How to play together online

by Saul Richardson, PhD

It IS possible to play music online with other people in real-time. You need some special, but common and easy-to-get equipment. Here’s what you need:

1.     A decent broadband internet connection. Even Australian NBN will do the job. You don’t need massive bandwidth, but decent upload and download speeds are important.

2.     An audio interface.

This is a device that goes between your instrument or microphone and your computer. You plug a mic or an electric guitar, bass, keyboard, etc. into it and then connect it to your computer using a standard USB cable. Here is a photo of a very popular model, the Scarlett 2i2 made by Focusrite. This one lets me connect up to two instruments or mics at a time or one guitar and one mic.

The photo shows the audio interface with a guitar plugged in via a 1/4 inch jack on the left, a mic lugged in via an XLR jack in the center, and headphones plugged in on the right. The USB cable connecting the interface to my laptop comes out the back and passes by the right hand side.

Scarlett 2i1 audio interface

3.     Connect to your router or modem via ethernet cable.

Many laptops, such as the one in this photo have an ethernet port that makes this possible, and virtually every desktop should. If your laptop doesn’t have one, then you can buy a cheap adaptor that lets you use a USB port instead.

Here’s a closeup photo of an ethernet plug:

You really need to plug in, not just use WiFi. Connecting via ethernet cable will give you the best chance for good results. WiFi can sometimes work, but it is likely to be much worse, giving a poor-quality and unstable connection.

4. If you are playing a wind or acoustic instrument you will need a microphone with a standard audio connection (called XLR or ¼ inch) that you can plug into the interface. DON’T USE A USB MIC!

Here’s a photo of an XLR plug next to a very widely-used mic, the Sure SM58.

XLR and SM58 mic

Instruments like electric guitars, basses, keyboards, and some mics connect to the interface via a ¼ inch plug:

1/4 inch jack

5.     Headphones that you can plug into the interface. DON’T use USB HEADPHONES!

All the gear should connect directly to the audio interface. The only thing you should connect directly to your computer is the interface. This equipment is common and easy to get (although it may sell out in Australia due to short supply during Covid lockdowns). It is most often used for recording music on a computer and is an excellent resource to own, just for that purpose. That means it is a good investment that will stay useful even long after lockdown is over.

As well as the hardware, you will also need:

6.     Software.

JamKazam and Jamulus are two good examples of apps that let you play music online with other people (including music lessons).

I would recommend JamKazam as slightly easier to use and with better privacy and safety for children and young people. Be aware that it can still be tricky to set up and, although the performance of the software seems to have improved in the year since I reviewed it an educators guide to JamKazam, the stability, ease of setup, and support have not. They have also moved to a paid subscription model, albeit with a free option, before bugs have really been ironed out. There is a 30-day free trial of a full-featured version after which the free subscription is more limited. Even the free version seems ok, and why not support the developers by paying for a cheap subscription?

Please be aware, if you are going to use this for music lessons or children &  young people: there is a global chat function in the program that seems impossible to disable. You don’t have to use it or look at it but it is always there. This is a problem because it means that anyone, anywhere in the world, could chat to your child or student.

An alternative to JamKazam is Jamulus, but unless you know how to set up a private server (let alone know what that means), it has zero privacy for users. Not only can strangers chat at will with your child or students, they can enter your jam session too. For the purpose of adults jamming together all around the globe, that is brilliant but it is problematic for child safety. Should you wish to try Jamulus, you will probably find it to work a bit better than JamKazam.

It takes a bit more effort and equipment to set up than Zoom, but it can be worth it, especially if you want to play together with other musicians over the internet in real-time. Good luck and have fun.

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