Ragazzi choristers singing in a virtual chorus video | Courtesy of Ragazzi Boys Chorus

As anyone who has participated in a Zoom or Skype meeting since sheltering in place knows all too well, the promise of real-time collaboration via the internet has yet to live up to its potential. Weird lags and gaps in the audio signal — commonly known as “latency” — can make it difficult to carry on a seamless conversation and almost impossible to make music together online.

Musicians attempting to jam, rehearse, or perform online find a latency as slight as 15–20 milliseconds can be noticeable, and even that very low level can be hard to achieve for most folks connecting via the internet. Small combos might find it possible to play in synch if latency is below 30 milliseconds, but multiplying participants can compound the problem to the point where coordinating a large chorus or orchestra has been impossible. Until now, anyway.

Mike Dickey

This week the acclaimed Ragazzi Boys Chorus announced the successful testing of an innovative platform that enables real-time remote singing for chorus members. The chorus, based in the heart of Silicon Valley, has been working with Mike Dickey — a software entrepreneur and father to one of the boys in the chorus — who applied his talents and experience to the problem and developed an inexpensive, plug-and-play solution that reduces latency to a point where singers can harmonize in real-time over common internet connections. 

The result is a program called Virtual Studio. Created in partnership with Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) as part of the JackTrip Foundation, the new software has been tested with Ragazzi and will be deployed to all choristers in Ragazzi performance ensembles, aged between 5 to 18 years old, for the fall semester. Virtual Studio simply requires log-in to a website with a device powered by free custom software for choristers to sing together in large groups (up to hundreds of singers).

Dickey explains the difference between the JackTrip technology used in Virtual Studio and other music-oriented online-collaboration programs such as the popular Jamulus:

Most platforms use a “peer-to-peer” (P2P) technology model, which limit their potential scale to only a handful of musicians. Jamulus uses a “client-server” model, which enables it to support many more musicians than P2P.  However, Jamulus has a single-threaded design that still limits it to about 30–50 musicians. After that it hits a wall, regardless of how much computer power you are able to throw at it.

JackTrip is unique in that it supports both “peer-to-peer” and “client-server” models, and it scales extremely well for large groups. I’ve simulated up to 500 concurrent musicians running JackTrip using a single audio server. Real world usage doesn’t always map to lab testing, but we’ve been running live rehearsals for the past few months with members of Ragazzi, Cantabile, and Stanford’s Marching Band. Soon we plan to start running live rehearsals involving hundreds of choral members.

Jamulus and other platforms also use lossy audio codecs, while JackTrip uses lossless, studio-quality sound. The difference in quality is quite noticeable, and this is especially important for professional organizations who want to record and perform for live audiences.”

Ragazzi Artistic and Executive Director Kent Jue said, “Ragazzi is thrilled to be a pioneer in this game-changing venture. Choruses have been devastated by the pandemic, and the need for music and community is even greater in these uncertain times. Through Mike Dickey’s extraordinary work, Ragazzi is continuing to build our musical brotherhood, grow essential skills, and sing together despite being apart. Soon, this project will also allow choruses and other musical ensembles across the world to lift their voices in virtual song.”

According to Jue, “[Ragazzi’s] last live rehearsal was on March 11, 2020. Since then, we have had to cancel three concerts, two tours, and our summer camp. Our administrative and artistic staff have been working overtime. We’ve stayed in touch with our families, keeping them abreast of our curriculum developments. Brotherhood, friendships, and connections are an integral part of the Ragazzi experience. Many of our choristers have participated in our summer musicianship classes and optional free Zoom classes to stay connected and try new learning platforms. In addition to the Ragazzi Virtual Studio, additional technology has been introduced to allow choristers to make recordings, learn theory, and organize their online learning.”

Ragazzi Artistic and Executive Director Kent Jue | Credit: David Allen

Because Virtual Studio is audio only, Jue said that the visual component of conducting rehearsals is handled via Zoom sessions. “We do have an accompanist using the same technology and have sometimes used a click [digital metronome], when appropriate.” He added that the demands of singing together while physically separated has had some positive impacts.

Interestingly, the boys are required to listen to and attend to the music in different ways. They need to be more accountable for learning their parts before coming to rehearsal. Once in the Virtual Studio rehearsal, they are required to use their listening skills, rehearsing skills, and their innate musicianship — all that we’ve developed in Ragazzi — to come together as a remote unit. I’ve seen tremendous growth in the individual development of the boys.”

The hope is that the technology will work well enough to support live performances. Jue said, “The boys who have already experienced singing together live, even while remote, have expressed gratitude and joy. The smiles that light upon their faces when they hear their buddies singing along with them in time is priceless. It makes you realize the depth of the current devastation from the loss of the art form we love so dearly. We plan to document our process and look forward to sharing the results of rehearsals and performances soon. Stay tuned!”

Ragazzi choristers singing in a virtual chorus video | Courtesy of Ragazzi Boys Chorus

When asked about whether Virtual Studio will become available to other music organizations, Dickey said, “The JackTrip client is free and open source software (MIT license). Anyone can download and run it on a laptop or desktop computer.” As for the particular plug-and-play device that makes Virtual Studio so effective with Ragazzi, Dickey explains, “[The] plug-and-play device makes it extremely easy for musicians to get up and running. You don’t have to install any software, configure any drivers, or change firewall rules. You can just plug it in, register your device via a web browser, and start singing. JackTrip Foundation plans to make this publicly available for purchase within the next several weeks.”

Musicians everywhere have reason to celebrate.