Remote songwriting – a poor man’s approach for bands

Posted 4 July, 2020

Remote songwriting is a concept with which I’ve become progressively more familiar in recent weeks.

See, I play in a band. That band is called Krupskaya.

Anyone who is familiar with our output may be inclined to argue that in this context, the words play and band should be interpreted in the loosest possible terms.

I may even be inclined to agree. But nevertheless, we do engage in activities typically associated with bands, such as: releasing music, going on tour, feeling superior to everyone else, barely tolerating eachother’s company, etc.

Many of these activities have seen their progress and pursuit obstructed by 2020’s front runner for ‘Dickhead of the Year Award’ (narrowly followed by ‘insert name of whomever you consider an afront to your ideals here’) – Covid-19.

For example, touring is pretty hard when you’re not allowed to do it. Don’t say I never share my wisdom.

Collaborating on songwriting however, is a different story.

Through the combined use of some free(ish) software and services, both Krupskaya and another project I’m working on are enjoying the benefits of an easy to use, synchronised, universal system for remote songwriting.

I figured this might be of use to others and so, welcome any band experiencing a similar creative standstill to adopt this approach.

Unless you’re crap. In which case just quit. We’ve got that market cornered and don’t need anyone else muscling in – thanks.

Onwards!

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Context, prerequisites and assumptions

The specific problems this addresses

Truth be told, I was piddling about with this idea before Covid-19 really hit. Both Krupskaya and this other project were already facing challenges to productivity. Covid-19 really just exacerbated the need for a solution.

To summarise those challenges:

  • Records have been committed to, thus material needs writing.
  • Band members live in different cities/towns – regular commute isn’t practical.
  • Demoing drum tracks in the studio makes for a slow process and limits iteration.
  • External commitments on an individual level means free time is increasingly scarce and doesn’t sync between members.

Many of these are part and parcel of getting older. Being in a band is pretty easy when you’re half arsing University, living with your parents and only working part-time. It might surprise you to learn that I’m talking from experience.

It’s not quite as easy when you’ve a greater range of responsibilities personally, professionally and folks who aren’t in bands don’t always recognise the work that goes into it. Tours across Siberia don’t just fall out of the sky and the work involved only increases as your spare time dwindles.

But if you enjoy doing it and want to keep going, your choice is quite simple:

Adapt or die.

Don’t whinge at me if this doesn’t suit you

Now to be clear – facilitating remote songwriting through a unified digital sharepoint is a subject upon which I’d done no research.

I assumed this would work and it did. Combine this formula with my chronic aversion to effort and you’ll find precious little reason for the approach to be improved/adapted any further.

I must therefore warn you that while everything below works perfectly fine for us, there maybe better alternatives out there for you.

You should already have some recording equipment

If you’re in a band, I’m assuming you already own instruments and some technical means of recording. Sorry if that seems presumptuous.

In respect of the latter – a microphone will do the trick. That was all my brother and I started with when using this process. Sure, it didn’t sound amazing, but it was good enough to start fleshing out ideas.

So while MIDI and basic track setup will be touched upon, a detailed overview of building a home studio – this is not.

Onto the actually useful stuff:

Getting sorted for remote songwriting

1. Setting up a shared drive

  1. Every band member needs to sign up to Dropbox.
  2. The Basic Package, is free of charge but limited to 2GB data. Again, for rough ideas this should be fine. Unless you’re Tool.
  3. Everyone then needs to download the Dropbox App and install to their machine.
  4. They’ll be prompted to pick an installation drive and I strongly advise selecting one which doesn’t house the Operating System.
  5. Designate one of the band members as your resident Nerd.
  6. Nerd must then browse to their local Dropbox folder, created when they installed the app (ie: e:/Dropbox)
  7. In here, create a folder called something along the lines of Song Ideas.
  8. Right Click this new folder and select Share.
  9. A new dialog box will open, listing the names/email addresses of anyone who can currently edit the folder.
  10. Nerd needs to enter the email addresses of every other band member who has signed up and make sure they are set to Can Edit.
  11. Once they accept, this folder will be saved to their machine.

You now have a cloud based, centralised drive which everyone in the band has access to. Next stop – Wembley Arena.

When one member saves something in here, Dropbox will sync those changes to everyone else with access to that folder.

Assuming they’re online, but more on that later.

2. Setting up your DAW

Having a centralised drive is fairly integral to remote songwriting. Having something through which you can actually record and arrange songs, is also sort of important.

A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is what you need next.

There are a number of these available. Alex (singer) runs Krupskaya’s studio and utilises Cubase. Riley (guitarist) does a lot of his own stuff with Pro Tools.

I use Reaper because for non-commercial use, it’s free.

At least, I think it is. The website states that the free version is limited to a trial period. But I used it for well over ninety before paying any money over and saw no change in functionality. I don’t know if I misread or ignored something, but it worked fine.

Every band member needs to head over and download the software before moving on to the next stage.

3. Setting up the Drums

If you want to demo guitar or vocals, it’s easy enough to plug a mic in and just record what you play.

