It's live, Jim — but not as we know it. We look at how the rise of affordable, portable gear has enabled a new approach to music-video making.
When music videos first became popular in the early 1980s, I was 12 years old. In some ways, I was the demographic for early MTV: a teenage girl with posters of sexy guitar players and a monster collection of 45s and 'cassingles' (cassette singles). But before long, I became a music-video elitist, and what bothered me most about music videos was that they were lip-sync'ed. As a classically trained pianist, I loved performing and watching good performances. I felt somehow robbed of a better music-video experience. To make matters worse (or better), in the late '80s I was among the first students in a newly emerging university major called Audio Technology. Through my training, I felt vindicated: I knew that videos didn't have to be lip-sync'ed — and I had the technical knowledge to prove it, though I didn't get the chance to do so until 2003.
I wasn't alone. Over the last decade, amateur and professional musicians and film-makers have been striving to create musical events that are real and tangible. Quite a few such videos appear on YouTube, and the high number of views may indicate that this novel approach is catching on with viewers. This article follows the production process of three such music videos. These productions are examples of how artists and producers are looking to combine the immediacy of a live performance with original and striking video content that goes far beyond conventional concert footage. Happily, today's relatively inexpensive and portable technology allows musicians and producers to experiment in some really creative ways.
I coined the term 'Music Video Vérité' to define an emerging style of music-video production. Instead of lip-sync'ing, musicians perform in real time as the performance is filmed, and audio from each take is recorded to multitrack and edited along with the final video, even if the filming locations change. In tribute to cinema vérité (and, specifically, the rules of the Dogme 95 movement), I use the term 'vérité' because the process of making and recording music is not hidden from the viewer. The musicians are filmed wearing headphones, and the microphones are visible. In a music-video vérité production, the goal is to capture the musical performance as the cameras roll.
Because of the experimental nature of this type of production, the methods aren't standardised. However, two points of similarity between most productions are, firstly, the use of headphones and, secondly, close-miking.
I first got to put my own ideas into practice in the making of the Future Jazz Project video 'Give Them What They Want'.
This was a three-camera shoot done in three locations: a park, a nightclub, and a classroom. For each shoot, the audio was recorded to a Tascam MX2424 multitrack recorder and then transferred to Pro Tools for post-production. Performers wore headsets, and each instrument was close-miked with consistent placement from one location to the next. A click track was used, not only for the benefit of the musicians, but for that of the video editor (David Wruck) and audio post-production editor (myself) who had to keep sync from one location and one take to the next. The result was a complete, seamless audio track that was cut alongside the video. The click track was recorded live using a Yamaha HR16 drum machine, so that the drummer could create a click that was more interesting than the usual quarter-notes. However, this resulted in problems because the MIDI clock would drift, resulting in tempo variations from one take to the next, and even noticeable drift over the course of three minutes.
The audio from the drum machine was sent to the recording console and fed to the cameras (all of them) in the right channel. The live audio was sent to the cameras' left channel. The video editor, who was also a musician, could use the drum-machine-click-track waveform on the right channel to visually spot where to line up the video edit, while also maintaining the musical lines with the left channel. Afterwards, the click and scratch track were muted in audio post-production.
During audio post-production, EQ automation was performed on some tracks. For example, the sound of the kick drum varied greatly between the classroom and the outdoor scene, resulting in the need for some resonances to be cut in the classroom takes. Another challenge was handling the improvisation done by the performers; as this song had its roots in jazz performance, the melody line on the piano or bass would change from one take to the next. The intercutting between the three cameras at each location allowed me to cut away from the soloist so that I could continue melody lines across the video edit.
Playing For Change's music-video vérité 'Stand By Me' made the organisation famous, and has been viewed over 55 million times since it was uploaded to YouTube in 2006. Mark Johnson was the audio engineer: "It's the only way to unite so many cultures, so many musicians playing on the same track around the world. You would have never been able to put all these people together: you have to show up to find these great musicians all over the world. So you show up and you record them and film them in their natural environment where they're inspired to play, and you connect them all together so people get to see the human race. They get to see a window into the world and you get a new style of music.”
The video starts with a guitar player (the late Roger Ridley) playing on a street in Santa Monica. He is the only performer without headphones, since he laid down his track first. The mic, stand and cable are prominently placed in the shot. In order to drive home the fact that this is a 'live' recording, the engineers are also featured in the video. As Ridley plays, we then see 'Washboard Chaz' overdubbing his part to Ridley's guitar — but he is in New Orleans, Louisiana. 'Washboard' is playing with headphones, and again, all the paraphernalia of recording is visible. One by one, other performers are filmed laying the parts on top of the previous track, and all the while the viewer is listening to the song — fully aware that the guitar is in California, the washboard is in New Orleans, the singer (Clarence Bekker) is in Amsterdam, and the Twin Eagle Drum Group are playing in New Mexico.
Mark has been lucky; he doesn't do any backing up "in the cloud”, he just totes around a hard drive. He is still using the same rig that he used in 2006 to record the videos for Playing For Change: Schoeps CMC5 microphone bodies, plus various Schoeps hypercardioid capsules including the MK4, and Grace Lunatec battery-powered mic pres which feature a built-in clock. He uses an Avid Mbox Pro with Pro Tools, which allows him a total of six inputs (four analogue plus stereo S/PDIF) from the Grace pres. In order to achieve the necessary portability, Mickey Hoolihan of Wind Over The Earth in Boulder, Colorado (who provided much of the equipment for the shoot) says that the 'Stand By Me' crew used a car battery with a converter for power, and adds that Mark used his iPhone to show performers clips of the musicians who laid down each previous track.
