In 1957, while prohibited from traveling outside the US because of his political activism, Paul Robeson performed on a choral festival in Wales run by a mineworkers union. Yet he did not defy the McCarthyite attack on his freedom by traveling to the UK in person: Instead, Robeson participated from a New York City recording studio, sending his powerful, bass baritone presence over newly laid transatlantic telephone lines.
Though rarely mentioned in histories of music technology, Robeson’s performance reminds us that music making across distance is not a new phenomenon. But even though technology has improved over the decades since, including the growth of the internet, most musicians and teachers have had little interest in incorporating networking technology into their work.
That changed almost overnight with the coronavirus pandemic. Musicians wanted to play together, educators wanted to run ensemble classes remotely, and questions that were once curiosities became urgent: What software for low latency performance works best? What equipment is required? Does it work for large groups?
The good news is that under ideal conditions, it is possible to play tightly synchronous music via the internet with studio-quality sound, up to roughly 500 miles. But what makes for “ideal conditions” is sobering: High quality software is rarely simple to use, and good results require that each person have decent audio equipment and network quality. These are significant hurdles, given the cost of hardware as well as inequities in broadband access in the US.
Still, the best software programs currently available for networked music performance are not only evolving quickly, but are also free and open source. This is a crucial point. Like most new technologies, these tools evolve through a feedback loop among countless makers and artists. Rather than wait passively and allow a single commercial product to define the possibilities for us, we should explore them collectively, including diverse communities in the process. This is especially critical for networking technologies, since they not only depend on, but are fundamentally about our interconnectedness.
Latency and synchrony
Under ideal conditions, we can play music several hundred miles apart via the internet in tighter rhythmic synchrony than we ever could sitting across a large symphony orchestra.
This sounds absurd, but is true. The reason is that audio data moving across fiber optic networks can travel at nearly the speed of light, which is much faster than the speed of sound moving through air. Of course, achieving this requires work, including attention to aspects of music making that we rarely think about when playing in the same room. One of those is latency, a term for the time it takes sound to travel.
Latency is always part of how we experience sound, but we typically notice it only when it gets in the way of what we are trying to do. For example, in most video conferencing software, the one way latency between each person is often a quarter second or more. This is fine for a conversation, but not for many kinds of music.
How quickly must the sound travel in order for us to play rhythmic music together in tight synchrony, without either person sensing anything wrong or making timing adjustments? Research suggests the answer is roughly 30 milliseconds or less, one way. This is the latency we experience through air at a distance of roughly 30 feet (9 meters).
Although we have some control over our home networks, where we often have the most direct ability to control latency is in the hardware and software we use at each location. For this reason, since the pandemic, there has been an explosion of interest in this topic among developers, who are working to improve existing low-latency audio networking apps and create new ones.
These are exciting developments, but it’s also important to keep a wider view of musical synchrony. In addition to pushing the limits of tightly synchronous performance over networks, many of us involved with this field have also focused on creating new kinds of music that embrace latency and other aspects of networks as a creative challenge. We have performed many rewarding performances including intercultural collaborations thousands of miles apart, with multi-channel, high quality sound, and latency lower than a typical Zoom call. In those concerts, we have explored many strategies for dealing with latency, including music with a loose pulse or none at all, as well as multi-tempo and multi-ensemble rhythmic textures.
Current software options
This field is changing quickly, but here are several current software options for networked music performance and related applications.
Low latency software for performance
JackTrip is a high quality option, but in its conventional form, is also complex to install and use. However, it is now being extended in exciting new directions aimed at increasing ease of use without sacrificing quality. One is the forthcoming Virtual Studio web application, which will enable simple but high quality ensemble performance for those able to purchase the required small devices and accessories (at roughly $200 per player). And another is Quacktrip and Nettie McNetface, an innovative pair of free apps that use the JackTrip protocol but offer a more streamlined user experience.
Jamulus is another open source program with a large user base that has developed over the years. It uses compression and is less flexible than JackTrip, but is far easier to install and use, including a simple visual interface and helpful support forum.
SoundJack, like JackTrip and Jamulus but developed in Europe, has also been evolving over many years. It is free to use, and the visual interface is well designed for ensembles, but it is more complicated than Jamulus, and like JackTrip, it requires that you set up port forwarding on your network.
Jamkazam is one of several companies that have attempted over the past decade to market a proprietary hardware-software solution, typically a small box that consumers could purchase and easily use to connect with others on the same service. The user feedback I have heard on Jamkazam is mixed at best, so I cannot recommend it for high quality performance, but it might be worth trying if simplicity is the main priority.
