Setting up Your Virtual Studio
Virtual Studio Project
The goal of the Virtual Studio project is to make it much easier for musicians and singers to play music together remotely. Most current solutions require each player to install, configure, and update sophisticated software and hardware on their computers. This necessitates significant technical expertise — including for computers, real-time audio, and even networking — to attain acceptable results. Another big problem with playing music together remotely is avoiding audio delays, called latency. The Virtual Studio project solves these problems in several ways:
- Virtual Studio is based on a self-contained device that includes the necessary computer hardware and software, pre-installed and configured.
- The device updates its software automatically.
- By standardizing the hardware and the software, latency can be better controlled. The only remaining delays are from the internet, namely distance delays caused by the speed of light and congestion delays caused by internet service providers.
- The Virtual Studio project manages computer servers in the cloud, which connect the players together. These servers are easily configured and inexpensive. The project has servers in many locations, so you can choose servers that are nearby to reduce latency.
This document walks you through the steps of buying and setting up your own Virtual Studio and getting a group of people connected to a server, so they can jam, practice, and even perform together.
Even though you will be able to create music with other people remotely using Virtual Studio, it may not be the best way to record performances, as there will often be some latency between performers. Here is a choir performance captured using Virtual Studio. The director talks about how they did it after the first song.
There are five main parts to Virtual Studio:
- The Virtual Studio device
- A microphone — typically one but can be more
- Headphones — to hear all the players in your group.
- An internet connection — to connect to the Virtual Studio cloud service
- An app — a simple web app running on any standard browser, to control everything
Different musicians will have differing needs. You can customize your setup as you wish. This document will help you figure out your needs, and assist you in meeting them.
The Virtual Studio Device
Inside the metal case are two boards. The main board is a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B with 2GB of RAM. This board costs only $35 but is basically a full computer almost as powerful as a laptop or even a reasonable desktop computer. The second board is a HiFiBerry ADC DAC+ Pro, a very low latency analog-to-digital (ADC) and digital-to-analog (DAC) sound board. There is also a 16 GB Micro SD flash memory card containing the Raspberry Pi OS (the Rasbian version of Linux) and the JackTrip software, pre-installed.
Here is the box with labels showing the connectors we will be using:
- NET — Ethernet socket used for the Internet connection.
- MIC — ⅛ inch (3.5mm) TRS input from a microphone (or from a mixer or audio interface).
- AUDIO OUT — Two RCA jacks; red is the right channel. Output to headphones (or optional headphone amplifier).
- POWER — USB-C jack to connect to a power supply.
You can buy this from Amazon for $150. If it is out of stock, check back. They are in demand right now, but they become available frequently. Things should get better in the future.
If you have a group of more than 20 people who want to buy these, you can get them directly from the Virtual Studio Foundation.
When you receive the device, shake it to make sure there are no loose screws inside. If there are any, you need to open the box. You’ll need a small Phillips head screwdriver. Here are the instructions for assembling the case. Follow them backwards to disassemble it, pulling the side with the RCA jacks (labeled “Audio out” above) slightly outward to disengage the case from the jacks. Replace any loose screws and tighten all screws, both inside and outside the case.
If you have technical skills, you can build this device yourself. See the section “Building a Virtual Server device” below.
If you buy this device from Amazon, you get nothing else. You will also need a power supply and an Ethernet cable.
This plugs into a regular wall power socket and supplies power to the device. The power input on the Virtual Studio device is a USB-C socket, but is used for power only. You should not use a mobile phone charger for the power supply, instead use one of the official Raspberry Pi 4 power supplies. You should be able to get one for $8 (plus shipping).
Make sure you specify the correct model and region (US, UK, EU, AU). Check to be sure the plug is the right one you need. You can also pick a black or white power supply (to match your device case).
Canakit also sells an approved power supply with slightly higher power and a convenient on/off switch for $10.99 on Amazon.
Internet via Wired Ethernet
The Virtual Studio device should not be connected to the internet via WiFi. WiFi can cause excessive latency and jitter. Note that this is only a problem for hardware that is processing or transmitting audio. Your other connected devices — including the computer, tablet, or phone whose browser will run the web app to control the Virtual Studio device — can use WiFi if desired (or be connected direct into the hub/switch).
