By Rebecca Lord
Conducting today can feel like it requires a graduate degree in technology. This article will provide tech solutions, simple to complex. Recommendations and video examples come from music-technology professionals, conductors, and internationally recognized virtual choir leaders.
REHEARSAL SUCCESS IN A LAND OF LATENCY
Before COVID-19, how many of us knew about Zoom or latency/delay issues in online communications? “When we started Zoom rehearsals, we didn’t have any experience with lag and compression,” said Michael Wu, artistic director of the Strathmore Children’s Chorus. ”It makes singing together ridiculous. We…laughed our heads off!”
Why the delay?
While data can theoretically travel at the speed of light, numerous factors in software, hardware, and internet connections can slow it down. The amount of delay “will ultimately bedecided by the slowest component of the entire system,” explains Tyler McNiven, production and media manager for the Brigham Young University-Idaho Department of Music. Two-way communication and multiple participants increase the slow-down points. Latency needs to be lower than ~35 milliseconds (ms) to be imperceptible.
There are currently no widely available video-communication platforms with low enough latency for synchronous rehearsing. There are audio options, but they generally require high-speed wired connections for all users, limited distance (e.g., all participants in the same town), headphones, tech expertise among all participants, and a possible audio interface. Even then, results are mixed.
What are our best options for rehearsing?
- Zoom: The majority of conductors are using Zoom and muting singers. Zoom is favored because of its ease of use and helpful features such as chat, break-out rooms, and a call-in option.
- Youtube Live: For larger projects that exceed Zoom’s capacity, consider Youtube Live. It also includes a chat feature.
- Separate Video & Audio: Some conductors are pairing Zoom with other audio options, aiming for higher sound quality and/or lower latency. Options are detailed on the “WACDA Task Force COVID-19 Report – Tech Resources”. An option not listed there is the ListenTo Plugin (audiomovers.com). Designed for use with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), it provides higher-quality sound and lower-latency options. Sound can be streamed one-way (singers access it via a link) or two-way. Glen Bourgeois, BYU-Idaho Collegiate Singer, recommends one-way streaming as the plugin “requires use and knowledge of a DAW” which not all singers have. For further exploration of low-latency options, see Chris Rimple’s “Remote Band Rehearsals.”
How well do low-latency audio options actually work? How difficult are they to use? While the answers to these questions depend on many factors (e.g., equipment, internet connection, tech savvy), here are a few thoughts:
- Tori Longdon, co-founder of the Stay at Home Choir mentions that Jamulus is “relatively successful” for some small groups with high-speed wired connections. She does not use it, due to the larger global ensembles and varying tech situations among Stay at Home Choir participants. Zoom, guide tracks, and YouTube are used instead.
- Nina Revering, founding artistic director of Illumine, planned to use JamKazam for her recent Virtual Summer Program. She reports, “JamKazam touts itself well but does not deliver.” After multiple tests and delving deeply with hired techies, the results were inconsistent. Latency was still an issue and JamKazam’s response-time was also latent (several weeks). Ms. Revering, who defaulted to Zoom, said, “we really did try with good parameters… and functionality was not there.”
- Take-aways from research and interviews: I would personally use Zoom for my choirs, and only consider two-way low-latency audio options for smaller groups of interested individuals with tech experience and/or interest. I might also explore audio options as part of a music-technology class. That being said, musicians who work through the learning curves and find success singing together (notably with Jamulus), seem to find it rewarding.
Practical Tips for Enhancing Online Rehearsals:
- A good microphone will greatly enhance sound quality and make your teaching more effective. Jackson McDonald, Hour of Power Choir/Audio Editing, recommends the Blue Yeti (~$130) as a quality USB microphone.
- Avoid the sustain pedal on the piano (Dr. Thea Kano, artistic director of Washington DC’s Federal Performing Arts Association) or try a midi keyboard instead (Michael Wu).
- Earphones help minimize distractions in the home.
- Involve other voices: e.g., unmute a quality singer to demonstrate (Dr. Kano).
- Get away from the keyboard at times and conduct to an accompaniment track.
- For additional rehearsal tips, see “Top 2020 Choral Solutions During the Pandemic.”
