Mineral Sound

Behind the Scenes: Recording a Singer-Songwriter in a Church

August 30, 2019

This past March I had the pleasure of recording a friend of mine at a beautiful church in Denver. Kyle Donovan is one of my favorite Colorado songwriters, and in anticipation of his upcoming album release, we wanted to create a live video to give a visual element to the music. We thought a simple, intimate capture would best support this heartfelt song.

We chose the Wash Park UCC as our location, a church in downtown Denver with great natural reverb. Rather than  close-micing the vocals & guitar and add reverb in post, I set up a spaced pair of DPA 4011 condensers on a Triad-Orbit stand about 2 feet away from Kyle to capture his music and the reverb of the space together. This gives a very natural and transparent sound, as if you were sitting right in front of the artist.

The microphones went into an RME Octamic XTC preamp & converter, which fed a Tascam DA-6400 digital recorder. I prefer to use hardware recorders over laptops for live recordings, as their rock-solid reliability lets me focus on the video and not worry about anything going wrong in the background.

I placed an ARRI 300 fresnel behind Kyle as a rim light; as my key is daylight balanced, using a tungsten backlight gives a golden glow to the edges of the subject. As I moved around Kyle this light hit the lens and flared, giving a beautiful visual effect.

I used a VisionSmith Hexolux as the key light, placing it at about a 45-degree angle to Kyle’s face to create shadows and contrast.The Hexolux is an LED fresnel, and I used a softbox to diffuse the light and smooth out skin tones. All other lights in the church were turned off, and we waited until sunset to begin filming so we’d have a dark backdrop.

I’m shooting on a Sony A7SII with the 85mm G-Master prime at f/2; enough to give a shallow depth of field but still give me a decent margin to manual focus. I’ve been using Hollywood Black Magic filters on all my shoots, as they do a great job of diffusing this ultra-clean lens and adding some bloom to the light. The camera was mounted on a Zacuto Marauder, which gives a handheld look while allowing you to stabilize the camera against your body.

Kyle’s been performing this song for about a year now, so we weren’t worried about getting the notes or phrases right; this recording was all about capturing the emotion. Hearing the sound echo and reverberate throughout the space was an incredible experience, and after the second take we found our keeper.

To preserve the transparency of the recording, I opted for a minimal signal chain in post; mild EQ (DMG Equilibrium) followed by 2-4db of compression (TDR Kotelnikov) and 1-2db of limiting (DMG Limitless) on the master. I used NIMBUS to add some stereo width to the tail, but 90% of the reverb in the final mix comes from the church itself.

Next, I brought the footage into Resolve for color grading. As I had complete control over the lighting, I was able to shoot for the final look and didn’t have to make any big corrections in post. After bringing up the saturation and adjusting for exposure, I applied a Lutify teal & orange LUT at 66% key to bring out some color contrast. As a final touch, I de-noised the footage and added some grain for texture and dither. Below is the raw footage compared with the color grade:

Once the graded file was rendered out, I brought it into Premiere for sync and titles. Single-camera videos are just a matter of timing the fades & titles to flow with the music and create an elegant intro/outro sequence. As I'm delivering for YouTube, I exported with a 16:9 aspect ratio at UHD resolution.

There's nothing better than recording with friends; this whole process was a real pleasure, from setting up the space to recording the music and bringing out the best in post. I'm so glad to have captured this music to share with the world; check out the final video below!