Putting together hybrid choir has been an adventure. We’re one term in and it feels as technically secure and fluid as it’s going to get, for now!
We thought it might be useful to share the ‘how’ to accompany Stephen’s blog which sets out the ‘why’. Our version of a hybrid choir is large-scale, as is most of our work, with a mix of singers attending sessions in person at the Usher Hall and tuning in live online via Zoom or YouTube, but there are ways to make simpler versions which we know many other choirs and community groups are using very successfully. We’d love to hear from you about your experiences with hybrid rehearsals and events, so please do get in touch if you have something to share that might help other community music groups.
We started pondering on how a hybrid format might work as soon as lockdown started. As the weeks wore on and we developed our online-only choir format, it became increasingly clear that it was unlikely we’d revert back to our usual in-person format in one go, and utilising our online skills would help us reach as many of our members as possible for the transition period. We had a couple of simple plans laid out but didn’t settle on anything until we knew exactly when we were going to be able to start back in the hall, and the thought of getting it sorted was both intensely stressful on a technical level and incredibly exciting on a human one.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, here’s a wee video from a rehearsal using footage recorded from Zoom and on our team’s phones. Although this was in the Assembly Rooms, we simply transferred everything over from the Usher Hall with our usual set up. It was good to know that works too! As it was our end of term celebration, we added some extra mics at the front of the stage so that those at home could better hear the choir in the hall as well as our pros on stage. The song is by our own Stephen Deazley.
Physical & venue logistics
We began by checking ventilation and capacity, measuring out the stage to ensure a 1 metre distance between singers and at least 3 metres between the choir and the musicians who would be facing them, based on guidance from Making Music. Social distancing was no longer a requirement in general in Scotland, but for a choir to be permitted to sing without a mask in a public building, singers are required to sit at least 1 metre apart or use partitions. Our measurements confirmed we’d be able to accommodate 65 of our choir members at once – around a fifth of our normal membership of 330. Guidance also suggested holding shorter sessions and having a break for the air to clear, so we decided to hold 2 x 1 hour rehearsals each Monday, with different singers at each.
In person rota
We needed a rota system, but didn’t know how many sessions each singer would get until everyone had signed up and told us whether they’d like to join online, in person or a mix. We really appreciated the leap of faith from the choir, signing up without a pre-determined guarantee of the number of in person weeks, and 204 asked to take part in person.
So with much sorting, adding up and emailing, we filled our 65 places for each rehearsal, spread across the membership. Right up to an hour before each rehearsal started, our choirs coordinator Hannah was busy filling cancelled spots (due to the usual bugs, family and work emergencies), so that every seat was filled and everyone who wanted to attend in person got as many sessions as possible.
In the end, 70% of those who asked for in person sessions had 5+ out of 8 sessions. Among those who had 4 or fewer were people who were only available for a few dates, who had to cancel a few dates, or who decided they were enjoying the online version and would happily continue there, rather than venturing out on dark evenings. Some people also opted to revert to online only as their schedules were becoming unpredictable and they were keen that others, particularly those with poor internet or family distractions at home, should get more opportunities in the hall.
Audio set up
Our 6pm sessions ran largely in the “old” style – Dave at the piano, Stephen conducting and 65 choir members on stage. Our 8pm sessions were broadcast on Zoom and YouTube. With 65 singers spread out instead of 330 jam-packed, we knew that capturing the choir’s sound for Zoom would be nigh on impossible. We had already made audio and video resources to support learning at home, as we did during online-only choir, but the flexibility of a live rehearsal needed confident live singers to provide a strong guide for those taking part at home, so we recruited 4 professional singers.
This is where our technical costs and capabilities were stretched and considerably increased. We augmented our basic PA system with additional equipment including a more flexible mixing desk, microphones, stands and monitors for our professional singers, and a special interface box which takes the signal from the desk and converts it into something that Zoom can understand, all with the aim of being able to control and vary between the balance and volume heard in the room and online.
