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…

Slight venue change in Lincoln, 29th April

We have a slight venue change for Lincoln this week (29th April). We’re still at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School, but we’re in the gym rather than the school hall. Apologies for the late notice – we’ve only been informed by the school today.

We’ll make sure that we signpost the gym so you can find it easily, but if you have any concerns, please get in touch using the contact details on our main website at www.bevox.co.uk/contact.

Happy Birthday to me

Just over a month ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday. There were various different celebrations throughout the week, including a family party with jelly and ice cream! I got two different cakes at that party – a “Happy Forte-th” from Toni, and a BeVox van cake from my mum.

Happy "forte"th cake
Happy “forte”th cake
BeVox van cake
BeVox van cake

Toni took me out for a posh meal too, and I had an incredible weekend.

The BeVox singers outdid themselves in their birthday gifts to me – something I never expected, and I was utterly bowled over by everyone’s generosity. The Lincoln group, newest to the fold, had clubbed together to get me a case of wine – some gorgeous vintages that I’m really looking forward to sampling. The rest of the choir combined their resources to buy me an “experience” – two top-price tickets to see Les Mis in the West End, with hotel vouchers to make it an overnight stay. As I’m a massive fan of Les Mis but have never actually seen it in the West End, this was a really fantastic idea.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to take the Les Mis experience – there was some small print that restricted the dates it could be booked, and the only dates that it was available were dates that BeVox has sessions! However, the voucher could be swapped for any other experience provided by the same company, so I took a look to see what I could do instead. One thing leapt out at me straight away – the chance to drive supercars around a race track. I’m a bit of a petrolhead, but I’ve never had the chance to drive any top-flight cars. I’ve always fancied a track day but I’ve never been able to justify one – this was the perfect opportunity!

So, today I’ve spent the afternoon at Prestwold racing track, driving a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Roadster, and a Porsche 911. Afterwards, Toni and I were taken out as passengers as a pro racing driving sped around the track in a Monaro VXR – a 6 litre beast of a machine. It was an incredible day, and I’m grateful beyond words to everyone who chipped in to make it possible.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Roadster
Aston Martin V8 Vantage S Roadster
Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
Porsche 911
Porsche 911

BeVox Rocks

What a night! Huge congratulations to everyone who helped make “BeVox Rocks” such a sensational event, and a huge “thank you” to everyone who came to support.

The crew from Sound & Light UK worked tirelessly to create a spectacular setting, and I have such respect for their professionalism and commitment. They worked until 10pm on Friday on the initial load-in, then were back at 7am to rig – they worked throughout the day and evening, and they were still working on the de-rig when I left at 11pm. Seriously hard-working – hats off to them! I know that there were parts of the auditorium where the balance wasn’t ideal, with the band being louder than the choir, but I also know that in other parts the balance was great – and the challenges of balancing a choir with a rock band, in a venue with an unusual shape and difficult acoustics, was always going to be a tough one. They did a great job under difficult circumstances, and it’s also been a learning curve for us, so we know what to do to ensure the balance is just right next time.

The band did an awesome job – stepping out of the comfort zone of their usual gigs to take on the challenge of learning someone else’s arrangements, sometimes in different keys to the versions they already knew – it took some doing, and they blew me away on the night. A special “thank you” to Andy for stepping in at the last minute to save the day on keyboards – no-one would have guessed that he was actually sight-reading a couple of the pieces during the concert! And as always, the greatest of “thank you”s to my best mate Dylan – another musical adventure we’ve been on together, and it’s always so reassuring to have you at my side.

All the soloists did amazing work. Clare and Louise were the ultimate precise 80s duet (aided and abetted by 200 pairs of arms behind them!). Lis took a few people by surprise when her beautiful ballad kicked into a full-on rock number. Wendy injected a welcome dose of fun and humour into her song, entertaining the crowd marvellously. That random bloke who kicked off the second half tells me he enjoyed himself immensely! Dominic had the audience bouncing up and down with his rock histrionics. Toni found enough voice to sing her song despite not being able to speak all day – and then performed the arse off it! And of course Rachel had the whole audience rocking out like crazy. Each of them should feel incredibly proud of their performance.

What we’re really about is the choir, of course – and what a choir it was last night. First and foremost, we had a huge amount of fun together. That’s always the most important thing for me. Before I even get to the singing, I have to say a heartfelt “thank you” to you all for so many other things. The camaraderie backstage (and on stage!) was phenomenal. The way that you all looked out for each other, supporting those who needed it and celebrating with everyone, absolutely exemplifies what we’re about. Thank you for being a true community, where the people come first and the music comes (a very close) second!

I loved how we looked as a choir last night! Not only had people really embraced the spirit of the event in their outfits, make-up and hair-dos (some of which were utterly incredible – I saw a number of people in a whole new light!) – the level of animation was the best we’ve ever achieved. We’re often told by audience members that we look like we’re having lots of fun on stage, but I think last night took that to a whole new level. The energy and enthusiasm was great, and it was infectious – it’s not often people go to a choral concert and end up dancing in the aisles! Some videos from audience members have already been uploaded to YouTube (check our “Favourites” list on our YouTube channel – www.youtube.com/bevoxuk), and we’ll be posting pictures from the event to our Flickr page over the coming days (www.flickr.com/bevoxchoir).

And then there was the singing. Boy oh boy, was there the singing! From the opening electrifying sound of the sopranos and altos’ “Ah” in You took the words right out of my mouth all the way through to the climactic closing vocal explosions at the end of the Stadium Rock medley, the singing was superb. I loved the way we were able to shape the sound, and take the audience on a journey – not just an out-and-out blast from end to end, but bringing subtlety to things like Mad worldTrue colours and Who wants to live forever?. Even in the rockier numbers there were contrasts, and that’s a testament to you really caring about the music – it’s not just about making the right sounds, it’s about infusing them with the right emotions too.

I have to say, I had an absolute blast. BeVox well and truly rocks. It’s been my dream since we started the choir five years ago to do a gig with a proper rock band, and we absolutely nailed that last night. It was an absolute pleasure and honour to share the stage with you all.

Onwards and upwards – we have a few more concerts still to come with our Spring programme, but of course we also launch into our celebratory “Best of BeVox” season in just over a week’s time. We can’t wait to share another incredible journey with you all. We have some further plans in the pipeline for events at the end of the summer season, and of course we’re desperately excited about our CD recording weekend in Scarborough. We’re also continuing to make plans further and further ahead – jobs this week include selecting the songs for the Autumn season (including the programme for our “One Night at the Albert” concert at Nottingham’s Albert Hall on 20th December), and a meeting to discuss the first tentative plans for another Summer Singing Retreat…

See you soon!