UNMASKED: Recording choral performances in COVID
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
I'm writing this at what appears to be the tail end of this pandemic (knock on wood). With choral singing making headlines as a super-spreading event akin to a bio-terrorist attack, choirs have had to figure out how to make music without singing together. We are all full-up on the brady-bunch style virtual choirs, distanced singing, and of course, singing with masks on.
The Byrd Ensemble tried something new.
With the goal of presenting an online concert that looks like we are together performing on the same stage, we used camera cloning techniques to record everyone singing their part individually, which would be all combined in post production. We recorded the video and audio separately.
If you are interested in seeing the manifestation of this filming approach, here is the broadcast.
1. Setup the shot.
Once you have set the shot, you will need to make sure the video camera does not
move until the end of the session. Tripods are pretty good for this, but a table or
something more sturdy would be better. No need to worry about zooming or panning,
that is done in post production.
You'll also want to shoot in manual mode to set the focus and exposure, so that stays
constant as you cycle through singers during the session.
2. Position the singer.
The camera shot below will have two total singers. It is crucial that each singer remain in
their half of the shot. Best to put some tape on the floor so they do not deviate too much
from their position.
3. Don't worry about the audio.
At this point, it's about recording what each singer looks like, singing. You can play the
click/guide track out loud in the room (not in headphones) through portable speakers.
Each singer, one by one, sings along to the track.
Alto: Joshua Haberman
Alto: Willimark Obenza
3. Combine the shot in post.
Layer both shots in your video editor of choice (I use Final Cut Pro) and crop one of them.
You may need to adjust the position of each clip, or use a feather tool to blend the crop
edge between the shots so it looks more seamless.
1. Guide track.
You will need to create a guide/click track that everyone can sing along to. You can use a
midi file with clicks, or add clicks to an existing recording (though make sure you get
permission!) for a more natural feel. The singer sings along to the guide track pumped in
It's nice to have a large enough room so the reflections don't make you sound like you
are in a bathroom. A bedroom with a lot of sound absorbing surfaces is also good.
3. Mic placement.
Place it far enough away so the consonants don't pop the mic too much, but close
enough so you are getting a good vocal tone to room noise ratio. I personally like placing
the mic slightly off to the side. A lot of people worry about room noise. Because you
are recording a choir, not a soloist, and are close micing, room noise is a non-issue.
Make sure your gain isn't too high! It's very easy for Sopranos to peak.
This is Soprano Margaret Obenza recording a passage from Palestrina's Sicut lilium. The
audio here is from the iPhone 12.
1. Finalize the Audio
Combine all the audio into one final recording. You will likely need to tune and sync
everyone even though they sang along to the same click/guide track. I've found it still
necessary to add some eq and reverb.
2. Finalize the Video
Add the audio to the video. You'll need to retime mouths that don't sync perfectly. If you
record in 4k and are exporting in 1080p, there is some room to crop into shots (zoom)
And like magic, you've made produced something that was recorded individually into a video that simulates a real life concert!