Thanks to the efforts of a close-knit technology partnership, jazz musicians in three US locations were able to play together seamlessly at a series of recent gigs.
Currently marking the 40th anniversary of the opening of its first Blue Note jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Blue Note Entertainment Group (BNEG) is synonymous with live jazz around the world, operating or licensing venues in countries including Brazil, China, Italy and Japan.
Like many other performance-driven music organisations, it has explored various options to remain active during the pandemic, including the hosting of live-stream gigs and, more recently, some socially-distanced in-person events.
But arguably the most innovative of these projects was a series of shows in late June that featured ensembles performing together despite the musicians being located separately, hundreds of miles apart.
It all started with a suggestion from Amit Peleg, founder of AV design and integration services company Peltrix, who had previously worked with BNEG on a pioneering internet concert series out of its NYC club in the 1990s.
“I confess that I do like to push technology to the next step,” he says. “It is a lot of hard work, but you can be really excited and inspired by what is achieved.”
With considerable previous experience of using Audinate’s Dante audio-over-IP technology, Peleg wanted to explore the notion of a distanced music performance with Dante as its foundation.
“Music was the driving force here as there is no application that is more time-sensitive,” he says, adding that whilst the idea came about before the pandemic it proved to be more of a “necessity in lockdown. There was a lot of discussion about whether you could do a show where the musicians are situated separately but are able to play together in real-time.”
Peleg’s main collaborators at Audinate were platform architect Glenn Dickins and senior technical training manager Patrick Killianey.
“We came away with a range of latency that was acceptable and [the knowledge that we would] strip away any latency that did not need to be there. We really needed to chase every millisecond,” Glenn Dickins, Audinate
“Dante has been used in distant applications, crossing public and private networks,,” he recalls. “It had even been used in music production, but the musicians never felt connected. We knew part of this was the latency of the link – we needed to find the threshold that was acceptable.”
Chasing every millisecond
Before actually creating a distant network connection, the team began with tests to determine how much latency was acceptable to musicians. Given that jazz is a music where interplay between musicians is paramount – and where there is no tradition whatsoever of using click tracks or guides – it was inevitable that there had to be a laser-sharp focus on achieving the lowest possible latency.
In September 2020, BNEG provided three musicians and a venue, Sony Hall in New York, for a test exercise. The musicians were placed in sonically isolated rooms, connected by a common sound system. They could hear themselves instantly but using a matrix of delays and mixes the test leaders adjusted the time they would hear other musicians. This proved to be a perfect stand-in for the distance connection, offering the ability to experiment with different values in a short time-frame.
At Amit’s request, BNEG chose musicians that had not played together previously.
“I didn’t want them falling back on familiar habits to compensate for latency,” Peleg explained. “I wanted them to play based on what they heard – nothing else. The booking agent chose musicians whose styles would mesh, so they could form a band quickly. And boy, did they!”
The team developed some latency ranges that were labelled green, yellow and red. Dickins recalls: “We came away with a range of latency that was acceptable and [the knowledge that we would] strip away any latency that did not need to be there. We really needed to chase every millisecond.”
With these still somewhat vague ranges in mind, they approached telcos with an awareness of whether any proposed links would work. If the suggested system did not meet their latency targets, then they simply wouldn’t build it; instead, they would carry on searching for the right set-up. Notes Peleg: “Researching all of this was a 3-month process.”
The design started as an audio-only link for musicians, not least because Dante AV - Audinate’s more recently introduced AV solution – was not available as the project planning began. But Killianey recalls: “As we moved forward, Dante AV and this distance performance project serendipitously came to fruition at the right time.”
Ultimately, it was Peleg’s call to make: “We felt comfortable with Dante AV and decided to use it for the performances.”
Held across four days in late June 2021, the four gigs featured three different ensembles, led by Robert Glasper, Lisa Fischer and Maurice Brown. Band members were dispersed across venues in three locations – New York, Washington DC and Nashville – with a 750-mile span. Utilising both Dante audio and Dante AV networking technologies, Dickins stated it was possible to achieve links between cities with a Dante playout latency of “between 6.5ms and a hair over 14ms”.
At each venue a monitor engineer mixed on a Yamaha console (two PM7s in New York and single CL5s elsewhere), used in conjunction with pairs of RSio64-D interfaces. Each of these was equipped with a trio of MY16-Dante-AUD2 cards.
On the RSio64-D one Dante port managed the distance latency, while the other provided locally split signals at a more useful local latency of 0.5ms for recording, intercom and other audio requirements. Meanwhile, the video was captured with Bolin D220 Dante AV cameras and Patton FPX6000 Dante AV encoders/decoders. Footage was shot in 1080p and at 30fps, although some onstage video screens for the musicians were running at 720p/60fps.
As anticipated, a 1Gbps Layer 3 Shared Fibre connection proved sufficient to route both audio and video around the three-location set-up. Whilst the video production did entail some special tweaks and the support of Audinate’s R&D team, the audio aspect was achieved entirely using solutions that are already on the market. Killianey remarks that the Dante AV products which are shipping today “would work totally fine on your LAN. For the video distance connection, there are a few features being refined for release towards the end of this year.”
With the June shows deemed to have been a significant success, the project was the subject of a recent webinar featuring extensive input from all the main parties. “There is discussion about future projects along these lines,” says Killianey. “The idea of a distanced classical concert has been suggested, and we have already spoken with a few organisations to show that this is now a possibility.”