Recording Recommendations

Concept Albums

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on concept albums.

Not so dissimilar from the theme albums I’ve discussed previously in this column, a concept album calls for a group to record an album that navigates a theme or, more often, tells a cohesive story from end to end. From The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to Green Day’s American Idiot</i> , to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, concept albums offer a unique spin on the recording concept such that one track can’t be listened to in isolation without losing some of the narrative thread that binds them all together. Moreover, the concept album affords a group a new layer of creativity, conceiving of a narrative and picking songs with specific designs on filling in the spaces of that tale.

Concept albums can be magnificent artistic statements, but they can also present challenges to a cappella groups. Because most a cappella groups still lean toward covers over original songs, there’s the matter of taking someone else’s music and repurposing to fit your story. In addition, there are choices to be made about not recording a song that your group performs (or could perform) really well because it doesn’t fit the story or> the story itself becoming contrived on account shifting to fit the music.

Groups that embark on concept albums should take their time. If there’s a story, and a set of songs that really leap out as the foundation for the project—say twenty-five-to-fifty percent of the album’s content—it may be worth pursuing, but without either of those fundamental pieces in place, you run the risk of the music following the concept or the concept bending to the music in inorganic ways (again, unless you’re writing original music, in which case you have a lot more leeway).

Like so many aspects of recording, when you think about producing a concept album, it’s worth considering what you have to lose and what you might have to gain. Is this a story your group needs to tell, or is it better left for a later incarnation of your group that does have that story in its blood? Think it over.

Music Videos

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on music videos.

Over the past decade, something interesting has happened in the realm of music videos. Videos have arguably grown less and less prominent in mainstream music. Stations like MTV and VH1 don’t emphasize the form anymore, and iPods and smartphones have provided a ubiquity to music that has removed some of the pleasure of simply watching and listening to a music video.

Just the same, in the a cappella world, we’ve seen videos on the rise.

Whether it’s Peter Hollens staging elaborate fantasy scenes, Pentatonix using makeup, costuming, and jump cuts to blow our collective minds, or any of the dozens, if not hundreds of college a cappella groups that have hopped to creating their own videos, the medium has exploded in not just quantity but quality.

Why the change? Ease of access is one of the most obvious answers, with digital cameras that are more affordable, and now that such a large proportion of the population has smart phones with built in video cameras (not to mention the fact that my iPhone 6 came with iMovie preloaded). YouTube has also offered up a platform for the release of videos—while some would-be major artists may have had their music videos pushed the margins by the bevy of original content uploaded each day by everyday people, a cappella has thrived on YouTube, with recordings of live performances getting a ton of play, and now a cappella music videos offering something quirky and different from poorly lit film of cats falling off of kitchen counters.

But how can an a cappella group make the most  of the video craze, and contribute meaningful work of their own?

Some of it comes down to taking advantage of the medium. Music videos are inherently visual, and built to complement music. Groups are best served to take advantage of this medium by doing something different and ideally more> than they perform live on stage. This may include splicing in footage that tells a story, or using compelling camera angles to sell the very best of the group’s movements and facials. It might mean recording in unconventional locations. Think about dance, about lighting, and about what kind images can evoke and enhance the sensations of the music are all steps in the right direction. In whichever case, the music video is generally best suited to do something intentional; simply filming a live performance or splicing in random footage of your group hanging out will rarely capture the audience’s attention and draw new listeners to your work.

In addition to the more creative elements of a music video, there are also technical factors to consider. Camera and editing technology has grown more accessible over the years which is great—on the flip side, because the fundamental tools are in so many people’s hands, the level of scrutiny about people’s work in the realm of videos has gone way up. While the group and its leadership should determine the overarching creative direction of a video to ensure that it matches the group’s identity, image, and aesthetic, I heartily recommend that the more technical aspects of direction, filming, compiling, and editing go into the hands of your group (or group community)’s resident filmmaker—and you don’t have one, I recommend seeking one out within your local community or social networks. Nowadays, so many schools have some level of film school, and many of the students there would love the opportunity to team up with an a cappella group to create a video that thousands of people will see.

The Editing Room Floor

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on the editing room floor

As many readers know, I come from a more formal creative writing background than I do musical training. There’s an expression in writing I’ve heard time and again over the years, and come to embrace as my own—that sometimes you need to kill your darlings.

