Recording Recommendations

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.

Originals

Recording Recommendations

In the contemporary a cappella landscape, it’s not unusual to look at groups as cover bands—acts that arrange and often recreate popular music, but that, just the same, depend upon performing someone else’s material.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the past five years, we’ve heard all-original albums from acts including Pentatonix, Arora, Forte, and The Octopodes, and individual original tracks from dozens of other groups, some of the most successful including UCD Mix’s “Water,” and Brandeis VoiceMale’s “Phoenix.”

Using original songs in recordings is a gamble. There’s the chance that listeners won’t as readily seek out or enjoy a cappella music that they don’t already have a degree of familiarity with. Moreover, it’s fundamentally harder to not only arrange, but create new music.

That said, there are very real rewards to recording originals. Most prominently, there’s the glass ceiling effect for both individual groups and the a cappella genre on the whole. Think about a cover band that you may have heard at a bar, club, or on campus. You may have liked them perfectly fine, but in resigning themselves to only playing cover songs, the band has relinquished any meaningful shot at ever become as notable as the acts that they are imitating. Similarly, it’s difficult for a cappella to ultimately be taken as seriously as music with instruments for as long as the genre is so dependent on covers.

Originals open new opportunities. They provide the chance for an a cappella group to achieve a breakaway hit on the group’s own merits. Moreover, they afford group members creative outlets. If we liken arranging an established song to problem solving, then assembling an original is more like the process of invention. And for those groups concerned that not filling their albums with covers will hurt their sales, consider how excited people who know and care about you may be to buy something that is wholly your creation. If the work is good, the word will spread from there—among your social networks, and among the a cappella world.

Recording original music is not for every group. If you don’t have songwriters in your midst, or don’t aspire to anything but cover music, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. But for groups that do wish to make the leap to recording their own original songs, there are myriad opportunities blaze a new trail and thrive.

Using Instruments

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on using instruments.

The concept of this article may come across as completely antithetical to content and principles of this site. After all, what interest would a site dedicated to all-vocal music have in analyzing music that, well, isn’t all vocal?

But things have changed, and questions about group identity have grown more complicated. True, a cappella purists have had a hard time accepting vocal percussion as a part of the a cappella landscape because it’s not about vocal harmony. And what of groups like Arora and A.Squared that make innovative use of looping technology be criticized for not truly making all of their music with the human voice?

Nowadays, most a cappella fans are ready to accept vocal percussion, body percussion, special mic-ing techniques, and looping as viable components of a cappella performance and recording. Instruments, however, remain a no-no. After all, most genres of music are dominated by instrument usage, and the absence of instruments is generally accepted as the factor that defines a cappella. But when a high profile group like The Exchange recorded tracks using instruments, and when even The Sing-Off permitted instruments (though, beyond looping pedals, they didn’t come into use) in 2014, is rebelling against the use of instruments becoming an uphill battle? Will the renegade genre that rejected conventional instrumentation come back into the fold for a style of music that may prioritize vocals and harmonies but still include guitars, keyboards, and real drums?

A cappella groups that are pondering this question need to think about why they are or are not interested in instruments. Is it a matter of principle or a matter of pragmatism? Are you, and your listeners, invested in the a cappella sound? Has the novelty of the cliché disclaimer that  “all of the sounds you hear were created with the human voice”  worn out its value? Might the introduction of instruments make your music more palatable to a larger audience?

For groups considering the use of instruments, one place to start is to introduce instruments to your group minimally. On a recording, this might mean using instruments on just one song, and doing so with good reason—for example, incorporating a standout violinist from your local community, or weaving a real trumpet solo around your vocal trumpet solo in a song to create a unique effect.

Another, fundamentally disparate approach would be to enter the instrumental fray aggressively. This could mean using instruments on every track and using them shamelessly to truly step away from the a cappella world for a special recording project that includes a full band. This is the realm in which experimentation is key. How can you make creative use of instruments to justify their placement and not devolve into a standard band with a surplus of lead vocalists?

Overall, though the key to introducing instruments to an a cappella group is to use them purposefully—to generate an effect you cannot with the human voice—and to do so in such a way that produces the best music possible. At its core, making music should be about expression, the creation of art, or entertainment. None of these factors necessarily exclude the use of instruments, if your group pursues it in such a way that is true to the group’s identity, and in the name of advancing new ideas, and better pleasing your audience.

To Yearbook or Not To Yearbook

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 yearbooking.

