Sunday, October 7, 2012

Recording a Singing Church

The reason this blog has been a bit quiet over the summer is that I have been concentrating on producing a new Red Team album. After several intense days in the studio recording the instruments, yesterday we recorded the voices. The album is going to be called Singing Church, and like this blog, the idea is that it will be all about congregational singing. I find it odd that much of the recorded music used as a resource by worship leaders is comprised  of songs led by solo vocalists with back-up singers.  For this reason, there will be no solo vocals on the new album -- its a philosophical position which will mean we won't break into the top 40!

When I started the project I thought that we would bring in Red Team's singers and multi-track a couple of passes to give us a full sound, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to record a larger group made up of regular members of the congregation. If this is about congregational singing then I wanted it to sound like a congregation was singing!

This threw up a technical problem. We are not making a live recording -- where everyone sings and plays at the same time. We needed to play the already recorded accompaniment for the singers to hear. This is usually done over headphones in the studio but there were not enough headphones and extension cables for a congregation. One option is to play the music at low volume through carefully placed speakers - the trouble is that inevitably some of the backing track bleeds into the vocals. If you want to multitrack the vocals then this is a problem when it comes to mixing.

The transmitter and the frequency
After trawling through the arcane world of sound engineers' chat rooms and blogs, I hit on an unorthodox solution - I could broadcast the tracks in FM stereo and then ask folks to bring their own radios and simply tune in to the accompaniment. I have a little FM transmitter for my car and I found that it had a pretty impressive range, certainly big enough for a church sanctuary.

As the recording day approached I made announcements on the Sunday mornings: please stay behind after Sunday school on September 30 to have a run through of the songs for the recording. I emphasized that this invitation was for everyone. I ran off a bunch of song sheets - Libby whipped up bread and homemade soup for the throng that would descend . . .

Now I don't know if it was because we picked a Sunday when folks had a lot of extra commitments, but getting folks to sing was like trying to milk a horse. I positioned myself at the main door and as folks kept walking I repeatedly heard comments like "Oh, you don't want my voice on a CD."

"Yes I do, I really do!"

Singing church at the ATS Chapel
In the end five righteous souls came to the practice (and one of them was in Red Team!). I continued to ask everyone I met last week to turn up to sing on Saturday morning. "I don't mind that you have never sung some of these songs -- you'll pick them up."

I ran into a new problem: people didn't have radios. It had never occurred to me that the once ubiquitous FM radio was now obsolete! On Friday I remembered that I had been told the university's Rec Center has radios for the gerbils on the tread mills to tune into the TVs. They kindly lent me six new Sony Walkman radios still in their packaging. Now all I had was a knot in my stomach wondering if we would have enough people.

In the end a we had a group of around twenty show up (including two of my colleagues from the Religion Department).

I had chosen the chapel of Ashland Theological Seminary for our recording mainly because it is set in the middle of the campus well away from any roads. When I was checking out different sanctuaries and halls, I had thought the chapel's acoustics seemed live but not too big. It turned out  that the acoustics were better than I had hoped for--the wooden vaulted roof gave a wonderful warm, big sound to our voices.

Getting two or three passes at the twelve songs took longer than I had advertised -- the 'congregation' didn't escape until 2:30.

Five hours of singing and we are still standing (just)!
My sense was that those who came and were part of our little tuned-in congregation found the experience affirming of their own value as singing members of the church. There were a number of amused comments along the lines of "Who would have thought that we would sing on a real recording." As we sang the last song, I had a growing feeling that we had transcended the mechanics of recording and were worshipping God. Before the "congregation" escaped, Pastor Dan Bilkert led us in a prayer which called us to continue glorifying God in song.

With the crowd gone, that left Red Team to dig in and record harmonies -- two hours later there were seven of us still standing (just). Marshall, the engineer, seemed pretty excited about what we had recorded. We will start mixing this week and we'll see what we have.

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