Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right
As a Hall & Oates and Live from Daryl’s House band member and a multi-instrumentalist who frequently takes his solo act on tour, Eliot Lewis suddenly found himself with nowhere to perform when the world came to a hard stop in March. Like many musicians, he soon embraced livestreaming as a virtual alternative. But, unlike many musicians, he decided to offer his fans a more satisfying experience by bringing his streams as close to the level of studio recording as possible—a laudable effort that deserved a closer look.
How many Facebook livestreams have you done over the past couple of months?
I’ve been doing them once a week on Wednesday. so it would probably be around eight so far. A lot of people are doing them almost every day—three or four a week. I wanted to make them a little more special than that. Quality over quantity.
What are you doing to mix it up a little?
The cool thing about doing a livestream, and one of the reasons so many of us musicians have turned to them, is that it gives us something to focus on. Like with any live show, I work up new arrangements for songs, I’ll take requests. I write my own music. Some weeks I’ll do full backing tracks where it can have all the instrumentation around me, and then other weeks I’ll break it down to an acoustic show.
Also, because I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I do something where I’m playing guitar and singing, and I’m also playing drums with my feet. It’s an electronic drum kit I’ve come up with and programmed so everything can be live and spontaneous. I can
change from one thing to the other on the drop of a dime.
On one of your streams, someone asked about the drums and I thought you were joking when you responded that you were playing them with your feet.
There are a few blues guys who will play steel, string, and acoustic guitar, and also play these snare
drums or a kick drum, and it’s very, very basic. I expanded that idea into my musical universe and came up with a way of doing it with drum samples and trigger pads. They’re electronic trigger pads but with real heads on them and real kick pedals so it feels like I’m playing a real bass drum. I’ve programmed it where I can have a kick and a snare I can change per song. If I want to do a ballad, I can have a softer sound. I’ve programmed a crash cymbal where I’m hitting the kick drum at a higher velocity.
If I’m not mistaken, you perform most or all of the parts on your solo albums.
Yeah, everything is done by me. The only thing I’ll add is some extra background vocals from people.
So you’d already had a lot of practice before you jumped into streaming.
Well, yeah, since I was 10 years old. So that’s a few years.
Given how many people are relying on performance online now, it seems like it’s on a lot of musicians’ shoulders to move beyond iPhones in portrait mode. Have you seen other people trying to up the quality of their performances or
trying to innovate a little with how they’re presenting?
When people started to focus on livestreams back in March, most of them were just using an iPhone, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of them were just using the built-in microphone and, depending on the internet connection or their data streaming, the sound could be really not good. And a lot were using the selfie side of the camera, which would flip the image and make a right-handed player look like they were playing lefty. And often the lighting wasn’t great.
So I just thought, “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it properly.” I literally started with my iPhone as well—iPhone 10, which has got a really decent camera on it. But instead of using the selfie one, I realized it would be much better to use the back-facing camera, which has higher resolution.
And I didn’t want to rely on the audio from the phone. I have a Yamaha mixer that’s iOS compatible, so I run everything directly and try to make it a really quality experience. I’m upgrading everything as we speak. I’ve got a GoPro Hero 8.
I also have a pretty good quality Panasonic Lumix DSLR camera with a nice Zeiss lens, which I’m incorporating for some of the stuff.
There’s a bit of a learning curve in going from a basic livestream to actually shooting video with proper studio lighting and that. But I had a little bit of an edge because I do a lot of photography to start with.
Acoustically, it looks like you’re miking pretty closely so the room isn’t having a lot of influence.
You’re absolutely right. I’m in an apartment, so I don’t have a ton of space. I’ve got full carpeting and I have some sound treatment I have up just for recording purposes, so it’s pretty dry. But I can control that with a little reverb or compression in my mixer as I’m doing it. It definitely is more studio-like than some of the stuff on livestreams where you hear a ton of the room, which can be distracting, obviously.
Were you doing professional recording in that space before all this happened?
Yeah. I’m such a self-sufficient musician—I write and record everything myself—so wherever I live, I end up setting up a home studio. I’ve been doing it all of my life since way back with multitrack cassette players. I don’t need a ton of room. I’m sort of a minimalist in that way. Everything I do in my apartment is record-studio quality, so that just transfers right over to the stuff I’ve been doing in the livestreams.
Was Live from Daryl’s House another form of preparation for all this?
Absolutely. I’ve been very, very fortunate because I’m the only musician, aside from Daryl, who’s been on every episode, all 90 of them. So that undoubtedly helped me with my own little livestreams and video performances, although the level is
completely different. We started Live from Daryl’s House with a very small, very meager production and then it grew very quickly.
Are there any specific streams or videos you’ve seen lately you could point to as particularly good or interesting examples?
There are. Obviously, some of the artists have their pick of good production. I’ve seen stuff Keith Urban is doing, and Grace Potter, and, oh God, Allen Stone. Allen did Live from Daryl’s House and he was deep into video to begin with. So when he needed to do livestreaming, it was really properly done. I think he’s probably using OBS and multiple high-def cameras. So he’s really got it going on.
A good friend of mine, a great guitar player named Johnny A, is doing a morning livestream on Facebook five days a week. He’s not so much concerned with the video quality. But one of the positive things is that he’s getting a lot more people to interact with him. So sometimes it’s not all about the quality; it’s really about the content and how you present yourself and what you’re saying and who you get involved.
You have a new video out inspired by the current situation. Is there anything about its genesis you’d like to talk about?
I happened to be separated from somebody I love during the start of
this. The last physical show I did was at Madison Square Garden with Hall and Oates, and that was late February. I was out in the audience with her and friends and it was only two or three weeks later that New York just blew up. So long story short, she went back into the healthcare system so I haven’t seen her in a couple of months. That’s really where that song came about. I thought it’s something a lot of people can relate to because a lot of them have been separated from their children or from their parents in nursing homes.
Do you see all of this permanently changing how musicians are going to be thinking about performance?
I do. One of the positive aspects is that because these streams are live, musicians are going to become more conscious of upping their performance game. Since you can have tens of thousands of people getting onto your livestreams, you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared and your performance is right, because you can’t go back and fix stuff. That takes us back to more of the golden era of record-making and music-making where it was all performance. People didn’t have Pro Tools and digital workstations to cut and paste and fix and auto tune things.
And I think that when we do get back to a more normal situation where we can play live again, a lot of us are going to incorporate what we’ve been doing now. I know I will, because I really enjoy this part of it. It’s forced me to dive even further into livestreaming and video, and I’m learning a lot through the process.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.