As I was filling my car with gas the other day, a television was blaring commercials to me at the pump. Video has become the ubiquitous window that allows us to glimpse the good, the bad, and plenty of the ugly aspects of 21st century life. According to the latest Nielsen Television Audience Report, there are now more televisions (2.93) in the average American household than there are people (2.54), and an average of two computers per four-member family. We are a video culture, so for anyone working to build a career in music, one of the best tools to use in creating a buzz is video.
Videos come in all shapes, sizes, and budgets. They can serve many different purposes. Many bands make a video of every live performance to review and improve their show. Others work with top filmmakers to create elaborate mini-movies with six-figure budgets. Some use video as a documentary medium, recording life on the road, or the making of a new album. With the explosion of low-cost, high-quality video equipment and software, making videos is within the reach of any musician who wants to use the medium for his or her benefit.
Just how easy and how affordable making your first performance video can be is the subject of this two-part story. Before starting any video project, it’s important to determine realistic expectations for the amount of time and money you want to invest. It’s also essential to decide who the audience for your video will be, as well as its purpose. For example, hard-core fans of an established band will relish a backstage and tour bus shaky-cam diary. However, labels and managers will likely want to see a more polished video product.
For this DIY project, I contacted a local eight-piece band, Sugar Water Purple, and asked them if they would like to have me put together a live performance video to help promote the band. They agreed. We discussed possible dates, what song they would like to record, and I arranged to attend a rehearsal to meet the band and listen to some of their original songs.
My next step was to make decisions about some of the technical aspects of making the video. Generally speaking, there are three stages to making any music video: pre-production, the actual video recording (usually dubbed the “shoot”), and post-production. We’ll cover the first two steps in this article and go through the post-production process in the second part of this story next month.
The first step was deciding the purpose of the video shoot with Sugar Water Purple. Basically, it would serve as a promo video and another tool to refine their stage presence. The next step was to determine the budget. Basically, the budget was as close to zero dollars as I could keep it, as I planned to borrow all necessary equipment to create a finished video. The next decision was one that would impact the post-production timeline significantly: to shoot one continuous take of the performance, or to use two or more cameras and then edit between the different camera shots to create the finished video.
Based on the goals agreed to with the band and the amount of time I had available for the project, I decided to shoot one continuous take, in order to save time and effort in the post-production phase. Multi-camera shoots utilize editing or live-switching between cameras or shots and are a more complex undertaking. They can require days or weeks of post-production, depending on the level of detail and quality for which you are aiming, and a proportionally larger budget.
As a safety measure, I decided we’d have two video cameras recording each take, so that we would have a choice of two versions for each take of the song. The next important decision was where to shoot the video. One of the keys to making a decent quality video is to find a setting with adequate lights. (There’s no such thing as too many lights in the world of video!) Daytime hours at a club or concert venue often provide an ideal setting. I contacted Middagh Goodwin, a friend who operates a local non-profit music cooperative, the Plea for Peace Center, in my hometown.
He agreed that we could use the stage, lights and sound equipment in the club to shoot a video on a Sunday afternoon for a small rental fee. I visited the venue during a load in before another concert and decided that I would use black plastic sheeting available at any hardware store to cover the side walls on the stage area which were a little the worse for wear. The wall directly behind the stage was already painted black. Having a black background eliminates distractions from the focal point for the video, the artist. Although the stage was small, the band had performed there before and assured me that they could squeeze in the available space. There were two adjustable-height lighting trees, each with four lighting instruments and a separate dimmer for each one. The materials used to color each light, called gels, and were red, blue, purple, and yellow, which I decided would be adequate for our project.
With the venue and lighting requirements set, the next pre-production decision centered on how to handle the audio. Sound is usually the most overlooked element in DIY video production. How would we get the audio from Sugar Water Purple’s live performance onto our finished video?
