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Come Together: Streaming in Professional Music Production

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We’ve all done it at least once. Even I’ve done it, and that’s saying a lot. Stream songs from a music service, that is. Even for old-guard music listeners like me, who insist on owning most of the music they consume, there’s always one or two songs that deserve a listen before we buy.

A decade ago, the idea of streaming music didn’t really find traction because not everyone was connected—smartphones were just reaching critical mass—and metered cell phone data costs meant streaming songs could become very pricey.

Jump ahead to 2018, and apparently a lot of us stream, enough so that Spotify was able to pull off a fairly unique public listing on the New York Stock Exchange on my birthday in early April.

Spotify, as almost everyone knows, took the anti-iTunes approach, streaming songs with enough success that Apple has now had to answer back with Apple Music, or risk playing its last song with iTunes downloads, which have shrunk 25 percent year over year for the past 2 years. The company continues to perform, saying as recently as early April that it expects to turn a profit in 2021, around which time it will have also doubled both its user base and its paying subscribers.

But consumer music services aren’t the only space that streaming has impacted music; musicians and producers are using it to collaborate and create as well. Is there a principal role for streaming in the orchestra of music production?

In this second of four 2018 articles on various niche streaming verticals, we’re going to explore the use of streaming in music production. After all, if delivery by streaming is growing, it stands to reason that overall music production itself is also growing, presenting an opportunity to use low-latency streams to connect musicians across the world.

We’ll Do It My Way

The idea of remotely connected musicians all jamming together in low-latency unison is not, in and of itself, a new idea. After all, both videoconferencing and remote feeds for radio station mobile DJ vans were using ISDN lines back in the early 1990s to push digital video and audio feeds around the U.S. and, with enough money changing hands, even across the pond to Europe.

What has changed in the last few years has been the advent of low-latency, multichannel audio. It used to be enough to have a musician join via Skype, watching one or several other bandmates in the “studio in the sky” while recording to a local hard drive or digital audio workstation (DAW).

The downside of this approach was more than just the limitation of having timing be a bit off between musicians. Often, the local recordings were done on incompatible DAWs or even basic audio formats—think AAC versus MP3 versus Broadcast WAV (BWAV) files—and sometimes one musician might accidentally record at 44.1 kHz instead of the more widely used professional 48 kHz sample rate.

An even more fundamental limitation, though, is the need to synchronize each track independently. In a remote recording environment, there’s not even a basic synchronized click track, which means that assembling an after-the-fact mixdown of multiple tracks into a basic surround-sound or stereo mix can be a rather frustrating experience.

Without a live recording engineer to master each input, as would be done in a live studio collaboration or even in a single performance venue, the record-and-forward approach meant that final mixes often required musicians to be available days or even weeks later to rerecord even the smallest of gaffes. Is there a better way?

Working the Kinks Out of LoLa

The answer to the question above is yes, and a relative newcomer to the low-latency audio streaming space may hold the answer. LoLa, a staccato play on the phrase “low latency,” is a transmission system geared toward “network musical performances and interaction” that was jointly developed by the Italian Research and Academic Network (GARR) and Trieste, the Italian Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Tartini.

LoLa version 1.5 shipped in late November 2017, offering full support for Windows 10 at both 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz. Its roots, though, hark back to 2005, when the New World Symphony Orchestra from Miami conducted a transoceanic viola master class accompanied by GARR.

At the time, there were a number of competing audio transmission solutions, from Paris-based EtherSound to Silicon Valley-based NetworkSound to Sydney-based Dante. But each of these focused their extremely low-latency efforts—in many cases, each solution was able to deliver 64 channels of uncompressed audio at word-clock speeds, including redundant paths—at a local area network (LAN) level using standard Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet. In other words, only educational institutions with Internet2 connections, like Stanford or MIT or national laboratories, could participate.

What the LoLa approach has done, though, is to allow synchronization across multiple sites. It’s still very much a work in progress, with the LoLa project team only recently settling on a specific USB3 camera to be used at each location, but the kinks are being ironed out and the concept is catching on across Europe and in academic, performance, and pedagogy training facilities across the world.

As for the cost of the solution, LoLa’s site mentions that it’s “available for free for all academic and education nonprofit uses” but the site also warns that “in order to use LoLa you need a very specific hardware (we will also give you all the needed info) and a good and stable network connection.”

What does LoLa define as a “good” network connection? The recommendation is “at least 1 Gigabit clean path between locations,” which should be noted isn’t exactly a commercially viable approach at this point. And then there’s the need to use a very specific hardware list, although the LoLa team states “we will also give you all the needed info” and does qualify its recommendation for a Gigabit network by noting that “LoLa is also usable at lower speeds, but we suggest at least 100 Megabit” given the use of Motion JPEG imagery for very-low-latency delivery.

How much traction has LoLa seen over the past few years? A Google Map (go2sm.com/lola) shows a surprising number of installations:

Talk to Me

Barani Subbiah, founder of NetworkSound and one of the first engineers hired by the inventors of Ethernet—Robert Metcalfe, David Boggs, Charles Thacker, and Butler Lampson— at a company that became known as 3Com, discussed both the LoLa concept and his earlier MediaNet concept during a recent conversation at the 2018 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas.

“Lower latency is definitely a key to real-time collaboration between musicians,” said Subbiah, whose NetworkSound company has created single-word-clock precision hardware for musicians across multiple cities to collaborate with one another.

“But equally important is synchronization of the hardware devices,” said Subbiah, “which are used by each musician to send their own instrument’s signal and receive feedback from other musicians.”

This feedback can entail being able to hear the sound from other musicians’ instruments during the live streams synchronized across the different locations. To do this requires not just sending streams from an instrument’s output, but also some form of in-network stream mixing on the fly—or, at the very least, a summing of all the instruments’ signals, not unlike the way a traditional electric guitar’s monophonic pickup sums all six strings.

On top of that, there is also the need to include talk-back capabilities between bandmates situated in various locations, so they can give each other feedback. It’s possible, with enough channels, to even allow this talk-back capability to occur during live recording sessions without it being picked up as part of the actual instrumental recording.

Subbiah knows a thing or two about the need to synchronize. While at 3Com, Subbiah was tasked with creating the Les Paul digital guitar by Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of Gibson Guitar.

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