Killing Two Birds – Filming Live Performance Videos in the Studio

This article on filming live performance videos first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂

Music is rarely divorced from visuals, and in today’s music business, video is crucial for finding fans – but the traditional music video isn’t the high-value investment it once was. In fact, music videos consistently underperform on social media compared to candid videos like live performances. This is great news for independent musicians. It means you don’t have to spend twenty thousand dollars on a music video, because you’ll do better with something more doable.

It’s also a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Get in the studio and cut a great record, and while you’re at it, capture a live performance video that will attract new fans. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of doing just that.

Planning and Pre-Production

Step one to any successful shoot: pre-production. This could be simple enough, but you want to answer a few questions, starting with the nature of your act. Are you a solo act, duo, trio, or full band? What is your instrumentation? What’s the central focus? What’s your live act like?

Next, think about the vibe you’d like to create. Are you going for one take or a video with cuts? One camera or multiple cams? Dark vibe, light vibe, creepy, ethereal, candid? As you think about this, you may want to skip ahead to “Capturing Viewer Attention” as there are some choices that tend to improve viewer engagement.

Finally, rehearse a lot. This is good advice for any session, but you may have even less room for error on video than a regular recording session. No matter how you go about it, your best bet for success is a well-rehearsed song.

Capturing Viewer Attention

When it comes to a regular music video, there are pretty much no rules. With a performance video on social media, though, engagement is the name of the game. As it turns out, there are some things that capture and retain viewers better than others.

Camera movement

Especially for solo work, camera movement can make a huge difference in how long people stay with you. That could be as subtle as a little digital zoom or as much as using a hand-held camera to walk around the performer. Obviously, you don’t want a lot of jittering – this isn’t Blaire Witch Project – but change keeps viewers from getting bored (even when you’re awesome as a performer). It also has another psychological benefit. Camera movement implies there’s at least one other person involved, which subconsciously suggests the idea of community and importance.

No cuts

Although you can break this rule, it can be powerful to shoot in one take with no cuts. The reason for this is more psychology. One, it shows that you’ve performed the song through, which makes you look skilled. Two, it looks more authentic. And finally, it looks less like a corporate entity is involved. Viewers understand that cuts mean editors, and sometimes that can make a video feel more like an ad.

Don’t Use Front Titles

Speaking of not looking like an ad, don’t use titles at the beginning. This is one rule you probably shouldn’t break. Titles – especially promotional ones like “So and So presents Blah Blah” scream out ad, and social media viewers are conditioned to blow right through ads. When you’re building a music act, you want people to feel like they’ve discovered you naturally. So, titles at the beginning are a no.

Pattern Interrupt

This can be a balancing act, because you certainly don’t want viewers to think you’re trying to sell them something, but you also need to catch their eye in the first three seconds. You could be in an offbeat location like your kitchen, look somehow odd (Clown Singer anyone?), or it could be relatively subtle. Sometimes it’s enough that there’s a person very prominent in the frame without a lot of other clutter. It may take some testing to figure out what catches your audience, but some reason to stop scrolling helps.

Square or Vertical

Consider shooting or cropping your video to square or vertical formats. Both square and vertical videos perform better on Facebook and Instagram than 16×9 videos, probably because they take up more phone real estate. Shooting 16×9 at 4K gives you the option of cropping down to square later while keeping a 16×9 version.

Camera Gear

The cool thing about shooting a performance video is there’s a wide range of cameras that will do the trick. You can go all out with an expensive mirrorless camera, keep it midrange with a good DSLR, or even go no budget with a cell phone. In fact, the latest iPhones can shoot amazing video, and an Android phone can too, especially if you add a free app called Filmic Pro to the mix. However, beware when using a cell phone camera: syncing to outside audio can be an issue. More on that in the “Audio and Sync” section.

You’re probably best with at least a DSLR or a good cell phone rather than a camcorder, because a typical cheap camcorder will give you very little creative control. When looking for a camera, try for at least these basic specs:

  • 4K Video Resolution – Even though most content online is still only HD, shooting in 4K gives you options like creative cropping or the aforementioned digital zoom.
  • 60 Frames Per Second Frame Rate – Many cameras can shoot up to 120fps, which is handy for slow motion but not much else, but 60fps can be useful for creating a certain frenetic feel, such as with heavy metal videos. For reference: Standard video frame rate is 30fps, and film frame rate is 24fps. If you’re looking for a more cinematic look, you’ll probably want to opt for 24fps.

