The Recording Rant

Keeping It Together

The Recording Rant

I’m going to take a small hiatus from recording talk and discuss something that is an issue for more groups than they might care to admit. Not everybody sells out eight shows a semester and has fans begging for more at the end. It just isn’t in the cards for younger groups still developing a reputation and finding their sound. These groups are hoping to fill just half of the seats and pray that no technical disasters take place and cause them to lose the four groupies that they barely hold onto. A bigger challenge faces these groups: the challenge to simply Keep It Together.

Are you the leader of one of these groups? You know who you are. You deal with extensive group turnover, people losing interest, lack of motivation, and competition with more popular groups and events around campus. Every time you get a decent show-stopping soloist, they find a reason to not stick it out or find their place in another group. Those in your group that do stay get frustrated by the lack of payoff for the multiple practices every week. Your shows are mediocre and thus the talent entering your group is subpar as well. These groups have a small success rate, and many times they hang it up to end the misery. Here are some other options to save your group and turn yourselves into one of the main events on campus.

1) Group bonding time. My old group’s leader after I left used to set mandatory weekend hangout time. You can understand how this wouldn’t work out with fifteen college kids. They rebelled. BUT, this isn’t to say that the group shouldn’t spend time together outside of practice and concerts. If half of you are hanging out, the others will follow in time. A group of friends has a better connection on stage than a group of singers who hardly know each other. Comfort is big the next time you request that they do some kind of choreography.

2) Highlight the strengths of ALL of the group members. I saw a group a few years ago who had a smaller guy that just wasn’t that great of a singer. Sad, but true. What did they do? They incorporated him into a song using body percussion, which was a crowd pleaser seeing as he was strangely good at it. Not everybody is a great soloist, but if they are in the group they have something to offer, so make use of it. This way, your good soloists don’t feel like they are carrying the group on their back. It can be a heavy burden.

3) ADVERTISE. This cannot be stressed enough to college groups. Get flyers up, talk to your local college radio station, college webmaster, etc. Even better, the week before the show, get outside and sing. For free? YES! Put together three songs and stand where there is the most traffic around campus during the day, and sing the hell out of them. (Side note, avoid slower songs, they tend to grab fewer people on the move.) People will stop, people will listen, and when you stop, people will be disappointed. This is your chance to plug your upcoming show. I promise that your attendance numbers will climb.

4) Make your concerts shows. No, I don’t mean skits between every song, unless that works for you. I mean hire somebody to run sound who knows what they are doing, because a cappella is a different animal altogether and there have been way too many shows ruined by a bad sound engineer who doesn’t understand the genre. Come up with a unique dress code. All of you are wearing ties? Unless you are (insert Clefs, Bubs, etc. here), then it will bore people. It is a tired concept. Lose the ties and go more relaxed. You will feel more comfortable on stage and over time, the crowd will feel more comfortable as well.
There are plenty of us out there who are doing a cappella professionally and hiring a consultant to fix a few issues is always a good idea. You get an unbiased view from somebody who has been around the block. Can’t afford it? Just ask for some help. You might be surprised how many of us would just shoot emails back and forth with you.

In the end, hanging it up is an option that some can’t ignore. Sometimes it is inevitable, but always make it a last resort. Try these tips first, and you will see a turnaround quickly.

Lessons from Recordings

The Recording Rant

Eric Talley is an alumnus of The Appalachian State University Lost in Sound, and is currently an a cappella recording producer. Talley writes The Recording Rant on a recurring basis for The A Cappella Blog.

Another year has passed, and another round of excellent albums have released. It cannot be stated enough that the quality of a cappella music continues to get better and better. We witnessed some truly stellar albums in 2009, and without mentioning names, here are a few things that we can learn from what we have heard:

1) Song originality is HUGE! How many versions of “Apologize” have we heard now? I lost count a while back, but it is far too many. In working with groups now, I stress finding songs that have not been released by five other groups in the last six months, as well songs that showcase their talents. Want to record a Coldplay song? Great idea! Do us all a favor….don’t sing Viva La Vida or The Scientist, because we have been there and done that. If you insist, make it your own and don’t cover the original exactly as we hear it.

2) Your soloist is still the biggest part of the song. Arrangements are blowing me away time and time again with creativity and simple WOW factor, but at the end of the day, your soloist better be able to keep up. I have heard far too many a cappella songs ruined by a mediocre, or just bad, soloist. Your guys group may not be able to sing a Stevie Wonder song. Play to your strengths, no matter how great your arsenal may be. The last thing any of us want to hear is one of our favorite songs murdered by somebody unfit to sing the solo. With that being said….

3) Push the envelope. Most of us read RARB on a regular basis. Great production and simply background chords aren’t cutting it anymore. You have to have the entire package to be considered a top-tier group. This is not to say that I want to see fifty Bubs albums released with different group titles this year, nor do I want every coed group in the nation copying OTB syllables. Just do something different, because do’s and aah’s aren’t selling too many albums these days. Use the top groups to inspire, but there is more than enough potential in the a cappella world to go around.

