Orchestra in Lockdown – Let’s Face the Music and Dance (at home)

Recently I’ve been working on an incredibly ambitious home recording project and it’s now ready to share with the world.

Here’s the video – and yes, that is me in the bath…

This project is a collaboration between Down for the Count and our friends City String Ensemble. The song was transcribed and re-orchestrated by me, recorded by 28 musicians at home up and down the country (including myself on Hammond organ), and then mixed and mastered by me. It also features me doing three of my other hobbies – dancing, having baths and drinking wine…

The video was edited by wonderful Sophie Poteratchi and I challenge you not to smile at least once when watching it!

It’s all in aid of charity – so if you enjoy it and feel able to do so, please do donate to NHS Charities Together.

How the video was made

When we set out to make the video, I’m not sure we realised quite how ambitious it would turn out to be. It started off with Sophie and myself talking about wanting to do something positive and joyful at a strange and difficult time for everyone, and also showing our appreciation to the wonderful NHS staff (and other healthcare workers around the world) who are going to such lengths to keep us safe at the moment. As the coronavirus pandemic has shut down theatres, venues and studios, it’s getting harder and harder to collaborate – but we wanted to show it’s still possible.

I already had my own small band transcription of Let’s Face the Music and Dance (based on the Billy May arrangement for Nat ‘King’ Cole) but, to get as many musicians involved as possible, decided that we would record it in the original “big band and strings” format loved by arrangers such as Billy May and Nelson Riddle. Because of the availability of various musicians we swapped a tuba (which features on the Billy May original) for a sousaphone, and sadly didn’t have time to include a harpist, but otherwise I think we got pretty close to the original arrangement (I also added vibraphone which doubled lots of the strings and brass lines, borrowing a trick from Nelson Riddle – something about having vibes in unison with brass or strings blends everything together). I also wrote a short “playout”, based on the musical figures from the main arrangement, for the rolling credits sequence, going for a slightly vaudeville and “fun” sound rather than a particularly “jazzy” one.

Everyone then recorded their own part at home. Our drummer James Smith set the ball rolling by recording the drum part to click (he recorded drums on a single stereo mic on a Zoom handheld recorder); we quickly added bass (recorded by Charlie Pyne on a DPA 4099) and piano stems, for everyone else to use as a guide to record their individual parts.

Obviously, the 28 musicians were limited by the equipment they had available at home. Some people had decent home recording equipment (for instance, Callum’s vocals were recorded on a Sennheiser e935 through a Focusrite Scarlett audio interface) but the vast majority of people simply recorded audio on their phones.

I then mixed all the tracks together in Logic Pro X. The main challenge was balancing each section of the band together – for example, the four trumpets all recorded on slightly different microphones or devices – some on decent mics and preamps, and some on their phones – so getting a blended section sound was tricky. It’s pretty extraordinarily how tight the band sounded without any editing, however I obviously had to do a bit of tweaking and editing to get all the band hits and articulations super tight, as each person was recording without being able to hear how the section leader was phrasing or articulating a certain section.

When recording in a studio, I’m pretty old school – I much prefer an old fashioned, blended section sound over a more modern, individually mic’ed sound. However that was clearly not an option here so I spent a lot of time balancing each section and trying to get the reverb right so it sounded like everyone was performing in the same space.

Sophie and I then asked everyone to film their part (some people filmed and recorded audio at the some time; some people laid down the audio and then mimed to playback, to add a little comedy – as you’ll see on the video).

The only instruction we gave them was “put on your concert dress and have fun” – everyone dusted down their tuxedos and ballgowns, propped up their phone on piles of books, and imagined they were at a concert. Everyone had their own little individual take on the “have fun” message and it was great to see what everyone came up with (especially when they had bars of rest – everything from cleaning to cooking cauliflower soup!). Sophie then watched over 4 hours of footage from the individual musicians, and somehow, over the course of a week, condensed it all down into one 3 minute video edit which you can see above.

It’s amazing how all this could be achieved from the comfort of our own homes in keeping with the Stay Home guidelines. We wanted to demonstrate how you can still achieve something and collaborate with others without having to leave your home, all the while helping to protect the NHS and raising money for NHS Charities Together.

It’s wonderful how dressing up, donning our suits and best dresses and playing one of our favourite swing tunes has got us all feeling more positive than we have in weeks. We wanted to share that feeling with other music fans and also make people smile and laugh in the process – we hope this video goes some way to lifting people’s spirits and raises money for a great cause too.

We set out to have fun but I’m not sure Sophie or I could have predicted quite how ambitious the project was – or quite how well it would be received. We really hope you enjoy it, and do keep an eye out for our next lockdown project!