Singers, Schools and Tech: The Emerging Role of Audio and Video in Voice Training and Education

The 2020–2021 school year was marked by an increase in technology use in the studio and beyond in academia. Even with in-person instruction returning, digital learning is here to stay. Learn here about the best possible tech solutions for classroom and voice studio.

 

Throughout the course of the past year, we have all been there. The awkward silence of an muted microphone. The jolted video, crackling audio and unflattering still frame from a weak Internet connection running at a snail’s pace. The delay in sound as it travels from one computer to another. As if technology wasn’t already playing a principal role in our everyday lives, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it over the edge, as in-person gatherings screeched to a halt and the world turned exclusively to interacting through virtual platforms.

In the market of classical singing, as live performance venues shuttered and made the best of an improbable situation through digital programming, those preparing for careers in the field were left to train and get trained in the same manner. “Everything came to a grinding halt,” says Brian Gill, professor of voice at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “It was really crazy and surreal.” Gill, who typically travels 15 to 18 times per year to work with students outside of his Bloomington, IN, base, says he relied even more heavily on a familiar outlet he had been providing among his lesson offerings since the early 2000s.

“I have taught online for a long time, working with students virtually from all over the world,” he says. “I always found the availability of that kind of technology very helpful because if students wanted to find a way to work with me and they weren’t in Bloomington, they could. When COVID hit and there was no person-to-person contact, everything had to quickly switch to a virtual format. Suddenly, everybody—teachers and students—were not only handling their lessons online but were planning and presenting recitals online and taking on virtual performance projects.”

For many, the new territory seemed daunting. As several flocked to media such as Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime, it became clear that not all tech was created equal—and not everyone was equipped with the same means to make the most of their virtual experience. However, the urgency to pivot has opened the door to new outlets for the future of voice instruction, according to those becoming well versed in its integration. Classical Singer spoke with several who offered tips about how to get started, what types of technology to look for, and how COVID-19 might have changed the landscape of classical voice training.

Brian Gill

Finding the Right Platform

As voice teachers and singers are well aware, sound quality is everything when it comes to a productive lesson and effective performance. One key, teachers say, is establishing low latency—or, a minimal delay between the transfer of data, such as audio or video, between two computers interacting with one another. Although numerous platforms exist, there are some that are more conducive to the needs of vocal collaboration than others.

“Many students and teachers just had Zoom or Skype but immediately found that there was an echo or a delay in sound,” Gill observes. “Platforms like your Zooms and Skypes have a higher latency. So, if you are an accompanist playing for a singer, you might think you are having trouble hearing, but what you are really experiencing is that delay. Sometimes by adding an audio interface that allowed you to connect a microphone and headphones directly to your computer would cause the immediacy of the sound to improve, but there was still work to be done in bringing it closer together.”

Ian Howell, a member of the voice faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as the director of its graduate voice pedagogy program, serves as the research director behind the school’s Voice and Sound Analysis Lab. For the past year-plus, he and his students have vetted several low-latency audio transmission platforms, authoring papers including the pros and cons of those and other products, and making them available to teachers, students, schools, and anyone curious about the sound biometrics behind producing music in an academic setting.

“The vocal lab has provided a basis for us to understand more about how we hear a singer’s voice, as well as why high-quality audio might matter,” Howell says. “It became very clear why it mattered in February 2020.”

Howell and his team thoroughly researched everything from platforms that could reduce latency down to nearly real time to rates of crescendo, decrescendo, and other musical elements being captured and transmitted digitally. “What we really sought to do was provide an infrastructure or a framework for understanding digital sound, despite the motivation to try to preserve teaching the art form the way that we do,” Howell notes. 

“Personally, I found that became absolutely the most challenging element to navigate during the pandemic. I saw it over and over, where people were so desperate for information, they would rely on searches from Facebook groups made up of teachers and singers who would recommend a microphone like Blue Yeti, but they had never held another microphone. There were students who paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition last year who had teachers that never heard them sing with dynamics because the technology was subpar. We decided that it was essential for us to be a reference base, investigating, testing, and publishing side-by-side examples of the results.”

One platform that he and others found to deliver particularly well for the needs of teachers and singers was Soundjack, which can be run peer-to-peer through operating systems including MacOS, Windows, and Linux.

“With every platform we worked with, we tried to break them and figure out their limits,” Howell says. “We kept working with Soundjack and found that we liked everything we tried. We even established a relationship with the developer, where we became their unofficial development team, working with them to enhance features that would meet different needs.”

Through Howell’s research, he also developed—and made available to New England Conservatory music students—Fastmusic Box, built through a Raspberry Pi, single-board-based computer designed specifically to accommodate Soundjack.

With Fastmusic Box, he was able to sing with an accompanist remotely and work toward bringing the latency closer together, ultimately getting sound that was traveling from 60 miles away to function as though it was only 60 feet away. “The integration was wild,” Howell notes. “I couldn’t imagine it would have worked, but it continuously proved that it was a platform that had a lot of potential.”

Anne Slovin, a doctoral student at the Jacobs School of Music, prepared and presented a recital virtually during the pandemic by bridging Soundjack with other programs run through dual computers that could handle the demands of each platform. Through one quad-core computer, she ran Soundjack for audio. Through another dual-core computer, she ran Jitsi Meet for video. She also recorded the recital using QuickTime screen capture and Audio Hijack.

Anne Sovin

“There were still some synchronization and sound issues,” she admits. “But being able to rehearse and record from my home with my accompanist in their home in real time, it was such a cool experience. Just having that option makes a lot of sense for collaborating, and it made it possible during the pandemic.”

