When Covid-19 arrived in 2020, many industries were able to shift to online operations and resume a semblance of “business as usual.” For the performing arts, business was anything but possible because of the internet gap which makes creating sound in unison (music, dance, musical theater) impossible.

Brian Walker behind the soundboard at the Freight & Salvage
Brian Walker at the Freight & Salvage

Singing Together on the Internet During a Pandemic

In this conversation with audio engineer, Brian Walker, we talk through Brian’s career and his work learning the JackTrip technology. Use of JackTrip dramatically reduces audio latency while preserving original audio quality.

Featured in our conversation are multiple demonstrations of JackTrip sessions being used in live  performances.

JackTrip is an open source software application that enables the live performance of music over the Internet. It can be used for rehearsing and performing among collaborators within a 250-mile area.

  • The cost of a JackTrip is $150. Each participant in a group needs to configure one to work via ethernet cable  in their home.
  • Groups also need a technical coordinator to manage and configure the JackTrip server.

About Brian Walker
Brian is an audio engineer who has had an extensive career recording, mixing and mastering audio for gaming experiences, consumer products, text-to-speech applications, and personal voice assistants. He’s worked for LeapFrog Enterprises, Facebook, and Google.  

An expert in live direct-to-two-track recording, Brian spent the earlier part of his career as a touring Front-of-House engineer and Tour Manager for artists performing in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia. Brian is the Freight & Salvage’s staff engineer and works on projects for Articulate Audio at San Francisco Bay Area-based venues, along with festivals and other venues.

Liner Notes graphic

  • Singing virtually (or, not) in a global pandemic
  • Sophisticated, global video tech still overlooks audio in unison use cases
  • JackTrip hardware solution
  • 50 San Francisco Girls Premier Ensemble performs live using JackTrip
  • JackTrip setup overview (not too technical; more technical is linked to below)
  • Engineering sound at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley during a pandemic
  • Mid-range performing arts venues in dire financial straights
  • What’s it feels like to sing together using JackTrip
  • Worldsong Ensemble (Brian’s singing group) performs:  “Lamaa Badaa Yatathana” (a poem in Arabic) together

6 Worldsong Ensemble singers
Worldsong Ensemble

Left to right:  Tawfic Halaby, Tesser Call, Michelle Gorthy, Kym McCourt, David Stern, and Brian Walker

Brian’s upcoming class in May 2021:
Jamming Over the Internet will cover how to use JackTrip and Sonobus

In this episode:

Technical specifics for JackTrip
About JackTrip’s history and its creator, Stanford Music Professor Chris Chafe
World Harmony Chorus
Article by Paul Kotapish, Editor of SF Classical Voice re: JackTrip
Full Seal Lullaby performed by San Francisco Girls Chorus

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​Episode Transcript

[Spoken intro: “Listen to this next Agile Vocalist blogcast” + music]

Rachel: My guest is Brian Walker. He is an audio engineer at Articulate Audio. Welcome, Brian.

Brian: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Rachel: Sure. I’d love to have you explain from your standpoint, as both a sound engineer, as well as a singer, why the pandemic and the shift to making music and living life and doing the arts on Zoom is so painful, especially for singers?

Brian: Well, I remember vividly, it was March of last year when news of the pandemic was first spreading and everybody was starting to wrap their heads around what this means and what was going to change. I remember looking at the science and I remember looking at the fact that at that time, the biggest super spreader events that they had identified, were choirs, church choirs, and so it became very clear, very quickly that people were not going to get together and sing together. For me, and like a lot of people I know, getting together and singing with people was one of the high points of my life. It’s something I love to do. It’s something that keeps me sane.

At that point, I was singing with our acapella group and also singing with the World Harmony Chorus, which is a bigger group. All of that just came to a screeching halt at that time and I remember people were saying, “Oh well, let’s try doing it on Zoom.” For anybody that’s ever tried to sing with others over Zoom, you find out very quickly that it’s a complete disaster. It’s impossible. We all got kind of depressed. [chuckles]

Rachel: One of the things that I noticed when I was working for Cisco back in 2007-2008 is when I started with them is– one of the times I was down there on campus, I was introduced to their telepresence technology and it was so exciting to me because I was like, “Wow, okay, so I can sing with my friends in the Carolinas?” They were like, “No, you can’t.” Then what’s it good for? I was watching demos where it was people in business suits just sitting there. I was like, “Wow, all this technology and still can’t sing with my friends.”

That was certainly true when Coronavirus came along in 2020. Can you talk a little bit about your knowledge of the internet gap and how all of a sudden it became the important thing for people singing on Zoom because you can’t do it and your experience with that?