For those unfamiliar with the yearbook concept, it’s an informal term for recording an album on which every group member gets a solo or otherwise featured song, thus the overarching recording feels like a catalog of everyone who was in the group that year. There was a time at which this concept dominated the sphere of scholastic recordings, and thus the yearbook moniker was a natural fit.

Is there a place for yearbooking in the current a cappella recording market? The short answer is that, yes, there is, under two circumstances. The first is that your group is generating an album for which the primary function will be a souvenir for the group members themselves, fans, friends, and families. These are the kinds of albums typically recorded and mixed on campus, within the group or its social network, for which there are no (or at least limited) designs on submitting the album for national awards or selling it beyond the local community. The other circumstance is that your group actually does feature a roster of all outstanding soloists, each of whom genuinely bring something interesting, different, and irresistible to the table, and thus are worth featuring in their own songs.

For increasing number of groups that are recording with an eye toward building a global reputation, I can’t advocate for the yearbook concept. To use a far-from-perfect metaphor, let’s compare a cappella recording to picking a team during high school phys ed class. At least at my school, the prevailing logic was that everyone picked the best athletes first, the un-athletic kids last, with some potential adjustments for non-athletics-related popularity woven in there. Typically, the result was that each team included strongest objective roster that it could (which more or less balanced the teams because the captains had divided the talents equally via alternating picks). The less popular strategy was for a captain to simply pick his friends,  regardless of ability levels, in the interest of having fun, with less regard to winning.

In the gym class example, one choice is about winning, the other is about enjoyment. In the low stakes of a gym class, in which wins and losses are typically realized and forgotten within an hour period, I actually wonder why more kids didn’t simply pick their friends. But recorded a cappella is different. Each recording is a representation of your group. Most a cappella groups favor talent over playing favorites when it comes to the audition process because they’re more interested in assembling a talented performing group than a social club (albeit the fact that the two are far from mutually exclusive). I would argue that the same should be the case for recordings.

It might hurt the feelings of a graduating senior not to have a solo on her last album with the group. It may frustrate a rising star not to have his signature song make the cut for the album. Just the same, the average listener (let alone critic or competition judge) only have so long of an attention span, and generally favor shorter albums over hour-plus works. Furthermore, when a group submits an album for the world to hear and critique, they have to accept that the whole album will be judged, not just the best tracks. It’s a lot harder for a few standout tracks to really shine, much less garner your group a national reputation, when they’re surrounded by middling material.

Yearbook albums are fine if they’re for the group and its supporters. Heck, if your group has the resources, I see no reason not to record additional, unreleased tracks that are just for the group’s inner circle to enjoy and remember the year. But for albums meant to be sold beyond the confines and campus, and meant to send a message to the world, groups need to be more selective.

Song Choice

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 song choice.

In previous editions of Recording Recommendations, I’ve written about the merits of cultivating a specific and unique identity to set your group apart from others and hone in a specific, signature style. Song choice can both contribute to and follow from identity.

What do your song choices say about your group? They can portray your group as intense. As happy go lucky. As abstract. Song choices can communicate any number of facets of your group—the key is to be intentional about what you’re putting forth. Consistency in terms of genre, era, or style of music can go a long way toward building a cohesive personality; diversifying your song selections has its own merits, too, though, in reflecting the many personalities in your group and the range of what you can sing.

With all of that said, my only concrete area to steer groups away from is contemporary top forty songs. Yes, popular music tends to get over-exposed in contemporary a cappella. Even more importantly, though, picking a song everyone is listening to on the radio communicates <i>nothing</i> about your group—about the type of music you seek out, the artists that are meaningful to you, the critical thought you put into planning your repertoire.

I don’t mean to suggest that every group should plumb the depths of indie rock and local coffeehouse scenes for materials. I do mean that it’s worth exploring interesting, unique music that members of your group are into or, if you’re set on covering a particular major recording artist, exploring that artist’s B-sides and deep cuts to find material that only serious fans would know about. This material comes across as more fresh, and will be more demonstrative of your group’s creative direction because it is unique.

When it comes to picking songs for an album, my other main recommendation is for a group to pick its best material and only its best material for major recording projects. I’ve written before about the virtues of the EP over LP in focusing and retaining audience attention. When groups think about which songs to record, the matter is often as simple as looking at which songs will, in a recorded format, make the group sound its very best.

To summarize, when groups select songs to record, they should do so with an ear toward representing their identity, singing under-exposed material, and only putting their best music on an album.

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