The first e-orchestra?

I’ve wondered recently whether a group of musicians could perform together live online.

The problem with playing music is that you need the feedback of the other players in order to understand where you are in the piece, and to react meaningfully to the circumstances of the piece.  With an orchestra, each member works in harmony with the others (often literally), compensating for balance changes and working with the imperfections that are inherent with human-created music.  If the tempo is slightly faster than you’d expected, you don’t resolutely stick to the tempo you know to be correct.  If your instrument is tuned slightly flat, you can compensate (with stringed instruments, at least) by playing sharp.  And if your fellow members are drowning you out, you can play slightly louder to ensure your section can be heard.

If you set the 50 members of an audience off on the same piece of music at exactly the same time without any feedback along the way, they’d all end at different times and the result would be a cacophony.  Hence the need for a conductor.

So what if we had an online orchestra, each member playing in physical isolation from their fellow members, connected only by the internet.

Here lies the problem.  Your fellow members need your audio feed to be played to them to allow them to play their own piece in an informed way; and you need your fellow members’ respective feeds to be played to you to allow you to play in an informed way.

Even in an orchestra that is collocated of course, the finite speed of sound means that there isn’t the immediate feedback.  Assuming an orchestra pit 14 metres in diameter, the harps (stage left) won’t hear what the double basses (stage right) were up to for a whopping 0.04 seconds.  (At sea-level, at least.)  With the internet, we’re dealing with the speed of light (880,991 times faster than sound), but with a physical distribution greater than 14 metres, and processing steps in between.

So here’s my question: if everyone had a pretty decent broadband connection and a musical feed piped directly into something internet-enabled, how long would it take for the feeds from the c. 50 members that make it up to be amalgamated and piped back to the people?  If it’s a small fraction of a second, then we’re in business.

If so, then I propose getting out my dusty old violin (not a euphemism) and arranging what might be the first orchestra never to meet.  Maybe on Twitter.  To inform whether or not to do this, I’ve constructed a detailed decision-tree.

Techies, is this doable?

If yes, then: Musicians, are you interested?

Else: sorry to have wasted your time.  Carry on.


One Response to “The first e-orchestra?”

  1. slatfatf on November 13th, 2009 15:09

    I think you are wrong. Members of orchestras do not use audio feedback to achieve what they need because even in a reasonable sized orchestra the sound from the others in terms of timing would be confusing. That’s why they al watch the conductor to get the timing in and the beat. Visual clues (speed of light) are ok, speed of sound, not ok.

    So on the internet you would need the equivalent of a conductor. That can be accomplished by setting the tempo and aligning the clocks. Then a simple regular check of the latency between the clocks of each remote instrument would allow you to align the instruments. If you then played the final sound maybe with a 0.5 second delay you could align all the instruments in the clock signals and hey presto all would be in sync.

    You would not sort the tuning issue or volume but you could equally balance the sounds of the instruments electronically (simple). The tuning is just down to getting good players.

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