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MT's special report on remote-control rock'n'roll - realtime jamming with strangers across the Internet Computer network.

Cyberspace is here and it's flowing through a leased line near you. It's time to get stoked on jolt, don your Synthaxe and VR helmet and jack into the planetwide virtual jam session.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

Well almost. The reality is a little more mundane than that, but for the determined muso the tools exist to get connected and engage in musical activities with others around the world from the (dis)comfort of your home computer.

The various computer networks around the world are hooked together into a larger 'network of networks' known as the Internet. This reaches the most of the globe, including the US, Russia, Australia, Europe, Scandinavia, China and Asia. Data entered on this network tends to get to its destination in a couple of seconds. Unless there is fault it will never take longer than 12 seconds regardless of where in the world the data has to travel to.

Sitting on top of this network is a whole host of services such as EMail (electronic mail), Usenet/NetNews (electronic conferencing), IRC (live group discussion), huge, freely accessible archive servers, anonymity servers, directory services and a whole bunch of other things that people have thought up and added.

The Internet isn't actually owned by a single organisation, thus most services on the net, apart from the cost of connection, are totally free. It all hangs together by people sticking to an agreed set of underlying communication protocols known as TCP/IP. This is a standard which describes the way in which computers on the Internet talk to each other. Users are at liberty to think up new protocols, services and programs for use on the Internet and frequently do.

Needless to say, all this has not gone unnoticed to musicians. Usenet, the Internet conferencing system, at the last count had over 36 discussion areas (known as news groups) dealing with various aspects of music. Popular groups such as '' and '' have been known to carry over a hundred postings a day during the week. This year two music CDs by Usenet users were released (Musenet 1 & 2), with tracks covering a wide variety musical styles. This was co-ordinated by Craig Latter of the experimental computer facility at Berkeley University, who is also in charge of a musical experiment known as NetJam.

NetJam is where musical collaboration on the net really comes into its own. It provides a mechanism for people to transmit MIDI files, samples, programs and other data to each other, to be modified, added to and generally mucked around with. The effect is one of a pool of music and sounds, centrally stored, from which you can draw data and to which you can add your own contributions.

In order to avoid a musical 'tower of babel', guidelines are set down for file formats relating to sequencer data, MIDI data and standard drum mappings. Thus, users of machines such as Macs, PCs, Ataris, Amigas and various UNIX variants can easily transfer files between each other. Additionally, a central file server has been set up at Berkeley to support NetJam, and is used to archive any data associated with a musical project.

For the hardened computer muso, programs are provided to convert binary MIDI files to an easily parsed text format and back again. A version of the Tool Command Language for MIDI called TCLM is available together with a host of sequence and sample editors which can be downloaded. The purpose of all this is to make it easy for people to manipulate musical data by bolting together the available tools and writing their own software to take advantage of the provided format translators. This, of course, would be impossible on normal sequencers.

The transfer of 'dots on staves' images as well as MIDI data, SMDL (Standard Music Description Language) is addressed on the up and coming format. It is a textual format that covers both musical data and graphical music data developed by, and available from, ANSI (American National Standards Committee). For those interested the document describing the format is conveniently dubbed ANSI X3V1.8M.

Exchanging your favourite drum fills and MIDI patches is all very well, but what you really want to be doing is to jam live with your funky muso friends from Finland or wherever. While this is possible, the speed of the Internet makes it impractical when your data has to crawl its way through several network links. You might be able to hear the music OK, but you'll be hearing what they were playing a second ago. An eternity, in musical terms.

An experimental system has been set up at Berkeley involving a number of computers with attached MIDI instruments, all connected via a local area network to a server machine that pulls in the various MIDI streams, mixes them and sends the results back to the participating machines so users can hear each other playing.

The technology to do this over a wider area is halfway here, in the form of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). This is a digital telephone system that carries 64Kbps of digital data as well as voice information along standard telephone wires. Plenty fast enough to carry MIDI data, which normally moves around 32Kbps. Two sites directly connected via ISDN will do fine.

President Clinton's plans for a country-wide Gigabit network won't do any harm if you happen to live in the U.S.A., but is not much use if you have to go via a sluggish satellite link.

In order to play live 'internationally', what you need is a sub-50ms delay between players, short enough to make the effect of the round trip delay not too noticeable. This will come in the next decade in the form of ATM, or Asynchronous Transfer Mode (also masquerading under various other names). This is a set of network technologies still under development that hope to get your data to its destination within a few milliseconds. Although intended for things like live video conferencing, this will also free up the networks of the world for jamming musicians. Look out for future reports in MT.

Net connections

Craig Latter, who runs NetJam, can be contacted by EMail on latta@xcf.Berkeley.EDU Information on NetJam is available by anonimous FTP from under the directory/misc/netjam/doc.

Demon Internet Systems
Tel: (Contact Details)

Tel: (Contact Details)

Me (David Johnston)

Get on board

Options for getting on the Internet in the UK are pretty limited. EMail access is provided by most on-line service providers such as CompuServe, Telecom Gold or Applelink, all of which charge unreasonable amounts for use of their services on top of the membership fee. If you're rich, Pipex or UKnet will give you a 24-hour live Internet connection for a few grand a year. Or, for a few hundred quid you can have a dial-up batched UUCP EMail and News feed from pretty much anyone (try hassling your local university).

But far and away the best deal to be had in the UK is from Demon Internet Systems, who will sell you a dial-up live Internet connection and TCP/IP software for a PC for £10 a month.

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Digital Anarchy

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Sep 1993



Feature by David Johnston

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