Behind the scenes at BeVox: A week in the life (episode 2)

Part One of this post is here

Part Two: Bank Holiday weekend

Saturday 26th May: Mainly non-work related

I was up at 8am, which gave me chance for a shower and a catch-up on the news before I had to leave the house. It’s Toni’s birthday in August, and as it’s a big one (40), I’m planning lots of little surprises for her. I had an appointment to put some of those plans in motion, which kept me out of the house until about 1pm (I took the BeVox van for a quick wash on the way home). After lunch, Toni and I had to deal with an issue that had come in by email, which took a few hours – although this was business-related, it was also a little sensitive, so I’m not going to write about it here. We were both a little deflated by the time we’d dealt with that, so we decided to take the evening off. We’re going on holiday in August, for the first time since our honeymoon three years ago, so we did some planning for that instead!

Sunday 27th May: Rehearsal tracks

We had a bit of a lie-in, and I wasn’t up and working until 10:30am. Our usual daily schedule runs a couple of hours later than most people’s – because we don’t normally get to bed until between 2 and 3 in the morning, we tend to start the day a little later. I got back to fixing and mixing the tracks for our Summer Singing Day, and I had all the tracks done and ready for Toni’s vocals by lunchtime (about 2:15pm). This weekend was the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco, and I like to watch the races if I can, so I spent a few hours over lunch enjoying watching cars going round in circles.

After lunch, I recorded Toni singing most of the alto parts for the Summer Singing Day rehearsal tracks. We worked through until about 7pm, by which point Toni’s voice was getting a little tired, so we stopped – we’d only got one track left to finish, and there was no point pushing Toni’s voice to do this one when we could come back to it the following day. I began fixing and mixing the tracks we’d just recorded. I called it a night around 9:30pm.

Monday 28th May (Bank Holiday): Rehearsal tracks, backing tracks, business meeting

I was determined to finish the rehearsal materials for the Summer Singing Day, so I launched straight into work on the remaining tracks when I got up at 9:45am. I finished all the work I could by 11:30am – I just needed to record Toni’s vocals for the final song, then I could complete the mixing.

For any programme of music we sing as a choir, I have a list of jobs to do, and an order in which they’re usually done.

  1. Choose the songs
  2. Secure permissions to arrange and perform them
  3. Write arrangements for voices
  4. Lay out the sheet music
  5. Record a guide piano part for the rehearsal tracks
  6. Record the vocals for the rehearsal tracks
  7. Tidy up the rehearsal track vocals
  8. Mix the rehearsal tracks
  9. Write orchestrations for the backing tracks
  10. Lay out the sheet music for the orchestrated parts (for an orchestral arrangement, I typically create 4 different pieces of sheet music: 1 for all the woodwind instruments, 1 for all the brass, 1 for percussion, and 1 for strings)
  11. Record each individual instrumental part (using a keyboard to play the part, with the sound being provided by “virtual instruments” – I’ll provide more information on this part of the process in a future blog)
  12. Mix the backing track

In some circumstances, I’m able to change the order of these steps around a little – if we have a song that really relies on the orchestration to be effective, or if I’ve booked our session singers significantly in advance, I can do the final four steps (creating the backing track) before I record the vocals for the rehearsal track, which means I can include the backing track on the rehearsal track rather than using a guide piano part.

For the music we’re singing as part of the Summer Singing Day, I’ve got this whole process to do for 4 out of the 5 songs – as we’ve sung the Les Mis medley before, I don’t have to do new rehearsal tracks or a new backing track… or so you’d think. I’m actually going to create a new backing track for it, because I’ve updated the tools I use to create backing tracks so much since I first created a track for the medley, I can make it sound a LOT better now. I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to backing tracks, and I’m just not happy with the track I previously used now that I know I can improve it. I’m going to do a future blog post showing how I create a backing track, and in that, I’ll do a comparison between the old version and the new version so you can hear the difference.

So, after doing all the work I could on the rehearsal tracks before I recorded Toni’s final vocal, I jumped in to Step 10 of the process for the Les Mis medley – preparing sheet music for the instrumental parts. I’d already written an orchestration, but at the beginning of this year I swapped the software I use to write music on the computer. I’d previously spent around 20 years using Sibelius, but I’ve now swapped to Dorico – a new program, but one that is rapidly becoming the best in its field. I needed to transfer the score for the Les Mis medley from Sibelius to Dorico, then do the “laying out” of the sheet music for the instrumental parts. This is a lot quicker to do in Dorico than it was in Sibelius, but it can still be a bit fiddly. I finished this up around 1:30pm, and took a break for lunch.

