Danny Olefsky makes a cappella electronic dance music.
As the contemporary a cappella landscape broadens, it’s not so unusual to hear about a group or artist embracing a sub-genre, and Olefsky isn’t the first person to consider giving Deadmau5 a whirl a cappella. Just the same, Olefsky (under the moniker zedarius) is the only working artist I know of aiming to focus his recording projects in this realm, and doing so with quite his level of technological precision.
But let’s take a step back.
Olefsky wasn’t always an EDM artist and is not a new contributor to the a cappella world. “I have a sister ten years older than me, and when I was eight, she brought home a CD by The Xtension Chords from the University of Illinois,” Olefsky recalled in a recent conversation. He recalled listening to the CD on repeat as he began to develop his own skills as a musician and his voice matured from a tenor to a bass. He aspired to be a part of Ow!—a six-person, student-run a cappella group at his school—and got his wish during his senior year. Despite casually singing with different people prior to this point, Ow! marked a major tradition, becoming part of a popular group that was part of the local establishment.
Olefsky progressed to the collegiate a cappella universe, singing with Butler University Out of the Dawghouse, including a year and half tour as music director, and eventually moving into the role of full-time vocal percussionist.
Post-college, Olefsky did not see himself leaving a cappella behind--if anything, he became more invested. He moved to San Francisco and became part of Rapid Transit, before he and one of the group’s basses split off to form Business Casual. Around the same time, Olefsky connected with The Vocal Company and began working on video and then audio production for them. As of last October, he moved to Rochester to work with The Vocal Company full time.
The tricks of the trade that Olefsky has learned from his comrades at The Vocal Company proved key to figuring out how he would create his own EDM a cappella. “I’m surrounded by other people who are working full time in a cappella and can offer advice and introduce me to ways of doing things I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of,” Olefsky said. “Plus I always have a network of resources to bounce ideas off of; I can’t even imagine trying to learn all of this without them.”
But what motivated Olefsky to take his music in an electronic direction? “I was a music industry major, but never really fell in love with it,” Olefsky explained. “San Francisco introduced me to EDM.” He recognized that a cappella and EDM were the two genres of music he consumed most, and thought to put the two together. Olefsky said that the fusion “pushes me really hard on the production side, learning how far a vocal sample can be modulated and pushed.”
Olefsky acknowledged that, “some people might be up in arms and say that’s not a cappella” in regards to his latest projects. He clarified, though that all of the sounds in his recordings “start as a voice or body percussion.” He went on to report, “it’s been interesting to hear weird sounds in the original song, and then try to recreate them through a series of plugins.” In particular, he cited a kickdrum sound that he simulated by thumping his chest and then adding an EQ curve and shaping the tone with reverb. “I’ll use six-to-eight plugins to warp the sound to what I want,” Olefsky said. “It’s sort of like sculpture—you take a sound and then keep chipping away and adding things until it fits into what I’m trying to make of it.”
Olefsky’s work has evolved in a different direction from many other a cappella recording projects. “I don’t have an arranging background … so I arrange songs live in the studio, in terms of what it needs as opposed to frontloading that work.” He went on to describe his process: “I find a song I like, I cover it as closely as possible … which helps me work within the constraints of the original song. Once that’s done, my creativity comes in and I branch away in terms of sound or style.”
Olefsky tends to work in Reaper, which he described as more open and cheaper than Pro Tools. “I use standard EQ, compression, and a lot of distortion, and various types of it—some make it grainy, some are a little more transparent, some are more full-bodied,” he said. He described the process of using guitar plug-ins, designed to record a guitar signal, and the interesting results that can lead to when feeding in the human voice instead. “I like experimenting with listening as I sing into a plug in,” he said and went on to explain that the software allows for a lot of automation so he can, for example “visually draw in any level of distortion and fine tune how things play with each other.”
YouTube has been another source of support for Olefsky’s pursuits. He explained, “when I get obsessed with something, I’ll sit for an hour or two a day and watch YouTube videos about how people are making sounds, apply ideas from outside a cappella to voices, and dive full into all of the resources of the Internet.”
Olefsky indicated that he likes his work in EDM “because not a lot of other people doing it; I’d love to get more other people to stop shying away from experimenting in the studio; with a couple hundred dollars of investment you can start making music, start playing around with stuff. I’d love to see more people doing that.” Indeed, Olefsky’s long road in a cappella seems to have steered him to a fruitful creative niche that makes the most of technology and his musical acumen. You can check out a sampling of Olefsky’s work—recordings of Deadmau5’s “Raise Your Weapon” and Zeds Dead’s “Eyes on Fire” via Soundcloud and visit him on Facebook. His video to “Eyes on Fire,” which he released to the world at the end of 2015 is embedded below.