Building the Toolbox: Emerging Technologies Offer Solutions for Performing Artists

Cameras filming a string quartet on the Zipper Hall stage

As technology is now an essential tool for performing artists, Colburn has invested in training and infrastructure to provide the best possible teaching and learning experience.

The core of the Colburn educational experience is excellence–in faculty, in facilities, and now, in technology. Important in pre-COVID times, technology now becomes an essential tool in providing the best possible teaching and learning experience.

Over the summer, Colburn faculty and staff invested many hours exploring best practices in online learning and investigating new resources. They implemented a new online learning platform for both applied private and group instruction and academic courses, collaborated with filmmakers to re-imagine the performance experience, and tackled one of the more persistent issues with online learning: audio quality.

Nate Zeisler, Dean of the Center for Innovation and Community Impact, came across one solution this summer after watching a performance on Facebook by the brass quartet The Westerlies. Seeing that they had devised a way to perform together live from different locations, he struck up a conversation with the group.

The quartet was using a software plugin called Audiomovers, which allowed performers to stream extremely high quality audio. “It brings the latency level down to almost nothing, so there’s no delay when you play,” explains Zeisler, “and it ups the level of the audio to better than CD quality. It makes the level spectacularly good.”

The implications for online lessons, especially via Zoom, were clear. Although user-friendly for online meetings, Zoom was not designed for musical lessons or performances. Using Audiomovers would allow students and teachers to bypass the built-in audio settings that made online teaching via Zoom or other online platforms more difficult.

Colburn is currently in the process of providing training and experts to help students and faculty with the setup process, which involves downloading a Digital Audio Workstation such as GarageBand, Logic, ProTools, or a free version like Audacity or Reaper and adding the Audiomovers plugin.

When the setup is complete, a student can send a link to their teacher that will allow them to listen to live audio from the student in extremely high quality. As the visual element is still essential to lessons, students and faculty use Zoom video, but mute the audio so all performance and conversation happens via Audiomovers. Since the sound quality is only as good as the microphone type, placement, and input settings, Colburn is also providing resources to guide students on microphone selection and setup.

On the horizon is also the potential to use Audiomovers for ensemble rehearsal and performance, as The Westerlies have done. There are certain limitations—the players must be within a certain radius of one another, otherwise the latency is too great, and additional software is needed. However Colburn is currently exploring this for ensembles in the Community School, jazz ensembles in particular, where students are geographically close enough to each other to overcome these issues.

During this time when musicians are still experimenting and seeking out best solutions, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. But Zeisler’s hope is that Audiomovers will serve as one more tool for students and faculty to choose from. A much-anticipated Zoom update was recently released, which also promises to reduce some of the audio issues within the software, so the evaluation and implementation of emerging technologies will continue.

Colburn is also looking ahead to the time when campus can begin to reopen but physical distancing is still necessary. To prepare for this, Fred Vogler, principal sound designer and mixer for the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Francesco Perlangeli, Colburn’s AV Manager, have been developing plans to connect a number of spaces in the Grand Building via data, video, and fiber optic cables.

When complete, Grand Rehearsal Hall, Mayman Hall, the Heifetz Studio, and Dance Studios A and B will all be video-ready, along with a pop-up control room in the Mayman Hall Green Room. When cameras and specialized video screens are plugged into the system, it will be possible for musicians or dancers in any of these rooms to rehearse or perform together.

Connecting each space with three types of cable ensures that maximum flexibility is built in, allowing for a vast array of uses. As Perlangeli describes it, “it’s future-proof.” This will also allow for expanded livestreaming capabilities, enabling Colburn to broadcast from any of these spaces with the addition of cameras. The feed will integrate seamlessly with the existing system in Zipper Hall and make it possible for a single operator to monitor multiple streams at once.

The idea for this sort of central video hub first came to Fred Vogler when he toured the Pac-12 media center, viewing video feeds from multiple college teams in real time. He began to imagine what a similar arrangement might look like for Colburn. Although this complete vision is still some ways off, connecting the Grand building spaces in this way is a first step in that direction. But the concept of allowing one operator to monitor multiple video feeds has obvious benefits for the School, which has activity from morning to night during an average school year.

Although the campus is quiet now, Colburn is planning for the day when activity will resume and all the steps in between. Uncertainty is a given these days, but Vogler and Perlangeli believe the benefit of creating future-proof systems will allow the needed flexibility and serve the School for many years to come.