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Tony Hall – man and melodeon

October 22, 2022

Tony Hall’s melodeon playing has long been much revered in the world of folk music, and can be heard on Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s ‘Silly Sisters’ album, on Nic Jones’s ‘Penguin Eggs’ album, and on his own recordings: ‘Field Vole Music’ (1977), ‘Mr Universe’ (1995), and ‘One Man Hand’ (2008). Despite his many live performances over the years (not least with the weekly performances of The Vonn Krapp Family Band for around 50 years), there are few videos of Tony playing. Given his unique style and, also, his relaxed and humorous stage presence, this is a real pity. A few years ago I set out to rectify this, but Covid intervened and, to be honest, Tony got slightly cold feet about such self-promotion! But patience rewards those who wait, and with the help of a mutual friend (thank you Matt!), a few weeks ago Tony agreed to the recording and filming of a live performance.

Tony’s set followed a harvest supper at his local church so I had no wish to intrude too much on the occasion. A low profile was essential, and there would be little to no time for adjusting gear on the night. With such events, preparation is, of course, very much the order of the day, so in the weeks beforehand I had a sound check with a stand-in melodeon player (thank you Rob!) and a lighting test (the church lighting looked hopeless) one evening.

On the audio side, recording melodeon (and accordion) is challenging since so much sound comes out of the sides and, of course, the left (bass) hand moves in and out. I’ve tried various techniques over the years, and the sound test before this session confirmed my conclusion that the best way is to record with mics positioned either side of the instrument. It’s also how Tony has mics set up whenever he uses a PA, so it was good to have a set up that was comfortable for him too. I’d have preferred omni mics, not least as the acoustic was good, but with an audience liable to sing along or cough, and, even, the potential for a bit of clatter from someone having their third helping of pudding (I wouldn’t blame them as they were marvellous!) I went for cardioid mics, and angled them a bit so the rear nulls had some effect. Mics either side gives a much fuller sound than a stereo pair in front of the melodeon, but, of course, if hard-panned left and right the mics make the instrument sound 30ft wide: after playing around and testing on speakers and headphones in post, I settled on panning 40% left and right. I used a pair of Rode NT55s. For vocals, I wanted as much separation from the melodeon as possible, so that I could vary levels after the event, and would have preferred a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) fig 8 so I could use its null to good effect, but, conscious that this would mean the rear lobe would pick up the audience too much and that it would be far from discreet, went for an SDC hypercardioid – the AKG CK93.

Filming gear needed to be equally discreet. The bad lighting was solved by a single softbox lantern (the SmallRig 65cm version) with a SmallRig 3616, which is a COB LED light that is bi-colour (so I could set colour temperature to match the church lights at 2700K). Lanterns are so much gentler on the performer than a rectangular softbox, and the single light didn’t intrude unduly: as benign as a standard lamp. Cameras were a Lumix G9 and two Lumix GX80s, two cameras roughly at 45 degrees, and one, low down, centrally, to catch Tony’s fingers on the melodeon buttons (so aficionados can see how he does it). All three cameras locked off on tripods, and two unmanned: far from ideal, but nicely low key. With a bit of varied cropping from the 4k capture for the 1080p output, that gave some variety in the shots in the final video. And low-key video suited the occasion anyway.

So the end result? Well judge for yourself, but it certainly captured something of the event, is a step up from the few mobile phone videos of Tony online, and was a reasonable stab given the understandable constraints. And the bonus? Tony is keen to go on and make a proper album in the same church this autumn/winter, without an audience. He doesn’t enjoy the stress of studio recording, or the excessive editing of multiple takes to create the performance that never was, but he’s up for a relaxed recording in his local church, which is great news: Tony still has many a song/tune he would like to record for posterity. Obviously there will be scope for much improving the sound of the audio from the harvest supper gig, so more anon.

Film Projects

‘Of All The Sounds’ – making a short pt. 2

October 6, 2021
Recording sound effects: a passing steam train on the North Norfolk Railway

After shooting the opening, interior, scene for my short three-minute film (an entry into this year’s My Røde Reel competition) – for which see part 1 of this blog post – work on the film moved on to recording sounds (much of the film requires sounds from the 1940s set to film footage of the modern world) and, then, filming outside.

Recording sounds from the 1940s seemed simple enough, and some sounds were relatively easily available. The nearby North Norfolk Railway provided the perfect opportunity to capture a steam locomotive passing by, so I went to the crossing at Kelling Heath to get away from less authentic sounds of modern travellers on the railway. It then just became a case of waiting for the right sounding train to come by, smiling weakly at the passing dog-walkers who – quite reasonably – assumed I was some railway sound-recording enthusiast. To keep things simple and light I used a MS pair in a Rode blimp on a Gitzo boompole.

