ACB Interview: AcaRank

Since it's slow, subtle roll out began last month, AcaRank has quickly emerged as one of the most controversial new institutions in scholastic a cappella. The idea is to use clearly defined criteria, including performance in live competition and achievement in studio recording, to measure and comparatively rank a cappella groups.

Some parties have met the idea with excitement—particularly those that have been pleased with their groups’ high rankings or who are happy to be ranked at all. However, much of the attention focused on the project so far has been far less positive, with critics decrying a furthered sense of competition rather than collaboration in the a cappella community and questioning how objective any set of ranking could be.

Patrick Hockberger and Matt Kania, who previously collaborated as part of The Northwestern University Undertones and for VoxLabs, an a cappella finance and consulting company, co-founded AcaRank. Hockberger was kind enough to sit down for an interview with me to clarify the intentions behind AcaRank, their practices, and where the project is headed.

ACB Interview: Centerville High School Forte

Each year, it seems that there are a select few hot CDs that get the a cappella community buzzing. They’re typically the work of a professional group, or perhaps a particularly iconic college group or a prominent ICCA competitor that’s taken a year off from competing to get in the studio.

Rarely does a high school group set the a cappella world on fire.

Apparently, no one told Forte.

Forte is based out of Centerville High School, and operates under the faculty direction of Ben Spalding. The group placed at the ICHSA Finals this spring, and went on to stun a live audience at SoJam by putting the perfect cap on Ben Stevens’s Essential Listening workshop.

Then, there’s the CD.

Life’s So Lyrical is more than just any polished CD, featuring arrangements and production from top names in the a cappella community; it’s a CD composed exclusively of original music, written by the students.

ACB Interview: The Voice of Rock Project

Across the United States, the population of post-collegiate a cappella groups has grown significantly in recent years, through a combination more and more alums of college groups seeking to carry on the music; the support network offered via The Contemporary A Cappella League; and, of course, the success of The Sing-Off, Pitch Perfect, and the like inspiring musicians to continue their involvement in a cappella when they leave school or come back to it after a prolonged absence.

And then there is The Voice of Rock Project.

Originally founded in 2010 by Stephen Gale, The Voice of Rock Project currently consists of six members, only one of whom sung a cappella in college. They’re mixed gender and way-post-collegiate group (three members are over 50). Don’t let the demographics fool you into thinking this is an “oldies” or “doo-wop” outfit, though. On the contrary, much as the group name suggests, the group is all about rock and roll.

ACB Interview: Carl Taylor, co-founder and co-owner of Liquid 5th, Part 2 of 2

Although travel and having engineers located in different geographic areas have been and continue to be signature elements of Liquid 5th’s services in a cappella live sound and recording, the company has recently taken a huge step in the opening of its own recording studio. The facility formally opened with a celebration in Durham, NC on September 29, 2012. Liquid 5th co-founder and co-owner Carl Taylor was kind enough to speak with The A Cappella Blog in September 2012 about the studio.

“We’ve worked remotely recording on college campuses, in classrooms, basements, someone’s parents’ house. Pretty much any where you can think of, we’ve recorded there. Editing and mixing was done out of our home studios,” Taylor said. “As effective as this is (and we still work this way sometimes) we wanted to push in a different direction.”

In this case, a different direction means stepping away from makeshift recording and mixing spaces, and providing a more formal setting for a cappella talent. Taylor said that he aims to welcome groups “into a real studio [where they can] have the experience of going into a professional environment and really having that authentic recording artist experience. The A Cappella Studio is all about making the process of creating an album as enjoyable and exciting as possible.”

ACB Interview: Carl Taylor, co-founder and co-owner of Liquid 5th, Part 1 of 2

Carl Taylor is the co-founder and co-owner of Liquid 5th. He was kind enough to speak with The A Cappella Blog in September 2012. Other members of Liquid 5th team shared additional input.

In 2005, a group of young men decide to start their own company dedicated to working with a cappella groups in the studio and on the stage. “We had all sung in a cappella groups in college, and had gone through CD production processes and live concerts alike with lackluster results,” recalled Liquid 5th co-founder Carl Taylor. He specifically recalled his group, Appalachian State Higher Ground working with a recording studio in Washington DC in a terribly expensive endeavor, which resulted in a CD of disappointing quality. “[Liquid 5th] started with a vision of providing better services for the a cappella community.” Taylor said.

ACB Interview: Jerry and Julie Lawson, on the Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town CD

As a follow up to our previous interview with Jerry and Julie Lawson, and our review of the Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town CD, Jerry and Julie were kind enough to partake in a follow up interview with The A Cappella Blog.

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town, the eponymous CD from the former Persuasions front man and the foursome that brought him back into the a cappella fold, sounds fundamentally different from just about any other major a cappella CD you’re likely to hear nowadays.

“It was recorded analog (an art in itself), thanks to Paul Stubblestine,” Julie Lawson, Jerry’s wife and co-producer explained. She indicated that contrary to recording digitally, it “produced a richer sound … We wanted to keep it as organic as possible [and] it’s a richer sound when played on a real stereo, as opposed to digitally compressed and heard through earbuds or computer speakers.”

ACB Interview: The Organizers of the Montreacappella Festival

April is a big month for a cappella. The Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA) faithful will descend upon Massachusetts April 15 for Boston Sings (BOSS), while others will make the pilgrimage to New York the weekend of April 29 for the biggest weekend on the scholastic a cappella calendar—the 2012 International Championship of High School and Collegiate A Cappella Championship (ICHSA and ICCA) Finals.

In addition to these a cappella Goliaths, a third force is rising north of the border. On Sunday, April 22, all eyes will focus on Montreacappella.

Michael Dyck and Glynn Rankin conceived of the Canadian a cappella festival after their group, Effusion, had competed in ICCAs years back. Rankin recalled, “getting to meet so many other groups” and cited the way in which the experience enriched his group’s own view of a cappella and the community around it.

ACB Interview: Jerry Lawson

When today’s a cappella stars talk about how they started with the genre it’s not uncommon to hear tales of growing up in a cappella choirs, and being inspired by the sounds of an act like Rockapella or The Nylons or Boyz II Men, or perhaps even a local college group. Over the course of the next decade we’ll start to hear stories of new voices initiated via The Sing-Off, or an On the Rocks video on YouTube, or a Straight No Chaser appearance in their hometowns.

But what about the voices from long ago? The ones that came about before a cappella had a network TV show, and before the Internet, and two decades before Rockapella sang Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Would you believe that such an act toured across the country alongside names like Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder or that they recorded with Frank Zappa? That a sold out crowd gave this a cappella group a standing ovation after they sang The Lord’s prayer?

This is the story of Jerry Lawson and his first a cappella group, The Persuasions. Jerry and his wife Julie were kind enough to speak with me in February 2012.

Lawson was born and raised in Apopka, Florida, in the shadow of what would become the Disney World resort. He moved to New York City and was dazzled with the opportunity to visit the Apollo Theater and pay $2 to hear artists like Sam Cooke perform live--acts he had hitherto only experienced via his uncle’s jukebox. And so, it was little wonder that Lawson sought to share his own voice with the Big Apple, and he soon found himself playing bars alongside other pilgrims to New York, who had followed the bright lights from Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The fledgling band featured five vocalists and one guitar player. There was one problem in regards to that guitar player, as Jerry recalled, “every time we had a gig in a bar, he got drunk.”

At first, the group apologized for their guitar player’s behavior and inability to perform, but once patrons had heard the guys sing, unaccompanied, the cry was consistent: “You don’t need no band!”