The ability to perform together is imperative to any music school experience. So, what happens when a pandemic challenges students from sharing music in the same physical space? Over the last year, staff, students and faculty from The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music implemented innovative technology solutions to help keep everyone connected, despite physical distancing.
The big experiment says Luis Henao, director of Music Technology and Production at the School of Music, was how “to play together, but to be safe at the same time. And, the only way to do that is to find technology solutions, which was a big challenge.”
To overcome this hurdle, Henao and colleague Jose Carillo, assistant director of Music Production and Instructional Technology, researched various software that would allow students to play together from the safety and comfort of their home in as close to real time as possible. Commercial video conferencing software such as Zoom typically produce a lag time that prevents musicians from precisely aligning their parts. As a result, the technology team consulted with colleagues who were adopting similar technology at other music institutions. The technology team decided the best solution was to move forward with implementing two software programs called SonoBus and Jamulus, which provides low latency. In simple terms, this decreases the lag time for audio and live performance streaming to travel between musicians.
With solutions for remote learning and performing falling into place, it was also important that students and faculty know how to use them. The newly formed 2020-21 Graduate Council noticed the urgent need for technology training following the rapid change to remote learning.
“It’s a matter of equity,” said Graduate Council Secretary Janet Kim. “We didn’t have any practical workshops in place for this new technology to allow people to understand how to use this software to have a better and more robust experience in a classroom setting.” Therefore, the Graduate Council members contacted Inaugural Dean Eileen Strempel, who quickly connected them with Henao’s team. “The dean supported all of it,” said Kim. “She’s the one who got the ball rolling.”
The outcome was the launch of virtual tech workshops on topics ranging from “Digital Audio Workstations Production: Basics” to “Recording Yourself: Set-up, Hardware, and Connectivity” to “Telematic Performance: Jamulus,” and more. 200 people attended the training boot camps, taught by experts and several members of the Graduate Council.
“We wanted to give students and faculty a repository of centralized recommendations to say, ‘Here’s what could work very well for you,’” said President of the Graduate Council Anthony Constantino.
Henao and Carillo also offered customized one-on-one training sessions for students and faculty tailored to their specific needs such as how to install the software or how to connect their microphone for their particular instrument or combo.
As the School of Music moves toward re-opening for in-person and hybrid instruction this fall, upgrades to classrooms and other facilities will also be key to allowing students to perform together effectively and safely. Work has been ongoing behind the scenes to connect pairs of classrooms with low latency connections for real-time audio and video music sessions between those spaces. Henao’s team set up six pairs of rooms in the spring of 2020, which will be used for lessons and other collaborations.
The paired classrooms are just one technical solution the team executed. Another, explains Henao, is “to send audio through the local network that is called Audio over Ethernet. The same way you can use the local network to print something, you can use it to send audio.” This technology allows students and faculty to connect from any room at the School of Music with a data port that delivers real-time audio using the correct hardware and software through the Ethernet. This will also make collaboration possible between multiple rooms.
Henao used Professor of Global Jazz Studies Arturo O’Farrill’s Jazz Combos ensemble rehearsal as an example. “Arturo can be in his own studio, and just needs to connect the microphone to the wall, using the data port where you connect your computer. Meanwhile, each student could play from their own classroom or practice room after connecting their microphone with their data port. Everybody can then listen to each other, so they can play together in sync through the local network.”
Another vital component to the upgrades is livestreaming. While the School of Music already had the capability of livestreaming performances before the pandemic, all classrooms will now be able to livestream for hybrid classes in the fall.
Staying connected also means staying informed. Those returning to campus in September will notice new high quality digital signage in five locations throughout the School of Music. Monitors in the hallways will display messages about facilities, student services and campus announcements. A new screen in the Evelyn & Mo Ostin Music Center Music Café will feature upcoming events and public announcements, and a kiosk in the lobby of Schoenberg Hall will show event promotions.
“I think it’s going to be a great way to communicate with students in areas of the building where there is high foot traffic, and also share information with the general public,” said Alex Echevarria, operations manager for the School of Music, who is coordinating the digital signage project along with Brian Runt, content marketing manager for the school’s strategic communications and marketing team.
These forward-thinking technology solutions and upgrades represent the School of Music’s continued investments in producing 21st century leading-edge work. As a result of being at the forefront of implementing low latency connection for the School of Music, Henao is now serving on UCLA’s campus committee, which focuses on providing a consistent level of AV technology to all classrooms campuswide. With this swift shift in adapting to emerging technologies, students are also newly equipped with lasting benefits and skills.
“After the pandemic is finished, I don’t think these new demands for music and audio technology are going to be going away,” said Constantino. “As musicians, we’re still going to be expected to work in this way now.” Kim seconded that, “These are actual tools that are necessary during the pandemic, and moving forward, as students need to send out audition recordings or similar projects.”
We are thrilled that our students are prepared to flourish in the ever-evolving musical landscape and look forward to enjoying the upgrades firsthand.