DIY Performance Video Part 1: Pre-Production and the Shoot

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Check out this DIY performance video – the result of our two-part article – featuring Sugar Water Purple performing "Before This Began."

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.

Sugar Water Purple and crew at the DIY video shoot.

Pre-Production
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.

Yamaha MG 16/4 sound board used for the mix.

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.

Zoom H4n digital audio recorder used to record the stereo audio tracks.

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:

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 Shoot
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.

The Canon HF 200 and Velbon 607 fluid panhead tripod.

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.

The Canon FS 200 camera with its view of the stage during set up.

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.

Although we were limited to 8 mic and 2 line inputs, Dan was able to craft a clean audio mix that the band loved.

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…

Story Links
Canon FS 200 video camera
Canon Vixia HF 200 video camera
Velbon 607 Mini-Pro Fluid Panhead Tripod
Zoom H4n audio recorder
Plea for Peace Center

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28 thoughts on “DIY Performance Video Part 1: Pre-Production and the Shoot

  1. followed similar steps 2 years ago. here is a sample of our DIY http://bit.ly/bYjJt4

    had a stationary DV camera we hung from the ceiling and had a roaming HI 8 for the closer shots. double miked all instruments – one for live mix, the other for recorded tracks direct to CUBASE. mixed the dude down and synced to vid.

    great posts (1 and 2) looking forward to 3. comments welcome
    shane – ii ton

  2. Hey there,

    This is the author of this story, Keith, checking back in. I love all the comments this project has generated from you guys. The general concensus seems to be most readers found it helpful.

    Based on some of the comments in response to this first part of the DIY Music Performance Video article (part 2 is just about to go up on Echoes…), I wanted to recap a few decisions we made in the pre-production process that came up in the reader comments to this part of the story. One reader pointed out that we used a stationary camera position for the 5:00+ song and suggested that having multiple cameras would have offered more variety and made the video more exciting. While this is true, a multi-camera shoot would have required more time and editing than our project allowed for. The purpose of the Sugar Water Purple performance video was to see what type of quality we could get sticking to a simple, one-camera, one complete take DIY approach.

    Another reader questioned why we bothered to record the audio to a separate device, instead of simply taking the audio mixing board output and plugging it directly into the cameras. While this is certainly an option, the audio recording capabilities of most consumer-grade video cameras do not offer the type of headroom that will make for good audio reproduction. One simply has to look at the tens of thousands of self-made performance videos on YouTube where this approach was tried to hear poorly balanced or distorted audio tracks.

    Alternately, using the camera’s on-board microphone rarely results in a decent audio track for a full band. If you are a solo performer with acoustic guitar and vocal you might get a decent result using the camera’s on-board mic, but using higher quality external mics and a separate audio recorder will always yield a better sounding audio track for a band. That’s why we chose to do a separate live audio mix to the Zoom recorder and match the audio and video recordings up in post-production. While we didn’t have quite as much control or the effects processing available on a studio recording of the song, the live mix came out clean and very representative of what the band actually sounds like live. This was one of the goals that the band was looking for on this project, to capture what they sounded and looked like in a live setting. Lip-syncing to a studio recording is another option that can work well, depending on the goal of your own DIY video project.

  3. Tk,That would certainly make the sync easier, but by having separate audio in the first place, any post-production (compression, EQ, verb, etc.) is made considerably simpler. Also, if the band was performing with a click in the drummer’s ear (no mention if that was the case here), you wouldn’t even be limited to the audio track that accompanied the particular video take. In other words, separating the audio and video (as long as there is a means to synchronize them later – and the handclap method is ingenious, by the way) would give you a lot more flexibility in the end. Not to mention that most camcorders will not easily deal with the same dynamic range that a dedicated audio recorder will…
    +1

  4. I was about to do a video performance of my music but I figured I would just use the music I recorded in the studio and bypass anything that might not be happening with live sound. Unless I was on an actual pre-wired and miked soundstage then of course I wouldn’t mind live recording the sound but it seems that would be the clean and simple.

  5. Great artical enjoyed it thoroughly. As a rule we try to video every performance, usually the sound quality is not up to par. We have a few videos on youtube that were recorded with multiple cameras. Outstanding-found performance was done in 2006 for the now defunked Darvey Trayler talent show of Orange County. Originally done in color, but now in B&W with screaming Beatle fans edited by our former guitarist Scottiedog Miller.(nice job Scottiedog) Good comment from TK, about plugging directly onto the camera! We haven’t done that yet, but we soon will.

  6. I see no need for the audio recorder. Run the stereo audio output of the board to the audio inputs of the cameras. This would also solve the synch problem.

    1. Tk,
      That would certainly make the sync easier, but by having separate audio in the first place, any post-production (compression, EQ, verb, etc.) is made considerably simpler. Also, if the band was performing with a click in the drummer’s ear (no mention if that was the case here), you wouldn’t even be limited to the audio track that accompanied the particular video take. In other words, separating the audio and video (as long as there is a means to synchronize them later – and the handclap method is ingenious, by the way) would give you a lot more flexibility in the end. Not to mention that most camcorders will not easily deal with the same dynamic range that a dedicated audio recorder will…

  7. Why would you shoot live sound for a music video? For a music video that is supposed to show the “best performance” you would want to use the track from the mastered CD and sync in post. This may be the DIY approach, but in no means is it professional. What you record in a club may not sound the same as if it were recorded in a professional recording studio. You’d be better off finding a good producer at a low cost.

  8. Kuddos to all of you at Dismakers for presenting such interesting (teaching) techniques ) most needed for all in the BIZ of producing MUSIC can learn from….Keep up the good work, we need all the info presented..
    Best from Sylvia

  9. a lot of helpful stuff in here especially for a diy band, we’ve done music videos but never with a live audio mix…, it would be interesting to do one, i didn’t know about the pulse that is used in a bigger production, keep posting stuff about diy…………rock on and punk out……..The Transmissions………..

  10. Hi.
    I really enjoyed reading and learning from this article! Thank you so much for sharing this. I have wanted to find out what’s really involved in the making of a video, and didn’t realize that it could be done in such a short period of time, for very little money. Very impressive! I’m going to learn from this and apply it to my own video shoot. I would have loved to see a “Pre-production” checklist, but I will make up my own, and extract it from this article.
    I’ll be looking forward to getting the next article.
    Cheers,
    Bill bogaardt

    1. I’ll Comment on your video! For a low budget piece its very good. The only kibitz I would have is the low camera angle on the male singer got a bit stale because of the stationary camera. I kept wanting the camera to pan or zoom or cut to another angle. But even that was minor it just “felt” like more should happen there. But the video held my interest and that is the important part.

      Not sure if the ‘Camera needs to move more” issue is because most videos today rarely use long stationary shots anymore. Probably due to the availability in the professional market of hand held steady cams which require less people to run as opposed to Chapman crane/camera systems I would guess. In other words we are all programmed to get the camera moving and use more and more edits/angles because that is what is happening more and more on the Video channels.

  11. Since you already had two cameras, why not use a vid switcher and switch back and forth between two different angles, that would’ve added a much more professional appearance to the video for very little extra money/effort. But it still looks nice, just a little boring with the one camera.

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