In writing, killing your darlings means letting go of your favorite material—an especially ornate phrasing, a stand-out scene, even a whole character that you love—in service to the larger manuscript. These moments the writer feels most attached to may also be the ones that call attention to themselves—the ones in which its clear the author is trying too hard, or being too precious with her work; or it might be that they resonate so well, so personally for the author that he’s blinded to how poorly they fit with all of the surrounding prose.

The same can be true in a cappella recording. Whether it’s your personal favorite song, a rare opportunity for a graduating senior to have had a solo, or a piece that is legitimately great but stands apart from the rest of your new album’s sound or themes, it may simply not be a track that should go on that album.

It’s hard to leave behind this sort of material that you or your groupmates may feel an emotional connection to, have worked hard on, or spent expensive studio hours recording. But in the end, you need to look out for the good of the larger project—is this track, this solo, even this aspect of an arrangement working in service of or at odds with your larger vision for the project? Killing your darlings can be a matter of objective quality, as well as a matter of <i>fit</i> for the recording at hand.

The material left on the editing room floor does not have to be erased forever, though. On the contrary, one of the benefits of the contemporary recording and social media landscape is that you can and should look for opportunities to take advantage of material you can’t otherwise use. Maybe it’s releasing the track as a free video or download in advance of your album release to stir up attention, or maybe it’s a matter of saving the track for a down period when your group is between projects but still wants to stay in your community’s collective consciousness. Maybe it’s a track you submit to very specific compilations for which it will be a better fit. Or maybe you even save it for your next album, when it will have a more natural place in the aesthetic of that project.

When it comes to recording, groups need to be ruthless about considering what is in the best interests of the album at hand. They can always find other ways to use unreleased material, and shouldn’t feel compelled to put it out in an unflattering light just because they already recorded it.

Requesting Reviews

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on requesting reviews.

There are a number of ways of marketing  a release, but I’d argue that one of the most effective ways to do so is to have an objective third party extol your work for you. One of the most straight forward conventions for doing so is to approach an established critic for a review.

When you think about soliciting reviews, your first step should be to consider why you’re seeking that review—what sort of audience you want for the review to reach, and whether you want a review from an expert in technical music, someone who specializes in a cappella, a more general critic without much background in the form, or from some other source. Different review outlets reach different readerships and have different effects—for example, if you request a review from your school or local newspaper, that may be an ideal way to engage your immediate local audience, but is not necessarily an effective way at staging a national marketing campaign. In addition, these are the sorts of critics who might be wowed by competent a cappella—or who might just not get why this music group isn’t using instruments. The A Cappella Blog (ACB) reaches a more national audience, but not necessarily from the most technical or academic perspective. The Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) does take the most formal approach in major a cappella media outlets, by which they typically have three reviewers with well-defined credentials appraise each recording. The latter two outlets may not create a buzz at your school or in your town, but do each have broader audiences that are interested in a cappella.

In addition to considering your audience and the credentials of your reviewer, you may also find it worthwhile to consider the aesthetic of a given critic or organization. This is the point at which it makes sense to read other reviews before you submit to get a sense of what the reviewers like or don’t like, and perhaps even what kind of impact their reviews have historically had.

Once you’ve identified whom you would like to review your work, the next step is to inquire about the process. Some critics and organizations have well-defined processes published for the world to see; others are less up front or more changeable about their practices. In either case, it’s worth querying the parties you’re interested in to see how they do business. When you query, you’ll want to be direct—don’t just tell them that you have a new album and hope they’ll connect the dots that you would like the review—volunteer a complimentary review copy, explain the different ways in which you can deliver the album to them (free download code, email files, mail a physical CD) and ask for their preference,  and ask if they’re interested in pursuing it. Keep in mind that when you write a critic, you are representing your group, and should aim to be professional about it—after all, this might be the first impression you are making on someone who will review your work. Along those lines, unless you’re certain that a given media outlet prefers, email is generally the most effective way to communicate everything you need to, rather than Facebook, Twitter, or other modes of social networking.

