Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Frau Pouch and Houdini in Soup Studios

Yesterday I was in Soup Studios in Limehouse taping Houdini and Frau Pouch as they recorded their split single. It's the biggest video job I've had so far, and this blog post is a breakdown of the day, what went right and what didn't go to plan. It's a long post, I apologise for that! I've also put in some quick unmastered screengrabs of the day.

Getting To Soup Studio

Like many Londoners, I don't have a car so I would need to bring all my video gear on public transport. I had to decide very carefully what to bring as although the studio wasn't far away, like any London journey it was a bit convoluted. Here's how I packed:
  • Cameras: I packed my main cam, the Canon XL1S. It packs into a suitcase. I also brought my Panasonic camcorder to capture extra angles giving me more coverage. The battery in the Panasonic is shot, so I packed the power cable so that I could run it off the mains. I would be using it as a static camera anyway so this shouldn't be a problem as long as I am careful with the wires! The camera packs into a padded shoulder bag.
  • Lights and stands: left behind. Mainly owing to their size. I didn't think I'd be needing them anyway as it would be tricky to video around them, plus I had been getting some good results in lower light lately with the gigs I had recorded.
  • Tripods: I packed my heavy tripod for use with the Canon XL1S. I packed a lightweight tall tripod for my Panasonic Camcorder and I also sneaked in a mini tripod for low-to-ground angles (or tabletop angles) using the Panasonic.
  • Extras: I took about 6 spare DVtapes in a bumbag for easy access, some pens and a notepad, a boom mic with fluffy wind cover, a lunchbox full of chicken and roasted pepper pasta from the previous night's dinner plus a fork. I stuffed all of these into a rucksack along with the Panasonic case and the mini tripod.

In one hand I carried the Canon hardcase. In the other I carried the two tripods in their bags with nylon straps, and on my back a very full rucksack.

Regrets? Bringing the heavy tripod. As much as I love it, it never came out of the case and it weighs a bastard tonne. I also regret bringing the external boom mic, I couldn't operate it along with the camera and it took up space in my crowded rucksack, risking damage to itself.

Victories? The Velbon Mini Tripod. It's such a cool little thing. It extends to a decent height if needed but is a great little tripod. I had some low angles and I also used it on top of some pianos and amps to get higher angles. It's stable and a better build quality than any equivalent tall tripod and a joy to use. Plus it's kinda cute. Most of all I was glad I brought the pasta, I wolfed it down during a slow few minutes in the afternoon. Kept me strong!


I was lucky enough to meet with Joe and Suzanne of Frau Pouch (Jim was coming from work so would be arriving a little later) as I waddled off the DLR in Limehouse at 11am. It was a beautiful March Monday. We walked around for a long time trying to find the studio which was actually within a huge complex of studios and rehearsal spaces, with a long segmented couryard, numerous gates, alleyways and staircases leading out from the centre. Several phonecalls later, Giles from Houdini, who works as a sound engineer for Soup Studio, came to rescue us and ushered us through the iron gates into the realm of the Soup.

We met with Greg, and I got my first proper introduction to Giles and Tom, Houdini bassist and drummer respectively. Simon, the sound engineer for Soup Studio was also present. He would be in charge of recording the audio during Houdini's set, which would take place first. Giles would capture the audio for Frau Pouch. The studio itself is still undergoing a little construction, but the live room (where the band will play surrounded by amplifiers and microphones) and the main studio area (housing the impressive mixing desk and Mac computer with pro tools) are complete and quite beautiful, with wood parquet floors, heavy wood and glass sliding doors to isolate the live room from the studio. All around were racks of impressive machines, freestanding complex gizmos covered in buttons and flashing lights and a gigantic analogue tape recording system adorned with dozens of VU meters monitoring the level of each track from the mixing desk. There were pianos and organs and guitars everywhere.

the impressive analogue tape machine

I set my bags down, labelled a batch of new tapes (I tend to forget otherwise, and find myself drowning in blank tapes full of important unlabelled footage), opened my hardcase and assembled the Canon. Houdini were setting up in the live room. I chatted to the guys and found out the plan for the day. It was simple enough. Houdini would record their two songs over several run-throughs while Simon operated the desk and the controlled all the incredibly cool gizmos. Then Frau Pouch would set up and run through their two songs while Giles from Houdini took over on engineer duties. During this, I would capture footage from the bands in the live room and some behind the scenes footage, enough to put together for a promo video to cover one song from each band. I also wanted to get enough to do some form of behind the scenes featurette if possible (time will tell) and also some brief low-key interviews with the band members.


