Making Music During the Lockdown
A few days into April, it became apparent that singing in a group, large or small, would not be feasible for quite a while. Thankfully, in anticipation of increased social distancing, we managed to pre-record the lion’s share of the music for Holy Week and Easter Day by the end of March, with a handful of choir members standing far apart, singing in the sanctuary. But that arrangement couldn’t last. So how have we been making music since then?
The hymns have mostly come from the service recordings that the vergers and Charles Porter have archived for many years. The recordings of the anthems, however, usually have a lot of background noise, given the choir is singing during offertory and communion, and it is good practice regardless to ask singers before rebroadcasting an archive.. So, the St Alban’s virtual choir made its debut at our Easter Day service, and has become a feature of our online worship every Sunday since then.
It is, I am discovering, rare, to offer music on a weekly basis with a choir of more than a dozen regularly participating during this lockdown period. We are truly blessed to have so many choir members who desire to keep singing on a weekly basis, even in isolation. How do we create the virtual choir?
Stage one of the process, whether a video or just audio, is to create a listening track to keep everyone together. The track is similar to what I might play on the piano in a rehearsal when we are singing through a piece for the first or second time and might include me talking as well. The singers all wear headphones and listen to the track while recording.
I email the listening track along with the digital sheet music to choir members with several days’ lead-time. Some members have shared with me that they record many times before they settle on a recording they’re willing to contribute.
Then begins Stage Two of the process--combining the submitted audio files. You don’t hear the listening track in the final product, nor do you hear a sound that comes at the beginning of all of the recordings—a clap, emulating a clapperboard in film production. This short sharp sound saves a lot of time in aligning the separate audio tracks, as you can see in the screenshot of my mixing program.
The piano listening track is at the top of the image, with fourteen voice tracks below it for Hymn 208 (The strife is o’er) that we’re singing this week. Each horizontal bar represents one voice. You can see the first two words, both “Alleluia”, both followed by a quick break in sound. The final audio will begin playing from the point of the vertical white line (after the alignment clap), and the piano track will be replaced by the organ, which I’ve recorded.
Even with a listening track and a visible way to align the tracks, we may need to do more to make the singers’ combined tracks sound truly together, as they would be in a choir setting. For example, the word “Triumph”, in Hymn 208 this week, caused some issues because the length of the R can vary widely between singers, which resulted in the (very audible) T sound before it not being together. So some selective muting, or moving, snippets of sound also occurs before you hear the finished product. If there’s something that is comparatively easy for a singer to record again rather than me try to edit it, I’ll ask them to do so.
For the most recent professional recording that I made in Miami, I oversaw the addition of images to some of the audio tracks to make a more engaging experience for YouTube viewing. This is something that the clergy at St Alban’s have been willing to incorporate. Adding images and having the choir submit just audio files also makes offering music on a weekly basis more manageable for everyone (in part by limiting the amount of data transfer).
One new challenge of the virtual choir for some singers is that they have to learn the music by themselves rather than by listening to someone next to them. Even if they’ve sung the piece before, it’s a different experience to sing just your part, alone, and even more nerve-wracking to record it. Choir members also have to find a quiet space to record, and (for the videos) set up a decent camera angle while still reading the music but keeping the score out of the shot as much as possible. You can get a first-hand experience of some of these challenges by participating in the congregational video of the Doxology that we’re recording! Details were in the weekly St. Alban's email.
We certainly miss making music together, but are grateful to live in an age where technology allows us to have an experience where the whole is still somewhat greater than the sum of the parts. That being said, the current experience of “the whole” pales in comparison to when we are all singing in the same room, and we are all praying that that time can come again sooner rather than later.