‘Tis the season for audition videos!
It wasn’t always this way. Let me do my best Church Lady impression: Back in my day, we didn’t make videos for college auditions! We drove the interstate to every school and played fifteen concertos at each one, and we loved it!
But times have changed, and serious music students are applying to more and more schools during their senior year. And faculty at those schools still have the same (tiny) amount of time to hear live auditions. The solution? Make everyone submit a pre-screening video to limit who gets those coveted audition spots!
That would have been a grossly unfair requirement when I was applying to schools back in 1996, because very few students had the means to produce a video that didn’t look like a local-access cable show run through the VHS duplicator.
Wow, Dana Carvey again!
But today, it’s easier than ever to make a video of your playing that looks and sounds professional. You don’t need lots of money to pull it off. But you need to know where to put that money so it really counts.
What is the pre-screening committee looking for?
Before you make a video, you should know what kind of video your audience (the committee) wants:
Committees want to see and hear an accurate representation of you and your playing.
That’s it! Your video succeeds if the people watching it feel as though they’re hearing you live. It fails if it gives a different impression, either deliberately (because you tried to fool the committee) or, more likely accidentally (because of poor picture or sound).
Here are the three basics you need to nail so that the committee gets an accurate impression of your playing:
A normal frame
Your audition video should focus on you. Don’t include the entire room in the shot, even if it’s a stunning cathedral, because you will appear too small in the video. And don’t zoom in so close that your body doesn’t fit in the frame. Committees need to see how you get around your instrument in addition to hearing your wonderful playing.
Shoot from a normal perspective. In other words, treat the camera as you would an audience member: give it a good seat for the show! Don’t make a committee look up at your chin while you play. Don’t ask them to look at your back. Put the camera just where you’d like to sit or stand as an attentive listener.
In the old days, you had to worry a lot more about light when making a video. How much? What color? With today’s digital sensors, those are practically non-issues. As long as you are easy to see, and there aren’t any light-related distractions in the frame, you’ll be fine.
Sound that faithfully represents your playing
Audio is more difficult to get right than video. Again, you don’t need to spend tons of money to get good sound, but you do need to understand some basic principles of sound recording. Just know that if your budget is limited, you’ll get better results putting most of it into your audio. Here’s why:
Video is the easy part
Weird, isn’t it? Historically, after all, audio recording came well before moving pictures. And anyone old enough to have used a dial-up modem will recall that video was out of the question in the early days of the World Wide Web. When video finally started appearing on web pages, it was postage-stamp sized and the quality was pathetic!
Rest assured that nowadays, it’s easy to capture quality video. You just need a camera (which could be a smartphone), something to hold the camera, and light.
It doesn’t particularly matter what kind of digital video camera you use. Imagine that: when making a video, your video camera is one of the least important factors.
It’s true! A cheap camera or a smartphone will work just fine. Of course, there are expensive (and ultra-expensive) video cameras out there, but we won’t see much benefit for our purposes. Expensive cameras are expensive for reasons that go far beyond the scope of an audition video.
Pro video cameras include features like the following that are critical for big-money productions:
The ability to use pro lenses
Directors need many different lenses to get just the shots they want, so their cameras need to be able to accept those fancy lenses. You won’t need such a lens. While limited depth-of-field is a nice feature (you’re in-focus while the background is blurred), it’s overkill for your audition video.
Even smartphones can shoot in HD these days, and that’s more than enough for an audition video. Pro cameras shoot ultra-high resolutions so that the big-budget projects they capture will be ready for any audience on any size screen. If your audition video ever gets viewed by a wide audience, it will either be because you’ve hit the big time, or because your video was really entertaining… in a viral way.
Big-budget projects can’t risk downtime due to malfunctioning equipment. Pro cameras are built to handle moisture, heat, cold, sand, you name it. You won’t need to worry about any of that (please don’t shoot your video on the beach)! In addition, big-budget projects use manual focus. There’s a guy whose job it is just to pull focus all day long. Therefore pro cameras include manual focus knobs that are easy to “mark” for focal distance. If you’ve ever heard of an actress hitting her “mark”, it means she moved to the right spot at the right time for the focus puller. You won’t be moving (much), and just about any camera can detect your face and focus automatically.
The camera shouldn’t move. At all. If you’re using a dedicated video camera, it probably came with some kind of tripod. If you’re using a smartphone, you can find tripods and other supports at Walmart, Target, or on Amazon.
Relativity of light
This sounds like an Einstein theory, but it’s a lot simpler: out of everything in the frame, the best-lit thing should be you. As long as you make that happen, your camera will automatically adjust its exposure appropriately. Just watch for these two common mistakes:
This should be common knowledge by now, but it bears repeating: if you have a strong light source behind you, your camera will almost certainly be fooled and you will show up dark on your video. You don’t want that. Position yourself so that the strongest light sources are shining on your front, your side, or some combination of the two.
In some rooms, the only light comes from directly overhead. That may look fine to our eyes, since they’re used to making adjustments and compensating for shadows. But if the lights are strong enough and narrow enough (like spotlights), those shadows get pretty harsh. And on video, you’ll end up with dark shadows under your eyes and chin. This isn’t as big a deal as total backlighting, but it’s still something to avoid when possible. If you’re stuck with overhead lighting and a dark floor, you may consider putting a large square of aluminum foil on the floor as a reflector. Just make sure that foil doesn’t appear in the shot!
