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Tech From The 1990s Is Helping Musicians Play In Time While Apart05:12
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New England Conservatory voice professor Ian Howell, upper left, works remotely with students Kaitlin Burton, right, and Cynthia Tseng, lower left, using technology that eliminates delays. (Courtesy)
New England Conservatory voice professor Ian Howell, upper left, works remotely with students Kaitlin Burton, right, and Cynthia Tseng, lower left, using technology that eliminates delays. (Courtesy)

The pandemic has impacted all corners of the Boston arts scene. This week, WBUR's arts reporters are examining the effects on institutions, large and small. This is the fifth story in our series


It's hard to play live music together, remotely. That fact has been highlighted by the pandemic. Many ensembles have tried rehearsing via Zoom and Skype. And entire musical seasons have been scrapped. But some faculty and students from the New England Conservatory are trying out an old technology that's giving new life to their music-making.

"We were just able to return the banality of teaching a voice lesson and to be able to accompany someone in time," said Ian Howell, a voice professor at the New England Conservatory.

At the beginning of the pandemic, he found himself scrounging for audio platforms that would allow him to seamlessly play music with people remotely. Zoom just wasn't cutting it. He tried JamKazam. Jamulus. Jacktrip. But Howell said none of them worked like a software called SoundJack, which allows users to manipulate the delay to the point where there is no delay. And now he's able to seamlessly coach a student through a Bach cantata while he's in his attic in Winchester and his student is in Jamaica Plain. Howell said he's somewhat of an evangelist for SoundJack.

But this technology that could throw a proverbial lifeboat to a hurting music-making community isn't new. German software developer Alexander Carôt created the program back in the late 1990s. He's been working on this technology for years. Here he is talking about it a decade ago:

"All of a sudden, [with the pandemic] there was a huge interest in something that I've been working on for almost twenty years already," he said. "I remember before Corona, it was 50 page views per day. The page views jumped from 50 to more than 1,500."

Carôt is a dad and said even before the pandemic, he was constantly tinkering with SoundJack because he plays bass and he's not always able to meet up with the band.

"I have three little kids, so I can't afford having a regular rehearsal," he said. "[Being a dad and going to rehearsals has been] completely impossible for the last five or six years."

And that ability to play live music remotely without hiccups is what enticed the New England Conservatory's Howell, who says there's a bit of a learning curve. Though, he says there's a higher hurdle than just learning how to use it.

"One of the big challenges is the sort of social challenge and just the psychological challenge of breaking people out of the prisons that their minds are in right now thinking what is possible," Howell said.

New England  Conservatory students Cynthia Tseng, left, and Michaela Kelly play together remotely without lags. (Courtesy)
New England  Conservatory students Cynthia Tseng, left, and Michaela Kelly play together remotely without lags. (Courtesy)

But once people see how it works, he said, they're onboard like New England  Conservatory Master's student Michaela Kelly. She said she's not a tech wiz but was motivated to try it because collaborative live-music-making is a big part of her life.

"It's difficult at first and I think it can be a little bit overwhelming, but once you realize that it can be exactly like being in the same room with somebody-- the panic of this pandemic just lessened a bit for me," Kelly said. "And I'm able to teach students in North Carolina. I'm able to teach from home."

Kelly lives here in Boston. She said the capabilities of SoundJack can enrich her life beyond the conservatory--take wishing someone happy birthday via Zoom.

"Even just singing Happy Birthday to my godson it sounds like a cacophony [using Zoom]," she said. And then you get on SoundJack and it's crystal clear and you're able to be right with someone when you're counting or able to do a round like 'Row Row Row Your Boat.'"

Professor Howell said the implications of SoundJack extend beyond elite musicians at a conservatory. He believes the technology could allow kindergartners to sing or play "Row Row Your Boat" together, in perfect time, apart, in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

This segment aired on October 16, 2020.

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Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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