Grand Central Chorus - singing together "live" in online rehearsals

Grand Central Chorus - singing together "live" in online rehearsals
Type of post: Chorus news item
Sub-type: No sub-type
Posted By: Paul Searson
Status: Current
Date Posted: Mon, 1 Mar 2021
The past year has been unusual for all singing groups, to say the least! We’ve had to adapt to new challenges of virtual rehearsals and have grown accustomed to performing to our computer screens. At Grand Central, like many other choruses, we had to quickly switch over from our regular ‘real-life’ rehearsals to online sessions on Zoom. We were fortunate to have a fast transition, with plenty of support provided for our members to get used to the new technology. However, it became increasingly apparent that it would be a while before we were able to be singing together in the same room. Whilst Zoom is fantastic in that we can all see each other, it has its issues with sound latency. We’ve probably all tried singing together over Zoom at one point or other and found the results to be both frustrating and hilarious! Furthermore, anyone who has tried to direct over Zoom will know it’s not a full experience as you miss out not hearing the sound from your singers. We continued rehearsing with Zoom, having fun each Wednesday night, but in the background we were looking for other platforms which might enable us to sing together. One important aspect for us was that it should be affordable (ideally free), and we didn’t want our members having to purchase expensive sound cards or technical equipment.

Richard Curtis had come across the open-source software, Jamulus, in late May. It was marketed as software to enable live rehearsing, with very little latency. This was the key element – the low latency means the sound arriving at both singers is close enough to be in ‘real time’. How this works is the sound from each singer is sent to a central server, which can be public or private, and is then re-transmitted to the singers, meaning all the sound arrives to everyone at the same time. Furthermore, as open-source software, it’s continually being improved upon and updated by the active development community. Richard and Mark Soave had their first trial of Jamulus just before the AIC Show in July, even managing to sing a few polecats with two Barbershop Harmony Society members in the US. From then on, Richard made it his mission to get Jamulus working for Grand Central Chorus. Within a few weeks (and after a lot of adjusting settings!) we were able to have a small group on a public server and this was enough to convince the Executive Committee that Jamulus was an idea worth pursuing. The establishment of a server for the chorus was approved, as well as the purchase of chorus headsets for each member.

During late summer and autumn we were working hard to iron out the kinks, before finally being able to have our first Jamulus rehearsal in early November. We were thrilled to have nearly 40 of us all able to sing together for the first time since March! Just hearing the chorus hold a four-part chord on an ‘Ah’ was a special moment. Who knew a warm up could be that emotional…! Since then, we haven’t looked back, with almost all of the chorus tuning in on Jamulus each Wednesday singing together. We can go into section rooms and hold sectionals, play teach media alongside our singers, and have a chat after rehearsal. The only thing missing from a true rehearsal experience was the visual element.

Then, over Christmas, Frank Salter contacted us about a low latency open-source video software he’d come across called Jitsi Meet. He was able to set up a Jitsi server to run alongside our Jamulus server. It works similarly to Zoom in that it is a video conferencing app but, crucially, Jitsi has very low latency. This means we can have Jamulus open for the sound and Jitsi open for the visuals, and they are both in sync with very little latency (~20-30ms), so we can see and hear each other in real time. This has opened up a whole new world for us as directors, being able to live direct a song and hear our singers react to our gestures. As singers we can share our performances and work on visuals whilst all hearing how the performance has affected our sound. Simply put, it’s as close to a ‘normal’ rehearsal as possible. We’re all so excited about this! At the time of writing, we’ve had four full rehearsals with Jamulus and Jitsi, and of course there are teething problems, but each week it gets better and better.

None of this would have been possible without the support of our Executive Committee, and our very capable ‘technical team’ Paul Searson, John Amstrong, and most of all Frank Salter, who have been crucial in setting up private servers for the chorus, providing an excellent walkthrough for getting started with Jamulus, and helping many of our members get comfortable with the new software. We are also so grateful to the chorus for being willing to jump into the unknown with us and try out this new way of rehearsing with such gusto!

If any of this sounds interesting to you, please don’t hesitate to visit our “Contact Us” page to get in touch with us for more details, or to arrange to visit one of our online rehearsals.

Mark Soave and Richard Curtis, Directors of Grand Central Chorus