As reported in the recent Echoes post, “Using Video as a Learning Tool,” most consumer video cameras have a very inexpensive microphone that is designed to capture audio at a family reunion, wedding, or vacation destination – but definitely not the sound of an eight-piece band. I decided we would do a live audio mix of the band, similar to what would be done if there were an audience at the venue. We’d send a separate mix to an audio recorder, which like our cameras, would be borrowed. During my site visit to the venue, I found out that the Yamaha MG 16/4 mixer, power amps and speakers, 8-channel snake, six dynamic mics, assorted cables and mic stands would be at our disposal.
I downloaded the operation guide for the mixing board and found out that it would allow for ten XLR audio inputs, which would have to be enough for the audio track for our video. I contacted a friend and he offered to lend me his new Zoom H-4n pocket recorder for the audio recording.
Next, I made a few calls and tracked down two video cameras and tripods, which I could borrow over a weekend. Both were flash memory devices, so there would be no video tape or disc to worry about, making the recording process that much easier. One was the Canon FS 200, a very small, but high quality video camera that has a list price of $299. The second was a Canon Vixia HF 200 (street price $750), which is capable of recording in high definition. Each camera owner also loaned me a tripod and the attendant cables for charging and downloading the video to a computer via USB.
We had settled on a particular day and time for the video shoot and then went over how many mics and direct boxes would be needed to record the audio. This resulted in the first compromise we had to make on the project. Working with the band’s trumpeter, Dave Creel, I had developed an input list that called for 12 channels. After checking the house sound board and realizing we only had 10 XLR inputs on the board, we decided to do without the two background vocal mics, which for “Before This Began,” only occurred in one brief passage. Here’s our final input list.
The band had been recording their new album at their rehearsal space, and while attending practice, I noticed that they had good quality mics on the kick drum and overheads. They agreed to bring those to the video shoot. The venue had six working dynamic mics, so I got on the phone and called a local sound man who agreed to loan me another Shure SM-58, two direct boxes, some black gaffer’s tape, and 6 AC extensions cords. The other friend who was loaning us the H-4n digital audio recorder, kindly allowed us to raid his studio for 12 mic cables and two ¼” – ¼” cables to go from the sound board to the Zoom’s inputs. I asked three colleagues to act as crew, Ralph and Erik would each operate a camera, and Dan would do the audio mix. Here’s our gear checklist:
Microphones/DIs – drum mics provided by band; 6 mics at venue; 1 SM-58 and 2 DIs on loan
Camera Gear – 2 Canon video cameras on loan
Audio Gear – Zoom H-4n digital audio recorder with card reader; Headphones and 1/8” adapter; 12 XLR mic cables; ¼” output cables for stereo mix; all on loan
Miscellaneous – Black plastic sheeting; black gaffer’s tape; case of water; AC extension cords
As the day for our shoot drew closer, I asked the band to send me an MP3 of the song they had chosen for the video, so the video crew could familiarize themselves with the song’s arrangement. Next, I hit the hardware store and bought a 20’ x 50’ (4 mil thickness) roll of black plastic sheeting and the grocery store for a case of water. As I drove around town collecting all the gear on the Friday afternoon before our Sunday shoot, I realized the pre-production phase of making the video was over.
The crew met at my house at noon. We headed down to the venue and began our set up. I had asked the band to arrive at 1:30 PM for the load in, figuring that by 2 PM, we would be setting sound levels, tweaking light placements and ready to start recording by 2:30 which would allow us to record until 4:30 PM, as we had to be out of the venue by 5 PM. I had decided that rather than recording a variety of songs, we’d focus on getting a really strong performance of just one song, which we all had agreed would be a plus for promoting the band.
