Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Karaoke + Jamming = Jamaoke

The other night we hosted another of our blues jam nights, this time at the Neptune Inn in Hove.
The Neptune has a reputation locally for being something of a music bar (it's not really big enough to call a pub, but is a great little venue - and gets quite packed in there when a good band are playing!). So we really wanted to make a half-decent impression with our first (hopefully of many) jam night there.

Now jam nights can go one of two ways.
The first is a house band play some songs, and people are invited to get up on stage and join in. These can be great nights out, but do tend to become a little bit "clique-y" after time. The same faces turn up and play the same songs - or the band have preferred players who they try to encourage to stay on stage.

The other kind of jam night is a bit more "messy" and more of a "jam" than a "play-what-you've-been-practicing-all-week" kind of session. Whoever turns up plays along with whoever else happens to be there. Normally this means people stick to "simpler" tunes, or at least common 12-bar patterns, or chord structures that are quite predictable, so everyone can easily play along.

At our jam night we wanted to avoid the clique-y-ness of a "structured" jam night. Plus, we didn't really have a house band - we had no idea how many people, let alone who, would turn up!

But we didn't want our jam night to be too messy either, nor did we want to be confined to playing three-chord, 12-bar blues all night. What we needed was something like a teleprompter, much like you see at karaoke nights.

So anyone with a passing familiarity with a song can join in - as both the words and the music are displayed on a large screen. And that's exactly what we did.

A few nights before the jam night, people intending on playing were asked to fill in a website, with the chord structure (and lyrics) to songs they wanted to play. We also added in some songs, so that we had some "filler" numbers for on the night.

Using nothing more than a bit of simple javascript, we built an on-screen highlighter, which could be moved along using the arrow keys on the keyboard. Left and right moved the highlight one place to the left or right, and up and down moved to the start of the next/previous section (verse or chorus, however the song had been entered onto the site).

It worked surprisingly well.
In such a tiny place as the Neptune, the massive screen did look a little imposing. But the basic idea worked quite nicely. We even managed a half-decent version of Peter Green's "Need your love so bad" played by a hastily-assembled band - many of whom had never even met before that night - playing a song that many had never played before - simply following along to the chords as they flashed up on the screen.

The actual jamaoke system basically consists of a TV with HDMI input and a Raspberry Pi containing a clone of the website used to upload the songs (the Pi is running MySQL and an Apache web server to host PHP web pages).

In the fullness of time we'd like to make the system operable by the band on stage - perhaps using foot pedals or similar to move the prompt along. Or maybe even hook it up to a MIDI-based "clicker track" so that the highlighter moves automatically over time. Such an approach might need a slightly better band on stage though, as it could prove quite tricky keeping the (live) music in time to an automated system.

For now, we're happy to just jam along and control the jamaoke system manually. Sure, it needs an extra person - for now - to keep everything in sync. Maybe in years to come our jamaoke operator will be known as our "fifth Beatle"....