Musicians have collaborated since the earliest musical instruments were made, some 40,000 years ago, but it’s only recently that they’ve been able to do so without ever meeting each other—in real time, on a phone, no less.
The last decade or so has seen breathtaking developments in software and data transfer technology, to say nothing of the emergence of social networking, smartphones, and tablets. At the intersection of these advances is a range of applications that allow musicians to work together remotely.
The following is a representative sampling—all having basic versions for free—of these exciting and powerful tools.
Since its introduction in 2004, Apple’s GarageBand has offered an easy way for musicians and non-musicians alike to create music on their Macs and to share it via MP3, Facebook, and more. The program, which is available for Mac or iOS (included with OS X El Capitan and sold in the iTunes store for $4.99), turns a Mac device into a fully functioning digital audio workstation (DAW), with a multitrack recorder and everything from software instruments to studio-quality effects, loops, and drum tracks.
GarageBand offers a number of means for collaboration. For example, using a recording interface or your Mac’s built-in microphone, you can create an acoustic guitar or ukulele track, for example, and save it to Dropbox, where it can be synched to the computer of a co-conspirator, who can in turn add a fiddle track that will be synched on yours. This remote back-and-forth can continue for up to 255 separate tracks.
The iOS app can even host a jam session: Through a shared wi-fi network or Bluetooth, up to four people can record tracks together in real time. In this situation, one Mac device acts as a host and records the session, while others can participate by pressing the program’s Jam Session button. All of the recorded tracks are linked together as a session. The catch: All players essentially have to be in the same location.
Trackd—a product of London’s Trident Studios, where rock iconoclasts like David Bowie and Queen recorded some of their most vital work—is a streamlined eight-track recorder app for iOS as well as a collaborative platform. (Full disclosure: My brother-in-law, Aaron Ray, is Trackd’s producer.) This app makes it a cinch to upload tracks and invite other musicians to add to them. The final results can be shared on a Trackd profile or via Facebook or email.
Ohm Studio is a desktop DAW for Windows and Mac that allows users to work remotely in real time, with all changes auto-saved and backed up to the cloud. While artists can use Ohm Studio to record in solitude, they’re able to seek out collaborators at any point in a project: users can check out other musicians’ work and invite them onboard for their projects, with everyone’s data synching seamlessly. Versions with advanced features, like 24-bit sound and lossless exporting, start at $44.
The web-based Soundtrap works on all platforms—essentially anything with a web browser—meaning it doesn’t require that software be downloaded. This DAW allows you to work on recordings wherever you are, using your own axe or a software instrument, alone or with a friend in real-time. Everything is mastered automatically and stored to the cloud for instant access. Subscription-based versions, which increase the number of features and available projects, are available from $3.99 per month.
An educational version of Soundtrap, from $4.98 per student per year, brings the flexibility of the program to the classroom—kids can record and share projects in the same way that they would with the original program. A highlight of the educational version is the ability of students and teachers to work together remotely through a built-in video feature—handy for group instruction as well as private lessons.
Another web-based application, Noteflight, is an engraving or notation program that allows users to input, print, share, and listen to music on a computer, smartphone, or tablet. In the free, basic version, musicians can create private scores, or invite anyone with an internet connection to contribute to them. At $49 per year, a premium account adds features like a library of 85 realistic instrument sounds and the ability to enter music with a MIDI controller. As with Soundtrap, an educational version, from $69 per year, helps make learning music fun.
While collaborative software opens up many musical possibilities, here’s something important to keep in mind: There’s really no substitute for playing with fellow musicians in the flesh, so don’t neglect that aspect of your musical life.