After lunch, Toni and I had planned a business meeting. We have these at random intervals, whenever we feel that we need to go through all the different projects we have on the go and get a handle on where we are with each of them. It can be really handy to get an overview of everything we have on our plates, and often results in us passing jobs from one person to the other so that we have a better distribution of the workload. The notes from this meeting were really helpful, and will shape how we work for the next few months. We did a bullet-point list of the jobs we have to do – everything from immediate tasks (send an email to everyone who has signed up for this season in Nottingham with some information about the following day’s session) to jobs that need doing for events that are a year away (our massive event for April 2019). The list ran to four A4 pages!

Once we’d finished the meeting, we recorded Toni’s vocals for “Can you feel the love tonight?” – the final song to be completed for the Summer Singing Day. This didn’t take too long, and afterwards I launched straight into tidying the recording up and mixing it. Once all the mixing was done, I went through and exported the rehearsal tracks for each voice part for each song, then uploaded them to BeVox OnLine. By this point, we had four non-BeVox singers who had signed up to take part in the Summer Singing Day, so I sent them a link to the rehearsal materials too. This took me through to 9pm.

I wanted to make further progress on the Les Mis medley, so I went to print the orchestral parts out – only for my computer to have an argument with me about whether it could “see” our printer or not. The printer lives in Toni’s office, but it’s on our wireless network, so we can print to it from anywhere in the house, in theory. It seems to work fine from all our computers and laptops, except my audio PC (which is where I run Dorico, and so is where I wanted to print the scores from). I spent about half an hour trying lots of different approaches to fix the problem, and in the end, admitted defeat – I exported the scores from Dorico as PDF files, transferred them onto my “admin” computer, and printed them from there! I set up the track ready to start recording the orchestral parts, and began by playing in a good chunk of the string parts (the strings tend to play most of the way through, whereas the other sections of the orchestra have bits of the song where they don’t play much, so it makes sense to get the strings down first). Again, I’ll go into more detail about how this process works in a future blog post, but for now, I’ll just say that I recorded the first pass of the string parts for all the different instruments before calling it a night at 11:30pm – just in time for dinner!

Part Three of this post is here

Behind the scenes at BeVox: A week in the life (episode 1)

I’ve had a few conversations with singers recently who have wanted to know more about what goes into running the choir. Often these conversations have been from people wanting to understand how the music gets put together, but other areas of the choir have come up too, such as how we organise concerts, or simply how much travelling we do. In order to give a little bit of insight into what’s involved in running BeVox, I thought I’d chronicle the events of a random week. As I’m starting to write this, I have no idea what the week ahead will have in store, and whether it will be at all typical or not – I’ll provide some context about that at the end of the week! This only covers the work I’m doing – Toni had her own working week too, which was at least as full as mine.

Part One: Friday

Friday, 25th May 2018: Weekly email, admin, arranging and rehearsal tracks

An unusual start to the day – I woke up at 7am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I thought I may as well come down to the office and get started. One of the great things about working from home is that the morning commute is pretty simple – just walk down a flight of stairs! Toni and I each have our own office room in the house – Toni’s is full of stationary, printers, and storage for paperwork and CDs, whilst mine is my home studio, with keyboards, microphones and other recording equipment. I run two different computers in my office – an old and noisy machine that I do all my admin on, and a high-end, silent PC that handles all the audio. I’ll be moving between both today, as I have some admin jobs to do, plus some work on musical things.

I started the day by writing the weekly email – an email that we send out each week to all our singers who are singing in the current season, containing details of what we’ve covered in this week’s sessions, what we’ll be doing next week, and all the upcoming concerts for the season (and sometimes for events up to a year ahead). We’ve got stuff about the GDPR in this week’s email, along with info on auditioning for solos. There’s also our usual statistics – how many people attended each session this week, and how that compares to trends in previous seasons etc. These statistics are pulled from a reporting tool I wrote, which is connected to BeVox OnLine, our web application – and because Toni hadn’t had chance to process the previous night’s session into BeVox OnLine yet, I left the statistics off the email for now, and saved it as a draft.