Other types of software
These apps above and others are intended to prioritize low-latency audio, and many do not include video or other features. Some developers have created integrated audio-visual telepresence platforms, though most come with one or more limitations. Still, those on macOS computers might want to try Artsmesh, and if you are fortunate enough to have access to high-speed networks and costly equipment, you can explore LOLA.
If tight synchrony is not your main priority, other software might be a better choice. For example, musicians who make loop-based, electronic music might want to explore apps like Ninjam, that add latency in order to synchronize players within a shared metric structure, but in different measures. Alternatively, for remote, multitrack recording where reducing latency is not a goal, then the best choice might be a program like SourceConnect, Cleanfeed, or Audiomovers’ ListenTo. And if you simply want good sound without advanced features, Zoom recently added a “high fidelity mode” to allow uncompressed audio without echo cancellation, in response to music school faculty requesting the feature for needs like lessons and masterclasses.
Finally, if you want to record, add effects, or stream to an audience while using audio networking software, you will need to route audio into or out of other audio apps like Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), streaming encoders or video conferencing programs. This usually requires a dedicated routing application or a “virtual audio device.” Finding the best solution might take trial and error, but fortunately there are numerous apps available, including many free options.
Evaluating scale and complexity
To put together the information above and visualize the overall picture, it can help to think of a scenario more familiar to musicians: the recording studio. Imagine a studio with multiple isolation booths, each of which represents a “site” in your networked environment. To play a duo with a friend, you only need two booths, whereas if you want to rehearse an orchestra with 60 musicians, all playing from their home, you need a booth for each one.
In our imaginary studio, where each booth represents a musician in a different geographic location, each one is completely cut off from the others, with no sight lines, and connected through the internet. In addition to a mic and headphones, each booth must also have an audio interface, audio networking software, a wired internet connection, and if visual contact is needed, such as for a conductor, a video conferencing app and a camera/screen.
Essentially this is what we are doing in networked music performance, with the added complication that each site is not an iso booth, but someone’s home. Are there other people in the home making noise that will be picked up by the microphone? Is a family member streaming a movie or joining a Zoom call, competing for bandwidth? In a large ensemble context, issues like that at one site might add unwanted noise or distortion that the entire ensemble would hear.
We can also think of a recording studio’s control room to understand the role of a “server.” For a small number of sites, each might connect to the others directly, a mode termed “peer to peer.” But as the number of peers increases, all those connections become complicated to manage. A central server computer solves these problems by receiving the data from each of the sites (“clients”), and sending it out to all the others, in “client-server” mode.
If you also intend to broadcast the performance for an online (or even in-person) audience, it’s usually necessary to have someone in the role of a central producer, who mixes all the video and audio in a streaming encoder program.
For ensembles that require a conductor, it is also important to note that video requires even more data than audio, making it nearly impossible to reduce visual latency to the levels that are possible with specialized audio software. To make an in-person analogy, the conductor’s experience – assuming the ensemble is successfully using low-latency audio software, and video is transmitted through an app like Zoom – would be like having an ensemble that can play in synchrony together, but conducting them from 200 feet or more away.
Suggestions for educators
Music teachers seeking a magical app to seamlessly run ensemble classes might find these details above discouraging, but even with constraints, there are possibilities to explore, particularly as tools improve. For those willing to experiment, here are some suggestions.
Start small. This doesn’t mean giving up forever on the idea of remotely rehearsing ensembles, but simply having realistic expectations and goals. Setting up a course so that its success depends on a brand new technology performing flawlessly is an invitation for disaster. Far more effective is to integrate flexible pilot tests in ways that make learning technology one of the goals of the course, rather than merely serving them.
Be friendly to your IT staff. Most IT staff are eager to help teachers explore innovative solutions, and are often crucial for configuring networks and servers. Especially for teachers without much technology experience, the best approach is to coordinate closely with tech staff from the beginning, deciding together what experiments could be possible.
Teach students (and ourselves) not just how to use technology, but how to learn it. The apps and hardware we use today will change soon, but not the underlying principles. Even instructors who lack the experience to teach students directly about technology can still learn alongside them. Learning how to detail a tech problem and write a truly effective help request is one of the most valuable skills for students to learn, far more useful than knowing how to use any particular app.
Apply your musical knowledge of how to practice. It can help to consider the skills we bring as musicians, even if we use them in a different domain. Performing an instrument at a high level is an iterative practice we develop over years, with multiple layers. Despite the different background knowledge required, working in a networked performance environment is a similar practice of analyzing a problem, experimenting with different choices, and studying the results.
Make collaborative skills part of what we teach and learn with our students. Whatever type and degree of collaboration is part of your teaching environment, networked music offers an opportunity to expand it. This work is inherently collaborative, such as when we must coordinate troubleshooting across different sites to discover where a problem is even located.
