A view from Behind the Scenes.
If you have ever watched a concert on the telly or online and was curious about how it is all done, read on 🙂
Like all professions, what is visible to the public is the tip of the iceberg. This wee missive sheds a little light on what lies beneath the surface for a lone videographer 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 🙂
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..
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 of the stage, cables can be passed through wee doors allowing access between the stage. Cables are then forwarded to ‘patch panels’. These allow you to reroute signals should the need arise. 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, I could then 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.
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. 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 was created and passed on to the video camera. Last but not least, all 8 channels routed to the software that was responsible for recording the concert audio.
“..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 🙂 This process can only be done once the rehearsals begin but have to continue during the concert. Keeping watch on how the levels are looking helps you avoid ‘clipping’ – an awful sound that you can do little to correct. The reverse is also true – sound levels that are too low run the risk of unwanted noise intruding.
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 is always best to ensure 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 🙂 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:-)