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!

Arriving

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.

Filming

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
Afterwards

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!

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