Saint James Adult Choir
Under the direction of Dr. William Wright
Saint James Virtual Choir
From our Director of Music, Bill Wright:
Since my normal life revolves around choral music, and choral singing isn’t possible during the pandemic, I’ve learned the basics of creating virtual choir videos. People have been asking about the process, so I’ll give a quick overview here!
A good starting point is to understand what the singers need to do. The singers record their individual tracks from the safety of their own homes, while viewing and hearing a guide video created by the director. Two electronic devices are needed. Most singers record their video using a cell phone, while listening with headphones or earbuds to the guide video which is playing on their computer screen. On the guide video, they hear me playing the piano or organ, and they see me conducting on their computer screen. Although they are singing along with the piano or organ, the only sound picked up on their own recording is the sound of their own voice. After completion, they send their tracks to me through Dropbox, which is a file-sharing service.
From the director’s point of view there are a number of steps.
Creating the guide video
Lack of precision with this step will doom the project at the outset, so I try to take great care with it. I start by recording the piano or organ track. Perfection with steady rhythm is essential, and I often have to do multiple takes to get it up to snuff. Next, I play back the piano or organ track on my computer, while videoing myself conducting the piece along with the music I’ve recorded. Then I have a video recording of myself conducting my own playing of the piece. I upload this recording to YouTube, and send the link to the singers, along with an annotated score (showing breath marks, dynamics, phrasing, etc.) and instructions about the recording process. These annotations and instructions take the place of rehearsing.
A few days later, I retrieve the singer videos from Dropbox, and the mixing process begins. To produce a high-quality end product, the audio and video components need to be edited separately, and then combined back together. I use a software product called Audacity for the audio, and one called Final Cut Pro for the video.
I import the singer tracks into Audacity, which automatically accepts the audio from the tracks and not the video. Next, I do what I call “polishing” each track. Because the singers aren’t singing in the same room with each other, there is always a bit of deviation with regard to rhythm and other musical details. In Audacity I’m able to view a visual depiction of the sound waves of each singer, while listening to the individual track. Basically, I can see each note that the singer has recorded.
These are the next steps:
- Remove all breath sounds. Since singers are recording in close proximity to their microphones, the breath sounds are often very audible and need to be removed, one-by-one. It’s a bit like word processing. I can see each breath on the screen, and I highlight that bump with my cursor, and hit delete.
- Synchronize each individual track, one by one.
- Fix deviations in rhythm, which again is much like word processing.
- Clip out misplaced consonants, shorten notes that are held too long, cut and paste the sounds to correct errors.
- Unify the singers’ volume working singer by singer, and then voice-part by voice-part, creating four blended section mixes, one each for sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.
- Balance the four voice-part mixes into a single, well-balanced audio product.
- Add a bit of reverberation to the mix, to imitate the sound of singing in a great acoustic like Saint James Church.
- Transfer this completed audio mix from the software program to my computer desktop.
- Transfer the completed audio mix from my computer desktop into the Final Cut Pro video software.
- Load each singer track into Final Cut Pro for video editing.
- For each singer-track, detach the track’s audio component from the video component, and discard the audio portion (since the audio mix is already completed).
- Synchronize each singer’s video with the sound of the completed audio track, by dragging each video track along a timeline in the software program.
- Crop each singer window so that the windows will look as reasonable and unified as possible.
- Adjust the brightness and color of each singer window, as needed.
- Assemble the singer windows onto the work screen within the software program, resizing the windows and creating a layout that will depend on how many singers are involved.
- Trim the beginning and end of the combined video so that all singer tracks begin and end at the same point, and being sure that the beginning doesn’t include the preparational throat-clearing and head-scratching from the original tracks, and being sure the end doesn’t include the sight of any singers reaching to turn off their device.
- Add the hymn or anthem text at the bottom of the screen by typing it by segments into a work screen, and then dragging each segment along the timeline so that each segment of text is shown for the proper amount of time.
- Review the completed video, and transfer it to my computer desktop.
- Send the completed movie file to Chris Keeney, for inclusion in the services, the components of which he stitches together.
Since I’m not particularly tech savvy, there was a bit of a learning curve for me with all of this. The first project that I did took me about forty hours, but now the track mixing takes me about six hours per hymn or anthem, not counting the work creating the guide video at the outset. It’s certainly worth the time if people are finding the music to be meaningful! I know that the singers are maintaining a sense of togetherness and fellowship during the pandemic by dedicating themselves to this new hobby. Please let me know if you’d like to join in with the virtual choir! –Bill Wright
The Saint James choir participates at our principal service Sunday mornings at 10:30 AM. In addition, the group sings Lessons and Carols during the advent season and participates in the Triduum-three holy days-leading up to Easter morning. They also sing choral evensongs several times during the year.
The group consists of approximately twenty well-trained volunteer singers who are supported by a section leader in each of the four sections. The group rehearses weekly from 6:30 to 8 PM on Wednesday evenings during the Fall, Winter, and Spring months. Summer services consist of weekly choir meetings before the 10:30 service to which all interested singers are invited and encouraged to attend.
Want to view more Saint James Virtual Choir videos?
Click here to visit our YouTube channel, then look for the
virtual choir playlist.