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Thursday, February 22, 2024

How to Make Your Virtual Jam Session Sound—and Look—Good

For most performers, social distancing means stopping. No more concerts or comedy clubs, no more plays or musicals. How weird, then, that one of the few bright spots of the pandemic has been the rise of a new musical-ensemble format: the virtual choir.

You’ve surely seen these videos, or at least scrolled past them in your feed: The singers appear in a grid, Zoom style. Each is clearly alone at home—and yet they’re all singing together, gorgeously and in perfect sync.

If you know anything about Zoom or its rivals, you probably sensed some fakery immediately. People can’t sing together over video chat. It can’t be done.

The problem is latency (audio lag): By the time your voice reaches the other singers’ speakers, the Internet has introduced about a half-second delay. Then they try to sing along with your already-delayed voice—and what you hear back is even further behind. It’s a vicious cycle of tempo dragging, and the result is always a train wreck.

The workaround: The musicians film themselves playing their parts individually, at home, on their phones. Then some poor, exhausted editor assembles their videos into a unified grid.

Everyone uses this process these days: the bands on late-night talk shows, the cast of “Hamilton” on John Krasinski’s show, the casts of other Broadway shows, the bands on TV benefits—everyone.

The thing is, the producers of each one had to reinvent the technique over and over, figuring it out on the fly, losing hair and shaving years off their lives. It’s time at last to provide a master guidebook for anyone who wants to create a virtual choir or orchestra.

Before you begin, a word of warning: “It’s a manual job,” says Ed Blunt, the director of the London choir Camden Voices and its viral rendition of “True Colors” (1.6 million views). “There’s no plug-in or app that does this kind of thing.”

Eric Whitacre is the Grammy-winning composer who, in 2010, created what’s considered the very first virtual choir (6.4 million views).

“People write to me and ask, ‘How do we make one?’” he says. “I say, ‘Just don’t. Please. Your life will be so much better without this.’”

Aren’t you excited to dive in?

Step 1: Prepare the Guide Track

Your first job is to prepare a guide track: an audio recording that your musicians will hear as they record their parts. It’s why every musician in every virtual ensemble wears earbuds (sometimes hidden by their hair).

The guide track is usually piano and a click track (metronome). For a choir, it’s helpful to prepare separate tracks for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

If you value your sanity, your guide track should include a countdown to your players making a loud, sharp clap before they play: “3, 2, 1, clap.”

“The clap is imperative,” says Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the music director of Take Me to the World, the 90th-birthday musical celebration of Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim, which aired on YouTube Live at the end of April (2.2 million views). “If you don’t do the clap, the video syncing is a nightmare.”

The clap serves the same purpose as the clapperboard used on TV and movie sets. You, too, will be editing the audio and video separately; the clap creates a visual and sonic marker that helps you realign the two later. It also lets you align all the players’ videos with each other.

You’ll also supply the sheet music and an instruction sheet. Your instructions may include tips like: Don’t sit in front of a window, because you’ll be a silhouette. Frame the shot so it’s head and shoulders. Prop your laptop or phone at eye level, so it’s not an unflattering up-the-nostril shot. Shoot in landscape (horizontal) mode, not portrait, to give you editing flexibility. Choose a plain background. Wear [your specifications here]. Avoid recording in bare, echoey rooms.

“We sent the musicians an extensive list of performance notes, too, like, ‘In measure 42, there’s a ritard,’ so they could process what they were hearing,” notes Campbell.

The musicians need two devices: One to play your guide track, and a second to record their video.

“Most people plugged in their headphones to a laptop or a parent’s phone or a sibling’s phone, and then used their own phone, or a camera, to record the video of them playing or singing,” says Shelbie Rassler, who created the viral virtual-choir video “What the World Needs Now” (1.9 million views).

Eric Whitacre’s new project, slated for release in July, includes the biggest virtual choir ever assembled: a staggering 17,000 singers. For that project, he supplied a video of his own conducting, for added precision.

