Musicians Turn To New Software To Play Together Online

Nov 21, 2020
Originally published on November 21, 2020 4:06 pm

Whether for work, school or doctor's appointments, almost everyone has used Zoom. But for musicians who want to play together online during the pandemic, the popular conference call platform doesn't cut it. Musicians and scientists on opposite coasts have been trying to find solutions. The eclectic brass quartet The Westerlies shares its experiences with Audio Movers and Jack Trip software.

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At some point amid this pandemic, you've probably used Zoom for work, school, social gatherings. But for musicians who want to play together online, Zoom just doesn't work. There are often delays and sound quality issues. So musicians and scientists on opposite coasts have been trying to solve the problem. Marcie Sillman from member station KUOW reports on their efforts.

MARCIE SILLMAN, BYLINE: 2020 was going to be a banner year for The Westerlies. The eclectic brass quartet released a new album in January, then headed off on a West Coast tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "ROBERT HENRY")

SILLMAN: They came back east for a New York album release show at the end of February, and then everything shut down because of the pandemic. Trombonist Andy Clausen says they haven't seen each other in person since.

ANDY CLAUSEN: As an ensemble, we spend most of our year together either rehearsing or touring or recording or workshopping new music. So to not be able to do that for months and months and the foreseeable future was really sad and devastating.

SILLMAN: Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar says they decided to get together on Zoom.

RILEY MULHERKAR: We said, let's just give it a try and see. You know, how bad can it be? And I think we played for maybe 30 seconds, and we said, OK, this isn't going to work.

SILLMAN: The sound wasn't great, and there was a lag between each of the players. It takes time for sound to travel from its source to our ears, even when we're in the same room, says Chris Chafe, the director of Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

CHRIS CHAFE: If I'm, say, seven feet away from you in a room, the sound from my instrument or voice will take about seven milliseconds to cross to your ears.

SILLMAN: Seven milliseconds is imperceptible. But Chafe says for every extra foot sound travels, add another millisecond to the delay. At 350 feet - the length of a football field - you'll hear an echo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go, pack (ph), go.

SILLMAN: And Chafe says the Internet magnifies the audio delay, especially at long distances.

CHAFE: As it stretches out geographically, then so does the transit time on the network.

SILLMAN: It takes 40 milliseconds for sound to travel online from San Francisco to New York, for example. This delay is called latency, and Chafe began to experiment with ways to eliminate it about 20 years ago. His research resulted in an audio streaming platform called JackTrip. He's continued to develop it to the point where he says he can now improvise live with musicians around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILLMAN: Chafe and a software engineer recently launched a free pilot version of JackTrip for the general public. Back in Brooklyn, The Westerlies were on their own journey to replace Zoom. Trumpeter Chloe Rowlands says they found the answer in the recording studio.

CHLOE ROWLANDS: Our producer lived up in Boston. We were all down in Brooklyn. And to make it so we didn't have to travel back and forth to mix the album, they used this program called Audiomovers, which allowed them to send us high-quality audio in real time of what they were doing.

SILLMAN: After using the program to collaborate mixing down their album, the musicians started experimenting with it to play together.

ROWLANDS: And we were able to hear each other in time and play with each other. And that feeling of when that first happened was - I can't really explain how incredible it was to feel that after months of not playing with other people.

SILLMAN: Unfortunately, the program didn't eliminate the digital delay, so trombonist Willem de Koch says they came up with an old-school solution.

WILLEM DE KOCH: We'll listen to the leader - usually Riley - and Riley will say one, two, three, four (clapping). And then we try to line up our clapping with Riley.

SILLMAN: At the start of every live-streamed show, a designated leader starts to clap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE KOCH: One, two, three, four (clapping).

SILLMAN: One by one, the other players join in, and they speed up the rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE KOCH: One, two, three, four (clapping).

SILLMAN: Back in his attic in Brooklyn, trombonist Andy Clausen monitors their audio feeds, adjusting them to synchronize the claps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAUSEN: We are all good.

SILLMAN: Clausen gives the thumbs-up, and they begin to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILLMAN: Clausen is the only one who hears all four quartet members. The other three can only hear the leader, who can't hear any of them. But they still manage to pull off a live concert, and each one attracts several hundred viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROWLANDS: Let's see, who do we have watching? Oh, hey, mom.

SILLMAN: The Westerlies have managed to make this work, but Andy Clausen says it can't replace being in the room with an audience and with each other.

CLAUSEN: There's a certain amount of risk that is both terrifying and thrilling about live performance. Given that we are thousands of miles away, this is the best solution we've found to achieve that feeling and share that with our audience in real time.

SILLMAN: Clausen is also sharing free tips on how to work with the program on The Westerlies' YouTube channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROWLANDS: Thanks for tuning in. I see Grandma Cathy's (ph) out there as well.

SILLMAN: For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.