Playing live music together is one of the most cathartic experiences humans can have. I know this fact intimately; one chorus of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” with a few cool older kids in fifth grade and I was hooked. Over the next two decades, playing drums with people became a cornerstone—not just of my education and professional life, but of my mental health. When I feel like crap, I go bang on something with my friends to feel better again.
Then, the pandemic: no more shows to play, and I didn’t want to be within six feet of anyone indoors. As a musician whose instrument takes up a good chunk of a converted garage, I was particularly screwed. It’s pretty tough to lug a drum kit to the park for a jam session. The Elk Bridge, a new audio interface that allows you to play with up to five people at once within 620 miles in real time, would have really kept my friends and I closer together during a tough time.
The Bridge wires into your router, pairs up with a musician on the other end, and allows you to play with no latency—as long as they’re in the aforementioned 620-mile circle and have a reasonably speedy internet connection. Can’t make the drive across town for a rehearsal? No problem. Global pandemic have people fearing for their lives and unwilling to leave the house? Hey, at least we can still jam.
Photograph: Elk Live
Ever try to play music with someone over Zoom or Facebook? You’ve probably found a problem. Latency, or the delay between the time you play something and the time you hear it back on headphones or speakers, has been the enemy of recording digital audio for a while.
It’s basic physics. It takes time for a microphone to capture audio; for your interface to convert the waves to digital signal; and for your computer to play it back. Factor in network speed and computer processing for rebroadcasting instantly, and there’s never been an affordable way for musicians to play together over the internet live.
Until now. The Elk Live solves this problem by joining each of its in-house interfaces directly via a peer-to-peer connection and using a proprietary operating system. Because the interfaces don’t actually hit your computer for processing—they instead act like standalone servers to broadcast your music to the other side in real time—it saves enough time that you can play with others without any audio delay at all.
So long as you meet distance and internet speed criteria (620 miles, plus at least 10-Mbps up/down speed and less than 10 milliseconds of ping), you’ll hear the other musician as though they’re in the same room, which is truly a game changer for everything from practices to live remote performances.
The Elk Bridge (the name for the yellow brick that you plug your microphones and headphones into) looks mostly like any other audio interface. You’ll find two microphone/line inputs on the front, a 3.5-mm and ¼-inch jack. On the back, there’s MIDI in and out, optical in and out, a USB-C power input, and an Ethernet port to connect it to your router.
Unlike most audio interfaces, none of the Elk Live service’s software runs on your computer. Instead, you control the software via a web app (which requires a $15 per month subscription). While you mess with levels and a mixer inside the app, every bit of the audio processing is happening inside the yellow box and being transmitted directly to another person’s yellow box on the other side.