Step 2: Collect the Videos

Set up a Google Drive or Dropbox folder to accept the musicians’ videos. Ask that they name their video files with their names and parts.

Now the data-wrangling begins.

“You get a real mixture back,” says Ed Blunt of Camden Voices. “Some of them were sitting 2 meters away from the mic, so their audio waveforms are tiny. Someone will have forgotten to shoot in landscape. Some people are crap at clapping on time. Someone will send you a weird file format that’s 10 gigabytes big.” He used Handbrake (free) to convert the videos into a consistent format.

Blunt also saved himself a lot of rendering time and drive space by shrinking each video’s pixel dimensions; each wound up under 10 MB on his drive. In the finished video, most of the component videos appear only at thumbnail size, so why mess around with massive files whose quality nobody will never see?

Step 3: Edit the Audio

Your next job is to edit and mix the audio. You can use a free, basic program like GarageBand or Audacity, or a higher-end one like Ableton Live ($100 and up), Pro Tools X ($200), or Logic Pro ($200).

If there are wrong notes or background noises, you may have to autotune or mute them. “We’ve had videos where you can hear dogs barking in the background, or sirens, or crickets,” says Whitacre. “There’s even one where you can hear the kid’s mother yelling at him from the other room.”

Audio editing—knowing about mixing, compression, EQ, and reverb—is technical. Blunt, Whitacre, and Rassler all roped in experienced audio editors to help them with this stage.

It’s magical to hear the results for the first time; until this moment, you’ve had no idea what the unified ensemble sounds like. “It was like a meal where you’re like, ‘I put these ingredients together, and put them in the oven, and I’m so curious what it’s gonna turn into!’” says Campbell.

Step 4: Edit the Video

Bring the finished audio track into your video-editing program, like Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. iMovie can work, too—it can’t handle more than two side-by-side videos, but you can MacGyver a workaround.

Now it’s time to place the videos into the grid.

“I’m a bit anal about grids being pixel-perfect,” says Blunt. “I came across this plug-in, GridGuide, for After Effects, that lets you create guides to any grid you want.” He used rectangular masks to snap each video into the grid.

Few virtual-choir videos condemn you to staring at the same grid for the entire song. Blunt, for example, incorporated five different grids at different spots in the song—to feature soloists at larger sizes, for example.

For her part, Rassler just drew simple box outlines in Photoshop and imported them into Final Cut as templates for video placement. “One of my biggest pet peeves in life is when I’m watching a TV show or a movie, and people are playing, but the instruments are not synced to the music,” she says. “So I spent a lot of time making sure that all of the instruments were lined up with their sounds.”

Add any opening titles or closing credits you’ll want. Post your masterpiece, promote it online, and wait for your fans to descend.

Step 5: Consider the Future

Creating virtual musical ensembles is—have you picked up on this yet?—a lot of work.

“You have to really want it,” says Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Creating her online Sondheim concert, she says, “was like being dragged by a train and being struck by lightning at the same time.”

The result can be worth it, though. All of the videos described in this story got media attention all over the world. “It’s been a bit mad, actually,” says Ed Blunt of the “True Colors” video. “Cyndi Lauper even shared it.”

On the other hand, nobody pretends that virtual is the future of choirs.

Eric Whitacre, for example, gets panicked emails from music educators whose administrations have seen spectacular, finished virtual-choir videos—and concluded that they no longer need to provide time and space for student rehearsals.

“While virtual choirs are beautiful, they bear no resemblance to an actual choir. It’s the most backward possible way to do this,” Whitacre says. “The whole reason you sing in a choir is that your voice blends with others, and you become something larger than yourself. In this case, you only get the satisfaction of being part of the choir two months later, once the video’s all made.”

Ed Blunt agrees that the virtual choir is a happy product of the Great Lockdown—and that’s mostly where it should stay.

“In terms of the joy of ensemble singing, it doesn’t come close,” he says. “But it’s what we have at the moment.”

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