Using Instruments

Recording Recommendations

In this edition, our focus is on using instruments.

The concept of this article may come across as completely antithetical to content and principles of this site. After all, what interest would a site dedicated to all-vocal music have in analyzing music that, well, isn’t all vocal?

But things have changed, and questions about group identity have grown more complicated. True, a cappella purists have had a hard time accepting vocal percussion as a part of the a cappella landscape because it’s not about vocal harmony. And what of groups like Arora and A.Squared that make innovative use of looping technology be criticized for not truly making all of their music with the human voice?

Nowadays, most a cappella fans are ready to accept vocal percussion, body percussion, special mic-ing techniques, and looping as viable components of a cappella performance and recording. Instruments, however, remain a no-no. After all, most genres of music are dominated by instrument usage, and the absence of instruments is generally accepted as the factor that defines a cappella. But when a high profile group like The Exchange recorded tracks using instruments, and when even The Sing-Off permitted instruments (though, beyond looping pedals, they didn’t come into use) in 2014, is rebelling against the use of instruments becoming an uphill battle? Will the renegade genre that rejected conventional instrumentation come back into the fold for a style of music that may prioritize vocals and harmonies but still include guitars, keyboards, and real drums?

A cappella groups that are pondering this question need to think about why they are or are not interested in instruments. Is it a matter of principle or a matter of pragmatism? Are you, and your listeners, invested in the a cappella sound? Has the novelty of the cliché disclaimer that  “all of the sounds you hear were created with the human voice”  worn out its value? Might the introduction of instruments make your music more palatable to a larger audience?

For groups considering the use of instruments, one place to start is to introduce instruments to your group minimally. On a recording, this might mean using instruments on just one song, and doing so with good reason—for example, incorporating a standout violinist from your local community, or weaving a real trumpet solo around your vocal trumpet solo in a song to create a unique effect.

Another, fundamentally disparate approach would be to enter the instrumental fray aggressively. This could mean using instruments on every track and using them shamelessly to truly step away from the a cappella world for a special recording project that includes a full band. This is the realm in which experimentation is key. How can you make creative use of instruments to justify their placement and not devolve into a standard band with a surplus of lead vocalists?

Overall, though the key to introducing instruments to an a cappella group is to use them purposefully—to generate an effect you cannot with the human voice—and to do so in such a way that produces the best music possible. At its core, making music should be about expression, the creation of art, or entertainment. None of these factors necessarily exclude the use of instruments, if your group pursues it in such a way that is true to the group’s identity, and in the name of advancing new ideas, and better pleasing your audience.