Translating the Live Experience

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on translating the live experience.

When I first started following a cappella in a serious fashion, I had distinctive preferences about recordings. As I termed it then, I wanted to hear a cappella.

What I meant to say was that I wanted to hear human voices creating music. I wasn’t interested in fancy effects, or hearing syllables blurred a harmonious mush by an over eager producer. I was partial to live recordings, in which I could hear a cappella in its rawest, most natural form.

Of course, I’ve come to learn that recordings in that rawest form don’t give us the fullest picture. On the contrary, even with a pretty expert mic set up, it’s nearly impossible for a recording to pick up all of the intricacies of a cappella music with an engineer’s skilled hand in balancing levels and bringing forward the chords that get lost between live performance and a recording.

But beyond the divide between a more raw and a more produced sound, there’s questions of the effect that recorded a cappella can have on the listener. You see, in live performance, you get hit with the fullest sound of the music, but more than that you can see how the group chooses to stage the performance—from facial expressions, to choreography, to attire. Not only that, but you can also feed off of both the unspoken energy and the outwardly stated response of your fellow audience members.

Recorded a cappella cannot reproduce those aforementioned effects. But it can translate them. I first came upon this idea in conversation with all-things-a cappella guru, Rob Dietz, who articulated how many of the intangible elements of the a cappella experience are inevitably lost in the transition from live performance. These are the kinds of effects it’s all but impossible to re-create on a recording but that groups can translate to a different form in a recording, whether it’s adding an external effect, magnifying or multiplying key voices, or turning the mic way up for a sound effect that would never make it across in a live performance. Skilled producers have any number of tricks, and professionals and amateurs alike are coming up with new approaches every time they set to work on a new recording.

The bottom line is that listening to a live recording of a cappella does not result in the same impact as consuming a cappella live. Just the same, when groups are intentional about arranging for recording, creating a vision, and producing tracks to yield the same emotional impact as a live performance, they have the opportunity to create a similar brand of magic.