When I was a child I used to enjoy watching The Jetsons cartoon. I don’t remember many details of the characters or plots, but I was especially fascinated that they drove a spaceship to school, had a television-phone and a robot doing housework. That was the mid 1980s. All but the first of those amazing things have come true for me now in 2020 – I have a television-phone (also known as Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp video, FaceTime on my iPhone and computer) and a robot vacuum cleaner running around my apartment pretty much every day. Life is good! And it just recently got better: I can now play music in real time with friends over the Internet.
It’s a lot of fun, it really actually works, and as daunting as it may seem – it is not that difficult to set up JamKazam and Jamulus if you carefully follow the detailed, user-friendly step-by-step instructions provided by some wonderful members of ACMP! Moreover, if you run into trouble, we already have 13 volunteers on ACMP’s new Technology Task Force. Full disclosure: I already owned all of the equipment suggested for an optimal experience with both programs. But, if you do not – you will most likely spend somewhere between $150 and $300, perhaps even less if you take advantage of ACMP’s sweet custom discount at Sweetwater! Details are provided on our members-only Member Discounts page.
Following Susan Alexander’s excellent and detailed instructions in her online Guide to JamKazam, I had no trouble at all setting it up and a few days later I had a duo session with ACMP violist and recent JamKazamer Carol Kirsh (also ACMP’s representative for Toronto on the North American Outreach Council.) For those of you who missed it, please read Susan’s article here. My take-away from my personal experience on JamKazam is: definitely follow all of Susan’s instructions, including her recommendations on getting optimal audio quality! She explains how to turn off your own “compression” and how to turn off the compression of each new player you work with and get them to do the same. Once I did this, the sound quality was excellent and the latency was negligible. I live in the Bronx, and it felt like Carol was right here in my living room.
Now on to Jamulus!
ACMP Cellist and Vertical Violist Mike Tietz co-authored this excellent step-by-step guide “Jamulus for Chamber Musicians” with Bruce Kinmonth and Tom Frenkel.
This guide is geared towards people running Windows on a PC. My computer is a Mac, but Mike Tietz assured me that I could follow the guide, with 3 small differences. If you use a Mac you can skip step one – i.e. there is no need to download the “ASIO driver.” Step two is downloading the free Jamulus software – and that experience is also a bit different on a Mac. It is really easy, but there might be one little glitch when you try to open the Jamulus application. Jamulus provides simple step-by-step instructions here.
The third main difference for setting up Jamulus on a Mac is that your Mac computer may not automatically allow Jamulus to access your microphone. That did not happen to me – but if your first experience of Jamulus is “radio silence,” click on the little apple icon on the top left corner of your screen, click on “System Preferences,” then click on “Security and Privacy” (for me, it is the sixth icon in from the left in the top row), and then there is a row of four tabs, the fourth of which is “Privacy.” Click on Privacy and you should see: “Allow the apps below to access your microphone.” Make sure Jamulus is checked, and you are ready for your big Jamulus adventure!
Once you have downloaded the Jamulus software (and the ASIO driver, if you use a PC), follow Michael, Bruce and Tom’s Jamulus guide to a T. It all works! So far I’ve had a few string duo sessions and one string trio session, playing music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Hennessy. Even though it’s audio-only, you can actually make great music together, including accelerandi, ritardandi, starts, stops, general pauses... And of course you can always Zoom together afterwards if you want!
A few little tips from my experience:
- When you open Jamulus, you can see who’s playing on the public Jamulus servers. You can even listen in (discreetly) to ongoing Jamulus playing sessions by connecting to a server where you see people playing. Before going any further, create your own Jamulus profile. Once you open the Jamulus application, you will see these menu options on the top left-hand corner of your screen: “Jamulus, File, View, Edit, Help.” Click on “View” and select “My Profile.” You can edit the profile any time, and it is incredibly simple. That way, once you connect to a server, the other musicians will able to see who you are and what instrument you play. They may even talk to you and invite you to jam!
- The next step is choosing an empty server with a low “ping time” in your area, and testing your own sound. That’s a good first chance to play around with your mic level. I suggest starting low and bringing it up. If your mic is too “hot” you might hear an annoying crackling sound.
- It’s in the guide – but don’t forget: mute yourself and set your headphone level to very low or 0 before dropping in and listening to other people’s sessions. I did not read the fine print, and was amazed that so many musicians were playing experimental ambient drone music when I hopped from server to server. Then I realized I was hearing feedback!
- You need to use headphones – and not the kind of headset that comes with your phone, with the built-it mic. That mic will confuse Jamulus!
- Finding a server – if you are like me, you may not notice that there are multiple public server lists. The “Default” list comes up first, but check out all the other tabs for more options.There are two ways to get to the server menu – by clicking “connect” on the main screen, but also by opening the “View” menu on the top left-hand corner of your screen and selecting “connection set up.” This is useful when you are already in a session and want to hop, Jetson-like, to another server.
- The one tricky thing about Jamulus is avoiding that crackling sound I mentioned above. Here is a trick that worked for me in the three sessions I have had so far: When you go into Settings, on the bottom left corner make sure “Enable Small Network Buffers” is checked (that is the default.) And below that you can choose your level of buffer delay. The middle one (5.33 ms) is recommended – but I tried the lower latency (2.67) and turned my microphone down to around 50%. If all players do the same, then there will not be trouble hearing everyone. Moreover, you have a separate place to set your headphone mix. If it doesn’t work, don’t be discouraged! Keep experimenting until it goes away or try another server.
- Lastly, once you’ve connected to Jamulus, try to set up a playing session with one of the ACMP Technology Task Force members (aka “Jamulus sherpas.”) They can give you an “online tour” of the Jamulus servers, lists and etiquette, walk you through the screens, explain the settings, and get you started playing with useful tips. Then you’ll be all set to organize your own groups and play!
I highly encourage you all to try Jamulus. As outlined in the guide, it works best with some gear, but you can start with just a computer and some headphones and take it from there. So, read the “Jamulus for Chamber Musicians”guide here and let’s get started!
JamKazam or Jamulus?
How about both?
I am too much of a novice to make a recommendation one way or the other, but I think the main difference is the social dynamic of the two applications.
Unless you know someone with a private server, anyone can drop in on any Jamulus server at any time. The plus side: it is a thriving musical social scene – the kind we have all been missing since being sequestered at home because of COVID. People are respectful and will not interrupt you, but if you want to make new friends – and meet musicians online - they are there for the making! In fact, Mike Tietz actually found me on the first night that I was setting up Jamulus and testing my sound, and we ended up playing a duo by W. F. Bach at 11:30pm. ACMP member flutist Cyril Penn dropped in on a trio session I had a few days later, too. It was very nice to “meet” him and I see flute quartets on the horizon…
If you prefer a bit more privacy, JamKazam might be more for you – where you actually have to set up a session and invite friends. Or maybe you have both options, and it depends on what you are doing and on your mood that day.
Some other differences: JamKazam has a video option and Jamulus is audio only. But, to make JamKazam work with optimal sound and the lowest possible latency, you MUST turn off the camera, anyway. I had it on when Carol and I were tuning and got that annoying crackling sound. It is however fun to turn on the camera when you are taking breaks.
Another recent difference: starting on January 1, you will have to pay for JamKazam. The price plans are reasonable, and worth supporting. All the more reason to try it now, since everyone will get all the paid features for free through December 31. However, Jamulus will remain free!
I am still in the very early phases of this research and will keep writing with more updates on Jamulus and JamKazam, and anything I will discover through my upcoming adventures with SoundJack and Sonobus. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have leads to any new and exciting information!