AWS Media Blog

San Francisco Opera makes beautiful music with Elk LIVE, AWS edge computing, and 5G

Demonstration shows the power of AWS edge computing for a distributed performance

Music is built on a framework of time. To maintain the beat, tempo, swing, groove, and storyline, musicians depend on reliable and consistent timing.

Opera is one of the most precise artforms in the music world and relies on ultra-low latencies for real-time practices, performances, and collaborations. Singers and musicians must be able to hear every breath and track even the subtlest facial expressions and use those cues to deliver performances with split-second precision.

Traditional video conferencing technologies cannot keep pace with the real-time interaction musicians require for practice and performance alike. Musical collaboration using these platforms is often impeded by frequent buffering due to spiky internet bandwidth availability and inconsistent connectivity. This results in latencies that are about 15 times slower than what musicians need to collaborate in real time. If even one note, beat, or measure is off, the result is a washy mess of audio that results in discordance instead of harmonic performances. Or worse—silence. As a result, musicians cannot interact in a live context and instead are forced to record their parts separately, dissipating spontaneity, energy, and emotion of live music.

“The layering effect where someone records a track and someone else listens to that track and lays another track on top of it–—that’s so antithetical to the way that music is made, because music is a participatory endeavor. You are making it in real time and responding to the slightest nuance from the other person. Opera operates at extremes of dynamic or tessitura range, for singers in particular,” said Matthew Shilvock, general director of the San Francisco Opera.

During AWS re:Invent 2021, the San Francisco Opera delivered a real-time opera performance showing how this challenge can be overcome with a combined solution from Elk Audio, an award-winning audio technology developer, and AWS edge compute on 5G. In the demonstration, the Elk LIVE service used AWS Wavelength Zones on Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband to connect artists more than 560 miles apart in real time. The event featured San Francisco Opera soprano and Adler Fellow Anne-Marie MacIntosh in Las Vegas and accompanist Andrew King in the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. During the performance, the artists synchronized their performance as if they were standing only a few feet instead of hundreds of miles apart.

San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows

San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows

AWS Wavelength embeds AWS compute and storage services within communication service providers’ (CSP) data centers at the edge of the 5G network. This minimizes the latency and network hops required to connect from an application hosted on AWS to the end user’s device. Elk LIVE removes barriers for musicians, allowing easy access to connect and play, whether they want to find a new bandmate, have a jam session, take music lessons, coach vocalists, rehearse, compose, perform, or live stream while in different places and supporting remote collaboration across distances of up to 2,000 miles over a standard internet connection.

“We have a lot of parameters to fine-tune to find the best compromise between latency and sound quality but with AWS Wavelength on 5G, we are able to provide the musicians a high-quality stream with a latency comparable of being nine meters or about 30 feet apart on a stage even though they were more than 500 miles apart,” said Stefano Zambon, co-founder of Elk Audio.

Using AWS Wavelength Zones, the signal (packet) never had to leave the Verizon network which drives down latency. During the special performance at AWS re:Invent, Elk LIVE powered by AWS Wavelength on 5G resulted in ultra-low latency averaging 30 to 40 milliseconds in Las Vegas and San Francisco. For context, the blink of a human eye takes 400 milliseconds or 10 times longer.

“Elk’s LIVE service using AWS Wavelength Zones on Verizon 5G Technology opens up incredibly exciting remote music collaboration possibilities for professional musicians, teachers, students and people who just love to make music together”, said Matthew Shilvock, general director of San Francisco Opera. “Coaching with teachers in another city, workshopping a new piece with singers across the country, and jamming together for fun with friends—this technology opens up amazing flexibility for music making and it’s a flexibility that’s here to stay.”