So as the day progressed I spent my time wandering around with the camera (having already asked everyone just to go on as normal and pretend I'm not there) filming the bands in the live room, capturing candid footage of people chilling out in the studio as they listened to the other band, taping Jim arriving for the studio session, eavesdropping on conversations about audio levels and guitar effects, and filming any interesting gizmo for B-roll purposes. I pulled Frau Pouch outside at one point to ask some interview questions and I sat Houdini down inside to do the same later in the day. It went well but I found both of the sessions nerve-racking, any question I asked sounded ridiculously lame. Everyone was a good sport though, I think we all felt equally awkward. I was interviewed for the first time recently by Pablo for the Explorer's Collective, which gave me the courage to ask interview questions of my own. But Pablo made it look easy, I found myself flustered and floundering. At least I could always claim to be momentarily checking the light levels when really I was dying inside.

The majority of my time was spent in the live room as the bands were recording/running through their tracks. My presence wasn't an issue as long as I didn't impede upon anyone's playing or knock any of the carefully placed microphones over, which of course, I did, I kicked a microphone away from the bass amp while shambling around. Houdini were ear-splittingly loud and generated a volume and intensity that was not only aural but fiercely physical. You could feel their music. Giles kindly gave me a pair of padded headphones to help protect my ears, I ran the cable through the camera audio output so they could double as sound monitors, and got tangled up to the point of falling over in the long cable more than once. I should have brought some earplugs, I have a bedroom drawer full of packets of soft disposable plugs which I use to help me sleep, as my dog snores like crazy.

Greg of Houdini

I kept a pen and folded sheet of paper in my bumbag with all my spare tapes and after every run through of a song I would pause the cameras and scrawl down the timecode from each tape and make a quick note of what I recorded. This way I have a rudimentary shot list so when it comes to moving several hours of footage on to the computer, I can have an easier time finding the footage I want. I also tried to keep similar notes to cover the interview sessions or any time someone did something visually interesting, like the time Giles was rewiring the mixing desk or Suzanne was doing unplanned backing vocals to one of the Frau Pouch songs. Taping Frau Pouch was much quicker because their songs are so short and punchy, so I wasn't able to get as much footage for them but by this point I had a system in place where I would concentrate on one band member for the entire run-through of a song so that I would have footage of each member for the whole song, plus my Panasonic camcorder catching a different static angle each time. I should have more than enough (he says, optimisitcally).

Suzanne of Frau Pouch

Camera Settings

As for how I controlled my camera settings, I left the focus largely on automatic. I manually controlled all the other visual settings and would change them whenever heading outside or into a differently lit room. I remembered to change the white balance for indoor and outdoor too (having learned to mistrust the supposedly reliable "auto white balance" setting on a shoot for the short film), which I was pleased with! The audio recording level for the camera would need to be constantly manipulated because the level of general chatter was so much lower than the volume of the instruments. I'd tweak the input volume up for general conversation and turn it down to capture when the bands were playing. Eventually I remembered that the automatic audio would do that for me, and as the video would have a properly mastered audio track over it anyway, it didn't matter if the sound wasn't perfect. I used the attached microphone rather than my own boom mic because it was easier and I have been getting some nice results from that microphone lately. I am definitely finding myself better at keeping an eye on all my levels and making manual adjustments where needed. I am getting less forgetful and quicker to make the changes. Still slower than a pro no doubt, probably by a long way, but it's good to see improvement.

