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A Videographer’s day

If you have ever watched a concert on the telly or online and was curious about how it is all done, read on πŸ™‚ Like all professions, what is visible to the public is the tip of the iceberg – so it is for the Videographer. This wee missive sheds a little light on the preparation that is done before the ‘Record’ button is pressed. Parts of the account border on ‘technical’ but it is all kept, hopefully, within the bounds of ‘normal’ human speech πŸ™‚

When I was offered the chance to produce a video recording of a classical concert by The Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, I jumped at it. The venue was to be The Apex – an excellent venue in the Suffolk town of Bury St. Edmunds. It was an exciting prospect – many times have I seen a production from the audience perspective but not since my school and college days, have I worked on a stage. To add to the fun, I would have to understand how to use the venue’s audio infrastructure – there were microphones to set up and their signals returned to the other end of the auditorium where the camera would be.

This is The Apex without a soul about – apart from me.

The Apex

It is a great venue. Being on my own in the auditorium was an experience in itself. All that space and the hushed quiet.

The reverie quickly dissolved. The thought of having to complete as much of the setup on the stage as possible before the orchestra arrived was enough to bring me back to the present! The main tasks were twofold. First, the initial placement of microphones – ‘initial’ because their final location could not be set until the orchestra’s seating arrangement has been fixed. Second, the routing of cables to the microphones. On each side the stage, cables can be passed through wee doors allowing access between the stage and ‘patch panels’ and from there, to the rear of the auditorium. As for the cables on the stage, trip hazards were identified and dealt with.

Once the players had arrived and had organised themselves on the stage, the slack provided at the mic end of the cables allowed me to position the mics and their stands appropriately. In this shot, the rehearsals had finished and the microphone on the left placed close to where the soloist, Benjamin Baker would stand. To its right, another can be seen – this one was to pick up the sound from the Cellos.

The Apex, Wandeirn River

Ideally, I would like to have positioned them closer to the instruments but this was to be a public performance. Positioning microphones to gain best sound quality had to be measured therefore, against the reasonable expectations of a paying audience.

Of the 8 recording channels I had available, six originated from microphones on the stage. A channel each for Violins, Horns, Percussion, Cello and Bass. One additional channel allowed me to record any announcements made over the auditorium’s PA system. The remaining channel was used for a synchronisation signal – an aid to quickly link the audio to the video when the time comes to edit the recording.

All the wires that carry the microphone signals pass to the rear of the hall. There, setting up the audio was reasonably straightforward. That said, there were a number steps in the process and each one could make a mess of your labours if not done properly. First, the feeds from the stage were connected to a seriously clever box of tricks. Under the control of a laptop, each microphone input from the stage was labelled, the sensitivity of each input adjusted, a stereo mix from all the inputs created and passed on to the video camera and last but not least, all 8 channels routed to the software that was be responsible for recording the concert audio.

Audio Recording

“..the sensitivity of each input adjusted..” What’s that all about? Well, the incoming signals need boosting to a useable level – a level that will vary depending on what instrument a microphone is close to. A cello usually needs more ‘oomph’ than a kettle-drum πŸ™‚ This process can only be done once the rehearsals begin but during the concert, a beady eye will need to keep watch on how the levels are looking. Too high and you have ‘clipping’ – an awful sound that you can do little to correct. Too low and you run into the risk of other unwanted noise.

You may have spotted two recordings are made.. “Why so?” you may ask. If the multitrack recording fails, then there will still be a stereo mix laid down with the video as the recording progresses. If all records OK, a higher quality mix can be created and then added to the video.

On the video front, the videographer has to take some essential steps. First, to set ‘White Balance’. Under stage lighting, video and stills cameras need to ‘know’ what white looks like. Once this is established, the recorded video has a better chance of representing colours faithfully. It can be possible to correct a degree of colour imbalance in the edit process but if what ‘goes in’ is as close to correct as possible, this makes the edit process that much simpler.

