Quarter-Notes from the Apocalypse: Part 3 – Optimizing U.
by David Sabella

In part one and two of “Quarter-Notes from the Apocalypse” I discussed the “Why’s” and “How’s” of online collaboration/teaching, and singing. This installment will deal with the specifics of optimizing your online experience, and by extension, the experience of your student/collaborator.

When working with VoIP technologies (FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, etc) there are “best practice” solutions to consider. Many of these best practices have to do with your Internet service provider, your hardware, and the settings on your computer and software. Let’s explore some of these.

First off, your Internet service, and speed. Your Internet capability and speed are extremely important for the success of your online collaboration or lesson. Using an app called Speedtest, you can test your Internet speed and Wi-Fi capability. Internet speed is measured in several different ways.

Download – download speed describes the direction and speed with which you “pull down” items from the network (also know as the ubiquitous “cloud”). We download Netflix, we download music, we download other files and programs. Download speed is measured in Mbps (Megabytes per second) and should be at least in the 100’s range. The higher the better, and there is no limit. If you can get a Download speed of several hundred megabytes per second, go for it.

Upload – upload speed is tremendously important for any video conferencing or online collaboration. Unlike downloading, where you are only pulling down information from the cloud, your upload speed indicates how quickly you can send your video or information across the network, and to the person with whom you are collaborating or having a lesson. Your upload speed is also measured in Mbps (Megabytes per second) and should ultimately be higher than your download speed. Many Internet service providers will throttle upload speed, conserving the bandwidth of your service to give you as much download speed as possible. If your upload speed is not near or over 100 Mbps then you should upgrade your service as a best practice for video conferencing and collaboration.

Ping – also called latency, is the reaction time of your connection, how quickly your device gets a response from the network. Ping is measured in milliseconds and should be as small as possible. (Ex. 0-10 ms)

Jitter – this is the measurement of Ping, variable over time/distance, (how far away you are from the network tower, and how that affects your response rate/Ping.) This is also measured in milliseconds and should be as small as possible. High jitter can result in buffering and other interruptions.

Loss – this is measured in percentage. It is the percentage of packet loss, which is a result of your upload, download, ping, and jitter combined. When your audio or video freezes or pixelates then you are experiencing packet loss. The optimum number for this would be 0%.

First, do a speed test. If you are not receiving the speed that you are currently paying for, complain to your Internet service provider and get that speed. If you are receiving the speed you are paying for, but need more speed, you can ask for an optimization. Every company has their small “bump” or “optimum” internet plan. This will greatly increase your upload and download speeds, and improve your ping and jitter, for as little as $10 or $15 per month. Optimizing your plan also ensures that your upload speed will not be throttled. This is definitely a best practice for internet collaboration.

Next, let’s discuss your hardware. Your online collaboration/lesson will only be as good as the hardware used by both parties. Here are some hardware specifications to help “Optimize U” for success (see what I did there? J)

For online purposes, a digital keyboard with a midi connection will always be recommended over an acoustical instrument. Sorry. Yamaha does make an acoustical piano with “Disklavier” technology which is fully midi compatible. This Disklavier technology can also be retrofit to an existing piano.

A laptop or desktop computer is recommended, rather than a tablet or other mobile device. Of course, with all computers, the more processing speed, random access memory (RAM), and storage space, the better.

A high definition digital video camera is recommended. Many laptops and desktop computers already come with high definition cameras. Be sure to check out the specifications of your camera before you purchase another one. If you do need to purchase one, I recommend the Logitech HD c920.

Perhaps the most important piece of hardware is the microphone. The perception quality of the microphone is measured in hertz frequencies. The higher the hertz frequency perception, the better. I highly recommend a hertz frequency perception of 20-20K (twenty thousand). The reason for this is simple. You can only hear (or transmit) that which the microphone can perceive. The human voice can produce frequencies well above 10,000 Hertz. Being able to perceive up to 20,000 Hertz will allow for the full spectrum of voice to be “heard.” This translates to the listener, and/or the teacher, as the unique “timbre” or “color” of the voice. Both collaborators (or teacher and student) should have quality microphones with an FPR (Frequency Perception Rate) of 20K or higher. A very popular microphone is the Blue Yeti.

Headphones/speakers are also particularly important. My first choice is a good quality headphone, the old-fashioned “cans” that are worn over the ear, as opposed to ear buds. Headphones are very important because they reduce the latency and diminish the possibility for signal echo. If your mic only hears the sound you are making and does not hear anything coming out of the speakers, then it is a much cleaner process for both participants. Again, this will tighten up signal latency tremendously. My recommendation for a good mid-priced headphone is the Samson Z 25.

If you are essentially opposed to headphones, then I would suggest a wired or Bluetooth speaker situated far from (and pointed away from) the microphone. Also, position yourself between the speaker and the microphone. And, of course, when the singer is performing to a track, then an external speaker is quite necessary. Your audience won’t hear the track if it is only in your headphones. And, if you’re only using the speakers and microphone of your computer, then your microphone will pick up a lot of the track and a very little of you. A good quality Bluetooth or wired speaker would be a best practice solution in this instance.

There are other production values to be considered as well, the color and consistency of your background (this is not the time to show off you well-stocked book shelf or music collection), the use of light in the room (far better to have light in front of you than a window or bright light behind you), even the pattern of your attire can make a difference (no stripes, or patterns). If the digital camera is striving to focus on many different things around you, or behind you, or struggling to adjust to a busy pattern on your shirt or blouse, this will cause pixelation of the image which will interrupt the session, and/or be very distracting. It may also cause your camera to pull on other computer resources and affect the overall success of the session.

These tips for optimizing your personal system and ability to deliver an online session will greatly enhance the experience for both you and your student/collaborator. As with all things concerning technology, new best practice solutions will emerge as technology advances. Be sure to stay informed as we move forward into this new world order together.

In my next installment “E Tu YouTube?” I’ll discuss the legality of working/performing online without infringing on copyrighted material. It’s not as simple as you think.


Enjoy the entire 4 part series:

Part 1 – If Not You, Who?
Part 2 – Necessity, The Mother of Invention
Part 3 – Optimizing U
Part 4 – E Tu YouTube?