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  • Ruth Simpson

Virtual voices

How I created a virtual choir for the METM21 Online translators' and editors' conference

A sigh of collective disappointment echoed around a selection of home offices in Europe and beyond in January 2021, when the members of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association found out that their highly awaited METM21 conference – originally planned to be held in San Sebastián – would take place online. No jolly off-METM dinners, no chatting with colleagues in between presentations, no lingering breakfasts over coffee and local delicacies. And no live choir performance. Having directed the METM choir in 2017, 2018 and 2019, I was eager to keep it going somehow, but an online format would certainly rule out singing together.

I did some research on virtual choirs, got in touch with Emma Goldsmith (Chair of MET) and suggested that we try producing an online choir video. She could not have been more supportive, and even encouraged me to get instrumentalists to join in too.

Here then is how I put together the virtual choir project for METM21 Online.

Step 1 – The right software

I watched three or four YouTube tutorials on how to create a virtual choir, and found out straight away that iMovie wasn’t going to cut the mustard. I was going to need something more sophisticated like Adobe Premier or Final Cut Pro. Being an Apple Macbook user, I downloaded a three-month free trial of FCP and set about learning how to crop, transform, create transitions, and so on.

Step 2 – Practice run

Drawing on the wonders of social media, I put out a call for participants to be guinea pigs in my trial run of a choir collaboration using the song Drunken Sailor. Sea shanties were all the rage in early 2021 and everyone knew the song.

I created a backing track in Garage Band using a basic drum track and some ukulele chords. I then put together a PDF with clear instructions on how people should film themselves and gave them a month to come back to me with their videos.

The project turned out well, but there were plenty of kinks I wanted to iron out for next time! Having learnt a lot about how FCP works, I started thinking about how I could improve on this experience for the upcoming METM21 project.

Step 3 – Choosing the track

Nobody ever feels totally comfortable filming themselves, so Emma and I decided on a track that at least everyone would know. The Beatles were an obvious choice, and Hey Jude has a nice variety of volume and intensity. The opportunity to ask people to dress up in 60s-style costumes couldn’t go to waste, so that was decided too.

Step 4 – Backup

While I wanted as much of the music in the video as possible to be played by MET members, I needed a full backing track so that people could sing and film themselves without worrying about going out of tune. So I invested in a professionally produced instrumental track and the sheet music to go with it. I chose an arrangement by Mark Brymer in three parts (soprano, alto and baritone) because we usually get plenty of women but only a few men.

In the end, I used the instrumental track in the final video too, after the first verse; only the introduction has us playing alone: Tim and Simon on piano, Emma on violin and Melissa and I on ukulele.

Step 5 – Synching

I needed to get everyone in synch too, so I recorded some instructions on the backing track: participants had to clap twice at a specific point so that I could line up their videos using the spectrogram created by their audio. No matter where a certain singer or instrument joined in, their two claps stood out clearly, so I could line everything up relatively easily.

Step 6 – Going live

METM21 attendees received their invitation to join the choir when they registered for the conference in July, and 15 September was the cutoff date for video submissions. The incoming flow was sluggish at first, with most sliding in right under the deadline. It was such a joy to see everyone and the effort they had made dressing up and singing into their phones or computers. It’s not easy to have the courage to do that, and I was amazed by their commitment to the theme! Karin and Francesca – who didn’t sing in their submissions – provided plenty of visual interest with dancing and yoga, right on theme!

Step 6 – Highlight search

When all the videos had come in and I had closed the Google Form for submissions, I shared the videos with choir member Melissa Ratti, who watched each one and sent me timestamps with highlights, places where people sang particularly well or acted/smiled/danced in a fun way.

Step 7 – Audio

I opened up Final Cut after that, brought in all the videos and then separated the audio from each video. Before I got cracking on the visuals, I uploaded all the audio tracks into Apple’s music editing software program, Garage Band. I synched them together with the backing track and the METM21 Online choir was born!

After listening to each audio part, I realized that some light editing and precise volume control would be needed, as well as some reverb and echo effects. The section with “Better, better, better, better” was the most difficult to edit, because the rhythm was extremely challenging and there was a huge variety of different interpretations!

Phrase endings were also tricky. As we were singing individually when we recorded our videos, we all ended our phrases at different times. The next time I do a virtual choir project, I'll make a video for participants to watch, so I can bring everyone off at the right time. As you'll see from the photo below, I cut each audio track in the same place to make sure that all the endings cut off together. Sometimes this involved slight fade-out of individual volume controls to avoid harsh sound cut-offs.

After about 6 or 7 hours of fine-tuning, adjusting and fiddling, I finally had my audio track. I ran it past Melissa and she OK-ed it too. At that point I never wanted to hear the song again, but I wasn't about to escape from it any time soon.

Step 8 – Designing the visuals

Going back to Final Cut Pro with my newly minted audio track, I set about making sure that everyone's mouths were synched. Then I needed to decide on how the visual should look. Black and white seemed to be a good idea to start with, to build interest and create some contrast with the really colourful ending I wanted to produce.

I also wanted to highlight individual people in turn, while keeping interest high. I had already picked out some singers for the solo parts at the beginning based on the quality of their voices, but those are the only videos used individually, all the other scenes feature at least two people. Obviously, it was important that the soloists were on screen while their voice part was being heard, so I made sure that each solo voice matched each individual face!

I brought colour into the video using the “Colorize” feature, creating a rainbow effect to transition from B&W to full colour. I also put a “Ken Burns” moving crop effect on this section, starting on one square and panning over until all the squares on the grid can be seen.

Step 9 – The green screens

Paul Appleyard and I both used green screens when creating our videos. That meant that I could use a “Keyer” effect in FCP and remove any background, a bit like a weather forecaster. Before the keyer effect, the green screen videos looked like this:

Step 10 – Fine tuning

This bit was by far the longest, and while I had a rudimentary structure for the video after about 15 hours of editing, the fine-tuning part (including the credits section) took at least that same time again. Sometimes people disappeared from the frame right at the end of the section, and I couldn’t work out why, but realized that it was because I’d had to re-synch slightly and one frame had been dropped. I had to zoom in on the video frame by frame to get each clip aligned absolutely perfectly. It was very painstaking work, but the eye catches so many slight differences that it needed to be done!

Step 11 – Reveal

I sent the video to Melissa and Emma for approval and after another few rounds of fine-tuning, it was ready to go.

Thank you so much to everyone who spent time finding 60s fancy dress, practising, and recording themselves. It wouldn't be the same without you!

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1 Comment

Jack Dumfries
Jack Dumfries
Aug 30, 2023

In your blog, you describe the steps to learning how to properly create virtual voices. But it's easier to make a video and explain everything in it. Here is a link to a program that will help you with that. It is MAC compatible.

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