Next, a series of simple house-keeping measures: Make sure the video camera was fixed to a levelled tripod – sounds a minor thing but panning can look very strange if this simple step was not made πŸ™‚ Next, video recording settings checked and sound levels from that ‘clever box of tricks’ also checked.

So. There you have it. I hope this has given an interesting insight. From arrival to a state of readiness had taken about three hours. I had time to grab the stills camera and take some shots of the orchestra as they rehearsed. For me, this is a great time.. to be so close to the musicians as they rehearsed is a memorable experience. While I was on stage with them, the sound was all around me – something that does not happen when at the back of the auditorium.

There are shots of the event in one of the galleries on my Facebook page… you are welcome to check them out:-)

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Gig in the Garden

The Gig in the Garden


As fund raisers go, Gig in the Garden has to be amongst the best. The gig is held in the wilds of Suffolk near the town of Stowmarket. It had its first outing last year – a one-day event that was a stonking success. This year’s event was held over two days (July 12th and 13th, 2014) and despite a decidedly damp second day, the entire show was a blast.

Gig in the Garden is in aid of Action Medical Research – A Charity close to the heart of many of the movers and shakers of the Gig. The work done to make the event a smooth running success was immediately obvious when I arrived. Car parking was organised and marshalled, the redoubtable St. John’s Ambulance were visibly in attendance, high quality caterers (including a lady that served CRACKING coffee), room to camp if you wanted to stay over for both days and of course, the essential ‘rest’ err… ‘cubicles’ πŸ™‚

Most important of all, a remarkable array of musical genres lined up…

I arrived at around 1pm.. It was grey and overcast but with a promising forecast. By the end of the evening, there was to be a light show no one had expected.

Wandering River and Gig in the Garden


I was there to capture the mood of the day. Right from the ‘off’, the grey skies did not cast a shadow on an atmosphere that was light and easy. I watched folk find a space, lay out rugs and organise picnics. As more arrived, the open spaces gradually filled with folk content to sit on either picnic rugs or chairs of all shapes and sizes. Inevitably, the beer tent soon had folk propping it up… and since this year’s event provided room for camping, some had no concerns about drinking and driving – aa fact soon made evident πŸ™‚

Gig in the Garden

Photographing gigs is a favourite but this adds another element.. The daylight hours opens up opportunities for people-watching. Folk of all ages were there – from months old to ages old and it was great to watch them revel in the company around them and in the day’s entertainment.

As time went by, the clouds did indeed give way to the sun. Some folk had bubble makers and in the lazy breeze, bubbles large and small drifted about with many picnics in full swing. Gig in the Garden was well underway and filling the air with music.

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Bands and Stages


Two stages, one of them provided by the John Peel Centre, were hosting a seriously diverse range of bands.. it was so good to see they included (like last year) bands made up from folk in their teens as well as those on their 20’s and up. Some made a repeat (and very welcome) return – the redoubtable Underline the Sky, Polar Collective and Chasing Storms to name but a few.

Solo artists too featured large with Gion Stump (all the way from Switzerland no less) and Zak Macro to name but two. Double Acts also featured all with seriously talented guitarists and vocalists. Jo and Rob were on stage when I arrived and they were performing a fabulous version of Nancy Sinatra’s “these Boots are made for Walkin'”… I could not recall how many years it has been since hearing that one!

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Underline the Sky were as energetic as ever – and certainly, the decibels went up a notch or two judging by the extra pulses of air the stacks were throwing at me as I walked by them. I checked out one of their videos and I loved it πŸ™‚ A fabulous ballad with video covering a trip to Wales… with an interesting insight into their culinary skills..

Gigs in the Daylight Hours


I attended last year’s Gig in the Garden and not until I reviewed the shots I had taken, did I realise how different the atmosphere can be between daylight hours and after it gives way to the dark hours. A ‘conventionally’ timed gig gives the atmosphere a kick start. Not so for an event during daylight hours. Something else, beyond a well composed shot, has to replace what the darkness provides. I am, by no means, certain I know what that “something else” is but it is great fun trying different options in the processing.. Please do offer your own thoughts on the matter.

