Mastering Classical Music Videography
Posted Mar 30, 2007

Like many event videographers, I fell into this field by accident. But unlike most accidental videographers, who start by videotaping family events and such, I was a music major at the Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University's music school, when my video muse came calling. I was completing a dual-degree program when a grad student asked me to videotape his master's recital, for which he'd composed and choreographed an opera. We taped it on a Beta two-piece with mono audio input. I found this video stuff very interesting.
 After graduation and a series of nowhere audio engineering jobs, I received a call from Peabody in April 1988 to see if I could videotape a degree recital. Not only could I, I told them, but I could even tape it in Hi-Fi Stereo! I took my Panasonic AG-460 and a pair of stereo microphones, and my career as a professional classical music videographer took off.
 Videotaping classical music is similar to taping stage performances, but with two critical differences. The pace of the shooting is much slower, and the quality of the audio is much more critical. The vast majority of shoots I've done have been with a single camera. Most classical recital shooting is archival in nature, whereas shooting ensembles requires more preparation about what to key in on, and when to do so. A good pair of microphones is also a must, because you'll have to be responsible for your own audio, and classical music has a lot more nuance to it than most other events you may be used to working with.

Essential Equipment
First, you need a camera that has stereo inputs and a stereo headphone jack (which most high-quality units already have). Stereo imaging, even if you're shooting just a piano, is very important. The stereo "spread"—where instruments are within the left/right stereo spectrum—is what defines a recording. And the concert hall acoustics must be accurately captured as well.

The next thing you'll need is either a good set of microphones or a stereo microphone. I recommend using cardioid condenser mics. Condensers, which require a power source like phantom power or batteries, tend to be more sensitive to dynamic response; they can handle a wider range of dynamics from very soft to very loud. Cardioid microphones, so named because of their heart-shaped pickup pattern, are great because they have a not-too-directional, not-too-wide coverage range. There are also other types of mics available (dynamic, ribbon, etc.), but most of the time, a decent pair of condensers will yield quality results. I've used the same pair of Audio Technica AT813s since 1992 and will be using them for the foreseeable future.

While I won't recommend a specific make or manufacturer, you will need to consult a pro-audio distributor to determine what will fit your needs and budget. It's important to deal with a rep who is experienced with recording classical music audio, and who can best qualify what you need. I don't recommend consulting the salesmen at your local big-box guitar wholesaler's pro audio department. Most of these sales types have little to no classical music engineering experience, little familiarity with different mics, and are only there to sell you the mic that earns them the highest commission. Networking also helps; you may talk to someone who owns a recording studio that specializes in recording classical music or acoustic instrumental performances. Audio engineers are no different from videographers—they all have strong opinions about most aspects of their trade, equipment included, and you're likely to get different answers from different people.

Now that you have your mics, you'll need a decent pair of headphones. I've been using a pair of inexpensive Radio Shack folding miniatures for many years because they're very portable, and fill my ear canals up when I wear them, blocking out other sounds. I'd prefer a set that covered the ears entirely, but one problem with these is that most camcorders don't have very powerful headphone amplifiers and most over-ear headphones are miniature speakers, and require a bit of power to drive. Most in-ear headphones, such as those designed for portable listening devices, have some sort of small membrane design and require low power input.

The last important issue here is the mic cables. These are important—you need to use the highest-quality cables you can justify. Have you seen the ads that say Monster cable is better? Well, it's true, and the same goes for Mogami cables. I've been using Mogami brand cable since I was an independent audio engineer in South Florida. Every one of our clients had used Mogami cable for rigging studio wiring and mic/guitar cables—that client list included the Bee Gees, 2 Live Crew, John Mellencamp, and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few.

The secret to Monster and Mogami cabling is they use many extremely fine strands of copper wire instead of several heavier strands, therefore making conductivity better. It's more expensive, but worth it because not only does it sound better, it also tends to be more durable since the wire strands are a lot finer, and thus more flexible. If you're adept with a soldering needle, make your own custom lengths; otherwise, consult your local distributor.

The remainder of your equipment pack will be straightforward, consisting of things you'd bring to a wedding ceremony plus maybe extra duct tape to secure the mic cables. For your first couple of shoots, you may want to use a static camera as a fallback. Personally, I never used a second camera unless the client was paying for it. Keep your pack as lean as possible since you may not have much time to get into the hall and set up. Peabody only had three recital halls when I worked there, and sometimes I had to set up or pack fast since there was another recital that had just happened or was about to happen.

