Rocket Power

Producers at all points on the globe can hook up in real time by taking a ride on the virtual-studio express

"It’s music at the speed of light," is songwriter, producer and Planet Audio Studio director Rod Gammons’ glowing assessment of Rocket Network’s Rocket Control and Rocket Delivery software systems. For early adopters like Gammons, such digital audio products are revolutionizing how CDs and soundtracks are made.

Rocket Network takes the music and sound production process one step closer to virtual space, picking up where ednet leaves off. While ednet is a vast hardware network that streams full-quality audio tracks in real time over ISDN lines, Rocket Control is a storage and delivery system that enables producers, engineers and artists to collaborate at anytime, from any location, via a high-speed broadband connection. Rocket Delivery "ships" the finished product rapidly and securely, also via broadband.

"Rocket Control enables simultaneous multiuser access to dynamically updated files over a secure connection," Rocket Network chairman and founder Will Henshall says. "What that means in plain English is that someone can be using a Rocket-powered application, log onto Rocket Network and work on a session with someone, anywhere in the world. They are seeing the same session at the same time, and all of their updates to any single item are made simultaneously by Rocket’s servers’ connection."

Sinead O’Connor, Thomas Dolby and Lucky Dube were the first to benefit commercially from Rocket’s capabilities and doing so live on the British TV show "Tomorrow’s World." Two years ago, the ad hoc trio recorded and mixed a charity record before an audience of 18 million with O’Connor and the producers in London, Dolby in San Francisco, and Dube in Africa.

Henshall, a former record producer, engineer and member of the early 1900s pop/dance group Londonbeat ("I’ve Been Thinking About You"), turned his sights toward developing Rocket after waiting one too many times for session tapes gone AWOL or those that would be conversant with his own equipment. Henshall believed that ISDN was too expensive and convoluted a solution, and the Internet was inherently ineffective as a media delivery device. Working with company president and CEP Pam Miller, chief technical officer Matt Moller and a team of software developers, he developed Rocket’s answer to the quandary: three data centers and communication, compression and storage software systems.

Rocket Network is not sold directly to professionals but rather is hosted by digital audio production applications including Avid’s ProTools, Emagic’s Logic Audio and Steinberg’s Cubase. Users access Rocket technology while working in these programs, with ProTools offering the most deeply embedded version. Avid, which has a vested interest in Rocket Network and a seat on the company’s board, markets Rocket Control and Rocket Delivery under the DigiStudio, DigiControl and DigiDelivery banners.

Alex Steinhart, Internet product and services manager at Digidesign, the Avid division that produces ProTools, describes how Rocket Control-powered applications work: "One user creates an online session, uploads his work to the servere and invites other users to join in; no one can come in unless invited. The other users receive an e-mail invitation to log on, and then they download the session to their computer.

"Then the participants start adding tracks," he adds. "If one user creates a new keyboard track and wants to share it with the others, he uses the ‘Share Selected Track’ feature function, which automatically sends the track up to the network online session. It notifies the other users with a blinking arrow that there (has been) a change to the session for them to download."

All session members can upload and download every new passage, complete with plug-in effects, and can work with unerring precision as new data drops into place in the background.

Jeff Roth owns the San Francisco-based postproduction studio Focused Audio, where he mixes the soundtrack for the animated TV series "Phantom Investigator" on ProTools. The cartoon’s producers live near Roth’s facility, but one of the composers works in Los Angeles and the other in Des Moines, Iowa.

"When the composers send me cues, it’s not just a list of files as it would be with FTP," Roth says. "I don’t have to pull in 15 cues and look at a sheet of paper to see that this one goes here, that one goes there; I can continue working, and the cues end up sitting exactly where they are supposed to sit–frame accurately synchronized to the film."

Producers and Artists using Rocket Network

Connected: Clockwise from above left, Planet Audio's Rod Gammons had to get Wyclef Jean's vocals on a track for "Two Can Play That Game" form London to New York, where Melky and Sedeck were recording, ASAP.