So darkness falls… and the time comes around for the headline act. The Bohemians. I had always been a little wary of tribute bands. Last year’s main billing was Ultimate Madness and they did much to banish any misgivings. So this year, my mind was a little more open to a tribute band that focused on all things Queen. Until I checked out their website, I had no idea how accomplished this band was. This will give you an idea…

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A wee while after Bohemians had started their set, I could see flashes in the sky.. In no time, I knew it was lightning and it was to be the beginning of one the best natural light shows I had seen for many a year. I had enough material by then so I thought a graceful exit was wise. All the wile I was packing up, the lightning was taking up more of the sky and becoming more frequent. Better still, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the current cover being performed with “thunderbolt and lighting, very,very frightening” coming over the the PA… I am not sure it could have been scripted better…

Soon after, I could hear the gig coming to a premature end and a wise decision it was too. The heavens opened and the storm passed right overhead.

That is what I call a good ending πŸ™‚

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Kathryn Tickell – Northumbrian Voices

I was attending the Apex for an unrelated purpose the night Kathryn Tickell was due to perform. To give the complete picture, I knew she was in concert on the night but a question I had raised about photography had gone unanswered and so I had assumed my offer had had not been received or it was not of interest.

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Well, I was there… and as the hour approached, I had finished the earlier task and could see members of the local organisers of the concert had begun to arrive. “Nothing ventured” I thought so I approached a member of the team and asked about photography. “Oh yes, please!” came the reply… I was surprised and seriously happy about the prospect of another gig.

I had, more in hope than anything else, brought the necessary gear with me so I was ready in plenty of time. I remembered there was some literature about the concert on a table in the foyer.. The performance had been given an evocative name: “Northumbrian Voices”. I was intrigued – enough to do a spot of digging to see what I could find on the net. Kathryn Tickell’s website added real substance to the title – there would be music combined with tales going back over three generations.

I went into the auditorium and looked at the stage. Places for 6 including, on the extreme right, an easy chair that seemed a little out of place.. Soon enough the concert organiser walked on and Kathryn Tickell was introduced. The first onto the stage however, was a tall man with long, flowing white hair… As it turned out, this was Kathryn’s father, Mike. Five others walked on and as Mike settled down onto the chair, the others launched into their first melody.

Of the five musicians, three were fiddle players (including Kathryn) one guitarist and one accordion player. Kathryn would alternate between fiddle and the Northumbrian Pipes – an instrument that produces a wonderfully soft sound and should not to be confused with the more strident sound of the pipes found north of the border…

Only a few days before, I had photographed Feast of Fiddles but while the fiddle featured prominently in both bands, the experience was very different. With FoF, there was an energy.. a sound that jazzed the blood. Here, the performance was altogether very different and that connected in a very different way. The melodies held all kinds of tempos and moods – uplifting in one moment and casting a more melancholic shade the next.

It was all beautifully tied together by the narrative. This was why Mike was there – to act as the story teller although all the band related elements of a tale from time to time. One in particular holds in my memory.. about the Kielder Valley. It is about the flooding of that place and how it affected the lives of the folk that lived and worked there. Beyond that, I’ll say no more – half the magic in the tale is how Kathryn relates it. The stories were of loss and hardship but also humour. All in perfect measure and I have to say that for a southerner at least, the native accent deepened the whole experience.

As for the photography, there was plenty of deep, deep shades of blue and red and bright yellow in the lighting that made post processing a challenge but I hope the results will speak for themselves.

If you want to find out more about Kathryn and her music: Kathryn Tickell

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Feast of Fiddles

How many times have you heard sayings like “Strange how things turn out”?

A Spot of Background

A few months back, Annya and I attended our first concert at the Apex. The band we were to see was Feast of Fiddles and right from the off, they grabbed your senses.. Their music spanned rock, folk and other genres and was crafted superbly to suit fiddle, guitar, sax, clarinet, keyboards and last but no means least, the melodeon.