So how did each performer hear the people who had recorded before them? "We just gave them headphones and provided them a headphone mix from Pro Tools,” says Mark. "Every musician just hears who [played] before them.” Mark simply claps his hands in order to sync up all the cameras. He does not walk into the video frame; instead, he does the clap off-camera and then uses the camera audio to line up the audio in post-production. All of the audio is recorded at 48kHz, 24-bit.
Like most of those making music-video vérité, the aim of Playing For Change's team was to convey the immediacy of musical performance in a unique way, outside of a concert setting. Mark feels that "if you can mix together live audio and live video, to me that's always been the most powerful tool. If you can see the emotion and hear the emotion, then you're being affected on a deeper level. And in order to show people all of these different musicians and cultures and parts of the world, it was really important to add the video part to what we're doing. As for YouTube, it takes out all of the filters. You can make art and immediately reach an audience with nothing in between. You create it, they watch it — and that, to me, is the most direct form of communication.”
Nyle Emerson's production of Lil' Wayne's 'Let The Beat Build' ups the ante considerably compared to most music-video vérité: what you see is a single live performance, shot and recorded in a single take on one camera. The video was a class project made on a $2000 budget, with some support from a production company called Last Pictures, and has earned over 800,000 YouTube hits already.
The music begins with a very animated instructor lecturing in front of students in a hybrid control room/classroom. A young woman wearing headphones begins to sing as another woman snaps her fingers and joins her by echoing the melody line. Nyle then begins to rap into a handheld microphone, and from there, dances into the studio. The camera begins an endless pan, gradually revealing an ever-growing group of musicians including horns, strings, drums and banjo — all playing their parts live.
Engineers Mykael Alexander and Katie Buchanan reveal some of the production techniques used in the video. Katie: ”As for the concept of the video, that was really all Nyle. In fact, for a while during pre-production everyone — and I mean everyone that was on board at the time: the band, the other engineer, the other producer, and myself — told him he was crazy, and tried to convince him to track it beforehand. Once the production company came on (the wonderful Last Pictures) and convinced us that the filming aspect was possible, we just set our attention on actually recording the thing.
"Personally, I've always been a fan of live band recordings. And with the industry the way it is, with the big studios going out of business, DIY becoming the norm and budgets dwindling, that style of recording is not something you really get to do a whole lot. Especially not in New York, where we're all based, for independent artists. But doing everything live, including strings and horns, is really kind of insane.”
As for synchronisation, according to Katie, a clapstick was used, but once the drummer counts off there isn't a click track: "The drummer counted off, and that feed was given to the first vocalist. The trick was the transition from the control room to the live room, since we had no way to continue the feed while they were walking. So the first vocalist simply kept time by snapping. Luckily all our musicians were good enough that everyone was still together by the time we go into the live room.”
There was also no sync between the camera and the recording equipment — an API Vision console and a total of 36 tracks going into Avid 192 interfaces. The only DI'd instrument was the guitar. All of the instruments were spot-miked, and amazingly, there were no noticeable phase issues, despite having the film crew move microphones on the fly to capture the singers as they followed Nyle.
Choreography was another concern, as Katie explains, "We only had one walk-through/rehearsal prior to filming, and not all the musicians were there. So that was an issue. Once we got through the first couple takes, which were really more practice runs than anything, it was mostly either the music was great and it looked awful, or the shot was great and the music wasn't there. So there was a lot of back and forth between the director and myself. We'd each want to call 'Cut!' for different reasons, but it was an interesting dynamic that I don't think you see often. Ultimately, he was the director, so it was his call. Luckily, we both trusted the other so there weren't any arguments. Other than that, keeping 20-30 people quiet and hidden was not a fun task.”
Mykael recalls being against doing everything in one take, and he only had four hours of studio time for post-production. Because this was a class project, the deadline was very real! Things eventually fell into place, and the artist's original intention was realised to great acclaim.
With the technology and skills we have today, producing music-video vérité is becoming more and more practical, especially for audio engineers. If the producer, director, and video and audio crew can be convinced that this type of immediate connection with the audience is desirable, then the production is relatively simple. The most important factors are close-miking and other techniques to reduce crosstalk or bleed, careful planning (especially if improvising is involved) and the use of clicks or other means of synchronising audio and video.
If you'd like to see more, I would recommend looking up the band Pomplamoose's YouTube Channel (www.youtube.com/user/PomplamooseMusic) or that of singer-songwriter Fionn Regan ('Be Good Or Be Gone'). If you enter the term 'multitrack' in the YouTube search field, you will get some interesting renditions of Journey and Queen songs sung by amateur solo artists who tile video and audio tracks together into a 'video multitrack' performance. Eric Whitacre's 'virtual choirs' are also powerful experiences. My personal hope is that there will continue to be a demand for capturing and delivering the audio and video in the highest quality possible (read: high definition!), making the connection with the viewer even more tangible and real.