Live Streaming Tools: JamKazam
By Adrian Eitzen
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Rod the Fader Monkey here, I’m going to write a bit about JamKazam, a software/website combination that lets you and your bandmates jam over the internet. This is not really a tutorial on how to run JamKazam, as the tutorials and instructions on their website are quite good and there are lots of Youtube videos on how to. It’s more about the experience and what’s important to do, and what problems you might encounter and how to fix them. My classic rock band, Section 8, has been using JamKazam for a few weeks with a fair amount of success. We have had to complete some equipment upgrades to solve some problems, and so far it is working OK.
So what does JamKazam feel like? Sometimes it’s really good, from an audio perspective it’s like jamming with your regular band, and in some ways it is better, because the only sound in the room is YOU and you can adjust all the other musicians to suit you. The sound quality is quite good (I use a good quality set of in-ear monitors, and it sounds as good as right out of my mixer). BUT if the latency starts to kick up, it sounds like everyone is a little off time, and you start to feel you are chasing tempo and it just feels loose. It is sometimes like playing with other musicians who’s timekeeping is not that good, so it can be frustrating, but it’s not their fault, it’s the latency!
The biggest issue by far on JamKazam is latency, and specifically RTL, or Round Trip Latency, which is the time it takes for your audio signal to get converted to digital, go through the software driver, get processed by your computer and JamKazam via the internet, then go BACK through the driver and then the audio interface to your monitor/headphone. If this is not managed well the latency is so bad that it’s impossible to stay on time together and very frustrating.
Latency between 20 and 40 millisecond is manageable, anything over that is so out of time that you can’t play together. There are a few quick fixes that JamKazam mentions and you really should listen to them. Firstly, forget about WiFi, this adds about 20 ms of delay just up and down converting the signal to wireless. Accept that you MUST have a wired connection, go buy the 50ft cat 5 cable, and tell your housemates not to trip on it when you are using JamKazam. If your computer does not have a cat 5 plug you might have to purchase a cat 5 to USB connector. We will talk a bit more about latency when we talk gear.
Another source of latency is your internet service, faster is better, but it’s not so much the speed, it’s more about usage and jitter, and I think the usage drives up jitter. So forgive me tech nerds, but here is my simple explanation of Jitter. When data is moved around the internet, it goes in packets. At each end of that transmission protocol is a buffer that sets up the packets, and puts them in the right order, and then also sorts them out if they arrive in the wrong order, which if the transmission system is heavily used, can happen. That buffer adds time. The more Jitter there is, packets arriving in the wrong order and having to be straightened out, the more lag time. If you reduce the size of that buffer to get less latency, then you lose information, so it sounds like the sound goes missing for a split second. If you increase the size of the buffer to eliminate the dropouts that increase the latency to the point you are so off time you can’t play. My band has discovered that rehearsing at 7 PM Sunday night sucks because everyone and their dog is watching Netflix. 1 PM Sunday afternoon, much better! We have also found kicking everyone in the house off the net helps, or at least disconnecting devices that are on but not being used, but sometimes you just can’t do that.
Next, if you don’t have a private rehearsal space in your crib, well, it's going to feel weird, because if you are using headphones it’s like you are singing in the shower, but the shower is in the middle of the living room. Anywhere you can shut the door helps.
Gear you'll need:
You can get on JamKazam with as little as your laptop using your headphones and the laptop internal mic. Our vocalist does this, so right now his investment is the cat5 cable and that is it. It also sounds pretty good! The problem is, and this is the next big thing with JamKazam, the DRIVER for his audio inputs and outputs is slow, so he is JUST on the edge of not being able to use it. If there are any OTHER latency issues, this pushes him into can’t-use-it mode because he is too off time with the band.
As to your computer itself, JamKazam has some recommendations, has to be at least a dual core processor, but I get by with really good results with my 3 year old $400 laptop, so not a high barrier.
Now let's talk about audio interfaces. There are a couple JamKazam recommends that are only $100 or so, they are not sexy but they work. In our band we have everything from a Behringer X32 (works great!) a Presonus 16 channel (also works great), a Presonus Audiobox 2 channel interface (around $300, works really great), one musician that is going through his Helix effect pedal (works OK) and then as I said a person using his laptop and that is it. We did try a small Behringer mixer with a 2 channel USB output for the drummer, but we found the latency an issue and we think it was more to do with the drivers. Our experience is an audio interface in the $150 to $200 range has pretty low latency, and if you are getting latency in other areas, this helps get your TOTAL latency down.
Software you'll need:
When you sign up for JamKazam (yes you have to create a user account) there is a download you get, and that is where you launch your session from. It installs quickly and is not that memory heavy, so it’s pretty simple to do this. Don’t bother trying to launch your session from the web site, it doesn’t seem to work.
What is, however, really important as I said above is your audio device drivers. They recommend having an AISO driver because they are pretty universal and they are also very low latency. Many top level pro audio interfaces use AISO drivers. Most of the half decent equipment you can buy uses AISO drivers. Any problems we still have seems to be more related to the driver than to the audio device itself. Many computers use WPA drivers for the internal audio, and JamKazam identifies them as slow. Remember too, the driver has to match the platform and the audio device, so you can't just swap 'em around and have them work.
How to Set Up a Live Session
Before you create a session to jam with your band, you should make sure everything is working on your end. This will avoid what could be hours of messing around while your bandmates are waiting for you. Start by making sure your drivers for your audio device are downloaded and installed. Then get your audio device to play back something from your computer to your monitoring system so you know both the device and the drivers are working properly. Sometimes THIS can be hours of screwing around.