You will connect the device to the internet using an Ethernet cable (pictured below). The length you need depends on how far away your internet router will be from your Virtual Studio device. Ethernet cable lengths up to around 100 feet will work, but you should use a cable relatively close to the shortest length you need.
The speed of Ethernet cable is called its “Category” (abbreviated “Cat”). Cat 5 supports 100 Mbps internet. Cat 5e and Cat 6 support gigabit internet. If you are buying a new cable, I recommend you buy Cat 6 or Cat 6A. Cat 7 and Cat 8 will also work, but are overkill.
Monoprice sells Cat 6 in lengths up to 100 feet in multiple colors. For example, a 14-foot cable is $3.66. I tend to buy Cat 6A because it is slimmer and has better shielding, and isn’t much more expensive.
Plug one end of this cable into the Ethernet jack on the Virtual Studio device (labelled “NET” in the device picture above), and the other end connects to the internet. Plug the Ethernet cable into an Ethernet jack on your Internet modem or router (if you have both, plug it into the router). If your router has Ethernet jacks for both WAN and LAN, make sure you use a LAN jack. If you don’t have any Ethernet jacks available, you can buy an inexpensive Ethernet hub or switch. Plug the hub/switch into your Internet modem or router (if you have both, plug it into the router), and then connect everything else through the hub/switch.
You can use your existing internet service, as long as it has reasonably low latency/lag/jitter. The best internet service uses optical fiber (also spelled fibre). Lacking that, cable (e.g., Comcast) will work, but may have more latency. DSL can be the same or worse than cable. Satellite internet will not work, nor will any other type of wireless internet service (upcoming 5G wireless claims to be low latency, but we’ll see how that works in practice).
The bandwidth (speed) of your internet connection is not the most important factor. Anything 4 Mbps (megabits per second) or better, for both download and upload, should be more than enough (unless there are other people using your connection at the same time). You can test your bandwidth with this website, which also displays ping time.
The main problem is latency (audio delay, also called lag), which is the time it takes the audio to travel through the internet and get converted to digital and back. You want latency lower than 30mS (milliseconds); less is better. The ping time displayed by speed tests is a rough measure of latency. Even better, on the Audio Devices page of the JackTrip app, when you connect your device to a server, it will display the latency range and average, and jitter (in terms of deviation) in the bottom right corner. It will look something like this:
17.2 to 76 ms, 23 avg, 9.6 dev
This latency is displayed in real time and will vary.
Microphone (and other inputs)
Most people will just need a single microphone. You may also need a special adapter cable to go from the microphone to the device.
Behringer XM8500 Mic from Sweetwater — $23.00
Good microphone from Monoprice, with an on-off switch — $19.99 including shipping
From Monoprice, good Shure mic knockoff, includes mic clip — $29.99 including shipping
The mic should be placed less than a foot from the sound source (your mouth or instrument).
Microphone adapter cable
Most good microphones have a male XLR connector. The mic input jack on the Virtual Studio device is a 3.5mm (⅛ inch) stereo TRS. Note that there are two different jacks like this on the device. Make sure you use the one to the left of the RCA jacks (the one labelled “MIC” in the picture above). This cable goes from that jack to your microphone.
Note that you must use a cable where the TRS plug is wired for stereo. That is, the mono signal from the microphone is connected to both the left and right channels of the device. Many XLR to TRS cables are instead wired for balanced mono, and will not work.
Note that there are some microphones that use a 3.5mm TRS connector instead of an XLR connector. These are often designed for taking video with cameras that have a TRS microphone input. If you have one of these, you don’t need the above XLR microphone adapter cable; you can use a standard headphone extension cable (see below). You should try it out to see how it sounds, since these microphones are mainly designed for recording at a distance, rather than close-up. Again, be sure the mic does not require phantom power (also called bias voltage).
Mic Stands and Clips
Unless you are planning on always holding your microphone, you might want to buy a mic stand. Decide if you want a floor stand or a desk stand. You might also need a mic clip to hold your microphone on the stand.
Mic Extension Cable
Your microphone should be a few inches away from the source of sound (your mouth for singing, or your instrument). It is always handy to have an extension cable for your mic, so you can place the mic wherever you want it. The extension cable for a microphone has a female XLR connector on one end, and a male XLR connector on the other.
