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Synchronizing a virtual choir

Fri Mar 12, 2021 at 02:41 PM

Have you ever been on a video call with a group of people trying to sing “Happy Birthday?” How’d it go? Now imagine putting together 31 members of the Oakland University Chorale trying to record a musical piece each from their own location. This fall, the members recently recorded “Imaginari Pace,” by Michael Mitchell, professor of choral music, director of choral activities and conductor of the Oakland Chorale and University Chorus. Oakland University vocal music education and music technology student Jake Yetzke put together the audio for the version the Oakland Chorale recorded and put online in February 2021.

Mitchell composed “Imaginari Pace” for the Oakland Chorale to perform in the 2020 European concert tour, which was canceled because of the pandemic. Yetzke said while the recording has all of the students singing together, it was actually recorded in 31 pieces and edited together. 

“We had everyone record a video of themselves singing their parts and I took those videos and brought the audio into an editing program,” said Yetzke. Yetzke said he timed them up and tuned them to each other, which was more difficult than it sounded. 

“This piece is composed in free tempo, which is changing the entire time. Those who were singing needed to watch a conducting video and go along with that timing, but there were a lot of discrepancies initially,” said Yetzke. He said 50 percent of the words in the song were “chay,” and the bulk of his time was spent lining up the “chays” throughout the 8-minute piece.

The videos were recorded in various ways. Yetzke said some students recorded using music recording equipment, but others just used their phones propped up on a ledge or on a tripod. 

“At first it seemed like an impossible task,” said Yetzke, about the editing process. Yetzke has a heavy interest in music technology, particularly in production. “I had never done anything of this scale before. I’d only been introduced to the recording software about a year ago, so I still wasn’t super familiar with everything. Jumping into something like this seemed really difficult. But the more and more I worked on it, the more I learned about it. It was a learning experience for sure. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and I’m pretty happy with the way my skills have progressed.”

The skills he learned are being used by music technicians around the world to put together remote choir pieces, especially during the pandemic as choirs can’t be together. In February, OU’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance hosted Inspire the Choir, a virtual workshop featuring Eric Whitacre, a Grammy Award-winning composer and conductor known as one of the leaders in creating virtual choir videos. Yetzke said it was a meaningful experience to be able to share his experience with Whitacre during the workshop. 

“I got to talk to him a little bit about it. He said it’s a lot harder to do a small number of people, like our choir, because you can hear individual voices instead of everyone just coming together. If you’ve got 1,000 people singing, you can’t pick out one voice. In something like this, you have to pay close attention to each individual,” said Yetzke. 

The choral members began the process at the beginning of November 2020. It took roughly two months for Yetzke to edit it. He said he felt his perfectionist tendency coming in and he wanted to keep polishing it.

“Overall, it was a really great experience,” said Yetzke. 

The Oakland Chorale will do another virtual piece this semester. They will perform Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Yetzke said he is taking a break from the editing process this semester, however. 

To see the Oakland Chorale’s performance of “Imaginari Pace,” visit the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s video