How do I work this?

Yeah…I did a tech Q&A.

*waits patiently for people to stop laughing*

I know, right? And yet it was super fun. And I’m gonna tell you all about it here.

What possessed me, given that I don’t actually know how anything works? Simply this: I know people who have been working so hard to put great info out there to help us to have a better online lesson and coaching experience, and yet most of the folks I’ve been working with all summer still have so many questions. So although I can take zero credit for any of the info I shared, I decided to share it. We’re all learning this together, and the more we share, the better.

First, the good news

We can leave behind the era of recordings and commenting on recordings! Well, not entirely – I think a lot of good came out of that, and we should keep the good. But with what I’m sharing below – again, learned from other amazing generous genius people – we can start working musically together again if we’re willing to bring some creativity and humor to bear. Recordings will continue to help us with details, and recordings for auditions and even performances will continue to be important. But I think they can start to assume their rightful place in teaching and coaching.

So much thanks

About those generous genius people! First, you should know about Ian Howell. His great blog post about tech for remote musical work will tell you so much about how to connect with your collaborators, and he along with his colleagues at the NEC Voice and Sound Analysis Lab deserve our thanks and many snacks and wine forever.

Here at CCM, I want to shout out Dr. Quinn Patrick Ankrum, who’s been doing the heavy research for our singers in the simultaneous music-making department. She’s the go-to person in our world for news about Soundjack and other programs that can deliver real-time collaborative possibilities with almost no lag time (when certain conditions are met). A little more about this at the very end of my post!

And thank you to the luminous Saane Halaholo, a second year masters student in our voice department who hosted our Instagram Q&A!

O Pioneers!

I also want to thank the many artists who have been teaching over Zoom, Skype, and Facetime for years before the pandemic. Laura Brooks Rice, Jason Ferrante, Marlena Malas, just to name a few – y’all are the pioneers. LBR in particular kept my head in the right place when this all started for the rest of us in March. “It’s just another way to listen,” said this expert listener to me, and she was right.

Return to her wise words often. The tech is not the work. The programs are not the work. The work itself is the the thing, and it happens through our relationship with one another. So we’ve got this, as we always have!

Now let’s enhance that work so hard.

Where do I start?

Does your head explode when you think about trying out some of the programs or tech upgrades that you’re hearing about? I think that’s very understandable. Most of us had to pour a lot of energy into catching up with the available tech in March and April, and we worked hard to figure out the best possible experience on Zoom or whatever with whatever we had at hand, over whatever Internet connection was available to us.

*pause here to pat yourself on the back and replenish your snacks*

To think about doing that all again? It makes us sad. However!

Ian’s amazing article above tells you everything, but I’ll summarize the points that have been most useful for me. When you have the bandwidth, though (see what I did there), really read his article and learn what’s there. I’m still working on it, and it’s all valuable and doable.

So below, I’ll explain my current jam. If you have different information, different fave solutions, or anything to add, comment on this post or get in touch. Share your knowledge!

The big three

The Holy Trinity that changed my teaching life over the summer:

  1. WIRED INTERNET – if you can, connect to your router with an Ethernet cable. If you can’t do that, get as close to your router as you can. This has made the single biggest difference in my experience over the summer. Colleagues in different cities with different setups all experienced immediately more stable connections with less latency (time lag) when they could wire up.
  2. WIRED HEADPHONES – again, plugging stuff in rather than going wireless increased stability and cut down slightly on lag.
  3. SEPARATE PROGRAMS FOR AUDIO AND VIDEO – Zoom and conferencing programs like it are cool, but wait until you hear what happens when you mute your video program and fire up a little magical thing called Cleanfeed. More on this below.

You may not be able to do any of the above. Keep reading – there are still improvements you can access! But do know that any of the three things above will improve your experience. If any can be in your reach soon, make them so.

But I bought this Blue thing when Facebook told me to…

I did too, and I like my mic! However, mics are less important than I thought they’d be in successful online collaboration. Again, YMMV, but I definitely found them to be much less of a factor than the three things I listed above.

A few common mic problems:

  • inline mics are not our friend for sangin’. They’re right there in your face and just not built to take the glory of the classical sound. I have some colleagues who can use their headphones and disable (or unselect) their inline mic, and some who can’t. I don’t know why, I’m just a simple coach.
  • problem with your USB mic? Check its settings. Check your gain – you might have to turn it way down. Also, see if you can just move away from your mic when you sing loud or high.
  • Wow, this technical language is very impressive, right? Clearly, I am just going on trial and error – and THAT’S OKAY. Ask your collaborators/teachers/coaches to do a “tech rehearsal” with you and give you feedback about your sound. After that, you just troubleshoot. Which means you’re learning. GO for it and hang in there!

A small headphone rant

Open back headphones will change your life! Open back means that the headphones cover your ears, but the covering itself has some openings so that air flows over the drivers. Closed back headphones, like noise-canceling headphones, have a closed covering. With open back, you can hear some room noise, and you can hear yourself. It’s a more realistic sound and feels more like you’re listening to a person in a room. I have a pair of Audio-Technica headphones that cost somewhere around sixty dollars, and they were game changers for me.

Beautiful URLs

Okay: websites and apps! All of this is explained amazingly in Ian’s document; I’ll cut to the chase.

First of all, if you are used to Zoom (or Skype, or Facetime), and if that is where your students or collaborators meet you, there’s no need to change. Comfort and familiarity are important. But a baby step you can take is this:

CLEANFEED is my new favorite thing. It’s a browser-based audio connection: on your computer, you will connect on the Chrome browser. On iOS devices, I think Cleanfeed is available on Safari now, but I haven’t had good luck with people trying to connect that way (UPDATE: nope. Android devices only. Dang, Apple).