There were faces in the lineup that were familiar.. One in particular struck a chord with a memory that was well shrouded by time.. Only when Hugh Crabtree, the founder (and “boss” as he is described on the band’s website) introduced a solo spot to be performed by Peter Knight, was the memory bowled forward – Steeleye Span. Then I managed to associate names to other faces in the line up..

Well, I had already found Feast of Fiddles a great band to follow but seeing musicians such as Peter Knight, Brian McNeill, Phil Beer and others, notched up my appreciation a couple more levels.

During the interval, I was surprised to see the band were enjoying a drink in the bar with the audience. I found the courage to strike up a conversation with one of the Fiddle players – Garry Blakeley. It soon became apparent we had something in common. Garry lives in Hastings and the town was part of my old stamping ground while I was living in Sussex. Much nattering about the area and then before I could chicken out, I brought up the subject of photographing the band. Gary suggested I contacted Hugh Crabtree and ask – the worst that could happen is he could say no.

So I did… and the ‘Man from Delmonte’ said yes πŸ™‚

The band were due to perform at The Cut in Halesworth on October 28th. That meant a busy 10-day period: Friday 19th will be a long day working Long Melford with the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra then a drive up to Cumbria, back on the 26th and the gig on the 28th. “London Busses” I cry – but with a HUGE smile on my face.

About a couple of weeks before the gig, the experience of photographing the Krar Collective popped into my head. Holding a camera sporting a 100-400 zoom makes for an arm that all but falls off by the end of the evening. So, a monopod is in order. I quickly bypassed the Β£300 beasties and settled on a Giotto monopod with a Manfrotto head. This gave compatibility with the quick-release shoes fitted to the camera gear. All for 60 quid – that’s more like it.

Arrival

Time does its thing and Sunday, 28th October rolls around. I leave home at mid-afternoon and arrive at The Cut an hour or so later. The band were already rehearsing and so I found a place where I could dump my stuff and make a start.

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What a privilege.. technicians rushing about doing their thing, the band rehearsing… and me..

The rehearsal ends with enough time to spare to transfer the photographs taken so far to the Mac… Definitely some good stuff there. The quality of the rehearsal shots give my confidence a boost prior to the main event. Looking at the shots, I am struck by the huge difference between this type of photography and what could be described as ‘main-stream’. Low light, constantly changing colour temperatures and an understandable ban on using flash. All things that you usually move heaven and earth to avoid. Thank heaven for digital SLR’s with low-noise sensors and ISO ratings that pass into the thousands πŸ™‚ That last bit may stray into geekery but essentially with high sensitivity, comes the risk of noise creeping in – a bit like visible ‘grain’ in the wet-film equivalent. While new DSLR’s are not noise free, its presence is subtle. One final point on this issue – my respect for the photographers that used (and perhaps still do) wet film for live performance work has gone up immensely.

The Gig

The audience had filed in and had settled into their seats. The band were introduced and they began the gig with a number that had the house rocking in no time. Getting about to photograph the gig was to be relatively easy. The Cut has a stage at floor level with a single, raked audience area. I could move under the seating area to get from one side of the auditorium to other without disturbing the audience. I could also get, discretely, to the upper level of the seating area so the next 3 hours see me walk what seemed like MILES πŸ™‚

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My attention would occasionally turn to the audience; the players could bring the house down one minute and hold the audience in quiet awe the next – particularly during the solo spots. These were a master stroke. Each of the players had their own style of play and having their time in the limelight allowed it to come to the fore.. It was great to experience it and from the perspective of someone recording the event, it was no less remarkable to see how the audience responded to the band during the gig. It was an odd experience – to be around the audience but not part of it.

As for the music itself, any comments are inevitably subjective. Suffice to say I was there to work but strewth, I’d have to be a cold, cold fish not to be wrapped up by some of the melodies they played.

