Audition videos are a new fact of life. 

Even if you play a "live" audition for a panel, you're making a video. They will often record your live audition and review it a few times before any final choice is made. You need to be comfy in front of a camera.

My reason for writing this post is to convince you to learn about it sooner rather than later and get you started with the basics. It's more important than ever to have some basic, nuts-and-bolts video skills.

Even if you are told on the application that only your playing will be judged and not the video quality, they're lying. 

Maybe not lying to you or on purpose, but it's a lie. 

People can't help but like nice things and it's extremely difficult for a panelist to separate the quality of your playing from the presentation. This is the same reason why good looking people have an unfair advantage in life. It's unfair and it sucks (but you can learn your way out of that problem.) 

Panelists might tell themselves they're being fair and objective, but it's probably not true. 

Above all else you will be judged on your sound. However, our senses are not very discrete and are highly influenced by expectations.

What we see influences our perception of what we hear

If you want to look into some of the science behind this for yourself, I highly recommend Auditory Scene Analysis by Albert S. Bregman. It is a seriously nerdy, 792 page read on how the human mind perceives sound. It's one of those intimidating books that will change how you think about all kinds of things if you have the guts to go after it. 

A clear, crispy recording in a big beautiful space will always be perceived as better than a grainy practice room recording. 

If you have a beautifully filmed video, before you even start playing, the observer is expecting you to sound excellent. Deliver on that promise with your playing and you have a much, much higher likelihood of winning. 

Here is a visual representation of what I'm talking about.

 

I'm obviously not trying to win any photoshop contests. 

I'm obviously not trying to win any photoshop contests. 

Get yourself firmly into the upper right quadrant and you have the best odds of winning. I can't promise you'll win, but I can promise there will be other people in that upper left quadrant. Anywhere else and it only makes dismissing you easier. 

Also...

You can control the quality of your video and it's a skill you'll use later on in your career.

I went as far as becoming a professional camera operator for a few years. You don't need to do all that.  

Learn enough so that you can do some things on your own and competently instruct the media professionals that you'll work with down the line. Read my article about awful musician websites and what you need to know to make your own look good. It's the same kind of knowledge. You don't need to become an expert insider, but you need to know the basics. 

In the case of making a video, what are those basics?

1. Preparation

Camera people and Directors call this "pre-production". All it really boils down to is having your ducks in a row before the shoot. I got my start as a professional camera operator by filming recitals and audition videos at The Hartt School while I was finishing up my Master's. Preparing should be obvious to a lot of people, but you would be amazed at how often this doesn't happen.

For example, clients would set up a shoot with me and expect themselves to do things in front of the camera that they've never been able to do, anywhere. Adding a camera to this mix never helps—it tends to make people nervous and have trouble executing what is normally easy. 

This generally happens for one of two reasons: 

  1. Not enough practice.
  2. Not enough practice in front of a camera. 

If you don't know the music you intent to record, don't expect a miracle at the shoot. Most of the people reading this won't have this problem but I figured I should mention it to be thorough. 

The second reason is the one that's really important to mention for the ambitious emilioguarino.com reader. Part of your preparation should be recording yourself with your camera phone, webcam, laptop, GoPro, whatever you can get your hands on.

Recording yourself is a well known technique for working on your playing in general, but you also need to get used to being recorded. Most people see a camera click on and immediately tighten up a little if they aren't used to the sight, especially when I was using my Sony EX1. The fact that it looks like an intense production camera would put people on edge. 

Sometimes its the little things. I got into the habit of disabling or putting a piece of tape over the little red tally light that indicates the camera is recording because that would bother people. Another technique would be to just put the camera up and have the performer warm up to get used to the camera being there. 

Other ways camera fear would manifest is the performer might sound good for the first few takes, ask to see a playback, notice little imperfections, then become extremely self-concious and have trouble doing even a usable take. 

Like a lot of things in music, you'll need lots of little failures over time to develop something really polished. 

Get into the habit of recording yourself. It'll help you listen to yourself objectively and help to suppress any irrational camera fears. 

2. Get a good room

Assuming you can play well in front of a camera, you need a great room to do that in. 

