Cloud sounds: What the latest tech revolution means for the future of making music

As cloud collaboration changes expectations, the music industry is primed for disruption. A new breed of cloud tools is enhancing how artists in separate locations create beautiful music together.

There are 8,325 miles between Morristown, New Jersey and Mysore, India, and for Jamie Campbell and Sunil Sandeep, not a single one of those miles matter.

Sandeep can sit on the floor of his room in front of his Mac and speakers, surrounded by prints of his photography on his wall, and work with Campbell, whose home studio is well-lived and populated with guitars.

Sandeep writes poetry, and sometimes Campbell helps him put it to music.

They're friends, they're musical collaborators, and they've never met in person, yet they are connected by music, even if they might never play in the same room.

In an instance like this one, there's an invisible third party at work: the technology that enables two strangers on different continents to be buddies.

For Sandeep and Campbell, the major technical force that facilitates their interactions is the cloud, and not just the cloud, but Ohm Studio, the first real-time collaborative digital audio workstation (DAW), from French company Ohm Force.

Sandeep always wanted to be in a band. One way or another, it just never happened for him.

He did, though, find the camaraderie he'd been looking for. Ohm Studio is where he met Campbell and an online community of musicians with varying levels of experience, happy to help a motivated novice.

Campbell has been making music all his life. For the past decade and a half, he's recorded local artists in his home studio. He also gives music lessons in guitar, drums, bass, and electronic dance music (EDM).

When Sandeep figuratively wandered into Ohm Studio, Campbell showed him around and the two have since forged a bond, not only through working together but in what amounts to hanging out a lot. Campbell alone can easily log 20 hours a week on Ohm Studio. He's a regular presence on Ohm's internal chat window.

"I really feel like Ohm is my social network," he said.

Campbell and Sandeep aren't unique to Ohm Studio. Rather, they're a case true to the original intent behind the software.

"We want to stop saying to musicians that they should do everything alone," said Ohm Force CEO Franck Bacquet. "That's too sad."

Ohm Force started in 2000 with a handful of engineering students and an art student who liked playing video games and making music. Drawing inspiration from multiplayer videogames, they thought they'd take a shot at creating something that functioned in a similar way, but for audio production.

It was a lot easier conceptualized than constructed. The shorthand now for explaining Ohm Studio is saying "It's like Google Docs for audio editing," but in 2000, Google Docs was still years away from reaching the public.

Plus, not all of the Ohm Force crew really knew what they were doing. CTO and lead architect Raphael Dingé had to learn how to code from another founder, Laurent de Soras. (For reference, de Soras is the one on the Ohm Force company page wearing a bow tie but no shirt.)

The idea that a group of young guys with little experience could eventually tackle the problem of real-time collaboration, a problem that's still eluding some of the heavyweights in tech, lends the air of an admirable underdog to Ohm. They're definitely not the corporate set. Community manager Grégory Makles joked that Bacquet is the CEO because he's taller and knows some martial arts.

Bow ties and martial arts aside, in order to get the company off the ground financially, Ohm Force started making audio plug-ins. An audio plug-in is like any other add-on software component, except in the audio world the functionality is related to things like processing and synthesis of sounds. They can be virtual instruments or effects like reverb, delay, filters, distortions, and more.

Ohm's first big effort, while the office was located in one of the founder's flats, was OhmBoyz (most of their plug-ins are cheekily named — Frohmage, Symptohm, Ohmicide), a plug-in for stereo multi-tap delay.

Sitting around a small black table at the Advanced Audio and Applications Exchange (A3E) conference in Boston, Massachusetts some 14 years later, Dingé remembers releasing it and reading the first comment on the product.

"This is shit."

So were sales. They sold about 10 units in the first year.

He and Bacquet laugh now. At the time, it was less funny.

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Franck Bacquet stands outside Ohm Force's first real office in 2006. The signage advertises French Fries and kebabs.
Image: Ohm Force

They've steadily grown their reputation and resources. When they finally moved their office out of Bacquet's and Makles' flat, it was to a building whose signage advertised french fries and kebabs, meaning those in search of food were occasionally confused when they found a bunch guys on computers instead of lunch.

