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Quarantine Covers: Making Music During Lockdown

Filmmaker and musician Bill Grant explains how he and former bandmates and friends are collaborating across social distance to create mosaic music videos he calls "Quarantine Covers."

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I'm Steve Nathans-Kelly and I'm the editor of Streaming Media Producer. I'm here today to interview Bill Grant of Cinema Couture Films. Bill's a wedding filmmaker in Columbia, South Carolina. In Columbia, as in most places right now, there's not a whole lot of wedding and events going on. Bill's been doing a really interesting thing recently. Bill's a musician, and he's actually been getting together virtually with former bandmates and other musicians and producing these kind of mosaic music videos that you've probably been seeing on Facebook and YouTube. And so we thought we'd talk a little bit about how they're doing it.

So, you know, I was actually trying to figure out, is there a term people are using for this, like “mosaic music video” or something like that?

Bill Grant: You know, I don't, I don't know. I've been calling it “Quarantine Covers.” That's just been my name for it. It all started when Adam Forgione shared a piano intro battle that he was having with a friend. So he played the intro to “Tiny Dancer,” posted it to Facebook, and challenged his friend to play it. And so I played the intro to “Faithfully,” posted it, and challenged my friend to play it. And then my old bandmates emailed me, “Dude, we should totally just do this song.” And I said, “Yeah, cool, let’s do that.” And everybody on the post for the intro was saying, “Hey, play the whole song!”

We tried to do it on a Google Hangout first. I got two or three of us on a Google Hangout and tried to play all at the same time, but the lag was too bad, and we couldn't keep up the beat. So I said, “Let's figure out how to have me play the guide track and then everybody play along to me.” So that's what we ended up doing. From the beginning, I said, “I don't want to use mics,” ’cause I've got lots of mics here and I don't want to use lighting and mics and different things because I'm not sure which of my friends have that stuff. And I don't want to exclude anybody because they don't have the right recording equipment. So I said, “I don't want to mess with pre-amps and mixers and the right gear. I just want to have fun.” And so I was like, “You’ve got a phone, just do it on the phone--we'll figure it out.”

And we did “Faithfully” as kind of a test. My friend Jeff sent me the guitar track. Jeff and I used to be in a band together a long time ago. And so I synced up the guitar track, and thought, “Hey, that's pretty cool.” And then sent it to my friend David, who's a drummer, and said, “Hey man, we're going to do this with the piano and guitar. Can you play drums on it?” So he listened to it, laid drums on it.

And that's kinda how we got it started. And we were like, “Well, cool, let's do another one.” And so my friend Matt recorded “Hotel California” all the way through and Jeff knew the solo. So I played piano behind it and sang backup vocals, and we took it from there.

And then another friend of mine saw that post and said, “Hey, we should do a metal song.” I said, “Definitely, what should we do?” And he said, “Well, we’ve only got one guitar player, so let's do Mötley Crüe.” So he literally just recorded the guide track to “Live Wire” with a click track. And then my friend Marty took it and recorded drums to it, and the sound was terrible because he had too many cymbals. He had cymbals all over the place. So we said, “Let’s take the cymbals off the drum kit and let's do it again.”

And so that's been the fun of it, seeing, how far we can we push it. How elaborate can we get? What kind of sound can we get from phones? I'm actually using a GoPro Hero 8, but everybody else is using phones and GoPros or whatever. But I was so adamant that I didn't want to involve pro equipment. Even though some of us have it, some of us don't. I think I've got 14 or 15 musicians involved in this at this point. So it's just fun. It's just something to do, to put my mind into, while everything else is on hold.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: “Hotel California” had eight parts, right? And you assembled those piece by piece?

Bill Grant: Yeah. My friend Matt Corbin did the guide tracks. Every time we've done this, we've had a guide track. One person will do the whole thing and then they'll send that out to everybody and then we'll record our pieces along to that. And usually that's with a click, so that we can keep the tempo right. Matt didn’t use a click for “Hotel California”--he's just that guy. He just played the song and everybody recorded to Matt’s song and then they all sent me their individual pieces and parts. And then Jeff, the guitar player, sent me not only the solo, which is extraordinarily long, but he also sent me harmony guitar parts to the verses and all this other kind of stuff.

So I had to go through and sync up all of that stuff at exactly the right time. To me, that's the kind of stuff that I just love sinking my teeth into and getting it right, getting the backing vocals right, and all that kind of stuff.

