NINJAM – One more reason not to leave the house!

As I mentioned earlier, the Gangster Fun reunion show completely re-ignited my interest in performing music. When I got back home, however, all of my musician friends were too busy with jobs, kids, commuting, and the rest of their lives to want to jam on a regular basis.

I started looking for a technological remedy for my need to rock.

The first solution I looked at was email. I’ve worked on several projects where files are emailed between two or more musicians, each of whom does his or her own thing and sends it back to a person who assembles it and mixes it. This technique works pretty well, but it lacks spontaneity. I wanted to jam.

After doing a little more research into online music, I discovered an open source project called NINJAM (which stands for Novel Intervallic Network Jamming Architecture for Music). NINJAM allows people to play music together over the Internet. Since there are various latencies associated with transmitting music over the Internet, the biggest technological obstacle to real-time music collaboration is how to keep everyone synchronized. For a good example of the problem, try calling someone in the same room as you on your mobile phone and telling them to sing along with the voice on the phone, not your live voice. To an observer watching you both singing, but not listening on the phone, it will appear as if you’re singing out of sync, because of the time it takes your voice to travel through the mobile phone network. This is the same problem with trying to jam over the internet.

Instead of trying to minimize the latency, NINJAM takes a very novel approach–it makes the latency much longer. So, imagine that instead of your friend hearing your voice 1 second later, you could tell the phone to play your voice on the other end exactly 16 beats after you sing it! Now, all you have to do is sing a pattern that repeats every 16 beats (like the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) and it will appear to the observer that you and your friend are singing together, even though your friend is actually 16 beats behind you. NINJAM can manage multiple connections at the same time using this scheme. I’ve seen jams involving 8 to 10 different people from all over the world.

After reading up on exactly how NINJAM works and listening to some recordings on the Web site, I installed the NINJAM client on my computer, plugged in a microphone and connected to a server. The first thing that happened is that I felt unworthy to be playing along with the group I dropped in on. I quickly bowed out and started a new jam session with just me. For kicks, I slowed the tempo down and changed the beat to something I thought would be interesting — or at least funny. After a while, a guitar player joined (apparently, there are a LOT of guitarists on NINJAM). It was a mess. I didn’t know what I was doing, and dealing with the latency is enough trouble without also having to worry about unusual beats. I’m sure the guy I was playing with was good, but we sounded horrible and he gave up after 10 minutes. Undeterred, I kept on jamming by myself…I’d be doing that anyway, I figured. A little later, a bass player showed up. This time it went a little better. We weren’t exactly rockin’, but it was passable–in a hanging out in the basement making music sort of a way.

I’m still very much a NINJAM newbie, but I’m very excited about the possibilities. The fact that you’re not actually playing “live” with the other musicians is limiting in some ways, but the experience going online and playing in a band with bunch of good musicians from all over the world any time you want is mind-blowing.

THIS is what the Internet is good for. No more drummers who are late to practice. No more drinking too much at open mic night to get up the courage, only to make a fool of myself because I’ve had too much to drink. Best of all: there are no more excuses for not playing live music regularly. I’m getting ready to call my “real life” friends and tell them that if they ever want to play music, wait until the kids are asleep and get on the computer.


  1. chris says:

    Makes me wish I was better at my instrument. BUT, as my imaginary sax teacher who is just as hard on me as I am on myself might say, “Wishin’ ain’t how you learn to play.”

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