4) Finally, keep singing! Your album got panned in a review? Only sold half of your copies that you ordered? Had a bad experience with a producer? Persevere. The world wants to hear the best of what you have to offer, and declining to produce an album is the perfect way to NOT give it to them.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The Recording Rant

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, this is not a repost from December. My Christmas is the end of the college semester, when so many groups decide to display their hard work and money spent by releasing their albums. Months and months have been spent finding new, creative ways to reinvent songs that have usually been recorded before, but these groups have unique takes on these songs that make them worth listening to; or so we hope. Isn’t that why you buy an album? We hope that what we find inside that professionally designed cover is a new experience of songs that we might have heard before, or a song that is so well-done that we get on iTunes to grab the real thing. We wait patiently for the CD release concerts, willing to pay what we do knowing that our interest will be spiked and once again we will find new inspiration in this genre that we have invested so much in. Much like Christmas, though, there are gifts every once in awhile, like the two-sizes-too-big sweaters from a crazy aunt, that you were hoping would for once be something that you actually wanted. Every year you open that box and find the same thing. In a cappella, that is too often the case.

“Fix you”. Those two words have appeared on more a cappella albums than I care to count for the past few years. Anybody could make the same case for “Hide and Seek”. These are songs that have ruled the track lists for numerous CDs, but this year was a year of a swing in the trend. While there were repeats, which are going to happen eventually no matter how unique you might think your choice in songs is, they were done with their own style. I credit music directors and producers who are aware of the possibility of “Viva La Vida” appearing on ten to twelve albums this year, in realizing that making their version different could make all of the difference when they are being reviewed or listened to by any general a cappella enthusiast. Now, while I would love to reveal what I have personally discovered in a majority of the albums released this season, I would rather leave it to you to judge on your own. In these albums though, you might wonder what it is that is making you so excited about the music. Well…

It’s the arrangements. A part of it is the talent. Another part is the producer. In some cases, a large part of it is the producer. What sets albums apart from each other, is the fresh ideas that come about with each passing semester. A prime example of this is the Stanford Harmonics’ version of “The Sound of Silence”. If you live under a rock or are new to a cappella, find a way to get your hands on this song. It is a classic, yes, but done in a way that you have never heard before. It will inspire you and drive you to arrange if you are a music director. Charlie Forkish has truly set himself apart from the competition. I credit the producer as well (you know who you are), but in my mind, the thing that makes an album worth your time and money, is its ability to set itself apart from the competition. In the now, very crowded genre of a cappella, a fresh take on a song or maybe an original or not so popular title, is a great way to keep your group from becoming just another needle in the proverbial haystack. Any of you who are starting a new project, or considering doing so, should keep this in mind. It will give you a real shot at standing out amongst the giants. Helpful tip: check out the Brown Jabberwocks’ new album when it releases. You won’t be disappointed.

MTV at the ICCA Finals

The Recording Rant

I have sat back for the past week or so and simply watched as the a cappella “community” has not so quietly entered into a debate about the ICCA finals. I know that my articles are supposed to comment on recording aspects, but for the sake of a topic that NEEDS to be discussed, let us call this post “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

I think we can all agree whole-heartedly that there were good and bad things about MTV taking part in the finals. That much has been made clear by anybody and everybody associated with the competition or the genre in general. Publicity is good, and twisting words and actions to please an audience is bad. Make the sacrifices or don’t. That is left up to Varsity Vocals, who haven’t steered us wrong yet, so can we have a little faith?

My concern here is what was once a healthy debate has turned into something of a civil war on the RARB forums. I must say that a select few have done their best to keep things a little less serious, and remind everybody that we may do this for a living sometimes, but didn’t we make that choice because it was fun in the first place? I think that many of you would agree that while a more profitable career would have been waiting, continuing with a cappella was something that you could wake up to every morning excited, and still believe in what you are doing. That is the allure.

Like any good industry, this inevitably creates sides. I want to preface this by saying that by no means am I asking you all to hold hands and sing campfire songs. I know as well as anybody that this is a business to most of us and that messing with the current formula would disrupt the financial flow of things. Competition is healthy in any economy, and a cappella isn’t excluded from that conversation. What I will promote though, is a healthy competition. Let us leave the backstabbing and undercutting to the high school cheerleading squad. (Apologies to anybody who is offended by that, but you get my drift…hopefully.) We are, like it or not, being brought into the public eye by networks that will twist and turn our actions as they see fit. Are we really finding it necessary to stoke the fires even more by posting on public forums, arguing about who is to blame for what, and who is better than everybody else? We are giving them what they want! We might have complained about MTV making this competition a different kind of animal, but is that not what all of our arguing and bitching to each other is really saying?

