No, it’s not about Blue Peter making things but about the fascinating way twenty-plus individual singers, recording themselves singing alone at home during lockdown, become a very good sounding virtual choir via the wonders of technology! Now I’m not going to blind you with technology but I want to share with you my amazement of the process that begins in church with me recording a hymn on the organ and culminating in the four-part harmony church choir singing the hymn at our services on a webcast or in church for a Sunday/Wednesday service with no choir physically present and no organ being played!!
If you have read my choir notes during lockdown, you will know that the choir has been very busy recording several virtual hymns and anthems for Father Will and Revd Linda to use on their webcam services and these have been well received. I was delighted when the virtual choir featured on services from the cathedral, particularly during the recent ordination. Dr Emma Gibbins, Director of Music at Newport Cathedral, was on furlough until 1st July and could not work in any way with the cathedral choir, so our pieces filled the gap!
That we have achieved this virtual success is down to the skills and enthusiasm of Canon David Neale, who is the technology guru within the Diocese of Monmouth and responsible for the live streaming of important services, such as the Enthronement of Bishop Cherry, and the weekly webcast services from the Bishop’s home at Bishopstow and the Cathedral. When we first began this process, David spoke to me regularly in a language that I really did not fully understand but I have recently spent two hours with him at the Cathedral watching what he does to achieve the end result, and now understand what he was talking about. What came across to me was David’s skill and enthusiasm but I learned that he has tremendous patience in ensuring the end result is as near a live ‘performance’ as he can make twenty plus individual recordings sound.
So……I record a hymn (for example) on the organ in church and have been greatly helped by Lloyd Murray, chorister Lily’s dad, recording this in stereo and then adding Lily’s voice singing the hymn to the organ at a later date. This is necessary for all choir members to be able to tune into the tune and accompaniment. Lloyd then sends me, via email, the recording of the organ and Lily which I then forward to those members of the choir who wish to be involved in the recording. I also have to send them all the music and words needed for them to record their individual voice. This is stage 1.
Stage 2 is when the choristers at home print out the words and instructions from me about timing and dynamics etc and then record themselves (using headphones to listen) singing the hymn to the recording of the organ and Lily singing. Various ways of recording themselves have been used by the choir, on phones and iPads!! They then send their individual recordings to David and then the fun of Stage 3 begins!! Almost without exception, choristers have been concerned about their recordings; listening to your individual solo recording without the organ is a salutary experience!! I know how everyone felt because I felt exactly the same listening to my own recordings!!
Stage 3 is where David’s expertise, patience and super equipment comes into play. David has to download all the individual tracks including the organ track onto his computer and then his patience is tested to ‘my’ limits!! Every track has to be lined up so that we all sing the same notes and words at the same time, any singing mistakes (not many!!) are deleted even if only one note or one bar (clever!!), sound levels and dynamics are adjusted for each individual track and then the whole thing is put together for a first listening.
Stage 4 is the fun bit (I thought!!) when David ‘moves’ the choir tracks individually into concert formation ie two rows, trebles and sopranos in the front then altos, tenors and basses in the back row and he can place everyone as we require to get a balanced sound. This stage I found fascinating as, at last, I realised what David had been saying to me before I watched him in action!! I could actually ‘see’ choir members, in their sections, stood looking at me and singing, all in a virtual setting!! Then David added some reverb by ‘drawing in’ the size of the building so the sound would be as near to us actually singing in St John’s. What a difference this stage made to our singing as a choir.
Once David was satisfied with his production of the hymn, it was up to me to give a final thumbs-up to the recording before it was sent to the clergy and choir members for them to use in services or just to listen to the choir and pretend we were together once again.
If you do listen to any of our eight recordings (three short anthems and five hymns) I hope you enjoy the virtual choir but please take consider the work, effort and the time that has gone into making one recording of a hymn, that probably lasts for two to three minutes only. It amounts to hours of time given by me, choir members, Lloyd Murray and Canon David Neale. I cannot actually quantify the time involved but believe me when I say we are looking at probably 30-40 hours for one recording as a conservative estimate, the bulk of this time being given so freely by David, who does enjoy what he does so well!!
I hope, if you have managed to read to the end of this article, I have not bored you rigid but that you have a little insight into how we have tried and hopefully managed to hold together the wonderful choir members of St John’s during these unprecedented times. We can’t wait to get back but in the meantime, I hope that everyone who listens to the St John’s Virtual Choir enjoys what they hear.
August 2020 (during the Covid-19 lockdown)