HomeRecording Review: "Voices Only 2010"

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Upon hearing the opening of Aural Pleasure’s “Spotlight” (as well as most of the compilation), I’m immediately reminded of my intense distaste of the trend towards uber-effected & affected tracks creating the popular sense of hyper realism. 

It reminds me of the first time I heard any of the last three Beelzebub albums.  And don’t get me wrong, they sound stellar.  Perfect in every way, and that’s my point.

At that point, I might as well listen to the original song.  When I listen to a cappella I want to be blown away by the flexibility of the human voice, not feel like I could reproduce it with my midi keyboard.  I want to think, “wow, I never knew a voice could do that” and “wow, he/she sounds just like a baritone sax or violin”.  I want to be able to compliment the singers more than the producer/engineer.

A cappella music has made some huge strides in the last few years with Straight No Chaser, "the Sing-Off" and in a small sense, "Glee".  These pitch-perfect effected tracks sound so much like the original that it becomes a novelty act (exactly what we’ve spent so many years trying to get away from).

On a separate and completely different note, it’s so nice to hear the Beezlebubs doing a VPless ballad (which they execute FLAWLESSLY)  “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right” is simply gorgeous.  Hats off to you guys, this song gets me every single time I hear it (which is quite often).

Let’s start a movement.  Many rock bands do acoustic albums and I call on all you aca producers out there to create a new kind of a cappella compilation.  Let’s call it “STRIPPED” and the idea is to have no extraneous effects.  I want to hear groups creatively creating effects with their bodies, not a computer.  And if you do too, let’s start a movement, a niche within a niche.

The production value of a lot of these tracks has gone from using effects as exactly those to being the norm that songs are based on.  A lot of these arrangements are slick and cool sounding, but get old and boring 1:30 in.  The effects are then left to drive the song home.  The bridge is usually realized with a new effect rather than a composition or musical retooling.  If producers and groups strip away the inhuman effects, they’d be more inclined to perform and record songs that were more melody driven as opposed to based on a groove.  This would also inevitably let groups create the effects they want more imaginatively and acoustically. 

On that note, special shoutout to Wake Forest Minor Variation for doing something different.  Not only is “Caelum Infinitum” in Latin, but your rain kicks ass!  Also, to Boston University In AChord for what sounds like Tuvan throat singing in “All These Things That I've Done”.  What a Killer final track, Corey Slutsky!

Okay, back to the rant.

I totally understand the argument that a recording has to be more than a live show because you loose the stage presence, showmanship, and choreography when you cut out the visual element.  Recordings should have more and they already do.  Multi-tracking alone lets you do whatever you want.  All I’m saying is produce your effects with your mouth or some combination of body parts.  For me, the beauty of a cappella is the camaraderie of people singing together.  A cappella is infinitely portable and should reflect that essence on proverbial wax. 

The most glaring of all (for me) is the vocal percussion.  With the background syllables, it’s still within the scope of my imagination that it’s people.  The percussion on most of these tracks sound like the percussionist went in, performed each sound a few times and then the beat track was programmed with a combination of Control C’s and Control V’s.  Every snare hit sounds EXACTLY the same; there is no variation, dynamics, or sense of life.

Take NC State Grains Of Time’s “Two Step” for example.  I simply loved the arrangement; the singing of the backgrounds and lead were great.  But this song has a prominently featured marching-style snare in the verse, which, in the original Dave Matthews version, is spritely and full of dynamic energy.  Due to what sounds like a lack of variant samples, not only does it sound mechanical and robotic, but has no breath of life.

Percussively speaking, it bugs me to hear VP tracks where the “percussionist” does things that human simply cannot do.  There are flam taps (A drumbeat consisting of two almost simultaneous strokes of which the first is a very rapid grace note) in many of these songs. 

Another good example would be Columbia’s Nonsequitur  Now this is a group I truly love.  Perhaps it’s because I get to see them all the time because I live on their campus, but the percussion in “Battlefield” really upsets me.  It sounds awesome, but it also sounds like a beefed up Casio keyboard.

