Strange days, indeed. Collaborative online recording.

As I write this, we are in the second month of pandemic distancing. This has wreaked havoc with religious and other organizations all over the world. I assume most US congregations are doing what ours has done: we’ve gone to using Zoom twice a week for a Sunday service (just one, as there are no longer space limitations) and a shorter Wednesday night vespers (a quiet, meditative half hour).

If you’ve used Zoom or Skype, you know that only one person can speak (or sing) at a time, which means that the most participatory part of corporate worship is now impossible. Yeah, we can all sing along, but we can’t hear anyone else besides the leader. It’s not the same.

That also means that choirs, bands, chanting circles, threshold choirs — all kinds of musical small-group ministry — are all dissolved for the foreseeable future. Man, that hurts.

So, what to do? The only thing I’ve seen that’s usable so far is “distanced ensembles”. This is where various people record their musical part for mixing together with others to form a band, choir, whatever. This then gets played over Zoom during a remote service (or loaded on YouTube or whatever).

We have used music videos from two programs (so far). One is an app called Acapella. This is for iOS devices (Mac); it’s allegedly available on Androids, too, but the reviews are among the worst I’ve seen, with almost universal complaints about bugs and lack of function, and one-star reviews. Which is a shame, because the results are quite nice. The producer can pick the number and layout of windows, then each participant records themselves on their phone or laptop into one of the windows. The result is a multi-window video of the kind you have no doubt seen by now. The final product can be quite satisfying, as it’s got the music along with close-ups of the performers. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of processing you can do on the track, though. (I’ll edit to correct this if I learn differently).

The second method we use is to record separate audio tracks and mix them together in a Digital Audio Workstation program such as Audacity or Garage Band. (Audacity is open source freeware for multiple platforms, Garage Band is included on many Apple products.)

Our sequence goes like this: the producer of the track creates a pilot track — usually a click track or computer-generated drum track — to set tempo and length. Then the players start adding their parts by listening to the pilot track on one device (e.g. phone) and playing along to record on a different device (e.g. computer). The individual tracks are then uploaded to a shared folder, then the producer downloads and mixes them in the DAW software. This is the way most popular music is recorded these days. That “guest solo” was probably recorded in London or Nashville and e-mailed to Los Angeles for mixing.

Our procedure is evolving, but at present it goes about like this: An intro measure is always included, and can be cut out for the final mix. For parts that don’t start on the first beat of the song, it’s very useful to have everyone count along with the pilot track’s click, so the producer can line the parts up easily. One singer clapped on beat 3 of the intro measure, which worked perfectly. The acoustic guitarist just hit muted strings on each beat. Then while listening to the basic track, the musicians record their own parts as separate audio files, which can be added to the mix, and tweaked as needed.

It’s important to have two devices for this, because often our computers or phones aren’t up to the task of playing back a basic track while recording a new line on top in perfect synchronization.

Then the producer imports the individual tracks into the DAW program, lines them up and starts processing them (equalizing volume, adding compression or reverb, removing noise, pushing certain parts forward in places, or pulling them down). Once the mix is balanced, the lead-in measure can be cut or silenced, overall volume adjusted so remove clipping, fade-out added, etc.

Our services always use video with the music, so the music must be imported into a video editor, along with some kind of visual — stock video of nature, photos of candles, etc. This is a different skill, so you may have to scour the congregation for someone who knows how to or is interested in doing this part, if you want to always used videos. If not, you can add a photo as the “album cover” of a MP3 and that’s what will show in the media player when the song is played back.

As always, be aware of copyright issues when recording and streaming music. If your church doesn’t have a blanket music license, look into getting one. It’s going to be a necessary expense for a good while to come; the costs are based on the average attendance, so it should be affordable. Plus, it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what we’re all about.

If you’ve already done this kind of recording, I imagine your procedure is very similar. If you have different processes, or improvements to share, or use different programs, please put them in the comments!