Setting Up For Different Types Of Concerts
Most of the classical music work I've done has either been for recitals (a soloist and accompanist, usually on piano) or large ensembles. Knowing in advance what you're taping will determine several factors of your shoot: which mics to bring, where to shoot from, where to place your mics, and how to shoot during the performance. We'll go point by point here. Mics to Bring
You should consider yourself lucky if you're able to choose from a stable of mics in a "mic locker." I always use my handy AT813s, and if I need another spot mic, I usually use another 813 or a PZM (boundary, low-profile spot mic like you may encounter on a church altar or pulpit). For choral work, some engineers use strategically placed shotgun mics pointed towards the flanks of the chorus. Shotguns are also a good choice to mic acoustic guitar from a distance to avoid excessive finger-picking noise.

figure 1Where to Shoot From
Obviously, you want the best vantage point regardless of the size or nature of the ensemble you're shooting. This is usually the center of the hall, but in a position where members of the audience won't obscure your line of sight. With a soloist and piano accompaniment, the soloist gets priority. Ditto for soloist and small ensemble (string quartet, winds, brass, etc.). If you're shooting an orchestra, try to go aerial and shoot from a balcony or riser.

Another form of shooting I've used a lot is an approach I call "conductor mode." I used to shoot a lot of conductors who'd use the video as an audition piece or for their portfolio. In conductor mode, you'll want to shoot from the stage, but behind a curtain and from a riser so you get a good face shot of the conductor without being seen by the audience. I'd start with a wide shot when the conductor first enters, but then zoom in close enough to track the conducting, leaving the framing just wide enough to show baton motion on any axis (always in-camera), or tracking the conductor's movements (making sure to show the whole baton).

Basically, if you've been booked to produce a conductor's demo, I recommend ignoring the rest of the orchestra and just filming the conductor. You can use auto focus here, but beware—the problem with auto focus in conductor mode is that violins and violas could be between you and the conductor, and could cause the auto-focus to throw your focus all over the place!

Microphone Placement
Every engineer has his or her own ideas on where mics should be placed. Here is the distilled essence of my five years of audio engineering education: Place your mics in front of the ensemble at a distance of one to one-and-a-half times the depth of the ensemble. Treat everything (from solo piano to a full symphony with saxophones and kazoo), as if it were one unit. Dead center, preferably, for optimal stereo spread.

I use the "NOS" mic placement scheme, which involves placing the mic capsules 12" apart at a 90-degree angle, and also as high as you can above the plane of the orchestra (8-14' off the ground). This setup yields great stereo spacing—not too wide, yet still spacious— and excellent mono compatibility.

The next option is to place the capsules at a 90-degree angle but right next to each other. This results in less "spaciousness" but perfect mono compatibility. Lastly, if you use a stereo microphone, there are no spacing issues since the capsules are manufactured to be at a 90-degree angle by default. And don't worry about using only a stereo pair of mics—you have only two ears, and it's the conductor's responsibility to control his ensemble.

My final word on mic placement: Don't place them in your line of sight!

figure 1How to Shoot the Performance
How you shoot a performance depends on the kind of music performed. For most recital work, if there are few performers, it is an easy decision. Solo piano, for example, is relatively easy. Most of the framing will be set to show the pianist's face, hands, and the entire keyboard, with occasional pulls and zooms to show context and break up the performance.

When shooting soloists with piano accompaniment, you'll find that the soloist will usually stand to the right of the piano. Concentrate on the soloist— she's paying the bill! Make sure the soloist's music stand doesn't block your view and don't be afraid to ask her to move it before the performance if it does. Trust me, she'll oblige. You will mainly concentrate on the soloist, keeping the whole instrument and upper torso in frame, with some occasional pullbacks to show interaction with the accompanist. Always be conservative with your framing, but don't be boring. Few of my clients have said they wanted an "artistic expression." They've just wanted a good, solidly framed recording of their performance.

When working with small ensembles (quintets, quartets, etc.), you can be more creative. Different framings may be the whole ensemble, duos, trios, and panning variants on duos and trios. Basically, I let musical entries determine what I'm going to shoot next. If one person is playing a solo and the others are accompaniment, don't be afraid to frame your shot to show the soloist alone.

