Recording A Worship Song
Hello! My name’s Ben, and I’m the technical director for Willow’s junior high ministry, Elevate. I’m also a musician and a DIY recording enthusiast!
As we all seek to facilitate worship in this season, our technology is presenting us with new challenges and new opportunities. There are a lot of different ways you can record a video of yourself playing music. If you don’t know where to start, you are the audience for this post! The following are some tips and thoughts about producing simple, self-shot videos of you or others making music.
In this post we will focus on the following:
- Keep the process practical and simple (you might be repeating this process weekly)
- Minimize distractions for worshipers (clear audio; solid video techniques; authentic presentation. Not making a music video or studio album)
- Keep things low budget (self-explanatory)
The following are some low-cost, DIY, get-it-done ideas about the basic fundamentals of self-recording music and video.
Also, I will be mentioning a product or two as examples of options; these are not endorsements or indicative of any affiliations.
THINGS TO CONSIDER FIRST
This post is specifically about videos with music; because of that, most of this has to do with setting yourself up for success when syncing those two elements up. Before we get into recording the music, be sure to check out these posts about mics, video in general, and lighting for video , as well as the gear section on the forums.
Here you’ll find some practical information about how to approach these topics!
Thoughts on Authenticity
Something to consider in all of this is authenticity: how are we presenting ourselves when we are making this online content? People get that we are all in similar situations, and sometimes a simpler approach can communicate solidarity and community. For example, you could go the music video route and record and produce audio in a completely separate process, adding video of yourself, and performing to the track later on. This could definitely yield the most professional results, as you could approach the audio and video aspects separately and make each as clean and appealing as possible. On the flip side, this process will likely take more time, and more importantly, it could be distracting: if anything feels “off” between the sound and visuals to the viewer, they’ll catch on that there’s a bit of a karaoke situation going on. At best, this can be annoying; worse than that, it may come off as overly manufactured or inauthentic. This isn’t to criticize any who have been pursuing this route; it’s a legitimate way to address other distractions, such as not being able to find a place or setup that is conducive to recording audio and video simultaneously. Both the approach of recording music and video separately and capturing it all at once are valid and each has its strengths and weaknesses. In this post, we’ll be assuming that we are recording audio and video at the same time in the spirit of keeping things simple and direct.
Fixed Media Video Instead of Live Conference Call Worship
The delays and inconsistencies of video conferencing makes playing music together across different webcams essentially impossible. And just as with anything over video conferencing, there will be a lot of quality compromises when compared to shooting, editing, and posting a “fixed media” video online. For that reason, “live” music over video conferencing is not advisable unless you’re making music alone (i.e. from one camera in the conference call) and in a simple manner.
Choosing a Space for Audio Recording
When approaching the video recording process, you’re going to want to pick a location in your space that is quiet and dry (i.e., no loud ambient sounds, no big echo or reverb). Acoustic panels can go a long way towards improving a space, but they are often pricey. Hanging blankets off screen can be an effective DIY approach to absorbing your sound and keep it from reflecting off of walls. You may not have to make many, or any, adjustments to your space to improve the sound; in this DIY home situation, the main thing to avoid is a very obvious bounce-back or strange coloration of your voice that would distract or get in the way of clear communication (due to speaking into a wall, etc.). Of course, recording in a walk-in closet is the quintessential DIY vocal booth… but you probably don’t want to shoot your videos there for visual reasons! In the spirit of authenticity, perhaps it is best to shoot for “serviceable” rather than “ideal” audio situations.
One of the simplest ways to record yourself leading worship is to shoot video of yourself with your phone. If you have a newer phone with a good rear camera and HD capabilities, using a camera tripod or tripod attachment (or a DIY equivalent) to set up your phone (landscape, of course) is a viable approach to getting a solid HD image. And of course, if you have a DSLR, a webcam, or another HD camera solution, you likely have even better approaches available to you.
Regardless of how you choose to shoot your video, you’ll probably want to record audio with a separate device alongside your camera, as opposed to just using whatever sound your camera records. Your phone or camera mic may not capture a very clean recording, and in using a single mic, you will have little control over the balance of simultaneous sounds later in editing (e.g., if you are singing and playing an instrument at the same time). Better audio results will come from treating the audio from your video file as scratch audio (for reference for editing) while recording the audio you intend to hear in your final product via different equipment. Here, we’ll assume that the ultimate destination for your recordings is a computer. Our objective, then, is to record audio into software on the computer, clean it up, and bring it into video editing software to be synced up with your footage. Once we reach that point, we can mute the camera audio in the timeline, and our final result will be video married with new and improved audio.
