Making Great Live Music Videos

Big Audio Dynamite Big World Cafe

Big Audio Dynamite on C4’s Big World Cafe, 1989

Sound, Picture Quality and the Importance of the Human Voice

Counter-intuitively, the quality of pictures in music videos is very much less important than the quality of the sound.  How many great music videos use grainy, poorly exposed pictures to create atmosphere?  But listen to the sound….   The music is really well recorded – especially the vocals.

These days, HD cameras make it easy to video a band even in low-light stage scenarios.  With just a little thought, the chips and auto settings produce reasonable to really good pictures, in glorious, cinema-type HD.

These cameras also have decent stereo microphones and sound processors. There’s no excuse for not making a really great live music video every time.

So why are there are so many music videos posted  by amateur bands and artists, which have such appalling sound?  Why do they do this? And does it matter?

Bad sound in live music videos is invariably the result of clipping due to overly high sound pressure levels.  When gain has been lowered to prevent this, the cause is likely to be camera positioning in relation to front of the house speakers.  It’s easiest to film on stage, to one side, so cameras pick up the drums, whoever’s monitor mix is nearest or the on-stage bass sound. Guitarists are always too loud (I’m one), so being anywhere near a guitar amp means that’s pretty much all you’ll hear on the video sound.

The best way is to record a performance is with everything miked up or DI’d, through a mixer, separately into a multi-track recorder  – including the audience, then mix later. Adding the stereo camera sound as two additional tracks in the mix helps with the atmosphere. If you’ve done a two or three-camera shoot, one of your cameras will have been moving round on stage. The often drastic sound changes this movement creates on its own sound track can often give extra drama as part of the overall the sound mix – as can the sound tracks from the other cameras.

But the quality of the pics is much less important. Grainy can give extra atmosphere.  Keeping one camera on a tripod covering the whole band gives you something to cut to, although remember to alter its position. With the mobile camera, you can play around with fast moves, low light, etc without worrying if you go out of focus.

Some of the greatest music videos have grainy, poor pics but work because the music is good – and hearing the vocal is the most important part of any song regardless of genre. This is probably because we’re programmed from infancy to focus on the human voice.

You can certainly get away with a one-camera shoot, provided you get the best possible sound. And quality of the vocals is where the sound quality has to be at its highest.  It’s often worth re-recording the vocals afterwards…. or dropping in for the bits where the live singer , was out of tune, out of time or just out! (This latter requires very careful blending in, inter-cut fading, reverb both sides of the drop-in, etc…)

In 1989 I used to hang out with Graham Walker and Mick McKenna. Graham was music producer for the Channel Four Big World Cafe, and Mick ran the Rolling Stones mobile studio, which they’d use for the sound, parked up outside London’s Westway Studios.
The music for that show was superb – all totally live. Graham was the sound/music “director”, with an overall director to pull the whole thing together.

The sound took precedence over the pictures – and over everything else.  This helped make it such a good show – all done live in front of a studio audience. But if an artist messed up,  Graham would hit the intercom and demand it “once again from the top”.

One particular NY rap artist couldn’t get it right, prompting Graham to broadcast “Hasn’t he heard of rehearsing?”  They needed the extra time this was taking for the next act – a large band with all the problems that entails live – Big Audio Dynamite (or was it Ziggy Marley and the Wailers). Mick McKenna reckoned he’d got enough good bits from the various performance attempts to glue together something acceptable, so the rapper was sent back to the Green Room to polish his bling.