It's an exciting time to be a musician who wants to collaborate with other artists around the world. Avid is baking features into Pro Tools to foster cloud collaboration. For the other DAW users out there, services like Gobbler and SoundCloud are filling in the gaps. But what about those of us who want to play LIVE with other musicians online? When are WE going to get some love? Fortunately, there are a few options out there to choose from. I took a look at two of them.
JamKazam is an online band rehearsal room that is currently completely free. You don't need any special hardware to make it work other than an audio interface that has fairly low latency. They are developing their own proprietary interface for those of you who don't have one already or have an interface that produces unacceptable latency, but you aren't locked into using it.
I was able to host a rehearsal with 4 musicians online from different states in the US about 100 to 150 miles apart and it was a great experience. One of the best things about using JamKazam is that you're able to make your own '˜mix'. No more fighting with your guitar player to keep the volume down, your mix is your mix! You also have the option of sending multiple outputs and instruments to the service, so I was able to send 2 keyboards, my guitar rig, and a vocal mic with no problem at all. Every band member saw my instruments discretely, and they were able to craft their own monitor mix to their liking.
The app was a little buggy about a year ago when I first tried it out, but they have improved it quite a lot since then. I didn't experience any crashes or dropouts, and the only downside of the jam I hosted was that our bass player didn't have an interface, so he had to use the built-in mic on his laptop to send his signal out to us (yuck!). Needless to say, we've remedied that situation'"but it's important to note that in a pinch, you can indeed use your computer's built-in audio interface and it will work. I should note that everyone in the group had slammin' (40 Mb +) internet service.
The JamKazam community is slowly growing, and quite a few times when I logged on there were some '˜open jams' that I joined in just for fun and had a good time. There's even an option to broadcast or record your session!
MusicianLink makes a device called the jamLink which is an interesting little development. The jamLink is a standalone audio device which connects to your network via ethernet. You can then control the jamLink with a web browser or mobile device. The device has extremely low latency, and is fairly simple to use. There is a single 1/4' input and an 1/8' mini input jack for a talkback microphone. It's clearly made to hook up to an '˜already mixed' audio source as opposed to a service like JamKazam where you are able to pick and choose what audio inputs on your own interface you are sending out to the world.
As a turnkey solution, users generally love the jamLink. There is less configuration due to it's '˜whole widget' nature, and the software is completely web-based making it easy to access on just about any device. Every member in your online session must have a jamLink in order to participate, and at this time they support up to 4 band members per session.
I have to admit, I see the benefits of both JamKazam's and jamLink's approach. As a power user with a fairly well-equipped studio, I love the idea of being able to use my own high-quality audio gear and leave all of my keyboards plugged in. On the flip side of things, there's something incredibly cool about having everything packaged up into a nice little box all set to go. Sure, there's only 1 input on the box, but I can take that box just about anywhere, give it to any band member who may or may not have a great computer/studio setup, and we can work together. It's cost effective, fast, and simple.
Hacking Your Way Around
Commercial services dedicated for musical collaboration aren't the only way to make live music happen. Peer-to-peer type solutions exist, allowing you to connect directly to your collaborators via public and private servers. SoundJack and Ninjam are 2 of these solutions that I researched and checked out. The benefits of these types of programs are that they can often offer the fastest and most direct connection to your other collaborators. When you strip away a lot of the user interface, bells and whistles, it allows you to reduce your overhead in other areas. The downside, is that most services of this nature can be a challenge to configure and set up. When you're dealing with group members of varying technical experience, this can truly be a deal breaker.
I've learned a few things from my online rehearsal experience. Firstly, I'm not ready to give up my ethernet cables and rely on Wi-Fi completely just yet'"you need to be hard-wired to get around the latency. Secondly, I LOVE rehearsing with headphones on in my own home. I get to wear my PJs to band practice'"and in all seriousness, I can hear things MUCH more clearly when I get to craft my own mix of my collaborators. Oddly enough, rehearsing a hundred miles away, I felt a '˜tighter' connection to the whole band than I typically do in a band rehearsal. Being able to hear everyone clearly and at a reasonable volume was truly a wonderful thing!