mix engineer, New York-based Marc Urselli. Marc won two Grammys for the album American Made, World Played, by Les Paul with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, and other guests. I figured he was probably well set up to get guitar sounds, so I decided to give him parts that were for the most part recorded straight. Back home now, I plugged my Strat into an old Whirlwind direct box connected to a TC Electronic Gold Channel set up only for analog to digital conversion, and plugged the digital output into a Mac running Logic. Here's a sample of what I posted for Marc — as you'll hear later, he put his own stamp on the sound:
In one case I did print my own effects, using Logic's plug-ins and the volume knob on my Strat. I recorded this as an extra layer for the intro:
I kept the fret buzz at the end — another little rough edge of the kind that can add texture. I believe in looking out for accidents and mistakes that work like this; I think they can create little mysteries that draw the ear.
"Nowhere Motel" finds the singer stranded on a desert highway next to a ruined sign of an ark and a rainbow advertising rooms for the night.
Marc was pretty busy in New York attending the AES show, speaking at the CMJ conference, and working on a John Zorn album. But he fit me in over a period of a couple of weeks. He got very close to a final mix on his first pass.
We had a few back-and-forths involving small nudges here and there, and soon enough I had a mix that I just plain loved: every part focused and clear, and yet working with the others to create a cohesive whole. The soundstage was wide and deep, and there were subtle but effective additions, such as (to name just one) a tom hit in the third verse that he faded down, sent through an echo, and turned into a rhythmical bed.
You can hear the whole thing at TheDesertMothers.com. The sound is just what I was hoping for.
After the project wrapped up, I asked my eSession collaborators what they thought of the experience. Marc Urselli replied, "From the perspective of a mixing engineer, Spencer's 'Nowhere Motel' came together quite easily because the musicians involved were top-notch and the arrangements were beautiful. The interplay between guitars, pedal steel guitar, and dobro was just great and mixing tracks by awesome musicians always makes it twice as fun and much easier to get a great sound. I mixed through an analog console and used analog 'verbs for the most part, which helped the warm and shimmery mood of the song.
"This was the first time I used eSession but the process was very easy and intuitive. I had the pleasure of working with exceptional musicians I would hardly have worked with otherwise due to their location. Also the fact that all the audio files exchanged are printed from bar 1 makes it super-easy to share files regardless of platform and software.
"The bottleneck of the system is the Internet's speed when downloading high resolution audio files, but I did that overnight. Being able to provide my contribution to the song as a mixing engineer on my own time was perfect for my ever-changing and busy schedule and allowed for great flexibility in the workflow. (Of course having a board with total recall was a key factor as well, because I was able to get back to my mix at any time to do some tweaks.) I am definitely looking forward to do more work through eSession."
Percussionist Tom Roady said, "I found the process to be very simple — much simpler than I had thought. Spencer had organized his guide tracks very well so they were easy to follow. Even though we used different recording formats, his tracks loaded up into my Pro Tools fine. We were able to communicate well with each other and narrow down specifics of what Spencer wanted me to add, and the eSession techs were very helpful in moving the process along. This was my first eSession song; I'm doing more even as I write this and I am a big believer in eSession. It is really the logical way to record in this changing recording scene."
Byron House. (Photo: Don Shorock)
Bass player Byron House added, "This was my second song using eSession. I listened to Spencer's demo and was happy to accept the job. We had a short, successful negotiation, facilitated by eSession's offer/counter-offer feature. After we agreed on a price, I received 50% payment up front, as stipulated by eSession's client/talent agreement.
"The eSession website is very user friendly, and I was able to download the other musicians' parts as they were completed. It was great to be able to alter my mix as I overdubbed. I could easily turn up the kick drum, for example, or isolate any instrument to help me with the groove or with making choices on my bass part in general. I played two passes on the song, getting helpful, instructive feedback from Spencer on the first pass, and his approval of my performance on the second.
"I uploaded my finished part, and Spencer gained access to the download by paying the remaining 50% of my fee. Sweet. When Gina Fant-Saez's vocal and Bruce Kaphan's steel were uploaded, it was great to be able to check in on the progress as Spencer would post roughs on the MP3 player of eSession's song page.
"As I am writing this comment I am listening to Marc Urselli's final mix and totally digging the finished product — kudos to everyone for their great work! This is a very cool song that almost certainly couldn't have ended up sounding like it does had it been approached through any means other than eSession. Thanks to the good work and support of the eSession team, the world of recording as we know it just got bigger...or smaller, depending on how you look at it."
Factors such as deadline and final usage can affect price.
As you can probably tell, I was very happy with the whole experience of working with eSession.
There were flaws, of course, some of which were fleeting, and some of which I'd expect could be fixed in future updates (transparently to the user, since it's hosted software). For example, on my Macs I sometimes found that eSession worked better with Safari, at other times with Firefox. I assume that was the growing pains of software that was just then emerging from beta. The Song Page, which makes heavy use of Java, was slow to load, especially on my behind-the-curve G4 PowerBook.
I thought the interface was more modal than it needed to be: there was enough difference between the Main page and the Song page that it felt like switching between two interfaces instead of aspects of one. The process for sending work requests, negotiating, and paying seemed clear enough going in, and yet I found that I and most of the players got confused at one point or another. We quickly got better with practice, but some extra usability testing by eSession might lead to a faster learning process.
The project also took longer than it would have if I had booked a real studio. When people are together in a room, there's a lot of communications bandwidth available — much of it non-verbal — and that's likely to be hard to replicate fully in the online world for a long time. Esession is taking a step in that direction with a tool they call Virtual Glass, a DAW plugin that will connect recording sessions over the net while also providing video chat.
As it happened, my travels took me to Austin just as "Nowhere Motel" wrapped up. I dropped in at the eSession offices to meet Gina and her crew in person, and support manager Marc Rosenberg (a Rocket Networks alumnus) gave me a demo of Virtual Glass running in Pro Tools. I was impressed.
Video streaming in the Virtual Glass plugin restores some of the camaraderie of making records. (Click to enlarge.)
Real-world connections between people will remain important, a fact underscored by a friendly game of ping pong I enjoyed at eSession headquarters — such apparently casual interactions are so valuable to the creative process. But remote recording and collaboration are clearly here to stay, and will no doubt become increasingly common.
eSession is state of the art, as much for how well it aggregates services as for the services themselves. It was built by experienced professionals, and that shows. (Gina Fant-Saez personally gives tours of the site every day via web conferencing.) The participation by hundreds of other experienced professionals is both a valuable resource and a vote of confidence. For getting just the right player, engineer, producer, or studio when the time and expense of travel might otherwise make that impossible, I think it works beautifully.
The eTeam (left to right): Scott Gress (Web Developer), Amy Gamble (Director of Finance), Todd Lapitus (IT Manager), John French (Interactive Developer), Jose Cintron (Web Developer), Gina Fant-Saez (CEO), Kevin Killen (Co-founder, partner), Marc Rosenberg (Support Manager), and Ryan Chahanovich (Director of Talent Relations)