Producing a remote choir recording: unibzVoices 2020-21 virtual concert
In Spring 2021 I collaborated with the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in the production of a virtual concert of its official choir, unibzVoices, conducted by Prof. Johann van der Sandt. Due to Covid-19 measures, the choir was unable to meet for rehearsal. This lead to the choice to replicate what done in Christmas 2021, where the choir recorded a first virtual concert.
The new program included audio and video recordings of Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around” and two South African song, the renown “Pata Pata” and “Tshepa Thapelo”, a Sotho folk tune. Two further audio recordings, “Gaudeamus Igitur” and “Ode To Joy”, were destined to the graduation ceremony in fall 2021.
Further beyond schizophonia: virtual music recordings
Layers of mediation between performers and between performers and audience that exist, albeit to a different extent, in any sound recording – mic placement, monitoring, overdubbing, mixing, etc. – are brought to an extreme in remote music recordings. It is not only about the separation between the performance and its output, what R. Murray Schafer called schizophonia – the splitting of an original sound and its electroacoustic reproduction. Performance, listening, interplay and the music experience as a whole are all deeply involved in this practice.
The choir is supposed to be a living organism, whose members adjust pitch, rhythm and diction in real time while listening simultaneously to themselves and to each other – in a sense, leaning on each other to find their place and balance within the choral entity at large. Quite as importantly, during a performance the conductor’s gestures provide the singers with fundamental cues about note attacks, note endings, dynamics, rhythm, tempo and so on.
The production of this virtual concert was clearly a far from ideal situation and the project was carried out essentially in order to keep the choir’s activity alive in times of Coronavirus. Conscious of the inherent limitations of the project, I would like to provide some tips that might come handy to tackle a virtual recording of a choir inasmuch as it differs not just from common recording practice but from other types of ensemble virtual recording as well.
Virtual recording tips
- Carefully crafting of backing tracks, with a different vocal guide track for each part and the remaining parts more on the background. A vocal guide is crucial for synchronising musical performance and verbal articulation: note length, degree of openness of vowels, timing of consonants, etc.
- It should be ensured that backing tracks are in a format that is accessible on any device and that matches the most popular audio standards.
- Provide clear instructions to singers on how to record their performance.
- Let singers record their part on the actual arrangement (even when it is still incomplete) and not on a different track. Doing otherwise can cause inconsistency between the instruments and the vocal performance.
- Regardless whether the song uses a metronome grid or not, provide unambiguous cues for attacks and endings, if necessary by adding temporary vocal or instrumental parts and/or a countdown.
- Ideally, use visual cues such as a scrolling score video or, even better, a video of the conductor. One of the advantages of looking at the conductor is that it can help singers anticipate their next move.
- Give clear directions to singers and respond promptly to their individual queries. In a sense, as technological mediation compensates for the lack of live interaction, the sound engineer takes some of the conductor’s agency in the process. At the same time, the lack of control on the context of the performance (monitoring, playback, distance from the recording device, etc.) can be a source of frustration for the sound engineer.
- Analyse singularly and as a whole the recorded tracks. Someone might think that it can be time-efficient to immediately pitch- and time-correct the tracks even before listening to them in context. However, I find it risky as far as a group performance is more than a sum of individual parts. Quite on the contrary, individual performances that, when listened alone, are slightly out of tune or even lack musicality, when put in context might sound surprisingly well. Then, if pitch- and time-correction are deemed necessary, there are some practical tools available. As a matter of fact, it is possible to intervene rather drastically, since some typical artifacts are likely to be indistinguishable in the final mix.
A few tips for the mixing stage
- Work on different parts (sopranos, altos, etc.) in separate groups, while constantly comparing solo parts with each other and with the ensemble. For each vocal part, depending on the quality and consistency of the performance, it might be advisable to either edit (A) all the tracks within a part simultaneously or (A) one by one, using the vocal guide track as reference. In setting B, I noticed that it helps having not more than two or three of the best performances always on as a guiding track to adjust the others against. In setting A, it might help to solo the group and listen section by section. Waveforms can help detect timing issues but they can also be somewhat misleading.
