Many virtual choirs debuted out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, inspiring and comforting people during a difficult time. As I write, many of us are still practicing distance worship. Even after this crisis ends and potential weather-related closings begin, churches will benefit from having learned the steps to produce a virtual choir.
First, the bad news: There’s not an app for this.
Some apps are great for gathering a group of people in a virtual space (Zoom) but seriously lack the needed features for virtual choirs. While the popular Acapella app is marketed for musical collaboration, its cost and limits in the number of participants and tracks make it impractical. Most apps lack essential sound synchronization control that prevent, for example, an alto coming in a full two seconds after the section.
Be realistic about how much work this will take and how much tech support will be required to help each choir member. Expect to spend about 20 to 40 hours from start to finish.
Step one: Record the base tracks
If relying on the sanctuary organ, record the accompaniment using a high-end smartphone. (Even better, upgrade the microphone.) If you’re recording directly from another instrument, connect your phone or laptop through an interface device. You may also opt to use an audio recording software on your laptop or desktop.
Film the choral director conducting along with the accompaniment. Upload the audio and video tracks (set to private) on YouTube or to your choir’s Facebook group.
Step two: Collecting videos from your choir members
Invite each member to read tips for shooting compelling video.
Each choir member must have three things:
- a device to play the accompaniment
- headphones plugged into that device
- a smartphone to record them singing their part
Without two devices they won’t be able to hear and record; without headphones, the accompaniment will bleed into their recorded part.
Set up a Google Drive or Dropbox folder to collect the individual full-quality videos. Warning: Video sent over SMS/text messages radically compresses the audio and video, rendering it unusable in your final edit.
Pro tip: Ask each singer to begin recording with them clapping in time to the beat of the hymn or song, before the accompaniment starts and before they begin singing. This will save you many hours of editing.
Step three: Put it all together
Use professional video editing software to upload, edit and synchronize the multiple video tracks into a final edit. The most popular are Apple’s Final Cut Pro ($299 Mac only) and Adobe’s Premiere Pro ($20/mo. Mac/PC). Both offer superior customer support. Upload each performance as separate video (and audio) tracks. Use the software’s tools to crop, scale and position the videos until everyone is visible. Add the accompaniment track and sync the accompaniment with each member. (This is where the starting claps help.)
You may opt to edit by vocal section to save time during the final project's export. Download each member video to your desktop, duplicate your project (File > Duplicate or File > Save As…). Delete all tracks except for one choral section (bass, soprano, etc.). Once you have a single section, mix the voices and save the video. Repeat until you have one video for each vocal section. Open a new file and import all sections, mixing them into one final video.
Step four: Polish until you stop
Tweak each member track or section's audio track for volume balance. Audiophiles can opt to further adjust the equalization (EQ) and add other effects available in both Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Somewhere between your starting point and a Grammy nomination, find the place where it sounds good enough. Export your video (warning: it takes a long time), and post it online!
Whether you’re recording a small ensemble or a large group, virtual choirs are sure to wow members and your community. People love to see these videos of themselves, friends and family, so they tend to go viral. Share the video on your website and church social networks, and see how far it can go!
Jeremy Steele is the associate pastor at Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, California, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book All the Best Questions, at his website: JeremyWords.com.