If you’re planning on shooting by yourself, you might want to make sure you’ve got a fully articulating screen so you can check your own framing while you’re actually in the frame. In-body image stabilization is also great, especially for hand-held material.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices of camera, you’ll want to consider lenses. The lens that comes with your camera will probably do, but if you’re shopping, consider three qualities:

  • Focal Length – Measured in millimeters, focal length describes how tight or zoomed-in an image looks. Long focal lengths indicate a zoomed in look. Short focal lengths indicate a wide-angle look.
  • F-Stop – Expressed as a ratio such as 1/8 or 1/16, f-stop indicates the largest size of a lens’s aperture – or how much light it can let in. The main creative reason to care about f-stop is this: a large aperture (lower f-stop number) produces what’s known as shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field is how you get that look where one thing is in focus and the rest of the image is blurry – a cool look that looks professional and fancy.
  • Prime Vs. Zoom – Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths – aka you can zoom in and out with them. Prime lenses do not.

Audio and Sync

Shooting an in-studio (or out of studio) live performance video isn’t the same as a regular recording session or a traditional music video shoot.

First, unlike a regular session, you have to sync audio and video. The easiest way to do this is to use the final mix as the master. Most video editing software will automatically align audio tracks, and/or you can tweak it manually.

To make either of these processes easier, do two things:

  • Use a Slate – That clacker you behind-the-scenes footage isn’t just for fun. The sharp clack generates a transient that’s easy to hear and spot on the audio track and line up to the exact frame it happens on. You don’t technically need it if you’re running the camera audio, but it’s helpful. If you don’t have a real slate, a hand clap or drumstick click will do. Do this before you call “action”.
  • Record Camera Audio – Keep camera mics on. This will help you line up both the slate and the actual song with your master mix. Once you’ve got all the cameras synced to your audio, just mute everything but the main mix. Even better, split your track outputs and run them to a camera recorder synced the camera.

A note on cell phone video: Cell phones shoot with variable frame rate, where frame rate automatically changes over the course of a shot. This can cause outside audio to get out of sync with video over time. The best way to combat this is to turn off variable frame rate – something that as of now is only possible with the latest iPhones. So, if you can’t get sync’d, you may want to change to another camera.

Some other differences to be aware of:

  • Camera operators need to be quiet, unlike on a traditional music video set.
  • You may have to be able to play the whole song through.
  • You may have to rehearse camera moves along with the song rehearsal.
  • Your setup may be different due to camera angles and lighting.

Finally, you might want to record your performance video somewhere other than a studio. If so, you’ll need a remote recording rig. You could also fake it and lip-sync like a regular music video. To pull this off and have it look like a performance video, make sure you perform it exactly like you did on the recording and bring mics and cables so that it looks like a live recording. Try to make sure every sound heard is explained in the video – ie: don’t leave the drummer home if there’s drums on the track.


We could never get comprehensive about lighting here, but rule one: actually think about lighting. Being purposeful about your lighting is half the battle. Next, use the sun if possible. That doesn’t have to mean being outside, but if you happen to have a big portrait window, for example, there’s no substitute for that in getting great, even light.

If you don’t have that option, you’ll need lights. If you’re looking for hard shadows and a super stylized look, you may want hard lighting. If you’re looking for a smooth look – no face shadows, softer transitions from light to shadow – then you’ll want diffuse light. An LED light with softbox is best for this. For a cheaper option, many people opt for ring lights, which do produce a nice diffuse light, especially for one subject, but that ring can show up in your eyes, so watch for that.

If your budget is tight, you can even use regular household lamps to get the look you want, it just may take a bit of work to get it right. Don’t be afraid to work at it, as getting the light right takes your image most of the way there.

DIY or Hire a Videographer?

So far, we’ve talked mostly about doing this all yourself, but if you’ve got a little budget, it may be wiser to simply hire a videographer. You can ask other musicians in your area who they used, go to local production contact lists (if your city has a film liason’s office they’re a great resource), or put up a notice at the local film school. Getting professional help may cost a little money, but you’re unlikely to regret it.

Experiment, Break Rules, and Go for It!

As a final note, making a great performance video while also recording a killer track is like any other musical endeavor: you just have to go for it! Learn some rules, break some rules, experiment, get it wrong, and finally get it right. Shooting this kind of video is super rewarding and of great value in your promotional efforts. So, get to shooting!

I’m a singer, songwriter and producer who has made some videos that no one saw, and other, simpler ones that a lot of people saw. Talk to me @RecordingLikeMacgyver and while you’re at it, grab your 10x My Tracks eBook to make your tracks better right now!

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