6 Tips for Collaborating Remotely Using Different DAWs

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In the era of social distancing, it may seem hard for songwriters and producers to collaborate from their houses. But remote collaboration is not new: just last fall, Robbie Robertson re-recorded his band’s classic hit, “The Weight,” with a globe-trotting lineup of musicians; almost 20 years ago, The Postal Service got its band name from its method of collaboration: its prominent members traded material over the mail.

But there are roadblocks to modern collaboration: producers often use digital audio workstations (“DAWs” for short), but there is a plethora of DAWs out there: Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, FL Studio, Live, Bitwig, Reason, and Studio One to name a few. Many of these DAWs don’t play nicely with each other.

What do you do if you and your partner use different DAWs for the same project? Read on to find out.

Make Use of a Common Folder in the Cloud

Our first tip is organizational, but it will prevent headaches: set up a folder in the cloud for you and your partner to use. Save your work to this folder—backing it up often, of course. Dropbox and Google Drive both work well.

With a folder for each song, you can instantly see what your partner added to a project—no need to email things back and forth and download files manually; all audio files, documents, and projects sync automatically.

Keep an Organizational Document for each Individual Project

Make sure each project has a governing text document to keep track of key information (band name, song name, etc.). If you’re working on music, be sure to write down the tempo (BPM) and time signature of each tune.

This document will come in handy when your collaborator uses their own DAW. Referring to the document, your partner can label the project with the right name, derive the right tempo/time-signature, and sidestep potential headaches down the line.

Consider adding an annotation any time you contribute something to the project. Did you lay down a vocal, or an organ part? Open the document and write down what you did. Provide the date and even the time: if you’re working fast, it can all come in handy, to make sure you’re not working off obsolete revisions.

Make Use of Stems for Audio

A stem is a rendered, exportable copy of an audio track—or a group of audio tracks (all the vocals, for instance). A stem spans the whole length of a project, from 0:00:00 to whenever it ends.

In a session, a track may have many separated regions strung in order, like so:

SCREENSHOT 1: Session Audio

The problem? Your buddy’s DAW may have no way of knowing how to sync up these regions, which can result in a mess!

Stems, however, look like long, connected lines from beginning to end.

SCREENSHOT 2: Stems in Logic Pro X

There’s no room for error—the file will line up with the beginning and play out until it’s over.

Here’s how the stem workflow might look in your collaboration: your partner put down a great organ part. It’s your job to provide the guitars. So, your partner creates stems of the organ and drops them into your shared folder. You then import the stems into your own session.

When you record your guitars, you do the same—you export your edited, final pass as one long stem for your buddy to use in a subsequent draft.

TL; DR: Pro Tools can’t open a Logic Session, but it can definitely import an audio stem!

Make Use of MIDI Files

A MIDI file is its own universally accepted entity. A MIDI file created in Live will open up just fine in Logic Pro, Pro Tools, or any MIDI-compatible DAW.

The file will store critical intel such as the tempo, notes, and controller information. If you wiggled the mod-wheel while playing a high G on a song that runs 180 BPM, all of that information will be communicated to your partner in the MIDI file.

How do you know if something can be exported as a MIDI file? If you’re using a virtual instrument—something like Native Instruments Kontakt Instrument or drums from Superior Drummer 3—you’re working in MIDI. Export the region you’ve played as a MIDI file, and your buddy should be able to open the file in their session.

Native Instruments KOMPLETE 12 - Virtual Instruments and Effects Collection

Prep your MIDI file just like a stem: give your collaborator one, uninterrupted file that begins at the very start of your session and continues until the part ends. That way, it should line up with their session just fine.

Unfortunately, the MIDI file won’t load your chosen MIDI instrument automatically. Your buddy has to do that independently. However, you can help—with the following tip.

Make Use of Screenshots or Preset Files

How do you get your MIDI-based organ to sound exactly the same in your buddy’s DAW? Send them a screenshot of the plug-in you both share, or send them a preset file.

Say you want your collaborator to use the same PSP L’otary2 setting on an organ. Simply take a screenshot of your plug-in’s GUI and save it to the cloud folder you both share. That way, your friend can match the settings with their own copy of PSP L’otary2.

PSPAudioware PSP L'otary2 Rotary Speaker Software for Pro Audio

What about the MIDI instrument itself—what if you want your buddy to load their own copy of Omnisphere 2?

In most cases, you can save your instrument’s setting as a preset, one that will work regardless of the DAW. Give the preset a creative name that you can easily search for in your Finder Window or Start Menu. Then, copy the preset over to your shared folder, and your friend will have access to it.

Experiment with AAF or OMF Files

If these tips have read like beginner fodder, try exporting your entire session as either an OMF file or an AAF file.

Both of these formats are often used in post-production. When a video editor sends a project to an audio engineer, the editor makes an AAF or OMF export of their session. The audio engineer then opens the AAF or OMF in their DAW, and all of the audio syncs perfectly to the video.

That’s how it should work, anyway. In practice, OMF and AAF exports often become corrupted. If they work, they often do not communicate automation data properly.

They’re not the most stable file formats, and if you’re not used to working with them, they can be a headache. It’s also worth noting that AAF and OMF files only include audio tracks, but no MIDI, aux, or master fader tracks. However, you can send a MIDI file along with an AAF/OMF! Nevertheless, for big, complicated productions such as classical scores or podcast edits—where stable tempos don’t exist, and stems are impractical—these file formats are worth a shot.

Conclusion

Uncertain times call for creative measures, and hopefully we’ve provided a few for use in remote audio collaboration. However, don’t think the workarounds stop here: you may have to find other creative workarounds to suit your needs. If that’s the case, please share your solutions in the Comments section—this is a time for all of us to help each other!

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I am sure that I will hear "The Weight" sometime today on SiriusXM, but I googled Robbie Robertson and YouTube showed up in the search results with "The Weight | Featuring Robbie Robertson and Ringo Starr| Playing For Change | Song Around The World". It was entertaining and interesting to hear musicians from around the world contribute to the song.

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