The first thing we did was to clear the stage area and measure, cut and hang the black plastic sheeting on the stage’s side walls. Then we set up our mics and stands and tested each one. We discovered a few buzzing cables and replaced them with some of the cables we had brought. (We marked every cable we brought to the venue with a piece of blue painter’s tape, to avoid any confusion on the load-out, as to what gear belonged to whom.) We moved the lighting trees to the far edges of the stage to maximize room for the band and decided that we would turn the house speakers toward the band, which with the three floor monitors, would allow the band to hear one another. Dan decided to send a separate Auxiliary (Aux) mix to the musicians onstage. He’d then use the board’s main faders and Control Room stereo output to feed the stereo mix to the Zoom.
Since the band would be playing live with Dan in the same room, we brought headphones that he would use to adjust the stereo mix during recording and to check playback after each take. We did a test recording with each camera and the Zoom and awaited the band. Meanwhile, Erik and Ralph experimented with their camera settings, zoom capabilities and practiced how to use the tripod to smoothly move the camera horizontally across the stage (called “panning”).
We decided not to take any chances on battery life and plugged both cameras into AC power. As it turned out, there was quite a difference between the two tripods. One was bare bones, a no frills model, which turned out to be less than ideal.
The second was a much better tripod, the Velbon Videomate 607 Mini-Pro Panhead (Street price $85 with carry bag). It featured a damping system that greatly minimized any shaking or jitter when the camera was panned. With the inexpensive tripod, every time we panned the camera across the stage, there was noticeable jitter. Any jitter will likely be a real distraction, so if you don’t have access to a better quality tripod with a fluid head, it’s worth buying or renting one for your video shoot if you plan on making any camera moves at all while recording.
At 1:30, the band called saying that their Sunday morning gig at a local church had run long and they would be late. They arrived around 2 PM and quickly set up. We had to experiment with where to place everyone and in the end, squeezed in the band by carefully angling the three horn players and moving the light tree on their side of the stage onto the floor. We were ready for the first run through of the song. As the band ran down the song and Dan worked on his audio mix, I adjusted the lights to try to ensure every member of the eight-piece ensemble was lit adequately. Josh, the keyboard player, was in the back corner and hard for the camera to see, so I grabbed an incandescent work light and used it to illuminate the wall behind him. This added just enough depth so that he became more visible to the camera. Problem solved!
Thinking ahead to post-production, I knew one of the key challenges would be to seamlessly combine the video and audio recording of the song. Professional film and video teams rely on an electronic clapper system that sends an electronic pulse to all the recording devices being used on a shoot, thereby allowing easy synchronization in the post-production phase of the project. Staying with our DIY plans, I simply made up a paper cue sheet with the song title and take number written on it, then stepped on stage before each take. Erik and Ralph zoomed in on me while I verbally counted down to a handclap, which was recorded simultaneously on the audio and video recording devices in real time. We planned to use this handclap to synch up the two recordings later in post-production.
I had told the band that since we would be filming complete takes, if they made a significant mistake to go ahead and stop. Over the next hour, the band did four complete takes of the song, interspersed with a few false starts. After the first complete take, I asked the band to look and listen to what we were getting on video and audio, so that they wouldn’t be surprised later when the video was completed.
After a few suggestions on the balances between the various instruments and a discussion about whether more or less camera movement fit the mood of the song, we got back down to recording and completed takes two, three, and four. Dan was tweaking his mix and by the fourth take, he felt he had a workable balance for the stereo mix of the song.
Again, we asked the band to listen to take four and approve the mix. They also looked the video to ensure that they were happy with the results. I also listened carefully to the mix and spot-checked both of the video recordings. Everyone agreed: take four was the “keeper.” We began the process of tearing down the gear. Using a digital memory card reader, I actually started the post-production process by downloading the stereo audio mixes from the Zoom to my MacBook Pro computer as the band and crew packed up. Using the card reader, the download took less than 2 minutes for all the various 16-bit, 44.1 Hz audio takes we had recorded. By 4:45, we were loading our cars, shutting down the lights and locking the Plea for Peace Center.
Everyone was smiling as we drove away and I felt we had a very productive day. The real proof would come when we started the post-production process a few days later. To be continued…