If you’ve ever tried to sing “Happy Birthday” with a bunch of people over Zoom, you’ve probably experienced latency. That’s the technical name for the delay that occurs between you and the others on the call, causing cacophony. Latency makes real-time online musical collaboration almost impossible, which is why during the pandemic there were few virtual concerts in which the artists appeared in separate windows.
Matt Squire, a well-known record producer who’s worked with artists such as Ariana Grande and Panic! at the Disco, wants to fix that issue. He had actually been working on a solution before he moved home to the DC area from Los Angeles in 2016, but he got more serious about it after Covid hit and bands weren’t able to travel to his now-former recording studio in Beltsville. “I had to build my own system—while thinking that all my producer friends were going to do the same thing,” he says. “But none of them did.”
Squire’s fix is a digital platform that allows musicians to play with one another from afar by measuring the delay on each user’s connection and then syncing all the participants accordingly. It’s a bit hard to explain, but the concept works so well that he decided to market it to the public, calling it Digital Conductor. The tech can also be used for performances in front of a digital audience.
But things got more interesting in early 2021, when Squire served as a judge at Spookstock, an annual battle of the bands that raises money for the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation. (It’s closed to the public; most of the musicians have day jobs in the intelligence field.)
While chatting with other people at the event, Squire learned that members of the military and intelligence communities are frustrated by high latency in communications, too—it’s just that their problems tend to involve, say, raids on buildings in locations outside the US. Squire decided to set up a new company, called MSPX, in order to peddle his solution to military and intelligence clients, as well as non-musical civilian entities like telehealth companies.
One morning, we stopped by Squire’s studio to try out the tech. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to wrangle any far-flung musical collaborators at that hour, so we plugged in a guitar and played along with recorded music being streamed over the internet from a different computer. Though it took a minute to get used to, it worked surprisingly smoothly—no “Happy Birthday” lag at all.
Whether the spook community will adopt the idea remains to be seen, but musicians are enthusiastic. Squire says that after sessions, he often hears what he considers a high compliment: They didn’t notice it. “You know when you’re about to go onstage and you get butterflies because anything could happen? You get that on our live streams,” he says. “The audience feels it, too.”
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Washingtonian.