Rocket Control users can send their tracks with the aid of proprietary "lossy" or "lossless" compression software. The lossy codec delivers highly compressed data in a matter of seconds, while the lossless transmits full-quality audio twice as fast as uncompressed data (a three-minute pop song takes about five minutes with DSL). Rocket’s system offers an auto-reconnect feature that detects dropped connections and resumes communication exactly where it left off.

Jamie Rosenberg recently finished co-producing, along with Jed Lieber, John Oates’ CD "Phunk Shui," set for release today. After recording some of the tracks in New York, Rosenberg returned to his Aspen, Colo., studio, where he collaborated with Lieber in Los Angeles using Rocket-powered applications.

"Jed and I used the compressed software when we wanted to hear ideas," Rosenberg says. "He would play something, send it to me and say ‘Do you like that part?’ It’s very good quality; it sounds like an MP3. When we finished the keyboard parts, he sent me the full-quality version to mix, which took longer to receive."

The process is the same for all Rocket-equipped workstations; all they require is an active account with the application manufacturer. The only limitation, Henshall and Steinhart say, is that users of ProTools can collaborate only with fellow ProTools’ users–and the same is the case with Logic Audio and Cubase.

But Gammons, whose state-of-the-art London music and soundtrack facility and music library houses ProTools, Cubase and Logic Audio (and a cache of other equipment), has found a way to flex the system.

"You can translate one session into another session by running the applications side by side," he says. "We run Logic Audio and ProTools on the same Mac station at the same time and have one online, in session. We move the audio around between the two seamlessly, with no loss of quality or technical problems."

Gammons, who wrote and produced Beverly Knight’s 1998 U.K. No. 1 hit "Sista, Sista" and composed the soundtrack to the 1996 sci-fi telefilm "Within the Rock," recently traversed applications for a collaboration between Wyclef Jean and Brian Harvey, former lead singer of the early-‘90s British boy band E17.

That was not Jean’s first brush with Rocket, with Gammons behind the wheel. The star hip-hop singer performed with his sister and brother (the eponymous duo Melky Sedeck) on a song for the 2001 comedy movie "Two Can Play That Game." Jean’s siblings recorded the single, "Kitty Kat World," in Manhattan, and Jean participated at the minute while on tour in London.

"The track had to be delivered to the studio the next day, and it was a Sunday evening, trans-Atlantic time," Gammons says. "The guys at Rocket produced miracles and arranged for the New York studios to become Rocket-powered. They helped them post the session onto the Net, and then we logged on, uploaded the track and recorded and mixed Wyclef’s vocals. The whole process, front to end, took less than three hours."

Rocket Control’s sister application, Rocket Delivery, is a 2001 addition to the network. It enables finished audio tracks to be delivered swiftly via broadband e-mail, with banking-level security. Rocket Delivery does not require specialized audio workstations and can transport any complex data, including motion picture footage and graphic files. Like Rocket Control, Rocket Delivery is available only through Rocket’s resale partners.

"All you need is an e-mail address and a copy of the application on your computer; to receive is free," Henshall says. "Rocket provides the sender with bit-accurate e-mail confirmation that the information received is identical to what was sent to the server."

In Nice, Grammy-winning producer-songwriter Simon Climie recently recorded and mixed a duet between a France-based diva and Carlos Santana, who is working on his next album in Los Angeles. Country singer-songwriter Gina Fant-Saez, a former New York resident, continues to compose music with old friends from her new studio in Texas.

But what about the creative combustion that can occur only when jamming in the studio?

"Everyone wants everything immediately in our business," says Climie, who co-produced Eric Clapton’s critically acclaimed recent albums, "Reptile" (2001) and "Riding With the King" (2000). "I was reluctant at first, but there is no sacrifice in sound quality. I am a realist; 90% of the time, there isn’t the budget to pay for the travel. Then, it’s a missed opportunity."

Says Roth, "There is a paradigm shift toward electronic facilities. I used to have a large studio with four edit rooms and four mixing bays, and now I can reach out to other editors and bring them in on projects. We don’t have to work concurrently in one facility; it’s all about having a studio of virtual rooms."

Hollywood Reporter, August 20, 2002