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Is it ‘Ahh’ or ‘Aah’? Choir Session Tips

There are a number of differences in how I approach conducting a choir as opposed to how I approach conducting an orchestra in the studio. You usually only get a single session to record the choir for a whole score, so here are some tips to get everything you need.

You need to emote
While I have said I do minimal gestures and stay out of the way with the orchestra, leading a choir is very different. I have found you get the best results when you do ‘perform’ a little. They really do respond favorably. I have found it helps to take the breath with them before the first note; it’s a cue they are used to looking for. Eye contact is also important with a choir, so you can’t keep you head buried in the score. It should go without saying that you do not use a baton with the choir and your hand movements are more gestural. This part is similar to how I have been doing the orchestra in recent times. While I think conducting an orchestra in the studio has hardly any similarities to the concert hall, conducting a choir in the studio is much closer, with the addition of understanding all of the technical studio and orchestration techniques.

Singers need pitches
I prefer to have a piano or keyboard next to me and give them myself. The times I have had a pianist or someone in the choir do it, they just can’t help themselves and doodle too much for my liking, which slows me down. I can’t actually play the piano well at all, and I don’t think that matters. If the cue is simple, a professional choir is often ready for a take right away. It is most helpful to give the pitches as a broken chord, from the bottom up. After I give the pitches, we will listen to the track. If a cue comes up that is really similar to something we have just done I might save some time and skip the listening, but I have found you save more time listening and having them hum along than you waste. Often that is all they need and we are ready for a take. If it is a little tricker, we will go through it without the track. I will fumble my way through on the keyboard, giving notes when needed. It is a much more organic approach than rehearsing an orchestra. We will work on it until we are comfortable, then do a take. 

I also believe it is important for the choir to have some context and will play then any material from before their entry that might inform or inspire their performance. Some people like to have the choir sing their starting pitches each time they punch in. I have found that unless they have a new, complicated chord, vastly different than what they just previously sang, there is no need for this, unless you want to go all Mr. Holland on them and take them back to high school.

I am constantly blown away by the sight singing of the choirs I get to work with. That said, it is easy to play the notes then get side tracked before you do the take, so there is no harm in playing them again just before they start and reminding them of the bar and free clicks!

Punching in
It is rare that the choir sings throughout a whole cue; usually it is just several small sections and it is totally fine and in fact preferred by the choir to record it that way too. It is much easier to work on a small section, dial it in and record and move on. Also, it is a waste of time to have the choir sit around while they count rests and risk a dodgy entry as they did not have their pitches. I know you think they will enjoy singing the whole thing, and maybe if you are the composer you want to show off your whole cue to them, but none of that really matters to the movie in the theatre and if you run the session well and know what you are doing, the choir is happy with 2 bars at a time if it makes sense and allows them to perform their best.

If they are to start singing in the same key as the previous measure, then I will just play it from two bars before they enter and they can hear it and join in. If the choir entry is in a different key or vibe to the preceding material, then a clean start is best, and I will give two bars of free clicks with nothing to distract them. And just like with the orchestra, I keep reminding them of which bar they are starting from. This is even more important for the choir due to all of the jumping around you will do in the session. 

Dividing the choir
We often end up in six parts. I will work with the choir master/leader to work out who sings what, but we will end up with six equal-sized groups and plans for any division that might come up.

The really high stuff
There is something exciting about the sopranos hitting a high C, but eight of them doing it can be a little too exciting. I have found when you get up into that register you only need one or two of them up there. A similar thing can happen with the tenors when they get high, so you might need to dial them back or reduce their numbers. It does not matter what else is going on, but a top A to a tenor means ‘it is my moment to shine.’ 

The really low stuff
The opposite is true here. Going low, the voice gets weaker and harder to project, so don’t expect it to sound like the samples did, where they recorded one note at a time! Just like you should know all the ranges of the orchestral instruments, it is important to know the ranges of the choir and know when things are pushing it, so you can either understand what you will get, or be prepared to work with them in a way that can push them (nicely) to get what you need.

Breathing and cutoffs
If you don’t state it, choirs will ask if you want them to breathe with the phrase or to stagger and have no gaps. While I have stated my dislike of leaving staggering decisions up to woodwind and brass players’ discretion, I do not have any issues with the choir working it out. They do this very well. As to whether you want it or not, it is purely a musical choice and sometimes needs to be made on a phrase by phrase basis. But it is important for the conductor to think about it.