Giles on engineering duties

After the bands finished we packed up our gear. This was the point that I got Houdini on the couch for an awkward interview. Satisfied with everything I captured I decided to cap off the day's recording and pack away the camera. It was an early finish as we had till seven but we were done by a little after five. None of us wanted to join the rush hour commute so we stayed in the studio. I helped Joe and Suzanne with their bottle of vodka that they had to finish (as they couldn't sneak it into the venue they were headed to that evening and because I'm a good and selfless friend) and enjoyed a couple of cheeky but perfectly balanced (strong enough to get you drunk on the first glass, weak enough to not make you sick) room temperature vodka cokes.

We then headed round the corner for a pint before hometime. It was only a ten minute walk or so, but the nylon straps of the tripod bags and the heavy Canon hardcase were biting into my hands, so I was glad when we found a pub. Only having the spare change in my pocket I was hoping for a cheap pint somewhere not altogether sleazy, but it turns out the nearest pub was a Gordon Ramsay gastropub. We reckoned it would be pricey. We decided to take our chances and keep walking. We were away from Limehouse and heading into Westferry, with it's posh riverside apartments with concierge desks, black cabs dropping off suited gentlemen waving fistfuls of twenties at the driver, speeding cyclists on the cycle super highways (fun to cycle on, scary to walk near, I discovered!), driven young professionals jogging with their ipods on as far as the eye can see. Seriously it was crazy. Joggers everywhere. I live in Lewisham, if I hear someone running up behind me I ball my keys in my fist or dive over a hedge.

Nevertheless, we found a tiny little pub, the only one for a long way around. We crowded around a dog bowl by a radiator and ordered some £4 pints. After topping up my blood alcohol like a thirsty man at an oasis, I took my leave. I had an amazing day, I'm honestly so grateful for the experience and I was buzzing with excitement, happy with how everything went and excited to seeing the footage, but by this point I was exhausted and looking forward to some rest. Holding the camera all day, at some points over my head for a song at a time had given me a sore back, and I wanted more than anything to get home, have some dinner and crash out on the couch. I lugged my equipment the short and simple walk to Westferry DLR, and made my way home. By the time I got home I was cursing my decision to bring the heavy tripod, and both the tripod bags and the Canon hardcase had rubbed my hands raw. They were still red and sore today. I need to bring a pair of gloves with me next time, preferably padded ones. That or get a van and stop worrying about my perfectly moisturised palms.

Next Step

I'm glad I have the contents of each tape transcribed (admittedly on creased up graph paper, if I lost it I think I would weep) because I will need all the help I can get when it comes to assembling this footage. The actual editing of the promo (syncing up the footage with the final recorded music to create a video) will be difficult, and something I've not done before. The visuals will be assembled from hours of footage, not necessarily all from the take that actually made the final audio recording, so I will need to watch every frame carefully when I'm assembling the video in case the timing is different or a cymbal crash comes in late, because I want it to all sync up, at least as much as reasonably possible. I don't want generic visuals of the band playing a generic song with one of their tracks as backing, I want the audio and the video to synchronise. I know this means more work for me, but dammit, you have to have standards. Plus I always like to set myself a condition or limitation for each project I work on. For example, when filming bands live I will always use the video footage in real time. I don't want to cut to an audience shot that wasn't happening right then. When filming the Nowa Huta video for StilFeelU I would only use footage that I captured myself on my Panasonic.  It gives the whole thing structure and forces you to be precise, or at least, creative, and I'm looking forward to seeing whether I can live up to my standards for this practice.

I had a blast at Soup Studio. As always working with Frau Pouch is a pleasure and it was great to finally meet all of Houdini. The studio was great, if you're looking for a London recording service and are worried about working with good people, Soup Studio has my hearty recommendation. Check out their website.

I look forward to sharing the video with you soon, I can't wait to get started on it.

As for this massive post, if you read the whole thing then I think I love you. I hope it's proved useful to anyone working with video, or at least given a smile to anyone else!

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Pink Room - by Houdini/Frau Pouch @ The Urban Bar

Here's another vid from the recent David Lynch night at The Urban Bar Whitechapel. This is members of Houdini and Frau Pouch playing music from the Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me soundtrack.