By week 5 of 8 we’d received feedback from the choir about how different it felt to sing socially distanced, and how much harder it was at the earlier session compared to with the support of the professionals at the later one. So Dave brought his laptop to test a combination of him playing live and using the backing tracks we already had. This helped the confidence and volume of sound produced by the choir considerably and we noticed a huge difference in the gusto with which people sung out!
We knew it would be important for those at home to see what was happening in the hall, that some would want to look at Stephen throughout and others would want to look around – at Dave on piano, at our professional singers and at the choir on stage – so multiple webcams, camera tripods and computers were needed. While running choir online-only, we controlled the view most of the time – spotlighting people and sharing scores. This term we tested letting those on Zoom use the Pin function to choose their own view and only spotlighted specific cameras occasionally to give those on YouTube a bit of variety, as they otherwise only see Stephen. We also used the ‘follow host’s video order’ setting which means that our in-hall cameras were always at the top of the list in Zoom and so easy to find. This balance has avoided the need to use additional broadcasting software to curate the visual experience like a TV show, but we’re not ruling out using it in the future or for other types of events.
There are much simpler ways to broadcast choir rehearsals so that people can take part at home. Those in the physical room joining a Zoom call on a phone and leaving it muted on a music stand is a nice way to see everyone in the choir regardless of where they are, with a good microphone in the middle of the room picking up the sound. Or even just a tablet in the middle of the room pointing at the conductor does the job.
Connection with those taking part online
For the broadcast, Hannah looks after our members on Zoom, YouTube and email, verbally welcoming them into the session and helping with any technical queries. She is based at a desk on stage so she can pass on any musical questions to Stephen in real time, just as any choir member on stage can pop their hand up and ask a question. This means that Stephen doesn’t need to keep close tabs on the online text comments while teaching, although he has a laptop with the Zoom gallery view in front of him so he can see how singers at home are getting on and respond to their reactions. Some online-only members were worried they would feel left out at home but were delighted by just how much they felt included in the session, despite not being in the physical space. Either before or after the session, we’ve opened Zoom breakout rooms so people can have a blether, or ask questions verbally.
The vastest of learning curves
Having a good internet connection was key to the whole set up. The luxury of plugging directly into our routers with ethernet cables that we had at home wasn’t an option in the hall for various reasons so we ran tests on all the possible wifi and data streaming connections and combinations, ending up settling on a fast but occasionally unreliable wifi signal for the majority of our computers. As a contingency, the computer that the audio from our mixing desk was going through tethered to a slightly slower but more reliable data package on a phone.
There’s no other way to build confidence as a make-do sound engineer than by twiddling with the dials on a scarily massive mixing desk and seeing what happens! We also applied a great number of labels to everything so that we weren’t trying to figure it all out each week. We’ve gotten into the habit of taking photos of how the settings on various bits of kit ended up by the end of a session, but during the sound check we find that even if everything is set exactly the same as it was the previous week, sometimes it sounds different and needs to be tweaked.
Getting the light balance right on Stephen so that he can be clearly seen both in person and online has also proven tricky, but wearing a white or light-coloured top really helps the focus of the camera to not bleach his face. We’ve been using a bit of software called Logitech with our cameras, which works really well to focus our webcams on PCs, but isn’t compatible with our one older Macbook (the choir may have noticed that one of the camera views has a different colour balance to the others).
Something we found out was that the audio will be out of sync if you use wireless headphones! It’s a good general rule – if you can plug it in, do so.
We have many checklists to make sure that our settings are the same each week – you can read one of those here: Hybrid Choir checklist; it includes some of the Zoom settings we use. The flow chart diagram below shows how the kit works together and is how we worked out what length of cables we’d need.
The most important thing we’ve learned during this process is to ask for help and just keep asking questions. We had the joy and comfort of working with AV specialist Brendan Keegans to help us realise what we wanted to achieve. He was incredibly patient with us asking exactly which version of X, Y and Z to buy, but the comfort and confidence of knowing that you’re properly equipped to do what you need to do is worth investing in.
The Love Music team is more than happy to support other community singing groups to set up their own hybrid rehearsals, or even just to chat through a problem to help find a solution. So do get in touch as we’d love to hear from you.