As of early May, there’s a Facebook group for UU online collaborative recording:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/707093736767297/ This group seems to be tending towards musicians from different congregations creating something by this method.

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(NOTE: Because of the copyright issues, I don’t think I can share our recordings here — sorry!)

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shake it up

Not saying that UU music is a “barren tradition” (nor was European romanticism, for that matter), but remembering that occasionally every tradition needs a little shaking up to keep things fresh.

Debussy - free music from barren traditions

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people these days don’t sing. right?

This just in from UU music director Jed Levine:

Here are a bunch of young people, clearly having fun, and sounding great. No sheet music, no prior rehearsals, no advance notice of the piece. This happens in a bar in Toronto every week. The people just show up, rehearse and sing! Granted, church is not a bar, but I’m sure some of our congregations would appreciate this sort of energy.

What a fantastic experience these happy people are having! We sing in worship because music moves our hearts and minds and bodies in ways that words can’t. It’s not complete without both. These folks (not all young, either!) are clearly having a heightened experience — not worship, but akin to it.

I agree, Jed. This could be a perfect complement to worship, or with the right songs, an entire service. It’s going into my idea file for the next music special service. Thanks for sharing it!

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your brain and music

Answering the “chicken or the egg” question about music and language, here’s an article that will make you sit and think “whoa … really?” Take a few minutes to read it and feel great about having music in your head!

Language, music and your brain.

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Soulful Sundown

Here’s the order of service from a Soulful Sundown worship I attended a couple of months ago at Shelter Rock Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Long Island, NY. It was part of a full Friday night for UUs, with dinner in the social hall, the Soulful Sundown service, and a coffee house with a visiting singer/songwriter afterwards.

If the name “Soulful Sundown” doesn’t ring a bell, let me digress for some background. Soulful Sundown is a kind of rock vespers, a UU contemporary style service usually held on Friday or Sunday evening. It was developed at All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa as a way to appeal to young adults and there were a lot of UU congregations who started these services right around the turn of the millenium. (For example, Lavanhar Promotes “Soulful Sundown” Concept as Ideal Way to Minister to Young Adults.)

They’ve had an up-and-down history. Most of the original ones from the early 2000s didn’t last long. Already in the mid-2000s, when I was looking into the concept for our congregation, Tulsa was the only one remaining. The idea seems to have undergone a revival, however. Searching for “Soulful Sundown” now yields a good number of them around the country, and I think maybe our sense of what’s possible (and maybe what’s appropriate) in UU worship has finally caught up with Rev. Lavanhar’s vision.

So, back to the Shelter Rock service: To my mind, this is the essence of what “UU contemporary worship” could be: an expression of our faith and values with no reliance on traditional Protestant liturgy at all. A couple of things jumped out at me: first, the music, of course. Second, there is no “sermon”. Which is not to say that there’s no spiritual message from the minister. The segments labeled “Spoken Word” and “Reflections from the Road” were a combination of readings and a short homily by the minister. It was not a 20-minute dissertation on the topic, though the parts could have been assembled into one.

Rather, the spoken word and music were woven together organically throughout the service. The words were interspersed with songs from the popular repertoire that commented on or reflected the message (in this case, life as a journey and choosing your journey). It was a very fulfilling and thoroughly UU worship. 1

Last, there was no standing up and sitting down, no unison affirmation read from a hymnal, no singing of “Doxology” or “Spirit of Life”. There was nothing that reflected mid-20th century Protestantism (as carried on by typical UU liturgy).

And yet, the arc of the service was familiar: beginning with spirited singing, with a quieter time of meditation, prayer and contributing to others in the middle, and an uplifting mood at the end. The volume level may have seemed shockingly loud to some, but I noticed on Sunday morning that the congregation’s mammoth pipe organ produced about the same volume as the rock band, so I think that’s the sound level Shelter Rock operates at. 2

The main thing is that this “UU contemporary” service and every one I have participated in (at my church, at GA, at UUMN conferences) appeals not to an age demographic, but a spiritual demographic that reaches across the generations.