Writing the weekly email always highlights other jobs that need doing, and this week was no exception. Looking at the list of forthcoming events, I could see that there were some where the voice part balance wasn’t quite right. I checked the reserve list and found that we had some people of the right voice types to balance the events, and we’d had offers to step down from people in the over-represented voice parts, so I was able to balance these events – thanking the people who had volunteered to step down, and emailing some people on the reserve lists to tell them they now have a place. We’re also opening up our Summer Singing Day to singers from other choirs this week, so I put together the online application form for that, put a page on the main BeVox website with the details, and included a link in the weekly email. (If you sing with another choir and would like to join us, the information is at

I finished the first draft of the weekly email at 10:15am – three hours is a little longer than it normally takes, but not by much. I never send my first draft – Toni gives it a read-through, then we discuss it before it is sent. She often either spots something I’ve missed, or suggest a better wording for something that makes it clearer.

The next three-quarters of an hour was taken up by reading and responding to email. I normally go through my email at least once a day, but often I’ll just flag the emails that require a response and write my responses when I’m not in the middle of musical things. This morning was a chance to respond to a few emails that had been waiting for a day or two.

I switched to my audio computer at 11am, ready to work on some of the music for the Autumn season. I’d set aside part of the day to work on an arrangement of Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”. I have a couple of different approaches I can take to writing an arrangement – sometimes I write out the melody line and accompaniment by listening to the original carefully, a few seconds at a time, and then transcribing it, but today I’d bought a copy of the sheet music for the song, and began by entering that into my notation software (I use a program called Dorico now – I swapped from my previous software, Sibelius, last season). It took about half an hour to input the music, then another half hour to check this against the original recording and make changes. Almost all commercially available sheet music contains simplifications – either bits where the rhythm has been straightened out to make it easier to read, or where little variations of pitch in the singer’s rendition have been removed. I like to start with a version that is absolutely accurate to what the singer originally sang – I very occasionally make small simplifications myself, but generally I like to notate exactly what’s on the original record. Once I’ve got that written down, I can start to arrange it for the choir.

A took a lunch break at 12, and as well as grabbing a bite to eat, Toni and I had a catch up, and watched a bit of telly (another advantage of working from home!). After lunch, I went back to working on my “Merry Xmas Everybody” arrangement. In the middle of that, I had a call from a PR agency asking if we would be able to sing for a product launch they were promoting. After getting all the details, I had to turn it down – they wanted about an hour of music, and the event was in two weeks’ time. We won’t have the full summer programme learnt by then, so we couldn’t help them out. They’re keeping our details on file in case we can work for them in the future.

The interruption took me out of my creative flow, so I did a couple of other little admin jobs – it was the last Friday of the month, and that’s payday for us, so I processed the payroll and submitted our National Insurance and PAYE payments to HMRC. I didn’t want to abandon musical work for the day, so I went back to the audio PC to keep working on the arrangement.

I finished the arrangement of “Merry Xmas Everybody” at about 5:30pm – it was a fairly easy one to write. Listening to the original recording made me spot some backing vocals I’d never really noticed before, so I worked those into the arrangement. Once the writing was done, I reviewed the work I’d done on other songs for the autumn season earlier in the week – it’s often useful for me to go back to things I wrote a few days ago and listen to them with fresh ears. I made a few tweaks, then asked Toni to come in and listen through to everything I’ve written or changed in the last week or so. Toni acts as “quality control” for the arrangements – she’ll often spot something that is a bit clunky or not clear, and get me to go back and have another look at a section. Everything passed muster this time around though, so by 6:30pm I was done with arranging for the day.

I wanted another brief break to clear my head before moving on to the next job for the day, so I spent a little while playing a computer game (Hearthstone, for anyone who’s interested!). I was ready to get back to work by about 7 o’clock, so I opened up my audio recording and mixing software to work on the rehearsal tracks for our Summer Singing Day. We recorded the soprano parts with Eloise at her flat in Twickenham a couple of weeks ago, and I’d recorded the tenor and bass parts myself just prior to that (it wasn’t practical to get together with Alastair, our usual session singer for the tenor and bass parts, this time around, so I sang the lower parts myself). We did the alto part for “I could have danced all night” with Eloise too, but we’re planning to record the other alto parts with Toni over the weekend. I went through the recordings we’d already done, “topping and tailing” (basically, tidying up the bits where we’d recorded some phrases separately to others), then setting up the basic effects processing for each vocal line (every part gets three main effects applied – compression, which makes the quiet bits louder and the loud bits quieter, reverb, which makes it sound like it was recorded in a nice space rather than someone’s front room, and EQ, which prevents high notes sounding harsh and helps lower notes sound warm without lacking detail). I also applied some artificial tuning tools to some of the phrases I sang – I’d recorded them late at night, with a tired voice, and some of the notes were a little flat. I can adjust them back into tune again afterwards, and it’s barely noticeable, but it does mean going through every note I sang and adjusting it manually if it needs it – this can be quite a time-consuming process. It typically takes me about five times as long to fix a single vocal take as it does to sing it, so a four minute song can easily take twenty minutes for each vocal line that needs adjusting. I did all of this, and did a basic mix of the three songs that were waiting for a vocal from Toni. I then did a proper mix of “I could have danced all night”, and exported the rehearsal tracks from that. I stopped work at 10pm, ready to make some dinner.

