As a global pandemic has put the world on hold and darkened the stage lights, the future of music remains bright. On May 30, 2020, SoundLife students showed us that though we are separated by a physical distance, social distance is merely a term that can be overcome through shared tenacity, hope, and passion—the pillars that bind us together. Those barriers that prevent us from physically interacting will not keep us from performing and making music as a community. Thanks to the internet and the magic of technology, we can continue to learn, grow, create, explore, and showcase our talents.
The idea for this year's Virtual Showcase started as a simple concept: to utilize the tools at our disposal—our cell phones and cameras–to create music. Not only did it exceed our expectations, but it also opened new doors for performers and their families to work together. It allowed our student performers to showcase their talents in a new, unique format.
Over the last three months, we have been having our students at SoundLife submit performance videos of what they are working on in their private lessons and band rehearsals. This was the best way to hear progress without the latency of a video call. As we followed this road, it became clear that as long as a performer could play in time and know all parts to a song, then the band could play on.
Naturally, this sparked our curiosity, but we needed to figure out the logistics through trial and error.
An Experiment in Virtual Performance Collaboration and Recording
The first thing we experimented with was having band members send in their individual parts recorded to a metronome. What started as a good idea ended in abject failure, because we learned that without context, it's difficult for students to give complete performances. We wanted to operate under the idea that no one “needed” to have professional recording equipment. This meant that, essentially, we needed to revert to the days of analog recording when a performer had to do complete takes and editing was much more difficult.
The second thing we introduced was “reference audio,” in which we added a click track to the song with a two-measure count in. This experiment worked, but we discovered that many of the songs the performers were working on were originally recorded before the advent of digital recording. This meant that they weren’t all on the grid. It’s hard to remember back, but so many songs actually vary in tempo. Since the mid 90s, most music is on the grid, and that is what we’re used to hearing. But bands like Blink 182, Weezer, and many more artists that our students cover are not on the grid.
And finally, the last thing we had to figure out was how to create a template for our students to follow if the original audio reference was not a consistent tempo. The answer ultimately fell on the drummer, so we had them make the initial recording to a fixed tempo. From there, we had the bassist follow suit. Once we had those two foundational instruments, we could make an audio reference for the rest of the band. Shoutout to the drummers in all of our student bands!
Applying what we learned, we were able to outline a process that would work for all of our students with the idea that anyone could participate, no matter their equipment. Keeping all this in mind, we set a date for the concert and started going to work...which is when the fun began.
We quickly noticed that some performers approached the process like a professional recording session, opting to use their own recording equipment. Others worked with their families to get creative with lighting, backdrops, and outfits. Some students recorded on their cell phones, working through trial and error to find the right placement for the optimal sound and look.
Bringing It All Together
When we received everyone's video submission, our editor, James McCutchen, took the process to another level. The initial thought was to simply have all the performers on screen for the duration of the song. While cool in concept, it was not nearly as transformative as what James set out to achieve. As each video was completed, it became clear that these were not just performance videos. They were music videos.
With James blowing away our expectations, we still needed an audio engineer to complement the look of the videos with the right mix. Our audio engineer, Hugo Vera, was more than up to the task. On his first submission, he sent a mixed song from cell phone audio that blew us away. The sound was vibrant and beyond anything we imagined possible. With Hugo on the team, we went through and mixed every song to the best of what we could from the submissions.
The end result of the grand experiment was a unique concert experience that we are all truly proud of—something that speaks to the transcendent power of music. Whether it's from the student, parent, teacher, engineer, or editor, everything that went into making this season's concert a reality required a significant commitment from all parties involved, fueled by our shared passion for music. This was time that they would not have given if they didn't believe in it. So what is it that this entire community at SoundLife believes in? It’s music. It’s harmony. It’s melody. It’s what those things have meant to us in our lives, and it’s what we wake up eager to pay forward.
Even though we cannot physically share the same stage, the Class of 2020 students have worked diligently despite the circumstances. They did something that has never been done before. They are pioneers, they are innovators, and they are heroes. Heroes of their story! Watch the entire concert here.