Odds virtual choir

Virtual Choir – practical experience and lessons learned in lockdown

Mark Kusionowicz Choristers, Concert Leave a Comment

Back in March 2020 the UK went into ‘lockdown’ as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our choir sadly had to cancel all rehearsals, concerts and even social events. Being a Male Voice Choir with a high proportion of ‘at risk’ members aged in their 70’s and 80’s we had to be ultra-cautious. So the idea of a virtual choir was born.

The guys in our choir have various reasons for taking part – they love to sing, some want to improve their singing skills, most love performing and some even come along mainly for the camaraderie and social contact. It soon became obvious that this situation was not going to be short-lived. So we tried to think how we could continue to provide at least some of those benefits to the members.

The social contact was addressed mainly by a fortnightly virtual choir Zoom call.  We have general chit-chat and the guys take it in turns to prepare a quiz to tax our brains. Not everyone attends the Zoom call. We get, on average, 15-20 out of the choir of almost 50. Some never attend because of other commitments or an aversion to the technology. Others attend sometimes, often missing because they forget, despite email reminders. However, the ones who do attend extend the social contact by phoning other members and reporting back on their health/position.

So, what about the singing?

One thing the early Zoom calls taught us, was that it would not be possible for us to sing successfully across such a medium. The varied quality of devices, broadband and signal meant we could not synchronise as a virtual choir.

Some bright spark (yes, I’m afraid this was self-inflicted pain) suggested creating a virtual choir.  Each member taking part would record themselves singing their part of a piece of music and we would put it together in a compilation video performance. Little did I realise what I had let myself in for!

Hopefully I have captured the main lessons learned in the following sections. So if you decide to try something similar, your journey will be a little simpler. There were decisions we took up front which made life a lot easier than it could have been and other challenges we discovered along the way.

Lesson 1 – a virtual choir will take far, far longer than you expect

We decided to go ahead with the idea of a Virtual Choir performance in April…and released the recording on 22nd July, nuff said!

Lesson 2 – preparation is much more complex than for a physical performance

One thing we got right in the beginning was realising that the virtual choir members would need more supporting tools than just a music score and a Noteworthy recording to practice with.

It must be said that the majority of our choir, myself very much included, are choir members not soloists. We do not have the confidence and skill to perform on our own. Without being able to see a conductor and hear a superb accompanist who, between them, keep us together, or to hear our colleagues, we are lost.

We are very fortunate in that our Musical Director is a professional singer as well. We got him to record each of the 4 parts individually, and with piano accompaniment.  This meant that each member would be able to practice, and perform with, at least one other voice in their part by wearing earphones.

Lesson 3 – get in the professionals

Another thing we got correct at the start was realising we would need help in editing together the individual recordings.

One of the promises I made to nervous members was that the performance recording would sound like a virtual choir. You should not be able to notice individuals’ voice problems – just like in a physical performance. So, we would need the skill to arrange that technically.

Luckily again, my son is skilled at video editing in his line of work and he has a friend who is a professional sound engineer. So, we got them on board at the beginning.

I had not really realised just how much we would need them until it was explained to me that, while putting together the videos, they noticed that in some of the recordings lip movements were not synchronised with the sound. That had to be corrected with frame by frame edits! Just one example of where their skill and experience paid off.

Lesson 4 – never underestimate technophobia

Although I am in my 60’s (I know, I don’t look it), I have been in the IT industry all my working life even if it is mainly on the sales and marketing side. It is second nature to me to want to try out new technology and applications, to understand what it’s trying to do and probably have a rough guess at how it’s doing it. I forget that what is obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others who may be 10 or 20 years older than me (and to some who are a few years younger). This led to frustrations on both my part and those of the choir members, to whom I apologise now!

Don’t assume – make it clear

Don’t assume that you are insulting others’ intelligence by ‘speaking in words of one syllable’.

One assumption I made was that people kept their emails, especially ones that contained important information. The habit of discarding an email after reading it is an anathema to me – but I had to send and resend instructions for making recordings multiple times to the same people. Future emails will need to clearly say “KEEP THIS EMAIL FOR FUTURE REFERENCE”.

That is just one small example, but it makes the point – make sure all steps or instructions are clear.

