As a producer, I find myself gravitating towards reviews on albums more and more these days, and less concerned with performance reviews and tips. Maybe it has something to do with my lack of performance experience after leaving my college group. It could be the days on end that I have spent in front of a screen editing and mixing that have soured my taste in unfiltered a cappella. No matter the reason, I find more and more of a trend in album reviews, and an even stronger trend in those outside of the “inner circle” that might not agree with how an album is given its mark. I use the words inner circle because as people leave collegiate groups, more often than not they eventually move on to other aspects of life. This inner circle involves the people that have made themselves a landmark in the industry, or are at least making an attempt to do so, by not moving on, but finding new ways to add to the genre. As many things in life go, seniority and experience leads to advantages, such as being the one that RARB sends an album to for a review. The forum on that site is where my point comes in.
Lately, I have seen more and more, not complaints per se, but disagreements with the way modern a cappella is being mixed in the studio and released to the general public. Now let me say that I prefer not to pick sides in this situation. I appreciate the studio talents as much as the vocal talents, and firmly believe that you can’t have a successful album without both. I also believe that any producer posed with a similar question would agree. With that being said, the trend for larger, more popular groups, is moving towards very mixed production styles. A good example would be the Duke Pitchforks latest album, Disconcert. Vocal Source is internationally known for their excellent studio work as well as their ability to draw incredible performances from their clients. It has definitely shown on this album. With success though, comes criticism. A young a cappella enthusiast posted on a forum recently that he didn’t believe that albums like this constituted a cappella. He was firm in his opinion that when enough effects are added, it ceases to become a work of a group of singers, and more of a work of producers twisting and shaping every little sound. I almost felt bad for this person, as they were almost immediately ambushed by an army of popular a cappella producers. The more I thought about it though, I appreciated these people standing up for their profession and mine, and speaking out about why these songs are mixed the way that they are. Why? Well…
It is an artistic choice made by the group and its leadership. To my knowledge, very few producers record the group, disappear for eight or nine months, and reappear with the finished product. All of these companies keep in close contact with group members who are available at all hours of the day to comment and help the producer achieve the sound that they are hoping for. If you went to them as an a cappella purist, wanting a clean track with as few effects as possible, you would still walk away with quality product. The choice to go with a more mixed version correlates to the album being commercially viable. By creating something that has some added bass, booming soloists, or explosive vocal percussion, you are appealing to a larger crowd than a pure vocal CD might do on its own. These groups are looking at the big picture. If you release an album that has those added effects, then you create more fans that you might have never acquired. These fans show up to live shows, where the group sings with no vocal effects and they get to see the passion and talent that went into the original album. More fans equals bigger shows and more opportunities to perform, and a commercial album creates financial freedoms to allow more travel and a better overall experience for every member of the group. Is it worth the exchange? That depends on the goals of your group. If you simply love to sing and want it documented on a disc, then maybe the full package isn’t for you. If you are looking to next spring hoping to do a week tour across three states, then it might be something worth considering.
Musical decisions made by various groups are their business and their choice. Submitting it to be reviewed does, however, open it up to public opinion. Those groups that have received lower marks than they might have been expecting need to answer one question. When you hit play, do you like what you hear? That is the true review. If your answer is yes, then move on and learn what you can from the experience. This is in no means a shot at any of the RARB reviewers, because more often than not I agree with what you have to say….but not always! That is the true beauty of music, is that no two people feel the same about it. So whether you walk away with a 2 or a 5, keep this in mind; your group and your fans are the ones that will be listening to the album two or three years from now. If it can last that long, then congratulations; you have created a successful album.