Going Remote

EJamming lets far-flung users play together in close to real time.
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As its name implies, eJamming is more focused on the jamming aspects of music than it is on recording. Nevertheless, it does allow you to record 16-bit, 48 kHz audio of your online sessions. It's free to join, and features the eJamming AUDiiO software, which is a downloadable, standalone program available for both Windows and Mac.

Getting up and running takes a little time, because you must first signup, download the software, and then familiarize yourself with the workflow and various settings. The eJamming Web site strongly advises that you watch the video tutorials, which are helpful, as is the site's FAQ section.

Taking It for a Spin

My friend Doug Hall, who is the owner and chief composer of Propeller Music and Sound Design (www.propellermusic.com), agreed to help me test out eJamming. To get started, we both signed up (which is free, and only takes a few minutes) and downloaded the software at our respective studios. Almost as soon as the software was launched, we were communicating through eJamming's proprietary chat system, which works just like instant messaging. You can chat privately with your collaborative partner, or open it up to the eJamming population in general. The chat application shows you the other players who are in "the lobby," and you can communicate with them if you so choose.

The eJamming tutorials make no bones about the issue of latency (which they refer to as "sync delay"). In any realtime online collaboration, latency will be an issue. It takes time for the signal to go through the Internet. What can make it worse is distance. The further your location is from the person (or person's) you're collaborating with, the longer the delay. The eJamming software offers two settings, Better Quality, and Distance/Players. Both default to 25 ms of delay. The latter offers lesser quality audio, which allows you to keep delay times from getting too large in long-distance or multiplayer situations. You can adjust it, but the lower the setting the worse the audio quality that you hear.

Other features in the eJamming AUDiiO browser include an optional click track, and a button that toggles on and off the record function. When you're done with a session, each player can receive 16-bit, 48 kHz, time-stamped files, locally recorded, of the tracks from the session. The quality of these is superior to what you hear during the session, which is compressed to reduce latency.

Once Hall and I were up to speed on the basic procedures—we had each spent about a half hour reading FAQ material and watching tutorial videos—and we had our software installed and running on our respective computers, I created a session (you can choose between a private session and one that's open to the eJamming users in general, I chose the former). Right away, we were able to hear each other's audio. We both had guitars plugged through modeling processors and then plugged direct into our respective computers' audio interfaces. Hall had initially tried plugging in a mic, but the sound quality was very crackly and noisy.

The eJamming AUDiiO software also lets you work in the MIDI domain. It has a basic sound set that's built into the software. According to eJamming, the delay is lower with MIDI jamming than audio jamming.

The Delay Way

The Web site tutorials tell you to wear headphones when using the eJamming software, rather than listening through speakers. "We require you as a player to focus on the [musical] time in your headphones, says Gail Kantor of eJamming, "so that you forget the mechanics of what you're playing and your pocket is in your ears." In practice, I found that easier said than done.

The first thing both Hall and I noticed when our audio came through the headphones was the delay. At 25 ms, it was pretty disconcerting. We each tried lowering our delay times (using the Sync Settings knob in the software), but the lowest I was able to get it to without significant audio degradation was 18 ms. Hall wasn't able to comfortably set his lower than 25 ms.

While communicating through eJamming's chat facility, we tried our first test song, a basic blues with the click set to 100 BPM. After one chorus, we were both struggling mightily to stay with the click. Mind you, we both have a lot of experience recording and doing session work, so we're totally used to playing with a click. But with the sync delay, it was nearly impossible to stay with it.

I then turned off the click, and things improved somewhat. Nevertheless, finding the pocket was beyond both of us. We were able to play through a number of choruses of the blues, and a subsequent minor-key jam, but it never felt quite right; I always felt like I was in slow motion.

According to eJamming, one can get used to the sync delay with practice. I'm dubious that would ever happen with me. I found that playing with the delay seriously impaired the "groove" aspect of playing music. According to Kantor, eJamming surveyed its 7,000 plus user base, and about 80 percent of them are able to adapt to the delay. "We have found that many [users] are okay with 20 ms," she says. "Many are okay with ridiculously high [delay settings]; people are going as high as 50 ms." But, she adds, "if you are a highly scrutinizing player and you don't want to put up with one moment of discomfort, then I would say that it's not for you."

Although jamming with somebody in Europe sounds like a cool concept, the reality is that you're going to be facing longer sync delays, or lower-quality sound when working with people who are geographically far away. Hall lives only about a mile from me, and we couldn't realistically get below 18 to 25 ms of delay.

Get Your Tracks

Finding the pocket may not be that easy, but recording on eJamming is. You just press the record button in the upper part of the software, hit the main record and play buttons, and your part (or parts) are recorded to a user-specified folder on your hard drive. As long as the leader (the person who initiated the session) hits the Send Tracks button when you're done with the session, each participant gets time-stamped files of the recorded audio or MIDI tracks.

The quality of the recordings is good, and you can upload reference tracks for your collaborators to play to. So theoretically, you can do more than just jam on eJamming, you can do remote recording—if you can deal with the delay.

It's not entirely fair to hold eJamming to professional-music standards. Their target audience is more consumer than pro. "The mission was to create the convenience for musicians; amateur and semiprofessional, and maybe some professionals will see uses for it," Kantor explains. "We do see there are uses for it. People are using it now. There's a couple of guys writing their new CD [together], they live in separate countries in Europe."

As connections get faster, services like this might get even easier to use. "As fiber optics become more embedded in the structure, we'll start to see even faster performance," Kantor told me. But, she added, "we'll never get lower than 10 ms [delay] per 1000 Internet miles."