It’s one thing to handle front-of-house and production for a five-piece bluegrass band that performs 120 gigs a year on land and at sea.
It’s a different thing altogether to coordinate that same band plus five more players, a 50-piece orchestra, and a 100-member chorale while a small army of camera operators captures an 80-minute performance for a PBS special and DVD project over three days in a frequency-challenged college campus a stone’s throw from Washington, DC.
That was the task for Key Chang, the go-to sound guy for bluegrass stars and Pillar Stone Records recording artists Dailey & Vincent. Born and raised in bluegrass country, those down-home roots (plus an education in sound engineering) helped him connect with the Lonesome River Band after a short stint at a Florida sound company. In no time at all, he was mixing for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and for the last six years, Dailey & Vincent.
But video? A multi-day shoot scheduled to start two days after the last gig on a Canadian tour? His experience was, he said, “pretty much limited to a few promotional videos that mostly involved a couple of people running around with cameras.” He was anxious to learn more from staging and production design firm 44 Designs and veteran music video producer/director Patrick Tohill, both out of Nashville.
We asked Key to share with us what he learned so we could share it with you.
Once PBS approved the project and restaurant chain Cracker Barrel agreed to a limited distribution of the concert DVD (it went on sale at select restaurant locations in late April 2015), Key and the team had almost an entire year to pull it together.
There were hundreds of details that included “the logistics of the whole thing, where we’d be traveling from (Canada), the type of venue (the Hylton Performing Arts Center at George Mason University), what gear we’d have to rent, if we’d need a tractor-trailer, who we’d be working with…just all kinds of things.” Three months out, there were weekly conference calls with the entire production team, and a month later, Key was “on the phone and emailing every day and on call 24/7.” There were, he said, “a lot of moving parts.”
Collaboration software helped. The team (including GMU’s in-house monitor engineer) used Google Sheets to build the input list, share ideas and keep the project under control. “All three of us could throw stuff back and forth and edit it on our own time, which was nice. Everything was color-coded in terms of what was in our inventory, what we needed to rent, what was in the university’s inventory and what we needed to buy, which was really helpful.”
People & Places
It wasn’t just the live video shoot that made this project different from a typical Dailey & Vincent show. “We were using the university’s orchestra, so we needed to have seven songs scored. We’d played the venue three times previously, but we were doing a 16-input show then. This time, we were coming in with choral risers, a full orchestra pit and a 48-input show. There was a lot of audio advance work, so communication was key.”
There were space issues onstage. Key was expecting “a horn section or a string quintet” instead of a full 50-piece orchestra, making space in the 1300-seat venue an issue. There was also a 100-member chorale onstage for the last song of the concert. “That was kind of a challenge. Plus, we were limited to 48 inputs, so we had to pack everyone into that: the orchestra, the choir and our extended band.”
One Hour of Video = Three Days of Production
The crews arrived the first day to set up. Everything had to look and sound perfect for filming, which was scheduled to begin with a live audience of a thousand people the next day.
Just ask Key if practice makes perfect. “The first day of shooting was pretty long since we were doing retakes on whole songs.” The audience, sometimes a little restless, was there for hours, so the crew used some camera tricks and editing to fill some spots. Said Key, “We had to stop at one point and ask some people in the balcony to move down to another section. By the second day of filming, we were a lot more efficient. We’d stop in between tunes to get ready for the next one. That went a lot smoother, and there weren’t as many retakes.”
Given the fact that the GMU campus is just outside DC in Manassas, Virginia, it was, according to Key, “a volatile RF environment. With our 17 channels of wireless ULX-D®, PSM®900 and GLX-D® systems, all I had to do was coordinate a frequency plot with Wireless Workbench®. I didn’t have to change one thing in three days. That was pretty amazing.”
Key’s Tips for Producing Live Music Videos
Working with a film crew on a project of this scale was a new experience for Key Chang, and he was fortunate to team up with some serious pros. In the spirit of paying it forward, what suggestions could he offer for music video producers of more modest means? He had several:
- Spend some time in pre-planning. Make sure everyone knows what you’re trying to accomplish and what their role is in the process.
- Communicate before, during and after the shoot. It’s the only way to make sure that everyone is working together.
- Get your input list together since something is bound to change on site.
- Stage plot. It’s very important in organizing your stage patch.
- PA systems can throw back a bunch of noise onstage. You want the PA to be as focused as possible on the audience and not on the walls and ceiling. The solution is having a focused/flat response PA, some type of acoustic absorption (humans work great), and keeping the house level down a bit if you typically run a loud show. For example, Key had to hang a large stage curtain on a wall where the front fill speakers were reflecting into the orchestra pit.
- Allow yourself time for troubleshooting. Expect that something will go wrong, especially with a lot of moving parts.
- Think about the number of mics onstage. You don’t want a ton of bleed.
- Consider renting (or borrowing) a digital console. They’re really cheap these days, and they double as a recording interface. Plug a laptop into it, and you’ve got multi-track recording right there without splitters.
- To capture the audience, have a left/right room mic and a couple of stereo pairs, depending on the size of the venue.
Most important of all, just take the time. “Our first day we tried to slam through, and it really didn’t work out that well, so gear up, get in tune, and get it right the first time.”
“The quality and the tight patterns that don’t pick up all the stage bleed really help in a live situation like that when it’s going to post to be mixed,” Key explained.
“Our drum mics were all Shure, and I was really happy with the tone in post and live, as I always am,” Key said. “All the final product drum tones were awesome.”
KSM137 (and others) in sections: strings, brass, woodwinds, etc.
The ALIVE! In Concert DVD is available for a limited time only in Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations and will be broadcast for the next two years over most PBS stations.