CONNECTING MICS TO A COMPUTER
In order to plug an instrument or vocal mic into your computer and make the leap from analog to digital, you will need some sort of converting device.
- USB microphones are built with this in mind (like the ever-popular Blue Yeti USB condenser mics, which are solid for the cost). This approach may be ideal for some situations. There are, however, drawbacks, such as the possibility of lower quality connections (in cheaper makes and models) and the fact that one mic takes up one of your USB connections. This also doesn’t help you plug in instruments.
- Digital audio interfaces consolidate multiple XLR and instrument cable inputs into a single USB connection, and they give you tactile control with gain knobs, line/inst. switches, phantom power, etc. A (relatively) cheap and reliable option is the Focusrite Scarlett series. The 2i2 gives you two XLR/instrument cable inputs. There are bigger and fancier audio interfaces in the series (and by other manufacturers), but this is a solid unit that is cost-effective. If you are in need of an interface, this may be a great solution.
MICS AND INSTRUMENTS
There are some different routes you can take regarding your microphone choices; check out Tom’s post about that here.
If you’re singing and playing an instrument, try to isolate the instrument by giving it its own input.
- Monitor yourself with headphones or in-ears. If you’re listening to a metronome and/or track, you don’t want that to be picked up by the mic. If your instrument is amplified, you’ll want to monitor that as well instead of outputting it into the room.
- For instruments with instrument cable connections, plug into your audio interface. For acoustic guitars, this isn’t the ideal way to record (especially if you don’t love your pickups); if you are playing and not singing (i.e. you’re only trying to capture the sound of the instrument), a condenser mic (or ribbon mic, if you’re really fancy) aimed at your sound hole will likely produce a richer and more resonant tone quality. You’ll have to experiment; it depends on your guitar and how you’re using it. If you’re singing, aiming more mics in your direction may give you headaches from bleed-over. In the spirit of simplicity and avoiding distractions, plugging in is probably the best option.
- For instruments with USB outputs (such as keyboards), you can plug directly into your computer.
- There are, of course, more creative approaches you can take if you have more gear (routing your instrument through pedals, micing an amp in a closet, utilizing a digital pre-amp, etc.), but we’re keeping things simple here. By isolating your instrument and assigning it its own input channel, you’re giving yourself the best chance of getting a clean and robust sound out of your instrument.
If you’re singing and playing an acoustic instrument (e.g. guitar), you’ll have to experiment with mic placement to make sure there isn’t too much bleed from the instrument into the vocal recording. There will likely be some; a small amount shouldn’t be a problem as long as the ratio between the two sources of sound (your voice and your instrument) is heavily weighted in favor of your voice. Ultimately, you want to primarily capture your voice in one channel and your guitar in another, just as you would in a live situation.
RECORDING AND EDITING ON A COMPUTER
If you’re recording to a computer, you’re going to need an audio application of some kind to capture and edit.
A DAW or Digital Audio Workstation application is a standard tool for this job. Pro Tools, Reason, Apple’s Logic, and Presonus Studio One are examples of leading products, with Pro Tools being perhaps the most ubiquitous in recording. If you are an Apple user, Logic is competitively priced and offers a solid alternative to Pro Tools. But also, as an Apple user, you already have access to a solid DAW that comes free with your computer: Garageband. While it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the bigger DAWs, it is more than capable of serving in the capacity we are discussing here.
If you are a PC user, Garageband and Logic aren’t options. While Pro Tools, Reason, and Studio One are all options (among others) on PC, Reaper is a great alternative. It’s available for Mac, Windows, and Linux (experimental), it’s fully featured and regularly updated, you can put it on as many machines as you want (limit one active at a time), and for individuals and non-profits, it’s $60. Hard to beat that price, especially if you’re looking to address a need in a simple and cost-effective way.
Whatever route you take, DAWs bring your inputs into an editing environment, where you can capture and adjust your recordings with all the standard tools you’d find on a mixing console, such as EQ, compression, busses/sends, etc. You can accomplish a lot of complex mixing and editing, but you can also easily achieve simple goals of recording, cleaning up, and bouncing audio files (i.e. creating a file of your mix).
