HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogIn Defense of Electronics

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I love the human voice. It's the original instrument, the most powerful, the most versatile, and the most expressive.

And I love a cappella. Old and new, large and small, amplified and naked, raw and tweaked out with a million effects.

Did I just lose some of you?

A bit of music history: Folk musicians almost rioted when Bob Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Remember that? Of course you don't, because it's a footnote in music history. Why? Because ultimately no one cares how you make music, they only care... if they care!

Making people feel something, making people care: that's the goal of music. Hearts and minds. Yes, unadorned a cappella can create the most powerful, most spiritual connection between a performer and audience possible. I do believe that a cappella is unequalled in this regard.

However, there are times when pedals, octavizers, and other effects are not only desired but in fact needed to create a sound, a feeling, a mood, a mode of expression.  the Bubs "Mr. Roboto" would not have been nearly as powerful a statement were there no effects used (although there were indeed fewer effects used than people believe), and on stage there are incredible sounds and moments being created with Ableton and other digital effects units, both by solo performers and groups (Fork, Arora, Postyr, Suade and many others).

I fully understand that some people don't like the sound. Frankly, I often don't like the sound, as poorly used effects land as clumsily on my ear as do out of tune notes. But that's not an indictment of electronics, it's an indictment of poorly executed performance.

Also, I fully understand that electronics, both on stage and in the recording studio, are often used to mask a variety of problems and imperfections. Like sloppily applied makeup, they cannot trick the trained ear, and moreover, if a song doesn't have a unified emotional focus, no amount of bells and whistles will obfuscate the average listener. A cappella is just about everywhere nowadays, which means the layperson is not going to be easily impressed.

Why am I taking the time to point all of this out? Because I don't want you, Dear Reader, to be the kind of listener who makes blanket statements about effects in a cappella. Yes, be clear about when they're not used well, but don't think that the use of effects isn't a cappella (as soon as you're using a microphone, you're electronically altering sound!), or that it can't be done well.

I encountered great resistance from some older fans and alums when first introducing instrumental sounds and vocal percussion to the Tufts Beelzebubs, and yet a cappella survived. In fact, it not only survived, it grew and expanded. The same will likely happen as the use of electronics becomes more nuanced and carefully managed. Not every group will do it, nor should every group, but a wide variety of styles of a cappella will keep us from stagnating, and having contemporary a cappella become associated with a specific era in music history, quickly relegated to the past.

If we want to grow, we need to embrace technology, just as popular music embraces technology. You don't have to always love it, just don't always hate it.

[feature photo: Postyr Project]


Deke Sharon founded CASA (and other stuff), makes TV shows ("The Sing-Off"), movies ("Pitch Perfect"), sings (The House Jacks), produces albums (Straight No Chaser, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, Nota, Bubs), wrote a book (A Cappella Arranging), publishes sheet music (Hal Leonard), and custom arranges music (over 2,000 songs). You can find him at www.dekesharon.com