Have you ever watched a YouTube video of a mandolin performance that you literally just want to adjust the settings of your PC to make it sound better? Or maybe you are so distracted by the background that you stop watching the mandolin player? Not good. In this post of theMandolinTuner blog I will show you how I create theMandolinTuner YouTube videos.

 

How I Started Creating Videos

I made the first videos for the two mandolin for beginners lessons I posted in theMandolinTuner blog. These videos illustrated how to play the exercises of the lessons and also presented the progress of my two students, Panos and Alexandra.

Also, following the studio recording with Mandolinarte, which was done to record our demo CD (you can hear it here), I decided to create a series of Youtube videos to record solo and duet mandolin music I have been playing lately. I posted the first video this week, in which I play the sixth part (Double from Sarabande) of J.S. Bach’s first violin partita in B minor (SI minore), catalog number BWV 1002.

For all these You Tube videos I decided to experiment with home recording, i.e. do the recording in my private home, rather than in a professional recording studio. Home recording is practiced by indie bands, singer-songwriters, hobbyists, pod-casters, documentarians, and even top-name acts, as the cost of professional audio and video equipment has been dropping steadily in recent years.

 

Selecting The Background

My research revealed that most of the mandolin videos out there use a real background, i.e.the room in which the video is recorded. You can usually see curtains, but also sofas, book shelves, etc. See below some examples:

It proves that using a real background is tricky. All try to make the background visually interesting, but this may distract viewers looking on book shelves pictures, book titles etc.  So what makes a background sucessful?

My guess is that it has to be visually attractive but not distract viewers. How? You need to blur it and you also need to use the right lighting techniques!

From the images above, I think that only Chris Thile and Mike Marshal have successful backgrounds. Ok, I already know what you will say “these are pros, so their videos were arranged by professional crews”. Well, this may be true, but the fact remains that the background is successful and this is what we need to do as well!

 

And now, this is what I did. I used my living room and especially a corner where a book shelf lies. Here is my background:

Me, playing

Am I happy? Well, I decided early on to avoid perfection – remember perfection is the enemy of good. Instead I tried to make it good enough and I think this is what you should do as well.  Just do it, release it and try to improve with the video to follow.

Having said that, my background is not bad, but its not really interesting and is also somehow distracting. Also, if you look carefully you will understand that the biggest problem with my setting is lighting, but more about this below…

To improve the background, I plan to use a solid colour background instead of a natural background . How will I do that? I will use a studio lighting kit like the Cowboy Lighting video background system, or the Cowboy Lighting Kit.

The Cowboy video background system

The Cowboy Lighting Kit

 

Selecting a Camera

This is video recording, so equipment is crucial. Also, using more than one angles is also nice, so you need more than one camera to do that. Obviously you need to use cameras which are capable to record video in good quality. Nowadays this means High Definition (720p or 1080p)

The good news is that this capability is now offered even by entry level equipment. You don’t even need a dedicated (expensive) video camera. You can instead use compact cameras, mirrorless cameras, DSLR cameras or even a smartphone.

Most smartphones produce very good video recordings. Maybe the smartphones with the best performance are the latest iPhone models.

Compact cameras are also very capable in video recording. Models from Canon, Sony and Samsung are very good at this. Maybe the best model is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX-100, capable of shooting 4K video (!)

 

Mirrorless cameras are the next big thing. The capability to change lenses just like traditional DSLRs, together with their compact size due to lack of mirror, make them equivalent in performance with traditional DSLRs and more travel friendly. A very good example is SONY a6000

 

DSLR cameras are now being used by pros for high definition video production. They seem to be the best choice, although maybe the most expensive. Nikon D7100 seems to be one of the best choices there.

 

In my latest video, I used compact cameras and a smartphone. In detail l I used:

  • My Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7
  • My older Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
  • My iPhone 5s

Am I happy? Well it depends! Although I was filming at 720p (High definition), the result is not crisp and not very detailed. Was this a problem of the cameras used? Maybe not so much. It mainly had to do with poor lighting of the subject and less with the camera quality.

Having said that, currently the best choice for filming High Definition Video indoors, seem to be DSLR and mirrrorless cameras because of the very big sensor they feature. So,used in are excellent in capturing more light which is crucial indoors.

So, my plan for next videos is to use either the Nikon D3300 or the SONY a6000


The Nikon D3300

The Sony a6000

Using Tripods

You need tripods for many reasons, including:

  • to stabilize your cameras,
  • to achieve the right angle
  • to shoot the video by yourself

There are plenty of tripod options out there. I suggest you select tripods of good quality featuring clasps for quick setup, and the capability to adjust the camera in three dimensions (3D is the marketing talk).

 

For my own videos, I  realised early on that tripods are essential and also not expensive, so I got myself two tripods from Hama

The tripods I used were lightweight and very stable. I got a 60″ and a 61″. They were just great.

My plan for the future is to get a tripod also for my smartphone. My iPhone lacked a tripod so all videos captured were not from a good angle and finally were not used during editing. So for next time I plan to get a tripod adapter for mobiles. I will choose between the Square Jellyfish Spring Tripod Mount or the DaVoice Cell Phone Tripod Adapter

 

The Importance of Lighting

Here is the last but not least issue to address. Lighting. What did I do? Well, nothing good, and I think it is obvious. I used two sources of light, the natural light from the window and a light source located just 50cm from me.