Some sound effects were relatively straightforward and could be done at home: the click of an old radio being turned on (mono), a door knock (mono), footsteps on a wooden floor (NOS pair) and re-recording sounds (my earlier acoustic recording of Lucy Grubb and a BBC wartime broadcast) via a bluetooth speaker to get a more radio-like sound (mono again). Some sounds seemed as if they would be easy, but were harder to track down: it took a bit of time before I could find a grandfather clock to record ticking away. Recording the sound of a 1940s school playground had its own set of challenges: I could hardly roll up at a school – or walk past repeatedly – with a boompole and blimp without risking arrest. Fortunately, a friend is a teacher and he arranged for me to visit one lunchtime: the kids were fantastic, even obliging with old-fashioned play including hopscotch, skipping and singing Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses. And one of the smallest reception class ones took great delight in extracting small items from my sound bag so he could inspect them. Quite took me back to when our children were that age. Recording the sound of cycling was achieved by clipping two Rode Wireless GO ii TX units to either side of a rucksack, and syncing the two internal recordings with a handclap. The only original sound effect that thwarted me was the sound of a WW2 bomber taking off. The one flying Lancaster in the UK was under repair at Duxford for a year until a couple of weeks ago and then – despite scouring Facebook sites of specialist plane spotters(!) – I couldn’t find any details of its few test flights back at RAF Coningsby before the end of the season for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight: I didn’t fancy a few four-hour return trips to Lincolnshire on the complete off-chance. So, in the end, I turned to Freesound and used someone else’s excellent recording of two B-25 Mitchell bombers taking off (duly attributed in the film): B-25s were used by the RAF at Foulsham (the former airfield I have used in the film) during the war, so the sound was as authentic as a Lancaster. A bit of editing was required to lose modern voices.

Another exercise between the two main filming shoots was to sort out an authentic-looking headstone for a WW2 pilot. Making a prop with my skill levels seemed unlikely to pass muster, so I photographed some existing war grave headstones in North Norfolk churchyards and, as the Portland stone was quite varied from one to the next, used one of these as the basis to create a headstone to our fictional pilot in Photoshop (i.e. creating a new name, service number, age, date of death etc.): using a couple of locked-off shots for the relevant part of the film would then allow me to mask these into the shot (carefully using the same focal length lens and angle/distance ).

Then it came to the second day of filming: this time outdoors. While there was no dialogue, there were still significant challenges. Above all was the weather: availability of my actors meant the weather had changed to become very autumnal and we ended up with a day with 20 mph wind as well as sunshine (worse still, the latter coming and going as clouds scudded across the sky). Keeping an acceptable exposure and flying a small drone (my DJI Mavic Mini) weren’t as easy as hoped…

Filming with a Lumix G9 on a Zhiyun Crane 2 gimbal: yes, all my shirts are very similar…

And then, finally, to editing in Vegas. I’d already edited most of the first scene, so it was a case of adding the rest of the film, fine-tuning the first scene (mainly adding the sound effects), masking in the faux headstone and, then, assembling a behind-the-scenes film. The latter was a requirement of the My Røde Reel competition and needed to show use of a Røde product (no trouble as I used many Røde mics throughout the filming). I opted for repeating the main film, but in black and white, with picture-in-picture and text overlays to show the behind-the-scenes activities from a technical perspective.

Here’s the final film:

And here’s the behind-the-scenes film:

Film Projects

‘Of All The Sounds’ – making a short pt. 1

September 15, 2021
Filming the opening scene in a kitchen.

Yesterday, I began filming a drama production: this was the first for a long time. In this case a short three-minute film (an entry into this year’s My Røde Reel competition). It was good to work with two young actors (Daisy den Engelse and Christopher Sainton-Clark) rather than unfairly press-ganging inexperienced family members and mates into roles: but there was no let off for the mates as some were just coerced into providing a location and crewing instead (thank you Rob, Neil and Anji!).

We managed to nail the opening scene in a morning, with all the action – which sets up the slightly M. R. Jamesian premise – set in a kitchen (a rather beautiful one at that). I used a single camera (the Lumix G9 with a Meike 16mm cinema lens and Swit monitor) with follow-focus, on a half-bowl tripod running on a DIY dolly track (40mm PVC pipes): this allowed much better control of movement and rack-focusing and, indeed, permitted a heavier rig than would have been possible with a gimbal.

Sound was a mix of boomed mics and lavs. The idea of the Rode competition is to use Rode equipment wherever possible – and, as you can see from this blog, I have a good number of Rode mics anyway – so I tried booming with both a Rode NT55 cardioid and, since Rode don’t make a hypercardioid SDC capsule (wasn’t one originally promised?), an AKG CK93. With a fairly live room and bit more of a distance from mic to talent than ideal (due to framing), the latter was preferable.: this was hardly a surprise, with hypercardioids being the norm for indoor booming. The boom mics were routed to a Sound Devices Mixpre-3. The boom mics were for a seated character, so were set up statically on a light stand using a Boom Buddy. If I’d had sufficient crew, a boom operator might well have been more useful as it would have allowed more variation in mic height, as the camera closed in on the talent, although that would have required some experience. I added a Rode lav mic plugged into a Rode Wireless GO ii as an (unused) back-up for the seated (female) character. The male character spends the scene rushing about, so he was also given a lav mic, this time simply using the onboard mic of a Rode Wireless GO ii taped under his jumper. The two lav mic signals went to the RX unit plugged into the camera. I set the RX unit at -18dB and the Lumix G9 preamps at their lowest level. I also engaged the pad on the inputs of the TX units (-4dB), but the volumes were such that the additional headroom wasn’t really needed. Although there were no signal dropouts in the wifi transmission of the Rode Wireless GO ii , I used the onboard recording of the TX unit for the male character to ensure the (marginally) better sound.