While I’ve focused on the benefits of getting your work reviewed so you can market it, another benefit is the more intrinsic reward of having someone listen carefully to your work and given informed feedback. Regardless of album sales or how you do in awards season, a great review is a nice way of celebrating your group’s recording accomplishments. And if the review isn’t great, then honest feedback from a third party is a great place to start when you’re thinking about how to make your group even better moving forward.

Theme

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on theme.

As more and more groups dive into the world of recorded a cappella, a sub-pattern has been espousing a theme around which to record—a love album, a futuristic album, an all-eighties album. Some of these themes are natural extensions of group identities, while some are more stand-alone representations of what interests the group at the time.

There are those groups reluctant to go the theme route. Indeed, embracing a theme can mean denying your creativity in other realms—not including or not even beginning to pursue an arrangement of a song that fits your group nicely but that doesn’talign with the theme, or feeling as though the final product of a theme album is contrived or forced.

The aforementioned concerns are not without merit, and I would not push a group to pursue a themed album at the expense of the group’s existing personality and preferences. There is a happy medium, though, at which point a theme is not constricting, but rather opens creative possibilities.

The theme can follow from existing songs. What patterns has your group already established and how can you tie them together? Alternatively, how many different ways can your group look at the same theme? Take advantage of the hive mind of your group membership to assemble a list of potential songs. Using a love theme? Yes, that album can include Bruno Mars’s “I Think I Want To Marry You.” You can also go retro with Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” get into familial love with Ed Sheeran’s “Afire Love,” apply a contemporary lens to imperfect romantic love with Muse’s “Madness,” and explore any number of other genres styles and philosophies on love.

The point is that a theme should give your album a coherent feel and facilitate the creative process, not limit your group. Start brainstorming and you may be surprised with the results.

Humor

Recording Recommendations

A cappella recording has become a big business within a budding industry. Indeed, given the improvements in recording and distribution technology, and the increase in professional services available to groups interested in recording, it seems like groups at all levels, from  small high schools to major universities to post-collegiate social groups to full-fledged pros are releasing new  recordings each year.

In Recording Recommendations, we offer our two cents on best practices in recorded a cappella.

In this edition, our focus is on humor.

Humor has its place in a cappella. After all, a form of music rooted in using your mouth simulate the sounds of instruments can't afford to take itself too seriously, especially at the scholastic or amateur levels.

Just the same, I get that people--myself included--have their reservations about humor. If a group tries to be funny and falls flat, it can come across as a particularly uncomfortable kind of failure. Moreover, comedy doesn't land with every audience, or every audience member the same way. When a group depends on inside jokes or referring to current events everyone isn't up to speed on, or old jokes that are over-exposed among a particular demographic, they run the risk of alienating the crowd. On top of all that, there's the issue of being taken seriously by others--judges, critics, and discerning audience members. It's not at all fair, but there does exist a preconceived notion that the group that plays for laughs doesn't take anything seriously--that they aren't as musically proficient (even if they, objectively, are) or that they won't care whether they take home an award.

Groups can fall into the trap of going too far for a laugh, at the expense of musicality or otherwise thinking out its recording. If a group's sole intention is to entertain, and that's the group's wheelhouse, then there's no reason to back away from it. But, troubling as it may be, groups do need to be more careful about how they deploy humor when they are seeking acclaim. This might mean only including but so much humor to ensure your overall work is perceived as professional. It may also mean thinking critically about track order--not kicking off an album with a comedy track that will set a tone you weren't aiming at; not embedding comedy between more somber and intense tracks in such a way that undercuts their impact, but rather using it as the appropriate release valve at a critical point in the album to "reset" and switch gears, or using it for a fun closing number to send your listeners home happy.

There are exceptions to all of these rules. Established acts get a lot more leeway with comedy (Pentatonix can record all the comedy they want and still be taken seriously), there are acts that have successfully made comedy a cornerstone of their careers (e.g., Mr. Tim) and there are well-crafted albums that use humor in creative ways. That said, comedy is a gamble in serious a cappella recording, and groups need to consider why and how they intend to use it before diving in.

Concept Albums
Music Videos
The Editing Room Floor
Requesting Reviews
Theme
Humor
Originals
Using Instruments
To Yearbook or Not To Yearbook
Song Choice
The Release
LPs vs. EPs
Working With Professionals
Award Hunting
Album Covers
Communicating Your Identity
Translating the Live Experience