A cappella recording has become a big business within a budding industry. Indeed, given the improvements in recording and distribution technology, and the increase in professional services available to groups interested in recording, it seems like groups at all levels, from small high schools to major universities to post-collegiate social groups to full-fledged pros are releasing new recordings each year.
In Recording Recommendations, we offer our two cents on best practices in recorded a cappella.
In this edition, our focus is on song choice.
In previous editions of Recording Recommendations, I’ve written about the merits of cultivating a specific and unique identity to set your group apart from others and hone in a specific, signature style. Song choice can both contribute to and follow from identity.
What do your song choices say about your group? They can portray your group as intense. As happy go lucky. As abstract. Song choices can communicate any number of facets of your group—the key is to be intentional about what you’re putting forth. Consistency in terms of genre, era, or style of music can go a long way toward building a cohesive personality; diversifying your song selections has its own merits, too, though, in reflecting the many personalities in your group and the range of what you can sing.
With all of that said, my only concrete area to steer groups away from is contemporary top forty songs. Yes, popular music tends to get over-exposed in contemporary a cappella. Even more importantly, though, picking a song everyone is listening to on the radio communicates <i>nothing</i> about your group—about the type of music you seek out, the artists that are meaningful to you, the critical thought you put into planning your repertoire.
I don’t mean to suggest that every group should plumb the depths of indie rock and local coffeehouse scenes for materials. I do mean that it’s worth exploring interesting, unique music that members of your group are into or, if you’re set on covering a particular major recording artist, exploring that artist’s B-sides and deep cuts to find material that only serious fans would know about. This material comes across as more fresh, and will be more demonstrative of your group’s creative direction because it is unique.
When it comes to picking songs for an album, my other main recommendation is for a group to pick its best material and only its best material for major recording projects. I’ve written before about the virtues of the EP over LP in focusing and retaining audience attention. When groups think about which songs to record, the matter is often as simple as looking at which songs will, in a recorded format, make the group sound its very best.
To summarize, when groups select songs to record, they should do so with an ear toward representing their identity, singing under-exposed material, and only putting their best music on an album.