Recording Recommendations

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.

Album Covers

Recording Recommendations

Since digital formats have overtaken hard copy music, musical artists have been less and less compelled to pay attention to their album covers. And why should they care about packaging material? In the absence of a physical CD, people aren’t using cover art to make purchasing decisions, reading through liner notes, or admiring glossy print materials after they purchase an album. Right?

Right?

I won’t argue that album art is as important as it once was in helping would-be listeners judge your book by its cover. Just the same, it is not a detail to gloss over. Fewer groups are selling albums in stores or at tables after shows—fair enough. But those groups that have moved away from CDs are pushing digital downloads, and the front cover image is, as often as not, the first chance your group has to make an impression. A simple, professional, presentation goes a long way toward selling your group as a serious act. Unless you’re doing so very purposefully, the design you cooked up in ten minutes using Microsoft Paint is not contributing any ethos to your project.

Beyond the front cover, there’s the matter of liner notes. Liner notes give you the opportunity to credit album contributors—everyone from soloists and vocal percussionists, to the people who arranged songs, to people who worked on mixing and mastering tracks—in addition to citing the original artists you’re covering. There are legal matters related to citation that you need to consider (I’ll write more about that in another post), but there’s also the matter of making the album something everyone involved can feel proud of, invested in, and rewarded for working on. Providing the proper credits will make people more eager to help promote your work, more excited to contribute to your next recording project, and generally build good a cappella karma.

So, when you think about your next recording project—whether you release it in hard copy, digitally, or both, don’t forget about your cover. An aesthetically pleasing cover design will help album sales, and simple PDF of liner notes can go a long toward proving your group is a class act.


Song Choice
The Release
LPs vs. EPs
Working With Professionals
Award Hunting
Album Covers
Communicating Your Identity
Translating the Live Experience