Part Two of this post is here

Looking back on Spring 2018

We’ve done virtually all of our Spring concerts now – our big “Sounds of the Sixties” event in Sheffield last Saturday, and our end of season concerts in Lincoln on Monday and Nottingham on Wednesday. We still have Hilton Grange coming up, but I thought now was a good time to look back on the season, and the concerts, and reflect.

The season, especially the end

We’ve had an amount of disruption this season, for one reason or another – different venues, the “Beast from the East” etc. Another choir has started in Nottingham, which has attracted a number of people who have previously sung with us, and this (along with the ongoing parking problems at our venue) has led to quite a fall in numbers – which in turn has worried those people who are still singing with us.

I’d just like to say – don’t worry! BeVox is an incredible community, and all of the things that could have brought us down this season have instead only served to make us stronger. The lower numbers in Nottingham haven’t meant that the group has weakened – those people who have been with us this season have raised their game, and the sound has been fantastic. (Oh, and by the way, we’d just like to make it clear that we’re happy for the people who have joined other choirs – we’ve always said that what we really care about is that people are singing, rather than who they’re singing with. It’s important that people sing with a choir that is right for them, and if people have tried another choir and found it suits them better than us, for whatever reason, that’s good – we’re pleased they’re happy! If it doesn’t work out in their new choir, for whatever reason, they’d be welcome back with us too – we wouldn’t want anyone thinking we had any kind of problem with people who have sung with another choir.)

The atmosphere in the sessions during the last week of the season was electric. The problems caused by the snow just spurred people on to give it their all, and I was blown away by the energy and vibrancy of the sound. It was huge fun, and I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Sounds of the Sixties

The big concert at The Octagon was an exhilarating experience. The revised schedule made it a very long day – after I started sound-checking with the band at 10:30am, the next chance I got for a break wasn’t until 6:30pm – I didn’t even get to nip to the loo! All the hard work was made so completely worthwhile by the concert itself though – it was such a buzz. There were some real spine-tingling moments, and a real sense of fun too. Some audience members filmed a few bits, so look out for them on YouTube – “Whiter shade of pale” in particular was fantastically good. Dylan, the drummer from The Magic Mushrooms (and my best mate), did a “behind the scenes” vlog too, which is also on YouTube – a good giggle!

Bravo to everyone who made the show such fun. Remember – I only wave my arms around – it’s the singers who make the sound, so hats off to every one of you. I hope you’re suitably proud of yourselves.

Lincoln end of season concert

Monday saw us in Lincoln for another blast through this season’s music – a near-capacity crowd was thoroughly entertained by the nearly-hundred-strong choir. The reaction during the interval and afterwards was fantastic – a number of people told me it was the best Lincoln end of season concert we’ve done.

Nottingham end of season concert

We were in a new venue for Wednesday’s event, and we had some very positive comments about it – despite the heating being stuck on! It was so warm, Toni even took her jumper off!! We’ll be certain that they’ve fixed that before we return in the summer. The concert itself went very well indeed – I know a few people were concerned about the voice part balance, but actually it worked very well, and people were very sensitive in their singing as they compensated for the slightly uneven number in each part.

A note on dress code

At the end of season concerts, we did notice quite a number of people who weren’t quite within the spirit of the BeVox dress code – tops that were more turquoise than blue, or had significant amounts of white trim etc. We have a dress code so that we present a unified look to our audiences. We want everyone to feel like they’re on the same team – but still give enough latitude within the dress code for people to be comfortable with what they’re wearing. We’d like to ask all our singers to remind themselves of our dress code (, and to stick to it for future events.

The future

We’re putting the finishing touches to the learning materials for next season’s music, and we’re also hard at work on several other events spread across the rest of this year (and into 2019). We’ll be posting more about some of these soon – especially our “Summer singing day” on 18th August, which will be open to all singers, not just members of BeVox. Watch this space for more info!

