All things home studio recording related

Making Music in the Cloud (Indaba vs Bojam vs Soundation)

It seems everything is going into the cloud these days.  I think, in general, that’s a great trend to see because there are a number of advantages that centralized computing and data storage have.  Not every application is a good candidate for moving to the cloud, however (at least in the near term….as broadband gets faster we’ll push more and more of what we do to centralized hosts), such as those that work with large single files like video editors (the processing could technically occur on the server-side just fine but you wouldn’t be able to view the changes rendered in real-time because current broadband isn’t fast enough to stream something as large as uncompressed HD video well).  Music production is right at the cusp of what works well in the cloud…audio files are technically small enough to stream just fine without significant latency but even the best online DAWs today don’t yet offer anything close to the functionality that traditional local DAWs like Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Live, etc have.  Despite the simplified functions of these apps (or perhaps even because of them) there are already  hundreds of thousands of songwriters working together in these online studios.

Why would you want a DAW in the cloud?

OS Independence:

I’ll sound like an old man when I say, “I remember the day when  you chose an operating system and that determined which music apps you were destined to use!”  In fact, I still use different apps when I’m on my Mac than when I’m on my PC because they aren’t available on both platforms.

Just as websites look essentially the same from any operating system you’re viewing them on, applications will eventually look and work the same across all platforms as you access them through your browser.  This is already tremendously helpful to me when I use Google Docs and Wordpress to create/publish things without caring which of my five computers (windows/mac/linux) I’m working from.

Simplified/Consistent Setup:

When I setup my music apps  on a computer today it takes me hours to install, configure and test everything to ensure it all works the same across my various computers (so that I can pass project files between them).  An advantage of online apps is that the installation is handled professionally on the server side and you only need to configure things once to be able to access and work in the app the same way across various computers.

Application / Plug-in Renting:

A lot of great music applications and plug-ins are simply cost prohibitive for a lot of people and that leads them either to use cheaper alternatives that may not result in the quality they want for their music or they turn to piracy to get the tools they feel they need.  A great model in the future for music apps is to essentially rent them out to users on a monthly (or maybe even hourly, similar to studio time) basis.  That way a band that just wants to record their songs this month but tour around the rest of the year doesn’t have to choose between buying expensive applications that they’ll seldomly use and going into a professional studio.

Standardized Platform for Collaboration:

Studio work used to be a fairly solitary experience but I think we’ll see it increasingly become more social as musicians are able to connect and work with each other and their fans directly.  There aren’t a lot of good solutions yet for collaborating remotely with your friends on music (there are some though and I’ll address those in a post later in the week) and it’s mainly because everyone’s configuration (or application) is different so project files vary in compatibility across them.  Centralizing everything makes it easier to collaborate with people in the same environment.  This will be one of the most important changes to songwriting/production we’ll see over the next ten years.

Social/Publishing Integration:

Working in a web-based system will make it all that much easier to share your work with people so you can get immediate feedback from fans and collaborators (better to find out that your tune needs a tune-up right away, maybe before you’ve even shut the browser down, rather than later!).

File Management:

I wasn’t always as organized as I am now and I’m reminded that every time I see all the folders on my computer titled ‘Sort’, ‘to sort’, ’sort2′, ‘miscellaneous’,misc3′, etc that are absolutely full of song ideas that I’ve long lost.  I was the same way with Office documents until I started working  exclusively in Google Docs and it hasn’t taken me more than a couple seconds to find anything I need ever  since.  Centralizing your files makes them easier to manage and less likely to get damaged/lost/stolen (though I maintain that any good cloud app should allow you to make regular backups of your own for good peace of mind).

Is this the death of the traditional DAW?

Absolutely not.  Far from it.  The reality is that cloud based studio apps just aren’t there yet.  I’m going to outline a couple of the better ones below but they are mainly geared for amateur songwriters/hobbyists (though they’ll brag that they have big name music celebrities using them…though my hunch is that is more promotional than a sign that professionals are ditching their old apps and big studios) that have very simple needs from their sequencer.  There is no online app that is ready to replace your Live/Cubase/Logic/ProTools/etc setup.  Five to ten years from now maybe we’ll see that those applications have moved server-side but I don’t expect we’ll see online efforts from them any time soon other than project file collaboration similar to what Live 8 now has.

The big player in the space so far: IndabaMusic.com

Indaba claims to have nearly a quarter million registered users already but they have been around for several years which makes them the grand-daddy of the online music app world.  A quick search at compete.com shows Indaba drawing at least 75,000 unique visitors per month lately compared to less than 2,000 or so for competitors Bojam and Soundation (granted, Bojam is still in Beta and Soundation is practically brand new).

