With churches around the world gathering virtually, and choir rehearsals suspended indefinitely, I took the past few weeks as an opportunity to “gather” our choir for a virtual choir anthem last Sunday.
Check it out!
How We Made It
The process of creating a virtual choir video is not for the faint of heart. It involves many hours of editing click tracks, instructing choir members, mixing audio, editing video, and syncing clips all together to create the final product that looks so simple. This was my first go at it, so it was a learning process for me. Along the way I figured out a few things that I would do differently next time. If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, get a bit frustrated, but really want to work hard to produce a virtual choir, keep reading!
What You Need:
- Computer. A new-ish one. If you don’t have that then you can quit now.
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is the software that lets you record and edit audio on the computer. I used Ableton Live as I am most comfortable and familiar with the interface, but you could use also use ProTools, Logic Pro X, FL Studio, or free software like Garage Band or Audacity. There are dozens of DAWs out there, so I won’t get into the pros and cons of each but there’s plenty of info online about how to use each one of these. If you’re just starting out with music production, learning how to use one of these (I’d recommend the professional software: Ableton, Logic Pro, or ProTools) will be the a great time investment that will benefit you for the long term. Learn it.
- USB Digital Audio Interface. This is a piece of hardware that lets you plug microphones and other line inputs into your computer. It also lets you monitor sound through headphones and external monitors. I have this one from Scarlett but they are even cheaper today.
- A decent microphone. For recording instruments it is well worth the investment to get a good quality microphone. Spend more than $100. Don’t spend over $500. I love the Rode NT5 because they sound great, come as a pair for recording in stereo, and can be used for so many different applications: single acoustic instruments like guitars or strings, stereo piano mics, and even choirs. This mic can do it all and won’t break the bank.
- Option 1: Headphones. DO NOT try and do this with only your laptop speakers. You need a way to accurately hear the sound from all the different sources you’ll be mixing. A pair of studio monitor headphones will set you back about $100-200. Again, a worthwhile investment on your path toward music production glory. I like these from Beyerdynamic because they’re comfy. These from AKG are only $76 and are good for the price.
- Option 2: Studio Monitors. Active speakers are better because you don’t have to wear headphones all the time and can sit back and listen more comfortably. I bought a pair from Event Electronics for $300 back in college and they have been with me ever since. They’re going on 15 years of use and still sound great. Spend $200-300 on something from here.
Note, you will notice I didn’t actually even include a video camera. I used this one because we have it at the church, but these days your cell phone takes great video under the right lighting conditions, so most people can get away with just that. When your final product is a little square in the middle of a huge grid of videos, you don’t need the best quality video.
Got it all? Let’s get to work.
Before We Proceed…
Just so you know what you’re getting into, this is what my final mix looked like. It doesn’t even fit on one screen:
ONE: Create a click track
This was probably the hardest step for me to accept as a musician. As someone who trains the choir to be musical and allow the tempo to ebb and flow as we sing together, the idea of syncing everyone up to a click track and then conducting seems to go against everything I learned in conducting school, but these are strange times and this was the best way I could think of to get us all to sing together. But that doesn’t mean you have to start a song at 100BPM and stay there the entire time. Ableton allows you to manually automate tempo changes throughout an arrangement.
As you can see there are about a dozen or so tempo shifts throughout the piece. The downward slopes are ritards. The steep downward and quick upward slopes are slight lifts for a breath together. It took me a while to get the tempo change to feel natural. I think there might be a way to record tempo automation by tapping live while recording in ableton, but I didn’t figure that out. I just drew it in.
TWO: Create the reference instrumental part.
For any piece for piano and choir it means recording the piano part, since singers will likely sing to the piano more than they’ll sing to the click. To do this I simply recorded the piano into Ableton (I didn’t bother recording video, but in hindsight I could have also recorded video at this point). You’ll sync up the video later. Confession: I didn’t want to learn the rather tricky piano part to this piece so I actually recorded the left hand and right hand parts separately. This actually allowed me to add more notes to fill out the harmonies and make it sound more orchestral, which is what I think the composer would want out of the piano part!
THREE: Record the virtual conducting video.
Ableton doesn’t handle recording or editing of video but it can actually import video, which is a nifty feature.
I then played back the music on Ableton and recorded myself conducting to a video camera. The result is this:
FOUR: Record rehearsal tracks for the singers. (Optional)
Because I work with amateur singers, many who don’t read music, I went in and recorded each vocal part. As much as I wish all my singers can read music, the fact is that their experience is so much better when they have someone singing in their ear, so I’m happy to oblige. I then exported them individually to create these:
FIVE: Export a final virtual choir demo. (Also optional)
This step might not be necessary for choirs with music readers and I would also discourage it for music educators or school choirs. If your goal is still to be teaching music reading and musicianship, this step might be seen as a crutch. But for church choirs, and amateur choirs, where the goal is community, having fun, and praising God, this step makes sense. Ableton (remarkably) can actually export a video, so I made a rough mix and exported video. Result is this:
For this one I turned OFF the click track, but in hindsight I might have kept it on for this one too.