When it comes to recording music specifically, one of the big advantages to using a DAW over an audio editor or an external recorder like a Zoom or Tascam device is that it can be laid out by beats and measures (just one of the many ways in which these applications are geared towards music production). You can set your tempo, turn on the metronome, and keep your recording musically organized. With many of these applications, you can also import video. Depending on your approach, you may find it useful to align your audio tracks with the video within your DAW and mix your recording along with the visual reference (you can mute your camera’s scratch track). You will still be bringing the resulting audio file into a video editor later, but this tool can be useful for syncing musical elements. (Note that you’ll have to move the video in order to make it align with your metric grid.) When rendering the final mix, the term you will likely encounter is “bounce,” which is a reference to tape-deck recording techniques; to “bounce audio” is to render multi-track recording into a single audio file.
Another option for recording is to use an audio editor like Audacity, which is freeware and open source. Such applications are not necessarily tailored for music recording and mixing to the degree that a DAW is, but if a DAW option is too expensive or if it is overkill for your situation, something like this could be a cost-effective way to record performances.
In testing your setup and reviewing your recordings, you’ll want to make sure that your channel gain and volume settings are such that you have strong levels that aren’t clipping (becoming too hot and going into the red). This is part of a concept referred to as “gain staging.” If you’re not solid on gain vs. volume: gain controls how “sensitive,” so to speak, your channel input is to whatever sound you’re producing; volume controls the channel output, which is sent to your main output. Volume works with what gain feeds it. In general, you should be able to set your gain once; subsequent adjustments will likely involve volume. For more details on that, I suggest checking out resources on unity gain and gain staging.
The goal is to give yourself headroom (space for louder levels than average throughout your recording) while maintaining a strong signal. Too weak a signal will not give you enough sound to work with; too strong a signal will lead to distortion. The same goes for the levels of the master output within your DAW. In general, a good way to begin is to try to get your channel levels shown on the channel meter to average around -18dB (as a generous ballpark; note that some DAWs meter their outputs slightly differently, e.g. Logic [0 = -6dB] vs. Pro Tools [0 = -12dB]).
Metronome/Click and Cues/Monitoring
Even if you’re used to keeping your own time and not using click or tracks, keeping the tempo and meter aligned in your project will save you a lot of headaches later in the editing process. And if you hope to sync different recordings together, using the metronome is imperative. If you’re using the metronome within your DAW, be sure to check out the count off feature and other options to optimize it according to what fits your needs best!
As mentioned before, monitor yourself and your click with headphones or in-ears. You don’t want anything you’re listening to (including a scratch track or another musician’s pre-recorded part) to be captured by your mic.
Syncing with Video Audio
A consideration related to click and metronomes, etc., is syncing your audio between your video and your DAW recording. This may not be an issue when you’re in your DAW, but you’ll want to think about it when recording so that you’re not lost once you reach the video editing phase. Most video editing software has automatic waveform syncing tools, which will match up different files that contain the same sounds; these tools can glitch, though, and if your final product from your DAW includes sounds not captured by your camera, the waveforms between your video audio track and the file from your DAW will be different and thus will not match. Here are some tips for setting yourself up well to manually align your recordings:
- Record the same number of video clips as you do audio clips. Don’t “roll through” on one device and stop on another; you’ll likely confuse yourself during recording or editing.
- Likewise, try to begin recording on your devices around the same time. Having files of roughly the same length (within 30-60 seconds) will help you in the editing process.
- Perhaps the simplest, oldest DIY trick when it comes to syncing audio and video (and multiple audio recordings with each other) is to simply clap at the beginning of your takes (mimicking a clapperboard): it gives your audio tracks a short, isolated percussive sound (the highpoint of which you’ll be able to pinpoint visually in the waveforms), and your action will be clear on video as well. You should be able to manually align your different pieces of media based on this or a similar audio “marker” event that creates a sharp attack.
Syncing Multiple Musicians/Recordings Together
This is a whole other level of complication, but it can be done! Everyone involved will need to pursue best practices with their own equipment and levels so that the quality is in a similar ballpark for all involved. Assuming they are filming themselves as well, they will need to also do something to create a marker for syncing. By far the most difficult part will be getting everyone on the same page and aligning all the elements, both in performance and in the edit afterwards. Some things to consider:
- Document and share tempo, meter, bit depth, and sample rate info with your collaborators. Specify what file type you want them to bounce.
