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Jam Online in Real Time

New music software could make online jams nearly as good as rehearsals in the same studio.

A startup called eJamming claims to have solved some of the problems that have plagued musicians who jam together online. According to the company, its software, called eJamming AUDiiO, is able to let musicians collaborate in near real time with musicians halfway across the world. Additionally, the software simultaneously records each musician, combines and synchronizes his or her input, and creates files with CD-quality tracks, says Alan Glueckman, president and chairman of eJamming.

In sync: This screen shot of the eJamming interface shows two musicians waiting for a third, a keyboardist, to log in before they start jamming from their different locations.

Since the early days of the Internet, says Glueckman, musicians have been excited about the prospect of sharing their music online, and even playing with fellow musicians over the network. “But they have always been kept out because of bandwidth constraints,” he says, because music contains “a lot of data to shove through the pipes.”

Nonetheless, musicians have had access to a number of different kinds of online collaboration software. A popular open-source tool, called Ninjam, lets people play together over great distances, although to do so, they must adjust to a sound delay of a couple of seconds. Stanford researcher Chris Chafe has created software that can avoid bandwidth limits altogether. He and his collaborators use an extremely high-bandwidth network called Internet2–available to researchers at universities and companies–to share files and virtually eliminate any sound lag heard by collaborating musicians. EJamming is a newcomer to the field, and its software seems to fall somewhere in between Ninjam and the Stanford research. The company is promising to reduce the delay experienced over the network to, at most, hundreds of milliseconds (depending on upload speed and geographic distance between musicians)–a delay to which, Glueckman says, most musicians can adjust with practice.

EJamming’s technology focuses on the problem of latency. On the standard Internet, it takes a nontrivial amount of time for data to travel from one person to another. And the larger the files, the more travel time it takes, as anyone who has watched video online can attest. EJamming tries to minimize latency on a few different fronts, Glueckman says, although since the technology is proprietary, the company would only provide overviews of its approach.

Multimedia

First, the eJamming software decreases the file sizes sent over the network. To do this, the company’s engineers developed their own compression and decompression algorithms that shrink the file size, yet still maintain an audio quality higher than MP3, a common compression scheme, says Glueckman.

Second, each musician is directly connected with the other musicians in a jam session, instead of being routed through a server. This peer-to-peer configuration “results in a lower latency by routing the audio stream directly to your jam mates rather than, on average, doubling that transport latency by directing the audio stream through a remote server,” says Bill Redmann, chief technology officer of eJamming.

But even with these latency-reducing tricks, there can still be unexpected delays on the network. EJamming’s software tries to minimize these blips, says Redman, by “time stamping” the audio from each individual, marking the time, down to the millisecond, that a sound is produced. Additionally, the software synchronizes the clocks on each musician’s computers so that the time stamps have a common reference point.

When a musician initiates an eJamming session, the software connects her directly to her jam partners (up to four in a session). The musician who initiates the session becomes the host to which the other musicians’ clocks are synchronized. Each eJamming musician must wear headphones because his or her sound, as well as the audio from jam partners, is played back at a delay of about 30 to 100 milliseconds. “The whole point is to focus on the music” that one hears, as opposed to on the sounds coming directly from one’s instrument, says Glueckman.

His company initially received a fair amount of buzz after its unveiling at the DEMO conference in January, where startups offer sneak peeks at their new technology. Since the beta version of eJamming’s software became available on March 28, more than 3,600 people have signed up, representing 114 countries from five continents. However, musicians who use Ninjam give eJamming mixed reviews in the online Ninjam forum. In particular, some musicians complained that the latency wasn’t as low as promised, although they acknowledged that the software is still in its beta-testing phase.

But perhaps eJamming’s biggest challenge will be to create a large community of musicians who use and recommend the technology–a community similar to the one that exists for Ninjam, says Cynthia Payne, a musician who researched online music-collaboration tools for her master’s thesis at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “People are really loyal [to Ninjam],” she says, mainly because the software is free, and since it’s open source, anyone can modify it to fit his or her needs. “It’s the whole idea of low-cost software and open source, and users having a hand in the creation of the actual software,” she says.

According to user surveys, says Glueckman, the eJamming feedback “has been very positive.” He says that the company expects to launch its official product in September “if everything goes well.” In the meantime, the company will continue to try to improve the user experience, potentially adding a video option, and will try to implement more community-building tools, such as highly customizable user profiles.

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