Dana Zenobi, Assistant Professor of Music, couldn’t have another semester of bad karaoke. That’s what she told Butler’s Information Technology (IT) staff in a late-July email about the difficulties of teaching voice lessons during a pandemic. In-person singing just wasn’t an option, as safe distancing and mask-wearing would prevent instructors from observing technical details like mouth shape or jaw position. They tried holding rehearsals over Zoom when Butler first moved classes online last spring, but the video conferencing program wasn’t fast enough to support the immediacy needed for collaborative music-making. There was always a beat or two of delay between singer and pianist. Zoom also couldn’t capture the full range of vocal harmonics.

So, students were stuck singing along to pre-recorded accompaniments.

“Instead of having a pianist who could respond to what we were doing in the moment, everything felt very rigid,” says Sophie Strasheim, a senior Music Education and Vocal Performance Major. “It was hard to be expressive.”

Oliver Worthington and Dana Zenobi

By the start of the fall semester, Music faculty and IT staff had teamed up to find a solution. Zenobi attended a virtual summer conference—the Acoustic Vocal Pedagogy Workshop at New England Conservatory—where she learned about a free, high-speed audio platform called SoundJack. The tool is designed specifically for real-time, online music-making. If Butler could just build a few mini-computers to run only that software—and throw in some professional-grade audio equipment—the experience would be even better.

“I know nothing about computers,” Zenobi says. “My knowledge of microphones back in August was, ‘Is it shaped like an ice cream cone, or is it shaped like a pencil?’ I knew nothing about networks, nothing about IP addresses, but the New England Conservatory course showed me that something very exciting was possible. Oliver Worthington, Butler’s Vocal Area Coordinator, quickly jumped on board. He and I built Fastmusic Box prototypes using Raspberry Pi processors, which are basically customizable mini-computers. And that’s when I contacted IT and said, ‘Alright, here’s my problem, and here’s a potential solution.’”

IT staff didn’t hesitate. Excited to be involved with an innovative fix to a teaching problem, they held meetings nearly every day until the technology was up and running. They requested some tweaks that would allow the software to better serve a university environment. To avoid the “nest of wires” needed to connect with regular monitors and keyboards, they designed a Raspberry Pi touchscreen that attaches directly to the mini-computer, creating something like a portable tablet that students can check out alongside a high-quality microphone to use for lessons. All students need to bring are their headphones and their voices.

The team built 14 of the Raspberry Pi devices. Michael Denny, Butler Network and Security Engineer, says these Fastmusic Boxes can provide higher quality and more reliable performance than if they had tried to install SoundJack on students’ personal computers. 

“On a regular computer, SoundJack needs to compete with all the other programs that are running simultaneously,” Denny says. “Dedicating a device to only one function, like processing audio, allows it to execute that function as quickly as possible.”

Now, three people can tune in from three different places but feel like they are creating music together.

“It’s a lot closer to being there in person,” says Strasheim. “Occasionally, it might be just slightly behind, but it’s usually right on track and feels like you and the pianist are in the same room.” 

Zenobi says this solution has allowed students to have the kinds of music-making experiences that made them want to pursue singing in the first place.

“Making videos by yourself and having them edited into a virtual choir is wonderful and impressive when you get to the end product,” she explains, “but that’s not what these students signed up to do. They signed up to make music together with other people, and to learn and grow in that capacity. The ability to do that again has been thrilling for them. When students try this for the first time, they get so excited—sometimes on the edge of tears—because they’re like, ‘Wow, I missed making music so much.’”