One of the greatest positive experiences of being in lockdown has been the excitement of finding solutions to solve the challenges of not being able to be together. Especially finding opportunities in situations we thought would be impossible. One hugely inspiring outcome is how this period has encouraged people of all ages to share their creative gifts. In my teaching, I’ve been really inspired to hear from students who would normally be very quiet in lessons, now feeling a genuine opportunity to be heard from the quietness of home-working. It’s made me think about how I might take away the ‘loudness’ in situations to help more creativity happen and indeed whether there should be a ‘from home’ part of the school week in future school timetabling models.
Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.
This process is accessible to all singers of all ages and all abilities around the world. The leading of it is complex, both musically and technologically, but the impact is so significant, it’s a worthy investment for your skillset in your role as a music leader and it creates a great sense of encouragement in your community.
This is a list of the equipment I’ve used to create the projects from start to finish. I’m not affiliated with any of these companies and I’m sure other kit is available, but this works for me. I’m just working from home in my office and have no acoustic treatment.
- Apple MacBook Pro 13” 2019, 4 thunderbolt ports, 8Gb RAM
- Apple Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X software
- Additional Sample Libraries: Ivory II Pianos, ProjectSAM SwingMore
- Additional Plug-ins: Waves Greg Wells Signature Series, SSL EQ
- Lacie 2TB external SSD Hard Drive
- Canon 6D Mkii camera, tripod
- Roland DP90SE Piano
- Roland GO Piano
- Focusrite 18i8 USB Audio Interface
- Genelec 8040 Monitoring
- Neumann U87 microphone
- Sennheiser Headphones
This working example is based on my recent virtual production of “Cornerstone” with the Manor CE Academy Student Virtual Worship Band and Hope/Belfrey Community Choirs.
In all, 3 songs were created for the 9am service at St Michael-le-Belfrey, York on Sunday 24th May 2020, during a time of distancing due to the Coronavirus Crisis. Watch the whole service here.
Step 1: Pre-Production
- Decide which piece(s) to create and who will play/sing. [Tip: to begin with, choose music that has a very clear and constant pulse. Repeating sections are also helpful]
- Invite participants. Remember you’ll need written permission from parents to include under 18s before they can take part in online rehearsals and have their video posted on YouTube. For “Cornerstone” I invited anyone connected to my school and community choirs.
- Create a guide track. Decide the tempo and stick to it. This will be the track your players/singers listen to when they practise and record, and ultimately it will become the start for your final mix. [Tip: think about what they need to hear to sing/play confidently, in-time and in-tune. Make it a comfortable, enjoyable experience. Include a cue track of your voice to count into verse/chorus/bridge entries] – I used Logic Pro X, a mic and the USB GO Piano to record these parts: metronome click, my guide singing voice (not my strength at all), simple drum kit played on GO Piano, held string chords, piano, my cue voice. If you’d like an mp3 copy of this guide track drop me a message – MrLowePVO@gmail.com
- By this point you’ll have received replies from those you’ve in invited. The timescale was short for Cornerstone, so participants had just 3 days to confirm their involvement and 30 people came forward in that time.
- Email all participants including: full instructions for recording, lyrics, arrangement parts, guide tracks and the link for the Zoom meeting. The Zoom is compulsory as that single meeting will be the one rehearsal to teach the songs, going over any musical details such as agreed rhythms or lengths of notes. The Zoom is also the opportunity for questions to be asked so we can collectively move in the same direction towards production.
Step 2: Rehearsal & Production
- For safeguarding reasons, there were separate meetings for the students and the adults, but covering the same material
- Begin the meeting by going through the process of ‘how to record’. then sing through the three songs and allow participants to ask questions to check understanding. Participants must be muted, so they can only hear you and themselves when singing, unmuting to ask questions or to comment.
- Demonstrate how to prepare to record and how to use the guide track.
- Talk about how to transfer large files.
- Following that meeting there were additional email conversations to give technical support as needed. These were further joyful times as many people in the choir weren’t initially confident with the technology, but everyone ‘found a way’.
- Again due to the timescale, everyone had just 5 days to learn and record the 3 songs, including Cornerstone. I’ve included the instructions email I sent at the bottom of this article for details of ‘how to record’.
Step 3: Post-production 1 – Receive, Save and Library
- While waiting the 5 days for video recordings to arrive, it’s possible to begin to build any additional instrumental parts for the recording. I recorded the piano, which is visible on screen on the Roland DP90SE. I played the bass guitar, drum kit and other orchestral parts from my arrangement (for players we didn’t have) – all created in Logic Pro X using the USB GO Piano.
- As they arrive, edit the filenames to state the person and the song. I received 96 videos for the 3 songs – hence the 2TB SSD.
- Once the deadline passes, check with any participants who haven’t sent videos. Check they are ok and offer support.
Step 4: Post-production 2 – Import, Edit and Sync Videos
- Beginning in Final Cut Pro X, import all the videos. Right click to select ‘Lift from Storyline’. You can then drag the videos to play at the same time as each other (drag them to appear like a list, one above the next).