Drums can be a little more tricky. They take up more space, piss off the neighbours and aren’t as well suited to just going through a single mic.

MIDI is a great solution for this.

If you have an electronic drum kit (as I do, thanks to my ever wonderful and long-suffering grand parents) you can plug straight in and record with headphones. If you don’t, you can manually write beats and skip actually playing altogether.

But in either case, you want to make sure that when other band members open your song file, they’re hearing the same thing as you. You need a VST (Virtual Studio Technology), which is essentially a digital version of an instrument/instruments which can be utilised through your DAW.

Again, there are many options available but in my experience, MT Power Drum Kit is the ideal solution.

Mainly because it’s free and the natural drum sounds are far better than I was expecting. It really can’t touch Superior Drummer 3 for sheer functionailty and quality of sound, but if you just want to get up and running with remote songwriting – you could do far worse.

So once again, everyone in the band needs to download and setup MT Power Drum Kit on their machines.

4. Creating/testing a song file

At this point, you’re basically good to go. You’ve got everything you need to record instruments (including drums), arrange your songs and have those ideas instantly accessible to the rest of your band.

But it’s worth creating a test song just to make sure everything is working and that the other members are seeing/hearing the same as you.

The aforementioned designated Nerd therefore needs to do the following:

  1. Open your Song Ideas folder.
  2. Create a new folder called Test Song.
  3. Open Reaper.
  4. Create a New Project (File > New Project)
  5. Save (File > Save Project As) this project in your Test Song folder, ie: testSong01.RPP.

So long as Dropbox is activate (and subject to internet connection quality), every member assigned to the Song Ideas folder will now see both Test Song and the Reaper project file.

If you want to make sure that the drums are working properly first, simply:

  1. In Reaper, create a track for your drums (Track > Insert Virtual Instrument On New Track…).
  2. A new dialog box will appear. Select VSTi: MT-PowerDrumKit (MANDA AUDIO) (16 Out).
  3. Click OK.
  4. Build Routing Information prompt will ask if you wish to add several tracks. If this was a high level recording I would say yes, but for just roughing out ideas I prefer to keep things simple. Click No.
  5. The MTPowerDrumKit splash screen will ask for a donation. Click Skip at the bottom right if you’re cheap. Like me.
  6. Sorted!
MT PowerDrumkit

Once setup correctly, you’ll see something like this.

Click any of the drums and you’ll hear some badass sound fired back at you. Assuming your speakers are on.

That’s all well and good, but you still need a means of writing beats.

If you’re using an electric drum kit, setup your MIDI and once you hit record your beats will come straight through. I had an absolute ballache sorting this out and my troubleshooting process was fairly heavy, so please give me an email if you need some help with that.

If you’re not, make sure your drum track is selected and click Insert > New MIDI Item.

A new sequence will appear on your track. Double click this, your MIDI keyboard will sit down the left and you can add individual beats where you wish for them to appear.

Norilsk is the world!!

Norilsk is the world!!

Sorted, you can write drums. I mean, unless you’re the drummer – you really shouldn’t. Because it pisses us off.

Once your beat is in, I strongly advise that you save the file and inform the rest of your band. Ask them to open the file on their end and check that the drums are working.

One important thing to remember, is that MT Power Drum Kit will be inactive by default when the software loads. So they might see the MIDI notes but upon playing the file back, hear nothing.

Everytime the software loads, they need to click the FX symbol on the green button you see below.

This will load up the MT Power Drum Kit splash screen, from which Skip can again be selected.

Sorted.

5. Minimising ballache

From a technical perspective – you are done. You’ve spent no money and yet, remote songwriting can now take place among the entire band.

The main issues facing you now will be on an individual organisational level. Such has nearly put a bullet between Krupskaya’s eyes on more than one occasion.

You need to be conscious of file access and conflicts.

For example, you might have two members opening the same RPP file at once. Or, several members might open the same RPP, make changes while offline and then create a conflict when Dropbox tries to synchronise them.

I’ve found that the best solution to these issues, is to employ a bit of common sense. Frightening as that might sound.

If you know you’re going to take a file offline, create a copy and work on that instead. You might even wish to dig into Dropbox’s settings and lock certain files until you’re done with them.

It’s nothing that can’t be solved with a friendly heads up to your creative collaborators. Communicate with the rest of your band and find an approach that works for you.

Or don’t. I probably won’t lose too much sleep.

Conclusion

Truth be told, I daresay many a muso has already established their own approach to remote songwriting that is quicker and easier than the above.

But like I say, for the situations my particular musical projects are in, this has worked really well and cost us nothing to get moving with.

If you do own an electric drum kit and are experiencing issues with getting MIDI setup, please do get in touch. I have broken, fixed, repeated my MIDI connection more times than I can remember (which is anything above three). In doing so, I’ve curated a fairly solid checklist of items leading to such problems.

I hope this is of use to some and as always, cheers for torturing yourself by reading this far.

Ta!