In the world of a cappella recording, there is no bigger name than Bill Hare. There is at least one Hare-produced track on every BOCA CD (over 40 tracks in all), and he has earned over 100 CARA awards. In addition to working full-time as a recording engeineer and producer, he currently serves on the board of directors for CASA, as the director of CASA Archives.
I’ve been asked many times over the years about how I got started in this business, what my a cappella background is, and how I got to where I am today. For the first time, the complete story:
While I’ve always loved vocal music, I am an instrumentalist at heart. As far as career paths go, my plan was to be a bass player on the other side of the glass--a studio musician for hire. Remember, this was back in the days when there were no home studios--not even home computers, and to make any marketable recording people had to go to established recording studios. These studios all had lists of local “studio cats,” musicians who could step in and record a TV jingle, replace a weak player on a band’s record, or back up a solo artist with no rehearsal--the red light comes on, and it’s sight-reading-record-making time!
This was the world I wanted to be in, and started my studies at San Jose State University with an emphasis in Electric Bass Performance. From there, I had the chance to study privately with studio great Carol Kaye, who had been one of my bass heroes since I was a kid! Well on my way to my chosen path, I started working as a hired bass player in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As I’d walk through the control rooms of the various studios I had gigs in, I paid little attention--it was just a bunch of knobs to me, I just wanted to play my bass! Little did I know that decades later my whole career would have been based on turning those knobs, let alone making music with no instruments.
In 1984, one of the studios I had been working in for a few years, Astral Sounds in San Jose came up for sale due to the unfortunate illness (leukemia) of the owner. She knew she was dying, and wanted to see the studio continue in the hands of people she knew already, so she asked those of us working there if we could somehow buy the studio from her. Randy Musumeci, a drummer with whom I was paired for many sessions, and I went to our families with this bittersweet opportunity, and formed a partnership. We purchased Astral in July of 1984, neither of us knowing a thing about engineering, but that was fine since the engineering staff would be staying on.
My mother, Joan, being the financial backing for our part of the partnership came in to run the front office for the next 12 years. I still had no interest in learning what all the knobs did, that was our engineers’ jobs--I still just wanted to play my bass. Eventually, though, not even being able to play a tape through our system because I didn’t even know where the “on” switch was, I started slowly learning what all those knobs did. I even started doing sessions, more for my own projects at first, but eventually became competent enough to do it for clients!
In these first few years, I did record some a cappella music, but it was more of the choral, barbershop, and jazz variety. I actually had sung in a madrigals group in high school, and put together a jazz vocal quartet with my sister and a couple friends after that, but still considered myself an instrumentalist first and foremost. In 1987, I started recording the Fanfairs, an award-winning group originally started by Phil Mattson (well known in the Jazz vocal world) and headed at that time by Nile Norton. After doing working on that album, Nile mentioned that he wanted to send his old college group to me, the Stanford Mendicants, of which he was a member 20 years before (1965-’67).
I wasn’t quite prepared for this group – I had no idea what they were trying to do, and I hadn’t seen anything like them before. Basically a glee club, but singing current songs as well as old standards, and I wasn’t particularly impressed. “Hmm, a song by The Police, but with no drive… how do they expect this to work without a backbeat? Oh well, I’m getting paid, I’ll put up with it..."
Yes, that was my original attitude, and my introduction to collegiate a cappella.
I recorded that album (Aquapella by the Stanford Mendicants of 1988-’89) in one day, just putting up a few mics the way I would record any choir. Luckily, I must have done a good enough job that a few months later another Stanford group, The Fleet Street Singers, came to Astral Sounds to record an album that would be called Curious. “This stuff again…” I thought.
This time I used a few more microphones, remembering things that kind of got lost in the Mendicants’ last recording. This group also had some original songs, with the emphasis on comedy, so it was a bit more fun for me this time around. I also started using techniques like overdubbing a bit more, rather than just have it be totally live.
By the time the Mendicants came back the next year to record Just Like That, I had thought about some of this stuff a bit. Their music director, John Livingston (brother of Office Space’s Ron Livingston, and later an accomplished actor on his own) and I had some discussions on what we could do to make this next album into something more professional sounding. I had come to the realization that if these groups were doing pop and rock material, they should not be recorded in the traditional thin-sounding choir technique of just miking the performance-- the individual “instruments” each needed their own presence.
Gone were the two overhead mics just capturing the sound in the room, instead I put up sixteen individual mics, each going to their own channel of my 24 track analogue tape recorder. This gave me much more flexibility, being able to blend chords after the fact, put deeper EQ on just the basses so the top parts wouldn’t get muddy, pan individual parts to wherever I wanted in the stereo sound field, not to mention the fact that each singer was only a few inches from his respective microphone gave a presence unexpected from large group recordings.
It would still be years before we started doing major pre-production, individual tracking to cue/click tracks, vocal percussion as standard issue (though we did have some appear on one track of that second Mendicants album) and all of the other crazy effects we do these days, but I do believe that on the first day of recording Just Like That, the modern collegiate a cappella sound was born!