June 15, 2011
"You have your head in the clouds!" How many times did you hear that one when you were growing up? However, cloud computing is no longer a daydream, and it's changing the way people create music, store their files, collaborate, and share their work with the general public.
By Emile Menasasché
Cloud techology lets individuals use the Internet as a personal computing and storage system, adding a new dimension to the digital music universe.
A "cloud" is a system that makes the combined storage and processing power of a large collection of online computers available to users who connect remotely through the Internet. Once you're logged into the cloud, you use your own computer (or mobile device) to send commands to the offsite network. The software itself-as well as the CPUs and memory need to run it-exists elsewhere.
Google docs (docs.google.com) is one example. Once you access it with your web browser, you can use it to write documents, create spreadsheets and presentations, and more. You don't need to install a program like Microsoft Office; as long as you have an Internet connection, the software is waiting for you. This is known as software-as-a-service, or SaaS, among the tech guys.
"'Cloud computing' is a stepping-stone term for what the future holds," says Chris Kantrowitz, founder of Gobbler, a cloud service that allows users to store, back-up, and share multitrack audio projects. "Ubiquitous storage and computing power is available at your fingertips any time any place. Cloud computing will be called 'computing' before you know it."
Services like Google Docs make it easy to collaborate. If you opt to share the file, other users can access and edit it. This can be handy for anything from lyric co-writes to keeping track of band expenses to sharing a set list. And if your mobile device can access the Internet, the files are available to you wherever you are (very handy for cribbing lyrics just before a set).
Google's Chromebook, which was set to launch shortly after we go to press, may make cloud even more accessible. Reports say the idea is to eliminate traditional software by offering a compact device with an operating system and net connectivity; everything else will run from the cloud. While there are still things to iron out-for example, how do you use it when you're not online-these cloud-oriented mini-computers are starting to catch on.
Typical business documents require relatively little computing power or storage compared to audio files. A 16-bit uncompressed audio 44.1kHz audio file will take up about 5MB per mono minute (double for stereo). Higher resolution files are even bigger. Even relatively small files like MP3s are pretty large.
But while music production still relies on powerful host computers and local storage, cloud computing is starting to play more of a role, both as a tool for backing up and sharing projects, as well as for limited forms of Internet collaboration.
If you've ever worked on a project remotely-or sent tracks to a client via the Internet-you probably already use things like File Transfer Protocol (FTP)-which allows users to access a remote hard drive and upload and download files-and services like YouSendIt, Mozy, or DropBox to send and receive large files.
These tools all work well, but they're not specifically designed for audio. Music projects are particularly challenging because there are so many parts to a typical song. A multitrack project will have the raw audio files for every take, the project file, and-depending on the software-other files (such as fades) that must be available for the piece to play back properly. This doesn't even consider things like the presets used by audio plug-ins and software instruments; samples; etc. A complex mix might have thousands of files and take up several gigabytes.
Gobbler lets you organize, tag, and store entire music projects.
Gobbler (gobbler.com) is a storage and collaboration tool that uses the cloud-along with a widget on your host computer-to catalog, organize, and back up your work. What makes Gobbler different from other backup services is that it's pro-audio-software savvy. At press time, the program was compatible with most of the major Mac OSX music applications: Pro Tools, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic, Garageband, Reason/Record, Digital Performers, Reaper, Live, and StudioOne. Windows compatibility should be available by the time you read this.
Once you download and install Gobbler, you must sign up for an online account in order to use it. The service will be free until the end of this year. In 2012, the company plans to charge users monthly subscription fees starting at around $9 per month.
Gobbler communicates with individual music programs through what's known as an API (application programming interface). The API tells Gobbler which files are associated with what projects on your hard drive. After you launch the widget, the program can scan any hard drive connected to your computer and catalog its music files. Click on a project file, and the software will list all the audio files that go with it. Even better, if you select the project file itself and click "backup," all of the associated files are uploaded to the cloud with the project file.
Gobbler helps you organize your work by tagging project files with descriptive terms, which you can later search from within the program. So if, for example, you've got 30 or 40 different files in Reason, Pro Tools, and Live all associated with one film score, you can tag each one with the project's name and then see in an instant everything you've done on that score. You can even launch the project from within Gobbler's interface, and use it to bulk tag and upload audio to the music service Soundcloud (see below).
Because the files are stored online, you can then access your material from your main computer or from a remote machine; the program can store multiple versions, enhancing your backups should anything go wrong. This also makes it easy to share complete projects with collaborators. Gobbler reports that its backups are extremely secure against both data loss and theft. "It's way safer than your own hard drive," says Kantrowitz.
Gobbler launched as a beta in November of 2010, and was offered to the public. At press time, the service has about 5,000 members.
Clouds on the Horizon
Cloud programs are also making music distribution more interactive. Soundcloud (soundcloud.com) allows musicians to upload and share tracks. Users get a unique URL for each sound file, so files can be embedded on any HTML page or included as links in posts to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Various widgets let you streamline the uploading and downloading process, while mobile apps allow you to control the service on the go. One of the coolest features is the ability to place comments at specific parts of a song. So if you're working with a co-writer, you can actually put a little note on the turnaround or bridge with praise, advice, etc. You can also use these tags to show lyrics. Another thing setting Soundcloud apart from services like Reverbnation, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr is the way you can record directly from your browser and upload your work immediately. That sure beats using your voicemail to store ideas.
Indaba.com offers online collaboration where you can create projects, upload files, draw from an online loop library, and invite others to participate. The service includes Mantis, a realtime online remixing program.
Still in its beta stages at press time, a cloud service called Ohm Studio hopes to make a fully-fledged digital audio workstation available to cloud users, complete with editing, mixing, plug-ins and more.
But until connection speeds and data rates make their next dramatic leap, the cloud will be more useful for loading, storing, sharing, and playing files, rather than recording complete projects in real time. "The physics of electrons travelling across wires or light pulses across fiber-let alone the inefficiencies of sending packets of data from one point to another using the Internet-make it unlikely that you'll be jamming without latency with someone across the globe anytime soon," says Jack Freudenheim, software developer, producer and member of with 46bliss. "But sharing sessions with collaborators over the web, and backing up local sessions for safety's sake - these capabilities hold great promise for musicians, producers and studios alike."
"Bandwidth issues will be solved over time," Kantrowitz concludes. "And once this occurs, most, if not all, media creation will be done in the cloud. Unlimited storage and processing power will give even the most amateur media creator access to tools once only available to the most sophisticated users. Audio recording is likely to go to the cloud as soon as audio files are not as taxing on internet pipes. For the time being, there will be instances where a local computer and storage will be required. Over time, tools will be created which will allow people to access and work with those assets directly on the cloud."