Singing Choir - photo by cottonbro

Singing Grief: What’s It Take To Make A Pandemic Choir?

Last week, I shared with you “what is a requiem?” Historically, choirs would sing most requiems accompanied by a variety of instruments. But during this pandemic, scientists have warned us that it may be dangerous to sing together. Though it does not compare to the loss of lives, the loss of live music was another thing I’ve grieved in these times.

In this post, I get a bit technical. Sorry about that. (Please check out the video that gives you a sneak peek of the requiem, though.) If you’re not interested in the technology, please check back in the coming weeks for personal stories and the release of my “Requiem for a Stranger”.

Choral Singing Without The Choir

I wanted to create this requiem as a choral piece. To do this, I knew I would have to use some technological tricks to create this recording. Of course, I could have reached out to all my singing friends and asked them to send me a recording of them singing their part in the requiem. That’s what I did for the songOpt-In“. It turned out wonderfully and I still had to use some audio technology tricks to make it work.

The other issue is my creative process: I tend to create the piece as I record it. What I mean is that I’ve been writing and arranging this requiem on the fly. Other composers probably write the entire piece before they record. That just isn’t the way I typically compose music.

I always enjoy singing in harmony, with real people. And I look forward to doing group singing again very, very soon. This time, I decided to create the choir right in my studio. I pursued two complementary avenues to make this happen: pitch-shifting and word-builders.

Pitch Shifting

Waves' UltraPitch pitch-shifting audio plugin

The first avenue does just what you might expect. It shifts the pitch of a sound or voice. Basically, I recorded my own voice. Then, I shifted it up or down an octave to sound more like a soprano or a bass (respectively). Thankfully, modern software is capable of doing this while still sounding fairly natural. It does take a while to get the hang of how to do this without glitches.

Some of the plugins I used for pitch shifting include Waves Tune and UltraPitch. I found that UltraPitch was best for quickly changing the octave, but not so great at tweaking the transients and formants. (Read on for more about those last two fancy words.) I used Tune to perform that extra tweaking after the basic pitch shift.

Bringing Too Much Along For The Ride

Transients are the initial burst of energy in a sound. With singing, that will be a consonant. If I remove the “k” sound from the start of the word “can”, it changes in both what you hear and the meaning it conveys. But if that burst is dropped in pitch with the vowel — that is, the sustained part of the sound — it no longer gets the word across. Fortunately, plugins like Waves Tune know that the transient needs to stay close to where it was while the sustained pitch is shifted.

Formants are important to human singing because they are what we hear as resonance. A full explanation of formants would take several blog posts. So, I’ll ask you to believe me when I say that pitch shifting plugins have to be very aware of audio science including formants.

Choral Virtual Instruments

Making a virtual instrument that sounds like everyone is singing “Ooo” or “Ah” is one thing. That’s why only a few companies have been able to create a somewhat convincing choral instrument that sounds like they are singing lyrics. I think that East-West was the first to create a word builder app that works with a choral sample library. Their product has some of the most advanced capabilities regarding lyrics. Even so, it takes a lot of time and experience to make their virtual instrument sound convincing in the English language.

The opening and closing pieces in my requiem have Latin lyrics. These are more straightforward in the East-West Symphonic Choirs Platinum and other word builders. When I tried to use English lyrics, the results were not so great. Instead, I had to learn to spell phonetically. For example, the opening lyrics of one movement are “Your love was True like springtime…” But this must be created in the East-West word builder software like this: “yor lav wa!z tru! lAik spri i ig! tAim”. Not exactly intuitive!

My favorite word-builder is in the Czech Boys Choir virtual instrument by Virharmonic. Unfortunately, this plugin is no longer sold or supported. You can see how cool it is and get an idea of how it sounds in this short video. (You get to hear a sneak peek of the requiem here as well.)

Singing: Bringing It All Together

Once I learned this phonetic spelling, I still found the articulation of the words to be rather unconvincing. However, once I layered these virtual instruments with my own (sometimes pitch-shifted) voice recordings, I started to like the results.

None of this is even close to the joys of singing together in a choir. I am hopeful that those days are returning in the not too distant future. Then, as now, I can only say with so many of my friends, “How can I keep from singing?

(By the way, “Requiem for a Stranger” is ready for you to listen. Won’t you?)

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