The Bubs just returned from a tour of Rio and Argentina (I do enjoy bragging about my Bubs, as most people brag about their college sports teams), and performed with handheld wireless mics. And now planning for their next big home show, they're considering going with individual mics, for the first time on campus.
I hope the trend sticks, and they never go back.
Why? Because it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that there's no other option.
Sure, around the tables down at Mory's you don't need mics. And in a smallish, well appointed chapel you don't either. "In the chapel style" does indeed still sound good in chapels. Go figure.
But just about everywhere else amplification is needed. And the other options aren't great:
AREA MICING: Perhaps a barbershop quartet can get away with a stereo pair, but that's about the only configuration that does. If you're going to have a small group, no more than 6, stand in an arc and sing without turning their heads at all, then by all means go with the area micing. Be sure to wake the audience when you're done. (ooh, that's gonna get me some heated emails)
AREA MICING WITH SOLO AND VP AND BASS MICS: Have you ever heard amazing sound at a collegiate a cappella competition? Amanda Newman and her crew work their bootys off to make the most of this configuration, but it's fundamentally flawed, like a photo that's half in black and white, half in color. You might get one song that sounds good, if there's not much movement and the people with handhelds have good technique, but once the choreo kicks in, it's every ear for itself.
HEADSET MICS: True story, “Sing-Off” Season Two: We gave groups their choice of headset and handheld mics. Smaller groups and pro groups went with hand held and the larger college groups used headsets (except perhaps rhythm section and solo). Who goes home? All groups with headsets. What happens next? Not a single group will touch the headsets from then on, as they heard the clear difference in audio quality from their opera boxes along the stage.
And, of course, not using mics is not an option if you have a low bass part, or rhythm section or large group and a soloist who will be drowned out, or a large hall, or you're outdoors...
BYU Vocal Point has been using handheld mics for years, and it works very well in a wide variety of settings. Yes, groups must mix themselves, but when is that not the case?
Mic technique is one more thing that a top tier group will have to master to win the ICCAs, but the upside is significant:
BALANCE: It's not about how loud your quietest singer can get, and how quiet your loudest singer can get. Dynamics can range from 1-10 at all times in all parts. I'm not arguing for technology over technique, as a singer will have to mix himself, as groups will most likely be performing with a new sound person at every show (unless for some reason groups start inaugurating sound techs, who become a form of a cappella coxswain). And individual channel compression, largely useless or problematic in most of the scenarios above, becomes
SOLOISTIC FREEDOM: A soloist can sing low and quietly without any fear of being drowned out. And he can scream his head off, without drowning out others as well (less of a problem, but once in a blue moon you get a guy...)
ONE BASS: Unless your group is going for a very choral sound, it's usually the case that a group will sound better and tune better when there is just one person on the bass line. A single, clear pitch to tune to, and a single singer who is free to vary vowel sounds, fill in runs in the gaps, and generally sing the way a bass player plays. Rock bands don't have multiple bassists (well, except Spinal Tap performing "Big Bottom," which is as it should be), because the resulting sound would be mud. Same goes for a cappella.
NUANCED VOCAL PERCUSSION: Unamplified vocal percussion that projects is usually clumsy ("KHHHH!!!!"), and there is no kick drum like a plosive hitting a mic head, generating a pitch lower than the human vocal range. Most collegiate vocal percussionists use a technique that lives somewhere between on and off-mic, whereas committing to individual mics will benefit their technique tremendously.
To that end, a group should have its own system, and rehearse with it frequently. Learn a song, then get it up on mics. Right now, most groups soloists sound like the first time they held a microphone was at the afternoon sound check.
Pitch Slapped, The Bubs, Vocal Point, Stanford Harmonics: early adopters. They've worked out many of the kinks. It's not a complete unknown anymore.
As for expense, well, a 15 wireless mic system is not cheap, but you can rent it if you can't purchase it right away. Yes, new groups won't be able to afford their own systems right away, but new groups should be focusing on sounding great off-mic anyway. And then when you do get your mics up and running, you can defray the cost with a:
LIVE TRACKS: That's right, Pro Tools and many other systems will accept 32 channels, meaning you can record every concert you do, and release a mondo live album at the end of the year, or a track a month. No need to wait for a big bunch of songs and a budget to afford a studio album. Just mix the track and drop it under some video, or release it on its own. Most collegiate YouTube videos sound pretty lousy. That can and will change with this plan. 2013 could become the year of the live collegiate a cappella album. And yes, I speak from experience, as both House Jacks live albums were recorded this way. No special setup, just save the tracks on your hard drive while on tour, pick the performances you like, mix, master, voila.
All that said, there is nothing like unamplified a cappella. It's the most powerful, most moving, most glorious way to hear voices.
But if we want to reach the masses, they need to be able to hear us. Collegiate a cappella has garnered international attention. People are buying albums and watching YouTube videos by the millions. And collegiate groups have come in second in “The Sing-Off" twice! People love live collegiate a cappella, when it's done right.
So let's do it right, college groups. If you want professional exposure, professional attention, professional results, you need professional sound support. It's time.