Monoprice sells good XLR extension cables in many lengths. Equivalent quality cables from other vendors will be more expensive.
Condenser Mics, Mixers, and Audio Interfaces
If you have a condenser microphone you want to use, unfortunately the Virtual Studio device does not supply “phantom power” to it. Condenser mics are popular, but they require a source of power, which is usually supplied through the same cable as carries the microphone signal.
You can solve this problem in a number of ways:
- Buy a phantom power supply. Here’s one on Amazon for $25.
- Get an audio interface. This is a useful device that will also let you control the volume of your microphone(s). It can also be used with other software for remote music, including Jamulus and JamKazam (and others). They cost $50 and up. More expensive ones have multiple inputs, so you can have multiple microphones, instruments, and other inputs active at the same time. You can purchase audio interfaces from Sweetwater and Amazon. You will use the analog output from the audio interface, and plug it into the Virtual Studio device.
- Buy a mixer, and use it the same way as an audio interface. A mixer also lets you use multiple inputs. If the mixer has a low-latency USB digital output, it may also work with Jamulus.
Here is a list of sound cards and audio interfaces that have been tested to work with Virtual Studio. There is also a larger list of audio interfaces and mixers that work with Jamulus, which you can also use with Virtual Studio, by using the analog outputs.
You will plug your microphone into the phantom power supply, audio interface, or mixer, which will supply power to it (you will have to turn on a switch, usually labelled “phantom power”). Then take the analog output from that box and run it into the mic input on the Virtual Studio device.
If you have a USB microphone that also has an analog output (in addition to the USB) you can probably use it as well. You have to plug in the USB cable to supply power to the mic, but you will use the analog output (typically a 3.5mm TRS connection) to connect to the device.
You should use headphones when you are doing music remotely. If you use speakers, the sound will get picked up by your microphone and cause feedback, echo and other problems. Use wired headphones only (no wireless or Bluetooth, which will cause latency and jitter).
It is recommended that you use headphones that do not also have a microphone (often called a headset), as those have a different kind of connector (TRRS instead of TRS, with two rings instead of one). Alternatively, you can get a splitter adapter and use only the headphone plug, ignoring the microphone plug.
Making this even more confusing, there are two standards for wiring TRRS connectors:
If you don’t know which one you have, you can buy a universal adapter. But the easiest solution is to use headphones without a microphone.
If you already own a set of headphones that meet the guidelines in the previous paragraphs, you can use them. Older headphones often have a large ¼ inch (6.35mm) plug, instead of the smaller ⅛ inch (3.5mm) plug. If so, you can buy a ⅛ inch male TRS to ¼ inch female TRS adapter:
From Monoprice — $0.51
From Amazon — $6.99
You can also use earbuds, as long as they are wired (and either don’t have a microphone, or you use a splitter adapter cable).
Headphone adapter cable
You will also need a short adapter cable to connect your headphones into the Virtual Studio device. The device audio output is two RCA jacks. Your headphones should use a 3.5mm (⅛ inch) stereo TRS phone plug, so you will need a short adapter cable that looks like this:
Assuming you have (or buy) headphones with a 3.5mm (⅛ inch) TRS plug, recommended adapters are:
Hosa YMR-197 Stereo 3.5mm TRS Female to dual RCA Male, from Sweetwater — $4.95, from Amazon — $4.95
Monoprice 3.5mm Stereo Female to 2x RCA — $2.22
Headphone extension cable
Headphones almost always come with a built-in cable around 3 to 6 feet long, but if you want to get further away from the device, you can buy an extension cable, in your desired length.
From Monoprice — $0.83 and up
From Amazon — $6.98 and up
The audio output from the Virtual Studio device is not very powerful and can distort if you try to make it much louder. Some people will want to buy a headphone amplifier. Most headphone amplifiers can drive more than one set of headphones, which is useful if more than one person will be singing or playing over a single Virtual Studio device.
Behringer HA400 from Amazon — $23.99, or Sweetwater — $23.99
Monoprice 4-channel headphone amplifier — $31.99
What you need to do to get all the hardware you need.
- Acquire a Virtual Studio device.
- Find your internet router and modem (they may be combined). Make sure you have an Ethernet jack that is not occupied by anything you need. If you don’t, you may need to purchase an Ethernet hub or switch.