So we're just trying to take everything up a notch. We're working on a Styx song now where I'm going to have to layer four vocals on top of a piano, guitar, bass, and drums. We're going to load four vocals on top of it and see if I can get that big Styx vocal sound recording into a GoPro. So I have no idea whether I can do it or not, but that's part of the fun of it, you know?

And then with the heavy metal band, we're going to do an Iron Maiden song, “The Trooper.” That'll be two guitars and bass.

And then my friend Justin, who lives in Savannah, saw another one that I did and he said, “Hey, we should do ‘Drift Away.’” It was his favorite song. So he just sent me a guide track, I added keyboards and backing vocals to it. Then I sent it to Dave and Richard and we did drums and bass on it.

And that's been how it's been going. It's just real organic, like, “Hey, we should do this.” Or another friend emails me and says, “Hey, why don't we do this thing?” It's been a much bigger musical community than I've ever had, which is fascinating, you know? And just to see the friends of mine that love this stuff come out of the woodwork and just want to play. It's funny how that works. It could be anybody really, anywhere.

And keep in mind, Steve, I haven't done music in seven or eight years, maybe seven years. I think the last band I was in was 2011 or ’12. So it’s not like I'm this like touring musician that is used to playing. I'm having to get my hands used to playing the piano again. It's been fun getting back to it.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Who thought it would take having to be at least six feet from any other musician to get you there?

Bill Grant: That's right. One of the big reasons why I haven't played in a while is because of how busy I've been with my company, and also how busy everybody else has been. All the musicians that I know are either not playing because they're too busy with their work or they're playing so much that they don't have time for anything else. And the reason why this could happen at all is because of the lack of busy-ness on everybody's part. A good number of these guys are essential workers. They’re electrical engineers and they're people who have been able to keep working. Obviously, my work has been cut by about 80%. And so I've got lots of time on my hands, but a lot of these guys don't. So that's why I took the reins of it.

One of the guitar players on “Live Wire” is another video producer in town that I know really well. He could have edited this easily, but I said I wanted to do it because it's fun for me to assemble it, to figure out how to sync everything, how to get it done. And the thing is I can't use any software to sync it because we're all playing at different times. So it's not like we're all in the same room where we can sync it, like you would a normal video. You have to manually sync this. In my experience, when I was syncing wedding videos in 2006 there was no PluralEyes, where we had to find a sync point and just nudge, nudge, nudge, nudge it until it works. All of that experience just comes back when you're working on this kind of thing.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Yeah. I'm low-tech. I shoot two camera interviews all the time, so I just clap.

Bill Grant: Nice little slate. I've tried to tell everybody, if you're going to do a guide track, count in, give me a one, two, three, four at the beginning. So everybody does one, two, three, four at the tempo, then I can sync those up. But I haven't been able to get everybody to do that. So it's been fun letting people sort of come to it where they are. I’ve had to explain to the people that have mics and mixers and compressors and all that stuff, “I don't want you to use that stuff because I don't want your track to sound amazing and my track to sound like it came off a phone and then they don't blend--they only blend when they're all about the same.”

And so it's been cool to intentionally low-fi everything so the playing field is leveled. I've always been fascinated with that idea anyway, taking away a lot of the pomp and circumstance and the fact that as a singer, I can hide behind reverb if I don't get something exactly right. I can hide behind a $5,000 mic and a great rack unit and reverb to hide the fact that I'm probably not exactly right. But if I'm singing eight inches away from a GoPro, it's just me and the mic and there's nothing I can do about it. There's nothing I can do to make it sound better. It’s just gonna sound the way it sounds, you know?

I think that part of it is really fun and really liberating as a musician, but also as a video maker. We get so wrapped up in our color space and our bitrates, we think, “I've got to have this $50,000 camera because it does 12-bit where the $4,000 camera only does 10-bit.”

All that stuff is kind of out the window right now. It's a liberating time, for people to just to reconnect to where the talent really makes more sense than the technology.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Have you had any parts come in where the quality was just too rough, and you had to say, “You got to do it again, man?”

Bill Grant: Yes, and I'm not gonna call anybody out, but yes. But also what happens is that the way that the mentality works on these musicians is that they’ll say, “I did it, but I'm not super-happy with it.” Or “That little part isn't right.” And so I've had to kind of push back on some people to say, “Look, you know, if it’s good enough, if it's finished, let's just put it together and put it out.”

