FIG. 1: Jeff Klopmeyer''s Second Life avatar, Zak Claxton, plays a New Year''s Eve event for a crowd of revelers.
Picture this: you're at a gig, tuning up your guitar, when suddenly an 8-foot-tall, pointy-eared gothic elf flies into the room. He is greeted by a purple-skinned, scantily clad woman, who then teleports herself into a seat near the stage.
No, you're not hallucinating. You've entered the online world of Second Life (www.secondlife.com), which is quickly becoming a popular new place for musicians to perform live in front of appreciative audiences.
Brave New World
Developed by Linden Lab (www.lindenlab.com), Second Life (SL) debuted in 2003, but it has taken off over the last two years, with the number of participants soaring from 100,000 to almost 13 million. While that doesn't mean you'll meet 13 million SL residents every time you enter, you'll see that 40,000 to 50,000 folks are on at any given time.
The Second Life experience is simple — think of it as a three-dimensional version of the Internet. Each resident is represented by an avatar, a kind of cartoon version of a person that users can customize. Some residents create outlandish avatars for themselves that range from anthropomorphized raccoons to muscle-bound he-men and well-endowed supermodels. Others (myself included) try to re-create their own real-life image as much as possible (see Fig. 1). When you sign up, you choose from a list of available last names, which is how I became the resident known as Zak Claxton when I got involved in 2006.
The Second Life world is laid out on a giant grid and is created completely by its users. Chances are, if you can imagine it, someone in SL has created it. To get around, you can teleport directly to locations, fly around the grid, or (for a slower-paced experience) simply walk. Dozens of virtual venues have been built specifically for the purpose of live music performance.
Compared with other audio projects, setting up a performance in SL is fairly simple. First, you need a sound source, which for me consists of a Martin D-18V acoustic guitar, a set of Hohner harmonicas, and my voice. To capture the sound, I run two condenser mics — a Groove Tubes GT57 for my voice and harp, and a GT30 for my guitar — into a Mackie 1202-VLZ mixer. The stereo output goes into a Digidesign Mbox interface followed by an Apple MacBook Pro. (The mixer isn't necessary, but I like having a tangible control surface for levels, pans, EQ, and so on.) Most performers in SL are singer-songwriters like me, but if you have more than one person playing, simply send a stereo mix of your sources into your computer interface.
FIG. 2: Klopmeyer''s simple real-life setup consists of two Groove Tubes mics, a Mackie mixer, a Digidesign Mbox, and an Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer.
Photo: Courtesy Jeff Klopmeyer
Next, you stream the audio, like an Internet radio station, so it can be received in Second Life. I use Rogue Amoeba's inexpensive Nicecast application (Mac, $40); Windows users can use WinAmp's Shoutcast plug-in or a third-party app like SpacialAudio SimpleCast ($139). If I'm playing for only a couple of people, that's all I need. The software provides a streaming address that gets plugged into the virtual venue's media stream, and everyone in the area where I am performing can hear me play.
Once your audience grows beyond two or three people, the limitations of your Internet connection's bandwidth (even on cable or DSL) won't serve the audio correctly, or at all. At that point, you need to rent a Shoutcast server, which typically can stream to 100 listeners at 128 Kbps, which is similar in audio quality to a standard MP3. Although you can rent your own stream through Shoutcast, it's easier and cheaper to rent it by the hour from an SL resident who offers this service. However, I rarely need to provide my own stream, because the venues where I perform almost always have their own. The venue gives me a stream URL and password, which I plug into Nicecast's server settings. Once that's done, I'm ready to play.
Because you are streaming audio through multiple servers, you won't want to monitor the playback through SL. The resulting latency is pretty high, and it can take up to 30 seconds or more before your music is heard by the audience. Consequently, I monitor only my input signal, and that generally works fine. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that the audience will let you know if there's a problem with your sound.
In my small studio, I position the mics so I can watch the computer running SL, which allows me to interact with my audience like at a real-life gig (see Fig. 2). I can chat with folks between songs by responding to the text messages that pop up onscreen as the audience communicates with each other. I even take requests from time to time.
The only disconcerting aspect of this much latency is that after I finish a song, 30 seconds can go by before I get any kind of audience reaction. I just assume the folks are going to applaud, so I thank them proactively before I've even seen the first kudos, which arrive as text messages.
You're probably wondering how you control your virtual self while in real life you have both hands on your instrument. You simply plant your avatar on the stage, and the animations built into your virtual instrument will strum the guitar or play the piano with enough realism to be entertaining to your fans. This allows you to concentrate fully on playing and singing your music.
Some instruments have a variety of animations built in, so you can pick the movement that works best for your style. These range from gentle strumming to Pete Townshend—like windmilling and jumping around the stage.
Showtime in the Metaverse
I recommend attending several shows in Second Life before attempting to do one of your own. You can check out SL's in-world event listings under the Live Music category. (Events are also published on the Second Life Web site at www.secondlife.com/events.) If you find an event that looks interesting, simply click on the Teleport button and you'll appear at the show.
Residents have built a wide variety of venue types, ranging from giant amphitheaters to small clubs, jazz lounges, and dive bars (see the sidebar “Building a Second Career”). Typically, you can just walk up and find a seat, or hit the dance floor if you're in the mood. Every kind of music is welcome, from mellow folk and jazz to house, techno, and metal.
