A star-studded John Prine tribute produced remotely by Recording Academy leaders

Is Online Rehearsal Possible? 8 Platforms to Try

These days, we're all spending a lot more time at home. For artists, social distancing means finding new ways to collaborate—from remote recording sessions to online concerts. Under perfect conditions, musicians can pull off surprisingly successful low latency, real-time networked performances online. Let's look at what you need to make that happen, and explore the kinds of collaborations that are possible under realistic conditions.

Living With Latency
Latency is the delay between the time audio enters a system and the time it is heard. A lot of factors contribute to that delay, from acoustic transmission to audio processing to the inherent limitations of internet networks.

Generally, humans can detect latency starting around 5 ms, and in synchronized rhythmic scenarios we tolerate latency up to about 20 to 30 ms. Musicians already deal with latency in acoustic settings: Sound travels at roughly a foot per millisecond, so separating performers by, say, 30 feet introduces a latency of about 30 ms. (This is one of the reasons conductors are critical for large ensembles like orchestras and marching bands.)

Longer latencies can be tolerated and even exploited in some performance settings (think about a pipe organ in a cathedral) but when musicians perform together, perceptible latency between them leads to slowing tempos, unnatural lead/follow dynamics, rhythmic drifts, and other unsatisfying experiences.

"The current collaborative software solutions are pretty inconsistent and frequently infuriating in both experience and results," says Clayton Janes, a live performance technology consultant and keyboardist who has worked with Eagles, KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, Miley Cyrus, Cirque du Soleil, and Usher, to name a few. "My interest and focus is definitely on professional real-time collaborative productions."

"To those who say internet latency can't be overcome, we would first say that we understand the skepticism," says David Wilson, cofounder of online jamming platform JamKazam. "We have an enormous amount of detailed data on hundreds of thousands of interconnections among musicians who are playing online, and we have a better understanding of what is possible in this domain than literally anyone else on the planet. And we are here to say it is not just possible, but it's happening.

"To be clear, this doesn’t mean that JamKazam—or anyone else—can successfully connect any musician on the planet with any other musician on the planet in a low-latency session that feels great," he continues. "Playing from the U.S. to Japan will remain challenging because the speed of light on the Internet backbone still eventually catches up to you. Or a musician in a rural area using satellite connectivity for Internet access is not going to have a good experience, and we can’t do anything about that. But we can successfully connect vast numbers of musicians as we complete the delivery of our full vision. This much is clear."

Given that a lot of factors are out of your control, there are a few key things you can do to minimize latency in your online jamming sessions.

Make Every Millisecond Count
Stable, real-time synchronization starts with a robust internet service: high-speed fiber broadband, cable broadband, or ultra-high-bandwidth DSL. You must use a wired connection; wi-fi does not handle data packets efficiently enough to deliver timely, stable transmission. (And if you can swing it, a LAN is always preferable to a WAN.)

The closer you are to your band members, the better experience you’ll have. In the best-case scenario, a fiber-optic cable transmits data at around 70 percent of the speed of light; adding processing delays introduced by network switchers and routers, traffic congestion, routing algorithms and QoS guarantee policies, internet latency over intercontinental distances can easily creep up to 100 ms or more. (Check your internet speed at speedtest.net.)

To establish a natural-feeling environment, minimize anything within your control that contributes to that latency "budget". Tiny delays add up fast: Let's say you've determined that 30 ms is an acceptable amount of latency. If you're singing three feet away from your mic, that’s 3 ms, or 10 percent of your budget. A person sitting three feet from their speakers at the other end will experience an additional 3 ms of latency. (Headphones, on the other hand, introduce negligible acoustic latency.) Root out sources of latency in your computer: Optimize your sound card buffer settings, and eliminate slow drivers, background tasks, and other processing hogs.

Remember that all of these steps and calculations are helpful, but ultimately you’re still at the mercy of your internet connection. Given that limitation, it’s a good idea to manage your expectations and be flexible with your approach.