Sibelius/Finale as Teaching Tools: Dianne Berkun Menaker uses Sibelius with her Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Here are some of her tips:
- Use the mixer to customize parts and playing levels; e.g., bump up the volume for individual parts.
- Share the screen and use the tracking line so students can follow along in the score.
- Teach the break-down of rhythms by entering “a percussion line above the melodic line” – e.g., a line of quarter notes so singers “can visualize where things are falling.”
- For other tech teaching tools, see “WACDA Task Force COVID-19 Report – Tech Resources”.
CREATING BEAUTIFUL VIRTUAL CHOIRS
“If one of my singers had said… three months ago, ‘you’re going to be doing the virtual choir thing,’ I would’ve said, ‘Hell to the no – no, never!,’” exclaimed Dr. Thea Kano. “So, here we are… by popular demand.” How can we survive and thrive in this world we’ve all been thrown into?
- Get help with audio and video editing and design. It is enormously time-consuming (easily 60-100 hours+/three-minute song). If you have budget, consider hiring someone. Dr. Kano uses Arts Laureate. Nina Revering exchanges free tuition for editing services. The Hour of Power divides responsibilities (e.g., guide tracks, syncing audio, mixing, video production). Dr. Marc Riley, musical director/conductor/arrangerfor the orchestra credits a great team of motivated and talented individuals for their weekly virtual performances. He states, “it’s quite fun… working together as a team!”
- Be specific in your instructions. “Try and make as many decisions as you possibly can before you put the content out there to be created,” Meg Davies, producer for Eric Whitacre advises. “It’s not uncommon for those starting their first virtual choir projects to enthusiastically say, ‘Right, I’m going to do this! Here’s the music. Send me your videos!’ And then they see what comes back and… they’re like, ‘Oh, but you didn’t do it this way…’ Your content will be better if you give really clear instructions.”
- Learn to walk before you run with an easy song first. Meg Davies advocates choosing a song with softer sounds and rhythms and avoiding complicated counterpoint, staccato moments and hard consonants that require precision to the millisecond and are difficult to sync. She notes that legato, oo’s and ah’s are more forgiving when syncing independently recorded voices.
The Process: Compiled from interviews with leaders of Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs, the Hour of Power Choir, and the Stay at Home Choir. Additional information and resources can be found in Kathleen Hansen’s “Virtual Choir Programs, Apps, Tips, and Resources.”
- Create a guide track:
- Start with a count-down to a clap to use in syncing tracks.
- Produce a click track (variable for tempo changes).
- Provide instrumental accompaniment.
- Include voices (e.g., section leaders), modeling correct breaths, phrasing, dynamics, diction, and tone color.
- Provide a conducting video, optional.
- Prepare the Choir: Combine detailed guide tracks with online rehearsals. Tori Longdon mentions that the guide tracks for the Stay at Home Choir are so carefully detailed that, when live rehearsals start, “it’s almost a dress rehearsal right away.” Rehearsals, used for high-level instruction, are recorded and made available to singers for further practice.
- Provide specific recording instructions:
- Audio guidelines: acceptable file types, silence at beginning or end, distance from microphone (one to two feet is usually best), recording environment (padded/dampened), and how to check for gain (mic level or distance from recording device needed to avoid distortion). Singers must listen to their recordings before submitting them. Tori Longdon advises, “the most important thing I would say to singers is, listen to your track…, and if any of it distorts,” re-record.
- Video guidelines: landscape or portrait, preferred background, lighting, how tight a shot (photo examples are helpful; shots that are too tight cannot be expanded), clothing & grooming guidelines, color scheme, and acceptable file types. Singers must check their work before submitting. Mark Warshaw, president of MJW Productions, film team for the Hour of Power, advises: “Make sure it’s in focus. Make sure it looks right. Make sure the color is right. Make sure the whole thing is there. Sometimes [singers will] start too late or the end will drop off. By the time we get to it, it’s too late for them to do another one. It’s all about checking.”
- Consider separate audio and video submissions. Jackson McDonald recommends this, as the best audio environments (e.g., clothing closets) are not always great visually. Additionally, singers are able to focus separately on their voices and looking expressive, and can record video without headphones.
- Submission instructions: where to submit and how to label files.
