Q&A for Online Sessions I: Is It The App, Or My Internet?

This is the first in a multipart series of Q&A* about the burning question of the hour in the Corona Kerfuffle. How can we sing together on the internet?! 
  • This Part I covers the core question of why lag (latency) is a fact of life and what, if anything, we can do about it. 
  • Part II provides a Livestream Setup Checklist of how to use Zoom and Facebook Live together to broadcast a houseconcert with a remote host and manage a smaller group of singers/workshop participants with a larger group of listeners.
  • Part III will provide some tips and tricks from recent experience on how to create and cultivate community for artists, singers, and listeners online.

Why Can't We Sing Together Online?

Here's a real-life question I got tagged in today.

"I just tried to have a singing practice with my singing partner on-line, but it was a bust! With Zoom, the audio cut out whenever I was singing - so I could no longer hear her. She had the same experience. Useful for a meeting - but not a harmony practice! We tried Skype next, and it was a little better, but still a lot of cutting out. Does anyone know of a better program for this endeavour?"

TL;DR You will not enjoy internet singing on a cell phone. Doesn't matter what app you use. Read on to understand why.

It's Not (Just) About the App

This cutting out is not necessarily (or even primarily) the app you're using. I've heard, and experienced, the same concern with Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, and more.

However, that little yellow window around the speaker in Zoom is a design feature. It automatically tries to switch (mute) from one speaker to another to minimize or avoid latency. This is the lag you will hear when you manually unmute all participants. Try unmuting everyone and you'll see why Zoom tries to fix it for you. Everyone sounds like they're starting at different times. The online session leader from Ireland I'm listening to right now calls it "divine chaos."

You'll hear similar lag in every platform I just listed. For the last five years, I've tested them each with a cappella duos/trios, with instruments, and with up to 35 singers in an online session. I've tried on desktops and laptops. On Mac and Windows. On iPhone and iPad. Free and paid. At home and at work. The problem is deeper than the app you use.

Song Demands More Than Speech

Webinars are designed for meetings and conversations, not concerts and sessions. Latency has particular effects on performers.

"While we can’t generally hear the effects of latency until they are around 15-30 milliseconds (ms), performers can begin to feel them at around 5-10ms. At 7ms, latency starts to mess with our ability to play or sing on top of or behind the beat. Sound starts to feel sluggish at 10ms." (Andy Swanson/Digital Audio Labs)

Latency of up to 15 seconds (not milliseconds!) is common on streaming video, as Matthew Byrne and I experienced in my new digital studio at his livestream concert Live from the Mermaid's Tavern.

So what is a poor harmony singer to do? The sad thing is that ye canna break the laws of physics. Converting analog (your voice IRL) to digital (your voice through the computer), sending it to someone else over the network, and converting it back so they can hear it costs milliseconds and megabytes that add up differently each send/receive for each user depending on your setup.

That means that the cutting out doesn't necessarily depend on the app you use, or even if it's the free or paid version. I wish we could pay to break the laws of physics, but the good news is that you can pay for faster internet. Here's something you can try before your next online singing session.

Check your Internet Connection 

Go to www.speedtest.net and look at the Ping, Download, and Upload numbers. Do the same test on your desktop/laptop and your mobile device (there are Speedtest apps for all platforms). Check a wired Ethernet if you have it (yes, really). Then check wi-fi as physically close to your modem/router as you can get, which may mean climbing over/under furniture and plugging/unplugging computers (without unplugging the router). Finally, try this on cellular, which will be terrible by comparison.

The Ping is the number of milliseconds (ms) it takes for your internet signal to leave your device, go to the server, and get acknowledgment that the server received it. If that number is more than 10, you will be unhappy with your latency (gross simplification but it's a start). For example, on my screaming-fast Verizon Fios 5G wifi, the ping is 2ms. On my cellphone with the same 5G wifi, it's 3ms but on 3G its 8ms. On the phone's cellular, it's 46ms. See? Cell phone data BAD for latency.

The Download speed is how fast you'll get data (audio and video) from your friend(s) so you can hear them. The Upload speed is how fast you can send data to them so they can hear you. On my desktop, it can be 456/452 megabytes per second (Mbps). On the phone with 3G wifi, it's 367/417. On cellular, it's 6/1.3. You get the idea.

There's More, But It's a Start

There are other factors affecting latency, including network congestion, which is how many of your neighbors are on the same internet service provider (ISP). However, latency testing is an easy place to start. Test your network and see where you get the lowest ping and the highest download/upload numbers. Then try unmuting both you and your partner and see if you can handle the latency. If not, try taking turns, or recording melody and harmony and sending them to each other to practice, old-school style.

I know, it's not the answer you wanted, but it's a bit of science for you to experiment with. The next piece in this series will talk about some points of emerging etiquette for leaders, singers, and listeners at a participatory online song session.

*Disclaimer: I am not a network infrastructure expert or an audio engineer. However, I am a performing artist, session leader, and a cappella harmony singer with my own digital studio and 25 years of experience in corporate IT, including technical writing and user support. I've hosted three online song events in the first week of the Boston COVID-19 emergency, and am working it out as we go along.