These days, advocates of Ohm Force plug-ins are plentiful. Grammy-award-winning electronic musician and producer Stuart Price is a fan of OhmBoyz. Other artists have adopted other Ohm Force products like Ohmicide, a plug-in for multiband distortion, which has recommendations from electronica artist Skrillex and Tom Rowlands from the Chemical Brothers.

"I just wanted to make something the Chemical Brothers would use," Makles said. Job done.

While the plug-in business has been good to them, it was never the main goal. In 2007, they were finally able to turn their attention building Ohm Studio.

The bare description is this: Multiple users can work on one project at the same time, adding or editing tracks with little or no delay.

Ohm Studio gets at a deeper concept, though.

Throughout the years, musicians have always found ways of circumventing distance. As a notable example, ten years ago, the now-platinum selling duo The Postal Service named their project after the means by which they swapped CD-Rs loaded with what would become their one and only album, Give Up.

However, the distinction that Makles makes between that type of collaboration and what happens on Ohm Studio is that the former is still a chain of alternating solo processes.

When a band, for example, has the benefit of being in the same room, the process of collaboration is immediate and it's deeply social.

"Music is by nature a collaborative process, and what DAWs have been doing for 15 years now, maybe 20, is promoting an exception in music history — making music alone," Makles said.

People have gotten used to the idea. In some ways the ability to do work alone has democratized music making and introduced the phrase "recorded in his bedroom" into countless press releases. But if the birth of DAWs promoted isolation and gave shape to some of the worst fears of the recording industry's old guard, a DAW like Ohm Studio could counteract that.

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Makles looks at it like this: "You don't party alone."

To put this philosophy into action, Ohm Force had to figure out from scratch how to get users on the same document.

That's where Flip comes in. Flip, a data model API, is the functioning heart of Ohm Studio. Instead of a sequential workflow, which gets messy with multiple users working off different versions of a document, they built a parallel workflow so that multiple users could work on the same document at the same time without conflict. When using a model-view-controller, Flip manages the model. Undos and redos are never written over each other, meaning that users can always retrieve an earlier state of their project from along a timeline.

It took years to refine.

"When we started Ohm Studio it was really a big problem because we were trying to convince people at the beta stage — people would just go there, spend 10 minutes and leave. They wouldn't return," Dingé said.

Ohm Force was learning that users expected higher quality and greater support from a DAW than a plug-in. Aside from establishing automatic error reports, one approach they took to understand what users needed was asking them to record videos of themselves using Ohm Studio.

"We would ask them to just connect the brain to the mouth and say whatever was going through their head," Dingé said. Whether it was profanity or constructive criticism, it helped them suss out snags.

In one case, Ohm Studio added a zooming user interface via double click. The videos revealed that users couldn't figure out how to exit the zoom. The fix? Adding a small button to zoom out.

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Ohm Force hopes to license Flip to applications looking to integrate real-time collaboration.
Image: Ohm Force

They also created a chat window on Ohm Studio. Users might catch someone from Ohm like Dingé or Makles, but they're as likely to get the help they need from fellow users. Or, they can find new collaborators, like a real drummer, and thereby replace samples with humans.

Now with 100,000 users in the "cohmmunity" and only two bugs in the past two years, Flip is stable, and Ohm Studio facilitates on a daily basis the kind of cloud-based collaboration its founders envisioned even before they were thinking strictly in terms of the cloud.

On Fridays, Ohm hosts collaborative events. They state a rule, like make a track at a given BPM, or a track that uses some form of narrative, and the Ohm community sets to work, joining each other's projects and adding to them.

"I've seen songs pulled together over night. I left it in one state, I went to sleep, I woke up the next morning and here was this amazing song," Campbell said. "There's no thrill I get like that, and to see that being done."

And that's part of the idea. The ability for people to create together fosters not only an educational experience, but a connection between people who might never have met, let alone worked together.

"I'm mostly homebound, I'm disabled, and that's my window into a world of music. I know that other people on Ohm are in similar situation, and it really is like a Godsend for me," Campbell said.

Collaboration culture

Ohm Studio, and really any other tool aimed at cloud collaboration in music, still has a few hurdles to clear, not only technological but cultural.

