Behind-the-Scenes of the Virtual Band

Virtual Band. Electric guitar, vocal, drums, piano, bass, vocal and acoustic guitar.
Virtual Band. I’m playing the electric guitar in the upper-left.

In the first month of shelter-in-place I, Natasha, and other musicians recorded parts for a Virtual Band performance. I received the recordings to combine into the aggregate result.

The procedure to create a virtual band (or virtual choir) includes four steps. (1) Create a reference recording for the participants to follow. (2) Each participant records a performance while listening to the reference recording in earbuds or headphones — the reference recording should not be heard in the participant’s recording. (3) Extract the audio from each recording and mix. (4) Combine the mixed audio with the videos.

Our initial recording was a vocal and acoustic guitar video.

Singer playing an acoustic guitar.
Singer playing an acoustic guitar.
Vocal and acoustic guitar video.

This could have been sufficient as a reference recording, but I thought it’d be easier for performers if we added drums before distributing. We set up Natasha’s drums in the garage with three mics (snare/hi-hat, kick, and overhead/cymbals).

She played the initial recording in headphones while her performance was recorded by iPhone and computer.

Natasha playing drums.
Natasha playing drums.
Drums video.

I made a quick-and-dirty video from the initial video and Natasha’s recordings using iMovie. I knew iMovie would not be sufficient when combining more than two videos, but it was sufficient for demonstrating the feasibility of the Virtual Band.

First combined video. Vocal, acoustic guitar, drums.

While exciting because it showed progress, I wasn’t satisfied to use this as the reference recording. I wanted to demonstrate I could use Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X to combine three or more videos.

I recorded my electric guitar part as the third video.

Electric guitar video.

Then came the hardest part. GarageBand did not support stretching or compressing tracks. I needed to do this because the recordings didn’t align precisely. For example, I could synchronize the beginnings, but after several minutes the recordings would be noticeably offbeat. iMovie did not support combining more than two movies simultaneously. I knew Apple’s professional applications, Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X, supported these features. I had not used them, so I had to learn how to use them at least enough for the Virtual Band.

Fortunately Apple provided 90-day trial versions. I downloaded them and got to work.

Logic Pro X was relatively easy to pick up. The interface was much like GarageBand. The stretch/compress feature just required option-dragging the end of the track to make the track longer or shorter while preserving the pitch. I extracted the audio from the initial vocal/acoustic recording, added it to Logic Pro X along with the two drum audio recordings and single electric guitar recording.

Final Cut Pro X was more difficult. The interface was similar to iMovie, but with many more features. I had to Google search to discover the feature I needed to use to combine videos simultaneously: Transform. I applied scaling and translation to show the three videos in different sections of the screen. I added the audio mix I exported from Logic Pro X and synchronized the performances.

I had a reference recording.

Reference recording.

I sent the reference recording to the other musicians. I told them the best way to record parts: use one device to play the reference recording and one device to record a new video. The playing device must only be in earbuds / headphones so it didn’t bleed into the new recording. I received videos from a vocalist, a bass player (with another vocal), and a piano player.

After determining the basic procedure in Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X, the actual compilation went quickly. I mixed the audio and video several times as I received individual recordings. When I thought I would not receive any more recordings I did a final polish of the audio and video, and I declared success.

Logic Pro X
Final Cut Pro X. The audio mix is the track at the bottom.
Aligning audio and video in Final Cut Pro X.
Aligning audio and video in Final Cut Pro X.
Tip: to align a video with a separate audio track, keep the video’s audio present (e.g., 0 db) during alignment. This will give you a visual reference and an audio reference. You can see and hear the alignment. Once the video is aligned, you can decrease the volume of the video’s audio to negative infinity.
Final Cut Pro X Transform and Crop panels.
Final Cut Pro X Transform and Crop panels.
The Transform panel changes the size and position of a video. The Crop panel changes the viewable contents of a video. I cropped the piano player’s video because it had a 3x2 aspect ratio while the others had a 16x9 aspect ratio.

Software developer, electric guitarist, runner, scuba diver, singer, husband, father.