Snow update – Monday session in Sheffield WILL RUN

We’ve spoken to the school and looked at weather forecasts, and taken the decision that we WILL run tonight’s session at Sheffield Springs Academy. The school is open, and although there is still some disruption to traffic, it seems to be easing. No further snow is forecast. Of course, people should allow extra time for their journeys and drive to the road conditions – stay safe.

We hope to see as many people as can make it – let’s face it, we could all do with a good sing right now!

Snow update – Big rehearsal CANCELLED – 18th March

It is with great regret that we have to cancel today’s big rehearsal in Sheffield. Road conditions are treacherous, and the venue will be closed.

We’ll email everyone later with an update on what we’re going to do – there’s no time to reschedule this rehearsal before the concert, but we might be able to adjust the schedule on concert day to make room for more rehearsal. We’ll keep you posted.

We’ll post a further update here tomorrow when we know whether we’ll be able to run tomorrow’s session at Springs.

Stay safe – and keep singing!

Snow update – Saturday 17th March

Today’s rescheduled session in Lincoln is currently planned to go ahead. The school is open, and although there’s snow and wind on our route, it looks manageable. If anything changes whilst we’re en route, we’ll post here.

UPDATE: We’ve arrived in Lincoln and it’s fine – so fine, I had to wear my sunglasses!

Tomorrow’s big rehearsal with the band is also still expected to run. If the situation changes overnight, we’ll post here.

Dates and venues for the rest of the season

We’ve had an unusually disrupted time of it this season, with a number of sessions being in different venues, and some being postponed due to adverse weather. To make sure that everyone knows where we are and when for the rest of the season, the remaining session dates and venues are listed below. This replaces any previous information we may have released.

  • Wednesday 7th March: Usual weekly session in Lincoln, Christ’s Hospital School
  • Thursday 8th March: Weekly session in Sheffield, Park Academy (new venue – see for directions)
  • Tuesday 13th March: Usual weekly session in Nottingham, West Bridgford Methodist Church
  • Wednesday 14th March: Usual weekly session in Lincoln, Christ’s Hospital School
  • Thursday 15th March: Weekly session in Sheffield, Park Academy
  • Saturday 17th March: Rescheduled session in Lincoln, 2pm to 4pm, Christ’s Hospital School
  • Sunday 18th March: Big rehearsal for “Sounds of the Sixties”, Sheffield Springs Academy, 1pm to 4:45pm.
  • Monday 19th March: Rescheduled session in Sheffield, Sheffield Springs Academy
  • Tuesday 20th March: Final session of the season in Nottingham, West Bridgford Methodist Church
  • Wednesday 21st March: Final session of the season in Lincoln, Christ’s Hospital School
  • Thursday 22nd March: Final session of the season in Sheffield, Park Academy
  • Saturday 24th March: “Sounds of the Sixties” concert, Sheffield Octagon (full schedule for the day will be sent by email to everyone signed up)
  • Monday 26th March: End of season concert in Lincoln, West Hall, Epic Centre, Lincolnshire Showground (singers arrive by no later than 7pm, doors open for audience at 7pm, concert starts 7:30pm)
  • Wednesday 28th March: End of season concert in Nottingham, Arnold Hill Academy (singers arrive by no later than 7pm, doors open for audience at 7pm, concert starts 7:30pm)

We will be releasing information about venues for next season by the end of March – we expect to be in a new home venue in both Nottingham and Sheffield, and we expect to have confirmed dates and venues for the end of season concerts in all areas at the start of the season.

Sheffield session 1st March 2018 postponed

Hi – we’ve had to postpone tonight’s session in Sheffield due to the snow. The school is closed, and we don’t think it would be safe to travel. We’ll reschedule for another date as soon as the current weather conditions abate.

Thanks for your understanding. Keep singing!

Lincoln session 28th Feb 2018 postponed

Hi – we’ve had to postpone tonight’s session in Lincoln due to the snow. The school is closed, and so we wouldn’t have a venue even if we could get down there. We’ll reschedule for another date as soon as it’s clear when the school will re-open.

Thanks for your understanding. Keep singing!

Venue changes, Sheffield, Spring 2018 season

We have a number of sessions at our alternative venue (Meadowhead Language College, Dyche Lane, S8 8BR) this season. Please see the list below:

  • Week 3 (Jan 18th)
  • Week 6 (Feb 8th)
  • Week 10 (Mar 8th)
  • Week 11 (Mar 15th)
  • Week 12 (Mar 22nd)

Weeks 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 will be at our usual venue of Sheffield Springs Academy, Hurlfield Road, S12 2SF.