The fact is that the cloud's convenience and storage functions have been in use for a while, though just not in name. Studios started using FTP sites to swap files more than a decade ago.

But now, the potential of the cloud and what it could mean for recording and collaboration is expanding, and not without a predictable mix of optimism and unease as happens whenever the tech tides change.

One place where the sticky relationship between tech and its decentralizing effect on the way music gets made is in the midst of a flare up is, Nashville, Tennessee, particularly, Music Row.

Once the main artery of the country music industry in Nashville, Music Row in 2014 is itself a flashpoint between the way things were and where things are going. Studios and publishing houses, long nested in formerly residential houses are losing ground to modern buildings, the kind that don't belie quite as much that the industry is not as cozy as it seems when it's tucked away in house that looks like your grandmother's.

RCA Studio A — slightly less famous than Studio B where Elvis recorded 260 of his songs, but still historic — was about to become a luxury condominium until a local philanthropist saved it in early October. The threat has now shifted from merely destroying the aesthetic to watering down the industry presence.

Even country music, which is arguably the last vestige of the music industry's classic label-centric structure, is unwinding and spreading out to other pockets of Middle Tennessee and beyond (including section A of the New York Times). Finally, an area as legendary as Music Row — greats from Chet Atkins and Elvis and to Willie Nelson and Roy Orbison worked and recorded there at various points — is no match for the diminishing importance of place.

Whether that's a positive evolution is completely up for debate.

"What I did other than go and pick up hamburgers for people, was I ran tapes around town. I was basically my own FTP site."
Strother Bullins, editor, Pro Audio Review

Lynn Fuston — an engineer for several decades and the technical editor for Pro Audio Review Magazine — said nothing really makes up for a room full of musicians who can see up close each other's every bop, twitch, and pick. During a recording session this past summer, he looked at the folks in the studio — all veteran musicians. "There were 200 years of experience in that room," he said.

The reason why that matters is simple and intuitive. As Fuston put it, when a bunch of musicians are in the same room together playing, things happen.

Strother Bullins, editor of Pro Audio Review, can see a dividing line that falls somewhere around the 40-year-old marker. Many engineers who are younger either came up during the shift away from analog, or came up in the industry afterward. Many who are older had to go back and completely change how they worked, and adjust to a process that's sped up and spread out.

Concerns center around the idea that treating recording and mixing like a marathon where the baton gets handed off rapidly from one runner to the next, degrades the overall quality of the music.

"I don't think it's because people want to work separately, I think they work separately because the tools are available, and there's an expectation now that because you can use the technology to make things quicker, that that's just what you should do," Bullins said.

Every decade or so, some new technological innovation comes along that will absolutely destroy music. By 1923, the record industry was pitching fits about radio. Making music available for free to the masses would surely bleed the industry dry.

When Bullins was getting going in the recording industry in the 1990s, analog was death rattling.

"What I did other than go and pick up hamburgers for people, was I ran tapes around town. I was basically my own FTP site," he said.

The tape runner, amongst other roles, died out by the proliferation of new technologies in the industry.

People are more than capable of picking up their own burgers, and what's more, the rise of home recording studios means that many of them don't even have to go into a studio to work anymore. Online distribution of music cuts into the need for everything from record stores to the truck drivers who once delivered albums to those stores.

You can't blame folks for battling waves of nausea at the prospect of yet another technological shake out.

But whether it's the radio or MP3s, there's also a noticeable trend in which people first panic, and then forget it was ever a problem.

Take the DAW — for the uninitiated, this refers to a digital tool built for recording, editing, and otherwise producing audio files. Instead of hunching over splicing bars with razors and tape, engineers hunch over their computers. Though analog has been gone long enough that it's cool again, for the most part, working with audio means working with some type of DAW, and there's a decent chance it's Pro Tools from Avid.

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An A3E panel on the cloud. Avid's Tony Cariddi (far left) and Ohm Studio's Grégory Makles (second from right).
Image: A3E LLC: A3Exchange.com

Rich Tozzoli was one of the early adopters of Pro Tools, before it was the industry standard. An engineer and composer for television shows like Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars, he's the type of audiophile who can describe the room you're sitting in based on the sound quality of the phone call. Learning and using Pro Tools helped get him on the road with Emerson Lake & Palmer, a British prog rock supergroup active in the 70s and the 90s.

