Venue change, Sheffield, Thursday 17th November 2016

We’re using a different venue for this week’s session in Sheffield, as the Springs Academy isn’t available. We’ll be at Westfield Sports Centre, Eckington Rd, Sothall, Sheffield S20 1HQ. This is just down the road from the Crystal Peaks shopping centre.
When you arrive at the school, the entrance from the road takes you into the Upper car park. Drive through this and follow the signs for the Lower car park. You can park in the Lower car park. The entrance we’ll be using is in the far corner of the Lower car park – marked as an entrance for the Leisure Centre. Once you’re inside the building, the staff at reception will guide you towards the Hall, where we’ll run the session. It is on the 1st floor, but there is a lift available for people with mobility issues.
We look forward to seeing you there!

BeVox Summer Picnic 2016

To round off the BeVox year in style, we had a picnic at Clumber Park today. It was a really great experience – sharing good food and good company with so many members of the BeVox community. We had everything from fun games (Frisbee, hula-hooping, bubble-blowing), to a sneaky peek at next season’s songs. That was particularly funny as it happened – the expressions on the faces of the other families around the park was priceless when the “Christmas: Impossible!” medley started blaring out! It was also really lovely to see how many “supporters” had joined us – the husbands, wives, children, and friends that are just as much a part of BeVox as the singers are. We recognise that being a family member of a BeVox singer can require a little patience occasionally, so it’s great to share the fun with everyone together.

The BeVox Summer Picnic 2016, Clumber Park
The BeVox Summer Picnic 2016, Clumber Park

Of course, this wasn’t just our summer picnic – we were also celebrating my Dad (Rob)’s 70th birthday. It was lovely to have several members of my family sharing the fun with us all – my brother Dan and his partner Sam, my Mum and Dad, my Grandma Joy and Uncle Phil. The birthday boy had a really incredible day, and I was very touched when he told everyone assembled that it was great to spend the day surrounded by so many new friends. Toni made him a birthday cake, which was admired by all!

The birthday boy - my Dad on his 70th birthday at the BeVox Summer Picnic
The birthday boy – my Dad on his 70th birthday at the BeVox Summer Picnic
The cake that Toni made for Rob's 70th birthday
The cake that Toni made for Rob’s 70th birthday

Quite a large number of us had taken my brother Dan up on his offer of preparing food for the picnic, rather than bringing our own. Boy, what a spread he brought! I’m very lucky to have such a talented and accomplished chef for a brother – the only reason why I’m not twice my size is because he lives so far away! The comments from everyone who sampled his food were that it was really first-rate – I overhead one of our singers telling Dan that the trifle he prepared for dessert was the best pudding he’d had in years.

Smoked salmon for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of "Gravy & Custard"
Smoked salmon for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of “Gravy & Custard”
3-day roast pastrami for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of "Gravy & Custard"
3-day roast pastrami for the BeVox 2016 Summer Picnic, prepared by Daniel Allen of “Gravy & Custard”

After we were all stuffed from the food, a good number of us strolled over to the beautiful chapel in the grounds of Clumber Park, where we had planned to have a bit of a sing. Technical gremlins forced us to be creative, as all the backing tracks seemed to have flown from my phone – so we sang a number of songs a capella. This was quite a different challenge, as most of our songs really aren’t designed to be sung without accompaniment, and the end result was… variable – but huge fun regardless, and when it worked, it really worked!

All in all, the day was a fantastic chance for us to celebrate what BeVox is really about – the people that make up our incredible community. It was about friendship, fellowship, and coming together. We had an absolute blast – so much so that we’ve decided that this needs to be an annual event. We’ve spoken to the people at the National Trust who look after us whenever we perform at Clumber Park, and they are very happy for us to return every summer, so today can now be referred to as the inaugural BeVox Annual Summer Picnic!

The start of Evolution

For a long time, I’ve wanted to do more than I currently do with BeVox. I love everything we do with the choir, but there are natural limitations to the musical standards that it’s possible to achieve with a non-auditioned, amateur community choir. A few years ago, I thought the answer was to start a separate, professional ensemble. I tried that for a year, and it didn’t work out. Ever since, I’ve been trying out different ideas in my head about how I could scratch this musical itch. It was only at the beginning of this year that I realised why I couldn’t find an answer – I was looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If I wanted to work on higher musical standards, I needed to do that within the context of BeVox, not separately from it. I needed to work out how to do that without compromising on the open-access nature of the choir, as it’s so important for BeVox to remain open and welcoming to those who may not have sung before. At the same time, there was a real opportunity to offer something more to those people who were ready to take the next step – to begin a gradual process that would improve the musical standards of the whole choir by offering additional training and insights to those who wanted them, and were ready for them. It was time for Evolution.

