Network[updated 06/06 per poorsod’s comment below]
Mike at Garagespin brought my attention this morning to Lightspeed Audio, a company promising real-time internet musical collaboration. Lightspeed claims: “[Our] media collaboration technology platform allows musical enthusiasts to create digital-quality audio over the Internet in real-time.

Their technology, as described (it’s not available yet,) differs from existing offerings like NimJam, Net Music Makers and Collaboration Central, which aren’t real-time, and the original eJamming software which was MIDI-only. Most likely, it’s closer to Audio Fabric‘s Desktop, and eJamming’s just-announced, and inexplicably named, AUDiiO. Both of these support the real-time exchange of full audio.

“Real-time,” however, comes with a caveat in this context, one that Lightspeed doesn’t hint at: You might meet your band mates virtually, but their physical location still matters.

Stories and images of musicians jamming on the Internet remind me of three things: Bell Sympatico; my experience 8 years ago with Guitar FX Box; and The 500-Mile Email.

I think first of Sympatico for reasons obvious only to Canadians. Bell ran an ad campaign here called “Online Jam,” and the spots (shown every commercial break for 6 months back in 2002) presented an assortment of musicians, located all over the world, rhapsodizing in a virtual jam session. They sure seemed happy to have their DSL modems, these visually appealing, geographically diverse virtuosos. And every musician I know wanted to jam with that guy in Kenya, even if we couldn’t speak his language.

But Bell gave up the ads when we figured out, thanks to Myspace, that music on the Internet is visually appalling … and mostly out of tune.

Guitar FX Box comes to mind next because of the revelation it brought. Billed at the time as a “digital stompbox,” the program convinced me to finally plug my electric guitar directly into my computer. Until then, recording with my PC involved Cakewalk, a Sound Canvas, and Cooledit (back when it was free) with a cheap old mic.

I had never hooked up an electric guitar, because raw lined-in guitar sounds horrible. Guitar FX Box promised to change that with all manner of effects to fatten up the dry signal. And it delivered, after a fashion. The effects themselves sounded good. But my interface was a lowly Soundblaster Live card for which, in 1999, no ASIO or WDM drivers existed. So the latency I experienced was significant, on the order of 40 milliseconds. It shocked me how disconcerting I found this; and I was enlightened, to the importance of hearing notes as I played them.

40ms is well above the threshold of human perception, and generally considered unacceptable for any musical use. Especially for percussive instruments, like drums and fast-picked guitar, latencies larger than about 10ms tend to distract the performer. A good analogy for this effect, if you haven’t experienced it first hand, is the awkward pauses exhibited by newscasters and their remote interviewees talking via satellite. Granted the delay in those cases is closer to 500ms, but the effect is the same: Humans (and musicians) simply aren’t comfortable with a world that doesn’t respond in a timely manner.

The 500-mile Email is a great story which I’m about to spoil for you if you haven’t read it.

In brief: A network technician discovers that his server can only send email to machines within a 500 mile radius. There’s no technical problem with the remote machines, and the Internet is working fine. He’s puzzled, because “distance” is a meaningless concept on the Internet. And yet his server just fails to send messages any further than 500 miles. He finally tracks the issue to a bug which causes all outbound connections to break after 3 milliseconds. So any message that takes longer than 3ms gets cut off, and aborts. The punchline: emails travel at the speed of light, and 3ms happens to be the time it takes light to go 500 miles.

Over the distances we deal with in our everyday lives, the speed of light is effectively infinite. But that changes on the Internet. In fact, signals on fiber optic networks travel a good deal slower than the speed of light. The fiber itself slows light to 2/3rds of its usual speed, and the various routers and switches that a signal encounters along the way slow it even further.

The effect is so significant that Google’s network design allows for it, as described in Google vs. The Speed of Light:

one of the biggest long-term problems the internet faces is that of Latency (communication delay) due to the limits of light speed. Light is just too slow for instant communication.

“Instant communication” sounds a little like “real time jamming” …

Audio Fabric cover the effects of latency on real-time jamming:

Although any type of musical interaction is sensitive to delay and latency, a certain amount is acceptable. As long as the audio stream you are receiving from your collaborators reaches you within 40ms from the time the sound signal was created, you should be able to synchronize reasonably well. This is particularly true when the music is played at slower to moderate tempos. Musical sychronization[sic] among players at faster tempos, such as Bebop Jazz or Speed Metal jams, is optimally achieved when the one-way delay is at or below 30ms.

In my experience (though admittedly not with their service,) 30ms is the absolute upper threshold for tolerable latency. Even playing a swelling pad on a keyboard, 30ms is enough that the keyboard’s response feels “off.” Consider, too, that jamming is inherently bi-directional. Musicians keep themselves in time with visual and audible cues, and you know how important this is if you’ve played with a hearing-impaired drummer.

So one-way delays of 30ms become two-way delays of 60ms. And this completely ignores any latency in the signal chains at either end of the connection.

Of course, that’s why Audio Fabric ultimately states “you can collaborate in real-time in hi-fidelity with only those who are within several hundred network miles of you.” And barring any changes to the laws of physics, Lightspeed Audio will offer the same caveat.

I don’t mean to minimize the potential of Lightspeed’s technology. Assuming they don’t render their name ironic by offering trans-continental jams, and assuming their “low-latency value-added network and audio CODEC technology” are as exciting as the marketing department believes, they’ll still offer a reasonable real-time experience for local musicians.

But make no mistake: the dudes you jam with will speak the same language as you.

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