Use battery power
One last note about cameras: whenever possible, run on battery power and bring spare batteries. AC power lines carry noise, which will find its way onto your recording if you’re using on-camera audio (which you shouldn’t be–read on to see why). Power lines are also susceptible to outages and power spikes. For example, if you’re on AC and someone turns on a light somewhere else on the same circuit, your video may dim momentarily.
Audio: where planning matters
There are a million great cameras out there, from your smartphone to a rig costing tens of thousands of dollars. Not one can capture pro audio on its own.
How can that be? you ask. That makes no sense!
It does if you understand two facts:
- Most folks don’t care about audio for their video
- Those who do care use a separate device for audio, so there’s no incentive for camera-makers to build good audio into a camera
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, I’ll admit. One day, we’ll all band together and demand a single device that will capture amazing sound and picture together! But until that day, remember that unless you separate your audio from the camera, you will have mediocre results.
The ideal setup
When money is no object, here’s how you capture audio:
- A wonderful-sounding room
- A dedicated audio recorder
- Multiple expensive microphones
- Optimal microphone placement
- Minimal processing
Makes sense, right? Pick the best of everything. But you can get great results even if you cut a few corners. Here are the different variables and how much they matter.
The room (i.e. recording space)
The room you use will shape all of your other choices. A great space means that you don’t have to work as hard for great sound. But you’d be surprised just how much you can get out of a space that isn’t ideal!
The basic idea is this: the better your room sounds, the further away you can put your microphones. That’s it in a nutshell.
If you’re recording in a concert hall, you can put your mic in the middle of the hall, far away from you, and call it a day. That’s because the hall was (hopefully) designed to sound great where the audience sits.
In a parking garage? Try putting the mics 30 feet away and all you will hear are reflections: echoes of echoes. Recording space and microphone placement go hand in hand.
A “too dead” space is far preferable to one that’s “too live”. At the extreme end of live, you have small rooms with hard surfaces and right angles. A garage is a perfect example. Without some kind of sound treatment (sound dampening), don’t even think about trying to get good results in such a room. You’ll be wasting your time.
The audio recorder
A digital audio recorder should do just that: record audio and nothing else. That’s because the more complex a machine gets, the more ways it can fail. Today’s digital recorders use memory cards, so there are no moving parts. They run on disposable batteries, so there are no power issues. They aren’t running Facebook, so they don’t crash. Yes, a DAR will be your best friend when making your audition video!
It shouldn’t be a surprise that you get better sound with better microphones. And we’ve already covered the fact that video cameras don’t record great audio because they have crummy microphones built in. Simple, you think, I’ll just plug in a nice external mic! It’s not so simple. Besides the fact that the vast majority of cameras don’t have professional microphone inputs (XLR), most cameras introduce noise when a mic is plugged in.
The bottom line is that if you’ve spent any money on a decent mic, you don’t want it plugged directly into your camera. Yet another reason to use a DAR!
This post isn’t the place to go into the detailed aspects of different microphones, but in general you get what you pay for. Better microphones capture the same sound that you hear with your own ears, without introducing hum, static or other undesirable noise. The best mics do impart their own “flavor” to the sound; professionals pay a premium for the flavor that they like best.
In addition, while most inexpensive microphones are omni-directional, meaning that they pick up sound coming from everywhere in the room (including potentially undesirable reflections from walls and the ceiling), quality microphones come in many different “patterns”. One standard pattern is cardioid, which allows the microphone to ignore sound coming from behind.
This directional aspect of microphones leads into the next major advantage of using off-camera audio:
Getting your microphone away from your camera works wonders for your recordings. For one thing, cameras make noise and that noise can get onto your audio track. But even if your camera were silent, why assume that the camera’s viewpoint is the best place to “hear” the music?
Again, if you record in a concert hall, then you can stick your camera in the expensive seats and put your mic there as well. You’re pretty much guaranteed a good sound. But what if you’re in a smaller room with sound that’s not ideal?
Here’s the beauty of using off-camera audio: you can put the mics wherever you want! When I make YouTube videos in my garage, you’ll see that I wear a mic on my shirt lapel. It sits about six inches from my voice and my violin. I put the mic there because if I put it further away, you’d hear more of my garage and less of me.
It’s what you might call a “close” sound. It isn’t ideal for audiophiles, but it’s honest (and it happens to be perfect for teaching videos where I want to replicate the sound violinists hear under their own ears). So go for the best space you can, but don’t throw in the towel if you can’t get a concert hall. Just get creative with where you place your microphones!
Ideally you won’t need much help “post-production”, but conditions aren’t always ideal. Processing takes that close, direct sound and “helps it out” in a subtle way using software. The key word is subtle. Committees aren’t fooled into thinking you have a huge sound just because you hit the “cathedral” button in post! But a bit of warmth and reverb can make a close sound work quite well.
Your action plan
You may have all or most of the equipment you need to make a fantastic video already. The playing… that’s the real trick, isn’t it? Here’s a quick step-by-step that summarizes the above info:
- Choose your room, avoiding tight spaces with too many hard surfaces and right angles
- Notice where the light comes from and plan the location for you and the camera accordingly
- Get a reliable support system for your camera and set it up in a nice “audience member” spot
- Check the frame for lighting distractions such as backlighting
- Use a Digital Audio Recorder but keep the mediocre on-camera audio as a backup
- If using external microphones, place them based on the size and type of room you have
- Process minimally using software such as Audacity (free) or Adobe Audition (subscription)
Next up: specific equipment recommendations as well as step-by-steps for microphone placement and the recording process!