Jamming Platforms
Online jamming platforms have been around for years—often as betaware or shareware—but are hitting their stride in a post-COVID socially distanced world. Platforms generally offer either straightforward "real time" (or as close to it as possible) collaboration or serialized "interval-based" collaboration that avoids the latency issue altogether by introducing musically timed delays that align with measures, loops, or chord progressions. Features can include recording functions, plug-in support, and mechanisms for sharing and monetizing performances. Let’s explore some of the most popular platforms.

JamKazam Platform

Real-Time Jamming

JackTrip: This free, open-source application, developed at Stanford's CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics), is designed to support bidirectional, high-quality uncompressed audio steaming with any number of channels. JackTrip employs the Jack protocol, a high-definition API for audio communication between applications. The deep interface can be challenging to navigate. CCRMA director Chris Chafe teaches a free course about online collaboration with JackTrip, available on demand.

JamKazam: After four years running under the radar, this startup is emerging as the go-to platform for musicians aiming to play together in real time online. This free betaware supports multitrack recording and broadcast to Facebook and YouTube; and recently integrated ticketing through EventBrite. JamKazam also sells 4,000 prerecorded JamTracks multitrack instrumentals, JamClass lessons, and the JamBlaster hardware phone accessory/interface.

Jamulus: With this free, open-source platform, each musician runs the Jamulus client app; everyone connects to a shared Jamulus server, which mixes the input from each musician and then sends the mixed result back to each client. Users can create their own servers to help reduce latency and distribute the load.

Sofasession: This free, browser-based application, which relaunched in March to support rekindled interest, lets users perform together in real time or play along with prerecorded backing tracks. The system hosts both public and private live jam sessions; users can also load songs into sessions.

SoundJack: This free, browser-based peer-to-peer system, developed at the University of Lübeck in 2006, has gained traction in recent months. A server-client system is in beta.

Interval/Delay-Based Jamming

Jammr: This free platform works by introducing delay structured around chord progressions: You hear what other people played the last time around the chord progression, and they hear what you played last time. Although everyone is playing at the same time, they are not playing together in real time. Jammr hosts a large community of musicians around the world and offers free public jam sessions; a premium tier adds private jams and recording features.

NINJAM: Brought to you by the developers of the Cockos Reaper digital audio workstation, NINJAM (Novel Intervallic Network Jamming Architecture for Music) is a free, open-source platform that uses OGG Vorbis to compress audio, then streams it to a NINJAM server, which then streams to the other people in your jam. Rather than sync musicians in real time, NINJAM introduces delays based on measures. NINJAM can save the original uncompressed source material for remixing later.

Endlesss: This iOS app by electronic musician and synth designer Tim Exile lets users collaborate by layering and tweaking riffs, loops built using built-in or external instruments. Endlesss works with Ableton Link, and can export AIFF files; a premium version offers additional sounds and effects. Endless Studio, a live collaborative music studio and social network for Mac/PC/VST, is in the works.

A note about videoconferencing: After spending countless hours in Zoom meetings, FaceTime chats, and Skype happy hours, you've probably been tempted to attempt a jam session using videoconferencing tools. Videoconferencing systems are optimized for speech; their sound quality is poor, thanks to built-in echo suppression, automatic limiters and noise gates, as well as limited frequency response. Most systems deliver half-duplex audio, meaning sound only travels in one direction at once.

Finding Your Groove
Of course, live jamming is just one outlet for musicians seeking to collaborate online. Enterprising artists and engineers have embraced remote recording sessions, songwriting, arranging, and teaching over the internet.

Ariane Cap is a multi-instrumentalist, educator, author, blogger, and composer who has performed with Muriel Anderson, Stu Hamm, and Cirque du Soleil. Cap has built a thriving online-learning business, and says she's focusing more on online projects in the absence of live gigs.

Cap says she's tried synching up with students but found technology lacking. "Of course I want to be on the piano and I want the student to play bass", she says. "It doesn't work because of the latency inherent in tools such as Skype or Zoom". She consults with Doozzoo, a browser-based platform for online music lessons that offers real-time video communication, an integrated media library and file sharing, with an audio player, looper, tuner, and metronome. "I love that I have total control over all assets used in the lesson", she says. "I uploaded about 400 backing tracks and 200 PDFs in my Doozzoo library; I can bring them into the lesson with a click of a button. I can slow the tracks down, I can change the key, and I have fast and easy control over the flow of the lesson. And I can work around the latency by synchronizing either myself or the student to the jam tracks and metronome."