It took a while to work out exactly how this process would work, and as with every transformative process, it’s still a work in progress. It has already changed in response to feedback from within the choir. One of the most important aspects of what we’re trying to achieve is that it mustn’t create an “us and them” situation, where people who aren’t part of Evolution feel like they’re missing out or being left behind. Everything we do with Evolution needs to be for the good of the whole choir, not just the people involved in Evolution. There are lots of things we’ve put in place to make sure this happens – not least, the process of teaching more advanced techniques and skills to the Evolution group will help me develop my ability to teach at this level, which I can then start to feed into the choir as a whole. The whole thing is very much about learning together, and sharing the fruits of that learning with everyone. As the idea has grown over the last few months, I’ve been more and more excited about it. Yesterday, we held our initial workshop – the first time people could try out what we’re offering with Evolution, see if it was something they wanted, and see if they were ready to work at this more focussed intensity. The results were thrilling.

We had nearly sixty singers at the workshop – more than I’d initially thought would be interested, and that was exciting in itself. A lot of them were very nervous about what they’d be asked to do. I’d asked everyone to learn and memorise three songs specifically for the workshop, so we could focus just on the techniques I wanted to teach, and not spend time learning the notes. People were aware that, if I didn’t think they were ready for Evolution, they might not “get in”, and for some people that was a real worry. No-one needed to worry though – it became clear during the course of the workshop that everyone there was ready to work at the level I was expecting, so I was able to let everyone know on the spot that they could be a part of Evolution if they chose to. I think the sense of relief in the room at that point was palpable!

It was really rewarding to be able to focus on some detailed bits of technique during the workshop. We took the songs to a new level, even just within a single afternoon. It was also a fantastic opportunity for me to identify what further work we can do – even though the songs we worked on became a lot stronger during the workshop, I could see just how much stronger they could still become. I’m really excited about developing the content of the coming sessions so we can really hone those songs, and our collective technique, to the point that they’ve achieved their full potential. It’s going to be an amazing journey, and I’m absolutely buzzing about taking the next step.

Onwards and upwards

It’s been a long time since I lasted posted a blog – too long! Here’s a quick update of what’s happening with the choir.

Our Spring season, running January to April, went really well – lots of good singing, great concerts, and fun times had together. The concerts at the end of the season got fantastic comments from audience members, and a number of people who had never seen BeVox before spoke to us about just how impressive the whole experience was. We’ve got a number of new recruits for the Summer season – people who saw us perform and thought, “I want to be a part of that!”.

We also continued doing events that support various different charities, and as a result of this work, the total amount that we’ve helped to raise since we started has now exceeded £55,000 – something we’re very proud of.

We got off to a slightly bumpy start to the Summer season in Lincoln, as we were stranded on the A1 and couldn’t make it down for the first session of the season – we’re really looking forward to getting things kicked off properly in Lincoln next week. Everywhere else, it was great to be back together and making a joyous noise. The music for this season is such fun to sing, and it was sounding pretty fantastic after just one session – I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like at the end of the season!

Our “big concert” this season is “The BeVox Show”, at Leeds Town Hall, on Sunday 24th July – 4pm. Tickets are on sale already, from the Leeds Town Hall box office – you can get them by calling 0113 376 0318, or you can book online at www.leeds.gov.uk/townhall

We’re launching a new initiative this month – BeVox Evolution. This is a chance for us to raise the musical standards of the choir still further, by offering additional training to those who want it and are ready for it. You can find out more about this at www.bevox.co.uk/evolution

We’re working on several really exciting projects for later in the year too – we’re very close to being able to announce the details of our big concert in December, and we have a number of other special events that are in the pipeline. We’ll release more information once everything is confirmed. Until then, take care, and have fun!

Nottingham sessions affected by the football

We love singing at our usual session venue in Nottingham, the West Bridgford Methodist Church. It’s a great venue to sing in, with really good acoustics, and the people that run it are incredibly friendly and helpful. It does have two related downsides though – parking isn’t always easy, and as the church is just down the road from Nottingham Forest’s football ground, parking becomes a serious issue on match days. Last night was one of those occasions, and I know there were some choir members who drove around for half an hour trying to find somewhere to park, and ended up giving up and going home again! Obviously this isn’t ideal, but sadly there’s not a lot we can do about it, except to publicise the dates when parking is likely to be a bigger problem than usual, and encourage people to come early if they can on those dates.