It will affect your playing and the the viewer's perception of your playing both from a visual and acoustic perspective. A nice, resonant room that is aesthetically beautiful will help you to play better and look like you know what you're doing. A junky, dead room will have the opposite effect. 

Stay away from spaces that are small, boxy, messy, poorly lit, have low ceilings, and let in distracting noises from outside.

Here is why you need to avoid these qualities, with examples:

Small Rooms - Most performers have an innate urge to "fill up" the space they play in. Find a big room and you'll want to create a bigger, more resonant sound. Small rooms often have awful acoustics anyway, and the psychology of being in a small space tend not to put people at ease. 

Boxy Rooms - Cube shaped rooms have terrible acoustics all the time. They're prone to bizarre flutter echoes and a number of other unfavorable acoustic conditions. 

Messy Rooms - Looks matter! Making an audition tape in a messy room is like showing up to a job interview in sweatpants. Even if your playing is sparkling and perfect, the panel reviewing the tape will be extra critical and on edge because you aren't presenting yourself like a professional. If you're a broke college student living in an old Top Ramen box, don't record in your Top Ramen box. Show them where you want to go in life, not where you are. 

Low ceilings - Low ceiling cause more acoustic problems and they can make the frame feel crowded to look at. Ever walk into a room with a low ceiling and be a little careful and on edge so you don't whack your head into something? Don't conjure that feeling in your video. 

Outside noises - It is simply irritating to try to listen to someone critically while there are all kinds of extraneous noises bleeding into the recording and it can erode your focus. This includes traffic, chatter, and other people's practicing. The last thing you want is to have a great take get ruined because a truck honked right as you were going for that critical high note. 

Poor Lighting - This is partially practical, partially aesthetic. The panel needs to be able to see what you're doing and see your face. Even, consistent lighting will also make the video more attractive to look at. Also, you can get excellent results with a cheap camera and great lighting, but a great camera and horrible lighting doesn't always work. Making dim or poor lighting look good generally requires very expensive equipment, and even then it isn't always possible. 

If the room is dim or unevenly lit, bring lights. You can rent professional lights very cheaply and I've even seen people get good results with household lamps.

On lots of shoots in NJ and NYC, I've used a great camera store called Unique Photo for rentals. You can rent an $800, 4-piece Lowel light kit for $10 per day. They'll even ship you rental gear. Good lighting for a whole day, for less than the price of lunch in New York City. No excuses!

Quick and Dirty Lighting Basics*:

-It must be fairly even. You don't want any part of the frame to be "blown out" with excessive lighting or underlit and grainy. If there is too much light in a given place, the area will appear completely white. This can't be edited out. If you don't have enough light in an area, you'll see a graininess in the video, not a flat black shadow. This "noise" is also difficult to edit out. 

-Lighting needs to show some depth to the frame. This is why you'll often see three point lighting—it allows you to control some of the highlights and shadows from the front, back, and side of the subject, which gives the impression of depth. You don't want the image to look flat. 

Natural light can also look great, but it can be problematic if there are lots of passing clouds or you shoot around sunrise or sunset. The light will change too much and too quickly to be useable. 

-It must be a workable color temperature. You can easily Google for the technical explanation of color temperature, but for the sake of this article, just think of it as how "warm" or "cool" the light is. Remember warm and cool colors from elementary school art class? You don't want to look too blue or like you're playing from a room located in an upper circle of hell. 

-You shouldn't have to "boost" the light using the camera. If the image looks too dim, get more light or move your lights around. Making the image brighter with the camera will introduce a lot of noise and fuzziness into the image that is difficult to get out. 

*Lighting is a whole art form in itself. There are people who do nothing but lighting for a career. They'll probably hold their noses at this article, but this article isn't for lighting designers. It's for people who just need to get things done without becoming lighting designers. 

3. Get Good Equipment

"Good" equipment can be different things to different people. I'll start at what I consider the minimum and least expensive options, then work up from there. 

1. Smartphone + mounting device + a Field Recorder

For the sake of audition videos, it's possible to put a great video together on a smartphone camera as long as you record the audio with something else of higher quality and you have balanced lighting. You'll need to line up the audio file and video file up after the fact. If you feel comfortable doing that yourself, can hire someone to do it economically, this is a viable option. 