Ariane Cap teaching on Doozzoo

Sheltering in place in Los Angeles, Cap collaborated with her band members in Girls Got the Blues to produce a fundraiser video for Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence Foundation. The result may look like a spontaneous jam but actually took 10 days to arrange, perform, and edit in Final Cut Pro. "I learned a lot from it: You know, to tell people to stand still to fill the frame, that sort of thing," says Cap. On the performers' end, challenges varied with levels of tech expertise. "Some of them literally just used an iPhone. One was filmed by her mom."

Cap is banking on tech companies responding to social-distancing challenges with new tools. "I mean, if I were Final Cut Pro, I would come up with tools or integrated templates (for these composite videos) where I can include 10 people, 20 people and easily do that edit without creating those windows from scratch. I am also just learning about a new smartphone app called Acapella that enables fast and simple remote-creating."

Remote recording sessions are nothing new. But social distancing is bringing fresh opportunities, says Grammy-nominated mastering engineer Michael Romanowski, who along with Recording Academy leaders around the U.S. produced a music video tribute to John Prine to benefit MusiCares' COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Mastering engineer Michael Romanowski

The basic tracks for the star-studded cover of "Angel From Montgomery" were recorded a few years ago at Coast Recorders in San Francisco; Romanowski (who also played bass) brought together a group of musicians including vocalist Susan Marshall, drummer Tammy Hurt, guitarist Eric Jarvis, and engineer Jeff Powell for the recording. To complete the song, they added the talents of Brandon Bush on B3, Lee Levin on percussion, Christine Albert on acoustic guitar and the vocals of Tracy Hamlin, John Hopkins, Helen Bruner, and Terry Jones. "What this allowed us to do was to work with people who we may not have been able to bring into the studio," says Romanowski, adding that collaborating remotely had benefits for the performers, too. "We didn't give them too many restrictions," he explains. "Maybe there's comfort in being in your own space. Maybe there's comfort when you have no time restrictions, meaning you're not sitting in a studio with 30 people looking at you, going, 'okay, cool, well, that's take four. How come you're not done yet?'"

That said, artists may find themselves facing new technical challenges, says Romanowski. "Getting gain structure, signal flow, recording, establishing a low noise floor, stuff like that—some of the basic things that we take for granted as engineers are entirely new concepts to somebody who is used to someone else taking care of them." Then there are the unspoken cues and guidance that are missing in a remote situation. "One of the things about producing is giving the artists confidence to be themselves. That’s a little harder to do by distance, but you adapt and you figure it out."

Janes, who has been off the road for the longest period in 15 years, is channeling his creativity into several new projects while sheltering at home, including developing professional level-streaming hardware for online music performance and collaboration for hifilabs.co, which aims to bring professional broadcast streaming technology to the desktop. "HIFI Labs is an artist discovery and development startup I co-founded", says Janes. "We will be premiering our first major live-stream production in the next few weeks."

Janes is also a member of a social-distanced online musical collaborative called The Isolation Jams. "We've completed three songs which are available on Bandcamp with all proceeds going to MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund,” he says. “We’ve gotten some radio play and even a thumbs up of our ‘Ah! Leah!’ cover from Donnie Iris himself!”

"I think this a paradigm shift for collaboration, production, and workflow," he adds. "Working remotely has been our only option for months and will now be completely routine going forward. The current focus for the entire music industry is on software and hardware enabling music creation and production via the internet. How cool is that? A new world is emerging!"

Clayton Janes playing live

Bridge the Gap
The internet was not built for live music collaboration. But online-jamming platforms and other tools provide opportunities for physically separated musicians to collaborate in new ways. Those opportunities will only improve as interfaces are refined, new technologies are explored, and musicians adapt to physical distancing.

Accept that your mileage may vary, and don't let limitations stop you from giving the scenario a try. Let's face it: With live events facing uncertainty for at least the near future, short of quaranteaming with your band, online collaboration could be your best performance option. At the very least, you'll be able to use the tools available to you to advance your creative ideas so that the next time you're able to connect in person, you'll be knocking it out of the park.