Virtual Jamming: The Latest Tools for Playing Together in Real Time
With many musicians sheltering in place, everyone is looking for a way to play music together over the internet, hoping to be able to perform for others or just jam together. While this is possible when all conditions are right, real-time collaboration over the internet is still in the early stages and there are significant challenges to making it work. Let’s look quickly at the main issues, and then explore a few tools that may help you.
Challenges of Jamming Together Online
Most of us have discovered ways to connect with friends and family using audio and video conferencing systems like Skype, Facetime, Zoom, and many others, so it’s natural to think that we could use these to play music as well. There are three basic obstacles to using these programs for music:
Sound quality. Most video conferencing systems are optimized for voice communications. The frequency response is usually limited. In addition, many programs use automatic volume control, echo suppression techniques, and other processing that improves intelligibility for conversation, but wreaks havoc on music. Some programs have ways to shut these features off, but you may have to dig into the settings a bit.
One-way communication. Most video conferencing systems are designed so only one person can be talking at once, an approach known as half-duplex. In conversation, this is barely noticeable—the software switches between speakers very quickly, but it prevents two people from playing together at the same time. A few higher-end conferencing systems, typically used by businesses, support two-way (full-duplex) operation.
Latency. While the previous issues mostly arise from trying to use systems that weren’t designed to accommodate musical collaboration, latency—or delay—is a more fundamental issue. Musicians will usually begin to have trouble playing together with more than 20–30 milliseconds of latency between them. Even if the internet worked at the speed of light, players between distant locations would encounter unacceptable delay; the internet keeps getting faster, but it’s much slower than the speed of light. For example, the delay between my computer and my service provider, Comcast, is 13 milliseconds. To connect with someone else, my sound still has to traverse the internet, adding time with each router it passes through, finally reaching my playing partner, who will likely also have similar latency between their computer and internet provider. Two people who live relatively close, possibly sharing the same internet service provider, have the best chance of being able to connect with an acceptable latency. With such stringent requirements, anything you can do to shave off milliseconds can help. For example, wi-fi is convenient, but a wired ethernet connection will work better for this application.
Live Collaboration Tools
The issues discussed above haven’t prevented people from creating possible solutions. Here are a few that are worth exploring.
- JamKazam runs on Macs and PCs, and supports real-time audio jamming between groups of performers. The site provides a rating for the connection between each user in a session, based on a calculation of the total latency, so you can know in advance how well it will work. The Austin-based startup responsible for JamKazam has been around a number of years without getting much traction, but is now working hard to support a burst of new users and is making rapid improvements. JamKazam has just added the ability to stream a session, including audio and video to Facebook or YouTube, allowing musicians from remote locations to perform a virtual concert.
- Sofasession is a browser-based system that offers a way to play along with prerecorded backing tracks, as well as play in real time with other musicians. The web-based interface is a bit more polished than most of the other choices.
- JamLink uses custom hardware ($199) that connects a low-latency audio interface directly to the internet, avoiding some bottlenecks in a general-purpose computer. Each participant must have the JamLink device, and the service is reported to work best within a 500-mile range, an approximation for likely internet latency.
- For a different approach, check out NinJam, Jammr, or Endless. These programs embrace latency, acting a bit like loopers over the internet. Players set up a loop length in terms of measures, and each player hears and can play over the parts the others create, but delayed by one loop.
- For the technically minded there are a few experimental systems worth looking into. Jacktrip is an open source software package available from Stanford University, which offers an online course on how to configure and use it. Jamulus is another open-source project that allows you to set up your own internet audio server, so you and collaborators can connect to a private system.
None of these solutions are quite as easy to use as you might hope, and each has a learning curve. At a minimum, you must be able to configure your audio system to work with the software, and trying to optimize your internet connection can get complex—and options are limited. You will probably need to adjust your expectations for audio quality, which tends to match the lowest quality mp3s, but with occasional dropouts and warbles. However, I have been able to play with people within a few hundred miles with sufficient quality for a rehearsal, even with less than optimal latency. Some people have been more successful, and there are some YouTube videos showing impressive sessions using these tools. Success appears to depend heavily on individual situations, especially the internet connection between participants—over which we have limited control.
JamKazam offers some basic video support, but the other services mentioned above do not. However, if you’d like to connect visually, you can try a hybrid approach: Just use your favorite video conferencing system for video, mute the video conferencing audio, and use one of the above systems for sound.
Looking to the Future
The current crisis has provided increased motivation to find solutions for all kinds of remote interaction, and it’s likely that we will see an explosion of innovative solutions. Real-time performance between arbitrary locations is likely to remain a challenge until the laws of physics are repealed, but we should be able to expect better sound and video quality—and playing together within limited distances is feasible. The internet has opened the door to many kinds of collaboration that would have been difficult just a short time ago. Even once the restrictions of the current pandemic are behind us, musicians are likely to continue to try to leverage the internet to make music, so this is a great time to start exploring the possibilities.
Doug Young is the author of Online Collaboration for Musicians.