4 creative approaches to remote collaboration for musicians

Whether it’s long distances or a global pandemic that keeps us apart, remote collaboration can be a gift to our creative lives and personal wellbeing when being together in the same space isn’t possible.

In a previous article on collaboration, we discussed practices that nurture a mutually positive experience in a traditional context. This time, we’ll explore approaches to collaborating remotely. While there are a variety of technologies that have made virtual collaboration possible in the internet age, there are still countless questions that surround the creative process as it relates to this model. In this article, we’ll be focusing on exploring approaches that surround the creative process as it pertains to remote collaboration.

1. Dividing work by elements

One of the most straightforward approaches to virtual collaboration is for each member to contribute a distinct element (or group of elements) in the musical pyramid. In a three-person collaboration, for example, member A could produce the drums and bass, member B could produce the chords and atmospheres, and member C could contribute the melody or vocals.

In this approach, you can clearly identify who is responsible for what and where the boundaries fall. Ambiguity of boundaries and roles can be the downfall of collaborations—especially virtual ones where it’s not always clear how to put one foot in front of the other.

2. Dividing work by role

An interesting alternative to highlight each collaborator’s area(s) of expertise is dividing work by role or stage in the production process.

For example, if member A is an expert sound designer, perhaps they could build the sound palette and session template for the group to work from. Member B might be the strongest composer in the unit, and so they can compose all or most of the audio / MIDI in the session.

With the help of features like the clip view in Ableton Live, it’s easy to create lots of raw compositional information while leaving things open to interpretation in terms of sequencing. Maybe member C is the most adept in the group when it comes to arrangement, so they can be responsible for sequencing the compositional bits they’ve been provided and mixing them to their final state.

This process follows a similarly organized approach where boundaries are established and there’s little room for confusion in regards to how to move forward, even under the constraints of physical separation.

3. An exquisite corpse: Interactive editing

The ‘exquisite corpse’ method—a creative practice used across artistic mediums pioneered by the Dadaist movement in the 1920s—takes the opposite approach by breaking down boundaries altogether. If everyone in the collaboration is comfortable with having their contributions heavily altered by their collaborators, an open forum of uninhibited editing across contributors can produce very interesting results.

When applied to a musical practice, an exquisite corpse might look like the following: Member A could program a MIDI pattern that member B changes by adding and subtracting notes. Member C might then change the voice of the instrument from a piano to a sine wave synth.

The outcome of this approach can be a production in which it’s difficult to distinguish who did what. In this sense, it encourages a true merging of creative visions, and a result that would be truly impossible to imagine by any individual in the collective. The potential conflict or sensitivity that could arise with one person editing another’s work is conveniently eased by the fact that people aren’t doing this in real-time in the same room together. The relative anonymity of one’s actions is conveniently facilitated by the remote aspect of the collaboration. Beautiful things can happen when the lines of authorship blur, and as result, the unity of a collaboration thrives.

4. Working by sections

Another process that can be applied to remote collaboration is each member completing distinct sections of the composition. Following a pop song structure, member A could write the verses and leave the choruses to member B. If the desired arrangement structure is less formulaic, member A could compose the first two minutes, leaving members B and C to interpret their beginning and compose minutes two – four and four – six respectively.

The outcome of this collaborative style can be a production with a journey-like narrative. Surprising twists and turns might be the result of different minds picking up where their collaborators left off. This mixed-narrative style of composition is made possible by the asynchronous nature of remote collaboration, and points to the unique possibilities of working across space and time.

Hopefully you’ve found these creative approaches helpful in forming a mental framework for your own collaborations. Are there any other approaches for remote collaboration we missed that you’ve found success with? Let us know in the comments below.

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January 24, 2022

Erin Rioux Erin Rioux is a record producer and co-founder of the New York label Human Pitch. As a member of the Splice team, Erin creates sounds and content.