- Decide where you will put the Virtual Studio device. Figure out the lengths of the cables you will need, including the Ethernet, microphone, and headphone cables.
- Read this document to figure out what else you need to buy, and buy it. Some things will be purchased by everyone in your group, so if possible get together and buy in bulk.
Sweetwater is selling an accessory kit, called the “Behringer Live Online Essentials Bundle” that includes the microphone (#2), mic adapter cable (#1), headphone adapter cable (#3), and ethernet cable (#6), which is everything in the image above except for the Virtual Studio device (#5) and its power supply (#4). This is convenient, but the price is the same as if you bought them separately. And you will still need to supply headphones.
Virtual Studio Cloud Service
Playing music together happens through a shared server. In order to keep latency low, you need to use a server that is as close to your group as possible.
The Virtual Studio cloud service provides virtual servers that allow a group of people to connect over the internet and make music together. Each group of people will need (at least) one server, which is typically set up and controlled by the leader of the group. If you want to create a new group of people, you can connect to an additional server. Here’s the list of the geographical regions that have servers. It is also possible (but more difficult) to construct your own servers.
During the beta period, these servers are free. After that, they will cost a small amount of money per hour. You should get into the habit of disconnecting from the server after you are done using it, so additional costs will not be incurred in the future.
You will use the Virtual Studio web app to connect to a server and control your Virtual Studio device.
The actual setup is pretty straightforward. This checklist focuses on extra things, including potential problems. The term “device” refers to the Virtual Studio device. The device is managed by a web app, both to set it up, and to control it.
- Open a web browser, which can be on any computer, including tablets and even smartphones, but it must be connected to the same local area network (LAN) your device is on. This computer (or tablet or phone) can connect via WiFi or wired Ethernet; although it can be connected wirelessly, you cannot connect using cellular data (e.g., on a phone or tablet), as that is not the same network.
- If you have not done this already, create a login on the Virtual Studio online app website, and log in. This web app is used to control your device and connect it to a remote group server. When you see the page asking you to log in, scroll down until you see “Don’t have an account? Sign up”. If you haven’t yet finished setting up your device, after you sign up you will see a warning that you don’t have any active devices.
- Have the chorus/band/group leader invite you to the group server, using the email address that you used to sign up in the previous step. That server will show up in the web app when it is available to you and running.
- Check to make sure there is nothing loose or rattling around inside the device case. If there is, see the instructions in the “Virtual Studio device” section, above.
- Hook up the microphone, headphones, internet, and power to the device.
- The very first time you power on the device, it can take 1–2 minutes to update the software on the Micro SD card. After this is done, you may need to cycle power to the device to get it to run properly. There are two LEDs on the side of the device opposite the Ethernet connection, one green and one red (these are not the LEDs on the Ethernet connection itself). The red light indicates that power is on; if it flashes there is a problem with the power supply. The green light blinks to show activity. Wait until the green light has stopped blinking and stays dark for a while (30 seconds?) before powering the device off and then back on.
- Now look at the Ethernet connector on the device and make sure the green light on it (below the connector) is blinking, showing that it is connected to the internet.
- Open a browser window on your computer (or tablet or phone) and type in the following URL exactly as written: http://jacktrip.local (if you are reading this document online, you can just click on this link). If you get an error message, it is probably because your device and browser are not on the same local network.
- At this point it will probably tell you that you have no audio devices registered to this account, or it might first ask you to log on, or to create a new login. Do what you need to do to open up the New Device Registration dialog. If you get an error, see Troubleshooting http://jacktrip.local for help.
- You should change the name to something unique that identifies you. Then click the “REGISTER DEVICE” button.
- You should now see the control panel for your device.
Test your Device
To test your device, you need to connect to a server. Probably the easiest (and most fun) way to do this is to have everyone in your group connect to your group server. That way you can get everyone in your group connected, and help each other if you run into any problems. To do this, whoever is in charge with your group will have to start the server.
- If you need to get back to the control panel for your device, in a browser window open https://app.jacktrip.org/devices. Make sure your device is powered and running.
- Turn on your device. Each time you power on the device, it may take a minute, as it is checking the software for updates. Make sure the device gets powered off regularly, so it can do this.
