A year ago, many teachers were just hearing about Zoom for the first time. Zoom is a great videoconferencing app, and most music teachers and students are now familiar with it, making it a great low-barrier option. Zoom also recently upgraded it’s audio capabilities in September 2020, making it an even better tool for online lessons. But all videoconferencing apps have tradeoffs, and this includes Zoom. In this article, we’ll examine some alternatives, including Cleanfeed, Jitsi, and other audio solutions.
You might wonder:
- Are there improvements my students and I can make to get a cleaner, faster connection with Zoom?
- Are there apps for online music lessons that might give me a better quality connection, that is just as easy or easier to use that I should consider?
- Is there a way to get rid of the small but crucial audio delay or ‘lag,’ so I can accompany and play duets with students live–like I could with ‘in person’ lessons?
The New England Conservatory (NEC) Voice and Sound Analysis Laboratory, in conjunction with researchers from other universities, has been investigating questions like these and publishing their findings since March 2020, and have unearthed some interesting findings and options. The apps and current recommendations are all changing quickly, right now, but the latest research gets published on the website of NEC Voice and Sound Analysis Lab Research Director, Ian Howell.
I have been teaching singing lessons in Vancouver as well as also online, to remote learners all over the world, and have been exploring virtual teaching platforms and best practices for over a decade. I also recently completed the NEC’s Online Teaching Technology workshop, and have been experimenting with NEC-recommended solutions since June 2020.
This article will help you better understand some key considerations, simple upgrades that are free or relatively affordable, and other next steps to improve the gear, apps, and signal quality parts of online teaching. We’ll also briefly introduce a way to get audio lag down to ‘in person’ speeds–fast enough that teachers may be able to play duets with their students, in real-time.*
*Note: If you know you want to pursue ‘true real-time’ lessons, do not buy an audio interface until you have consulted the references in the ‘True Real-Time’ section, as the gear recommendations, here, are a) more specific and b) changing rapidly.
Let’s dive in!
Better Internet for Online Music Lessons
The simplest improvements to your online teaching signal quality are likely to be had by examining aspects of your internet connection. Things to consider, in order of ‘quick, easy wins’:
- Your teaching device’s connection to your router
- Your type of internet service
- The router, itself
Always use a wired connection to your router for online music lessons
For better audio, one of the biggest simple upgrades you can make is to connect your video conferencing device(s) using an ethernet cable–i.e. not WiFi. WiFi is great for loading text and pictures, but not so much for real-time videoconferencing–hard-wired connections are vastly superior for this.
How to get a hardwired ethernet connection
The first question is ‘do you have physical access to your router?’–in some buildings, you may not, so you may be stuck with WiFi. If you can run a cable from your router to where you teach, then I highly recommend doing so. But there is one more common hurdle you may face if using a laptop or tablet–there may be nowhere to plug the cable in!
If your laptop or device is less than 5-6 years old, it probably doesn’t have an ethernet port. This means you’ll need a dongle that accepts ethernet on one end, and plugs into some type of USB connection on your teaching device. These dongles are plentiful via online stores like Amazon and can be purchased for around $10-20.
Best Type of Internet Connection for Online Music Teaching
If you have the option of direct fibre optic cable internet service in your region, that is your best bet as a music teacher, as you can send higher quality audio and video signals through direct fibre optic due to its faster upload speed.
For most internet use, download speed is what matters, and Cable/DSL connections are fine. For online lessons, download speed and upload speed are crucial. When it comes to upload speed for videoconferencing, Cable/DSL is a bit like a single lane highway with a low-speed limit and farming vehicles coming and going. Direct fibre is more like the Autobahn. The services typically cost about the same amount, though, so if you can switch to fibre, I recommend you do so.
The best router for teaching online music lessons
The best router for teaching online music lessons is any router that
- physical ethernet output ports you can connect to with a cable (the majority of routers should have these, but not all, so check)
- has ‘QoS’ settings that you can adjust.
QoS stands for ‘Quality of Service.’ This feature allows you to specify devices on your network–e.g. your teaching device–that you want to receive priority for data transmission, and specify how much of the ‘highway’ to reserve each device.
If you have a direct fibre plan with a lot of bandwidth or speed, you may not need to set up QoS, but it can often be useful, especially if there are others in your home who may be streaming large amounts of data, simultaneously–e.g. streaming videos, or TV, or playing online games.
Note that router models change frequently and many do not have QoS settings so always check for these before buying. I recently purchased a TP-Link AX1500 router to be able to control QoS settings, and it’s great. Configuration was easy, and now I always have a fast connection for teaching.