If you're familiar with Twin Peaks you might recognise the music from The Pink Room at The Roadhouse.

Got more from this set to come.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Recording studio shoot with Frau Pouch and Houdini

Found myself the recipient of an offer I could not refuse yesterday.

Houdini and Frau Pouch are recording a split single next Monday at Soup Studio in Limehouse, East London. They had plans to film the occasion but for whatever reason the plans fell through. Greg from Houdini contacted me and asked if I would be interested and/or available to join them in the recording studio and capture the session on video.

I agonised over it for about five minutes, I had already used so much of my leave allowance doing projects just this month, and I need to ration my days off carefully. But this is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing so it really was a no-brainer. I emailed my line manager, requested the leave and told Greg that I would be there with bells on. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, money is tight, so I had to ask Greg if he would be able to cover the cost of transport and tapes. I've never asked before, and it won't be a lot, but it's money I'd otherwise be losing on every shoot.

Houdini and Frau Pouch will be recording two songs each over an 8 hour day at the studio. They'll be recording in the live room, so they'll perform as a full band rather than going into soundproof booths and recording tracks separately. I'll be there to get footage of them in the live room and just hanging about in general. I also want to see if I can get some talking head segments. I'll probably bring along my consumer camcorder as well as the Canon XL1S, the battery is running really short but I can plug it into the mains and still use it.

I don't think I've mentioned it on the blog before but I used to play bass in a band called The Contortionists several years back. Joe from Frau Pouch was our guitarist. We used to gig quite a bit around London and it's great to meet bands from our day who are still going strong. Managed to see the ever-impressive Yokozuna (I really must video those guys soon) at the Urban Bar in Whitechapel recently, a venue that I'm growing to like more and more. I also fired off an email to a band we shared bills with a few years back called Silent Front, I don't know if they'll remember me but I've offered my services for one of their upcoming Camden shows. Be good to get more experience and get myself out there. Plus they are fucking good!

There's a lot about being in a band that I miss, especially playing live but I think I'm better at taping shows than I ever was at playing bass (I'm not very good at taping shows so you can only imagine how unmusical I was). I get to relive it a little whenever I film a gig, I get a buzz! It's not too late to get back into being in a band of course, but sadly I sold all my gear about a year ago, times were tough and I didn't have much of an option if I wanted to make the rent. It actually came to that. I'm sad that it's all gone, but I was never much of a musician. But I feel a really strong connection to working with video. I think this is more... me. But working with musicians and filming live shows, I'm getting the best of both worlds. It makes me happy.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The story behind the video - taping Frau Pouch at the Urban Bar

Last Friday the Urban Bar in Whitechapel was playing host to Frau Pouch and the excellent Houdini, on a David Lynch theme night. This means outrageous costumes by band and audience, bizarre props and a Badalamenti soundtrack between the bands. It's a small gig run by decent promoters (Motherboy and Double Edge Scissor) who are in it for the music and not the money, who make sure the bands get paid every penny that comes through the door. Good people, good bands.

I've wanted to shoot a video with Houdini for a while, we even got into talks about doing a proper music video together but the London-Medway distance was too much of a hurdle. I decided to take this opportunity to tape them in their element. It would be great practice and I would get to give two of my favourite bands the gift of some live gig footage. Even better if that footage looked a little bit fucked up because the frontman is dressed as the sodden corpse of a raped and murdered prom queen wrapped in plastic.

Last time I shot Frau Pouch live I used my Canon XL1S and two minidv camcorders held by two gracious volunteers. As the band was a three piece I assigned each cameraperson to a band member and then spliced the footage together afterwards. This time I had no volunteers so I had to set my two side-arm camcorders (one mine, one borrowed from the ever-gracious Greg Houdini) as static cameras while I used my main camera to get the interesting shots.

