In an era of hyper-connectivity, most musicians have wondered whether it’s possible to play music in real time with friends around the world. The enforced lockdowns of the COVID pandemic only made this idea more appealing, as in-person jamming became impossible and music makers were confined to their homes and the virtual realm. In the vacuum left by a lack of access to clubs, the dance music community took to live streaming and our social media timelines were filled with DJs broadcasting from empty spaces.
“It felt like those streams underlined the sad situation,” says Jochem Paap, best known as Dutch techno pioneer Speedy J. “A solo artist in a club that is usually filled, and now they're completely by themselves with no audience, sweating it out trying to do something deprived of any feedback or togetherness.”
For Paap, this state of affairs was the motivation to try something new. “I thought it would be nicer to register what was going on as a fly on the wall in a studio session, rather than these sorry-feeling DJ performances in empty clubs.”
Stay Home Soundsystem began as a crossover between DJ sets and improvised hardware performances broadcast from STOOR, Paap’s music production facility in Rotterdam. The studio houses Paap’s considerable collection of hardware to encourage open-ended collaboration from visiting guests and students. They even have their own vinyl lathe, able to produce limited runs of acetates from studio sessions. When Dutch lockdown restrictions allowed for a few people to be in the same room, Paap was able to invite select friends to bring some gear to the studio and take part in a live-streamed jam captured visually by Sander Voets. Dutch staples such as Colin Benders, Conforce and Jeroen Search all featured, but the travel restrictions at the time meant there was a limited pool of talent to draw on.
“The first season, as we ended up calling it, was based on people traveling to my studio in Rotterdam,” Paap explains, “but we were basically restricted to Holland and Belgium. The pool of people who were up for and capable of improvising live was wearing thin, and we just wanted to continue because the project had gotten some momentum.”
The idea of continuing the Stay Home Soundsystem over the internet was initially “just a stupid idea”, but Paap set to work trying to troubleshoot the problem. A popular choice for remote collaboration in Live is a shared cloud storage option, using one centralized project for two or more people to access and add sounds to, but this system is no substitute for the immediate feedback and response of a live jam, and certainly not something people would want to watch as a live stream. Having looked into other start-up projects trying to provide a workable solution, Paap eventually settled on Ninjam as the most viable option to explore.
Ninjam is open-source software developed by New York-based company Cockos Inc. which allows real-time music collaboration over the internet. Anyone who has used a video conferencing application accepts glitches and time lags as part of the experience, which instantly poses a problem if two or more people are trying to stay in sync on their instrument of choice. Ninjam takes the various audio signals streamed to one of its open servers and feeds the sum total back to the participants so they can hear it and respond in almost-real time. The trick is in the “almost”, because Ninjam solves the issue of latency by actually extending the latency by a musical measure (such as two bars) before sending the audio back to participants, therefore creating a buffer to catch any time lags and ensuring the audio signal is uninterrupted for everyone involved when it reaches them. It’s not new technology, having been initially developed in 2005, and it’s freely available to download as a standalone client. Being open-source, specific plugins such as JamTaba have also been developed for integration with Live and other DAWs. There was, however, one major catch which needed to be overcome in order for it to work effectively for Stay Home Soundsystem.
“When I started to experiment with Ninjam I used the Ninjam open servers,” says Paap. “But even if you find a server that is not occupied, you and your friends start to do something and then some guy in Brazil starts to jam along with a guitar or something. Although it was funny at the time, we had to find a way to restrict it to the people who were playing because it wasn’t a basis for us to work from.”
This is where the process for Stay Home Soundsystem gets more technical, because Paap needed to find a private server to point the Ninjam software to which would not be interrupted by hopeful, uninvited collaborators. Paap received help from Michiel Gardner of Streamnerd, a well-established expert in the field of live streaming who was able to provide a secure, stable server for the Stay Home Soundsystem collaborators. As Gardner explains to us, the Cockos site advises on how anyone can set up a server on their own, although this requires some knowledge of configuring a server.
“The Stay Home Soundsystem jams were done on a server I installed myself using the Ninjam server guide because I wanted to run it 24-7,” Gardner says, “but you can also host a jam directly from JamTaba. I think hosting it directly from JamTaba is the easiest way to get started as long as you meet the bandwidth requirements, in particular the outbound bandwidth around 768kbps for a four-person jam.”
With the connectivity established, there were still some other issues to overcome before they would be able to take the new model of Stay Home Soundsystem live for the second season. Paap was troubleshooting the set up with a long time friend and technical sounding board, Dutch techno artist Robin Kampschoer.
“Once we were successfully connecting over the private server on Ninjam, we went through every aspect of what works and what doesn't work,” explains Kampschoer. “On my end, I noticed Wi Fi wasn't stable enough, so I told Jochem, ‘I'll be back in in 20 minutes, I’m going to get an ethernet cable.’”
