All posts by davidmbirchall

Announcing R&D project for playing music online together

We are super pleased to announce we have received funding from Innovate UK to work on developing a platform and accessible devices that create a networked online multi person space for playing music, rehearsing and broadcasting with good audio quality and stable low latency!

Growing out of online improvisations between Manchester and London in the wake of the lockdown in April between Noise Orchestra’s David Birchall, Sam Andreae and Otto Willberg, we quickly realised that there was a need for an accessible way to connect musicians together with good audio quality and reliable low latency. We soon found that all of the easy to access online voice meeting platforms for multiple people are optimised for speech not music and the best software for audio quality and reliable latency we could find; Stanfords JackTrip, seemed to us to be a little too complicated to set up without some technical knowledge. So through various conversations we realised we could design a project that brought together these elements of accessibility and the potential for good quality audio and stable low latency.

There are three main elements to the project and with the support of the Innovate funding we have been able to pull together an absolutely amazing team to develop the these complimentary strands of the project in parallel.

The first element is building a dedicated Server. We realised early on that the most accessible way to utilise the JackTrip software was to host a server running this high quality audio communication software which could be connected to by external users.

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Back of an envelope server model explanations. We have made the one on the right.

Tom Ward is our server wizard who already has version 1.0 of the server up and running. Live tests with groups of up to 6 musicians linked as far apart as London, Manchester and Newcastle have produced positive results both musically and in terms of the usability of the technology so far, we expect the server to undergo further refinement as the project develops. This model of a high quality dedicated server for laptop and hardware users of JackTrip to meet on, is one we think could be replicated widely and be really useful to musicians. The server itself runs the JackTrip software in the background, provides routing and automated audio panning as musicians join the session, fires out recordings of the session afterwards and can stream live with Icecast software. Tom will also later in the project develop the API code which will allow the server to communicate with the project website.

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Heavyweight coding going on from Tom

The second element came about when we realised there was a barrier to access with JackTrip. Even with a dedicated server people will need to use a laptop, soundcard and some technical knowledge to connect to the server. So we are developing a simple to use piece of hardware; a ‘Noisebox’ which will allow anyone to connect directly to the server at the click of a button. This is currently in development with Noise Orchestra’s David Birchall and Coder/Improvisor Sam Andreae at the helm. The work is looking at running JackTrip software for battery powered Raspberry Pis alongside a quality soundcard and a bespoke ‘NoiseHat’ shield to give users access to controls and settings in the software. The ultimate goal is that this can be a mobile, completely accessible tool for playing online with a single button connection to the server. This is currently in a version 1.3 prototype with continual daily developments. The plan is for this to appear as a prototyped unit by September this year with bespoke enclosures designed by Noise Orchestra’s own Vicky Clarke and ergonomic design by the whole Noise Orchestra team.

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Noise ASCII welcome as you upload V1.3 of the Pi Software!

The third and final element to be developed will be a web platform which Sam Andreae and Vicky Clarke are working on coding and visuals for. This will provide key information and documentation about the project and its different elements. It will also provide data, information, recordings and user-interaction with the ‘Noisebox’ hardware and server for users.

We’re all really excited to be working on this project. It is both very useful in practical terms right now; in supporting musicians work and communication in the immediate and longer term pandemic conditions but it also raises the question of whether use of this technology could become the norm as ecological concerns come into focus; ultimately musicians will still need to travel to do their work but having a high quality web audio connection with reliable latency could mitigate some of this travel and give rise to new collaborative possibilities.

Solar Cell Experiments

Been carrying some interesting researches into the possibilities of using solar cells and/or rechargables with our Noise Machines the last few weeks. This was sparked off by chatting in one of our Focus Groups at Brighter Sound with Caro C who explained she had previously lived off grid in a bus and ran everything of solar rechargable batteries. We’d begun to use solar cells as both sonic inputs as a light directed battery drains on chips, so as was suggested it seemed like it would be a fairly simple leap to expand this into supplying stable power via solar!

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A little bit of initial research showed it was super and pleasingly simple! At its most simple; connect the positive leg of the solar cell to a battery with a diode inbetween, connect the grounds and off you go. The diode is to ensure that the solar cell doesn’t drain power back from the battery once its in the dark. Voltmeter connected up so you can double check the battery is in fact filling up. The only tricky thing here is that the rate of energy generated by the sun in Salford where the Noise Orchestra studio is located is not much more than a trickle on a grey day! (Just as an example: on 15/11/16 battery voltage at 13:21 was 7.5 Volts by 15:25 (2 hours!) it had gone up to 8.2 Volts. This was on a particularily grey day) Interesting though when the sun does peak out the flow of energy does really increase; you could also experiment with brightness of different artificial lights but this obviously defeats a little the SOLAR not drawing from the grid vibe.

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One of the more fiddly bits of getting this to work was making sure the Voltage and Amps outputs of the solar cells were matched correctly for 9 volt batteries. The highish voltage for a battery of 9 Voltage is set off against a fairly low ampage of 200mAh. From what I could tell from research the charge up rate from a solar cell would need to be 10% of the total mAh rating. So this meant a pretty low rating of around 20mAh would be needed to correctly supply the 9 volt battery with charge. I went through a whole range of cells of different values staked up (3 x 3 volt with 30mAh, 2 x 4 volt with 40mAH) before finding a 9 volt cell with a low enough mAh rating. In the end the thing that helped was that our splendid Salford weather ensured the amps outputs on the solar cells stayed low enough to supply the 10% rate to the battery. This might well need to be reassessed in British summertime or if the units are to be used in a sunny country!

After this initial success I got excited and on various travels began to design an intergrated circuit in which solar cell chargable battery input and direct solar cell to circuit connection could be switched between both with our now classic potentiometer battery drain available before the final voltage reached the circuit.20161212_121845

Only parts of this have worked in the iterations I’ve tried so far so this continues to be a future development. Below is our first fully working Noise Orchestra 9 Volt battery recharge unit! Housed in a nice old answer phone box. Waiting on the arrival of some zener diodes so then I can add an “hello I am full” LED to them!

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Research Drawings with Symphony of Sirens

We were working today with making sound drawings with a recording of Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Siren’s in the studio at Madlab Salford. This is part of our research into making a scored light element to play our noise machines as part of the final Arts + Tech exhibition in September.

If you don’t know the piece its a pretty incredible realisation of total music; a score live mixing the varied sound elements found in the city of BAKU in 1922 to celebrate 5 years of the October Revolution.