The brave new world: Shari Ulrich’s lessons in performing online
Yes, we’re all having to figure out how to share our musical offerings with our audience and the world from our homes. When this weird chapter first began, I frankly reveled in the rare opportunity to stay home and putter around the house and step away for a time. But as the days went on, I began to feel I was shirking my responsibility as an artist at a time when the world needs music and art more than ever. So I began watching, researching, listening, attending webinars and whatever I could do to figure out what is the best way to do a livestream, to record video etc, especially given there’s no one else in my house? (My Rube Goldberg inventions for good iPhone or laptop angles have involved napkin holders, rubber bands, clothes pins, clamps, ladders, many books, an actual tripod, and moving a grand piano by myself.)
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Most of what I was finding on the web was related to either broadcast or large events rather than living room concerts, or it was selling me gear that I wasn’t convinced I needed. And none of it really addressed my main priority, which was to have good audio. After days of pondering, I circled around to realizing that it’s simpler than it seems.
As I have said far too many times, either in defense of music happening in a quiet room or experiencing the difference between crappy sound on stage and great sound on stage, and now with livestreaming – it’s an audio art form! It should be music to your ears. And frankly, most of the content I was hearing sounded like cats howling underwater. I know some say that it shouldn’t matter, but I’ve also heard many people say they’d simply stopped bothering listening to what was being put out as it sounded dreadful. So, I set about expanding my research to how to do it in a way that it sounded as good as possible given it’s going over the internet. And to top it off, how to do it with the gear I had on hand!
Many of you have undoubtedly been doing the same, so by the time I finish writing this it all might be redundant to you, but in case it’s helpful, I will share what I’ve learned after weeks of information gathering and experimenting and a successful livestream via Side Door.
I’ll start with the trickiest:
There are many many different ways of getting the audio and video out the virtual door so I’m only sharing my method because it was simple and successful. But there are many ways to get there depending on the gear you have access to and the last person you asked!
Much of what effects the sound is the internet, so the number one priority is to go through an ethernet cable, not wifi! Even if you have a strong signal, it’s simply not as stable as being hard wired. Don’t even question it. Whatever you have to do to run a cable to your computer, do it. In my case it just meant ordering an adapter to go from ethernet to Thunderbolt into my Mac. The transmission is still going to be affected by the speed of each audience member’s internet, but you have no control over that. All you can do is send it out the best way possible. If you don’t have a minimum of a 5 mps upload speed you might have to find another location.
And yes, this means using your laptop as the camera. The picture isn’t as good as with an iPhone, but despite downloading the OBS software recommended to allow for additional cameras, I was unsuccessful in getting my iPhone or iPad to work with it. Plus, given I’m by myself, I decided to stick with what I knew was working well, keep it simple, and reduce any unnecessary distractions during the performance. Again, I care more about the sound than the video (though do try to be sufficiently lit with as few shadows on your face as possible).
The number two priority is keeping your sound set up simple but as good as you can make it with what you have. As Jonathan Byrd said, “Good sound will make your video look better!”
I happened to have a little Mackie board from years ago that had a USB out, so I plugged two condenser mics into the board and out to my Macbook Pro. I positioned one mic at the piano that picked up both my voice and the piano and the second where I could swivel on the piano bench to play guitar – picking up my voice and guitar with the one mic. I monitored with headphones plugged into the board, added some reverb that I could turn off and on (since it’s a bit better not to have the reverb on while talking). I couldn’t find a footswitch in the house but the board was in easy reach so I put tape on the slider to stop it where I wanted the level to be so I didn’t have to fuss with it on the fly – just up or down.
My alternate set up will be a little Soundcraft FX-8 board through my audio interface (an old MOTU 828) only because it’s a bit better board and interface. Same thing though – it’s about getting the audio into your computer as simply as possible. And creating a situation that requires as little management as possible so you can just play your music.
Precorded – (One tune at a time)
Really the same set up, but for this I’m going straight into my iPhone. I was able to find an i-Rig2 device I bought a while back (to go from electric guitar into an amps app) that has a quarter-inch input (which I use to come from the board) and a three-ring mini output plug to goes into my headphone-to-lightening adapter on my iPhone (XR). It works and looks fine! There are other ways to get into your phone, but that worked for me.
The first method I used involved an eight-year-old Audio-Technica USB mic into my Macbook Pro, which you can see here on https://www.onstagelive.tv. In that case, I recorded the audio into Garage Band (dry) and the video on my iPhone and sent both files to my engineer daughter who tweaked and sweetened the audio and put the two together.
NOTE! If you use an iPhone for video, shoot from the back of the camera rather than in selfie mode. It’s a much better camera, and if you go into selfie mode you will turn into a lefty, which is particularly weird on the piano with the treble end to the left and the bass to the right. It’s unsettling to watch. Yes, it’s a bit more awkward to set up, but it’s worth it. HINT: You can do some test still shots to make sure the framing is good by zooming in on the camera to 1.5 to simulate how the video picture will look, set the self timer and assume the position. Of course, these are things I had to do because I’m alone in the house. Lots of you might have a camera person hovering around! If it’s too unnerving having no person to look at, even if it’s just yourself, hang a photo of someone you love by the camera!
So tech aside, just remember that this isn’t about creating fancy video – it’s about reaching folks with what you do and, as always, that’s about being that unique, one-of-a-kind person and artist that you are.
There are different ways to stream of course, and I don’t feel quite qualified yet to analyze and compare them in depth. After watching shows on Facebook Live and on Dan Mangan’s Side Door, (originally developed as a house concert network that quickly adapted to on-line shows), I chose the latter because of the thrill of seeing and being able to interact with the audience via Zoom. With Facebook Live, I sensed how awkward it is to put on a show to a void – to no people and no response (other than a chat, which means stopping to read, which can be a bit awkward too). But I’m sure artists who have been doing it regularly are getting accustomed to it. With the Side Door shows, it’s the closest we can come to that live concert excitement everyone shares being in a “room” for a concert of an artist they love. Add the warm fuzzy feeling of seeing fellow fans, cuddled up on the couch in their homes with their families, the dog, a snack and a smile – for the artist, it’s particularly moving, and for all, downright exhilarating in this time of isolation. One could do a show via Zoom outside of Side Door, but their system is so well set up with very thorough support. I could write a whole article about that experience alone.
The last two factors: Funds and Focus.
With Facebook Live you can have a virtual hat / tip jar. Some artists feel strongly that there should be no paywall. And in fact, we want to support the artists we love, so being able to tip them feels great, and the numbers can be substantial.
Side Door does have a paywall, but the ticket prices are surprisingly modest – $6 to $10. It’s just enough to inspire folks to put it on their calendar and stay for the duration of the show and can add up if you have a good audience. (Zoom account prices vary depending on the number of audience members you want to play for, but you can wait until close to showtime to buy the account-size you need to accommodate all your ticket buyers.) Deducted from the gross revenues are SOCAN and credit card fees, plus 10 per cent for Side Door. Side Door also offers a very thorough walk-through on setting up your Zoom account to get the best sound. And a co-host is imperative – but you can learn all about that through them.
For any of these methods, it’s good to send or broadcast a test to a friend who has good ears to ensure it’s working. Figure out a set up where you can relax and enjoy sharing your music. It’s a different way to do a concert and takes a bit of getting used to. But it’s worth it!
And of course, as with all technology, but particularly now, options will continue to improve and expand, and this article will be rendered obsolete soon enough!