If you do breathe with the phrases, the choir will look to you for guidance. If you ever watch a real choral conductor they usually breathe and sing or at least mouth the words with the choir. If you don’t help with the cutoff’s it will be messy, and eventually they will just start to look at each other and ignore you.

In most film sessions the choir is doing ‘ah’ or ‘oo.’ Someone will nearly always ask, ‘Is it “ah,” “aah,” “ahh,” or “aahh”?’ My preference is actually for a bit of a free for all. When I get that question I often say ‘whatever you just did was great.’ But I do understand they want to just make it right and are more confident when they get the exact vowel you want. The best way to deal with this is to tell them at the start of the session that I am not fussy about the exact syllable; just go for it and I will let them know if it is not working. That said, someone will still ask. Quite often it is a distraction technique after a really bad take, as if it was all out of tune and time because someone sang an ‘ahhh’ instead of ‘ahh’ and now that we have that cleared up we will be fine! I will say this is not unique to choirs. The violins will play something horrendously out of tune and the concert master will then try to play defense for the team with a question about the bowing.

It is quite rare that we sing real words when recording underscore. The closest we may get is fake Latin or if you want to be really hip try some Sanskrit! Either way, the idea is to get a syllable that works well for the phrase, but does not draw attention to the choir in a way that distracts from the movie. If you do end up using words, be sure to clear it with someone above you, as there are all sorts of issues that can pop up like cultural sensitivity or copyright. I have found it is just best to keep it non-sensical unless specifically asked to do otherwise.

To vib or not to vib
Another common question asked is what sort of sound you would like. How much vibrato? This is another thing I tend to to try and sort out at the start. If I do not have a general direction in my head I say ‘just sing and I will let you know. If I don’t say anything, then I am happy’. Note that the singers’ term for no vibrato is ‘straight tone’ and a good word for a little vibrato is ‘shimmer.’ But they will still ask how much vibrato you want after a bad take.

Children’s choirs
Nothing scares me more than hearing the composer say they want to record a children’s choir! It is REALLY hard to do. They just cannot sight read like adults, so learning the notes is a very slow process, meaning you cannot get near as much done in a session. A trick we will often do is to have some women sing with the kids so they learn it quicker. You can then record with them pretending to be children, or try it without them, but at least they can speed the learning process. But if you do do it, keep the orchestration simple. The more unison, the easier it will be. We have often gone in with a few parts and had to just strip it back so we can get anything usable. I know I sound very pessimistic, but if I prepare you with low expectations, you will then be happier with what you get. You do have more luck with children’s choirs in countries that have existing groups and long traditions. I will often have their choir director lead the sessions as the children are more comfortable that way and they are experts at teaching them. (I also don’t want to be responsible for the shit show that is often about to happen!)

Just like when you do brass-only sessions and the players don’t get natural breaks to recover, the same considerations apply to choir sessions. You have to look out for them and not push too hard. Give them some time between hard or loud takes to breathe and relax. Go too fast or start again too soon and you will not get good results, plus you will wear them out for the next cue. Passages in extreme ranges wear voices out, so best to do an easy cue or two, then do anything that pushes them. Don’t leave the hardest stuff for last.

That said, just like with their sight singing, the singers I work with are amazing at sticking with it until we get what we need and will rarely complain, but they appreciate it when the conductor helps set them up for success.

The rules
Just like with orchestras, different countries have different contracts and rules. In LA, the choirs are from a different union than the orchestra, so they have different rules and terms. London has certain conditions too when it comes to stacking or overdubbing. The rest of the major scoring cites have no rules, just like their orchestras, so you are free to use your time anyway you want.

The singers in LA are represented by SAG, the same guild as the actors. This can be an advantage as most productions will already have an assumption agreement (contract) in place with SAG, so there are no extra permissions or costs (apart from the session fees) to complicate things, as opposite to an AFM orchestra session.
If you are planing a SAG session it is important to note that the words they use for overdubbing are a little different from what the AFM or most other orchestras use:

  • Overdubbing/Multi-tracking is the recording of additional vocal tracks of the same notes sung on the original vocal track, just to enhance or thicken the ‘sound.’
  • Sweetening is the singing of tracks of additional harmonies or parts that differ from the notes sung on the original vocal track.

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