- Collect tracks. Dropbox folders, Google Drive folders, and Flipgrid work well. Orchestrations can be created and submitted following a similar process. Dr. Marc Riley says midi data recordings can automatically be synced with a tempo map, in addition to live-recording tracks. “There is always some ‘tweaking’… which is to be expected given the huge amount of data involved.”
- Clean, edit, & mix audio and video separately.
- Audio Tips: After initial syncing, Jackson McDonald suggests tweaking the most noticeable out-of-sync spots (e.g., audio stretching specific consonants). Tori Longdon observes: “An audio mix is a three-dimensional space… You have… more control over your balance and your blend…than you would have in a real choir…You can have people closer or further away, more to the left, more to the right, or… an even spread… you create the acoustic as well…. if you know where to position your singers digitally… you get the best sound out of everybody.”
- Video: Place the videos into your grids/templates of choice and complete any desired video design. If you don’t have good video (or any video), slides or other footage can effectively tell your story.
- Sync up sound and video: A clap or an embedded click track can make perfect syncing with the video easier.
- Celebrate your success!
Fun Ideas and Examples:
- Incorporate nature footage. David Warshaw created the stunning visuals in the Hour of Power’s recent “The Blessing.”
- Sign language can reach new audience members and add visual beauty and interest. The Stay at Home Choir incorporates this element in their gorgeous “And So It Goes” with the King’s Singers.
- Try a song your choir knows well already to get started in this new art form (e.g., Voctave’s fabulous “Smile”)!
- Choreography can brighten up your rehearsals as well as your performance! See the National Children’s Chorus’ “Blue Skies” (starting at 1:36).
- Check out the colored backdrops, child instrumentalist, and sweet ending in this darling “What a Wonderful World” with VOENA’s young singers.
- Small Projects: Dr. Randall Kempton broke his Collegiate Singers (BYU-Idaho) into groups of three to six singers, each tasked with creating a virtual performance. “They got their feet wet” with virtual choirs, and he discovered those with experience and talent who could help with larger projects.
- Collaborate: Take advantage of opportunities to work with remote artists. Craig Hella Johnson, artistic director of Conspirare, has collaborated with conductors, singers, and tech people around the world in recent months. The constraints of the time “happily force us to seek out new collaborators,” he said. “We’re… bringing so many new ideas into our organization… It’s really influencing the way we think about presentation right now.”
- Join a virtual choir project! If making a video of your own is not feasible or right for your choir, consider encouraging your singers to participate in performances with the Stay at Home Choir or others!
- Alternatively, start your own! Joshua Tamayo, Canadian pianist, reached out to his network of musical friends and colleagues to record and produce this beautiful “Hallelujah” in tribute to front-line workers with whom he performed. Mr. Tamayo did the audio editing and Miles O’Brien used Adobe After Effects to create a beautiful “performance,” placing the choir and pianist on a stage.
- New audio, combined with slides, footage from past performances or other video (e.g., Craig Hella Johnson’s “All of Us”).
- Zoom “virtual choirs”: Record a muted video of your choir on Zoom, singing to a pre-recorded track (newly mixed, or past performance). Try SoundTrap.com for audio recording and mixing (online collaborative recording studio, user-friendly and inexpensive).
Shopping for editing software? Tyler McNiven advises you’ll need software that can handle multi-track audio and video appropriate to your group size (each participant needs his or her own audio and video track, plus five to ten additional tracks for submixing audio sections). Before buying, make sure your computer has the required hardware specifications (processor speed, RAM, graphics card, etc.). “Smaller groups of under 20 may… use the suite of audio and video programs that come native/free on the MacOS (Garage Band for audio and iMovie for video).” For larger groups, consider software such as:
- Pro Tools (Avid)
- Logic Pro (Apple)
- Adobe Audition (from the Creative Cloud suite)
- Video Software
- Final Cut Pro (Apple)
- Adobe Premiere (from the Creative Cloud suite)
- Media Composer (Avid)
For other software options, see Kathleen Hansen’s “Virtual Choir Programs, Apps, Tips, and Resources.”
IS SINGING VIRTUALLY WORTH IT?
Every conductor I have interviewed has given this question a resounding “Yes!” The feedback of singers around the nation has been overwhelmingly positive, grateful for the opportunity to connect and make music together.
