HomeReport: Online Workshop with Real Group

PaulRJ's picture

On March 8th, Quintessence (6 singers, 3 male - 3 female, based in Ottawa, Canada) did a trial workshop with Peder Karlsson of the Real Group, from the RG studio in Sweden. Despite a few minor technical glitches, it went very well and we found it to be an enjoyable and useful experience. Video and photos here.

General Technical:
We used Skype (see below re: comparison of tools), and all 6 singers had a microphone feeding into a mixer, and we used in-ear monitors so that we could hear ourselves and Peder without any sound making it to the microphones to cause feedback. We used a large room in our home with a video projector and a Digital Video camera.

Sound quality was surprisingly good. Video image was OK, sometimes a bit crumbly/fuzzy but depended on bandwidth and how much Peder moved around! Learning from the report of Peder's first workshop, we placed our video camera right next to the projector screen at about mid height, so that we were looking at the camera and the image of Peder at the same time.

The atmosphere was very relaxed and Peder established a comfortable and friendly ambience which put everyone at their ease. After a few technical issues at the beginning, and some adjusting of sound levels/EQs, we sang through 3 songs (1 RG, 1 of our own and 1 arrangement) and then selected one as a vehicle to work on.  Peder's general focus was to use the song to illustrate some tools that a group can use to improve their performance on other pieces as well. Our singers had been concerned about messing up notes or intonation, but we actually spent more time focussing on rhythmic detail which had the benefit of tightening up the overall sound and benefitting the ensemble effect. We also experimented with dynamic and timbral changes, and practising listening to/responding to changes of  expression within the group, which had the advantage of improving our listening skills. After this we found that some tuning concerns had sorted themselves out. Peder was very good at involving each singer in some part of the exercises, and has a gift for presenting accurate criticism in a very positive and constructive way.

At the end of the session Peder encouraged us to apply the 'toolbox of learnings' to one of the other songs we had sung at the start, and we (and he) all felt that it had matured as a result.

The group members also enjoyed the 'informal question/answer session' that happened at the end of the workshop, providing some useful insight into how TRG works on pieces, and approaches to the performance context.

The sound quality was good enough that we occasionally would interrupt Peder with a comment that took several seconds to resolve because of the 'handover delay'. At times we totally forgot about the 1-2 second delay and sang along with what we were hearing from him (which of course he would hear a couple of seconds later!).

At our end we recorded video and audio of what we were doing (although both the videotape and the CD ran out slightly before the end) so that we can take away copies to review some of the learnings from the workshop.

Our group members appreciated being given ownership of parts of the process (ie doing countoffs, leading tempo/dynamics changes etc) and also enjoyed the guidance/suggestions on rehearsal organisation methods.

Of the 3 songs we proposed, we chose to work in detail on the only one for which Peder did not have a copy of the score, but this still worked out to be very effective based on his detailed (and perceptive!) listening.

Detailed technical:
So for the more technically-inclined, here are some details of how we set things up - some successes, some things to learn from.

Internet tool:
A week before the online workshop we did local (cross-Ottawa) test of video-links using 4 different systems: AIM, Skype, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger.

The picture quality on AIM was disappointing. Yahoo kept crashing and freezing. Windows Live Messenger was OK but on that day Skype gave the best results on both audio and video, so we chose to go with Skype. The day before the workshop I did a short Skype call to Peder in the studio and we sorted out using the line input. Video quality was very good that day, less reliable for the actual workshop. On the day of the workshop we did a few Skype calls to a local friend which were helpful in pinpointing & solving a mixer connection problem that was getting in the way of our audio send. An alternative to this is to use the Skype connection test service (although if there is something wrong at your end they can't really solve it for you!)

For the camera at our end we used a domestic Sony DV videocam, set to USB streaming, and selected in the video options under 'tools' in Skype. An advantage of this camera was that we could also record our end of the workshop the view of ourselves singing (at Long Play the tape lasted 90m and ran out just before we signed off).

We had an option to use a remote to zoom into the group, but a) forgot to tell Peder about it, and b) not sure that it would have been much use anyway!

One of the challenges was the acceptance angle of the camera: to fit in all 6 singers we had to be a fair distance away (about 4-5 metres) and even then we needed to form a tight 'V' shape with the end singers nearer to the camera. I notice that TRG suggest limiting the workshop to less than 12 singers, and I can see where most conventional cameras would make a large number of singers difficult to follow.

We kept a small (non-mirror image) thumbnail view of ourselves on the screen in the corner of Peder's image, so that we could check that we were all visible.

Our projector was on the floor right under the screen pointing towards us but then reflected off a large mirror back on to the screen so that a) there was no risk we would tread on the projector, and b) the noise of its fan was well away from the microphones.

Skype auto-selected the camera microphone, but we disabled that and selected the computer sound card line input so that we were feeding to Peder the output from our 6 mikes into the mixer. We have a set of wireless in-ear monitors with stereo reception, so we fed into those our own mix (panned from centre to left) and added Peder's incoming voice (on the right of the pan) which worked well. It felt very intimate acoustically! If a group doesn't have in-ear monitors, they could consider making a simple connector box so that each singer has wired earphones (just walkman earphones would do) and use that to listen. It might be difficult to sing with eg floor monitor speakers since they would have to be low enough not to cause feedback/echo over the audio link.

I had a bit of a challenge eliminating ground loops and hum with multiple devices connected to the computer sound card inputs (Router, Broadband connection box, Mixer, video-camera, also sound recorder connected to the mixer) and had to ground-lift the power supplies to some of the devices to eliminate noise.

I fed our microphone signals in the mixer to an aux send and used that to provide a signal to Skype without the incoming comments from Sweden.

On our first video link to Sweden there was a lot of echo, but we hung up and dialled again and it disappeared. Although occasionally during the call it would reappear briefly.

Overall summary:
The medium definitely works, and does not significantly get in  the way of doing a very useful session. This was a very valuable clinic/workshop and the medium (especially the sound quality) was more than good enough to do useful work on singing, tuning, timing, balancing etc. Peder has worked out methods to overcome the audio delay (for example we do our own countoffs etc). We came away boosted by the encouragement and with a set of new techniques to use on all our material. We would highly recommend this medium to other a cappella groups. We proved it works on a transatlantic basis, and also that using in-ear monitors can be helpful.

Once we knew Peder was there and had a visual image of him, it was not essential to see him all the time (probably more useful in the other direction - for him to see us), so if bandwidth is a problem (eg producing echoes etc) an option could be for the RG person to turn off their video send and focus resources on the audio.

We were pretty open minded as to how this would work, but having experienced the process I would suggest bringing a piece that the group knows needs some work, as opposed to your 'best piece at the time' - it gives more opportunity to learn and adapt.

Based on the reasonable proposed rates for these workshops,  I could envisage groups doing them on a periodic basis (eg annual or 6-monthly) as a valuable means of polishing technique to new levels.

If you are doing a workshop, double check your whole set up with another Skype person before going on line - save the RG time for singing!

It might have been nice for Peder if we could have sent a stereo signal, but to my knowledge this is not yet possible with the free internet video tools.

If you can get a webcam with a wide angle lens it might help!

The music teacher in our group would have liked to invite some of his class to sit in, but physically (and acoustically) it was not feasible, however some of the internet tools allow additional parties to conference in. However this could complicate the bandwidth availability somewhat!

If anyone has any further questions, please feel free to contact me through www.quintessence.ca

All the best, and thanks, Peder, for a great experience.

Paul Jay (for Quintessence).