- Next edit each clip to make them all visible at once on the video screen. Shift+T selects the transform function, allowing you to move the video around on the screen and make it bigger or smaller. Shift+C selects the crop tool, allowing you to trim unneeded space from around each participant. If you’re preparing for a worship service as I was, leave space at the bottom of the screen to add the lyrics later on.
- The absolute key to success in this project is “The Clap”. Like a human film clapperboard, this is the secret that brings us all together. You’ll have decided on a definite point in your guide track for everyone to clap. That clap creates a very obvious audio peak to see on the editor. The next job is to line the videos up so everyone claps together. [Tip: At this point do this within a couple of frames accuracy as you’ll find there will be some variation to address later]
- If you’ve not studied post-production or film sound, you might not be aware of how it works. Films are not actually ‘moving-pictures’. They are collections of lots of still pictures played very quickly, one at a time. If we see enough similar still images every second, we perceive them as moving. This is very helpful to know as you edit as there are only 30 frames (still images) per second, so 30 moments the we could be out of sync every second. Helpfully, by using the right and left arrow buttons we can step through each individual frame of our videos.
- Add the guide track and turn up the volume (by dragging the horizontal line up) to show the clap peak very obviously. Then simply zoom in and align each video clap to match the peak on the guide track. [Tip: use the , and . keys to nudge videos 1 frame left or right to have more control that clicking and dragging]
Step 5: Post-production 3 – Detaching, Exporting and Importing XML
- Once they’re roughly in time, have a listen. Don’t panic if it still doesn’t sound perfect at this point!
- Select all the videos, right click and select ‘Detach Audio’. Each audio file will now appear at the bottom of the screen. Leave them there for now, however you’ll delete these later on.
- Go to FILE>EXPORT XML… and export one of these files to your hard drive. It’s a clever very small file that tells another program where to look for the audio and as what time it plays in the session, so once reopened, everything is still in-sync.
- Close Final Cut Pro X to save processor power.
- Open the Guide track Logic Pro X session and import the XML file you’ve just made. Helpfully, these tracks are automatically grouped. To see the individual tracks click on the small white arrow next to the track number.
Step 6: Post-production 4 – Listening and Editing Audio
- From now on you’ll think about audio and video separately, until you’ve completed the final mix.
- To keep the sync appearing to be realistic, the one thing you must avoid is splicing the audio tracks and moving parts of them left or right. This would be almost impossible to realign when you return to the videos.
- The focus of this step is to make each voice or part sound as natural and clear as possible. We want to remove unwanted noise (trimming none singing moments at the start and end), take out any over-resonant frequencies (using EQ), compress the dynamic range of voices who sing very softly and very loudly (Compressor) and help them out with a touch of pitch-correction to hit every note as intended. The editing on Cornerstone for 30 voices, took me about 2 hours in total. I could’ve gone into more detail, analysing individually pitched notes, but as well as having a limited amount of time, I wanted the overall product to sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘studio produced’ so this step can very much be over-done. It’s also important to remember than none of the singers/players used microphones, other than the built-in one on their smartphone, so this limits how ‘crystal-clear’ the signal can be. The important focus at every edit should be ‘Does this make the voice sound more natural?’.
- In a couple of situations I used the Greg Wells plugin to add warmth to a voice or give it a touch more presence in the sound, but use this with care, as the overall mix can become very loud, very quickly with too much of this type of processing.
Step 7: Post-production 5 – Sync-ing and Mixing the Voices
- One of the benefits of using an audio editor like Logic Pro X is you can instantly see the waveform. In particularly, you can see where parts are out of time. You’ll do the final sync-ing to the video tracks later, so for now it’s fine to nudge whole tracks left or right to make them play as perfectly in time as possible. Whatever you do, don’t move your guide track – that is a constant, but other parts can be moved to create the best fit.
- I use the solo function to build my voices mix. I begin at the top of the list and work downwards, solo-ing it by press the ’S’ button. No voice in the choir is more important than others – they are all equally valuable. I begin very cautiously with volume, as 30 voices can become loud very quickly. As I add each new voice (by clicking another ’S’), I’m particularly listening for a nice balance between them. I can separate similar voices using pan to move them towards the left or right sides of the mix. Be careful not to have them too widely spread or to have an imbalance of sides as they must collectively work as a choir. This is an exciting step as you’ll begin to hear the richness of the choir sound.
- Another helpful function of the automatic grouping, is the ability to add the same reverb to all parts. This creates an illusion that they’re all singing in the same room. Be careful not to use too much reverb as it can make the voices less-clear with a suggestion they’re all in a large tunnel, but using some will have a positive effect.
- Once you have a nice balance in your ensemble, their level compared to the instruments can be adjusted with the group fader mostly.
Step 8: Post-production 6 – Final Mix and Mastering the Audio
- Your place to listen is very important for this final part. I’m very restricted here as I have no acoustic treatment at home. When I mix, I’m constantly listening to the music on different systems (and in different rooms) to try and find a ‘happy medium’. I come away from using my audio interface to mix as the sound it creates is much richer and warmer that most domestic systems. I often mix using the laptop speakers, then a few different pairs of headphones, then a value range 1990s hifi, then the Genelecs. For me this is the most challenging part to do well from home in lockdown.