Initially I had trouble finding a safe place to set up two camcorders so I got mighty Macguyvery and gaffer taped my mini tripod to my lightweight camcorder tripod (the heavyweight tripod for my XL1S stayed at home) so that I could stand the tall tripod in one corner and have two cameras pointing in different directions, one for the band, one for the audience. I was pretty pleased with myself. The set up worked, but then the band relocated their stage position and a large space behind the band appeared. I knew that a better camera position had just presented itself so using my house keys (I must be better prepared next time) I sawed through the gaffer tape and peeled my contraption apart while trying to stay clear of the stage re-organisation. I set up the tall tripod behind the band, looking down over the drumkit and out into the audience. I set the mini tripod out to one side to capture the band side-on. This camera was in the audience area on an unused wooden chair, which would normally make me nervous but the venue was run by good people and I knew more than half the audience personally. Some of my closest friends were stood in the vicinity of the mini tripod so I wasn't too worried.

While these two static cams recorded constant footage I would use my main camera to get close-ups and more dynamic shots from multiple positions around the venue, so I would have a choice of three angles to splice together during editing.

The venue was small and didn't use a PA, except for vocals. The drums were unamplified and the guitar/bass audio came solely from the amps (often in larger venues the sound engineer would put microphones on the drums and amplifiers and control the sound from the sound-desk). This simple set up meant I didn't have to worry about annoying a sound engineer or knocking carefully placed mics over as I set up my tripods. I asked Joe to give me a two minute warning before they started so I could run around and turn on all the cameras. He graciously did.

Frau Pouch opened the night with a great set. Greg from Houdini played guest bass on the first track. Joe was dressed as the Log Lady from Twin Peaks, Greg as the washed-up corpse of Laura Palmer, Suzanne as Audrey Horne. After the first song Greg hopped off the stage and full time Pouch bassist Jim took over. I moved around the audience and the stage and got as many good angles as I could. Unfortunately my side-on camcorder died halfway through their set which was was my own fault for leaving the viewing screen on. I wanted to be able to see the footage when standing near the camera and I had no idea it would drain the fully charged battery so quickly, I guess it must be getting old. This left me with only two angles to assemble the rest of the set from.

Sadly Houdini were down a member, but Greg was still playing the slot that evening, assisted by Joe from Frau Pouch and Matt (brother of Houdini drummer Tom) on percussive duties. They played a medley of Lynch music from various TV shows and movies. I captured their set with the two remaining cams.

I packed my gear, speed-drank a beer, got the penultimate train home from the venue around midnight withand went straight to bed. Poompf.


I worked on editing the footage over the last few days. As I mentioned one camcorder only caught half the set before dying. Sadly the first few minutes of another camcorder were scrambled. But the main camera looked good. It was dark at the venue, with not much lighting, but rather than boost the gain while taping (which I did for the previous Frau Pouch vid, with grainy results) I decided to leave the settings unboosted and have a better looking image, even if it was dark. For focus I set the camera to autofocus, knowing that both myself and the subject would be in motion and that lighting would be scarce. The autofocus may not always be perfect but it will work quicker than I can, and everything I'm filming is live, not staged, so I won't get another shot. For the video mix during editing, I used the main camera footage wherever possible, substituting it with camcorder footage whenever I was moving around.

The audio was not captured professionally but was a composite of all three cameras. It sounded pretty good, not crystal clear but it captured the live feel of the sound and the overwhelming volume pretty well. The main camera was balanced for the volume level, the other two camcorders (which have no such controls) were predictably overloaded. But layered together, it sounded good. The vocals get a little lost in the mix sadly.

Visually I feel the video is an improvement of the New Cross taping, even though a few things didn't go to plan, it still came out okay. The footage from the Canon ended up looking really great, better than before. I'm glad I didn't boost the signal with gain otherwise it would have been washed out and grainy.

Still need to finish the second part of the video, which is Greg's set. I think I'll also take one song from the Frau Pouch video (which covers the whole set) and put that up on youtube as a stand-alone video. People don't always want to watch a 22 minute full set, they want to hear their favourite song.

All in all, looking forward to doing more live recording. I'm really happy with how it all went.

Thanks for reading!

Frau Pouch at the Urban Bar, Whitechapel, London

My latest video - I taped Frau Pouch (featuring Greg from Houdini on bass for opening song) playing the Urban Bar in Whitechapel. Good times!

Got another set from the same night to go up soon.