Communicating over a video call while they were testing out the set up, Paap and Kampschoer also discovered another quirk which would impact on the final output of the audio-visual live stream for the online audience.
“Both sides had hardware setups connected to the DAW, and the DAW would send it to our Ninjam server where the sound gets delayed by two bars on each side,” Paap reiterates, “but on the call I would see, for example, Robin adding a bassline at a certain time, but I would hear that coming in two bars later. You think it’s going to be really confusing but after 10 minutes working like that you completely forget about it.
“But for the live stream video, it meant one of the people in the image would always be two bars behind,” he adds. “We could choose which one to put two bars behind visually, whether its the STOOR studio or the remote guest, but we had to tackle that problem so it looked believable, because if it’s completely out of sync with the music, people will notice. We had comments like, ‘I see Rødhåd sweeping his filter on the peak, and I can hear it two bars later, so it must be recorded in advance.’ People were trying to kind of debunk it.”
“A lot of people watching it thought it was just witchcraft,” recalls Anthony Child, aka repeat Stay Home Soundsystem participant Surgeon. “They thought it was like a fake moon landing or something.”
When users connect via Ninjam, the software runs a centralized clock which controls the shared time buffer and sets the pulse for each collaborator’s DAW to sync to. However, in testing Paap found the pulse wasn’t reliable enough for the precision required of a high-profile live stream. Anyone who has spent time getting hybrid hardware and software set-ups in sync will agree it can be a challenging process.
“I decided to sync by hand,” Paap reveals, “so I had my [Elektron] Octatrack as the master clock for my set-up. We would agree on a BPM, I would dial in the clock, listen to the sound coming in from the remote jam and start the Octatrack right on the beat. The Octatrack has a nudge function, so once it starts to drift a little bit, I can nudge it. I think there's a few jams where you can hear it's slowly getting into the friction zone, but I would say 99% of the time I was able to keep it on time. Eventually, it just came down to old-school DJ skills.”
It’s worth noting you can do the same thing with Live as the master clock for your own setup using the Phase Nudge controls found next to the Tempo in the top left of Live’s interface. To minimize complications around keeping the sets in time with this manual approach to syncing, the BPM agreed upon at the start of a session would remain fixed for the duration.
This period of troubleshooting with Kampschoer resulted in a manual Paap put together, to send to anyone taking part in one of the remote jams for Stay Home Soundsystem. As he explains in the manual, Paap uses Cockos’ own DAW, Reaper, as a direct host for the signal from his hardware setup, as it comes bundled with the ReaNINJAM plugin, with the option to run a signal from Live into the software via Rewire. Others preferred using JamTaba to connect to the server directly from Live. Other considerations included ensuring the levels for the Master, Remote Channels and Monitor Mix are all set to 0 DB to guarantee everyone hears the summed audio at the same level.
“This is also something that nobody would ever be able to pull off outside of COVID,” Paap laughs, “because I actually asked quite a lot from people and they had to give up their whole Sunday to set up, test everything and do the jam.”
Kick out the jams
When it came to the start of any jam, Paap recalls a sense of magic from his side every time the connection was made. “The remote guest would chime in saying, ‘I'm ready,’ we’d connect to the Ninjam server and then you would hear their music from wherever in the world, coming over the speakers in the studio. Every time that happened it was like, ‘this is crazy. I have a connection with Stanislav [Tolkachev] in Kyiv or Deru in LA.’ Then I tried to do something in sync with whatever they were doing, and they would get my stuff back to them, and you almost can’t believe it’s working.”
In most cases, the participants would also have a video call running so they could see each other while they performed. At the outset, it served as a comfort in the unfamiliarity of jamming without verbal communication or the visual cues of body language, but in every instance once a session was well underway the call would drop out or go idle, and neither party would notice.
“The first time we did it, I felt it was unusual,” says Kampschoer, “just because you’re in your own studio jamming with someone else, but after a pretty short time I got used to it, and I just focused on the sound, what the other one is doing.”
“I went into it assuming it would feel really detached,” says Child, “but even though it’s delayed by two bars, I quickly adjusted to the feel of that delay. I was really surprised how connected I felt musically to the person I was playing the music with, and that was such an emotionally and spiritually important thing at that time.”
The technical aspects of Stay Home Soundsystem meant Paap and his collaborators had certain considerations about their musical approach. The two-bar time lag they implemented with Ninjam meant it wasn’t possible to sync up specific shifts in the arrangement of the jam between different participants - this would have been a challenge to co-ordinate anyway given the limited means of communication between each of them. Instead, Paap made a suggestion about the overall approach in the manual sent to each participant:
“Musically it works best if both sides make slow changes and let the music develop in longer arcs,” he wrote. “This way the end result will be most coherent. It takes a few minutes to get used to but it feels like being in the same room very quickly.”