There are only two more dates we’re currently aware of when Forest are playing at home whilst we have a session. These are:

  • 26th January (Week 4 of Spring season)
  • 8th March (Week 10 of Spring season)

You can find the complete list of Forest’s fixtures here, which might be useful for the future.

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year!

2015 was a big year for us, in many ways. BeVox celebrated its fifth birthday, which felt like a real milestone. We recorded our first ever CD, and had our busiest year ever when it comes to number of performances, and number of singers singing with us. We helped to raise nearly £12,000 for charity in 2015, taking the total we’ve helped to raise since we started to over £42,000. And amongst all that, we managed to squeeze a wedding in too!

The New Year is a time for looking forward as well as looking back, and we have lots to look forward to. We have a number of big concerts planned for 2016, as well as continuing our smaller, community-based events too. The bigger events include “Let us entertain you”, our first big concert in Lincoln, at the Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on Sunday 17th April. We’ve also got exciting plans for our big concert for the summer in Wakefield, which will see us at a new venue (for us) – more details will be available soon. We’re exploring a couple of different options for our 2016 Christmas concert too (yes, we’re thinking about next Christmas already!) – one of those options would be absolutely jaw-dropping if we can pull it off, so we’re working hard to make it happen if we can.

On top of the usual run of events, we have some other plans for 2016 too. Not all of these are ready to be revealed yet, as we’d always rather wait until things are definite before announcing them. I will mention though that we have ideas for some exciting workshops this summer, and a brand new initiative that will really raise our standards – without changing our open-to-anyone ethos. We’re also planning to develop our relationships with other leading musicians, which could open some very interesting doors…

2016 feels like a year of possibilities – a year in which change is inevitable. That sounds rather exciting to me, and I can’t wait to get started!

CD mastering and recording

Advance warning: This is a really technical post, which I’m posting because I’d mentioned in an email that I could go into more detail about the process of recording and mastering a CD for anyone that was interested, and I received an email from one of our singers saying they were interested. If the technical details of mastering a CD aren’t thrilling to you, feel very free to skip this post!!


We recently recorded our first CD – “BeVox: The First Five Years”. The recording was done using several high-grade microphones, and with the backing track being played back in the room at the lowest level we could get away with. In order to allow the backing track to be heard without picking up too many bass frequencies, when it was played for us to sing to during the recording it was heavily EQed – virtually all the bass frequencies were stripped out, and the treble frequencies seriously boosted. As the higher frequencies carry the majority of the “pitch” information, and the bass frequencies carry the majority of the “rhythm” information (a simplification, but a convenient one), this allowed us to remain in tune with the track without overloading the microphones with the more energetic bass frequencies. The human ear can’t hear sounds below about 50 Hz, but these still carry audio energy, so the less of these frequencies we record, the less wasted energy there’ll be in the recording. (As an aside, we had a few problems staying in tune with the track on the first day of recording – I tweaked the EQ to boost the treble further on the second day and it made a big difference).

Jules and Robert at 4 Part Music then went away and mixed the recording. They took the outputs from all the mics in the room, and then offset them by a few milliseconds depending on the distance from each microphone to the “optimal listening point” – essentially, where I stood to conduct the choir. Sound travels at 330 metres per second, and this means that if someone is stood 33 metres from me when they sing, the sound will reach my ears 0.1 seconds later. If someone else in the choir is stood 16.5 metres from me (half the distance), the sound from them will reach my ears 0.05 seconds later (half the time). As we had several different microphones placed around the choir, the timings for each of them needed to be offset so that the sound they recorded all hits the listeners’ ears at the same time as each other. They also slightly reduced the stereo width of the recording – because we’d been spread quite wide in the recording room, the sound felt too separated initially, as though the sopranos were nowhere near the altos. Reducing the stereo width made the sound more compact, more “together”.

