Singer-songwriter Daria Musk had much to celebrate last Friday when she performed at New York City's Joe's Pub. It has been one year almost to the day since she held her first Google+ Hangout concert – a musical version of a video teleconference where she and producer R.A.M. Rich perform their ornately textured pop music on-camera, interacting with people around the globe – so she had dubbed the night her Hangoutiversary.
Because of these concerts' success, over 1.8 million people have added Musk to their Google+ circles (the equivalent to "liking" a page on Facebook) since July 2011. "You're here," she told the audience. "When you play online for too long, you start worrying about seeing people in person." But despite playing to a live audience of up to about 160, she broadcast her show online, reaching what she estimates as hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Her other cause for celebration, though, was that she was secretly using a new audio feature, called "Studio Mode," that Google+ will begin offering today, vastly improving the way music sounds in its Hangout sessions. "We were trying to be super-discreet about it because it wasn't announced yet," Musk tells Rolling Stone. "But we have 1.8 million fans, so when you do something like that, people notice."
Previously the audio in Hangouts was of the same quality as a typical YouTube, since users could easily share them there, and they were geared more toward speaking. Now they boast a wider audio spectrum that reflects studio-quality sound. According to Google+ Project Manager Loren Groves, it's something that's become necessary as Hangouts by musicians like Musk earn record viewership.
"We knew that in order for entertainers to use this service, we would have to move forward from just the standard voice codec," Groves says, on a Hangout. "Right now, when we're talking, there is a crazy complex mechanism working to make our video and voices stay in sync. But they have no musical properties. So when we turn all of those off and up the quality of the audio, making it stereo, it was like, OK, now we've got something we can listen to."
Google+ have made strides over the past year to associate Hangouts as online gathering places with established artists; they launched "Hangouts on Air" last September with a concert by the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am (who is in about 300,000 less circles than Musk). But they've stuck by early adopters like Musk, encouraging their feedback. One group, who has grown its fanbase from just 20 to over 200,000 since January, is the Austin, Texas-based Suite 709. Groves approached the band about test-driving Studio Mode last month, and the musicians appreciated the upgrade.
"We used to go back into all the YouTube videos and replace the audio with what we were recording in the studio," keyboardist Dietrich Schmidt says. "The audio in Hangouts was compressing our music into this really tiny frequency area. With the new Studio Mode, it sounds like what we would enhance the audio with in our studio recordings. It saves a lot of legwork on the back end."
With Studio Mode engaged, the bass sounds powerful, and stereo sound design makes all of the instruments sound distinct. Most impressive, though, is the range of shimmering highs and well-defined mid frequencies. "When I sing in Hangouts, I tell myself in my mind, Please sing on pitch," frontman Jirod Greene says with a laugh. "I think that's the cool thing about it. People are hearing everything for real, for real."
And that's not done in a pro studio, says Groves. "They're not using $3,000 Neuman microphones. They're using basic mics like Shure SM 57s, and it sounds fantastic."
For Musk, who says she'd been asking for better audio quality for months, she's ready to start thinking about what could come next for Google+ Hangouts – specifically, how it will help her make her debut album. Thanks to her breakout celebrity on the platform, she's had the opportunity to speak and perform her song "You Move Me" at conferences like TEDx, where she met engineer Andrew Scheps (Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers), with whom she'll be working on her first album beginning in the fall.
Groves hopes that with better sound, more and more musicians will be enticed to take advantage of the interactivity of Google+ Hangouts. "David Guetta has broadcast concerts live on YouTube, and it's fantastic," he says. "But if he had 10 other fans in that Hangout that were lucky winners that were having house parties Guetta was privately performing for, now you've got good value. And if you took that Hangout screen and blew it up on a projector and could see all these people from Russia, Japan and India, all dancing to him at one time, I would feel like I'm part of this worldwide party. The two-way interaction is key."
With the Joe's Pub experiment a success, Musk is eager to use Studio Mode in touring environments around the world, as she plots dates in Dubai, Africa and Singapore. "That show was really a test run for some really big plans we have to do global concerts," she says. "I think the music, having higher fidelity and just being able to reach people faster, it's just going to be a spiraling love fest. It's going to be nuts."