Indabamusic clearly draws the bulk of the online DAW users

Indaba describes their site as a place to:

  • Create a personal profile, blog, share music and photos
  • Find musicians from around the world, get hired, or create virtual bands
  • Work with our advanced web-based digital audio workstation (DAW)
  • Compete in featured programs with major artists

And includes key features such as:

  • Recording: High-quality audio recording directly to Indaba
  • Clips Library: Choose from hundreds of Creative Commons-licensed loops
  • Real-Time Effects: Chorus, reverb, EQ, flanger, and more.
  • Online/Offline Use: Use the console anytime, anywhere.

I won’t spend too much time regurgitating their pitch because you can (and should) visit their site and take the tour to see for yourself.  What I will say is that it may be one ugly looking DAW but it works remarkably well and is probably the best app out there for what it does.  I’m not enthusiastic about the pricing model but I suspect the bang for the buck will just get better over time as they keep developing it (and as more competitors move into the space). Most of the features that you really need to get the most out of it (including loops, effects, offline access, video chat and reasonable storage (the free version gives you only 100 mb)) come in the ‘pro’ package that currently runs $5/month or $50/year.  They also have a ‘platinum’ package for $25/month or $250/year that allows you to work on unlimited songs.  A better model in my opinion would be to offer that ‘pro’ package as the free one, subsidize those users by running an audio ad or two every half hour or so like Spotify does and then charge a few bucks per month to rent various plugin bundles that add functionality.

Indaba is a good app already but it’s main appeal to me is as a sign of things to come.  They’ve proved that cloud based DAWs do work.

Another good online DAW: Bojam

Bojam is very similar to Indaba but they’re still in beta so they haven’t rolled out their premium services yet (which I assume will look similar to Indaba’s, but we’ll see).  The DAW itself felt a little clunkier to me than Indaba’s but it impressed me nonetheless.  One thing that stood out as interesting is “the ability to embed a mixing widget in blogs, social networks and websites where users can remix and edit audio from within the embeddable widget.”  It remains to be seen if that’s something that fans actually want to be able to do with songs they’re listening to but I generally think interaction is a good thing so I applaud the effort.

Great online loop editor: Soundation

Soundation from PowerFX is the youngest of the bunch and differs in that it’s just for editing loops, you can’t record audio tracks into it.  My bet is that they don’t intend to add the ability to record audio tracks in the future either because PowerFX is in the loop business (they’ve partnered in the past with Apple, Cakewalk, Yamaha, Sony, Propellerheads and Ableton) and not having to deal with recording makes their system much easier and less costly to manage so even if they draw less users in they will probably do as well as the fuller-featured apps I’ve mentioned. So they just do loop editing but they do it really well.  The interface is surprisingly nice and it integrates well with their online loop store where you can get content to work with (loop bundles include 20-30 loops and cost $4.99).

“Soundation Studio is the web based sequencer that enables you to make music, ringtones and audio clips directly from the internet without downloading any software. This beta version includes over 400 royalty free audio loops, 9 different effects, track automation, basic loop editing, loop audition, master channel control and mix down to desktop.

Some of the new virtual instruments are:

  • “Simple”, a 4 oscillator synth with Saw, Square, Sine and Noise waveforms complete with Amp and Filter envelopes.
  • “Mono”, 2 oscillator synth with a mix pot to blend the saw and square waveforms.
  • “SuperSaw”, 7 oscillators with Detune, Spread and Amp envelopes.
  • “Drum Machine”, with 8 classic 808 style sounds and individual drum sound settings for Gain, Pitch, Hold and Decay.
  • “Noiser” is a white noise generating synth with an Amp envelope for the romantics in us all.”

Soundation has a good blog and a better set of tutorials than the other applications I’ve mentioned.

Conclusion:

Cloud based DAWs are great for users that value collaboration over functionality.  They’re great tools to use as sketchpads for your songs even if you eventually record your final work in a traditional DAW on your computer (as a Mac user I love Garageband for sketching but could see myself using these online apps when I’m on my PC since they’re similarly simple to use).  Being able to essentially rent music apps and plugin bundles in the future by accessing them in the cloud on a monthly/daily/hourly basis is very promising though it won’t work until the apps themselves contain the kind of professional features users are accustomed to in their traditional DAWs.  Making the recording process more social and collaborative is an important change and, as someone who has worked for 19 years in a fairly solitary home studio, a very welcome one as well.

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