How much bandwidth should I reserve for online music lessons?
For online music lessons with HD video and high-quality audio, reserving 5 mbps in your router’s QoS settings for your teaching device is a good starting point. This is typically not much at all if you have a fast direct fibre connection, but it will ensure that no other network use will slow down your teaching audio and video data.
Zoom Alternatives – Audio and Video Software Options for Online Music Lessons
Consider a WebRTC-based App over Zoom
The NEC’s research into online videoconferencing for music lessons recommends using apps that are built on the WebRTC protocol. WebRTC-based apps use a direct ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) connection when there are only two people on the call, which means your data isn’t being slowed down by travelling extra miles to go through a server as happens by default with Zoom. WebRTC apps will therefore likely have a faster, smoother connection than Zoom when there are just two people connecting.
WebRTC-based apps also run easily and securely in most modern browsers, with less need for software installation and updates: On computers, the software simply runs in a browser tab and is always up to date. Phones and tablets use native mobile apps that still need upgrades.
What are some good WebRTC-based apps to try?
Jitsi is simple to try to use, and free. It also has a robust security statement that music school administrations might appreciate.
Another interesting, secure app built on WebRTC is RockOutLoud.Live, which is similar to Jitsi, but is designed specifically for music lessons, and has options to access built-in student reference material and pdf sheet music features.
Related: Read our comprehensive review of RockOutLoud by TopMusicPro member Ian Belloso.
How to get better audio for online music lessons
Use a dedicated audio app
You can often get better audio for online lessons by muting your video app’s audio and using a separate audio app. The best solution I’ve found, via NEC, is a paid subscription app called Cleanfeed.net, which is designed to transmit broadcast-quality audio, quickly, and garble-free. It is also simple to use and has several audio quality levels to choose from, some of which are the best in the industry. But apps alone will not automatically solve all online lesson audio challenges.
Common challenges and solutions with online lesson audio
The top problems with online lesson audio are:
- Audio is ‘echo-y’–even with software that has echo cancellation.
- Audio is too low fidelity or garbled
- Audio is too slow for duets.
The first two have easy solutions. The ‘audio is too slow for duets’ problem is trickier, but sometimes possible to solve–possibly even for free. Let’s look at each:
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Audio is ‘Echo-y’–even with echo cancellation turned on
Step one is to use videoconferencing (or audio) software that has an echo cancellation option and try turning it on. Sometimes this slows down the audio communication too much, though, or just doesn’t work, particularly for online music lessons. The other quick solution for echo-y audio is to use headphones. For even faster, cleaner audio, use wired headphones over Bluetooth headphones.
What if my student can’t hear what they’re doing properly if they wear headphones?
If your student can’t hear their instrument properly when wearing headphones, there are two solutions to consider.
- If the instrument has a line-out jack, consider having your student run the instrument and an external microphone through a mixer or external soundcard. This way, your student can mix the levels of instrument and speaking voice and hear both in the headphones. If you are unsure of the exact details of what your student will need, your local music store should be able to get them set up easily.
- If your instrument needs to be heard acoustically, I recommend open-back headphones, which let in the sound of the room. There are many options, and many are expensive–this may be because their main market is recording engineers, who need them to be high quality. One relatively lower-priced option I’ve tried and like is the Grado SR60e’s.
Note that because open-back headphones let room sound in, they also let more headphone speaker sound out, which means there’s an increased possibility of echos being created–but much less than with no headphones at all. If echo is a problem, the only recourses are turning on echo cancellation, or reducing the headphone sound reaching the mic by either turning down the headphone volume, or moving your head further away from the mic.
Audio is too low quality or garbled
There are three things to consider for poor-quality audio:
- Internet connection quality and bandwidth
- Microphone and headphone quality
- Audio software quality.
Internet Connection Quality
See above Better Internet tips.
Microphone and Headphone Quality
Using the built-in speakers and mic on the lesson device is the bottom-tier solution. From here, upgrading can be confusing. I recommend wired headphones with or without a microphone, depending on the type of instrument. It’s better for audio quality and speed to not use Bluetooth headphones. The headphones may need to be open-backed design, as well (see ‘if your instrument needs to be heard acoustically’ above).
For microphone needs, it depends on the type of lesson. There are two common classes of mics to consider:
- Directional dynamic mics
- Omnidirectional condenser mics.