Brian: We all got very depressed that we couldn’t gather together to sing. We couldn’t rehearse anymore. Our group came to a screeching halt. We couldn’t learn new material, we couldn’t polish the old material. We weren’t really singing at all. It was around that time that I became aware of something JackTrip. My friend Paul Kotapish actually wrote an article about it. I went down a research rabbit hole and discovered that there was actually an online class offered by Stanford. I took that class and learned a whole lot of stuff about the internet that I never do. I’ve never really been an IT person. I’m more of a sound engineer kind of guy.

I learned a lot about the internet and how it was designed and what it was designed for. It became very clear that what it was not designed for is to do that synchronist singing. I learned a lot about latency which is that lag that happens in Zoom, which makes it impossible to sing with other people, and I learned about packets and packets. It’s a whole thing. It’s basically how you take digital data and applications will package that data up into small little bits and they will send it across the internet.

I only had a very vague knowledge of this, that when you send data across the internet, each of those little packets can take radically different paths and they can arrive at different times and they can even arrive in different order, and so as you can see, that’s a recipe for disaster for anything that wants to happen in sync with other people.

Rachel: Right. Great. Talk about how with the pandemic and that class and the things that you’ve learned and JackTrip, can you talk a little bit about how that technology is essentially solving that, or at least improving it to a level of viability where at least rehearsal is possible, maybe even a performance?

[music]

Talk specifically about JackTrip and how it works and what the setup is in each individual’ singer’s home that’s needed to make that possible?

Brian: Without getting too technical, JackTrip was designed specifically for people who don’t have a lot of experience with computers, they’re not particularly tech-savvy. They did, I think a very good job of making it as simple as possible. You do have to buy their proprietary hardware, but they’re a nonprofit organization. They’re not making any money off of this, they’re just trying to solve this problem. The way it works with JackTrip is you buy their proprietary box, and you plug your headphones into it and you plug your microphone into it and you connect it to your modem, and then the box has no knobs and dials on it of any kind.

You go to a website and you basically turn on the box and you connect to a server. That’s one of the things that makes JackTrip a little different from some of the other techniques, but the server on the backend automatically handles a lot of the things that other applications make those controls available to the user, which makes it more complicated but it gives you more control. The focus with JackTrip is to make it simple. You plug the thing in, you go to the website, you turn it on and that’s it. That’s pretty much it, you’re connected. I have to say it works really, really well.

Rachel: What I’ve seen another group doing is running a Zoom meeting in parallel with that, so there’s visual as well as audio. Can you talk a little bit about to– Do you run a Zoom meeting in parallel or do you just go totally blind and rely only on JackTrip? [chuckles]

Brian: It’s funny, everybody’s different about that. Personally, I’m so focused on listening that– I know what people look like, but that’s not true for the rest of my group. I found out that they really cared and they really wanted to see everybody. We continue to use Zoom. Generally, the way it works is we will start the meeting, a regular Zoom meeting and we will have audio on and everybody will communicate via Zoom, and then everybody mutes and we do a little warmup together or separately at the same time, parallel warm-up, but we’re certainly not in sync. Then once we’re warmed up and ready, then we’ll go ahead and we’ll mute the audio on Zoom, but keep it running for video and then we log into JackTrip and rehearse that way.

Rachel: Nice. Maybe you can share a little bit about your background doing sound for the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, can you talk about what they’ve gone through to make the arts possible in digital at this time?

Brian: It was a big shock because obviously, this is a place where people gather and the whole organization, or at least most of it was all organized around bringing artists, having people come into the building and sit down and enjoy a concert. Unfortunately, that became impossible. We did at the time have an education program because there are classrooms upstairs in that building, there are a limited number of them, but we did have classes running almost every night of the week and some of them were very popular. We had a lot of people coming into the building to do both classes and to see concerts, all of that immediately stopped.

Now, in the case of the education program, they moved pretty seamlessly to online. They’re all using Zoom. I teach a couple of classes and we do the same thing, it’s on Zoom. We’re not in sync and everybody, but the teacher mutes and that works. In terms of the actual performances, that was a huge problem because we couldn’t have anybody in the room, no audience members could come in, even if we were able to have a band. Basically, we did a lot of research into both the the science of the disease itself and also talking about a lot of the regulations that different organizations were putting together.

There’s an organization in LA that put together some guidelines having to do with film production. We adopted those and it had to do with masks, it had to do with distance, it had to do with surfaces. Early on, it was all about cleaning surfaces. The whole aerosol thing was not– people didn’t really understand that yet at that time, but over time, that started to become evident.