Speaking of keyboards, there seems to be a new trend of using processed and produced overtones way way out of the human singing range.  You can hear this prominently on the Midnight Ramblers track “Fireflies”, Aural Pleasure’s “Spotlight”, UNC Lorelies’ “Crushcrushcrush” and the top of the Clef Hangers’ “Nude”.  And these songs really rock.  But to me, it’s no longer a cappella.  You may say I’m a purist, but I’m not the only one.

U of Chicago Voices in Your Head really hit me.  Their version of “I’d Like To” was human and dare I say badass.  The percussion sounds human and still rocks.  The effects are for color and are not the focal point.  Also, their horn crescendos are fabulous and most importantly, the arrangement breathes and grows throughout the song.  Plus the singing is phenomenal.

This doctored percussion makes me only like ballads, which stinks, because simply stated, I need to rock.  The best blend of arranging, “real” singing, and drama (for me) was the BosTones’ “Comfortable”.  It’s probably my favorite track on the album.  Besides the emotional singing and the great gospel-style bridge, the lack of percussion really lets the songs rubato-esque feel breathe and come alive.

All in all, the compilation is an accurate and stellar mix of modern and produced a cappella from groups with the money to make stellar recordings.  Other tracks of note (in my ear) are Maryland Treblemakers “That’s What You Get”, Oregon State Outspoken’s “LoveStoned”, and Colorado College The Back Row’s “Check”.

iTunes sells it for $9.99 per disc.  That’s less than $20 for 38 tracks or roughly 50 cents a track!  There is truly something for everyone here and it makes economical sense to buy the whole album instead of just the tracks you know. http://www.voicesonlyacappella.com/vo2010.html

About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, teaching, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over eight years and has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is working towards his Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teacher's College.  He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir.  Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the business manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based out of Jersville Studios. He dabbles in all things musical and plays the piano, drums, percussion, trumpet, shofar, bass, and guitar.  Evan is currently building a collegiate mixed a cappella group in NYC (open to ALL students in the area)


What is a purist?

When I listen to a cappella I want to be blown away by the flexibility of the human voice, not feel like I could reproduce it with my midi keyboard.  I want to think, “wow, I never knew a voice could do that” and “wow, he/she sounds just like a baritone sax or violin”.  I want to be able to compliment the singers more than the producer/engineer.
But to me, it’s no longer a cappella.  You may say I’m a purist, but I’m not the only one.


I know what you mean, Evan, but be careful: you can't have it both ways.  Either you're imitating or you're creating. And from my perspective, yours is not the argument of a purist -- far from it.

I think that from the point of view you argue for here, the line that ought not be crossed separates vocal technique from studio magic.

But I believe that there's an even more important line to keep an eye on.

Consider for a moment the way a rock quartet (two guitars, bass, drums, multiple vocals) functions sonically: jangle guitar balances bass; rhythm balances harmony; melody balances counter-melody; lyrics balance framework.  It took a lot of experimentation and invention to land on that very successful formula, just like the modern orchestra was centuries in the making.

Finding multi-dimensional balance is hard, and that's why imitating a tried-and-true formula is so much more compelling than creating a new one: the former is within your grasp today, but the latter might elude you all your life.

But if you want to impress me, and if you want to move the art of vocal music forward -- yes, a cappella community, I'm talking to you now, and yes, this is a challenge, or a dare, or whatever you want to call it that will motivate you to do it -- stop giving me a lip-smack that sounds like a drum. I've heard that. Instead, start giving me an all-vocals mix that achieves sonic balance in some new way that only vocals can create.

small point

a flam is totally humanly possible. instead of "PFF" say "PLFF." i learned it from thatwesguy in 2003 :)


Wow that trick really works!  Thanks Wes Via Ben!!

Raw like Jerry Lawson

Not every A Cappella group is going to exude the feeling of  a Jerry Lawson track. And Jerry is never going to be "pitch perfect" - but the sound is pure, raw, no digital trickery and completely soulful. real.. Earthy.. if one wants to sound like they have instruments why sing a cappella?  Is it just to prove people can imitate instruments?  If you want to talk purism, us old school folks might say  that the sound of instruments even when created by voices takes phenomenal talent but at the same time one could say it also takes away from the BEAUTY of A Cappella singing. - Just sayin' - in the end it's just a matter of personal taste.. When I wanna hear vocals with instruments I'll get the original recording.  Meantime may I suggest you all check out iTunes Jerry Lawson & Talk of The Town

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