It didn’t work. The video is not crisp. It is rather blurry and details are lucking. Also shadows are all over. This is the issue  I need to work more.

So here is my plan for next videos: I have done some literature research and have concluded that the difference between amateur video and professional-looking video is lighting and specifically positioning of the lights and also use of soft lights. Let’s take it one by one.

The three-point lighting system seems to be universally accepted as the standard way to light people during interviews, and that makes it the right system to light musicians performing. The below diagram explains it (one picture equals to a thousand words!):

diy_studio_lighting

By using three separate positions,I will better illuminate the subject (me playing the mandolin) however desired, while also controlling (or eliminating entirely) the shading and shadows produced by direct lighting. With this system I will use:

The key (main) light, as the name suggests, shines directly upon the subject and serves as its principal illuminator; more than anything else, the strength, color and angle of the key determines the shot’s overall lighting design.

The fill light also shines on the subject, but from a side angle relative to the key and is often placed at a lower position than the key (about at the level of the subject’s face). It balances the key by illuminating shaded surfaces, and lessening or eliminating effects, such as the shadow cast by a person’s nose upon the rest of the face. It is usually softer and less bright than the key light (up to half), and more to a flood.

The back light (a.k.a. the rim, hair, or shoulder light) shines on the subject from behind, often (but not necessarily) to one side or the other. It gives the subject a rim of light, serving to separate the subject from the background and highlighting contours.

Obviously I need equipment to do that. I intend to kill two birds with one stone, by purchasing a backround kit that includes also three soft light sources. These are my current options:

The Cowboy video background system

The Cowboy Lighting Kit

And yes, these two kits include soft lights. What is a soft light?

Soft light refers to light that tends to “wrap” around objects, casting diffuse shadows with soft edges. Soft light is when a light source is large relative to the subject, hard light is when the light source is small relative to the subject.

This depends mostly on the following two factors:

  • Distance. The closer the light source, the softer it becomes.
  • Size of light source. The larger the source, the softer it becomes.

 

 Using External Microphones for Audio Recording

The most crucial part of audio recording is of course the microphone.

There are many options out there, from cheap to very expensive, but I prefer a multi-purpose microphone that records acoustic music very-very well and is very versatile. I am using the Zoom H2 Handy recorder, but as this is out of production now, there are two newer products available if you choose to get one. These are the Zoom H2N Handy Recorder and the Zoom H4N Handy Recorder.


Zoom H2N Handy Recorder

Zoom H4N Handy Recorder

Now the only disadvantage to using a separate microphone is that you need to merge and synchronize video and audio during editing. This is what I did but my plans for future videos include simplification ofthis process.

My intention is to connect the line-out port of the microphone to the line-in of the video camera. The Nikon D3300 features a Stereo mini-pin jack (3.5-mm diameter), while the microphone features a mini-pin line-out. Easy right?

 

Setting up for Audio Recording

Setting up for audio recording is not difficult. This is what I did and it worked:

Place the microphone close to the instrument: Placing the microphone close to the mandolin is crucial to enable it to capture sound in detail.

zoom h4n avoid clipping

Avoid Clipping: Clipping introduces sound distortion which is of course very bad. Fortunately with zoom microphones this is easy as they provide visual indications of sound level. What you need to do is avoid sound levels greater that -6db.

 

The Music Instrument is Important

richard morgan mandolinMicrophones and audio setup is important, but what about your audio source? For a good audio recording, you need a good music instrument, that has been setup properly for intonation and is in tune.

I used in my latest video the “Windy String” 4-string mandolin from Richard Morgan. This is an excellent instrument, with very clear tone, amazing projection and clarity. Here is a link to articles providing more information about the luthier making these amazing instruments.

Before recording, I made sure the mandolin is properly setup. Here is an online guide I have created on how to setup your mandolin for intonation.

Also before recording, and actually before each take, I made sure the mandolin is in tune. Here is an online guide on how to easily tune your mandolin.

Mandolin Tuning Guide

 

Editing and Publishing

Editing is the last step before uploading the video to YouTube or other similar services. Editing requires time and equipment. This is how I do it.

I am using an Apple Mac Mini as hardware. This is an excellent piece of hardware that has the advantage that it has no fans, i.e. does not make any noise. Surely recommended.

I am using Apple’s iMovie to do video editing. In iMovie you can import both video and audio tracks, synchronize them and also enhance the video image, apply effects like transitions, add titles etc.

iMovie is a simple piece of software and very efficient, as it helps you post videos in Youtube in a single click, which is fantastic.

 

Concluding…

Video and audio recording is an art that requires knowledge and effort. So, don’t try to make it perfect!

Problems have not stopped me from producing my first videos and I believe they should not stop you either. It is in my plans to improve all areas that are not good, and I hope this will make my next videos better.

So, don’t just wait. Grab your mandolin and a camera and create the first movie of yourself playing beautiful music!