Making music is a great way to manage stress. But for many of, both professionals and hobbyists, it’s very often a group activity. Those of us staying home for social distancing can use technology for playing together. “Telematic” music is any music played at distance.
In a series of posts, I’ll be exploring different methods that musicians can use for telematic performance, for Ubuntu Studio (a free operating system for artists and musicians) and Mac.
However we remotely communicate, whether by landline telephone or Jitsi Meet, we experience lag. When talking, the short delay between someone speaking and the sound reaching us is usually not very noticeable, but try to sing Happy Birthday together over video chat and you’ll likely find it nearly impossible to stay together!
The lag might be too great for regular Happy Brithday, but it won’t mess up the version of the song written by Henry Brant. In that song, everyone sings the phrase “On this day, [name], was born and that’s a damn good thing!” Everyone starts as low as they can and gradually goes up as high as they can. What makes it immune to lag is that everyone goes at their own pace. Any music where timing isn’t synchronized will be able to cope well with lag. This includes ancient genres like drone or newer ones like free improvisation.
Another thing musicians will notice is compression – the sound quality is reduced to save bandwidth. How good or bad this is is a matter of taste. An accordion teacher told me last week that Skype is especially awful for that instrument, but professional accordionist Pauline Oliveros used it frequently for telematic performance.
I’ve had extremely good luck with Jitsi Meet, especially with groups of five or less. It’s extremely easy to get going, the sound quality is good, it doesn’t spy on the users and it has nice additional features. For example, users can save a copy of the session to Dropbox or stream it to YouTube. I’ve seen many different groups of professional musicians playing live with Jitsi Meet. For example, here is an archived live stream from some improvisers at CCRMA.
If you don’t own a microphone, for many users, the internal mic on their laptop is good enough, but if your smart phone has a better mic, there’s also a free app for Android or iOS. If you have a phone headset, that also has a microphone in it. Try out all of your mics to see which sounds best. Because of the compression, it may be that the best mic for recording and the best mic for telematic collaboration are not the same, so enlist the help of someone who’s ears you trust.
Music, and sound more generally, has been a way people have been brought together during the pandemic. For clapping for the NHS to Italians singing from their windows, we can and should continue use this as way to keep human contact and express emotion. Telematic practice and performance is another tool that can help keep us together. Have you given Jitsi Meet a go for music? Share your experiences in the comments!