Since the COVID-19 shutdown started, YouTube has swelled with virtual choir and band videos done by schools, churches and professional groups. Two Wilshire ensembles have now undertaken virtual performances. June 14 saw the debut of Sanctuary Choir’s virtual rendition of Howard Goodall’s The Lord is My Shepherd. Wilshire Winds’ virtual performance of Precious Lord, Take My Hand appeared on May 10. (See these videos at the end of this article).
The process involves participants taking video of themselves singing or playing their part while listening through headphones to a backing track of the musical piece. Headphones are needed so the video only picks up the sound of the individual performer. The videos are then painstakingly synced up and pieced together by a video editor.
Cheryl Allison (CA), editor of the choir video, and Mark McKenzie (MM), who played in and edited the winds video, recently compared notes via Zoom to provide a behind-the-scenes look at these projects. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
MM: Cheryl, the choir video turned out great. Had you done anything like this before?
CA: I’m a filmmaker and documentarian, and have edited some of my own films, so I was comfortable with editing. But I had never done a virtual choir. That was a little different.
MM: I hadn’t either. My background is art direction and design, but I had dabbled in editing and wanted to work on those skills. I did a lot of online research into how others had done it.
CA: For me, the editing was time consuming but not that hard. What I found difficult was typing up the instructions for the singers — trying to explain this without scaring people off, knowing that you have people with varying degrees of comfort with technology. We designated certain choir members as our “tech geeks” who people could call for help. We didn’t really have many issues.
MM: Yeah, we had folks in the winds who found the process somewhat intimidating. It can be awkward to figure out how to even set up, where you have to video yourself with one device, like your phone, while using another device, maybe a computer, to watch the video and also look at your music and not get your headphone cord tangled in your instrument! What were the choir members hearing in their earbuds?
CA: The track we sent had Jeff Brummel playing piano and there was one singer, a section leader, singing their particular part — soprano, alto, tenor or bass. That really helped. It gave the singers someone to sing along to.
MM: For the winds, we played along to a video of us playing the same piece in worship from last year. But our conductor, Shana Gaines, wasn’t always visible in the video, so it was tricky in places. We had about 30 people in the video; how about you?
CA: At first I didn’t know how many would do it, but including the strings and Jeff, we had about 50, and that’s a lot. So I started editing as I got the files. First I put the audio of each performance into Pro Tools, a music and recording program, and EQ’d it to get more of a “live sanctuary sound.” I also took out sounds of people swallowing, rustling their music, things like that. Then I joined the audio to the video in Final Cut Pro, which is editing software, and had to make sure it was all synced up. Doing that 50 times was really time consuming. I did an overall color correction to balance colors and bring in more warmth to the video.
MM: I didn’t do much color work on the footage because I was on a deadline. I worked pretty fast.
CA: What software did you use?
MM: I used Adobe Premiere Pro, which is part of Adobe’s suite of programs called Creative Cloud, which I subscribe to. I did all the audio work right there in Premiere, too.
CA: It sounded so good.
MM: Did you have a hard deadline or was it somewhat flexible?
CA: We gave the singers two or three weeks to get their videos in. Doug was flexible, but I didn’t want it to drag on. I started editing as they came in, but then spent three or four long days getting it done. Probably 40 hours total, at least.
MM: Yeah, same for me. Tell me about the ending where you see the Wilshire steeple.
CA: At the end I wanted to make it a little dramatic. The words of the song there are about the house of the Lord, and I thought, “I’m gonna cut away to the steeple,” which was actually B-roll footage from my documentary, Shatter the Silence, which features George. That was my “filmmaker moment.”
MM: What do you think seeing this video in the worship service meant to people?
CA: To me, as a church member … we keep saying we’re apart but still together. It really gave me chills that we have all these people from their different homes but doing this song together to praise the Lord, for worship. We felt so together — even though we were all in our little individual Brady Bunch boxes. The replays of previous performances [in the online services] are great, but there’s something about seeing it and saying: There’s my friend! There’s Susan Kimball, there’s Steve Terry! Yes, we’re all still out here and we’re still together. And one day we’re going to be back physically together. It was emotional.
MM: I felt like, in a way, since the shutdown started, it’s almost like … do these groups even exist anymore? Not to get too philosophical, but If you’re in a choir or band, but you can’t be together, are you even still a group? I think this showed that we are.
CA: It was good for the spirit. It was a blessing. When you see the church at the end, and they’re singing about the house of the Lord … That’s the place that brings us together and we long to get back there. But like George says, the church isn’t a building. This shows that we don’t have to be in a building. We’re a community, and our community stays together whether we can be in a building together or not. That’s a beautiful thing.