Explore new musical possibilities. Even when tight synchrony is out of reach, we can still explore ways of making music together via internet, with real time interaction. When the pandemic began, I heard from a colleague in Bogotá whose college jazz improvisation class was forced to finish the semester on Zoom. Rather than give up on playing together, the students developed a series of open improvisation exercises intended to work within Zoom’s limitations, testing the techniques and documenting them in a pamphlet to encourage others.
Networks for social transformation
My final message to educators is a broader invitation: Use networks to extend in new ways on the cultural work we do as artists and educators, including collaborations that expand students’ learning communities and contribute to progressive social change.
A university professor recently told me that almost none of their jazz piano majors had a piano on which to practice, and most could not afford even an inexpensive electric keyboard, making progress towards their performance degree impossible. Yet in speaking to a colleague, this professor discovered that most classical piano majors in the same department had grand pianos in their homes.
However one interprets anecdotal patterns like this, the fact remains that the pandemic’s impact on both students and the wider US population is more severe for already disadvantaged groups, particularly people of color and low income communities. Many high school and college music programs provide students with not only knowledge and training, but also the spaces and instruments needed for their studies. With campus closures, this role and many others played by schools have instantly been stripped away.
Addressing unequal access within our educational system demands sustained, collective effort, and it is easy to think of that work as being located elsewhere, beyond our classrooms and expertise. But the choices we make always matter, and networks offer new possibilities that educators are only beginning to explore. Here are a few examples of ways we might integrate networked music performance and other high quality telepresence tools into our teaching and institutions.
Facilitate collaborative projects among schools and students with differential resources. Regional “all-state” band and orchestra events are often important cultural experiences for students, enabling them to interact with peers from different backgrounds. How could we use networks to extend this idea beyond a yearly weekend workshop? Could educators from under-served and wealthier school districts collaborate on a grant for equipment and tech support, to enable students to work in cross-regional chamber ensembles throughout the year? Such projects could include guest composers or coaches, original works created collaboratively by students, and in-person concerts. For students who live in the same region but experience it in different ways due to differences in race and class, collaborating closely over an extended time can be deeply transformative.
Expand on mentorship programs that pair college music students with under-served communities near and far. Numerous classical music organizations have formed in the US with a dual social and musical mission, often inspired by initiatives like Venezuela’s “El Sistema,” and many high school music programs serve a similar function. In many cases, including a wonderful partnership that one of my own colleagues established with a nearby high school, university students provide lessons and ensemble coaching, while gaining teaching experience and expanding their own social world. Traveling to one another’s spaces is often a crucial part of such programs, but supplementing in-person connections with remote sessions via high-quality networking tools can make for even more sustained relationships, particularly when distance or logistics make routine travel difficult.
Use intercultural collaborations to expand students’ world views and form new musical partnerships. Projects linking musicians across cultures and continents are difficult but rewarding, and have been a central part of networked music performance from the start. In music education, this is an under-explored area that could grow in exciting ways as networks and tools improve. As a small example, I was inspired by the students in a networked course that I co-led with colleagues in Manizales, Colombia, linking high school music students there with Latino peers in California. Using our department’s music technology labs, the bilingual class enabled students to perform together, to create collaborative sound collages, and to learn more about one another’s cultures and life experiences, while also giving many future first-generation college students the opportunity to work on a university campus.
Of course, expanding such ideas from small pilot projects into long term, sustainable partnerships is hard work. Beyond simply purchasing new apps and machines or submitting grant proposals, it requires learning new teaching skills, taking risks and developing collective vision. And while many of these projects are great opportunities for funding and support, we must look beyond simplistic, techno-utopian hype as online teaching becomes more normalized, pushed on us by both cost-cutting measures and tech companies eager for new markets. Writing about what she terms the new “pandemic shock doctrine,” including efforts by corporations and institutions that prioritize profits over democracy, Naomi Klein astutely warns that “tech provides us with powerful tools, but not every solution is technological.” Regardless of their politics, most music teachers I know intuitively understand this point.
In this same spirit, what many of us have sought over years of networked music making is not fundamentally about the spectacle of advanced technology, but about musical community. Today’s global, fiber-optic networks offer infinite creative potentials for musicians and teachers, as modeled by pioneering visionaries like Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016) and Geri Allen (1957–2017), along with so many others continuing that work now. Even if our social, environmental and political challenges are unprecedented in scale, so are our tools. Perhaps what we do with networks and music now is a creative challenge we have been training for all along.
Note: A longer version of this article is available on Medium.com.