A lot of people make the bassline (huehue) assumption that multiple musicians working together is automatically a band. While the vast majority of multi-man musical acts do come in the tried-and-true form of live-performance groups, the picture is much blurrier in the realm of electronic music characterized by digital production and playback. Due to the relative ease of collaborating piecewise with an individual thousands of miles away via the internet, you see things like features, remixes, and group handles all over the place. While this article is mostly aimed at getting into the “collab” side of things, most of what’s covered can be applied to anything similar enough.
So let’s dive into what a collab actually is, how it can help you grow, and how to manage the development of one!
In music, collaboration is a very general term referring to the combined efforts of multiple artists in the creation of a joint work, who are then credited together with the culmination of their efforts. Artists who collab often may opt instead to use a shared label, which is the driving motivation behind the distinction of the title of band. However, there are more specific subcategories for instances when the work is mostly one-sided. A feature, for instance, is when a collaborator contributes in a manner that is typically controlled by the principle artist in order to add a certain element of flair to a track that’s already been given direction and development. A remix is generally identifiable as a reimagining of another artist’s work combining elements of both creators’ styles. This is slightly different from a cover (which isn’t really seen as a collaboration), firstly because a cover is supposed to be a more true-to-form replication of a better-known track, and secondly because there is typically very little reason to cover a work that can’t or won’t be performed live. An exception to this commonly seen in the chiptune community is the reproduction of a classic tune on alternate hardware with the intention of capturing the spirit of the original work as well or as creatively as possible given the different medium. Generally you get permission from the original artist to remix a track if you’re both active members of the same scene, but covers are more or less a free-for-all because you’re simply performing an existing work in your own way.
At the end of the day, how you choose to label your joint effort is entirely up you and your partner(s) in crime. Labels are mostly bullshit, but it’s important to at least be aware of the connotations of the words you choose. Here are a few (of many) great examples found throughout the Chiptunes = WIN Volume series:
So why should you give it a try?
Collabs are great. They provide a refreshing change of pace from your go-to creative process and force you to immerse yourself in alternative techniques and strategies. They typically make good learning experiences, as you can discover new ways to solve problems with the inclusion of unique perspectives. They help you identify your strengths and more effectively grapple with your weaknesses. Also, they typically result in some pretty kickass content. They can be a great way to network and make new friends in your scene, or a way to take on a new project with a close peer.
Personally, I’ve been involved in about 8 different collaborative efforts, some live, some over the internet, some using the same program, some using separate ones — very few of which actually resulted in the production of any polished content — and I learned something new and valuable from every experience. Even failure is terrific from a developmental point of view, because you evolve more by challenging yourself than from easy victories. However, my favorite and most complete collab is hands-down ‘Wrong Warp’ with Brick BRKer, which was submitted to Volume 7. A huge challenge associated with our project in particular was the organization of all the edits and layers that went into the samples, and keeping everything properly labelled and arranged so that everything didn’t explode as we rapidly passed new project files back and forth. There were some explosions but we learned to manage it all effectively before long.
With all that being said about development and growth, they also come with their own set of hurdles. The two biggest challenges involved with any form of collaborative artistic effort are going to be creative and logistical. This actually applies to a lot of different things, even in academia and the workplace.
Whenever peers work together voluntarily there is going to be at least a slight difference in vision. This is natural, and actually the main strength of working with other people! The important thing is to be open to new ideas and to try to build off of one another. Strive to amplify each other’s strengths instead of cancelling each other out. If you’re not super-crazy about a melody your co-conspirator put in, let them know constructively and try to edit and improve it together. Also, try mutually brainstorming ideas for the direction of the work BEFORE haphazardly splooging notes out onto a canvas – it’s good to have some things decided going in so everybody involved is on the same page. It’s not always easy to make two styles line up perfectly, so the goal is to meet in the middle so the loose ends can make knots as often as possible.
The logistics of collaboration refer to how the creators are able to combine their respective parts of the overall project. Even when this only amounts to swapping files, this is typically easier said than done – unless you can both use the same version of the same program with the same utilities. Then it’s actually pretty easy. Swapping files for the same LSDJ rom and most trackers is seamlessly straightforward, for instance. BGB is insanely useful for demoing each other’s .sav files, but you’re obviously not gonna be able to bring in any hardware mods that way. If you’re using the same computer-based DAW, just make sure you’re using the same versions of plugins, otherwise you’re gonna have a pretty bad time.
[bad time intensifies]
If you’re using different DAWS, it’s not unworkable – but I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot more effort. Always export your channels separately as high-quality .wavs (known as stems) and try to convert melodies to MIDI files wherever and whenever you can. It’s better to work on structure and composition fist and handle the instrumentation last, especially if you don’t have access to the same tools. And keep all samples, stems, versions, etc clearly labelled in a mutually available repository! Please! You’ll save yourself (and at least one other person) a brain aneurysm.
I’ve never heard of a DAW that supports multiple collaborators simultaneously in real time (a google docs DAW, if you will), so the best way to handle it if you want to literally work together is to meet up somewhere in front of a mutually familiar program and manage things that way. “24 Suns” from Volume 7 by Bleeds and Chipocrite was reportedly made on a Gameboy passed back and forth between them on a flight out of Melbourne (coincidentally my birthplace), which is hands-down the best way to spend a plane ride I’ve ever heard of.
Of course, with any work encompassing a performative element, there is a whole other set of logistical obstacles. The more people involved in a performance, the more likely someone is going to slip up. That why you have to practice a lot – like an SI metric fuck ton. It will easily be the most time-consuming element of the process, but you definitely want to guarantee that you have your chops in order before you go up in front of an audience of people that could become your fans (or boo you offstage like a button masher on Guitar Hero). Granted, in a studio – even if that studio is a bedroom or garage – you always have the convenience of recording parts and sections individually and splicing them together – that’s how I prefer to handle it personally [because I’m a gigantic wuss], although it’s good to get in the habit of doing things in one take if your plan is to actually perform your music live one day.
Oh hey! And while I have you here thinking about collabs, let me take a minute to stir up some hype for an upcoming compilation coming out of the A Bit of Chiptune community. Titled “Rxx” and covering the theme of descent, it features original works from 10 different artists, and I have it on good authority that at least a few of those will be collabs! ;D The release is slated for the end of November, capping off autumn for those of us in the Northern hemisphere.
If any of you reading this are trying to break out of your shell and work with someone new, seriously consider visiting the ABoC discord server and reaching out through their #collabs channel. That’s where the idea for a collab compilation got off the ground in the first place and with enough interest, hopefully it can be a recurring thing!
Oh, and a bit of statistics: Of the 10 collabs on the volume 7 release (the most of any!), 2 were features, 4 were full-on collabs between individual artists, and 4 were produced by bands or collaborative labels. Looking at all 41 collabs across all volume releases, we find that 27% were features (or remixes), 17% were full-on collabs, and the remaining 56% were collaborative labels. Also, the number of collabs on each volume has been remarkably consistent at about 5 per, with the notable exceptions being Volume 5 (with 7) and Volume 7 (with 10[!]), which is a jump to 200% of the average! This means that the average number of artists featured on an individual volume release is about 57! Hopefully we see many more in the coming years.
Hope you enjoyed these numbers; they took surprisingly long to grind through. Also, fun fact: the liner docs are full of little treasures and very worth checking out. :]
Cheers, friends! \m|♥|m/