Head to the website, grab a connection, invite another person. It’s that simple. You can mess with your settings – make sure you have the mic you’re using selected – and just enjoy the clear sound and the absence of awkward cancellations (the Zoom pauses we all hate so much).

Now get fancy – connect over your favorite video program, like Zoom, mute the audio, and then connect over Cleanfeed. Voila! You are looking at your collaborator on Zoom and hearing them on Cleanfeed. Get more snacks in celebration.

If you’re an educator, you can spring for the pro version of Cleanfeed, and you’ll be able to record and mess with sound a bit more. But you don’t have to do this. Anyone can use Cleanfeed for free.

But wait, there’s more. I love a site (also free) called Jitsi Meet. It’s also a video conferencing platform – you can screen share, record, toggle your tiles, many of the things you do on Zoom. With two people on a call, the sound is pretty good, and it doesn’t cancel out. In Jitsi settings, you can decrease the quality of the video, which leaves you a little more muscle for your audio. Then, you can mute the audio on Jitsi, and then connect on Cleanfeed.

You don’t have to sign up for Jitsi – head to the site (or the app, if you’re on iOS) and it will assign you a “room” at random. You can keep returning to that room or just get a different one every time. Ian’s article shows you how to choose a room name, but you don’t have to do this.

That whole saga is how I found my current favorite thing to do for lessons and coaching: wired connections, Jitsi video at the low setting, and Cleanfeed audio. There are other options out there too, but now you know my jam. Again, YMMV, and I would love to hear about what you are doing!

Devices make a difference

Outcomes will change depending on your equipment and internet. If you’re on wireless internet and on an iOS device, simply connecting over Jitsi is probably your best bet – better sound than Zoom or Facetime. If you have a computer at your disposal, try separating video and audio as described above. Be patient as you experiment: don’t forget that the instability of wireless connections will be a factor. Also, see how many background programs you can shut down while collaborating online. And never forget to check your settings – make sure the program you’re using is actually using the mic and/or headphones you want it to!

Lag, you’re it

The greatest thing about these many small improvements is that we can start musicking together again. Acoustic sound is off the table, and so is perfect ensemble in the configurations I’ve described thus far. However, the connection can be good enough for pianist and singer to work in a way that is connected and flexible, and that feels human. It’s good to keep an open mind and a sense of humor, but that’s true when we’re face to face as well, amirite? So let’s dive in!

Some incredibly generous friends of mine allowed me to record some of our sessions so you could hear what we coaches are working with. Pianists, you might find it useful to hear some examples of latency or “lag.” It’s good to experiment with a singer to find out what the lag is. You can then get creative with scaling down accompaniments so that you can play with a singer without going too crazy. Singers, it’s not bad to practice finding your accompanist as much as they practice finding you! I actually find this like a lot of performing situations I’ve been in – when the orchestra is behind the stage, for example, or when you’re performing outdoors and sound is coming back from speakers that are in front of you. Sometimes you have to just believe that ensemble is happening, you just don’t get to enjoy it.

We played around with putting the camera on my hands or just on my face – different singers liked seeing and responding to different things. Once again – YMMV!

Oh and last but not least – these singers ROCKED IT.

Here’s our only video example – I was wired on Ethernet, but my partner was on wireless Internet and an iPad, with no other special hardware. He recorded on his end, so you hear the audio he was hearing, and you can see how much later it sounds compared to when my hands hit the keyboard. But it’s not unmanageable – definitely useful for working together.

These examples are audio only, since we were using Jitsi or Zoom in conjunction with Cleanfeed, and recorded on Cleanfeed.

Here is an example from Cincinnati to Florida. Again, I was wired and she was wireless, and she had wireless earbuds as well. You can hear that the lag on my end is much more severe, but think of how far from one another we are! The song is slow enough that I could hang with the lag – on her end, we were basically together. This would be much harder with a faster tempo, and a pianist would have to troubleshoot more.

Here, we are both in Cincinnati, and we have upped the difficulty level by doing the Count’s aria. We don’t make it through the fast section without falling apart, but we don’t do badly! Again, I’m wired and he’s wireless – he has wired headphones and no external mic. And again, the lag you’re hearing is as I experienced – ensemble was okay for him until I lost my mind near the end.

Now, hear the difference that wired connections make! I’m in Cinci and she’s in Toledo, and we’re both wired to our Ethernet and with our headphones. The small amount of lag you hear is at my end, but dang, we’re getting close.

So to reiterate – acoustic sound and perfect ensemble are off the table. But these connections prove that we can coach and collaborate with some creativity and concessions, and that is magical. Every singer has said that this way of working feels like studio coaching again, even with the imperfections. And as a coach, I’m so glad to have the human factor upped, rather than just giving commentary on people’s recordings.

Soundjack and the future

You have probably heard about Soundjack and other programs like it (Jamkazam for example), which DO provide a real-time, synchronous, almost lag-free collaborative experience. They are amazing, and we should all be pursuing them. They require robust machinery, however, on both ends – dual processor computers, wired everything. I’m very excited by Soundjack but it’s simply not an option yet for most of the people I work with. Some people have the computer but can’t use an Ethernet cable because the router is in the basement or in the kitchen, or they have a ten foot cable but six other people are working and going to school in their house, or they go to a school with old wiring, etc. etc. etc. We will catch up with this, I am sure of it, and probably soon.

But until then, we have a lot of options to get us through! And even with the latency, it’s a joy to be playing the piano, laughing, interrupting, and musicking with people again.

Keep on keeping on, my friends!

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