Tori Longdon observes, “It is a great gift to take the time to listen to yourself sing and to get to know your own voice rather than constantly being a small cog in a big wheel…so you’re in a better position when you go back into live music making. “
Meg Davies mentioned research done with the University College London during Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 5. Virtual choir participation “improves your self esteem,” Meg reports. “It’s great for improving the quality of your individual performance!” There are also social benefits, connections to be made with others around the world.
This is a time of learning and experimenting. While taking a break is the right choice for some and should be supported, forging ahead with technology can yield new, beautiful benefits that will enrich lives now and in the future.
In recent years, Rebecca Lord has served on the choral/vocal faculty of Brigham Young University-Idaho and as Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of California, Los Angeles where she earned MM and DMA degrees under the tutelage of Donald Neuen. She also served as Chorus Master for Arizona Musicfest and Assistant Conductor for the Hour of Power choir. She has a background as a professional violinist, soprano, dancer, and actress. Dr. Lord is temporarily teaching part-time, as she is enjoying being a new mother.
- Craig Hella Johnson (Founding Artistic Director, Grammy Award-winning Conspirare Company of Voices, Music Director, Cincinnati Vocal Arts Director, Professor of Practice, Texas State University), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, August 28, 2020.
- Dianne Berkun Menaker (Founder and Artistic Director, Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 14, 2020.
- Glen Bourgeois (Collegiate Singers Member & Music Technology Student Leader, Brigham Young University-Idaho), e-mail to Rebecca Lord, July 11, 2020.
- Hansen, Kathleen, “Virtual Choir Programs, Apps, Tips, and Resources,” docs.google.com, accessed August 30, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1QK-PVHsBMGDT5RCx258rMFw1Aww4yGV8YkmHjXPrrsc/mobilebasic.
- Jackson McDonald (Audio Editing Team and Choir Member, Hour of Power), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, June 29, 2020.
- Lord, Rebecca, “Top 2020 Choral Solutions During the Pandemic: A Fast Track to Success,” Choralnet.org (blog), August 19, 2020, https://choralnet.org/2020/08/top-2020-choral-solutions-during-the-pandemic-a-fast-track-to-success/.
- Marc Riley (Musical Director/Orchestra Conductor/Arranger, Hour of Power Orchestra), e-mails to Rebecca Lord, May 28, 2020 & July 28, 2020.
- Mark Warshaw (President, MJW Productions; Video Production Team, Hour of Power), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, August 21, 2020.
- Meg Davies (Associate Manager & Producer, Eric Whitacre), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 13, 2020, e-mail to Rebecca Lord, July 27, 2020.
- Michael Wu (President, American Choral Directors Association Maryland/DC Chapter, Artistic Director, Strathmore Children’s Chorus, Conductor, Landon School, Bethesda), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, July 7, 2020 and e-mail to Rebecca Lord, July 6, 2020.
- Nina Revering (Founding Artistic Director, Illumine), phone interview with Rebecca Lord, August 27, 2020.
- Randall Kempton (Director of Choral Activities, Brigham Young University-Idaho), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 8, 2020.
- Rimple, Chris, “Remote Band Rehearsals,” docs.google.com, accessed August 30, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1smcvsxdaaViPQvGMQHmah_6BQeqowhmGSFMHfnlY2FI/edit?fbclid=IwAR2lmQ9kf-23mFeZ2fXlTWl1sOwNYfbiMnIyOxzUm1bKytZfs6WrbEtrnpI.
- Thea Kano (Artistic Director, Federal City Performing Arts Association, Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, July 8, 2020.
- Tori Longdon (Co-Founder, Stay at Home Choir), Zoom interview with Rebecca Lord, August 21, 2020.
- Tyler McNiven (Production & Media Manager, Brigham Young University-Idaho Department of Music), e-mails to Rebecca Lord, July 10, 12, 22 & 25, 2020.
- “WACDA Task Force COVID-19 Report – Tech Resources,” Western Division American Choral Director’s Association, WDACDA, accessed August 30, 2020, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/18Akv7xLPBFtfN4l-YkBbSbuu8hA8q2wn4f89Cv5hudE/edit#gid=0