SIX: Recruit your choir!
Now you have all the components the choir needs to record their tracks. I used our church website to host all this stuff so the choir can easily access the rehearsal tracks and recording. I also included a few tips, the most importantly being use headphones when you record your choir part! I also wrote all the tempo adjustments in there so they could write notes in their music before they sang. Whether or not they did is up to them.
SEVEN: Request Video Submissions
For uploading, I bit the bullet and got dropbox plus. I’m requesting large files for upload so after doing a bit of research it seemed like the best option and gives me 2TB of space. Google drive and box.com seem like good options too.
On dropbox, I used the “request files” feature to create simple perma-link that the choir members can upload. Uploading video is sometimes a hard slow process, so be ready for choir members to ask questions and need help. If people have apple devices, airdrop makes transferring the file from the phone to the computer very easy.
EIGHT: Mix the audio.
From each video submission I used adapter to easily extract the audio as a wav file from their .mp4 or .mov video submission. Then I brought this audio into Ableton and got to work mixing. A few tips about audio mixing for virtual choirs:
- Some recordings sound good. Others sound bad. Depending on the quality of the cell phone microphone, some may have a muffled sound, some may have a high pitched hiss, some may have a lot of ‘noise’. You work with what you have. For the better ones, I used minimal compression and some simple EQ that looked like this:
For others that had some background noise I had to cut a lot of high frequencies. You loose some of the vocal brightness, but with 44 tracks, you can’t really have any audible hiss or noise in them or it will really ruin the final product.
- As with a non-virtual choir, sometimes it’s hard to get all the singers to sing in tune and at the same time. Hard consonants are particularly tricky, as any minor variations come through as a muddled mess of t-t-t-t-t-t-t in the final product. In hindsight, I would be super clear about where I want those harder consonants like T/S/D/K placed. I did quite a bit of adjusting in Ableton after bringing the voices in. In the example below you can see the cuts and shifts I made to make some of the vocals line up with the rest of the choir. Yeah sopranos.
- Using Ableton’s automation feature, you can also automate the track volume throughout. I know the guy who mixes NPR’s tiny desk concerts uses volume automation very liberally to achieve a natural even result.
- Add some ‘verb. Jesus’ blood is the most effectual thing for covering sins. A sweetly tuned reverb is probably the next best thing. I used this as a return track, which means I can dial in the amount on a per-channel basis. I used about %60 on my vocal tracks and only a very little on the piano so the piano cut through and the vocals blended together. You could never get this result in a live acoustic performance.
- Group tracks and apply glue compressor. This tool helps “glue” your tracks together to make them sound like one unified unit. I don’t really know how it works (but I’m sure someone else could tell you), but I know it works. Here are my settings for the “men’s voices” group.
- When you’ve spent 9865873648245 hours mixing and are ready to make the final master audio track, head over the master channel for a rough go at audio mastering. I’m aware mixing and mastering are really two separate skills and art forms, so I acknowledge that I’m very much a beginner at this. Ableton has a nice audio effect rack that has mastering tools. Here’s what mine looked like. This should all be very gentle … no harsh adjustments here. Listen on multiple outputs (Nice headphones, cheap headphones, nice speakers, cheap speakers) to see what your track sounds like across multiple devices. It might sound amazing on your nice headphones, but what about when 90% of the people listen to it off their phones or laptops. You gotta make it sound as good as possible on as many devices as possible. A bit more compression is your friend here.
Okay all done? Now export it! Make sure you turn off the click for your final export :-).
NINE: Video Editing
This is actually the step I know the least about. If you’ve gotten this far and were really hoping for help here, I’m really sorry! You’ll need video editing software: Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe’s Premiere are the standard software for video editing. You will struggle if you try to use iMovie for this. I had a colleague that is much faster at video editing grab all the video submissions, sync them up, and generate the final product. It involves cropping, resizing, and arranging all the videos one by one. It takes a. long. time. I started at it, and used Premier’s effect controls to adjust the position and scale and cropping of each clip. Syncing is tricky here. In hindsight, I would ask the singers to clap for the camera four times during the intro so we could sync the video easier using the audio spikes as they are visible in the video editing software. This is why movies use those clap-boards to start takes.
So that was my journey of doing a virtual choir. It was fun. It took probably 50 hours of work and another 10 from our video editor. I’m sure I’ll be faster if I do it again, but it does take a TON of work! People loved it though, and there’s a special joy you get when you see everyone’s faces singing “together.”
17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
– 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20