Other platforms including Cleanfeed, CultureHub–LiveLab, JackTrip, JamKazam and Jamulus also perform well—though, in Howell’s studies, some can suffer from stability issues or encounter limitations. The success of running such programs is dependent on having the basics, including a reliable and speedy Internet connection—ideally through an Ethernet cable or other wired means, rather than Wi-Fi, which offers less connection stability and speed—and a suitable computer. Most platforms, including Soundjack, are free.

 

Audio and Video

Another determining factor in establishing good sound quality is having a proper audio interface, microphone, and set of headphones, teachers say. Audio interfacing enables the passing of sound from your microphone and headphones to travel in and out of your computer.

“There are a lot of good audio interfaces out there,” Gill advises. “Sweetwater is a reputable company that offers several options.” For microphones, Blue Yeti is a popular and affordable option among singers, relying on a USB connection between the microphone and computer.

However, what a singer is hoping to achieve through the sound quality—be it a pure sound for voice lessons or a “colored” sound to enhance a recording—will determine what type of microphone works best.

“The main thing is to invest in a good microphone so that the sound you are making is clear and can be received clearly,” Gill notes. “Brands like Audio-Technica are reputable, offer different price points, and will serve the purpose you need them to.” For headphones, Gill recommends designs that feature an open back so singers can get a better sense of their live sound, rather than relying on the sound being received through the microphone and transmitting to the headphones. “That way, you’re not trying to push out more sound,” he says.

When setting up for a clear, quality video image, a few basic rules apply. “The singer wants to make sure that they can be seen,” Gill says. “Make sure the camera is positioned in such a way that you are able to stand up straight, rather than having the camera at an angle that forces you to have to look down.”

He also advised that singers avoid positioning themselves in front of or near windows or anything that could provide backlighting or distraction, impacting how well the teacher can see the student. “I also always add a bit of front light, so I can be seen,” Gill notes. When submitting a video recording, singers also will want to be sure they adjust their cameras or turn their smartphones or tablets to shoot horizontally, rather than vertically.

 

The Future of Virtual Music Making

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease in parts of the world, most agree it doesn’t necessarily signal an end to collaborating virtually. On the contrary, it might be just the beginning. Moving forward, teachers and singers are likely to benefit from being equipped with technological know-how, something Howell believes schools might consider including in their curriculums. In addition to New England Conservatory, universities like Butler and Stanford also provided technology and training to students.

“Within the music industry, many don’t have competency when it comes to understanding the basics of knowing what you have and knowing what it works with,” Howell says. “It’s not something singers train for, and for a lot of schools that decided to ride COVID-19 out and not offer a virtual option, that meant that those students made no collaborative music all year and didn’t get an opportunity to learn this technology. In terms of developing lifelong skills, it’s important that teachers and singers see that there is a need and a use for this, even beyond the pandemic. That’s why we’ve pushed for this to be included in our curriculum so that we can provide this skill to students. To me, it’s so worth it. I don’t see this technology or this capability as something that is going away.”

Singers like Jeremy Weiss agreed. A 2019 graduate of the Jacobs School of Music, he turned the shift to digital into a project called The Wandering (experiencethewandering.com). The visual album boasts a virtual immersive experience that uses Franz Schubert’s arts songs as its muse and includes the online collaboration of more than 30 individuals. Weiss says COVID-19 created space for such projects to flourish and for classical music to broaden its creative boundaries.

“One barrier of classical music is walking into a concert hall,” he notes. “That can be very intimidating to some. This gave people the opportunity to experience classical music where they’re most comfortable: at home. I think the pandemic really opened the door to virtual work in the classical music world and allowed us to break down barriers where they might usually exist.” Slovin also found this to be true. She has since adapted much of her teaching to online platforms—a popular option among those in her studio.

“For a lot of teachers, the idea of teaching online wasn’t exciting, especially for older generations who weren’t really up for figuring out a whole new platform,” Slovin observes. “I can’t speak for everybody, but it was really productive for me, and it gave me the capability to grow my studio. I never felt as though I was getting any less from a voice lesson online. 

“And for a lot more students than we thought, it was kind of a blessing in disguise. I have a few students that deal with social anxiety, and for them to be able to engage in lessons from the comfort zone of their own space impacted them and their singing in a very positive way. Some students also had to learn to be their own teacher a little more and learn to understand their instrument a little more.”

Howell says there could also be some pitfalls to that. “I’ve already started to see that in some singers, where their technique is being impacted by what they’ve gotten used to hearing while working virtually,” he says. “But the technology does provide a new level of opportunity, not only to students who might have once had to spend a lot of time and money traveling to work with certain teachers and coaches in major cities, but also to collaboration in general. When you think about being able to prepare and rehearse with one another virtually and in real time, that could be a real time and money saver for some.”

Slovin adds that as long as the will to learn is present, technology shouldn’t create a barrier. “It’s not a replacement for the real thing. But it can be a very nice option for students who live farther away and who might not want to travel, or have the means to travel, to work with a specific teacher or coach if they have this technology available to them. For some students and schools, COVID exposed an inequity. 

Not everyone could afford high-speed Internet and an expensive upgrade or invest in or provide better technology. But even if they can’t, most platforms are free. I also work with many students that have no external microphone and use earbuds and their phone, or who send video back and forth, rather than working live. And it works fine. If the desire is there for the student to learn and grow, they will, using the best that they have.”

Gill anticipates that in the future, such technological capabilities will continue to see an uptick in voice studios and schools. “Even after COVID, and being eager to get back to the live experience, the functionality could be significant,” he says. “One thing I noticed was that most students were not thrown off by online lessons at all. In fact, they were super comfortable with it. And most schools and communities of teachers were very generous in their willingness to help one another and offer recommendations. I think the popularity of this technology will only increase.”

Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.