It’s what you want out of worship, rather than your age, that draws you to this kind of service. “UU young adults” are not automatically attracted to popular music in worship. And “older UUs” are not automatically repelled by it. Some of the younger ones prefer the symphony, and the older ones are members of the pioneering rock-and-roll generation. In my view, Soulful Sundown worship appeals not to an age group, but to a particular approach to one’s spiritual life. Some people prefer more formality in worship, some less. Some people want worship to inspire joy and celebration. Some associate a joyful and energetic worship style with a theology they despise. Some people just don’t like change (maybe that’s where the assumed appeal to the young comes in?).

Here’s the downside: these services are still considered “special events”. They’re typically held once a month, often in conjunction with some sort of “coffee house” entertainment afterwards. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but why couldn’t this obviously appealing style be a regular thing every Sunday morning?

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the ~75% of people who self-identify as UU but who don’t belong to a UU congregation. I would bet good money that a lot — most? — of them are totally into UU spiritual values, but don’t have any interest in sitting in a service that reflects mid-20th century Protestant worship values. 3

We consider ourselves “religious liberals”. We have broken almost totally with Christian theology. It makes me wonder why most of us still worship like conservative Christians.



Footnotes:
1. Well, there was some dancing; maybe that’s not what most of us are used to seeing in worship.

2. Anyone who complains that rock music is “too loud”, while being blissfully blasted by a pipe organ in a small sanctuary is objecting not to volume, but style.

3. I have seen no data to support or contradict this assertion, so you may ignore it as you like. But do ask those “free range” UUs you meet what keeps them away from your congregation and what would make them comfortable there.

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my apologies

It seems that WordPress has decided to monetize me by inserting advertisements at the end of each post. Let me repeat: their ad gets the last word when you are reading my posts. Of course, the chances that these will not harm (forget about helping) is about zero.
They want $30 a year to return control to me. I understand that they have to pay the bills somehow, but I can’t think of a more intrusive way to do it than sticking an ad for beer or Viagra on the end of an essay about worship music. I am pondering whether to negotiate with the hostage-takers or find another host. I welcome your suggestions, comments or ideas. In the meantime, you can view this or any site ad-free by using Firefox and installing the Adblock Plus extension.

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the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Sunday I sang Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand”. I like this song because it tells an interesting story and makes its point in a subtle way. The point, as I see it, is that “to a kid with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Or, more relevant to current events, “to someone with a pistol, everything looks like a target”. It’s a warning not to let mere possession of technology override your moral judgement.

I chose this song before that murder trial in Florida began, but we ended up doing it for a worship service the day after the jury acquitted George Zimmerman of killing an unarmed teenager. Apparently, not much was said from UU pulpits about the situation, but singing Earle’s song the morning after made a powerful comment on the verdict. Sometimes, things just work out that way.

Earle’s articulation is terrible, so here are the lyrics, if you’re interested, followed by a video of the song.

About the time that Daddy left to fight the big war
I saw my first pistol in the general store
In the general store, when I was thirteen
I thought it was the finest thing I ever had seen

So l asked if I could have one someday when I grew up
Mama dropped a dozen eggs, she really blew up
She really blew up, and I didn’t understand
Mama said the pistol is the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Me very first pistol was a cap and ball Colt
Shoots as fast as lightnin’ but it loads a mite slow
It loads a mite slow, and soon I found out
It’ll get you into trouble but it can’t get you out

So then I went and bought myself a Colt 45
Called a Peacemaker but I never knew why
I never knew why, I didn’t understand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Got into a card game in a company town
I caught a miner cheating, I shot the dog down
I shot the dog down, I watched the man fall
He never touched his holster, never had a chance to draw

The trial was in the morning and they drug me out of bed
Asked me how I pleaded, not guilty I said
Not guilty I said, you’ve got the wrong man
Nothing touched the trigger but the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

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