Be clear about what equipment the virtual choir needs

It might be obvious to you, but it wasn’t to everyone, that you need at least:

  • a set of earphones that connect to the device that you are playing the ‘master track’ from (and so it cannot be heard on the recording)
  • a device that records sound and video – that can be a pc, laptop, smartphone or even a digital camera (if you are able to transfer recordings to something that can connect to the internet)
  • A stand or way of supporting your recording device so that viewers do not get seasick from you holding it in your hand
  • Broadband access to the internet

Optionally there are other extras that can help improve the recording:

  • A separate microphone that means you can get close to it while still having a video framed nicely
  • A separate camera for the same reason

Lesson 5 – you’ll need to calm the nerves

I think everyone, even established soloists, tend to dislike hearing their own voices on a recording. Combine that with weeks away from regular practice, so you know that you are probably not singing at your best, and it is a recipe for nerves. I know that at least a couple of our members did not submit their recordings because they did not believe that they were good enough. This is where using an expert sound recording engineer comes in and you have to convince the singers that, in the final virtual choir recording, they will not be obvious.

Lesson 6 – have a simple clear virtual choir recording process outlined in detail

I thought that I had done this in my initial instructions to the choir, but from the confusion that arose I obviously hadn’t!

This is what I ended up with, but even this can probably be extended with more explanation:

  • Practice with the recording – we have not sung for a long time so you need to get back into it, only record when you are comfortable to do so.
  • Record yourself singing your part.:
    • If you are using a smartphone, make sure that you record in ‘landscape’ (i.e. horizontal) mode not ‘portrait’ (vertical)
    • Try and position your device so that it records your face ‘full on’, in other words not the top of your head or under your chin!
    • If you can – use the highest video resolution setting that your device will provide (most smartphones have a setting for this)
    • The sound engineer says that you should try to be close to the microphone on your device – only 6 inches away if possible. If that makes it difficult to record the video, then make 2 recordings – one that we can take the video off and one that we can take the sound from. Obviously, you will sing in both – the engineers will select the right one!
  • Aside from singing the right notes (of course!), keeping time is a vitally important part of a recording otherwise the final mix can be a massive headache to put together accurately.  Don’t worry about how you think your voice sounds on your own if you choose to play back your recording before sending it on – no-one ever likes what they hear.  When your voice is mixed in with everyone else it will sound fine!

Lesson 7 – predict what is going to be too complicated and try and simplify it

Video recordings are files that are going to be too large to email. So, you need a way to receive the individual file recordings. And, bearing in mind Lesson 4, it must be easy to use.

This was not the easiest challenge to address. Some choir members did not know how to find the recordings on their devices when they had made them and/or didn’t understand the concept of ‘uploading’ a file to a service on the internet.

I provided three options:

  • Google Drive Uploader: If you have a Google account this provides a facility for other people to simply upload to your Google Drive. You provide a link for them to click on and pretty it’s self-explanatory. The free version allows a 3-day period for the uploads or, if you want longer, it costs £4.25 per month. The benefit here is that you have a folder containing the uploaded recordings that you can just share with whoever is doing your video editing.
  • WeTransfer – is not too difficult to use and is free
  • Dropbox – is OK but you need to set up an account, although it is free

Lesson 8 – you must end up being all the experts or find those who are

It was hard for some choir members to understand that, despite being in IT for over 40 years I am not an expert on using every pc, laptop and smartphone! These days I use Mac and iPhone/iPad – and don’t even own a Microsoft computer. But they still phoned me with all their “how do I…?” questions that I had no clue about. I know that if I was in front of their screen I would just hunt around and find the answer – but you can’t say that to someone who doesn’t really know what they are looking for.

My solution – turn to Youtube! I found a few basic instruction videos about, for example, the camera app on Windows 10. Also – get those who have worked out how to do it to share with their fellow members – they tend to know what direction the questions are coming from and have more sympathy.

Lesson 9 – it’s not obvious

If you look at the result of our recording, you’ll see at least one thing that is odd, and probably many more. Some of the guys are not looking at the camera – why didn’t I explicitly tell them to look directly into it and frame themselves? Because I thought it was obvious!

Lessons learned for next time. And there might well be a next time as, despite me saying “never again”, the boys love the result!

If you’d like to view the recording CLICK HERE

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