South Wales’ producer Ceri Charlton shares his experiences of almost 10 years of online music collaborations, talks about his methods and tools…

Ceri Charlton is from Barry, an ex-docking town in South Wales, UK. He’s been doing online musical collaborations over the last 10 years and has some interesting experiences/feedback to share. In this interview he explains which tools and methods he used at the very beginning – with him and his partners running on Fruity Loops – and how things evolved to his current method: he and his partner already working on Reason 4 and planning to go for Reason 5 as soon as it’s released. He also talks a bit about the mixing process in a collaborative environment and which features he’d like to see on the Ohm Studio. You can listen to Ceri’s most recent collaborative productions here, they will make a nice soundtrack while you read the lines below…

Who are your musical partners and where are they from?

The main guy I work with at the moment is called Straker and he’s from Worcester, which is just over the border from me, in England. In the past, I’ve collaborated online with people from all over the world, Australia, Holland, Germany, Sweden, France, America, Chile.

So online collaboration has been a important role on your musical path?

Very important indeed. I think that’s one of the benefits of the internet from a social point of view is that you can “meet” people who you’d otherwise never bump into. From a musical point of view, this is particularly important. A lot of people talk nowadays globalisation and cultural homogenisation but, unless you live in a big city, if you have any sort of niche or indie musical tastes, you’ll really struggle to meet significant numbers of people with the same interest. Of these, only a small proportion will be making music that you’re into, so your prospective ‘partners’ are fairly limited. The internet takes away these restrictions that your physical location imposes.

At the beginning, how was using Fruity Loops for your collaborative productions?

I think the first thing I ever collaborated online with was Fruityloops 3.xx.xx, one of those really long version numbers that contained all the details of the patch level! In terms of collaboration, one of the best things was being able to save a file containing all samples used as well as the actual track itself and then ship that one zipped file off to whoever you wanted to share it with. Prior to that, it was limited to exchanging CD-rs, and even floppy disks with a very small group of school friends.

The other nice thing was that it came bundled with some samples, FX and synths, in one particular collaboration, we agreed to stick to just these, to keep files sizes down (so that it was mainly just a glorified midi file and patch data being sent).

Both these things were such big benefits and gave so much freedom to edit/tweak the other person’s material that at the time I only really sough out collaborations with people who would work in Fruity Loops too. I remember experimenting with ‘remixing’ style collaborations where the other person gave you a set of .wav files and (if it wasn’t obvious) the bpm/time sig information and you then built a track around that. In comparison, that was terribly limited.

In terms of the pitfalls of using Fruityloops, it was mainly filesize for tracks containing a lot of samples or .wav files. Bear in mind that this was in the days before readily available high speed broadband and diskspace in general was at more of a premium. The options for filesharing were much more limited too and we used to often resort to FTPing files between people as they were too big for email. Being a geek, this came fairly naturally to me, but I imagine to a lot of more classical musicans, with no particular affinity for computing, it must have been incredibly offputting.

The other big problem was the dread “xxxxxx VST not found.” Error. You load up someone else’s track, they have been using a plugin you don’t have and you just end up with note data. If they had labelled their tracks well, you could take a stab at something similar: EG if it was called “Organ melody” you could load another synth with an organ patch in and assign it to that note data, but it often wouldn’t fit with the other sounds. The manual workaround I used was to try and load it, ID the tracks that didn’t work for me then ask the other person to send the .wavs of those tracks to me. Sometimes, you’d even get it that you both had the same VST, but just slightly different versions/patch levels of it and even if the particular VST offered backwards compatability, Fruity Loops wasn’t clever enough to see they were the same thing. So then it was a case of having to get the person to mail you the patch for that VST, then manually load an instance of your version of the VST against that channel’s note date, then import the VST patch.

Of course, both parties could have these problems (as neither possessed the same VSTs as the other), so it meant a lot of bouncing back and forth, particulary if you start adding other VSTs to the mix half way through as the track progressed. None of these things were insurmountable, but the manual workarounds robbed you of so much time it was unreal. I don’t mind taking hours doing something that directly tweaks the sound, but when all you effort amounts to is “opening the track as the other person heard it”, it was really frustrating.

And when the collaboration comes to the mix part, who mixes the track? You tried to somehow make it together or one of you took care of it alone?

It varied from person to person. My least favourite ones (from a creative process point of view) consisted of someone dumping ‘half a track’ in a wave and sending it to me for me to fiddle with. So I’d end up adding the ‘missing’ parts to it, mix/master it and then say “right, that’s the finished track”. The ones that were most rewarding were where you could make those little tweaks and send it back and forth half a dozen times. Those afformentioned problems with doing this in the early days meant that this was only really practical where you had a single self-contained file with no large samples.

Still about the mixing part of a track production: do you think that it could be ever possible to make this task collaboratively? In other words: do you think that it could work 2 or more people working together in a mix simultaneously? Or is the kind of task that could only be well done if done individually?

Whenever me and Straker meet up in the real world, we usually use a Roland VX 2040 digital mixing desk for mixing; parts get bounced off into this from laptops (or direct from guitars, etc.) We then add final effect within the desk and sort of mix as we go with regards levels, etc. Usually Straker takes the lead on this (his desk and he knows it best), but I’ll sometimes chime in with something like, “can you roll off the high freqs on that cowbell a bit more”.

In terms of a physical desk, this works quite well. You both stand next to it and you can see what the other person is doing. With software, I’ve always bounced it back and forth. Usually one person does it, or we have a go one after the other and then we’re both happy with it. My concern with software, where it occurred in real time would be being able to see what the other person was doing so I could focus on that one part in the mix and listen whether their tweak made it better or not.

Regarding a nowadays DAW and its buit-in effects, what are the most fundamental effects for you, those you can’t make your music without them?

I think if I could only choose one, delay would be it. So many other fx are effectively variations on delay or manipulated delayed signals that it just seems very fundamental to me. The past couple of years, I’ve done a lot of Dub Techno for my solo work and it’s very important for that. I love old tape delays in particular: my hardware RE-20 Space Echo is probably my favourite bit of outboard FX.

Compressors are great too, particularly for more dance-oriented stuff, or something minimal where the kick stands out. Unless mastering, I tend to only use ones that allow wet/dry mxing (or that I can route in the DAW to the same effect). I like strings of a few different compressors, usually in series, but occassionally in parallel, with just a subtle amount applied by each by turning if close to dry. The overall sound is very big without being sludgy and it works great with basslines and kick drums.

What kind of collaborative feature you dream about and would like to see on the Ohm Studio in near future?

Somehow make easier the process of matching setups and plug-ins. The way I’d envisage it working would be that Ohmstudio would be able to do a lookup of all your VSTs/plugins (based on the ones that it was already aware of from your defined VST directory). It would then catalogue which ones you had. For a given track/project, it could then look at which ones you had, compare these with your friends’ list and then identify who had a plugin that the other didn’t and bounce it to wav and include it in the session automatically. Where it could get really clever, is by shipping the “full catalogue” info of all VSTs a user had (rather than just the ones used by that project), along with it. Then, when the guy I’m collaborating with gets the project, he won’t just see which VSTs I used in the project, but he’ll see which other VSTs I have. So if he too has them, he won’t be deterred from using them for fear that I don’t have them…


2 Responses to “South Wales’ producer Ceri Charlton shares his experiences of almost 10 years of online music collaborations, talks about his methods and tools…”

  1. July 1, 2013 at 13:02

    Your style is so unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this site.

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