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02/29/2008 - Distributed Music Achieves Success

The first local experiment in distributed music -- a VPnet, Craig Volosing, and EWU collaboration -- emanated from the Sirti Boardroom over VPnet in April of 2005. The experiment was a promising failure. 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. Over the intervening years, the project has plugged away in a succession of experimental failures, under the direction of Dr. Steve Simmons, Professor of Computer Science (CS) at EWU and chair of the Terabyte Triangle Board. The continuing project, called MANIME (Metropolitan Area Network Interactive Music Environment) has the same purpose, but now specializes in delivery over a MAN as opposed to wide area networks. Finally, just last week, a team of EWU CS students and musicians achieved a successful and reproducible result.

In order to play as if next to each other, but actually at a distance, musicians can’t tolerate too much time delay in the transmission. More than 20 milliseconds is too great. Past experimental failures showed that any off-the-shelf system, e.g. Polycom or Access Grid, would not work for this purpose. The problem of delay was found both in the endpoint equipment and in the connecting network. The MANIME team had to design and build its own system, using basic hardware and software components they selected, tested, and put together. The process took a bit over 9 months.

The EWU team got a lot of help from Dr. Chris Chafe’s group at Stanford University where related research was being carried out. Stanford supplied some components and specialized knowledge on how to use those components. JACK, software for capturing and controlling audio, was a significant contribution, along with JACKtrip, which sends audio out of JACK on a “trip” to another computer also running JACK. JACKtrip didn’t support optimization for a MAN, so an EWU graduate student wrote a potentially faster, better, as yet unnamed, component. The most fundamental piece was changing the operating system from Windows to real-time Linux. Linux gives the control over the operating system needed to boost the speed of the transmission.

The musicians and scientists at Stanford are using a WAN (Wide Area Network) and have the luxury of connecting directly to a GigaPOP, whereas at EWU the project is considered a “last mile” problem. Ultimately the musicians will play over a MAN which can connect to a network such as the EMAN or the Inland Northwest GigaPOP.

The EWU students carefully selected all the components for their system. “It was surprisingly tricky to design that system,” says Simmons. “This was new territory without any real guide.” The system needed special headphones. The mixer was very tricky to select and adapt. The system uses no audio compression because that slows everything down. The system had to be very fast but still have good quality sound. Then the network itself had to be fast. For the most recent experiment, the network was very simple – just two Cat 6 cables connecting to one Cisco 3750 switch. The time delay was one tenth of a millisecond at its worst.

Professional rock musicians (and EWU computer science students) Justin and Erik May, tested the equipment during the latest experiment. They were in different rooms, with no video, connected only by the gigabit network. They reported that the experience was exactly like being in a recording studio – just like being side-by-side. They could detect no delay no matter how fast they played.

Distributed music research is on-going with more experiments planned for the next academic year. One experiment will be to find out what happens when there is other traffic on a network, as there would be on a MAN.

Billie Moreland
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