Remote Session Tools: An Overview from our Technical Services Team

On a normal day at Abbey Road we help artists from different parts of the world to write and record together, but what can we offer to them now when bands and collaborators are unable to be in the same location? We asked our in-house experts from Abbey Road’s Technical Services team to talk us through the remote sessions tools we use in the studios as well as their recommendations for online collaboration.
 
Simon Campbell, our Head of Technical Services says:

"In the scenario where a film director or producer is in LA say and wants to listen to their orchestral recordings in our studios, plus have the opportunity to proffer their feedback, we would use Source Connect Pro X a point-to point, multi-channel piece of software/plug-in with a feature to sync to picture. Otherwise, and for all types of session, we use Source Connect Now a stereo service accessed via the Chrome web browser which can currently host five participants. Both are bi-directional, very good quality, low latency applications which we almost always use on ‘remote’ sessions where a client is unable to be at the studios in person.
 
 
Historically the industry relied on ISDN codecs do to a similar job to Source Connect Pro X (mono or stereo only) but that’s being largely phased out for audio over IP technologies. Source Connect Pro X wasn’t without its teething troubles when we first started using it about 10 years ago, but that was largely the learning curve for us and the remote participant as both parties need to be configured accordingly. It can drop out every now and again, but connections are via the internet though it does have a VPN feature.

However, at the moment, the global IP infrastructure isn’t in place yet to reach the network speeds required for real time remote live collaborations where two musicians want to record in true sync, as a substitute for being in the same space."
 
Dan Cole, Technical Engineer adds: "Source Connect Pro X is best suited to studios or individuals with facilities and expertise to make the most of its unique features. But for collaborators simply wanting to listen and comment on a stereo session, it can be overkill.

Source Connect Now is sometimes a better fit. It’s free and has a neat ‘push to talk’ feature. This prevents users sending background noise/chatter if they don’t own switched talkback; crucial for keeping the stream clear for session audio. We prefer to run it on a separate machine from Pro Tools, although it can be bridged using the Source Nexus plugin.

Source Connect products do not auto-gain/compress, which is very important because you don’t want unwanted artefacts influencing creative decisions. Combined with their chosen codecs, the quality is much higher than your typical conferencing app (Skype, Zoom)

Real-time collaboration gets difficult when local musicians want to hear remote musicians during a live take, e.g. rhythm section in London, vocalist in New York. The latency of the internet will be a limitation here. A workaround is to monitor local pre-record stems/clicks and local live musicians during the take, then listen to everything on playback. Additionally, it may be desirable to record all PCM audio to one location. But then you are into the complexities of clocking multiple sites."
 
 
That said, with lossless audio over IP increasingly more common place, a solution is not too far from reality! “Check out this experimental session run by University of West London and Dr Paul Ferguson” points Dan. "During the session, the Radio Science Orchestra led by songwriter and producer Bruce Woolley recorded with musician Harry Docherty, each of them in a different location, with 400 miles distance between them, and all connected by Dante. There are tons of audio products on the market that use Dante. Dante Virtual Soundcard turns your computer’s ethernet port into a multichannel audio interface. It is a great technology when building a scalable studio, for both professionals and hobbyists.”

Scott Harker at UWL’s London College of Music observes, “admittedly, working in this way, with one of the musicians being 400 miles away was odd at the first rehearsal. Ultimately when it came to my mix, the routing and workflow, it was no different, just like any other room."
 
 
Simon continues: "Over the last few years at Abbey Road, we’ve got into audio over IP chiefly using the Dante protocol which works very well if we want to stream very high quality, uncompressed audio between the different studios in the building and a separate 10GbE network for that helps.

For those collaborating at home there are ways to work around the current latency inherent in the internet. Very recently I saw a news article where a choir and their members all locally recorded their part to the streamed backing track with a click then each sent their part back to the choirmaster/producer. The parts were all time-aligned using the click in the DAW of their choice and I thought the results were excellent. Otherwise, with the proliferation of DAWs and cloud storage I’d say there’s never been a better time for people to share their ideas and collaborate from home."