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Recording Your Choir Safely During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Fred Bogert

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A pandemic – who knew that we’d have to deal with that? Well, here it is, and we’re still choral directors. And the choir still wants to sing together. What’s that gonna look like?

Step one, of course, is to keep everyone safe. We’re learning how to do that: masks, staying six feet apart, hand washing, no crowds, those who are at risk stay home. These are requirements, not suggestions. People are dying. Indoor choir practices have turned into tragedies. That’s the facts, for all of us, without exception.

Group singing can still be done, carefully, if it can be done within the strict confines of safe practices. I’m going to share with you a description of how I’ve (carefully!) produced a couple of choir pieces for a church Facebook page. The process is more complicated than normal rehearsing and performing, and is kind of tech-y, but I’ll walk you through it with specifics.

My basic approach is to capture video outdoors. To keep the numbers manageable, I record the singers one part at a time, starting with sopranos. They cannot carpool to get to the site, and when they show up, they must be wearing masks and stay 6’apart, and avoid facing each other as much as they can. Masks stay on until the camera “rolls.” Once I capture SATB in four videos, I combine them into a four-pane video that can be uploaded to Facebook and/or YouTube.

I use an iPad 7 that I got at Best Buy for $270. I’m not an Apple person, and the learning curve wasn’t too bad. I bought an iKlip ($25) to hold the iPad on a tripod mic stand. I decided to use an external mic to improve the sound of the recording and bought a Blue Snowball Ice USB mic ($26) attached to the iPad with a “USB-lightning” adapter (Apple store). The Snowball mic has a socket so you can mount it on another mic stand. Hooking the stuff together is easier than it would seem, and doesn’t involve driver installation. It’s truly plug-and-play. For outdoor recording, the setup is easy – two mic stands with the camera and mic on them, with no need for power cords or any of that. Hurray!

To prepare the choir, I send out MP3s and PDFs of the score. I make sure that the MP3 has a count-off of some kind that I can refer to later. When we record, I use the MP3 as a guide track playing through headphones on my phone so the four videos will sync properly. I have the singers stand in 6’ diamonds, with the stronger singers in the back – imagine bowling pins. I’ll raise the camera and move back until everyone is in the shot, then place the mic in front of the camera, to one side of the closest singer, and aim at the middle of the diamond. I play the MP3 through a Bluetooth speaker as needed to warm up the singers and get them focused on timing and pitch. We’ll go through a couple of takes with masks off (making sure at this point that no one is facing each other). I’ll make sure to clap loudly one time at a specific beat of the count-off each time we record. This is the key to lining up the takes later on. To maintain safety, everyone must mask up and disperse as soon as we’re done. Also, I record the four parts of the choir at four different times to keep the numbers down. Safety first!

Once the videos are recorded, I choose the four best ones and upload them to a Google folder. I’d never done that before, so I went online and found a bunch of YouTube how-to vids that walked me through the process. My internet is slow and sketchy, so I went back online and learned how to use my Android phone as a hotspot. That was very helpful. To assemble and edit the videos, I then download them from the Google folder to my desktop computer. I use Video Pad Pro to assemble the videos because I need the specific editing feature called “Splitscreen” to make a four-pane window with one choir part in each of the four panes.

Having never done this before, I struggled with the learning curve, but found more online YouTube videos that helped. Once I figured out how to do it once, I just repeated the process with each choir video project and found it to be easier than it looked from the outside. Each of the four videos gets loaded in to the timeline and aligned by looking for that clap sound in the audio track. The software lets me adjust the volume and pan of each audio track, which is helpful in establishing the final blend. Those of you who would rather stay in the iPad might want to check out Luma Fusion, which I haven’t used, but looks like it would do the splitscreen thing you’ll need to assemble and synch the four videos you shot.

And there you have it. It’s a complicated process compared to gathering folks together and starting at the downbeat, but that was then, and this is now. Different and better ways will evolve. Creativity always does! Stay healthy, stay safe.

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