The premise: an engineer in London hits record; a guitarist in New York hears the backing tracks through their computer and plays along. Back in Blighty, the guitarist's performance is recorded directly into the engineer's DAW.
Too good to be true? Well, Steinberg has in fact been enabling us to do this for a little over a year, thanks to VST Connect SE - a pair of plugins included with Cubase 7 - and the freely downloadable VST Performer application for the musician being recorded.
The original VST Connect SE is fantastic, but it does have a few drawbacks, the first and foremost being audio fidelity. Due to the inevitable bandwidth limitations of even the highest-speed internet connections, recordings made with it are compressed in order to achieve a glitch-free tracking experience. Additionally, SE isn't geared up for multitracking. These limitations (and more) are addressed in this new "full" version of the software, VST Connect Pro.
Like its SE sibling, VST Connect Pro comprises a pair of plugins at the engineer's end: the actual VST Connect Pro interface and a diminutive VST Connect Cue widget used to shuttle cue information. You need to be running at least Cubase 7.06 to use it.
Operation is simple. The engineer creates a session and a login key is generated for the performer, who has to run the aforementioned (free) VST Performer app. Two-way video and audio chat is initiated, and VST Connect Pro and Performer are linked.
Assuming your internet connection is fast enough, that link is pretty solid. Make no mistake, though, you're in for a bumpy, frustrating ride if your connection is in any way slow, erratic or undependable. Fast, wired connections are definitely recommended. Using the intuitive VST Connect Pro GUI, the engineer can control the Performer side's mix, including the application of reverb, compression and EQ.
By our reckoning, the most important advantage of VST Connect Pro over SE is the ability to handle high quality audio files. It comes with a caveat, though: real-time recording still involves the transfer of compressed files, but the recording is now also captured uncompressed on the performer's machine, with the audio files retrievable by the engineer at the click of a button, duly inserted into the right places in Cubase at their end. Obviously, this involves significant file transfer time, but it's certainly vastly preferable to being stuck with the compressed versions.
The other significant benefit is the ability to record up to 16 tracks at once. This is a crucial addition that allows recordists to realise one of the technology's most obvious purposes: recording drums remotely. Until now, bedroom musicians, project studios and semi-pros have been forced to compromise when it comes to tracking the drum kit.
VST Connect Pro gives the isolated engineer the ability to remotely access great-sounding rooms in far-off studios, as well as availing themselves of those studios' mics and engineering skills - assuming the studio is happy to install VST Connect Performer, of course.
Multitrack recording is handled in much the same way as single-track recording in VST Connect Pro, although it requires switching out of the "easy" interface, and oddly, once you do so, you can't switch back without restarting the app. This isn't a bug - it's mentioned in the manual. The biggest difference with multitrack recording, of course, is that you'll have a lot more files coming in when you download your HD audio.
New to both SE and Pro is the ability to send and receive MIDI data. You can call up a professional session pianist and have them do their thing, tracked to your own Instrument Track. For auditioning purposes, the performer can even play VST instruments running in Cubase on the engineer's side with little perceivable delay.
However, they'll need to monitor their own instruments once playback or recording is started, as the inevitable latency brought into play by VST Connect Pro during the recording process kicks in. Fortunately, the most recent version of VST Connect Performer makes it possible to do this with the much-needed addition of VSTi support.
VST Connect Pro also operates over LAN, making it an intriguing proposition for operators of large, multiroom studios. Oh, and the security-conscious producer will be glad to hear that all transfers are encrypted.
This new version of Steinberg's remote solution answers every reservation we had with the SE version. We used it to track a number of musicians in various locations across the length and breadth of the US, and performance was 100% solid and reliable using a cable modem. In fact, we now find ourselves looking for excuses to put the thing to work! It's well worth the asking price for collaborative musicians at all levels - as long as they're running Cubase.