If you are a musician and you are playing in a band, you know that it is important to have regular rehearsals with other musicians to create your band’s directory and be able one day to perform live in front of an audience.
But rehearsing is not always that simple. Obviously, it requires all members to be available on the same day and physically present in the same room, and this in itself, can already be quite a challenge! You could be living in a big city where you rely on public transport to arrive on time, or maybe your work schedule doesn’t allow you to be available during business hours when the rehearsal studios are open.
This is all very frustrating… But what if we could find a solution to this, by being able to practise music with others, AT HOME ? This is exactly the aim of a research field called Network Music Performance, abbreviated to NMP.
Let’s dive into a bit of history…
NMP first appeared in the 1970s with the arrival of computer networking, but was kept as a niche area due to the speed limitation of long-distance computer networks, not allowing fast enough communication between users to send audio and video data to perform music synchronously.
By the early 21st century, the internet speed had accelerated enough to allow new experiments to take place in the field. In 2000, The Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in Stanford University took part in one of the first high-quality online audio and video streams between two computers.
However, this technology was only available for very fast internet environments, such as technological companies and research facilities. The average consumer internet bandwidth was still not good enough to allow you and me to use the same system.
But ! Today the situation is different, the internet is becoming faster and faster, and over the last few years, research for NMP has expanded and shown great results for home usage worldwide, and looking at the current pace of the research, we could be jamming with our friends all around the world in the next coming years!
Why do we need fast internet to perform music online ?
If you were playing music in a physical space with someone else, you would probably stand between 2 to 5 meters away from them on average. This would not be an issue for both of you to play synchronously.
But imagine if you had to play 500 meters away from the person ! Now that might be more of a challenge… No, realistically, there is a limited distance that you can be spread apart from other performers to be able to play together.
In fact, this is because sound takes a certain time in the air to cover the distance between the two of you, and research has shown that the maximum time difference you can have with another musician before being out of sync with them is roughly 30 ms.
Now have you ever wondered how the internet works ? It is not magic, it takes several steps to send and receive information across the world. The speed of the information’s “journey” can be measured in time, and one of the terms used to calculate it is called the latency.
One of the biggest challenges for NMP research is to create a system that can have a latency inferior to 30ms, and be accessible worldwide. This partly depends on the internet speed, but is also impacted by other factors such as the audio processing (any audio effects such as EQ, compressor, saturation etc… takes a small amount of time to be processed)
The research of the Audiolab (University of York)
The Audiolab is a research group based at the University of York, and NMP is one of their main research interests and fields where they are deeply invested.
One of the main research projects called: Sing From Your Seat, has been researching the potential of remote group singing for mental health and well-being, and developing prototypes of NMP called the VIIVA.
Another project on Network Music Performance is currently under preparation, where my current MSc project: Abbey VRoad studios, will be integrated to. One of the key research aspects will be the integration of virtual reality to the VIIVA NMP system and the exploration of a new software called Sonobus, that should keep latency time to a minimum for audio streaming.
One last point that I would like to address is the importance of the research made to make NMP technology available worldwide. As the covid-19 crisis has drastically impacted the music industry, NMPs are an interesting alternative for playing and listening to live music. But remember that before affirming that this sort of technology is going to kill live music, football on TV has never kept the stadiums empty!
Let’s not be afraid of our own behaviour with new technology, and let’s get enthusiastic that we are living in a time where live music will be able to happen all around the world, even during the dark times of the pandemic ! 🙂