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JamKazam Just May Save Ensembles in a Virtual Teaching World By Mike Lawson

By Mike Lawson

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JamKazam founder David Wilson was a band kid growing up. He started on trumpet then switched to euphonium. He raised band kids. His eldest son played sax and his daughter plays trumpet in the marching band at Baylor. JamKazam is an online real-time group performance platform for Windows and Mac OS computers. It allows musicians to hear and perform with each other with extremely low latency, and even stream the sum of that performance out via video to YouTube and Facebook Live. 

Based in Austin, Texas, they started out with industry-standard audio interfaces, then designed and built (under a Kickstarter program), the JamBlaster. They exhibited at the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference in 2016, demonstrating a service using that hardware which served as both an audio device and a microcomputer, which at the time allowed the service to be usable over iOS and Android devices. 

They stopped producing JamBlaster because hardware is really expensive, and they were not fully capitalized to continue production. They intend JamBlaster to come back at some point to allow JamKazam to again work with iOS and Android. For now, however, with even an older Mac or Windows machine, JamKazam may be your best option for ensemble instruction and live performance. 

I saw them at TMEA, though I had forgotten about them until COVID-19 locked everyone down. A friend found it and contacted me to sign up and test with him. Some features were not up to date, parts of the website not active (such as the support area), and you couldn’t stream out the sum of the video to the public. 

Facebook groups exploded with chatter. What had sat somewhat dormant, not actively under development, suddenly was getting massive attention. The EDU potential was not only there again, but the need was huge, and immediate. For the past couple of months, I tried reaching out as JamKazam were scrambling to react to the gigantic increase in usage, finally able to secure a conve rsation their founder. 

JamKazam started, then slowed down, and was suddenly rediscovered during the shutdown. You must have been floored last March when this site that wasn’t getting much traffic suddenly exploded.

Yeah, we did. That’s all very fair. I mean, it kind of plateaued. We haven’t ever [had] money to promote it right, so we never really promoted it. It just kind of trucked along with a dedicated following of people who love playing on it. The sense of dormancy for a couple of years is accurate. COVID-19 came along and blew it up, brought a lot of attention to it, which is good and bad. It was good because we believe in it, and we’ve pushed it further than anybody else has in the past. I think the tough thing about it is when people started piling into it in March in vast numbers, we weren’t ready for that. Our knowledgebase articles, all of our help docs about how to do stuff, were on Desk.com, and Desk.com went away. We lost our whole knowledge base, so there were no help docs for it.

We just sat there for a month and we’re like, “Huh, what do we do with that?” Then we warmed up and said, “Okay, we’ve got to get going on this again.” Since then, we’ve done an enormous amount, but there’s still rough edges and we knew what they were. We’ve been maniacally focused on dealing with the specific problems. We’re in that process right now and have made a ton of progress down those paths. Since the very beginning, education has been one of the key areas where we felt there was a real opportunity for us to do something meaningful. This time around, in addition to just helping people play with each other for fun, let’s really go after education and make that a priority for us to do something with.

We’ve had countless teachers inquiring about how to make those Brady Bunch videos, where an administrator says, “Well, go make a virtual performance.” Many of the administrators have no clue what that means, that it’s all hand-edited, and send the teachers off on this chase. That’s one of the reasons these teachers found JamKazam. I tested it. I have a 300-megabit per second connection wired with ethernet, a 12-core processor Mac Pro. I’ve got top-of-the-line equipment. For me, it just worked. 

You don’t need all of that, it doesn’t help you. You want a wired ethernet connection, especially with JamKazam, because we’re streaming. To achieve ultra-low latency, there are a host of things we do. One is to cut all the audio samples into tiny little packets and send a whole bunch of packets every second, and the packet rate you’re sending is intense. The problem with the Wi-Fi isn’t bandwidth. Everybody thinks you need a lot of bandwidth. You don’t. You could do this on 10mbps. Bandwidth and latency have nothing to do with each other. The problem with Wi-Fi is that the router can’t keep up with the packet rate and deliver it with the consistency that it needs, that creates jitter, and jitter creates latency and audio artifacts. 

Another challenge are varying levels of economic resources among students. For some, this is probably not going to be a solution due to socio-economic disadvantages. For others, it’s a miracle. What are the basic system requirements to make this work?

You need access to a Windows or Mac computer. Other than that, it doesn’t really matter unless it’s an ancient one. The JamKazam app is not computer intensive. We’ve run it on dual cores forever. It doesn’t work on Chromebooks, which obviously takes out a pretty large swath of students, and it doesn’t work on iOS devices or Android at all. The system requirements, I would say, [are] Windows 10. It still runs on Windows 7, but I wouldn’t recommend it for that, and on Mac, it’s OS X 10.8 and up at this point, just because of interdependencies on things in the operating system and in our tech stack. 

If you have an older computer, [they have an] ethernet port in them, you get an ethernet cable and connect to your home router. Newer ones mostly don’t have an Ethernet port, but they have a USB-C port and an adapter for ethernet will work. 

Well, it’s a relief to hear the system requirements aren’t that cutting-edge.

You can run this on a seven to 10-year-old machine. We’re providing support in those programs. As we’ve started reaching out to schools, we wanted to make this as inexpensive as possible. We have an optional gear pack that either the parents or the schools can pay for, keeping the cost at a minimal level. We have reseller agreements that package an audio interface, an XLR cable, a microphone, a mic stand, and a pair of headphones starting at $149 dollars and going down, depending on the volume of how many kids the school wants to source that for. 

And when you get that, it’s everything you need other than the computer/webcam. Then you can play together in live ensemble groups. You can record the master mix, and you get the individual tracks of each student all at the same time seamlessly so you can hear each student as well as hearing the whole thing. You could do that for chair tests or individual instructor feedback.

Every student can get a mix that sounds good to them, and the instructor can get the mix good for them. There’s broadcast simulcasting. A big part of every music program is having families and others show up and view the performance. You can actually live broadcast the performances through YouTube or Facebook Live.

That was a huge upgrade we pushed immediately when COVID-19 hit, because we had a way that you could get an audio simulcast, now we have video and audio together. 

You can’t get your whole band or whole orchestra or even whole choir on it in a single session. I’d say it maxes out at about eight people, including the teacher, in a session. [That’s a] decent-sized ensemble together, and you’re keeping kids engaged. The fun part is playing together. 

The speed of light is the speed of light, and the internet backbone moves at approximately the speed of light. But the speed of sound is like one foot in one millisecond. The speed of the internet backbone is around 100 miles a millisecond. And that’s the basis of arbitrage where we can get people to be able to play together.

That limitation of physics actually makes it perfect for ensembles where everyone is in the same community.

We’ve built network acceleration service that guarantees connectivity. So, if the peer-to-peer route that we try fails to connect, we automatically connect you over this accelerated proprietary network, and still get you connected so you can play together. If we detect a connection that we can accelerate, we accelerate it. Otherwise, we just leave it alone.

Is there anything else that you want to make sure the music educators know about JamKazam?

We’re re-vamping the website right now. We have a team that responds to school inquiries at education@jamkazam.com. We have a simple invoice and license agreement so that schools can distribute licenses to the number of students that will participate. We have a COPPA-sensitive onboarding feature for automated, secure student account access. And we offer one-on-one tech support for instructors and students to make sure everyone can get up and running successfully. For K-12 we offer special discounted pricing to make the platform more affordable to this particular educational segment, starting at $50 per student per school year and going down from there based on volume. Pricing for universities remains at $100 per student per year, in line with our general platform pricing.

More info at jamkazam.com

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