We adopted that and we started doing a very limited live streaming program. Now, the problem is that we had a huge amount of hourly staff that were all laid off on a single day and only a skeleton crew of people remained on staff so it was really a problem for a lot of people there. A lot of people were sad not to be able to go there anymore because Freight & Salvage is an institution in Berkeley and a lot of people really have very special feelings about that place.

We lost all of these people and it took a while to convince folks that this is something we should try. There were a lot of questions, how are we going to do this? We don’t even own the equipment. Gradually, we got together the equipment, we figured out how to do it and we started doing tapings which we’re still doing and we’re actually doing more than we were. At first, basically, we were having musicians in their living room take their phone, usually, a solo musician person with a guitar singing or their instrument.

They would put their phone on the mantelpiece, and they would play into the phone. People were so grateful for this because it was finally some music. The people were really missing that but honestly, from a technical standpoint, the quality wasn’t that great. You’ve got somebody’s iPhone mic picking up a musician who’s maybe sitting six-eight feet away and pretty soon, people started to go “Well, this is great but hey, we would like to see something a little bit better.”

That’s about the time we managed to put together all of the equipment that we needed to be able to do essentially video production. We went in a period of like three or four months from a room for live performance to a room that was now used and still is primarily for video production, that’s what we’re doing right now.

Rachel: Wow. It’s end of March as we’re having this conversation of 2021, would you say that video production is still ramping up to a fuller throttle flow, or is it starting to answer to this blended reality that we have going on where people are getting vaccinated but generally, the broad spectrum is you got to have a mask on, stay distant, there’s variants? All these different things, you want to speak to that a little bit about how is the Freight responding to blended reality right now?

Brian: Well, every couple of months there’s a big meeting to figure out, “Okay, what’s the plan for re-opening? What’s the plan for re-opening?” and of course, nobody has any idea when that’s going to happen. When it does, there’s the assumption that it’s going to be a limited audience, and then there are all the problems about well, how does that work financially? We’re a non-profit organization, a lot of our budget comes from donations.

Now, with less money coming in the door as it were, this is going to be a big problem. We still don’t know but the assumption is that we’re going to continue to do video production right up until the time we open. Even then, there are people that have gotten used to it and said, “You know what? I like this thing.” People who’ve moved away from the Bay Area love their Freight & Salvage, would like to continue to feel like they’re part of it and to see the concerts that happen there.

There’s a big desire now that really wasn’t there a year or two ago to really make an effort to make those shows available online to people. Even if there’s an audience in the room and the artists love it, the patrons love it, and now we’re looking at, “Okay, well how do we do that?” Right now, we have seats blocked off with equipment, we have cables running everywhere so now we’re like “All right.”

We have to figure this out, we’re going to have maybe 30%, 40% capacity in there as well? We have to have cameras in there and figure out how to make all that happen, and now we have to make a sound mix that works both for the room and for people at home which actually is a bit of a challenge depending on the group. These are the kinds of things that we’re wrestling with.

Now, I’m not privy to all the conversations that the board of directors is having, they’re the ones that are really facing the brunt of all this, but this is how it’s been going and we’re just trying to figure out like a lot of people what’s next, but we’re in a better position than a lot of venues because we’re a non-profit. A lot of venues are really suffering and I’m sure you’ve seen all the GoFundMe campaigns to try and save these institutions because if there’s nowhere for musicians to play, what are they going to do?

House concerts is always viable for people that are at that level of the business. For the larger groups, they can come in and sell out stadiums, that’s not going to be a problem because those stadiums aren’t going anywhere, but it’s that mid-range, between 50 and say a thousand seats. Those are the venues that are struggling right now and many of them are closing.

Those are the ones that are going to have trouble coming back because they’re always on such a thin margin anyway. That’s what I’m concerned about honestly. Maybe streaming can fill the gap partially.

Rachel: That’s interesting. Refresh me the Freight & Salvage the new space– I remember the old space which was like a glorified barn, [chuckles] the new space is 250 seats?

Brian: No, it’s just under 500.

Rachel: Was it under? Okay, it’s a little bit bigger. It’s a fantastic– for those of you watching who don’t know Freight & Salvage’s new home. I can’t remember what year it came but there’s not a bad seat in the house and that’s pretty amazing to design a venue that is that.

Brian: It’s a very special place, and as you say, every seat has got great sightlines, and it has a fantastic sound system in there.