"One day Emerson Lake & Palmer, all three of them were behind me in a hotel room, looking at Pro Tools for the first time," he said. The willingness to adapt quickly has pushed Tozzoli though his career, whether it was working with a Mac, ProTools, or Surround Sound.

He's struck up a relationship with technology that's very specific: "What technology allows you to do, if you know it well enough, is get it out of the way," he said.

Rigs of varying complexity accompany Tozzoli wherever he goes, including to St. John in the Virgin Islands on a recent trip with friends and fellow musicians. He composes according to his environment.

"When we were in the islands, it obviously inspires you with all the colors and the light," he said. So whether inspiration strikes in the studio or in a rented house in the cliffs of St. John, tech is the invisible means by which he gets what's in his head out into the world.

In the end, any fears that technology will isolate musicians and engineers, and cheapen or dilute the quality of music will either come to fruition or not depending on how those musicians and engineers decide to use it.

Multiple clouds on the horizon

Regardless of how anyone feels about the cloud, the industry knows this much: Everyone will be using it, and soon.

"Certainly within the next five years, you're going to see all the major DAWs incorporate some kind of collaborative experience," said David Mash, senior vice president for innovation, strategy, and technology at Berklee College of Music.

"What DAWs have been doing for 15 years now, is promoting an exception in music history — making music alone."
Grégory Makles, Cohmmunity Manager, Ohm Studio

At the A3E conference, multiple panels focused on cloud collaboration. Taking a look down the table at the "Cloud Collaboration and Production" session, in particular, it was quickly obvious that current approaches differ greatly.

In addition to Ohm Studio, there was Boston-based platform AudioCommon which deals, in part, with communication and collaboration during the recording and mixing process, Avid, which is launching its new platform Avid Everywhere, and WholeWorldBand, which is a video-based application for creating songs.

With respect to Avid, the company has been working on Avid Everywhere, a platform that corrals their tools.

There are three suites: artist, media, and storage, along with Avid Marketplace, which is a means of sharing files publicly or privately during the creation, production, or monetization processes.

Within Avid's MediaCentral Platform is Pro Tools Cloud Collaboration. The DAW has text and video chat inside projects. Multiple users can work on a project and changes are added and accepted on a track by track basis.

"We're not here to fight the gravity of the momentum that technology has," said Tony Cariddi, marketing director for pro audio at Avid. In trying to address the needs their customers have, using a cloud workflow was part of the solution.

Another player is AudioCommon. Artists can work and communicate securely with producers or mixing engineers by marking up tracks with production notes. They also offer a more fan-facing side geared toward music discovery.

Then there's WholeWorldBand, a platform that works a lot like its name suggests. A user can upload a video of themselves singing a song, for example. Other users can enter his or her session, perhaps pay a dollar, agree upon copyright, and add videos of themselves maybe playing drums or guitar. The platform stitches the videos together and the result is essentially a music video comprised of people from anywhere in the world collaborating on a piece of music.

The platform is loaded with musicians of all types, and touts participation from The Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood, Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, and The Police's Stewart Copeland. It's enough to make anyone giddy, the idea of playing with someone like Ronnie Wood, even if he doesn't know it. Though, according to Rodney Orpheus, WholeWorldBand's vice president of business development for EMEA and Asia, and a member of English electronic rock band The Cassandra Complex, sometimes he does.

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Ohm Force's Franck Bacquet, Raphael Dingé, and Grégory Makles in front of their booth at A3E.
Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

Not long ago, Orpheus heard from a user who had logged into his session to find that Wood had added a guitar solo. Mystified and perhaps a little confused, he asked Orpheus how they'd managed to arrange this. Orpheus had no idea what he was talking about. It turned out that one night, Wood got bored, signed into WholeWorldBand, and randomly started adding guitar solos to other users' sessions.

"Just think, you wake up one morning and you've got one of The Rolling Stones playing with you," Orpheus said.

This type of use of video hints at a potential future evolution in music collaboration. The last big challenge to cross (after dealing with ye olde compatibility issues between platforms) is refining telepresence to the point where musicians either across town or across the world could track in real time.

