In a first-person account, Palo Alto Weekly freelance writer Janet Silver Ghent shares her experience with recording vocals for a virtual choir. This story is part of a larger article on local choral groups, which can be found here.
With the voice of Aurora Singers conductor Dawn Reyen in my ear, coming through my iPhone, and an Audacity app on my computer, I attempted to record a relatively easy song, an American traditional called "Over My Head." Easy for someone else, but not for me. After four nasal probes for COVID-19 — one inconclusive, one positive and two negative — my sinuses and nasal passages rebelled. My voice squeaked, and my breath control was pathetic. I ran out of air at the end of each phrase, and instead of "Over my head I hear music in the air," what came out sounded like mucus in the air.
I recorded the piece five, six, seven, eight times, never satisfied, and then dispatched a recording with an apology. I felt exposed; I knew somebody would hear my naked voice and gasp.
In a chorus, I'm a blend, not a soloist, and listening to a recording of my solo voice came as a shock. That said, even soloists are not always happy with their first attempts, or even their fifth or sixth.
"It took me three hours to get a good final video and audio recording of 'Sunshine in My Soul,'" said Aurora president Cynthia Mahood Levin, a first soprano with professional training. "I found issues with each of my early recordings. It was also hard to get the right setup, with a good background for the video, favorable lighting, and good sound quality and volume level. My husband had to hold up a lamp to illuminate me properly and avoid shadows. I ended up using two different iPhones — one to listen to and one to record on. It was a lot of trial and error. But, in the end, it felt incredibly satisfying to get a final recording that I was happy with, though, of course, it was not perfect."
As for me, I had attempted to record "Sunshine in My Soul," but in the throes of rhinitis, I gave it a rest. However, the final piece is lovely, thanks to the work of Reyen and three Aurora Singers who volunteered their time: producer John Reed, graphics designer Zana Vartanian and audio production engineer Eitan Novotny.
Vartanian, who spent about 10 to 15 hours putting together the video for "Sunshine," said one challenge was making it look as if "the singers' mouths move as if they're singing simultaneously." She used After Effects, an animation program from Adobe. "Since each singer started with a series of claps, I could see a waveform display for each singer. I lined them all up so the claps were timed together." The result is that the words, and the mouths, are synchronized.
For Novotny, transforming more than 30 separate recordings into a virtual choral piece took an estimated 15 to 20 hours on "Sunshine" and another 10 on "Over My Head."
"As you might imagine, when we're singing together, we have a natural feedback loop of listening to each other that keeps us in tune. That does not work when we're alone, so if you sing 15 cents sharp (a fraction over pitch), and someone else sings 10 cents flat (a fraction under), it's not going to blend well," he said.
"Also, absent a conductor waving their arms in front of us and many hours of rehearsal, many of us cannot get the rhythms accurately enough for me to sync the tracks."
Using a product called Melodyne, from the Celemony company, he said, "I can edit everyone's notes both in tone, vibrato and time. I can move notes around, and make everything line up."
So my foreshortened chords and slurred words?
"I fixed everything," Novotny said. "I made you sound good. Besides, every voice helped to make the final piece sound good."
He was right.