- In the Select Server input of the control panel, find the name of your group server and select it. Make sure it says “Ready”. If not, talk to your group leader. Then click the green Connect button. You should now be connected to that server.
- Once you are connected to the group server, in the control panel you will normally want to have the Limiter turned on and the Compressor turned off.
- Unmute both the “Input Volume” and “Output Volume” icons and move both volume sliders to 100%. With your headphones on, talk into the microphone and see if you can hear it. If you are not sure, you can turn on “Boost” for the Output Volume. Adding some Reverb can also help you hear your voice.
- If you hear distortion in your voice, turn down the “Input Volume”. There is a short delay each time you adjust the volume.
- If you don’t have enough volume in your headphones, you might want to purchase a headphone amplifier (discussed above).
You should now be able to hear your audio on the device. Note that you are hearing your voice via the remote server, so there will be some delay, but hopefully not very much.
If you are unable to hear audio or your device control panel shows 100% packet loss, it may be caused by your Internet router blocking traffic from the device (see Troubleshooting Firewall Ports). You should also double-check all the connections and ensure that your microphone and headphones are not plugged into the wrong ports.
When done testing, click the “DISCONNECT FROM SERVER” button to disconnect your device from the remote server. If you are the person in charge of the server, you should also shut down the server.
For more information, see Getting Started with a Virtual Studio Device.
Creating your own Server
Instead of connecting to the group server for testing, you can create your own server. This is also useful if you are in a group that has multiple sections, and you want to have practice sessions for your small group. Anyone can create and use their own server. Just remember that when server time starts costing money, the creator of the server will have to pay a (relatively small) amount for that use.
See https://jacktrip.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360053416674-Managing-Audio-Servers for detailed instructions on setting up a new server.
If you want to see the other people you are playing with, you can use a conferencing program such as Zoom, Google Meet, Google Duo, Skype, etc. Note that these programs will have more latency (delay) than the Virtual Studio, so I would recommend turning off the audio on your conference app by having everyone mute their microphone. Also, there will likely be a delay (up to a full second!) between the audio signal (going through Virtual Studio) and the video from the conferencing app, so trying to conduct a group by waving your hands just won’t work.
Building a Virtual Studio Device
If you cannot find the Virtual Studio device for sale, you can build it yourself. However, it requires quite a bit of technical skill. If you have a friend who is technical, they can probably build it.
You can buy everything you need to build the Virtual Studio Device from HiFiBerry. This is what you need to select:
- HiFiBerry DAC+ ADC Pro — $64.90
- Steel case for HiFiBerry Dac+/Adc, Pi 4 — $22.90
- Raspberry Pi 4B 2GB — $44.90
- No heatsink (unless you want it, which won’t hurt)
- SD (Micro SD) card 16GB — $12.90
- If you are building your own device, you need a Micro SD card reader to load software on the Micro SD card (see below) — $6.90
- You can add the power supply if you need to buy one anyway — $12.90
The last two items are optional if you already have them. They are not included if you buy the built device from Amazon. Without the last two items, the parts cost $145.60 (plus shipping). So you aren’t saving much money building it yourself this way. I have written an article that details how to build a low-cost Virtual Studio device, which I will be publishing soon.
Note that many of these things can be purchased elsewhere for less money. For example, you can get the same Raspberry Pi for $35 from Adafruit, Digi-Key, or others (slightly more from Amazon). Same thing for the Micro SD card and power supply.
If you are building your own Virtual Studio device, you will need to load software onto the Micro SD card from your computer. To do this, you will need a card reader that plugs into a USB port on your computer. If you have a newer computer it might use USB-C ports (which take the left-most plug, below) instead of the traditional USB-A ports (second plug, below). You are only going to need to do this once, so you can also borrow one.
Here is an SD card reader from Amazon ($7.99), which works in both USB-A and USB-C ports, and can read (and write) both regular (fullsize) SD cards and Micro SD cards. Alternatively, f you already have a Micro SD card reader that has the wrong connector for your computer, you can buy an adapter from Monoprice. If you have a regular (fullsize) SD card reader, there are adapters for Micro SD cards that let them fit in a regular SD card reader.
Follow these instructions to load the software onto the Micro SD card. You can do it from any computer, along with the card reader.
Virtual Studio online app. Create a login here. Once you do that and sign in, you can create a server or connect to an existing server.