Directional Dynamic Mics
For most singing lessons, a directional dynamic type of mic can be a great practical choice, as they are hard to damage, and they mainly pick up sound from the singer’s voice–nothing from other directions (hence ‘directional’ or ‘uni-directional’). Entry-level dynamic mics tend to cost more than equivalent in condenser mics and are usually less suitable for lessons other than voice lessons.
Related: here’s our demo of Dynamic Mics
Omnidirectional condenser mics
For other instruments that require the instrument to be heard acoustically, plus student talking, an omnidirectional condenser mic may be a better choice. Omnidirectional mics can be fussier in that they are more susceptible to damage from dust and saliva, and need something called ‘phantom power,’ (but this is easily solved) but they are also generally worth the fuss, in terms of sound quality.
Whatever mic you choose, don’t forget to think about a mic stand, cables, mounting clips, and how you will connect the mic to the lesson device–e.g. with an audio interface or by choosing a USB version of either microphone, where the audio interface is built-in. Check with your local music store if you are unsure about which type of mic you or your students should get, or what accessories will be needed for everything to ‘just work.’
Audio Software Quality and Speed
Cleanfeed + Jitsi or Zoom
Again, Cleanfeed has higher quality audio options over Zoom and Jitsi, and the audio is likely to be faster than Zoom, due to how it uses a direct peer-to-peer (P2P) connection when there are only two people connected. Cleanfeed is simple to use and set up. It runs in a browser tab and doesn’t require upgrades. Once you’re connected on Cleanfeed, make sure you mute or ‘leave’ audio on whatever app you’re using for video. Cleanfeed also makes recording audio a breeze. Note that Cleanfeed requires the Chrome browser, and is simplest to use when teacher and student are both on computers vs tablets or mobile.
Or… just use Zoom? New Zoom settings for Music
As of September 1st, 2020, Zoom now has upgraded audio quality options that are particularly useful for music lessons–this means Zoom is back to being a strong choice for online lessons. The main better options, audio-wise, are ‘Cleanfeed plus Zoom or Jitsi’ or ‘True Real-Time Audio’–which will be discussed next.
To get the best sound in Zoom for music lessons, go to settings and turn on ‘original sound’ and disable all processing. For best music-quality audio, only enable processing for things like noise reduction and echo cancellation if necessary.
‘True Real-Time Audio’ – Can I play duets with my students online?
It is possible to play duets over the internet, but only when both teacher and students have the right hardware, and there is a relatively steeper learning curve. I call this type of online audio connection ‘true real-time audio.’
Here are the basics for those interested in exploring true real-time audio:
- The info I link to is for a free app called SoundJack, which was deemed by NEC to be a top option for online music teaching and collaboration based on numerous factors.
- You will need one of a small list of audio interfaces that are verified to work with your computer type and with SoundJack. These interfaces are all relatively affordable, as interfaces go, but specific, so don’t buy a new audio interface until you’re sure it will work. If you get the wrong gear, SoundJack may not work, or you may not be able to shave down enough milliseconds to get the desired audio speed for live collaboration.
- All of the ‘ideal’ internet connection considerations discussed above become mandatory, plus one or two more settings you will need to make with your router.
- Plan to set aside a full day to patiently wrap your head around all the SoundJack settings and gear requirements, plus another full day once you have all the gear, to get it all configured.
- If your gear is configured correctly, that is most of the battle. For example, once your router settings are set correctly, students may not need to configure their routers at all.
- Expect things to be bumpy for a couple of weeks. You may want to focus on ‘tech rehearsal’ meetings with other interested musician friends before you feel experienced enough to confidently walk students or parents through the setup.
With these caveats in mind, my own SoundJack journey has been extremely fun and fulfilling. Being able to accompany my voice students, remotely, in true real-time, has been immensely gratifying. Ian Howell’s site and the SoundJack.eu site both have in-depth tutorials for those who are willing to patiently invest a few days to learn.
Related: We did a test trying real-time duets online. Here’s how it turned out:
Most of the concepts and tools discussed here entail tradeoffs. They can provide better sound and video, but with the tradeoff of adding some cost and/or complexity.
For those who find added complexity daunting, I will paraphrase this thought from Dr Ian Howell–head of the NEC Voice and Speech Research Lab:
Complexity is not automatically bad. For example, learning an instrument is a complex challenge! So are video games and social media, for that matter. We willingly take on complex challenges all the time. Finally, the act of learning new things can have value in itself. Why not learn a bit more, once, about how to get better quality audio and video for lessons, so we can reap the rewards continually, going forward?
What do you think? What has been a challenge for you, and what solutions have you found for your online teaching technology? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.