- Add depth with reverb. I was joking with a friend of mine that, at least compared to pop productions, choir conductors seem to be never satisfied about the amount of reverb of my choice as if they used a radically different scale to measure it. However, each kind of music has its norms and aesthetics and, as a sound engineer or a producer, it is important to get familiar with them, accept them and possibly even learn to appreciate them. I normally set up a reverb with a long tail on an aux channel and then I send the grouped tracks to the aux until I get the illusion that they are performing in the same environment. I often end up adding some more reverb at the mastering stage.
- Parts can be distributed in the panorama to replicate common choir formations (e.g., SATB). Nonetheless, it is necessary to consider firstly that, since singers are not actually singing together, the formation has only an aesthetic function and not a practical one; and, secondly and related to this, that some songs might imply a certain formation because of characteristics such as, for instance, antiphonal singing. On the other hand, too much width or spacing might overemphasise the detachment of the voices, whereas we must re-build cohesion instead. Reverb and track grouping, as well as other forms of artificial leakage/spillover, can help build cohesion instead.
- It is possible to add dynamics with automation but with much care. Dynamic manipulation should reflect the singers’ actual dynamics otherwise it will sound artificial. A bigger problem related to dynamics concerns the quality of sound recording, which are typically made on mobile phones. Voice and video recorder apps as well as inbuilt microphones are responsible for a compression of sound data, including dynamics, that can generate a certain flatness in the resulting performance. For songs that require a wide dynamic range it can become a serious issue that asks for consideration at the initial stage of the choice of repertoire.
Perfection in choir singing is not a mathematical equation where determined musical goals are equally matched by all singers. The peculiarity of a choir is strictly linked to the richness and diversity of its members as well as the vitality and nuances of their interaction, as well as of that with their audience. In choir singing it is the whole that matters, which is not just the sum of the parts but a new entity that, when successful, takes on a life of its own. Moreover, the role of the conductor as motivator, communicator, leader and guide (Johann van de Sandt, Choral Conducting: History and Didactics, Lucca: LIM, 2016) is challenged by technology in remote recording practices. Overall, choir singing is a matter of interplay and complicity, of fun and – why not – even hardships and anxieties that, in the best scenario, can be overcome as a group. If nothing, an experience such as this should teach the importance of sharing space and time while working together at a common goal in performance.
While this was the perspective of a producer and sound engineer, it would be even more interesting to investigate the perspective of singers involved in this or similar kinds of experience. This is a task that I wish to purse in the near future.
unibzVoices conducted by Johann van der Sandt
Electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, percussions and tenor saxophone: Carlo Nardi
Djembe: Janthé van der Sandt and Nelu van der Sandt
Piano in “iJesu Christi”: Johann van der Sandt
Further vocals on “Ukuthula”: Brummnet, Resonans Vocal Ensemble, violin pupils of Sylvia Lanz
Solos on “Ukuthula”: Janthé van der Sandt and Clara Sattler
Arranged by Johann van der Sandt
“Pata Pata” arranged by Johann van der Sandt and Carlo Nardi
“We Are Not alone” and “Ukuhula” mixed and mastered by Andreas Lamken @ Prospect Studio-Label-Verlag
All other songs mixed and mastered by Carlo Nardi @ SoundMusicProduction
Videos of “We Are Not alone” and “Ukuhula” by Andreas Lamken
All other videos by Carlo Nardi
unibzVoices is the official choral ensemble of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. The choir, now in its third year of existence, continues to grow from year to year, offering a choral experience to students and contributing to their artistic development. The choir’s repertoire focuses on a wide variety of genres and styles, from classical choral works to popular music and folk songs. The choir aims to enrich the lives not only of the choristers, but also of the audience and the community at large.