Virtual Show, Real Money
Second Life has its own in-world currency known as the Linden Dollar (L$), which can be used to buy clothes and other items, as well as services and virtual real estate. Although there is no cost to join SL or to participate in everything it has to offer, if you want to own land (think of it as renting server space), there are fees involved.
The view from the stage of Johin''s Blue Note Club in Second Life. Mike Lawson''s realistic touches include P.A. speakers, floor monitors, a jukebox, and even a popcorn machine.
The in-world currency is exchangeable for real-world cash. Just like with a real-life gig, your compensation for performing is negotiable. Some venues pay their performers a set rate, with popular artists commanding higher fees. Other venues don't pay artists at all but allow them to set out a tip jar so the audience can show their appreciation with a little money. Most of my gigs involve a bit of both; I charge a relatively low fee to the venue but also accept tips.
Before you get too excited, note that it's been my experience that it's rare for an SL gig to bring in more than $10 to $20 in real money. Not bad, though, considering I don't have to leave my living room (or change out of my sweats) to do the gig. And I can do as many shows per week as I choose. However, there are other benefits to playing in SL beyond monetary compensation and convenience.
First, this is an easy way to promote your music to an international audience. I've cultivated a fan base in SL, many of whom have expressed interest in purchasing my next album when it's available. Second, every performance gives you an opportunity to hone your craft.
SL is hungry for live music. I once played a show in the middle of a weekday and found 40 to 50 people waiting to see me when I arrived. Try that at your local coffeehouse.
An Avatar, a True Star
You can become a well-known musician in Second Life through promotion, just like you would in your first life. However, it's much easier in Second Life because this online world represents only a portion of the real world (at least for now). Although you can use SL's events listings to get people to your shows, you can also join groups that help promote live music there. Beginning performers will be happy to know that many venues have open-mic times; those are a good way to get your name out.
There are Web sites and forums dedicated to the Second Life music community, such as http://slmc.myfastforum.org. As you get more serious about your SL career, you can set up a Web site or MySpace page for your avatar, as I've done at www.myspace.com/zakclaxton. There, I announce upcoming shows, talk with fans, post photos from previous gigs in my blog, and do all the stuff you'd do to promote a serious real-world band or artist.
There is a lot more to discover about Second Life. Try signing up for the basic membership, which is free, to get the hang of walking around and teleporting throughout the grid. Then go to a show or two and get the vibe. Before you know it, you might end up as a rock star — virtually, anyway.
Jeff Klopmeyer (aka Zak Claxton) is a music/audio technology expert with more than 25 years of experience as a gigging and recording musician. Despite his Second Life escapades, he still loves playing in the real world.
Building a Second Career
FIG. A: Mike Lawson plays a concert in Second Life (as Von Johin) from his home in Nashville.
Photo: Courtesy Mike Lawson
I've performed in clubs, festivals, street fairs, and concert halls since I was a teenager, but I've grown tired of the normal gig scene. I started performing in SL as Von Johin after learning that an old friend, ambient musician Tony Gerber, was gigging there. Eventually, I bought land and built a venue, Johin's Blue Note Club, making it look like an amalgam of the juke joints I've played around the country. Every Wednesday, the club fills to capacity, which is about 20 people seated and 35 standing. My wife soon joined SL and learned to make clothing and other items to sell. We bought more land and attached it to the club, and Johin Village was born.
To make the club feel realistic, I added a jukebox, a pinball machine, and a P.A. system with floor monitors. Von Johin sits on a stool with mics for voice and guitar, while people dance in front of the stage, sit at the bar or tables, or stand and socialize in an open chat as he plays. They can also type in song requests.
I capture my real-life audio with a pair of Violet condenser mics — a Globe for vocals and an Amethyst Vintage for the guitars — going through a Focusrite Platinum Penta preamp/compressor into a Digidesign 002R interface (see Fig. A). When I travel, I use an Mbox 2 interface and use the high-speed Internet connection at the hotel. When you see Von Johin holding a Gibson J200, it's because I'm playing a Gibson J200. When he switches to a Gibson J160E or Hound Dog Dobro, it's because I've switched in real life. I don't have to do that; I just think it's fun.
I use Nicecast for streaming. It hosts AU and VST plug-ins, so I can add reverb if I want. But I find that effects can make things less stable, so I broadcast dry. I use a direct cable connection to my high-speed cable modem. Wireless and SL is not the best combo due to packet loss of data, and you're asking for problems if you do a show wirelessly. When I'm not performing, I use Nicecast to send music into my land and club from my iTunes playlist.
Renting a Shoutcast stream from another avatar in SL costs me $16 a month for 100 simultaneous listeners. (For slightly more, I can have unlimited listeners.) I also use Nicecast to capture a 128 Kbps MP3 archive of all my shows, which I edit and make available on the Von Johin Web site (www.vonjohin.com), because I often get requests from Internet radio operators in SL for my recordings.
In the first few months, I played about 40 concerts, earning the equivalent of $40 to $50 in Linden Dollars (L$) at each performance outside of my club. The exchange rate is about 1,000 L$ to 4 U.S. dollars, and my average take each show is from 10,000 to 15,000 L$ in tips from concert attendees and fees from the club owner. Obviously, when I play my own club, I don't get a fee from the owner, so I earn about 5,000 L$ less there. Sure, I make half as much as I would in a real club, but I don't have to leave my house.
And I now have fans all over the real world who log on to hear me play. What's not to love about that?