This steady, continuous stream of sound from the different studios did create a limitation for one of the common facets of electronic dance music - the build-ups and breakdowns. To address this issue, Paap added one additional step into the chain before the final, summed signal being sent out to the streaming audience. The combined signal he received from Ninjam back to the STOOR studio was sent to an additional mixer set up with some simple effects and EQ, so that if the jam required a momentary lift, he could cut the bass and apply a little delay or reverb to create a break similarly to how you would in a DJ set.
“I didn't do this terribly often,” Paap explains, “but when the sound became too monotonous, sometimes I intervened and created some dynamics and some tension, but the other party wouldn't hear it. Technically, it's impossible to loop that back again to the remote person because it would create a second stream, which would then be terrible.”
By connecting different producers’ studios together, Stay Home Soundsystem allowed each person to collaborate with their full setup at their disposal. The trap in such a situation would have been an excessive amount of musical information flowing in from two or more sources without any way to effectively mix it. “I could literally pick from everything I have around me,” says Kampschoer. “Your own studio is usually the most comfortable place where you're able to make music.”
“There’s not really much preparation for a jam, as you want to feel free,” explains Dasha Rush, who took part in episode 37 of Stay Home Soundsystem from her studio in Berlin. “The only preparation could be a choice of a few machines I would use. I had a little chat with Jochem about which direction we would go in, an approximation of ideas and overall mood.”
Given the vast array of equipment at STOOR, Paap would find out what everyone else was planning to use and build his setup around theirs. “I would pick the things they hadn't thought of,” he explains. “If they had all mono stuff, I would use something polyphonic, or I would have a different drum machine than theirs.”
What went wrong?
Over 13 episodes which featured participants in remote locations, Stay Home Soundsystem managed a surprisingly small amount of technical mishaps. Paap is keen to point out it wasn’t a big budget operation, but rather a spirited experiment in response to the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. Even the video stream, which has a tastefully grainy finish to match the abundance of analogue sonics, was simply a case of using cheap PTZ surveillance cameras rather than expensive, high-end ones. The MacBook Pro which originally ran the audio-visual feed from STOOR to viewers around the world was technically too slow for the job and would overheat – occasionally the crew had to go on Discord to check that audiences were still getting the stream. But the biggest mistake was human error rather than technical glitch.
Paap invited LA-based live coding artist Deru for a remote jam, despite the pair not having much connection in the past. During the set up, Deru requested to run his side of the jam through the standalone Ninjam client, but the signal routing on Paap’s side wasn’t configured correctly, and so while Deru’s irregular rhythms were audible coming into the STOOR studio, they didn’t reach the external broadcast to viewers at home.
“We did the whole set, and everybody expected something different,” Paap recalls. “There were some comments like, ‘Oh, this is very chill, didn't expect it to be so sparse.’ We were trying to listen back afterwards and Deru was like, ‘Jochem, my friends tell me they didn't hear me.’ We’d had a really good set, so we said, ‘fuck it, let's do it again.’ So we did another whole hour, which is a bit wilder than the one we’d originally originally done, because we had this aggression about the situation.”
Both seasons of Stay Home Soundsystem are available to revisit on the STOOR YouTube channel, in their entirety, but as Paap points out they amount to a huge amount of material for any one listener to work through. With that in mind, the Stay Home Soundsystem compilation has been put together to provide an overview of the best material that emerged from these purely improvised sessions. Clocking in at 89 different tracks for the digital version, it’s still a mammoth release that covers a huge breadth of techno from more than 30 different contributors, but it makes for a more manageable document of this ambitious experiment in modern electronic music collaboration.
“There were some really nice moments that came out of [Stay Home Soundsystem],” says Paap. “I didn't want to leave it just as a YouTube series with weeks and weeks of material.
“For the people who were viewing it live and who participated,” he adds, “it was definitely a special thing to be involved in during that period. We were all sitting at home desperate to do something with other people. It was a big ask for everybody involved, but because of the community that gathered around the project, it became this liberating thing.”
With lockdown restrictions easing and clubs reopening on the horizon, the second season of Stay Home Soundsystem ran its course and culminated in a nine-hour marathon in September 2021 featuring Colin Benders, Megan Leber, Kampschoer, The Lady Machine, Charlton, Fadi Mohem, Fritz Schneider, Rødhåd and Paap himself. It was a fitting celebration of what had been achieved, but everyone’s focus had shifted to a return to the real world and the project was boxed off as a unique spin-off of lockdown life. The technological breakthroughs haven’t gone completely to waste, though. A few of the participants have since hopped back onto the server for live jams, and All Skies Have Sounded by Child and Dan Bean’s The Transcendence Orchestra was pieced together with recordings from their remote jams.
The music that came out of Stay Home Soundsystem was undoubtedly impacted by the situation, and it demonstrated a new way of working for everyone who took part. Paap claims without exception, every participant thought a second session would have been even better. “But at the same time,” he says, “I think that is the charm of the project."
See also this Help article for more remote collaboration tips
Text and Interviews by Oli Warwick