I used quotations around the word “community” earlier for a reason. A community is a safe place where people can share ideas and concerns and not be persecuted for them. There was a comment made earlier that RARB used to be a safe place where people could say what they were thinking without being persecuted for it. Such is no longer the case. Now you have to figure legal representation into a budget before letting people know what you think. My proposition is this: fight off any negative advances from the media or pop culture as a group. If we are divided on this many issues, how can they not take advantage of that and exploit it to their viewers? I know we aren’t giving MTV much credit as a news organization, but do you think that among the thousands of people that they have working for them, that one of them doing a little research might stumble across a wildly popular thread where we are currently discussing MTV and openly slinging harsh words around? I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised to see some of that pop up in their debut of the show. I was proud to hear that many of the groups refused to play into the producers’ hands and say what they were looking for, and I applaud those who stood strong for not bending at the will of a television executive.

Let us, in a sense, be bigger people here and let MTV do as they will, and continue our music and organizations in the way that has always worked. We will prevail in the end, and anybody who develops enough interest in the genre from seeing it broadcast on TV will join and see that, in fact, it is nothing like it is being portrayed. On the other hand, it hasn’t aired yet…so we will see. On the brighter side, and I promise you more and more of that side, congratulations to all of the groups that competed and those that came out on top. I know that simply being there is quite an honor. You represented our community well(no quotes that time) and I hope to see more and more groups competing in the future.

Producing v.s Over-Producing

The Recording Rant

As a producer, I find myself gravitating towards reviews on albums more and more these days, and less concerned with performance reviews and tips. Maybe it has something to do with my lack of performance experience after leaving my college group. It could be the days on end that I have spent in front of a screen editing and mixing that have soured my taste in unfiltered a cappella. No matter the reason, I find more and more of a trend in album reviews, and an even stronger trend in those outside of the “inner circle” that might not agree with how an album is given its mark. I use the words inner circle because as people leave collegiate groups, more often than not they eventually move on to other aspects of life. This inner circle involves the people that have made themselves a landmark in the industry, or are at least making an attempt to do so, by not moving on, but finding new ways to add to the genre. As many things in life go, seniority and experience leads to advantages, such as being the one that RARB sends an album to for a review. The forum on that site is where my point comes in.

Lately, I have seen more and more, not complaints per se, but disagreements with the way modern a cappella is being mixed in the studio and released to the general public. Now let me say that I prefer not to pick sides in this situation. I appreciate the studio talents as much as the vocal talents, and firmly believe that you can’t have a successful album without both. I also believe that any producer posed with a similar question would agree. With that being said, the trend for larger, more popular groups, is moving towards very mixed production styles. A good example would be the Duke Pitchforks latest album, Disconcert. Vocal Source is internationally known for their excellent studio work as well as their ability to draw incredible performances from their clients. It has definitely shown on this album. With success though, comes criticism. A young a cappella enthusiast posted on a forum recently that he didn’t believe that albums like this constituted a cappella. He was firm in his opinion that when enough effects are added, it ceases to become a work of a group of singers, and more of a work of producers twisting and shaping every little sound. I almost felt bad for this person, as they were almost immediately ambushed by an army of popular a cappella producers. The more I thought about it though, I appreciated these people standing up for their profession and mine, and speaking out about why these songs are mixed the way that they are. Why? Well…

It is an artistic choice made by the group and its leadership. To my knowledge, very few producers record the group, disappear for eight or nine months, and reappear with the finished product. All of these companies keep in close contact with group members who are available at all hours of the day to comment and help the producer achieve the sound that they are hoping for. If you went to them as an a cappella purist, wanting a clean track with as few effects as possible, you would still walk away with quality product. The choice to go with a more mixed version correlates to the album being commercially viable. By creating something that has some added bass, booming soloists, or explosive vocal percussion, you are appealing to a larger crowd than a pure vocal CD might do on its own. These groups are looking at the big picture. If you release an album that has those added effects, then you create more fans that you might have never acquired. These fans show up to live shows, where the group sings with no vocal effects and they get to see the passion and talent that went into the original album. More fans equals bigger shows and more opportunities to perform, and a commercial album creates financial freedoms to allow more travel and a better overall experience for every member of the group. Is it worth the exchange? That depends on the goals of your group. If you simply love to sing and want it documented on a disc, then maybe the full package isn’t for you. If you are looking to next spring hoping to do a week tour across three states, then it might be something worth considering.

Musical decisions made by various groups are their business and their choice. Submitting it to be reviewed does, however, open it up to public opinion. Those groups that have received lower marks than they might have been expecting need to answer one question. When you hit play, do you like what you hear? That is the true review. If your answer is yes, then move on and learn what you can from the experience. This is in no means a shot at any of the RARB reviewers, because more often than not I agree with what you have to say….but not always! That is the true beauty of music, is that no two people feel the same about it. So whether you walk away with a 2 or a 5, keep this in mind; your group and your fans are the ones that will be listening to the album two or three years from now. If it can last that long, then congratulations; you have created a successful album.

Keeping It Together
Lessons from Recordings
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
MTV at the ICCA Finals
Producing v.s Over-Producing