Next, Jules and Robert mixed in the backing tracks we’d sung to, and adjusted the volume of the track and the output from each microphone to create a good balance. They added a very small amount of artificial reverb to compensate for the fact that the room we recorded in had quite a “dead” acoustic. (Actually, this process of adding reverb is something which really appeals to the geeky side of me. Up until about 10-15 years ago, reverb was added purely artificially – various algorithms calculated the changes that needed to be made to a sound to make it appear more “live”. In the last decade or so, a new system has been introduced – convolution reverb. Acoustic engineers go into spaces with interesting reverb characteristics, and using highly sensitive and carefully set-up microphones, they record the sound of various different frequencies being played in that space. Highly sophisticated software then strips out the sound of the tones that were played, and captures the sound of just the reverberations from that source tone – essentially capturing the sound of the room. This can then be applied to any sound source you choose – making it sound like the recording you’ve done in a really dead space has been transported to the location where the reverb was recorded. I’ve got a great collection of convolution reverb sounds – everything from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Budapest, to a tiled bathroom!).

Jules and Robert finished their part of the process by mastering the tracks – bringing them all to a consistent volume across the whole CD, and smoothing out any variations in sound from track to track. Their approach to mastering was very “hands off” – they didn’t do anything that particularly interfered with the source sound.

I then took their finished tracks, and applied my own set of mastering tools to it. First of all, I removed any frequencies below 50 Hz. These can’t be heard by the human ear, but still carry audio energy, so I needed to remove them before I started on the next part of the process. By pulling out the frequencies below 50 Hz, some of the low frequencies from 50 Hz to 100 Hz were diminished too. These don’t affect the sound of the choir particularly, as the lowest note I usually write for the basses is a low G, which is 98 Hz. Admittedly, there is a low D (73 Hz) for the basses in “Let me go”, so I adjusted the EQ curve for this song.

I then mixed in the original backing tracks again, but applied some very heavy EQ settings – only letting frequencies below about 120 Hz through. This puts back some of the bass end that was stripped out by the first set of EQing I did – but only the bass frequencies from the backing track, not from the microphones on the choir. This allows the kick drum, bass guitar and double bass sounds to retain their warmth without including any low rumbles from the live mics in the recording room. (For the recording equipment geeks out there, all the EQing was done using FabFilter Pro-Q 2).

Next up was some multi-band compression. Compressors essentially take the louder sounds and make them a little quieter. You can also boost the overall volume with most compressors, so essentially you’re making the quiet stuff louder and the loud stuff quieter – thereby compressing the overall variation in volume. The multi-band compression I applied at this stage applies a very small amount of compression to each of five overlapping frequency bands, and the idea is to smooth out any sudden loud noises. Applying it in different frequency bands means that if there’s a sudden loud noise in the higher frequencies (a cymbal crash, for example), the volume of this is reduced without affecting the volume of the lower frequencies. This is done with quite a light touch, so it doesn’t make a huge difference to the sound, but it makes the next step in the process a lot easier. (This was done with Cakewalk’s LP64 Multiband Compressor – cheap and cheerful, but it does the job).

The final stage comes in two parts – making subtle adjustments to the overall track level to compensate for sections that are particularly quiet (such as the introduction to “You raise me up”), in conjunction with applying a level-boosting tool that allows me to increase the overall volume without making the loud bits too loud! This applies some really clever compression algorithms, reducing the volume of “transients” – sudden spikes of sound that can occur at the onset of certain sounds, particularly short, high-frequency sounds like a hi-hat cymbal or a singer singing a word beginning with the letter T. By reducing the volume of these incredibly short but high-volume sounds, the maximum volume the track reaches is reduced without changing how loud the track sounds. This then enables me to turn the volume of the track up without getting any distortion on these brief peaks. (All the final mastering transient compression was done using the Slate Digital FG-X Mastering Processor – a truly miraculous piece of kit, used in top-flight studios around the world).

The overall effect of all of this processing is to reduce the difference in acoustic energy between the quietest and loudest bits of the track, whilst preserving the overall sound. In a typical classical orchestral recording, the difference between the quietest and loudest sections might be as much as 20 or 30 decibels. Most modern pop and rock recordings have a difference of around 6 decibels or less. The practical outcome of this is that it’s hard to listen to classical orchestral recordings if there’s much background noise, such as in the car whilst you’re driving. The road noise obliterates the quieter material, unless you turn the volume right up, and then the louder sections are deafening! This is the approach that the guys at 4 Part Music had applied to their initial mastering – it gives the recording a real sense of space and room to breathe, which sounds great when listening at home in a quiet room. I wanted people to be able to listen to our CD in any environment – I suspect a number of people will have it on in the car, and so I took a more “pop” approach to the mastering. The difference in overall volume from the quietest to the loudest sections of our CD is around 10 decibels – more than in a commercial pop record, but a lot less than a typical classical record. This seemed like a sensible compromise between the space and headroom of a less compressed recording, and the practicality of a more compressed sound.

