The Virtual Percussion Studio

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Allan Molnar

The music industry has undergone many technology-driven changes in the past 15 years. These changes continue to bombard us at an almost frightening pace, and constantly challenge us toand ways to give old ideas a new spin.

My opening paragraph is actually a quote from an article that I wrote for a 1995 edition of Canadian Musician. I was, at that time, a high school music and multimedia teacher in Toronto, and the technology that I was writing about was the then-popular and affordable ADAT digital recording system – a modular S-VHS tape-based digital recorder that facilitated the recording of digital audio tracks in home studios without breaking the bank!

The Continuing Evolution of Technology
Fast forward to 2007 and the release of Apple’s iPhone. The introduction of this technology literally changed the way we interact with each other and proved to be a significant game-changer because of its versatility of use. This “new spin” on our existing, pre-smartphone cellphones transformed our mobile devices into, among other things, cost-efficient portable audio and video recorders. This innovation paved the way to our ability to create virtual ensembles … without breaking the bank!

What Is a Virtual Ensemble, Exactly?
Let’s begin with a bit of related history. As we all know, YouTube has evolved into an amazing resource for just about any subject we can imagine. It has also become an invaluable platform for showcasing creative musical expression.
One area of interest for me is the impressive abundance of self-produced music videos that have been posted to YouTube by individual multi-talented musicians who arrange, produce, perform, and record all of the instrumental and vocal components themselves. Two notable musicians who have posted such offerings are Giulio Carmassi and Jacob Collier. This popular process of creating and sharing self-produced music has greatly influenced the development of what we now call “virtual

A virtual ensemble can be described as an audio/video recording that has been created by a group of musicians who first record their individual parts in isolation on their smartphones and then submit their finished recordings to an editor who compiles all of these component parts into a single performance.

Virtual ensembles have been embraced by music directors at educational institutions of all levels and by amateur and professional musicians who all wish to continue creating music with their students, friends, and colleagues at a time when gathering together in the same physical space is not an option.

The process of creating a virtual ensemble is relatively simple…

1. Select an appropriate piece of music and provide a written arrangement.

2. Create a quantized MIDI guide track. (Don’t forget the click track!)

3. Distribute these resources to your remote studio musicians.

4. Each musician records and then submits their parts to the editor for assembly.

5. The editor consolidates, synchronizes, and mixes the audio/video performances.

6. Share the finished product. But make no mistake; it’s also a challenge!

But make no mistake; it’s also a challenge!

Recording Drums & Percussion
Percussionists are typically a versatile group of musicians who also happen to be natural doublers. The ability to record a drum set track and then add auxiliary percussion tracks to the mix is a skill that has often given them an edge in the world of commercial studio recording. The same applies to the process of creating virtual ensembles.

When creating your virtual ensemble guide tracks, I recommend that you begin with your drummer/percussionist. Make sure that your drummer stays with the backing track throughout the recorded performance. Once done, remix your guide track so it includes the acoustic drum track(s) before sending it out to the rest of the musicians. This is the best way to lay the foundation for your project.

Networking & Professional Development
Ongoing professional development is a must in our profession. The ability to adapt our knowledge base to rapidly-evolving technologies can be a challenge, but the rewards are immense. I personally spend a lot of time studying audio and video production, but when it comes right down to it, it’s all about the music!

I have served on the faculty of the KoSA International Percussion Workshops for 20 years and have collaborated with KoSA director Aldo Mazza on a wide variety of virtual projects dating back to 2004. The professional development and networking opportunities that KoSA provides are priceless.

My presentation at KoSA 2020 was on the topic of creating virtual ensembles. We created a virtual ensemble that featured KoSA participants along with faculty members Chester Thompson, Marcus Santos, Bill Bachman, and Aldo Mazza on drums and percussion with me on vibraphone. This was a great way to celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary!

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily stalled our opportunities to gather together for the purpose of playing music; our ability to replicate this process by creating virtual ensembles may not be perfect, but for now, it’s definitely the next best thing to being there!

Allan Molnar currently lives in New York City where he freelances in the music profession and teaches music production and jazz at Lehman College in the Bronx. Allan is the producer of the Johnny Pacheco Latin Music and Jazz Festival at Lehman College.

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