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Can You Hear Me Now?

George Hess • February 2021Tech 4 Teachers • February 6, 2021

The transition to online learning due to the pandemic was especially challenging for ensemble directors. You started teaching live classes using video conferencing software and soon learned that there was this thing called latency that made it impossible for students to play music together, and the sound quality was worse than an old-time radio. Suddenly all of your lesson plans for the rest of the year went out the window: No concerts, no festivals, no graduations.

So you scrambled to find something — anything — you could do. Some of you were remarkably successful, but many of you struggled to find meaningful lessons and activities that would get you through the end of the term. After all, everything would be back to normal in the fall. Except it was anything but normal, and here we are almost a year later, and it’s still not clear when we will return to normal or what that will actually mean.

You now have two choices: Either declare the whole thing a failure and watch your program go down the drain, or embrace it as an opportunity to broaden both your students’ and your horizons. While you can’t direct a large ensemble over the Internet, that doesn’t mean you can’t teach music. And technology will have a significant role to play.

The focus of this column will be helping you find the right solution for your classes, whether they are in person or online. In each column, we’ll look at some solutions and then discuss the available software or equipment that can help you make it happen.

See Me, Hear Me

We use video conferencing programs in real-time over the Internet, and in most cases, your school is going to choose which program you’ll use. But these programs were developed with business in mind, and video quality is prioritized over audio. This might work for most classes but not for music.

Of these programs, only Zoom has paid any attention to sound quality, and we’ve seen consistent improvements over the past year. It’s the only program where computer audio can be routed internally, and its “original sound” function sends uncompressed audio from your microphone. There are also options for higher bandwidth and stereo audio. However, stereo doesn’t work on mobile devices, and when it’s enabled, the microphone only transmits over one channel. Be sure to check settings in both the app and the web account to ensure the best quality.

While Zoom can work for many applications, it’s still compressed audio that doesn’t approach WAV quality. If you need more than that or use another program, you’ll need a workaround using one of the above video programs with a separate program for audio. There are two issues. First, you need to combine the signals you want to send, microphone, computer sounds, and apps. Then you have to broadcast it to students over the Internet. Students will need to connect to both the video and the audio feeds separately.

Come Together

Let’s look at combining signals on Windows first. There are two programs, Voicemeeter Banana and Virtual Audio cable from VB-Audio. Developed for gamers, Voicemeeter Banana works like a small mixer with three input channels, three outputs, and two auxiliary outputs. Virtual Audio Cable connects your audio apps to the mixer. Banana has very flexible routing, and you can set a channel to mono, so your mic is on both sides. The programs are donation-ware, meaning you can use them for free, but it’s a nice idea to contribute something if you find them worthwhile.

There are more options on the Mac side. Existential Audio’s Blackhole is a freeware app that routes audio between apps virtually within the Mac. Just set the output of one app to the input of another to Blackhole. To add another device like a USB mic, you’ll need to create an Aggregate Device in Audio/MIDI Setup. It’s not hard. Click the + button in the lower-left corner and then choose the devices, Blackhole, and the built-in output, if you desire. Make a note of which devices correspond to which input and output.

If all that seems a bit much, there are two neat little programs from Rogue Amoeba that make it a lot easier. Sound Source 5 ($39, $33 ed.) is a replacement for the Sound control panel that lets you send the audio from any app to any output device using drop-down menus. It also handles the stereo-to-mono mic issue. On the other end of the spectrum is Loopback 2 ($99, $70 ed.). Loopback can route audio from any source to any output and in any combination using an intuitive graphic interface. You can create as many different setups as you need and recall them with a mouse-click.

You Send Me

Once you’ve selected the audio signals you want to send, you need to use another program to broadcast them to your students.

Cleanfeed is a browser-based program designed for podcasters. The audio quality of the free version is comparable to Zoom, but it’s a big improvement over other video conferencing programs. It’s easy to set up, and you can have one-to-one sessions or share a link for an entire class. You can record the session in the free version to a stereo audio file. The pro upgrade ($22/month) includes near CD-quality audio, multi-track recording, and multiple inputs, eliminating the need to combine signals with a separate program.

AudioMovers ($99/year, $65 ed., Mac/Windows) is a plug-in that works in any DAW, even GarageBand. Just place it on your main output and you’re ready to go. You can share a link so all students can listen or connect one-to-one using the Receiver plug-in to listen and record directly into their DAW. Audio quality and latency are set independently with sample rates that range from good speech settings up to HD 32-bit PCM files, and latency from 0.1 sec to 2 seconds. Your mileage may vary depending on bandwidth. Subscriptions are required for streaming only and can be by the week, month, or year.

One Thing Leads to Another

These workarounds are adequate, but what we really need is one program to do it all. Zoom has made steady progress, and there are a couple of other programs that have potential.

Muzie.live is a virtual music classroom that includes video conferencing, a whiteboard with music notation, lessons, class management, and other features. A unique algorithm that prioritizes audio over video provides hi-fidelity audio. While Muzie has a free version and student accounts are free, only the pro version ($24/month) supports classes of up to 10 students.

Readers of SBO may remember that we gave Sessionwire ($150/year; $15/month) our “Tools For Schools” award in 2019. Sessionwire is an all-in-one solution that includes video, audio, and talkback. It’s designed for remote recording sessions and lets you connect and sync any DAW over the Internet with your DAW settings’ determining audio quality. By the time this goes to press, a new version will be released that includes plug-ins for both Mac and Windows, interactive connections for up to four people, plus a feed that so others can observe.

It’s Never Too Late

So with sound quality being ironed out, that leaves latency. Latency refers to the delay between the time when you make a sound and the time you hear it. It’s a fact of life for audio with computers. Even without the Internet, there is a small delay due to the analog-to-digital conversion. Adding the Internet into the equation increases that delay depending on bandwidth and distance. This means it’s impossible to play in sync — well, almost.

It’s indeed physically impossible to eliminate latency entirely, but we don’t actually need to. If we reduce it below a certain level, say 25 ms or so — less than a 64th note at 120 beats per minute—it is possible to play together.

Researchers are studying two free programs, Jacktrip and SoundJack, that enable small groups of musicians to play in sync over the Internet. These programs require a wired Internet connection (no Wi-Fi), and participants need to be in the same general vicinity. And now Jacktrip.org, a non-profit organization based at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, pronounced “karma”) has just released the Jacktrip Virtual Studio, a hardware and web-based interface that anyone can set up in minutes.

The Future’s So Bright

Just as we were unprepared for online teaching, the people that produce these products were caught off-guard, too. Fortunately, they are beginning to catch up, and over the next year, we can expect to see a plethora of new products that make our jobs easier online and in the classroom.

Advancements in technology have always gone hand in hand with developments in music, and today, technology affects every aspect of music-making. Whether it’s creating, listening, distributing, producing, it all requires technology. Take advantage of it, and rather than see your program dwindle, watch it become more inclusive and grow.

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