Recording Recommendations

Legalities and Referrals

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on legalities and referrals.

Here at The A Cappella Blog, we’ve accumulated our share of experience via over a decade of attending a cappella shows, listening to a cappella recordings, reading books and articles, and interviewing experts from the field. With all of that said, there are certainly limitations to our knowledge, or at least areas in which we’ll happily admit there are parties better suited to address specific topics or to actually work with you on your a cappella recordings. Thus, this edition of Recording Recommendations is far less rooted in our opinions or direct advice, and more oriented toward sending you to the right people to answer your questions.

When it comes to legalities, such as what you need to do to record someone else’s music without entering murky territory when it comes to copyrights, or what information you need to include in your liner notes, I know of no better source for a cappella-specific information than licensed attorney and a cappella aficionado Jonathan Minkoff. You can find his blog here: A Cappella 101. The site may not be updated consistently, but the information archived there is invaluable for dealing with the legal, technical aspects of recording.

When it comes to recording, producing, and mixing services, there are quite a few successful businesses in the field. The following list by no means comprehensive and I don’t mean to snub anyone, so if you know someone great who’s missing, feel free to chime in in the comments.

Bill Hare Productions (Act fast—he’s heading toward retirement!)

Vocal Company

Liquid 5th

A Cappella Productions


Plaid Productions

In addition, when you have your recording all but ready to go, and are looking for the finishing touches, I know of no more reputable or successful name in a cappella mastering than Dave Sperandio, who you find at Vocal Mastering

Contemporary Songs vs. Old Songs

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on whether your group should focus contemporary songs.

There are those folks in a cappella circles who cringe when they hear a group cover a song from over a decade ago. They say the song choice isn’t relevant anymore or complain that they’ve heard this song covered a dozen times already. On an oddly similar tack, there are folks who buck against groups covering current Top 40 music because those songs, too, are so quickly over-exposed.

So what’s an a cappella group to do? Stay contemporary and risk recording the same song that ten other groups release that year? Or go to older material that may have been covered before but at least isn’t in the current audience’s immediate consciousness.

When it comes to picking which songs your group will arrange, perform, and record, the core set of questions you need to ask yourselves are: Why this song? Why this group? Why now?

First and foremost, I’ve set up a false dichotomy above between well-known songs of yesteryear and well-known songs of today—in reality, many groups find the most fertile ground for their repertoires in lesser known songs by mainstream artists, or lesser known bands from whatever era.

Beyond that point, there’s the matter of thinking about how a song fits a group’s identity, and what the song will accomplish for the group. If your group is recording a medley of iconic 1980s pop songs to offset the heavy nature of the rest of the album, it makes sense to pick songs that the audience will immediately recognize, regardless of their history of being covered a cappella. But if your group aiming to come across as more cutting edge or innovative, there’s probably very little reason for you to cover Simon and Garfunkel (unless your dramatically reinterpreting the song).

But then there’s the question of why now. While we all hope that an album will survive the test of time and that listeners will revisit it for years to come, the nature of the modern music landscape is that your average listener will listen to your recording most often in the immediate aftermath of its release—then maybe stumble back upon periodically in the years to come. In any event, for most groups the aim should be to record for a contemporary audience. That doesn’t necessarily mean recording only contemporary music, but it does mean thinking about what impact a song will have on today’s audience—if a song is an older song is pleasantly nostalgic or sounds like music your parents would listen to (in a negative way), or if a new song already feels over-exposed on the radio or in a cappella circles, and if so, what you’re doing to make it distinctively your own.

Ultimately, there are few pure right or wrong decisions when it comes to picking songs for your album, but you should purposeful in considering what a song choice—its vintage and all—says about your group and accomplishes for your recording project.

Track Order

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on track order.

There comes a point—after you’ve decided what sort of identity your group is trying to project and whether or not your album is going to adhere a theme, after you’ve picked your songs, and perhaps even after you’ve recorded them when you need to think about what order your tracks will fall in on the album. In the contemporary era when so many people download individual songs rather than full albums and veer toward playlists over the orders that artists and record companies produce for them, the idea of caring about track order may seem antiquated. Just the same, if you sincerely want your listeners to hear every single song you’ve recorded, you need to consider how you can compel them to do so via album layout.

This process starts with grabbing your audience’s attention. It’s no coincidence that so many albums start with one of a group’s loudest, fastest, or otherwise most energetic recordings, because groups tend to agree that the first track should use that sort of energy to excite and captivate the listener’s attention. There are alternatives to this paradigm. While it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes starting soft, or with a song that stands out for its emotional vulnerability can force your consumers to listen more closely and get invested quickly in the album without the standard up-tempo, major chords we traditionally think of on a first track.

As the album progresses, it’s worth considering how the mood of different tracks plays off the others. I don’t necessarily recommend to basic of a structure as alternating between fast and slow songs, but I will say that having significant contrast in terms of dynamics, tempo, and content between songs not only makes the listening experience more diverse, but also makes the qualities of each individual track  stand out for their sheer contrast to the music surrounding them.

It’s also worth considering flow—how one track moves to another. In my estimation, when you’re figuring out your order, there’s no substitute for doing the work—sitting down and actually listening to your tracks in succession and shuffling them like puzzle pieces until you’ve arrived at your optimal order.

Lastly, when it’s time to finish an album, it’s important to think about what you would want your last impression to be. For some listeners—particularly ones who aren’t already personally invested in your group or who don’t live in your immediate area, the last track on your album may be what most lingers in your listeners’ ears—their final sense of what your group is all about.  You want to leave them craving more, which may mean putting an especially strong song last, or a song that other finishes “big”—culminating in a dramatic moment, or showing off your best musical chops.

Track order draws a listener to consume your entire album and progression of tracks can go a long way toward making each individual track sound its best.

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.

Legalities and Referrals
Contemporary Songs vs. Old Songs
Track Order
Concept Albums
Music Videos
The Editing Room Floor
Requesting Reviews
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