HomeTHE ART OF VOICE: Recording Collegiate A Cappella

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by Gabrielle Levy

It’s 7:30 A.M, and for the third morning in a row, Lori Allen and Alex Green are just leaving the recording studio where they have spent the entire night putting the finishing touches on the Amalgamates’ newest album, Prime.  Ms. Allen, the current musical director of the Amalgamates, and Mr. Green, a group member and music major, spent the better part of the summer and the first two months of the fall semester painstakingly perfecting every beat of every song, and after two years of recording, editing, and mixing, Prime is finally ready for production.


For a group like the Mates, the oldest co-ed a cappella group at Tufts University, the business of recording an album is a serious one.  The Mates, founded in 1984 by members of Tufts’ established male and female a cappella groups, have previously recorded and produced ten albums, each serving as a yearbook-like keepsake to the singers on them and an important way for younger, newer members to connect with their predecessors.


But their value isn’t limited to enjoyment of the group members themselves; each is also a meticulously crafted emissary of the Mates on a national stage.  Like many collegiate a cappella groups, the Mates will submit Prime to reviewers and competitions for recognition and awards, and it will essentially become the public face and the footprint of the group for the next two years.  Reputations are made and destroyed with the albums and their critical receptions, and a growing divide within the community on the aesthetic and ethical value of the use of technology and sound editing in recording has sparked a debate that will have enormous consequences for the future of the genre.


Recording an album for a cappella, unlike almost any other kind of music, isn’t done in a couple of studio sessions where each song is played through several times by the group as a whole.  Instead, most groups with the available resources will use a multi-track technique, in which each singer will record his or her part alone, perhaps several times, and then the everyone together will record several “group tracks,” all of which will be layered on top of one another to create a full, lush sound.  The ultimate effect means that each individual’s voice is present two, three, or sometimes as many as eight times at any given point in the song.


Once each note has been captured, the long process of editing and mixing begins.  The engineer – for the Mates, Niel Francisco, a Tufts alumnus and a former group member – starts with the most basic tasks, such as reconciling rhythms and fixing the pitch of some notes.  Then, the process can become more artistic.  The engineer can use his training as a musician to adjust the balance between voices, highlighting certain parts, and making all the tracks work together seamlessly.  Finally, affects might be added to enhance the voices, like reverb or a guitar amp.


“What I do, I don’t consider technical,” says Bill Hare, one of the premier a cappella recording engineers in the country, who began recording collegiate a cappella with several groups from Stanford University in the 1980s.  “I consider [the mixing process] musical: it’s part of the composition, its part of the final framework of what the listener is going to hear, not so much a bunch of numbers or EQ curves or stuff like that.  I think of myself as one of the performers in the group.”


The process of blending together dozens of separate tracks to create each song is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Hare, of Bill Hare Productions based in Silicon Valley, CA unwittingly stumbled upon the leading edge of a cappella recording when, out of boredom with choral logic, he began to experiment with his technique.


“I was just taking it at face value, and that’s what most people do,” he said, referring to the old methods.  “[Engineers saw] this group of people singing, and they go ‘OK, we’re just going to capture the sounds that they make, set up a couple mics and let them sing in the room and start recording and at the end of the song you stop recording and then you’re done’.


“That’s how a cappella used to be recorded, but it didn’t have any drive, it didn’t have any of the stuff that made it pop music.”


The results were boring, Hare said, and so he began looking for ways to change that.  In 1988, “one of the groups, the Mendicants [from Stanford] let me experiment on them.  I’m used to recording rock bands – well this guy is trying to be a guitar, so I can record him more like a guitar, rather than a choral singer.  All of a sudden, we created this completely different sound.”


Without the aid of the internet, Hare had no way of knowing he was altering the direction of a cappella recording for good, but as albums in this new style began to reach new audiences, technology planted a firm foothold into the styles of groups across the country.


