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How do those virtual performances come together? The Florida Bjorkestra explains

It takes dozens of musicians and hundreds of hours to bring one not-so-simple song from quarantine to YouTube.
The Florida Bjorkestra, featuring singer Jonathan Harrison, center, created a virtual performance of "Walk Through the Fire" from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in April 2020. Music director Jeremy Douglass (just below Harrison, fourth from right) compiled the performance from 26 individual video recordings.
The Florida Bjorkestra, featuring singer Jonathan Harrison, center, created a virtual performance of "Walk Through the Fire" from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in April 2020. Music director Jeremy Douglass (just below Harrison, fourth from right) compiled the performance from 26 individual video recordings. [ YouTube ]
Published May 7, 2020

One recent evening, Jeremy Douglass gathered five string players on Zoom. They’d dialed in from across Tampa Bay to break down their parts on a project they hope could go viral: a 27-part rendition of the Genesis song Land of Confusion, performed virtually by Douglass’ alternative chamber-pop ensemble the Florida Bjorkestra.

“This is going to be practically impossible,” cellist Tom Kersey told the group, his voice muffled and glitchy. “If I were there, I’d press play on something."

“You want me to play the song?” Douglass said.

“Yeah, let’s do that," Kersey said. "That’s a good start.”

“How will that work?”

“I don’t know how that will work.”

Welcome to the new world of rehearsals.

With the concert industry locked down, musicians have had to get creative with their digital output. One way that’s happened: virtual performances featuring multiple musicians in different locations, syncing up into one seamless song. Artists like the Roots, Tim McGraw and the Rolling Stones have done it; so has the Florida Orchestra, which recently united 43 musicians for a snippet of Tchaikovsky.

Related: 43 Florida Orchestra musicians unite for virtual performance

What fans usually don’t see is how these videos come together.

Land of Confusion is the third virtual performance by the Florida Bjorkestra, following versions of Tina Turner’s We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) and Walk Though the Fire from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Those first two videos have gotten around 3,500 views, but that’s only part of their purpose.

“I’m trying to teach myself new skills — or just trying to stay distracted," said Douglass, the Bjorkestra’s bandleader. “It doesn’t really matter if anybody sees it. Honestly, it’s keeping me sane — and probably a couple of people I’m dragging along with me.”

The pandemic hit Douglass at an especially vulnerable time. In February, his wife, violinist Rebecca Zapen, was diagnosed with breast cancer; she underwent a mastectomy in March. COVID-19 shut down three performances Douglass was involved with, including one Florida Bjorkestra concert, costing him around $20,000 in income (although a GoFundMe launched by friends for Zapen helped a lot.)

Douglass had seen a few virtual performance videos, and invited more than two dozen Bjorkestra regulars to make one of their own.

“Nobody hesitated,” he said. “We were all just in shock, and we needed something to take our minds off of it."

Related: Once a quirky idea, the Florida Bjorkestra stirs a minor musical miracle in St. Petersburg

Making each song is a lot like recording in the studio. Douglass starts in Logic Pro, a program that can transcribe his keyboard recordings into readable music. He sends that to each musician, starting with the drummer and bassist, so they can flesh out his demos. Once the music is in good shape, he sends it to the vocalists.

Each artist records their own audio and video together in real time, laying down as many takes as needed to get the best one. But that’s not always easy. The audio quality varies depending on a musician’s home and equipment.

“I don’t want it to sound like a live video done in everybody’s bedroom,” he said. “Nobody was using fancy microphones except for my musicians, who have the ability to plug in direct and record to software. All of those vocalists just sang right into their phone microphones. Getting that to sound listenable was challenging.”

So was retrieving the enormous files. At one point during the Buffy sessions, a rat chewed through an ethernet cable running under Douglass’ home office, so he had to download and transfer files from a different computer. One musician couldn’t transfer his video online, so he came by Douglass’ house in St. Petersburg and AirDropped it through his kitchen window.

Douglass spends hours mixing and syncing the files. Logic Pro allows him to “move the audio parts around like taffy," tightening every little cue and slip. (He is quick to note, however, that “nobody lip-synced anything. You’re seeing them do their one, perfect, complete take from beginning to end. And you’re hearing that take.”)

Once the audio is done, he uploads the videos into Adobe Premiere, arranging each so that every musician gets a moment in the spotlight. What little glory there is from these videos, he wants to share, even if he’s doing most of the work.

“I probably spent 200 hours on it,” he said of the Buffy video. “But honestly, I needed it. I had nothing else to do. I have no job. I just had this crushing anxiety. I needed something else to focus on. If I could have, I would have spent 300 hours on it, just to have something to do."

The Land of Confusion video was still more than a week from dropping when Douglass and Kersey led the Zoom meeting for strings. Kersey ran through a few tricky measures to offer a sense of how they should bow and articulate the notes, and promised to record his part first so they could play off him. Douglass assured the group that even if they’re off a tiny bit, he’d use his studio wizardry to “take everybody the last mile to super-tightness.”

“I can nudge everybody around and make it sound right," he said.

“Oh my god, I can’t imagine," Kersey said. “You’ve been spending 7,000 hours doing that stuff, I think? That’s my guess.”

“It’s so enjoyable, to be honest,” Douglass said with a smile. “I kind of love it.”

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