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:
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!
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’:
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.
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.
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 is any router that
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The top problems with online lesson audio are:
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:
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.
If your student can’t hear their instrument properly when wearing headphones, there are two solutions to consider.
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.
There are three things to consider for poor-quality audio:
See above Better Internet tips.
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:
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
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.’
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.
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.
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:
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.
Courtenay Ennis is a singing teacher in Vancouver, Canada. He studied Speech Level Singing--a method used by over 120 Grammy and Tony winners--and is an avid student of evidence-based vocal science and pedagogy. Courtenay's clients have been accepted into top musical theatre programs all over North America, and worked in professional theatre, on cruise ships, and as original recording artists. He holds BFA and B. Education degrees and loves reading, hiking, skiing, coffee, and croissants.