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05/15/2006 - VPnet Project Passes Musical Milestone

Last Friday, the usually hushed halls of Eastern Washington University’s Center for Network Computing and Cyber Security (CNCACS) swelled with the sounds of improvisational jazz, as EWU music students wielding saxophones, trombones, guitars, bass, and keyboards participated in a milestone experiment. This was the second experiment in the distributed music project -- a VPnet, Craig Volosing, and EWU collaboration. The long term purpose of the project is to enable musicians to interact live at a distance over a computer network as if they were playing together in the same room.

Friday’s experiment was designed by Volosing, a local professional musician, founder of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra, and Principal of Craig Volosing Event Service Associates in the Triangle’s Courtyard Office Center. Dave Corder, EWU graduate research assistant, was chief technical operator under the guidance of Steve Simmons PhD, CS coordinator for the project.

The EWU music department was an essential partner in the experiment. Music students were recruited by Jonathan Middleton PhD, as music coordinator for the project, and by Matt Loiacono, music student and music team leader. Patrick Winters, music department Chair was a high-level project supporter and facilitator.

In this experiment, the immediate purpose was to impose tight scientific control to the maximum extent over all of the variables. The experimenters wanted to know first and foremost, “would it work?” Following that, they wanted to take both scientific measurements and subjective measurements. The music students chose to use jazz for the baseline music because jazz improvisation brings out the greatest challenge for working over a network.

To conduct the experiment, two rooms in the Computer and Engineering Building were converted to music studios. In each room, identical music input consoles for microphones, digital pickups, and a network conversion device were installed. Between the two rooms, a custom created, high performance network was installed. This network was created by Corder. The network had a 100mb band rate that was utilized at a solid 4mbs with no ups and downs. There was no packet loss or any variation of throughput.

All of this equipment could be precisely controlled. The scientists could pick their own CODEC – could choose their compression algorithm, sampling rate, and also control the entire network. There was no interfering noise, and no other traffic on the network. There were simply two endpoint devices and one central switch for complete control. The experiment was in audio only – no video was used.

For best control, the music input was kept simple. The baseline experiment used one student musician per room for a “cyber duet”, and the musicians used digital instruments – an electric bass and a digital keyboard. However, the students wanted to broaden the experiment and see what would happen if they used non-digital instruments that would have to use a microphone. They added a trombone and a saxophone to the mix. There were two different sub-experiments -- one all digital with digital instrumentation, and another acoustic with digital instrumentation.

Each duet played three different songs – one slow, one medium, and one fast. The songs were: Autumn Leaves, Angel Eyes, and Impressions. After each duet played, they were asked to fill out a survey. This was subjective, and they rated tone quality, time quality, and overall satisfaction on a scale of excellent to poor. The consensus of the musicians was that tone quality was adequate, but the time was unsatisfactory. All agreed that on the fastest song, there was a delay of one-half beat. Since the musicians had digital metronomes that they could synchronize, they could affirm the one-half beat delay quantitatively as well as subjectively.

According to Simmons, Director of CNCACS, “This was a big success. We got results based on a scientific study with results that we can duplicate. Therefore, we can now improve the outcome. It was a fun experience, and I loved the zeal and quality of the students involved.”

There will be another very similar experiment next Friday. Before then, the system will be fine tuned to eliminate the delay.

Billie Moreland
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