The major drawback here is first and foremost that phone cameras are finicky and don't offer much control. If the image is looking weird and overexposed, you can only fix things by adjusting lighting and hope the camera's iris algorithm doesn't screw it up again. If the color temperature looks wrong, you might not be able to do much.

Camera phones aren't very reliable either. They're designed to record short videos for sharing on the internet, not record a half hour performance with no cuts. You might be in the middle of a take and the camera has an error that causes recording to stop. If this is your only option, use at least two phones, set them on airplane mode, put them on mute, and make sure they have plenty of available memory. 

Also, make sure you get something hold it up! Having your buddy hold the cameras in his hands will look like a shaky mess. There are commercial, tripod-like devices that you can use to prop the camera up. If you're so cash strapped that you are forced to use this option, buying stuff might not be in the cards.

If you attach your phone to a chair with gaffer's tape because you're too broke to buy a tripod, but manage to squeeze a good audition video out of that setup, I will send you a signed copy of my book for free. 

2. GoPro + a Field Recorder

GoPro cameras are fairly affordable or easy to borrow and are much more reliable than smartphones. The workflow is basically the same since you'll have to line up the video from the camera with the audio from the field recorder in software like iMovie or Adobe Premiere .

You do gain some reliability and can control the camera more so this is definitely a superior option to firing up a couple iPhones. 

3. ZOOM Q8 (or something like it)

Get a decent camera with comparable stereo microphones and you'll avoid the headache of having to record audio to another device and line it up later. I decided to recommend the ZOOM Q8 because it's a decent little camera from a company that makes field recorders. 

When I was shopping for a professional camera, one of the reasons I went with a Sony EX1 is that it has XLR inputs. This allowed me to record recitals with condenser mics of my choice and supply them with phantom power. That audio would get recorded straight into the camera, so no editing was needed. Just a little EQ and compression if I thought it would help and then I'm done. You probably don't need most of the bells and whistles of an EX1, but the workflow is nice because it's simpler. 

Options like the ZOOM Q8 offer much less control than a production camera, but simply having a good enough camera with quality condenser mics to one place eliminates the hassle of lining up audio and video files. The Q8 even you lets swap mic capsules with other ZOOM mic capsules. 

From here, the options get more expensive and allow for incrementally better results, but the setup is and workflow is still the same. You're either recording to a video device and audio device, then lining them up, or recording to one camera that can handle everything. For example, lots of people will record video to a DSLR then record audio through their computer's sound card and better quality mics.  

4. Get A Professional Involved (maybe)

If you have the budget to just call someone else to shoot your audition videos and not worry about a thing, that's great! Find someone who does good work call it a day. 

In my experience I've found that most music students just don't have that option, especially if they're doing lots of videos for opportunities that have different requirements. 

For some people, learning to do this stuff themselves is right in their wheelhouse. It certainly was for me and I was able to make some money doing it.

If that isn't the case, I would just find out how much it costs to hire help with the tricky steps and do as much yourself as you can.

For example, if you shoot on an iPhone and a ZOOM recorder you already own, you should easily be able to find someone to help you line up the files. Record one long video file, one long audio file, then pay someone $30 to line them up and bounce it out as a new .mp4 file. Also, ask them to show you how to make basic cuts if you need to chop the video up in the future. This whole process should take no more than an hour, tops. Realistically, if I need to line up two files, its more like 2 minutes. 

If you plan on recording more than 3 videos a year for any length of time, it really makes sense to just pony up the money for a ZOOM Q8—you'll save money in the long term and save time not editing takes together. $350 is more than you might want to spend, but that's really nothing compared to what you will spend hiring people. When I was shooting professionally, I would charge $400 per day just to show up and shoot and some of my production friends thought I was nuts for being so cheap.

Questions?

I really did my best to break this down into easy, teachable steps, but I'm biased.

Since I have a good understanding of shooting videos in a variety of settings with all kind of equipment, it is totally possible that I skipped something important or have you scratching your head about a crucial step. It's the curse of knowledge. Not a problem! 

Tell me where you're confused in the comments and I'll happily explain or update the article accordingly. 

If it's easier, Tweet me.