The initial rough-cut of the scripted scene (using Sony Vegas as my NLE) was two and half minutes long, so some heavy pruning was needed – including some cutting of lines – to cut it down to the planned one-minute duration: a lesson in translating screenplay writing to film timings for me.

Next up, shooting goes outdoors, but that won’t happen for a couple of weeks (weather permitting). In the meantime, there is plenty to be done in the way of scouting the locations and, especially, gathering sound effects: two thirds of the film has audio from the past rather than the present. I’ll add another post in due course: the My Røde Reel competition deadline is 20th October.

Audio Projects Film Projects

Acoustic recording and video – in a summerhouse

June 24, 2021
Relaxed and ready to record: left to right, Richard Poynton, Lucy Grubb and Richard Ward.

As part of the promotion of her new EP, Lucy Grubb was keen to have videos made of acoustic performances of a couple of the tracks, to be made very simply in the summerhouse of her banjo player/guitarist, Richard Ward. This involved just two members of the band, providing backing vocals, guitars and banjo, so quite different from the full band, studio recordings on the EP.

With simplicity being the order of the day, and minimal set-up time, I went for a mid-side pair of SDC mics: the AKG CK94 fig 8 as the side mic and the CK93 hypercardioid as the mid mic, into a Sound Devices MixPre-3 recorder. Just to have an extra option, I also rigged up a third mic – a Rode NT55 with the cardioid capsule – as an alternative mid mic, but this really wasn’t the right polar pattern: the main challenges were the balance of the three performers (with a focus on Lucy’s lead vocal) and the difficult acoustic of the fairly narrow untreated summerhouse, all while trying to have a visually unintrusive set up. With hindsight, and given that birdsong is clear in the recordings anyway (in part due to the open doors behind the camera view in the photo above), I think I’d have preferred to record outside under the gazebo you can see in the background: but the band were warmed up and ready to go and, besides, the free-range chickens might have been more challenging still…

On the video side, I simply ran three Lumix cameras: a G9 close to hand on a fluid-head tripod so that I could move it as necessary, and a pair of GX80s on static tripods. Very basic, but it gives the two videos a bit more interest than a single static shot, without stretching the one-man audio recording and filming too far. We did two takes of the first song and three of the second, selecting the best in each case: there was no audio editing at all (processing was limited to a bit of compression and a little reverb), and the video editing was simple too (with colours left as straight off the cameras).

Mid-side recording, with the CK94 (centre in the photo) and CK93 (bottom): the NT55 cardioid mic (top) was not used. Incidentally, you can see the lower profile of the old-style Rycote back-to-back clips (between the bottom two mics) vs the clunkier newer-style clips (between the top two mics) with the wider spacing this brings.
And here’s the video/recording of one of the songs, ‘Waste My Time’.

Film Projects

A second music video for Lucy Grubb

June 18, 2021
Lucy making friends with Annie the shire horse.

After the fun with You Don’t Do Anything, it was great to be invited by Lucy Grubb to make a second music video – in this case for another of the four songs on her recent EP. This time the song was the more reflective title track – Waste My Time. And for this video, it was to feature Lucy only rather than the full band and to be filmed in rural Norfolk locations. With the May weather being such a washout, my plans for a few evening shoots – catching the wonderful light of the ‘golden hour’ before sunset – bit the dust, and we had to film everything in the harsh sunlight on the last Sunday of the month so as to have the video ready for release a week after the EP. After a brief visit to Stiffkey marshes – where the mud and half-filled creeks threatened Lucy’s outfit – we moved on to the rather implausibly located Iron Age hillfort at Warham (with its ramparts and solitary holm oak tree), then blooming oilseed rape fields, the stable and paddocks of a friend (to meet up with the star of the video – Annie the shire horse), and, finally, Swanton Novers Wood. Things went pretty smoothly, even – in spite of Fields’s warning to never work with children or animals – the shire horse session: Annie is a gentle giant and seemed unruffled by this being Lucy’s first time up close to a horse.

Filming involved a simple equipment list: a Lumix G9 with both the Meike T2 cinema lens and the Leica Lumix 12-60mm (the latter for shots with the gimbal – the Zhiyun Crane v2); and a drone for the intro and outro shots (using the diminutive DJI Mavic Mini). To keep things simple, I avoided lip syncing for the drone shots, but the rest was synced – as before – with the pre-recorded track played back through a Bluetooth speaker. Again, I edited in Vegas, giving it a fairly heavy grade to match the previous video: well insofar as possible given the very different weather and light.

You can play the song on Spotify and here’s the finished video: