A Matter of Distance – Why Rehearsing Online Can’t Work

Like all other musicians on the planet, I really miss rehearsing and, of course gigging. So, like many of us, I went online to see if it was at all possible to rehearse using internet technologies like JamKazam and Jamulus. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Everyone’s assumption is that because we can all use Skype, Zoom and all the other video conference technologies to chat in real time, then we should be able to play music together. But the issue is one of latency.

When you talk with other people over Zoom, the minuscule delay that that happens between the time you say something and they hear it, is is just that – very minuscule and fits perfectly in with the brain’s natural interpretation of spoken sound. But music depends entirely on sticking to a beat, and as soon as you have more than one person involved, everything depends on matching that beat. The internet just cannot simulcast in absolute real time.

When a band rehearses in a studio or plays on a stage, everyone plays within mere feet of each other. Sound waves travel through air at roughly 1,000 feet per second. So you would have to be standing 500 feet apart from each other to start to notice troublesome delays. An audience at a large outdoor show might have people standing more than 500 feet from the speaker stacks, but the music from all the band members is mixed together and sent out at the same time, so even if it arrives half a second after the musicians played it, it will all arrive to those people at the same time.

“Can you hear me now?” The Stones in Rio 2006 – note the repeater towers all the way down the beach. Image courtesy Medium.com

For mega concerts like the Rolling Stones in Rio (1 million people), or any outdoor mega concert, speaker towers are set up both at stage level and also much further away and they are synchronized to ensure the sound going to the further towers is delayed slightly so that all sound waves from all speakers stay in line with each other without creating a cacophonous echo. That, by the way is also why we use floor monitors or in-ear monitors – to block out potential problems that come from too many speakers at different distances.

As a side note, it has always intrigued me how big acts do the whole audience participation thing, getting them to clap along or call and answer, without the musicians getting thrown off the original beat. For my money, Freddie Mercury was still the best at understanding this.

Freddie Mercury from Queen working the crowd – Wembley 1986 – Click the photo to see it on YouTube.

Live music is about connecting to that beat, and the speed of sound makes synchronization a non-issue. The internet, however, was not built to work at the speed of sound. It has always been about sending packets of data through a network of hubs, and anyone who is old enough to remember 14.4 modems knows how agonizingly slow that was. The very fact of being able to have a video conference with family members during this time of lockdown is still a fascinating concept to all of us who grew in the pre-internet era.

But for rehearsing music, it’s still not good enough. The problem is latency – a delay of 30 microseconds or more, and that’s too much for musicians to handle. My experience using Jamulus – but which could be applied to any of the online jamming brands – is that a delay of even 10 microseconds makes it feel like someone is playing just behind the beat.

Let’s take an inexperienced drummer for a moment. Why am I picking on drummers? Because a drummer’s job is to keep time, and to keep the flaky front people in line. Adrenaline and excitement make it very easy for a guitarist or lead singer to start a tune off too fast, or to waver the tempo as the tune goes along. We rely on drummers to be the metronome for the tune, and to deliver timing in an artful way. Inexperienced drummers, who have not yet recognized the true value of what they bring to the music, will sometimes fall behind the beat, just by a little bit. They enjoy themselves a little too much and start “playing along” to the tune instead of leading it. Just like anyone would do when tapping their foot or their steering wheel to a favorite tune.

The problem with a drummer who slips slightly out of the pocket is that the other musicians will then try to slow down in order to match the drummer’s reduced tempo, and chaos can ensue. Obviously, overcoming such slippage is the goal of any serious performing band.

But that’s what happens, in my experience at least, with online jamming solutions at their best. It’s certainly nice to hear your bandmates, especially after weeks of isolation, but playing inevitably starts to drag as everyone’s brain struggles to compensate for this minor lag.

Many online jamming solutions put the word “jam” in their name, and that’s because jamming is different from rehearsing. We can noodle around, playing tunes loosely and working on chords an harmonies, and yes, there may be great value in that. Think of all the precious rehearsal time you have spent trying to agree on the ending of a tune, or which harmony to take in a chorus. Those types of things – working on bits and pieces of a tune – would work well with a jam software, although I would suggest that Zoom, Skype or similar might be easier to use, because of the visual component.

This is a USB Audio interface. It sends an XLR and a line input (mic and guitar/keyboard) into your PC via USB. Price is roughly $100-$150.

In all of these situations, it really helps to have good audio equipment – that means sending your microphone and guitar signals through a USB Audio Interface device into your computer. Relying on the computer’s own teeny mic will not really cut it. Again, drummers need to decide whether to mic their kit, or maybe dust off the e-drums and plug them in. And of course, everyone needs headphones. You will also need an ethernet cable to connect your computer to your home router, because WiFi generally adds to the latency.

But to repeat, jamming, is not rehearsing. Rehearsing focuses on getting a tune (that everyone has already practiced thoroughly at home, amirite?) and putting it together as a multi-person product. It relies not only on the latency-free delivery of sound waves, but also on the eye contact and body language that all performers rely on to guide each other through the tunes. This, sadly, cannot be done online.

My summary, then, is that you will not be able to rehearse properly online until it’s safe to be physically in the same room again. But here are three things you can do in the mean time:

  • Use Zoom, Skype, Google Meet or some other video conferencing technology to meet up once per week to talk. Have a band meeting. Discuss tunes, family, whatever. If you used to rehearse on Wednesday nights, then schedule an online band meeting for Wednesday nights. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, band chemistry is vital to its ongoing success, and this actually might allow for more “together time” than you have had in the past. I know that even after this lockdown passes, I will ask my band to have a meeting once per week, outside of rehearsal time.
  • You can discuss starts and ends, and practice them online. That’s not the same as rehearsing the entire set, but it will make sure that once you are together, you will all have complete agreement of how the tunes should play. That will win back some lost time at least.
  • Use karaoke tunes to practice your parts with a virtual band. I’m a devotee of karaoke-version, which provides high quality versions of tunes with or without lead and backing vocals, and for couple of dollars more, you can create a custom track that strips out or lowers the volume on any of the instruments on the recording. Forcing yourself to play tunes without the existing singer/musician leading you on helps you step over that crucial barrier between recognition and recall.
  • Follow Steve Mac on Twitter (@The_WaveWatcher). He delivers a steady stream of highly valuable tips for gigging musicians that are an education unto themselves.

Soon, hopefully, we will be able to return to our rehearsal spaces and venues. It will be a different world for a while, which much greater focus placed on physical spacing and hygiene.

Until then, stay safe, keep practicing, and don’t let your instruments get dusty!

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2 thoughts on “A Matter of Distance – Why Rehearsing Online Can’t Work

  1. guitarorth says:

    Being in the IT industry for over 30 years I’ve experienced the rise of the internet from inside some of the biggest technology companies in the industry. At Intel in the 1990s we worked with Cisco and Microsoft to advance the technologies that would drive us to the virtual and collaborative world we all live in now. It’s very gratifying to see.

    And while it’s certainly improved from dial-up modem days we have more progress to make for it to become as seamless as real-life/live. As a life long guitarist myself I concur with your situational analysis and your adaptations advice. And I too hope we emerge from our current pandemic and justified civil unrest states to some more steady and normal state for us all. Please keep up the great work!

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