The end results will be available on our CD “BeVox: The First Five Years”. This will be delivered to those who took part in the recording, and those who pre-ordered, in the second half of October, all being well. After that, the CD will be available for sale at all our concerts, priced £8.

 

Venue change, Sheffield, 24th September 2015

Our usual venue of Sheffield Springs Academy isn’t available on 24th September, so we’ll be relocating for this one session. Our alternative venue this time will be the Memorial Hall at Sheffield City Hall – a great venue, and we’re thrilled to be able to have it for this session.

Access to the Memorial Hall is at the back of the City Hall. The main entrance, with the big pillars and steps, overlooking the fountain, will be used for that evening’s concert in the Irwin Mitchell Hall, so please don’t use the main entrance. There is an entrance at the side (on the right as you’re looking at City Hall from the front), which is for the Ballroom – we’re not using this entrance either! Right at the back of the building, on the curved wall, there is the entrance for the Memorial Hall – also often used for the Comedy Club, which takes place in the Memorial Hall. This will be our entrance. It is a street-level entrance, with no steps, and will be manned throughout the night by a City Hall steward. You can see this curved wall clearly on the map here.

There is limited car parking in the Holly Street car park (£1.50/hour) directly opposite the City Hall stage door, and further parking in the Carver Lane car park next to Holly Street. There are several other car parks nearby, most of which are reasonably priced – see http://en.parkopedia.co.uk/parking/sheffield_city_hall/ for more options.

If anyone has any questions or concerns about this venue change, please get in touch using the details on the Contact page of the main BeVox website.

Anniversary celebrations

We’re just home from our incredible weekend celebrating the 5th anniversary of BeVox. It’s been a brilliant time, shared with so many people, with lots of others willing us on from afar too. From the moment people came together for the workshop on Friday afternoon, we knew we were in for a pretty amazing time. The camaraderie was brilliant, with people forging new friendships as well as strengthening existing ones. Throughout the whole weekend, the support people showed for each other was second to none. This ranged from the big things (real emotional, physical and even financial support), to little gestures like the whoops and cheers people gave to EVERYONE who got up to sing at the party, and the singers who bought coffee to surprise the recording engineer on Sunday. It’s all this support and camaraderie that makes BeVox the community that it is, so it felt utterly right to have it shown in such abundance for our anniversary celebrations.

The flash mob on Friday night was great fun – and showed that even if you plan something, you can always improve on it with a little improvisation! Instead of trying to cram everyone into the foyer of the Spa theatre, after a quick meeting with the duty manager we headed outside instead – so we really were “dancing in the street”! Ben, the husband of one of our singers, Anne, filmed the whole thing, which is now on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/TEMD9DgHihU

Quite a lot of us then went to watch the show in the Spa theatre that night – “The Best of Thoroughly Modern Musicals”. The performers were great – and they clearly appreciated having such a lively and vocal audience! I wasn’t expecting it when they made reference to the flash mob in their show, so I was even more surprised when the following day I was passed the phone number of their producer, who is apparently interested in doing some work with us – who knows, maybe next year we’ll be doing a whole summer season in Scarborough!

The Best of Thoroughly Modern Musicals
The Best of Thoroughly Modern Musicals

We got stuck into the recording on Saturday and Sunday. This was a new experience for virtually all of our singers, and a very different one from singing in concerts. The focus and concentration needed was hard work, particularly when we were also trying our best not to get too serious and lose that fun edge that defines us as BeVox! Both days of recording were tiring, but very rewarding. Although we got a couple of sneaky peeks at how things sounded on the day, of course these were only the raw tracks before they’d been mixed and properly produced, so we’ll all have to wait a while before we hear the finished product. I know everyone will be keen to hear it when it’s ready!

The view from the conductor's podium
The view from the conductor’s podium

Then of course it was party time! The Spa’s magnificent Ocean Room had been transformed from recording studio into glitzy party venue, and everyone arrived in high spirits. Toni and I even got to practice a “receiving line”! It was lovely to see everyone letting their hair down, and sharing in good food, good music, and exceptional company. A number of people got up to sing to everyone – hats off to each and every one of them. We had a few trips down memory lane by singing some BeVox songs from the past, and then we partied until midnight with some serious dancing!

Dancing at the party
Dancing at the party

Thank you to everyone who has shared in the first five years of BeVox, in whatever form and for however much of that time. We’ve had a blast, and we can’t wait to share the next five years with you too!

Until next time...
Until next time…