You have to remember when you're a band and you’re playing live, part of the fun of that is that it's not perfect. Part of the fun of that is that there's little things that maybe don't match up, they aren't exactly right and they're not tangible. It's not something that you can really put your hands on.

The other problem I've had with these musicians--and especially my guitar player friend Jeff--when we did “Hotel California,” he sent me five guitar parts. I applaud his enthusiasm. I was very excited to see that he jumped into it, but he went a little overboard and I was like, “Well, I don't how well I could sync five guitar parts. I could work with two, but I'm not sure I'm going to get all five guitar parts in there.” And sometimes you just have to err on the side of simplicity is better.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Right. So can we have a look at one of your timelines?

Bill Grant: How do I share my screen on Zoom? I've never done it. All right. So, this is the timeline for “Live Wire” (Figure 1, below). So I have my friend Mark, my friend Wade—there’s Wade. He actually synced the guitar and vocals first. So that was a huge help for me because I had never seen that many drums before and he just kinda took it and saved it for me.

Figure 1. The “LiveWire” timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro. Click the image to see it at full size.

And then I added in I edited my vocal line and the bassline from there. And that's just me singing into my GoPro with the headphones on. But you can kind of see, there's a little piece right here where I didn't feel like I really hit the pitch. And so I rerecorded that little, I punched in that little space.

This is the timeline for the entire project (Figure 2, below). Here's “Faithfully,” the first one I did. I did that one on the piano and I recognized that the piano was way too loud. So I couldn't use piano on it because piano is going to overload everything. So I came back into my office and I'm using the keyboard in my office.

Figure 2. The entire timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro (currently showing "Faithfully"). Click the image to see it at full size.

Here's the behemoth that's “Hotel California” (Figure 3, below). Here's all our video tracks. Jeff has guitar one here, guitar two here. That's the harmony. And then I've got piano and there's Matt with the lead tracks. So we just laid his lead track first and then sync to everybody to that.

Figure 3. The “Hotel California” timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro. Click the image to see it at full size.

Six minutes was a long time. It's six minutes and eight parts. And then Jeff, when he sent me the solo--the way that we sync the solos, if you look at his track right here, he's mouthing the words. Mouthing the words is how he wanted me to sync the solo. So he wanted me to get it in line based on him saying the lyrics that Matt was singing. It's just funny--obviously, none of them being video producers, they don't really understand that what I want is I want to sync point at the beginning so we can sync it all together. But that's not how everybody's thinking about it. So I just kind of roll with whatever works for them.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Right. They don't realize what you're looking for is a visual that’s actually in the waveform.

Bill Grant: Exactly. But that's it. And, I'll tell you what else. Steve. I don't edit anymore. My whole staff is editors, so I don't edit. And so this is probably the first time I've opened Premiere in a year maybe. I had to figure out how do you split the videos go on one track and audio in one track and how do you get everything synced up. This has all been a learning curve for me because I'm not a skilled Premiere editor. It's just something that I've had to do because of this. And obviously I'm not adding graphics. I'm not doing anything fancy with it. All I'm doing is syncing the tracks. I had talked to my musician friends about the audio part of it because that's their biggest problem. And I said, “Let me make sure you understand that I've got to deal with video situations that I would never tolerate. Like vertical videos, low-resolution phone video, strong backlight. Jeff has got the strong backlight here, so he's going real dark. All that stuff--I have to just give it up.

I'm not worried about it. I don't want to think about it. I just want to focus on the fact that we're all together. We're all playing, we're having fun with it, and it doesn't matter what it looks like. So y'all can't be all upset about what it sounds like.

Look at that look at the big living room concert that went out Saturday where all the musicians were playing together. I think that was on a Zoom call. It was like, that's what we sound like. If Alicia Keys can do that--and she's about the pinnacle of musicianship as far as pop musicians go--I feel like we're pretty safe just recording on a phone and letting it go like that.

So I've been very happy with how everything has sounded so far. Really, it's been just mainly cleaning up and balancing volume, just making sure everybody can be heard, and that one's not louder than the other. It's been a very easy process, and frankly, we're just making it more complicated every time just to see if we can do it. That's why I'm excited about doing the Iron Maiden song with the heavy metal band.

And the amazing thing about this is that I don't perceive there's any audience; I just perceive that we're doing this for us. I can do any song I want because I don't care whether anybody likes it or not. And that's not normally how it works.