A multi-screen video guide

Volume 120, No. 5May, 2020

Isaac Trapkus

The New York Philharmonic performed an arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero,” with each musician recording at home. View the video using this shortcut link: courtesy New York Philharmonic)

By Isaac Trapkus

Making a multi-screen music video is a great way to reconnect with your colleagues and re-engage your audience. By sharing the process we used to create our “Bolero” video (see screen shot above), which featured 80 musicians of the New York Philharmonic, I hope you will feel encouraged and empowered to create your own.

Before the actual work begins, figure out who among your group has any level of skill in audio editing, video production, and familiarity with audio and video file formats. Google will be your friend for solving snags along the way but the process is greatly aided by a familiarity with the basic components. Our production was done entirely with freely available software. We used VLC Player to extract audio files from the video files, Audacity to combine, align, and mix those audio tracks, Handbrake for converting problematic videos into standard formats, and HitFilm Express (similar to iMovie for mac users) to compile the videos and align them to the audio track. Without a computer or laptop made in the last two or three years it may be difficult or impossible to run the video software. I would describe myself as somewhat tech-savvy but I had no previous experience in video making so don’t let a lack of familiarity with the process stop you from starting.

To keep the project a sensible size (even two or three minutes is fine), we made cuts to the piece and marked up and distributed parts. Remember, this is multi screen so each person can record as many parts as they like! We had everyone record themselves while listening to a metronome in headphones, but you will save yourself many hours of micro-aligning parts if everyone records their part while listening to a pre-existing recording on their headphones or a click track with at least one instrument line. Use Audacity to open a sound file and then manually add a click track by recording yourself tapping on something while listening to the recording. This will also result in a much more in-tune final product. I was amazed at how in-tune our musicians played without a pitch reference but save yourself the trouble and include some form of pitch reference in your click-track.

Next you’ll need some place to collect all your parts. Have your performers upload their video files (they will be very large!) to Google Drive, Dropbox, or iCloud and send you a link to download. Our participating musicians sent 40 GB of video files so make sure you have sufficient hard drive space. If you get files in formats other than mp4 or that are extremely large (over 1 GB) you can use the default settings on Handbrake to convert those into smaller standard files.

People will forgive out-of-sync video, but audio that is even two milliseconds off is noticeable. It will be easier if you work with all the audio separately to create one track and then worry about visually lining up your video. VLC player has a “convert” function that lets you save just the audio from a video file so I used that to extract all the audio into separate files and instrument folders. It’s important to stay organized!

Then comes the tedious audio work. Open the click track audio file with Audacity and begin importing the other sound files, one at a time, and balance and align them to the click track, muting each track after it is aligned before starting on the next one. With large groups, isolated mistakes can be selected and removed (select the mistake and then from the “Generate” menu select “Silence”), or hidden by fading in and out around the section. Remember to save as you go and keep backup files in case you or your computer decide to randomly delete something. If this is a large ensemble project, and your conscience allows, you can choose to use a few musicians on each part for audio while still including the rest in the final video. Some of the group videos on YouTube seemed to make use of pre-recorded material to fill out or even entirely replace the audio for sections of the video. In the spirit of valuing live performance over pre-recorded tracks, I would encourage the use of authentic audio even if it results in a less “professional” sounding production. In these times, a sincere and genuine creation is more heartfelt than something that raises suspicions of lip-syncing.

Once you have your finished audio track, you can now import it and your video files into your video editing program of choice (Adobe Premiere, iMovie, DaVinci Resolve, HitFilm Express). Add your base audio track and then one by one add your video files and align the audio as best you can with your existing audio track. Align the videos one at a time, deleting each video’s audio track after aligning so you are only left with a series of videos and one main audio track. Creating the multi-screen effect involves creating “composite shots” and each software program uses a different method so Google searches and how-to YouTube tutorials will be useful to consult. This is also the time to remember “less is more” (for the number of people on screen) and “good enough” is the goal. In our “Bolero” video, the only time you see all 80 of us is the final 20 seconds. Because it involved so many simultaneous files, that section alone took six hours for my laptop to render. Highlighting musicians in groups of two, three or four keeps the job easy and makes the resulting video feel more personal.

When you have your video, it’s time to decide what to do with it. The popularity of these types of videos presents opportunities to partner with sponsoring organizations or to serve as a platform for a cause close to your heart. This can also lead to difficult decisions about how much of a message to include, how many hashtags and logos, and whose vision to represent in the final video.

Upon completion of our video there was an opportunity for a messaging partnership that ultimately did not materialize. I was grateful for the advice of senior members of our orchestra committee who had experience navigating these situations and their knowledge of when and how to compromise — especially during a time when we as musicians are forced to fundamentally change how we operate. Having the confidence and trust to work as a collective was emotionally and logistically indispensable and seems all the more essential during these trying times. Your video project can not only provide a vehicle for musical closeness and connection, but also strengthen the collaborative and cooperative bonds that bind us together as a union.

Isaac Trapkus, a member of Local 802 since 2016, is a bassist in the New York Philharmonic.