Rachel: Well, we will hope for better things and blended realities that can be made to work for sure. Can you talk a little bit about the JackTrip experience and how your singing group experienced that? Was it a dramatic improvement? Was it just like, “Okay this is good enough?” How did it affect people? What was the output of that?

Brian: Well, when we first started using it, it had been I’m going to say about eight months since we had been able to gather in person. It took a while for me to learn about technology and identify what would work for us and get everybody’s boxes and it took a long time. Helping people over the phone over Zoom to set up their systems, who are not particularly technical, make sure they had the bits and pieces they needed, “You need a microphone to do this.”

Then we had to look at their modems and look at the Wi-Fi, so there was a lot of setup involved and it took a while to get everybody  all set up. In fact, we have two different groups and finally, we got everybody in both groups set up. Generally, the way it would work is that we would have two people start, and then a couple of weeks later, we’d have a couple more people get online and gradually, we built it up.

I remember my feeling the very first time I heard somebody else and I heard that we were in sync and we would sing something just to check it and both of us, and this is almost everybody’s experience, just got chills and almost felt like crying because this is something that we had missed so much for eight months and then finally we could do it again. We could actually harmonize in real-time it was actually a really overwhelming emotional experience which I would never have expected.

It took some getting used to when we first started using it because you do have a lag between the sound coming out of your voice and the sound coming back to you in your earphones. That’s part of the way technology works. You have to adjust to that, you have to not listen to your own voice in the room or in your head and you have to make that adjustment to listening only to what you’re hearing in your headphones or your earbuds. That takes everybody a little bit of adjusting to do that. It’s a little bit weird, it’s like speaking when you’re hearing yourself and there’s an echo. It’s really distracting.

Rachel: Oh, wow. I didn’t realize that.

Brian: Yes, fortunately, the lag is very slight and it’s a very slight delay 10-20 milliseconds, but it’s enough to require a little bit of adjustment, but once you do get focused in with that, it’s an amazing experience and it is like being in the same room with other people. It’s a wonderful thing.

Rachel: Great. You have a couple of classes coming up that you’re teaching that I know you were interested in mentioning, why don’t you talk about those a little bit?

Brian: Yes. I have been teaching online classes through the Freight & Salvage. The first one I taught was about live streaming from home for people that wanted to– The musicians mainly that wanted to set up at home to be able to do that. The second one that I taught was about a home recording studio, and what equipment you need to be able to record yourself at home and possibly do other things as well. The latest class is going to be how to use this technology. We’re going to talk not just about JackTrip, but also about Sonobus, which is free and doesn’t require any special hardware.

We’re going to basically do one class– Half of the six weeks is devoted to learning about technology, and the other half, the last three classes, is basically a lab. Everybody’s going to get on their computer, and they’re going to learn how to adjust those settings, and we’re going to as a class, play together and sing together so that we learn how to make it work.

Interviewer: Any final thoughts about– You talked about the emotional experience of singing together. Anything you want to see continue from this time? Obviously, it seems like the blended solution, the in-person as well as streaming digital audience is something all of the venues that are still around are going to have to adapt to. What do you want to take away from this time? This period?

Brian: I think because the technology actually works, that it is a definite possibility that people who are living relatively far apart can make music together, and can even be in bands together. At the very least, can rehearse together. That was always a big barrier for any band, is finding the time and place to get everybody together to rehearse. I remember slipping across town to go to rehearsals, and the timing was tight, and the traffic was bad, and I was busy, and I made it happen. Rehearsing at home over the internet is fantastic.

One minute before rehearsal starts, you plop down in your chair, you’re there, and a lot of people are going, “This is really nice. I might want to continue doing this even after the pandemic is over. Maybe we’ll meet once a month in person and do the other rehearsals off the internet.” Because you really can get a lot done, and a lot of the work that used to happen only in person.

This piece is being sung by our group World Song, and we’ve been singing together for quite a few years now. We met in the World Harmony Chorus which is run by Daniel Steinberg. We just decided that we wanted a little bit more of a challenge. There were several of us that just really enjoyed singing together, so we split off from that organization, which is a large community chorus and we put together– That time which is a sextet of singers. We learned a number of different pieces. Betsy Blakeslee was our director for a number of years, and she did some arrangements for us.

We also sing some songs that were arranged by Daniel Steinberg. This song that we’re singing is called Lama Bada Yatathana, and it’s a piece in Arabic. It’s apparently from a poem, an Arabic poem. I don’t have a translation here, although, we can find that out later. It’s a piece we really enjoy singing together.

Rachel: That’s great.

[Spoken outro:  “That was inspiring. Be sure to listen again soon + music]

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