If you're shooting a duet or trio, concentrate on the group as a whole. Never dwell overly long on any one framing— amateurs can do that quite adeptly already, and being able to anticipate entries and adjust framing accordingly will separate your work from the competition and the Uncle Charlies of the world. No musician (much less a videographer!) can possibly be familiar with the entire classical musical repertoire, but you can learn to hear where the music is "going" and anticipate where and how to frame next.

Small ensembles are also good for developing a feel for shooting classical music. You can train your ear as to what the different instruments sound like (not as simple as it seems), which will help you set your next framing. You can also develop a sense of pacing—if a passage or section is coming to an end, or an unexpected entry happens, it's time to move to the next framing. This has also proven a handy skill for taping wedding receptions (if you're filming a scheduled dance like the first dance and wish to reposition yourself to get more POVs of that for editing, wait until the music changes—for instance, from a verse to a chorus or from a vocal passage to an instrumental one—and then move to the next location).

figure 1Filming an Orchestra
And now, the grand finale: filming a symphony orchestra with just one camera. I'm sure many of you have seen PBS productions featuring multiple cameras and lots of switching to make a sophisticated show. I've seen my share, and I don't think it is a problem to videotape an orchestra with a single camera if you do your homework. I've been lucky in that I'm already familiar with most of the standard orchestral repertoire from school, am able to hear entrances easily, and have an innate sense of "where to go" when the music moves from one passage or movement to another.

But everybody has to start somewhere, and the best place to start is with the conductor. The conductor is your best source of information for setting up for your orchestral shoot.

The conductor is the leader of the orchestra. She controls everything; she knows everything when it comes to her music. A skilled conductor knows her score inside out. Because of that, for your first several shoots, find out from the conductor what's important, who's soloing when, and if there are ensemble portions, musical "surprises," or other parts that matter so that you can focus on them. Take notes, and bring them with you to the shoot. Better yet, listen to the works before the shoot; you'll become familiar with those portions you need to recognize when shooting.

And when you're capturing that orchestral performance, above all, don't rush! If you hear an entrance you need to move to, do a nice, smooth pan to it. Since you're shooting this with a single camera, there are no edit outs, so make the movements count. Do some pull-zooms as necessary—pull wide at the end of a passage to show the group you've been concentrating on and the next group you're going to, and then zoom back in to show the new target group.

figure 1Obviously, because the orchestra is populated with different classes of musical instruments, this won't work all the time, but will serve you well if you're shooting adjacent sections like winds to trumpets, winds to violas, violins to conductor, etc. Don't be afraid to zoom in on a soloist and dwell for a bit. Mix groupings up like the violins and conductor, cello and conductor, or percussion and French horns. If there's a harpist or piano, shoot them solo at times and with mixed combinations as the situation permits. Remember, don't make sudden moves because you won't be editing them out (although you should probably have a second, unmanned camera set wide rolling as a fallback until you feel comfortable enough to shoot solo).

My final, yet very important tip: Keep the conductor onscreen for at least half the concert, even if you need to frame her in with the entire violin or cello sections. Usually, the conductor is the one paying you.

There are many more intricacies involved in classical music videography, but in this article I wanted to provide an introduction to this specialized market. Classical music is one of the smallest segments of the music market, and this is reflected in the relatively limited availability of videography work in this niche. Ironically, listeners and supporters of classical music are also the smallest percentage of society—the wealthiest one!

The upside is that if you enjoy classical music, or if you want to widen your knowledge of the repertoire, this is a great chance to do so. Keep in mind that "classical" music isn't necessarily Beethoven and Mozart; there are plenty of new works commissioned yearly, computer music concerts, symphonic arrangements of rock songs, not to mention choral performances.

If you become adept at videotaping classical work, you may also develop a following. Many of my clients at Peabody were students from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China (Peabody recruits new talent from Asia like NCAA basketball coaches cruise high schools here), and after a while, these students would refer friends coming to Maryland or the D.C. area to have me shoot their recitals—with not one bit of advertising on my part!

All performance stills courtesy of Ronald J. Gretz, Conductor, Maryland Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jery Winters, co-owner of Unforgettable Events and Video Trainers with his wife, EventDV contributing editor Luisa Winters, and inventor of the JeryJig and other camera accessories, is an audio engineer at the University of Maryland-College Park.