- Have everyone record to the same reference (you leading, a scratch track, etc.).
- Make sure that the reference includes click and/or includes metronome information; either way, everyone will need to set their own DAWs to your BPM. Make sure that your scratch track adheres to that BPM.
- Include a count-off in your scratch track.
- Specify if you do or do not want them to add any effects (compression, reverb, etc.) to their own recordings. Unless there’s a specific reason (like guitar FX, etc.), have everyone record dry so that you have control when mixing the full ensemble. Having effects baked in too early could cause significant mix issues.
- If you are producing stems or asking others to produce stems for you, be sure to have them all be metrically aligned and all the same length (i.e., standard stem procedures). That way, all you have to do to sync up your files when mastering is to align them at the beginning. (Stems are files that combine 2 or more tracks, typically of the same type of instrument [like a multi-channel drum recording mixed and bounced as one audio file, all vocals bounced as one audio file, etc.]. If you’re not familiar with the concept, don’t worry about it! Not essential.)
- If everyone is using the same DAW, one way to achieve all of the above is to bundle your project (if necessary) and send a copy to everyone. They can add their own channel (or you can add and label it in advance), and they can lay in their own part, bundle it (if necessary), and send it back. Because you sent a project file, all the tempo information etc. will be pre-set and ready for them to use. Just be sure to keep your file versioning clear so that you do not overwrite or lose track of things. How easy or not this approach is will depend on what DAW you’re using, so be sure to research and test this idea a bit before committing to it.
- If people are using different recording methods, it is all the more important to send everyone scratch tracks that are metrically precise, with all of the info in the first bullet point accounted for. If your calibrators are sending you back an audio file and a video file, it may be hard to tell when the click begins (since it will be in their headphones and not in the audio file). One possible solution is to have them edit their audio file such that it aligns with your scratch track when played side by side (in the spirit of a stem track).
All of the above (meter/metronome, scratch tracks, syncing multiple recordings) becomes more difficult if you are hoping to smoothly move from song to song as you would in a live setting. While it is certainly possible to create click/cues and meter automation to produce a one-take scratch track of multiple songs, doing so will likely cause a domino effect of complications (especially for any musical collaborators who will need to be in lockstep with you the whole way). A straightforward approach would be to simply embrace that each song will be a separate take; by keeping your lighting and audio consistent, utilizing video editing techniques (e.g. a cutaway shot), using a separately recorded pad, and/or inserting a transitional verbal or graphic element, you can make the transition as unobtrusive as possible for worshipers.
BRINGING THE AUDIO AND VIDEO TOGETHER
Once you have your audio recorded, edited, and mixed/mastered, you can bounce your final product and bring the file into your video editor of choice. Here, use whatever method you’ve chosen to align your clips (the new audio and the linked camera audio and video). If all went to plan, you should be able to mute your camera audio and have your video seamlessly synced with replacement audio!
If you are dealing with collaborators and their audio/video files, an approach you can take is to bounce individual performances from your mix and align these with their respective video clips. Treat these like stems, even if they consist of only one channel/track: make the files the same length as the bounce of your master so that when they are stacked in a timeline they are in sync with each other (and in sync with the final bounce). You can do this within one timeline or in individual timelines (depending on your preference; if the latter, make sure all your timelines have the same settings). Once you have all of these individual audio tracks aligned with their respective video clips and linked within your timeline, you can align everything together based on the matching lengths of the audio files (stacking them in additional channels of video and audio in your video editor). From there, you can mute those individual audio files and bring in your file of the full mix (which may differ in sound than the individual bounces you used, depending on how you handled effects in your mixing, etc.). In case anything gets messed up (or wasn’t quite right to begin with), hold off on deleting those unused audio tracks, as you may still need them as a frame of reference when editing. Once things are aligned, you can “carve out” different shots between your footage by cutting out sections of the video layers you created.
There’s plenty more to explore here, and there are plenty of other approaches and perspectives. If you’ve found routines and solutions that work well for you, we’d love to hear them!
Ultimately, God will use what we bring; less than ideal circumstances, a lack of the coolest gear, or not having all the answers will not stop the work He’s doing through our ministries. May we keep that perspective as we adapt and try new things during this time!