Returning to photographing the event, the monopod was a life saver – or at the very least, an ARM saver. I could not recommend such a beast strongly enough to any one that needs to improve on hand-held but where a tripod would be impractical.. Drop me a line if you want to know more about the one I used…

I had the ‘nod’ to use the images a couple of days ago.. So if you have seen them, I hope they give an idea of what this fine band are all about.

Click on Feast of Fiddles to find out more about the band.

If you would care to leave your own comment, please do – using the space below…

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Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra – Revisited

Work on the video record for the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra’s inaugural performance is now all but complete.

Phew!

The big day was 3 months ago but the memory of it is as fresh as a daisy.. Working on the video was a huge challenge due to a number of factors.. First, the available light when recording the performances. The stage was under the tower whereas I was just in front of the west door of the Cathedral – a good 40 metres distant. That good ol’ inverse-square law meant the camera was receiving a fraction of the light that was illuminating the orchestra. There was not much I could do about this apart from making sure all the optics were clean! Those that wear spectacles appreciate the difference between clean and grubby lenses πŸ™‚

The second challenge could have been the sound… I used a radio link to send the sound from the mixing desk to the camera and with all that heavy duty masonry about, I was concerned the link may not be reliable. As things turned out, at no time did the link fail… Thank you MIPRO πŸ™‚

Reliable sound was not left to chance, however. I also had a recording deck that had its own link to the mixer.. this allowed me to make a separate recording of the performances. There was some clipping – a French Horn was right in line with one of the microphones. As unfortunate as this was, it was only an issue during some passages of the horn solo. Considering there was no opportunity to perform any sound balancing on the night, I was pleased with the quality of the sound.

The third challenge were the rehearsal clips… All these were recorded with the camera, hand-held. Camera shake was superbly dealt with using Adobe After Effects stabilisation facility. This video will give you an idea…


“All but complete”.. What remains is for some 30 second selections to be made from each of the performances. These will be used to promote the SPO.

I should make it clear that no video of the concert will be made available due to performance rights issues.

The next performance is scheduled for October.. It looks as though my services are required – I most certainly hope so πŸ™‚ I learned so much working on this project.. Both in terms of the tools that are used to record such an event but no less important, an understanding of how fulfilling it is to be part of such a venture as the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra.

Their website can be found here: http://www.suffolkphil.org/
Also, ITN reported on the event: http://www.itv.com/news/anglia/2012-05-25/a-philharmonic-orchestra-for-suffolk/

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Still Small Voice – A true tale of courage and faith

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To work with Danusia is NEVER to have a dull moment. It was a real pleasure to receive her call, some while back, when she asked if I would like to contribute to her latest effort – “Still Small Voice”. The title alone was enough to guarantee a rapid “Oh, yes” by way of a reply.

The play centres about one woman’s determination (Margaret Kemp) to see the Quaker Meeting House in Bury St. Edmunds protected against the forces that would tear it down and once its future was assured, to see it loved once again…

I was on board to provide photography and, on the dress rehearsal, a video record of the play. It was a bit of a mad rush to get all set up for the video work. There was little room for the gear I had brought but these wee obstacles were overcome and I settled down in readiness for the dress rehearsal to begin. Within 5 minutes of the play commencing, I had a real challenge on my hands. To concentrate on operating the camera was a task demanding my full attention… There was, however, a constant temptation to be drawn into the story that was unfolding before me and this was how it was to be for entire duration of the play.

The set was simple in its layout with seating for the audience arranged all around the central stage area. Just a few props were needed; a table and a few chairs. For those of you that may be curious about the umbrella in one of the stills, full marks for the great ingenuity used to highlight the sorry state of the Meeting house during the period the play was set – in particular, the leaking roof.

To my delight, I was able to see it as a member of the audience so I was able to give it the attention it deserved. The fact this is a play based on the very real character of Margaret Kemp and was performed in the building she was so passionate and instrumental in saving makes Danusia’s work all the more endearing and profound.

As for the cast and crew, well, it was a pleasure to see them perform their magic…

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