The Technology Needed for the Best Online Lesson Experience
I have been teaching online lessons for several years to students all over the US and now that Covid-19 has forced so much learning and collaboration online, the push to find better technologies to conduct effective lessons has gone full force. The most challenging part of doing any kind of conferencing online is the lag – also called latency – which is the time delay between the parties. It makes it very difficult to have a synchronous experience in which the teacher can accompany the student and collaborate. However there are several ways to get around this issue and it has to do with the technology both teacher and student use.
Below are all the details on how you can get the most of your online lessons.
The most important thing…
…is having a WIRED connection to the internet (your router) through an ethernet cable. WiFi will never be stable enough to have the best experience for online lessons. The lag can be two or three seconds and oftentimes, the video will become unstable and not sync up, pixilation is a common occurrance and the worst case scenario is that the connection will be lost. This problem is solved if your computer is hardwired to your router with an ethernet cable.
This may not be easy if your router is not near to where you want to take your lesson, in a different room or even on a different floor. If that is the case and you can afford it, have your cable provider install an ethernet connection from your router to your computer. That can be expensive.
The cheapest solution? Purchase a 100ft ethernet cable so that when it is time for your lesson, snake the cable from your router, wherever it is, to your computer. When your lesson is done, disconnect the cable. That will cost you about $25.
If that is absolutely undoable, consider purchasing an ethernet powerline adapter. This amazing technology “equips any room with blazing fast internet by transforming your outlets into Ethernet ports for reliable wired connection to all of your devices, no matter how far from your router.” You plug one unit into the outlet near your router and connect it to your router with an ethernet cable and then you plug the other unit in an outlet near your computer and connect it to your computer with another ethernet cable. In about 20 minutes, you have a fast reliable wired connection!
If your computer doesn’t have an ethernet port, you may have to purchase an ethernet adapter that connects to your computer via USB.
It should go without saying that any video conferencing is going to work best with a computer that is as fast as possible. It doesn’t matter if you have a Mac or a PC, the faster processor and the more memory you have, the better. You can have your lessons on almost any device – desktops, laptops, tablets, or even phones. BUT you will have a much better experience if you are on a computer (laptop or desktop). The apps that we use for lessons have special settings that improve the quality of the audio and video that are not available on the apps for tablets and phones.
And of course you need a webcam – if you want to invest in an HD webcam (you can get them rather cheaply these days), they make the video much clearer than any built in webcams in computers, but that is not necessary.
Not Required but STRONGLY Recommended
An external microphone – either a good USB microphone or a good XLR microphone with an audio interface – and wired headphones/earbuds.
We can do your lessons without an external microphone but there will be limitations. First of all, I will not be able to accompany you while you sing. Second of all, I will not actually be able to hear your true voice. The built-in microphones in computers are usually very low quality and do not translate the pure sound of the voice. A good quality external microphone will transmit your true voice into the computer and I will be able to hear what you actually sound like.
If you have a MAC, the only piece of equipment you will need is a good USB microphone like the Blue Yeti (pictured left).
If you have a PC, a USB mic like the Blue Yeti will work but to get the best experience, you will want to get a standard vocal mic (like a Shure SM58) with an XLR connection (see picture) and an audio interface. These mics are the mics you see in clubs and on concert stages all over the world. An audio interface is a box that you plug your XLR mic into and then the interface connects to your computer via USB, translating the audio sound into a digital signal. The reason this is a better setup for a PC is because the Windows audio driver doesn’t work as well with just a USB mic.
If you are able to spend a little more, you will get a better quality with an XLR mic and audio interface and sometimes you can find a good priced bundle like they are selling at sweetwater.com (pictured left).
Again, a USB mic like the Blue Yeti will work OK with a PC. The difference in price is a Blue Yeti is about $130 and the mic, audio interface, headphone bundle is about $210.
The last piece of equipment is a set of good quality WIRED headphones or earbuds. Bluetooth/wireless headphones/airbuds are not helpful because they will create latency in the connection.
There are many video conferencing apps out there but there are two in particular that I like to use. Both apps require you to download them onto your computer. Both apps are FREE. One provides a good platform if you don’t have any extra equipment but there are limitations. The other allows for a completely synchronous experience as if the teacher and student are in the same room but requires you to have the proper equipment.
ZOOM is currently the most popular video conferencing app and it generally works well for online lessons. You do not need to purchase any additional equipment to use it although I still recommend an external microphone because of the sound quality. There are audio settings that optimize Zoom for better sound but those options are only available on computers, not on tablets and phones.
The downside of using Zoom is that latency is a huge problem. Because there is such a delay (sometimes 2 or 3 seconds), there is no way I can accompany you in real time. This means that you will have to sing with recorded accompaniment tracks. This is fine but it makes it difficult to work on details. Stopping and starting accompaniment tracks can be cumbersome and takes time away from the lesson. However, it is a no cost option.
CLEANFEED is an optimized audio app which allows for more authentic audio. It is audio only so we would use it ALONG WITH Zoom. Zoom would be used for video only (the teacher and student are muted) and then open up Cleanfeed in their Chrome browser which will act as the audio output. Cleanfeed is FREE and I will send a link to access the feed. Zoom’s audio is so inconsistent in that only one person can talk at one time and oftentimes the singing voice gets cancelled out when it goes too high or too loud. Cleanfeed allows me to hear your voice at its most authentic.
The preferred app to have a true synchronous experience is JAMKAZAM. This app reduces the latency to negligible levels which allows me to accompany you in real time, stop and start together, breathe together….it mimics the in-person lesson almost exactly, as if you were standing in my studio at the end of my piano.
But in order to make Jamkazam work, you have to have the proper set up.
- You have to have a wired internet connection.
- You have to have a computer (no tablets or phones)
- You have to have an external microphone (for a Mac, you only need a USB mic – for a PC, you need either a USB mic OR an XLR mic and audio interface (preferred))
- You have to have wired headphones/earbuds
So while Jamkazam requires a bit more of a setup, the results are definitely worth it.
Online lessons are just as effective as in person lessons, but they are made infinitely better if you have the right equipment.
At the very least, get a wired internet connection!
The next greatest step is to get the best external microphone that you can afford (and if you can get the mic/audio interface bundle, even better).
I will help you set everything up no matter what way you go. If you have any questions about what to purchase, just ask!
A huge shoutout goes to David Sabella, Christopher Fecteau, and Christopher Denny for sharing their knowledge and assistance regarding all this technology! You, my students, will benefit greatly from it!