Best services for online music jam (2021)

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(Last Updated On: March 4, 2021)

Introduction

It’s 2021 ! Last year I’ve published an article on the subject and it’s now time for a review of the latest online music jam services.

Let’s have a look at what you need to jam online with other musicians while in isolation (or for other reasons).

Gear required:

Notes on Latency

What is latency and how much is tolerable ?

In a nutshell, when you are playing with another musician on the same room, the sound travels from your instrument to his ears at the speed of…. sound !

But when jamming online, the sound will be converted to electrical signals and the travel time will depend on many factors as discussed further here. The total time that sound takes to reach the other musician’s ear is latency.

In this Stanford paper there is a summary of research done with real musicians to verify how much latency is tolerable. For this context, the latency measurements are one-way (so from musician A to musician B):

  • Ensemble performance was possible with latency at or below 30 ms. This is equivalent to around 10m, so similar to being 10m away from the other musician when in the same room.
  • Up to 50 – 70 ms was tolerable but performers would switch to leader/follower mode, no longer ‘jamming’ with each other. 
  • This of course depends on the person, their experience, their coping mechanisms for latency, their instrument and the type of music being played

Latency sources:

  • Acoustics. Whole in general minor compared with the other sources, this depends on how distant from the microphone you are (if singing), so the recommendation here is to stay as close as possible.
  • Audio Interface. Even best USB interfaces will add a bit of latency due to the processes used to perform analog-to-digital and digital-to analog conversions. So recommendations are to a) use a professional interface not your computer’s sound card, b) avoid USB microphones.
  • Home Network. Avoid Wifi, use Ethernet cables plugged to your computer and then directly to the router.
  • Internet service latency. Fiber-to-the home will be the best, and DSL will be the slowest of most broadband services available. High bandwidth does not necessarily equal low latency, so test and optimise or change ISP if needed. Jitter and stability of connection are important factors here.
  • Geographical latency, Internet backbone. Of course this depends on your region’s infrastructure, but generally across the ocean is a challenge, and you’re likely to find out that you can jam with people around 300 to 500km around you (190 to 310 miles).
  • The software being used. They will have different audio codecs, different buffer settings for audio interface, and different ways to deal with network jitter and latency. 

Architectures

Peer-to-Peer

Pros

  • No central server
  • Lowest latency

Cons

  • Higher computer processing requirements, as each machine processes streams from every musician
  • Higher Internet bandwidth required
  • Tricky to configure
Peer-to-Peer
Peer-to-Peer

Hub and Spoke

Pros

  • Easier to configure
  • Minimal processing and bandwidth requirements

Cons

  • Requires a central server
  • Adds latency as signals have to be routed via server for every musician
Hub and Spoke
Hub and Spoke

Services

JamKazamJamulusJackTripJackTrip via MTASonobus
NatureCommercialOpen SourceOpen SourceOpen Source + CommercialOpen Source
CostFree is limited, 3 tiers of paid subscriptionsFreeFreeServer for hireFree
ArchitectureNot disclosedHub and spokePeer-to-peerHub and spokePeer-to-peer
Audio qualityReasonable, codec not disclosedReasonable, Opus codecGreat, DVD quality PCMGreat, DVD quality PCMGreat, even supports hi-res PCM but can be compressed if needed
LatencyReally depends on finding jams with local musiciansDecent if musicians are close enough, best of all testedHigher as a trade-off of the higher audio qualityHigher as a trade-off of the higher audio qualityHigher as a trade-off of the higher audio quality
ConfigurationEasy, follow GUI instructionsOK, needs some tech experienceRequires experience with IT / techOK, needs some tech experienceEasy considering it’s peer-to-peer
UsabilityPolished GUI, really looks like a commercial music appSimple GUI, easy to understand and setup the mix for the sessionRequires experience with IT / techServer is easy, but each musician needs to start Jack and the use the command lineSimple GUI, easy to understand and setup the mix for the session
SessionsPrivate or publicPrivate or publicPrivatePrivatePrivate or public
Extra featuresVideo calls, broadcasting, recording and even busking. Social media – like platform.Chat box, recording on the serverNoneNoneAbility to add backing track and metronome, recording
List of solutions for online music jams tested

These are the latest online music jam services I’ve tested. Of course it is an ever growing list…

Jamulus
Jamulus
JamKazam
JamKazam
Jack Audio
Jack Audio
JackTrip MTA Server
JackTrip MTA Server
Sonobus
Sonobus

My tests – some real world data

Jamulus – all musicians in Mebourne, VIC, Australia – around 50ms round-trip (25ms one way). The ‘overall’ latency and ping-time (round-trip) can be seen on the GUI.

We did once jam from Melbourne VIC to Brisbane QLD, which are 1776 km apart (1100 miles) and latency round-trip was around 70~80 ms (so 35 to 40ms one way) and we were in leader/follower mode with the drummer in Brisbane and other musicians in Melbourne.

JackTrip via MTA (Musicians Together Apart) – slightly higher latency, better audio quality. This was measured with an experiment as the GUI does not show latency.

SonoBus – close or below Jamulus, with better audio quality. The latency to each musician, and on each direction can be seen on the GUI (it’s peer to peer so numbers will vary for each pair of musicians).

JamKazam – not tested in Australia, but US-based friends report it’s a bit higher than with Jamulus. One-way latency can be seen on the GUI and seems to vary for each musician connected, which indicates a possible peer-to-peer architecture behind the scenes.

Links

Conclusion

The latest online music jam services evolved quite a lot over the past year. We are now in a much more evolved state, with great offerings in terms of apps and services, and heaps of people jamming online. Can’t wait to see how this will evolve over the next year. And here are a few videos on the services mentioned above.

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