Today we continue to explore making music over the Internet. Last time out, we considered the challenges of recording an ‘as live’ set for an online festival. This time round we raise the stakes and have a go at playing truly live by taking part in live online folk club.
The Carrington Triangle Folk Club is a long established and much loved club based in Nottingham, where it’s been running for at least 30 years (we know from personal experience having been going there for that long!). The club’s spiritual home is the upstairs room of the wonderful and quirky Gladstone pub at the heart of the Carrington Triangle area of the City. Like its namesake the Bermuda Triangle, many go in, but few come out – at least not before closing time.
The club was hosted for many years by the legendary Grenville Raymond Bendigo Blatherwick, local singer, beer lover (Shipstones) and member of the underground, anarchist folk collective The Higglers. As host, Gren was largely responsible for the club’s quirky and ofttimes baffling (at least to guests) traditions of whistling bird noises whenever a bird was mentioned in a song, drawing ‘losers’ tickets’ from the raffle, closing each evening with the legendary phrase ‘sup up and sod off’, and of course, the weekly interval curry. Sadly, Gren passed away two years ago and is still greatly missed. Who will ever forget his wonderful renditions of Dicey Riley, My Budgie has Turned to an Orangutan, and unusual versions of the Wild Rover. At least William continues on with the curry. Anyway, we digress …
During the COVID-19 lockdown, club regular, guitarist and singer Phil Harrison has taken this venerable institution online, still meeting once a week and still operating a singaround format in which regulars take it in turns to sing one song each before passing on the baton. At the time of writing the online version is in its twelfth week, and regularly attracts between ten and twenty performers who are steadily learning to grapple with the new technologies and new ways of taking part. Here’s a clip of Carolan performing at the club. The song is the Hesitation Blues and yes, the audience is rather hamming it up a bit.
Going online has involved a steep learning curve for all concerned. Luckily, Phil also has a background in Internet technologies, including video conferencing, from his work at The University of Nottingham, which makes him an ideally placed to lead the charge. Over to Phil for a few practical tips on using Zoom …
“In mid March 2020 when lockdown began, Phil and some of the Carrington regulars did some tests using Zoom, decided to try Facebook Messanger instead, then reverted to Zoom again after finding out about its “Original Sound” option [see below] which Messenger did not provide. We also thought Messenger would tie participants too much to Facebook. The “Original Sound” option is now available in Zoom across all platforms, except Linux.
Phil has a Pro account on Zoom which gets around the 40 minute limit on the Basic account and hosts meetings for a variety of other groups as well as Carrington. During singarounds, the host mutes everyone’s microphones, except the next performer, to avoid unwanted interruptions. Participants can unmute themselves at the end of a song to applaud and make comments. We usually get around the “room” twice over a couple of hours.
Another feature of Zoom is the ability to set a “virtual background” which puts a picture of your choice behind you. It works best with a green background but can work without. This has been used very effectively by some performers to illustrate their song.
Another tip is to invest in a good quality mic. Phil uses a condenser microphone through a mixer and a USB mini sound card. The mixer allows him to increase the treble response slightly which makes the overall sound a bit clearer.” [Carolan used a Yeti blue USB mic in the clip above].
As Phil’s comments reveal, and just like when trying to get a good conventional live or recorded sound, there is no magic bullet here. Rather it’s about tackling your whole signal chain, trying to make each stage as good as possible. So, the source matters – how you play and how your guitar sounds – as does the mic you use – a proper recording mic is likely to be better than a laptop or webcam mic. However, going online introduces some new elements into your signal chain that you also need to consider:
- Your network connection needs to be the best possible. Try using a wired connection (e.g., and Ethernet cable plugged int your home router) rather than wireless one. Consider booting the rest of the family off of the Internet if you dare!
- You need to select the right settings in your software, eg., switching on the ‘enable original sound feature’ in Zoom.
Finally, let’s dig deeper into some of the underlying reasons why it can be difficult to get a good live guitar sound over the Internet, though this involves us introducing some networking jargon.
The first concept we need to grapple with is bandwidth. If you think of your Internet connection as being a pipe connected to an extraordinarily complex plumbing system, then bandwidth refers to how much digital stuff – video and audio in the case of Zoom – you can manage to cram down the pipe before it becomes full and things start to block up and no longer flow through properly. This all depends on the quality of your Internet connection, i.e., your Broadband and wireless if you are using it. However, it also depends on who else is busy online at the time. Are other people sharing your Wifi, or is it a busy time when everyone is at large on the Internet? It’s complicated, but the bottom line is you can only get so much down the pipe, and often not sufficient to deliver high quality sound.
Luckily the geeks who develop platforms like Zoom are smart folks and the software does some clever things to mitigate the problem of bandwidth. One of these is only allowing one person to talk at a time, so in Zoom you’ll only every hear one voice or instrument on its own, with the loudest one ‘grabbing the floor’, even if swapping between them can be pretty quick so you hardly notice. Another involves throwing away less relevant bits of the sound to make the amount of data smaller, hopefully while still leaving the result useful. Given that Zoom is intended as a conferencing tool, the software uses techniques to ‘optimise’ the sound for voice, and especially speech.
All of which may be great for delivering intelligible talk over thin Internet pipes, but does leave many musicians with a problem. While a normal Zoom connection can work very well for unaccompanied singing (much to the delight of this contingent at the club!), the effect of all this ‘clever’ software can be to make guitars and other instruments, whose sound is different from the human voice, sound weird. To my mind, acoustic guitars in video conferences often sound like they are being played through a phaser effects pedal – all well and good for 1970s psychedelia, but not quite the mustard for traditional folk. The notes on an acoustic guitar may fade away slowly for example, which becomes a problem when using ‘noise suppression’ techniques designed for speech which tends to cut off more quickly. Luckily, Zoom lets you turn off this software cleverness and revert to ‘original sound’ instead, which is one of the features that make it attractive to musicians.
In the long term, Internet bandwidth may improve for us all – assuming telecommunications companies can roll out fatter pipes quicker than we keep producing more content. Until then, your ultimate option might be to call up SpaceX and inquire about the possibility of launching your own satellite (a use for the Carrington’s raffle money perhaps?).
Do I hear the bell for ‘last orders’ ringing? Before closing, we’ll flag up another key technical constraint, that of latency – how long it takes your sound to make it through even an unblocked Internet pipe. This greatly affects the ability to play together simultaneously. We’ll return to this challenge in a later post. Until then, sup up and sod off.