Just focus on the art

Anthony Simpkins – Creator/Director, GemsOnVHS

Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected audio professionals and musicians, including Anthony Simpkins, creator and director of GemsOnVHS. Started in 2011, GemsOnVHS is an ongoing archive/collection of folk music that focuses on acoustic, unplugged and off-stage performances by a variety of musicians. Today, with millions of views on YouTube, it’s clear the collection of stories highlighting authentic songwriters will withstand the test of time.

The GemsOnVHS YouTube Channel was created by Simpkins, based-out of Nashville, TN, USA, during what he refers to as ‘the Wild West days of YouTube.’ What started off as uploaded recordings of friends and acquaintances of friends, has now cultivated a following of over 100,000 subscribers. “At the beginning, I think it was really about filming people that I thought needed to be heard and having fun doing it. And, I really don’t think it’s changed much even though there are a lot more eyes on it,” Simpkins explains. “Now, it’s turned into a whole apparatus, but it’s still at its core about getting the message out there, getting songwriters out there.”

Finding the artists to feature on GemsOnVHS is done mostly through word of mouth. To Simpkins, second to finding the artists themselves, is scouting the right location to capture the character of the performer. “I try to make sure that the location matches the artist, you know, like at their house or someplace that means something to them. Clutter means that you know somebody lives here, there’s a culture to it. There’s a lot of people [who] live interesting lives, but when you’re on the inside of it, you don’t really see it, you know. Everybody’s so caught up in their own mess, they don’t really see what’s interesting about them or what’s nice about their songs. That’s what we do when we go out there, we try and capture really just a snapshot of them.”

Inspired by 20th-century folklorist and archivist Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, Simpkins aims to use his platform to tell the stories of songwriters while keeping the folk music tradition alive. To achieve this, he has gone to incredible lengths. “Some of the most memorable experiences filming [are] the ones where I’ve [gone] somewhere really out of the ordinary,” he recalls. “You know, nothing good is easy and some of the hardest [videos] have been hopping trains with Benjamin from Lost Dog Street Band... he’d love to hop trains and I said that would be a great way to get around, film some songs. And, that was definitely a challenge.”

When it comes to filming on the go, Simpkins relies on a variety of vintage compact cameras, including the Sony Mini DV and Sony Alpha a6500, paired with vintage Nikon lenses from the 70s and field-recording equipment including the Zoom H6, along with Sennheiser's evolution wireless G3 system. “I bought a pair of Sennheiser G3s off eBay a long time ago,” he recalls. “I did my research and I was like, ‘What can I use that’s gonna last a long time?’ Because I knew we were gonna be using these for everything. [Sennheiser evolution wireless G3] is what always came up. And, you know in Nashville everybody’s got a studio and every studio is just filled with Sennheiser gear...so I was like, if anybody knows anything about recording, it’s all these studios in Nashville so I figured I couldn’t go wrong in getting some Senheisser [gear]. I’ve done everything short of running them over, and I think it’s a matter of time before that, and they haven’t broken.”

Simpkins prefers wireless lavalier packs featuring Sennheisers ME 2 and ME 4, which is a decision based on both comfort for the performer as well as the aesthetic of the visuals. “I like to make the artist not feel like they have a microphone in their face. [It also sets the video apart] because they don’t have that mic in the shot...they can kind of just play like they would in their bedroom,” he explains. “When I first started, we’d do such crazy stuff as putting iPhones inside the guitar. They kind of paved the way for my philosophy about it now, which is close micing.”

And, the ability to close-mic and reject noise with Sennheiser mics made it possible to film New Orleans singer-songwriter, Esther Rose, at The Fairgrounds located in the heart of Music City. “If I told any engineer that we were gonna do that, they would have been so mad at me,” he says. “The only way we could do that is with small lavaliers that have great sound and can really push out any [unwanted] noise. When you want to just get a vocal take, you get the vocals. When you want to get [the] guitar, it gets the guitar. You know, there’s not a lot of bleed and that’s just essential to what we do. I don’t think we could do any of this stuff...literally on a moving train, and we had workable audio afterward...I mean, that’s just a testament to the quality [of the gear].”

Although Simpkins intends to increase the production value in some ways, he doesn’t plan to move away from the heart of what sets GemsOnVHS apart, which is focusing on the stories. By focusing on the musicians, he hopes the channel will continue to grow and include stories from all around the world. “We’re just recording the people’s song and there are more people than just here, so in the future, I hope to meet people everywhere and really get to the bottom of it.”

As far as advice, Simpkins adds, “If I could offer any advice to anybody that’s trying to create content like this or any kind of content... just focus on the art,” he shares. “This YouTube channel didn’t mean anything to anybody for seven-eight years, you know. Now, it’s got however many million views, but I could have [given] up somewhere in the middle but I just did it because I loved it. I thought that it was important and it meant something to somebody, so I just kept doing it. And, that’s really just the best advice that I ever got, just to persevere.”

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