- The mix is about the energy of the music throughout the song, which will change. Use automation (by pressing ‘A’) to adjust volume over time. It’s about making choices like ‘where the climactic point will be’ and how you’ll reach that, which instruments are important in driving that energy, making sure we can hear just enough of every part, so every one feels a sense of contribution and value in the mix. The approach to mixing these worship songs is different to a commercial release or performance, as they are intended to support church sung worship. Therefore they have to be easy to sing to, without the on-screen voices dominating the mix as might be the case in a performance or pop video. When mixing live in a church, I often have the volume of the lead vocal as ‘just enough to hear, but without feeling I have to just listen to them’. This project is about creating a starting point for other people in their houses around the world to feel encouraged to sing together.
- Once you’ve mixed your instruments and voices together, export your ‘finished sound’ as an aiff file at 24-bit 48kHz
Step 9: Post-production 7 – Final Video Sync and Adding Lyrics
- Import the aiff final mix into Final Cut Pro X and line it up with the original guide track
- Delete the original audio files from the bottom of the screen, apart from the original guide track, just turn the volume down on that clip.
- Watch each individual video to check that lip-sync is perfect, just as when they recorded. Use the , and . keys again to nudge each video clip a frame left or right as needed. [Tip: choose a chorus towards the end of the song to do this as the timing will be slightly tighter and easier to spot, then watch all the way through to check for glaring sync errors]
- Once the video and final audio are in-sync, if it’s a worship video, now add the lyrics
- Use one of the ‘lower third’ presets and drag the template to the start of your film.
- Use Ctril+T to ‘transform’ the bar to make it fit with your videos and set the font, size and colour in the info window (top right).
- Enter your first lyric line. Then copy and paste the title clip along your project to ensure the settings stay the same for each line of lyrics. Drag the start and end points of each title clip to musically set when the new line appears in a helpful way to sing, but not be distracting.
Step 10: Post-production 8 – Export and Delivery
- Once everything has been checked and you’re happy it’s complete, export the project by going to FILE>SHARE>Master file… [Tip: It’s faster to export like this, rather than going straight to YouTube and it creates a local backup of the finished video].
- I use wetransfer.com as a free option to deliver the final file. Or I could upload to YouTube directly.
I’ve explained the process in this much detail to hopefully encourage you to have a go in your community. The total time I spent on Cornerstone was about 20 hours, including the creating of the initial guide track and materials, the invitations, zoom meeting, file storing, recording, editing, mixing, mastering and completing the video with lyrics.
This special picture was painted by Betty Law, a member of our community choir. She painted the work during online worship on Easter Sunday this year. A photo of the painting appears in our Cornerstone video.
It reminds me that we have been greatly restricted during this period of lockdown and not able to be together. However, it’s also been a great time of opportunity for creativity to explode with vibrant richness across our whole community.
Thanks for reading. Get in touch if I can help.
My email instructions:
Thanks for joining our Virtual Worship Team. I’m really looking forward to meeting you online on Thursday to go through our project.
After Thursday’s 45-minute zoom meeting, you should have everything you need to record yourself. After our zoom, to make the recordings, you will need:
– Headphones or earphones
– 2 devices – one to play the guides tracks on, and one to make a video of yourself
I’ve attd. the 3 guide tracks, made specially for this group. Please only use them for the purpose of this project and don’t share them with anyone outside our team. I’ve also attd. lyrcis and some orchestral parts, although I’ve not quite finished writing parts out so there are a few more to come.
I’ll need to receive your videos by bedtime on Wednesday 13th May. As they are quite big files (too big to email), you can send them securely for free using wetransfer.com If you need help doing that let me know.
We have three golden rules: Play/Sing in time, Play/Sing in tune, Play/Sing with passion. If you can do all three I’ll be able to include your videos in the final Virtual Worship Band, which will broadcast to the world on YouTube on Sunday 24th May at the Belfrey.
It might be sounding like a lot, but it really is straightforward. Please find the zoom meeting link and recording instructions below. Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday.
Mr Lowe is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Topic: Mr Lowe Virtual Community Choir
Time: May 7, 2020 05:30 PM London
Join Zoom Meeting
Link was here**
Password: Password was here***
USE THE QUIETEST ROOM IN YOUR HOUSE (NOT BEDROOM)
ANYONE ELSE IN THE ROOM MUST BE SILENT
When you’re ready to record…
1. TUNE your instrument – make it perfect
2. Put your headphones on
3. Check the camera image can see your head, instrument and hands
4. Press record on the camera/phone or whatever you’re using
5. Press play on the backing track (only heard in headphones)
6. CLAP on the 5th Click – if the clap is not perfectly in time, start again
7. Relax and listen
8. Play/Sing with passion and communicate the music, knowing that what you do will inspire A LOT of people. Singers – tell the story, everyone must be involved in the music. Play perfectly in time and in tune.
9. Wetransfer your video