It seems like an obvious step, one that might allow for the type of interaction Fuston talked about with the immediacy and intimacy of playing in the same room.

The biggest obstacle to making that happen is latency. The internet just isn't fast enough yet for audio to go from Nashville to Chicago and back in real time. A few milliseconds of delay could turn a tracking session into an unworkable situation.

In the voiceover industry, Source-Connect does allow for real-time tracking, both Cariddi and Tazzoli said, but there's less of a need for totally perfect timing.

"You're not doing it multitrack like you're tracking a remote orchestra, with 100 tracks at a time, and you're hearing it real-time across the globe," Cariddi said, "but, you can get a voiceover and you can get a single or stereo instrument."

Mash sees the other prohibiting factor as a mix of awareness and education about new capabilities as they arise.

"I think musicians at this point are at the forefront of the movement of embracing new technologies and faster, quicker ways to share content, because they're the creators, and you can't do without the creators," Bullins said.

And in that mindset, there are bound to be a host of hacks involving pre-existing tools like GoPros, or even Oculus Rift, all bent toward the continued chipping away of time and distance. There still exists enough vagueness of potential to make the more tech-savvy lovers of interaction tingle.

"That really sparks creativity, so the extent that the technological barriers begin to come down will make physical presence less of a problem," Mash said. "You could have the same kind of experience together with telepresence as you do with physical presence. I think that's a really exciting world of the future."

At A3E, though, the consensus among those on the panel was that the ability to track in real time via the cloud isn't necessarily what any of them are chasing after. On a professional scale, it's hard to say that having that function would solve any current nagging problem like needing to have a control room in New York and a live room in Berlin, Cariddi said.

There's also an argument to be made, though, that some of the best innovations are the ones society didn't know it needed.

Cariddi said he thinks that technology will eventually allow for real-time multi-tracking, and perhaps within a few years.

It might still take longer and feel as if there's a long way to go. But as Tozzoli said, "There was a long way to go in digital audio when we first started."

For Ohm Force, looking at the next 5 years or so, they've got a few things in mind. Version two will hopefully feature an offline mode, video track, 64-bit support, and features including overdubbing, loop recording, comping, and auto-punch — all to add extra polish and functionality.

"You don't party alone."
Grégory Makles, Cohmmunity Manager, Ohm Studio

The Ohm team is also making a bet that given the increasing demand for collaboration within applications, and just how difficult it is to build it into an already-existing app, Flip will see life beyond Ohm Studio through licensing to other software companies.

It's a smart move. They're not going to unseat Pro Tools, but again, that's not what they set out to do.

Aside from making Flip the go-to tool for integrating collaboration into applications, they're also looking at what they could do in the mobile space, and how that could reach musicians who have never recorded themselves — it can be an intimidating process for the inexperienced.

Bacquet said they think it doesn't have to be that way. Bringing recording to mobile devices, a platform most are comfortable and confident with is a solid bridge for musicians, or singers who might start off using the microphone on their mobile device, and gradually ease into more sophisticated approaches, especially when given the chance to work with more advanced users.

"Mobile could reach people with a non-technical profile," Dingé said.

For now, Cariddi likened the balance between in-person and digital collaboration to the type of mood-dependent preferences any musician, like a guitarist, might experience.

"As much as you're going to want the ability to do really cool things in the privacy of your home where you can get into a very creative headspace, you know how fun it is to go somewhere where there are a bunch of guitars out, and play with people," he said.

Instead of replacing the desire to be in the same room, he sees tools like cloud collaboration as extending it. "It certainly doesn't jeopardize it or threaten the fantastic experience you get when you're in the same room and you're playing music with other people."

After all, there's one main reason someone will always pick up an acoustic guitar if it's sitting in the corner at a party, and play yet another excruciating cover of "Free Falling." It's the same reason people pack themselves into dark, crowded venues and muddy fields under a blistering sun to risk being sweated on and shoved around. Together is better.

As long as that idea remains core, there's reason to look forward to the future of music tech.

"Music's always been a collaborative thing," Orpheus said. "You go back 10,000 years and it's still a bunch of guys standing around playing drums."

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About

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.