Just as the pharmaceutical industry has raced to find a vaccine against COVID-19, sound engineers have been working to find a solution for an indirect casualty of the pandemic – the performing artist. Stripped of a place to play, performing artists – especially musicians – have been hard hit by the impact to their ability to make a living.
With venues closed and social distancing requirements in place, performers accustomed to playing live together scrambled to find new ways to connect, collaborate and share their work. Like most, the first instinct was to turn to online meeting solutions, but musicians quickly recognized most of the typical virtual platforms do not address their specific needs – to perform together, they require the exchange of audio and video in real time, right down to the millisecond.
“Music has been my highlight since I was ten years old,” says trumpet player Ed Lister, of Gatineau, Que. “Before, I was playing up to 200 concerts a year, only to have it switched off by COVID. I have to admit, I’ve lost my way a few times – I’d even lost the drive to compose.”
While technologies allowing musicians to collaborate at a distance have existed for some time, the need for such tools has never been as critical as it is now.
Third-party platforms such as Jamulus and JackTrip can be complicated to use, and proved unsatisfactory when more than two musicians at separate locations tried to perform together at the same time.
Moreover, the problem of lag – or “latency” – between audio and video transmission is a continual annoyance, resulting in a major obstacle to true synchronized playing.
Jason Westerlund, director of digital experiences and design at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, says he and his colleagues have been dealing with the latency issue for decades. They have established research networks with academic partners, including the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
Music classes “are manageable, although a 30-millisecond lag is the best” that video-conferencing platforms can produce for a master-class, Westerlund notes. “One-third of a second is less of an obstacle for dramatic performances – but in music, every additional participant adds delay to each segment, and that delay cannot be deleted.
“Audio and video have to pass through diverse sets of equipment, each adding a layer of latency, as each has been dragged through different pieces of equipment,” he explains. “It’s when you try and connect to colleagues that there’s problems [with] how to give them real-time feedback.”
Enter Adrian Cho, an Australian expat who’s lived in Ottawa for decades. The founder of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, he’s also a jazz educator, has written a book on the genre, and had a career in tech management at IBM before becoming the Director of Getting Shit Done (his actual title) at Ottawa-based e-commerce giant Shopify – a position he left to follow his passion for wildlife photography. His background in innovation led him to try to tackle the problem the global pandemic had created for his fellow musicians and other performing artists who needed to interact in real time.
Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention – and in creating a technique allowing musicians to play at the same time while being connected over the internet (a quandary that required him to write computer code for the first time in 20 years, harking back to his early days as a software engineer), Cho appears to have achieved the Holy Grail.
His innovation, Syncspace.live, allows performers to seamlessly sync audio and video so that they can hear and see each other in a way that comes close to actually being in the same room.
“Most people don’t realize that their electronic info – here, say, in Kanata [an Ottawa suburb] – is normally routed through Toronto, causing lag,” Cho explains. “It’s like posting a letter to your neighbour down the street in Ottawa. It will probably go through a postal sorting centre far from Ottawa, and then return here. I had to figure out how internet traffic routing is set up in every city, as there were no resource people to turn to.”
Mr. Cho tested his new technology in the jazz scene – a demanding genre that requires constant interaction between members of a band, given the critical role of improvisation in a live jazz concert (think having to navigate complex metre changes on the fly). Bebop and hard bop styles, for example, require as close to zero latency as possible when the musicians are playing virtually.
So, how does Syncspace work? While playing a set, musicians watch a video feed that’s of lower quality in order to minimize the latency of visual transmissions between each other. Then, a broadcast engineer (either Cho, or subscribers can use their own technician) re-synchronizes the audio and a higher-quality video feed to generate the finished product.
Musicians who have tried the tech say it has the potential to help performers make the key pivot to professional-quality virtual rehearsals and concerts.
“In many respects, this platform is a game-changer – it is a gift to the musical community in these times,” says David Renaud, a clarinet player from Duclos, Que.
Syncspace manages to bring the ping rate – or network latency – down considerably, Renaud explains, making the final online stream feel like performers are actually playing together.
“Sound travels through air at about 1 foot per millisecond, so this is literally like standing 7-8 feet from each other in real space,” he says.
Musicians need a hard-wired internet connection, webcam and audio interface for the microphone to attain a sync down to 3 milliseconds – as opposed to 29-35 milliseconds in similar programs.
“With previous platforms, the more people you added, the higher the latency,” Lister, the trumpet player, points out. “We needed weeks to become familiar with the program. "
Syncspace has been so well received by musicians and online audiences in Ottawa that Cho is already working to expand its use.
His regular Friday night jazz presentations will soon link local musicians with collaborators in Montreal and Toronto, while Tuesday concerts dubbed Dynamic Duos will roll out in late February. Live interaction, including audience feedback, will ensure the virtual concerts feel even more like being there in person.
Cho sees a life for online innovations like his long after the current pandemic. “We will be experimenting with three pianos at a time – a feat that physically might have been a challenge in pre-COVID times,” Cho says. “We could even have ten pianos!”
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.