UPDATE 01/24/21 – This information was recently distributed by ACMP with encouraging news about playing music online in real time! Recommended software is available at a discount for ACMP members – be sure to check it out here and here!
The information below is still largely valid, pulled together by our Vice President, Keith Bowen, for the benefit of Kammermusik Workshop members in this difficult time of little music making opportunity.
The following tips are intended to help you get the most out of an online, one-to-one teaching session. They are based on advice and practices gleaned during the pandemic lockdown period by professional conservatoires, audio-visual engineers and instrumental coaches.
The first point to understand is that the internet is not built for truly instant communication. Communications can approach 100% accuracy, but the time delay between sending and receiving (the latency) cannot be predicted accurately enough for musical performance between two or more partners; at least, not well enough to satisfy the demands of chamber music. In addition, there may be temporary glitches that delay communication, though with some software products the content usually catches up after a slight delay. An important restriction in teaching, therefore, is that the exact rhythms played at one end may not come out exactly the same at the other end! The only way round this at present is for the student to make a recording (which may include video) and to send the file to the tutor to assess. Such details can then be discussed in the online session. This method is used by top conservatoires during the lockdown.
However, most online lessons will be conducted live, and such problems have to be tolerated. It is decidedly better than nothing. Having said that, the following are the main points to consider, in approximate order of importance.
Broadband connection speed
Without doubt this is the most important issue, far more so than which software is used. The ranges available vary enormously by country and region. Communication speed is measured in Mbps, megabits per second. You can measure the speed of your connection at the free website https://www.speedtest.net, which works globally. This will give you two speeds, download and upload. Download is the speed at which you can receive signals, upload the speed at which you can send them. In a teaching session, the student will be uploading their playing and the coach will be downloading it. The coach may also upload examples of their own playing. Ideally, for music tuition, both speeds should be high, but in practice upload speeds are about a tenth of download speeds with many carriers. As a rough guide (using download/upload speeds in Mbps):
100/10 or less: suitable for web browsing but not for HD streaming, and music lessons will be frustrating
200/20: suitable for HD movie streaming and for real-time music lessons
300/30: suitable for the above and for gaming
500/36: suitable for the above and for multiplayer gaming
Note that there are several factors that can detract from the nominal speed. My own connection is a fibre-optic broadband of 200/20 Mbps, but writing on a Sunday afternoon during lockdown, I’m only getting about 60/20. It does depend on how many users are online in your local area. So try to agree an unpopular time with your tutor! Also, this speed is the speed that comes into your household. If members of your household are streaming videos or playing games online, they will all share the bandwidth and each will be slower. So try to pick a time when you will have sole use of the broadband, or try to stop others using it. (Good luck with that.)
Your connection to the router (the box where your signal comes in to the house) is also important. Hard-wired ethernet cable connection is usually best, but not necessarily. In my own house, the 5 GHz wi-fi connection is faster. Note that if using wi-fi, it is important that the computer (or iPhone, etc.) used is close to the router.
Computer and audio hardware
It is not very important what computer hardware you use. PCs, Mac, iPhones, iPads, etc., all have sufficient capability and are limited primarily by the internet connection speed. Most have built-in microphones and speakers. Note that iPhone and iPad microphones are generally better quality than those in PCs, though PC speakers may be better. (I have no experience of other smartphones so can’t comment on them but I’d expect them to be broadly similar.) An advantage of the mobile phones and tablets is that you can take them to your rehearsal space and don’t have to sit in front of your computer.
Having dealt with the above points first, you might consider buying an external microphone to connect to your PC or mobile unit. This can generally give an appreciable improvement in audio quality (not least by distancing the microphone from any computer fan). The type to go for is a Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone. This is mostly sensitive to sounds in front of the microphone, so does suppress some extraneous sounds. Note that some such microphones need external power (‘phantom power’), but if you get one advertised as ‘suitable for USB input’ then the USB port takes care of this. These cost between 50 and 120 (either $ or £ !). The one I use is the Rode NT USB Mini, which is widely available in the US and Europe.
Whatever your gear, the way in which you connect it is crucial. Most audio problems result from feedback; the loudspeaker emits sound, which is picked up by the microphone, mixed with whatever is being said and played, and the result is an audio mess at best or a screech at worst. It is vital to separate the listening and transmitting devices at both ends. Do not do what is common in video conferencing of simply using the speaker and microphone built-in to your device, or sound quality will degrade.
The best way to ensure separation is to use headphones or earpods rather than computer or external speakers to hear the sounds. Most PCs have an audio output that will take 3.5 mm jack audio connections. Smartphones may need an adaptor (e.g. Lightning or USB3 to 3.5 mm audio for iPhones/iPads) or you may get earphones with appropriate connectors built in, or you may use Bluetooth earphones. If the heaphones come with attached microphone, this is usually safe to use, since the sound from the headphones is unlikely to reach the microphone. It may anyway be useful to mute your microphone while the other person is playing or speaking.
A useful elementary guide can be found here: https://tonara.com/blog/how-to-build-your-online-music-lessons-studio/
Many claims are made about the software for conferencing, but it is the least important of the factors so far discussed. Here are some notes on available programs; I would welcome further comments or experience.
Facetime or WhatsApp are not at all bad, especially if set up with separate earphones. The microphones on smartphones are quite good. If this is all you have, just go ahead.
Skype is perhaps a little better and worth a try, though latency can be an issue.
Zoom has made great play of its conferencing capabilities since the lockdown, and is one of the best for conferencing, since they have concentrated on clarity of speech and noise suppression. It’s probably the best one to use in an undisciplined (speech) meeting, where members don’t take care to separate their speakers and microphones or to mute their microphones when others are speaking. Unfortunately, in the default settings, music is treated as noise and is vigorously suppressed! If using Zoom, change the defaults (usually on an arrow near the icon for the Microphone, but sometimes in a separate Settings menu) as follows. Select ‘Use Original Sound’, then in the Advanced setting, disable all noise suppression options. More advice is available at https://plgmusic.com.au/news/2020/3/23/best-zoom-meeting-settings-for-remote-music-lessons?fbclid=IwAR3iw6HmpyB-aFRkDD1QaVHX5_i_dT3U2a17_Y8GRvM0oazKz9_gXMce6lM
Jamkazam is marketed as suitable for people playing together. Unfortunately, because of inherent limitations of the internet, this does not appear to work very well according to professional experts I have consulted. I’ll be happy to alter this comment if presented with evidence to the contrary.
Source-Elements is the software tool at the top end of the market in both price and performance, though it is free for the duration of the pandemic! https://source-elements.com/products/meet. In principle it allows multiple players to play together. But note that it requires very good bandwidth all round. Their own advice is:
IMPORTANT: Source Elements Meet is a peer-to-peer service, and requires that every participant has enough bandwidth to make a call to every other participant. For example, in a call of 4 people, you will make 3 outbound streams and 3 inbound streams. If one participant doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth audio and video quality may degrade.
I haven’t tried it but I suspect from this that one will need at least 200/20 Mbps to have a chance.
All comments and updates to this guide will be gratefully received!
Keith Bowen, July 11, 2020