Next spend some time getting your computer optimized. This will mean setting up your computer power controls to get maximum performance, so things don’t get shut down or automatically go to sleep during your session. Lots of YouTube videos on how to do this, and also instructions for specific Windows builds. Doing this improves your computer performance and reduces latency. Also, ensure your computer is plugged in. When you are on batteries there is often no way to stop it from shutting some things down. After this look at what software is running in the background. There can be a lot of stuff that automatically starts up and runs in the background. You can go through your start up settings and uncheck a lot of things that don’t need to auto start. This also helps reduce your latency. Every computer manufacturer and build has a whole list of stuff you can shut off, search the net to find the list for YOUR box. Having a computer geek friend that knows about this stuff is a real help, if you are not one yourself.
Once ALL THAT is done, you are ready to have a solo session, to ensure your gear is talking to JamKazam. Start the JamKazam software and follow the instructions to set up a solo session. I’m not going to go through this in detail because their Youtube tutorials are quite good. What I did is have the tutorial up on a tablet, so I could work on my laptop and see the tutorial at the same time. Now that you have your gear talking to your audio interface and the audio going into JamKazam and coming out to your monitor, you are ready for a live session. Oh, and a special note, we tended to set up a microphone and use that to chat through (you use a seperate channel on your audio interface, and you get several inputs showing up in your session just for you!). JamKazam has a seperate chat function, but it did not seem to work well and caused issues with the audio interface.
All your band mates should have set up an account with JamKazam as well (and gone through the same messing around you have!), and you can now set them up as Friends by using the search function in JamKazam. Once that is done you can start a session and invite them. Note that you can have a public session (other musicians can drop in and participate, and people can also drop in as an audience and listen) or you can make the session private and only have people you invited able to get in. I HIGHLY recommend you be communicating via another app on your phone or tablet while you are trying to link up, so you can help each other. Finally, a note about mixing, you may have several inputs (vox, guitar, several keyboards) and although YOU get separate adjustments on volume to your monitors for each input, the other musicians do not on their end, so you might have to adjust your input gain on the audio interface so the folks on the other end have a good mix of your inputs together, and THEN you adjust your volume of each input on the JamKazam session window so you have a good mix in your monitor. It would be a bit like adjusting the house mix with the mic input gains, and once that is OK, adjusting your monitor mix to suit you.
Tips You Should Know
So JamKazam is a little quirky and takes a bit of time to get working well. Once you can all hear each other, you are going to have to spend a bit of time on audio levels. Your music gear should be putting out a good signal into the audio interface (ie, in the green with just a bit of yellow but no red, for you LED signal level types), and having a low level there will result in folks at the other end not being able to turn you up enough. Then insure the level coming out to your monitor is OK. JamKazam can go REALLY loud, but that also results in distortion, so ensure your output is not overloading your monitor device. Note that there is a VOLUME tab at the top of the session that controls the overall output volume to you. Yhat usually needs a little tweaking. Also note there is a MIXER tab, which is for your listeners (if you have any) not band members, don’t mess with that.
Oh, by the way if you are using a mixer as your audio interface you might have the ability to monitor yourself through that mixer, and not through JamKazam. Not a good idea, you need to have the stuff coming out of JamKazam going to your monitor output by itself, so you can play on time with the others and to avoid any spooky echo effects.
JamKazam has a few hiccups. And sadly the usual way to fix them is to leave the session and rejoin. The most recent one is suddenly your ability to adjust the volume of an individual player goes away, you can get the volume slider pop up to come up and you can move it, but it has no impact on the audio. Leave the session and rejoin, and it seems to fix the problem.
Speaking of how the controls on JamKazam work, usually you just hover your cursor over what you want (let’s say it’s the volume of another musician) and a pop up will, well, pop up and allow you to left click on the control and adjust. The volume is quirky, if you hover and left click right away it mutes it. If you hover over the most rightward button/indicator in each musician's control panel, a whole window will pop up and let you see all the latency specs in real time. It will tell you what the latency is for the drivers, for the audio interface, what type of driver is in use, even if you are on WIFI, and there is a total number at the top. Honestly, my band spends most of the time with this indicator in the yellow or red, but as long as latency is below 40 ms, we can manage it. This pop up is a great tool for deciding what is wrong and what you might need to work on.
A final comment; JamKazam is a great tool for working with your bandmates to learn new songs and keep sharp during this time of social distancing, but IT’S NOT PERFECT. If any of you remember the movie Ratatouille the character Emile remarks “yeah, It’s OK once you get past the gag reflex”.....This kinda sums up JamKazam. You have to work at it, you have to get used to the glitches, timing is nearly always an issue unless you have perfect drivers, a perfect interface, perfect internet connectivity, and so does everyone else. That being said, as musicians everyone in my band agree that it has invoked a new level of consciousness in our timekeeping and it is improving our ability to play through weird stuff that happens. We find syncopated tunes much tougher, and tunes that pass cues from one musician to another also tougher, whereas straight ahead follow-the-drummer tunes seem much easier. If you can’t withstand or play through a little timing glitch, JamKazam is not for you, but I highly recommend you have a little patience and work through the issues, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the great moments that can occur. We were! It’s keeping us sharp and in touch with our fellow musicians and we always have a good time! Peace!
As noted above, the JamKazam tutorials are good, and there are also lots of Youtube reviews and videos.
Sources? We don’t need no stinking sources! All comments here are the authors own based on several weeks of experience with JamKazam. Disagree? Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Written by Rod