Recording Recommendations

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.

The Release

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 the release.

Recordings take time—for most groups a matter of months, if not years. Groups should be proud of their final products and do everything they reasonably can to publicize their work, whether it’s playing to the local community or trying to build an audience on a more national (or even international) stage. Thus, when a group thinks about putting out an album, it should put some real thought into what it will do upon release to steer as many ears as possible to their recording.

Like so many facets of marketing nowadays, effective advertising starts with social media. Groups should be prepared to unleash a flurry of activity via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and not be afraid to tag everyone from the original artists who first performed the songs the group has recorded; people who helped make the album—donors, producers, friends, family; and media outlets. Taking a step back, groups may also consider harnessing the social media power of crowd sourcing funding for their recording. Sites like Kickstarter are great for developing funds for a recording project, but also have the benefit of giving people a stake in your album well before it’s released, and a platform to keep an audience updated on your progress.

On top of bolstering awareness, groups should think about communicating why people should care. For this pursuit, offering up a sample of your work can do the trick, and recording a music video of one or more of your songs to release on YouTube leading up to the release is a great way of both getting attention and showcasing what your group is capable of.

To take your marketing from the Internet to the street, your group may also consider the merits of a release concert—drawing people together to celebrate what your group has accomplished, show off your skills live, and, of course, sell albums.  While digital distribution may have arrived as the dominant means of buying and selling music, never underestimate the immediacy of getting an audience to hand over cash for the instant gratification of a hard copy CD—and particularly the fact that hard copy media may still appeal to an older demographic of family and faculty who may attend a show.

Once your CD is out, it’s important to follow up. You can both earn recognition and get the word out to even more potential listeners by soliciting reviews from RARB or The A Cappella Blog; you can nominate your work to all manner of awards and compilations. On top of all of that, don’t forget to continue selling your work into the future. Did you land a track on Voices Only? Don’t just Tweet about that news—remind your followers how they can buy the full album. Is Black Friday coming up? If you have direct control over your sales, consider offering a sale at a time when people are already in a consumer mindset.

When it comes to recording, groups should focus on putting out the best product possible. In the aftermath, groups are best-served to get their work into the earbuds of as many listeners as possible. It all starts with the release.

LPs vs. EPs

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 <b>whether to record an LP or an EP</b>.

The designations “LP” and “EP” are largely outdated, but have come back into vogue over the last decade. Originally coined to differentiate vinyl records. Singles feature one song (and often a bonus track or two); LP or Long Play was a full album. EPs filled the space between, with a generally agreed upon length of about twenty-five minutes (or roughly four songs).

In a cappella recording, groups in the last twenty years have focused on LPs, and with good reason. With studio time at a premium, groups often sought to get the most bang for their buck with a full-length album. Moreover, in an era when relatively few groups were marketing their music on a national platform, but rather selling regionally or just within their school communities, there was generally less emphasis on perfect recordings, more emphasis on giving everyone a solo and documenting all of the music a group learned in the past year.

Things have shifted, however. While the EP may not have become the standard, per se, it is no longer an abnormality in the contemporary a cappella recording scene. With more and more (not to mention better) a cappella-centric professional services available, groups are more often able to get tracks recorded, mixed and mastered on a per track or per small grouping of tracks basis, which makes producing EPs more affordable.  Moreover there’s the broader consideration of consumer attention spans, which reaches well beyond a cappella. We Tweet and we text message. We watch five-minute-or-less YouTube clips over full-length films. Thus, it makes perfect sense that a four or five-song EP would provide the perfect balance between showing a range of what your group can do, while still getting the most out of your listeners’ relatively brief attention spans.

Short releases also allow a group to focus on quality over quantity—rather than meticulously spreading the placement of their strongest tracks across an album, and instead <i>only</i> putting out that best-arranged, most polished, best-sung material.

In addition to all of this, for the sheer number of tracks, an EP typically takes less time to assemble and release than an LP, thus a group that records EPs stands a stronger chance of turning around and releasing more recordings, or more effectively splitting its time to accomplish other goals within a short span of time.