“Amateurs can actually make themselves sound like rock stars, and it doesn’t cost that much to do it,” said John Clark, a graduate of Tufts in 1996 and a recording engineer.  Unlike Hare, whose career began with recording and later focused on a cappella, Clark sang a cappella in college with the Mates, and converted his experience as a singer into a talent in the studio.  He eventually joined forces with Ed Boyer (A’04), a former member of the all-male Tufts Beelzebubs, to create CB Productions, a top studio for a cappella recording based in Boston.


The challenge that such groups now face doesn’t come from the limits of their recording capabilities, but rather the limitless possibilities.  There is a distinct danger in taking the production too far, allowing the finished product to drift too far from the original sounds and capabilities of the human voice.


“I don’t necessarily understand why anyone would want to listen to Blue Steel (2003), which was considered a breakthrough album for its production, because if you’re not paying attention, the songs sound exactly like the originals,” said Michael Rapkin, author of Pitch Perfect:  The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory (2008), and senior editor of GQ magazine.  Rapkin spent the year following “three groups, each at a crossroads”, the Beelzebubs, the co-ed Hullabahoos from the University of Virginia, and the all-female Divisi of the University of Oregon.


“My feeling is, if it’s going to sound so close to the original, why not just listen to the original?  What I like so much about a cappella, and why I think so many people in colleges across the country like it, is that natural quality – that otherness of it – that you don’t get when it sounds exactly like the original.”


The debate is one with far-reaching ramifications, and its outcome will ultimately decide the future of collegiate a cappella recording.  A growing number of groups are taking their recording processes into their own hands, with little equipment and less experience with recording and sound engineering.


“In the past three or four years especially, the technology has trickled down to the portable level,” said Benjamin Stevens, a Professor of Classical Studies at Bard College and the head coordinator of the Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB), which oversees the reviewing of hundreds of a cappella albums each year.


“One of the things we’ve noticed in the community is what someone like Bill Hare would call ‘do it yourself’ recording, where, take the Logarhythms [an all-male group from MIT], a couple of years back, recorded their entire album and mixed it and mastered it in someone’s closet by using a laptop and ProTools [recording software].”


The problem, Stevens believes, is not the technology itself, but that individual groups are not learning from one another how better to use the tools.


“We’re seeing a very wide distribution of the technology that makes these things possible,” he said.  “Groups are getting access to the technology, but not, in a sense, better access to each other, or what the professional producers are doing with the technology to begin with.”


The effect this has, in the long run, will likely depend heavily on the opinions of those who review and judge the huge number of album submissions from various groups over the next two years.  In addition to RARB, which has a format in which three of its reviewers each take a detailed look at the album as whole and each individual song and offers direct feedback on what they hear, a cappella groups have several ways of publicizing their albums and earning acclaim on a national scale.


Varsity Vocals produces an annual Best Of College A Cappella (BOCA) compilation CD and the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARA).  Earning a track on the BOCA album is considered a huge honor, and the CARA awards are the most widely respected forums for judging each year’s recorded work.


Deke Sharon (A’91), another former Beelzebub, founded the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA), which today sponsors the CARA awards, from his dorm room in Stratton Hall at Tufts.  Sharon started the BOCA album as a recording of a live performance hosted by the Beelzebubs and sold as a way to promote the art of collegiate a cappella across campuses.


Today, these authoritative voices are the forum through which albums are allowed to live beyond that yearbook quality they to which they would otherwise be limited.  With respect to the value of using technology, the trends of a cappella recording, and ultimately, groups’ artistic and musical decisions, will depend on which side of the debate the reviewers and judges land.


Regardless of how the pendulum swings, none can doubt that the overall quality of collegiate albums is much better than it was even ten years ago, and constantly improving.  More importantly, the production of albums has become more central to groups and their artistic goals.


“You [a cappella groups] are actually making art, you're not just tossing off a little musical snap shot, but you're actually trying to put together a photo album,” Sharon says.  “You express yourself and you take the creativity, and the decisions behind the creativity, and the art behind the art very seriously – and that is thrilling to me because the more time and the more care people put into an album, the better its going to be."


(ed note: The name of this album has been changed by the author of this article)