The bulk of this column may read like an advertisement for groups should abandon LPs in favor of EPs, and I won’t deny that I <i>do</i> think that’s the best path for most groups, particularly at the scholastic level. All of that said, if your group does the ambition, depth of material, and vision to see through a full-length album, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Determining the length of a recording should be all about crystallizing your goals, making a plan, and seeing it through—and ideally playing to your group’s strengths along the way.

Working With Professionals

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on working with professionals.

The last decade has seen a radical proliferation in the number of, scope of , and abilities of professionals who manage a cappella recording and various stages of production. From ACappellaPsych to The Vocal Company to Liquid 5th to Plaid Productions to Bill Hare Productions to A Cappella Productions to Vocal Mastering and dozens more, there are an unprecedentedly high number of very talented people who have decided to make a cappella a professional endeavor. Better yet, the passage of time has afforded them better and better tools and equipment to ply their trade at a high level.

But with recording software, microphones, and other tools of the trade increasingly accessible and affordable, does a group need to call in professionals? Or are they just as well off handling things in house, and, in the process, cultivating those skills within the group?

The answer is: maybe.

The decision of whether and to what extent a group should work with professionals varies depending on what a group hopes to accomplish. If your intention is to record a traditional “yearbook” album that documents a group’s repertoire for the year and gives every group member a solo, and you don’t intend to sell that CD beyond your local community, then you really may not need or be able to financially justify contracting with pros.

That said, if your intention is to break out—to sell your new EP nationally, to vie for Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards, and to ultimately pursue great critical acclaim, fame, or monetary gain, then you do need to be more careful. Studios and productions companies dedicated to a cappella know the tricks of the trade. How to effectively record multiple group members at once, and when to isolate. How to adjust levels to make the most of your group’s sound. How to apply production effects tastefully, judiciously, and in a way that best enhances what your group sings. From there, the mastering process can make all the difference in the world in creating a polished final product—subjecting your work to an objective ear, and letting a professional tinker, refine, and truly perfect your work.

Groups that decide to move toward professional recording should do their homework. They should shop around and take the time to talk to the professionals from different a cappella production companies to figure out what they’re getting, how the process will work and, sure, how much they’re paying and what exactly they’re getting for their money. Work with the right professionals and you may be surprised at just how much higher your group can soar.

Award Hunting

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on award hunting.

A cappella groups perform in a competitive world. The idealist in me would like to suggest that groups co-exist in harmony, collaborate and share resources, and I don’t mean to imply that that’s untrue. Just the same, at this point there are only so many truly high profile spots for a cappella groups to perform in, only so much money to go around and, yes, only so many awards to garner.

In the recorded a cappella world, a handful of acts like Pentatonix may broach the Grammys stage. More often, though, groups vie for the top a cappella specific prizes—most prominently, the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARAs), and also superlatives from sites like The Recorded A Cappella Review Board and The A Cappella Blog, or placement on prestigious compilations like Varsity Vocals’ Best of albums, Sing!, or Voices Only.

Awards and recognition are cool. They make us feel good, and recognition can even drive greater album sales and increase a group’s national (or international) reputation. Moreover, a cappella has become an increasingly business-oriented enterprise, with a bevy of professional arrangers, sound engineers, and more offering their services, and often promoting their own legitimacy based upon awards won. Not so surprisingly, a large number of groups have put teamed up with pros in a push to produce the most successful recordings possible.

But what if you do everything right—sign on with top professionals and work your tail off—and still don’t win anything?

Here, we arrive at the cardinal flaw of the competitive mindset when it comes to a work of art. You can produce your masterpiece, but there’s no guarantee that your best work won’t get trumped by someone else’s that was just a nudge better than yours, or that converted greater notoriety into greater acclaim, or that, as a matter of a single judge’s whim, came up short for a particular honor.

It may be Chris Rishel, an alum of University of Chicago Voices in Your Head, who said it best at a CASA festival once—that groups should strive to create art for art’s sake. They should seek to fulfill their own vision and to serve their own aesthetics. Groups that create with an ear toward creating the best art they can have a chance of achieving success on their own merits. Such groups may still enjoy the added benefit of awards, but when they refuse to let other people determine their level of success, they’re setting themselves up to make art more as a process of self-fulfillment than a gamble that depends on someone else’s subjective opinion.

Awards are fine. Aspire to them. Work toward them. But don’t let them be the be-all end-all for your a cappella group. Create something amazing for yourself.

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