HomeThe Future/Evolution Of A Cappella

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Over the last couple years we've seen a cappella receive a greater push into mainstream music. As Anna Kendrick's character in Pitch Perfect said "...[it's] like a thing now." We may owe this to The Sing-Off, the unique sound and presentation of Pentatonix and groups like them, or the box office hit Pitch Perfect itself. Whatever the case may be, we can safely say that we're witnessing a cappella evolving significantly right in front of us. More vocalists are investigating the genre and new groups are assembling. The limits of the human voice are being pushed, arrangements are more interesting, and high-quality music videos are being produced. We're becoming much more than the genre we were - we're becoming a movement! However, as is with any institution or organization, history has shown the more progressive an idea, the more radical it tends to be perceived and consequently, is sometimes met with hostility. A recent development has shown me that a cappella is no exception and there are people among us (the a cappella community) that may hold us back from attaining aca-awesomeness sooner with their unfounded aca-dogmas.

Case in point: A couple months back, Mo5aic released a music video for their CARA award winning, club-banging song, "Speed of Sound". They employed the use of several effects - more than are traditionally used with a cappella music. The first time many people heard it they probably didn't think it was an a cappella track, and Mo5aic seems to be okay with that. The public's thoughts on the track itself and its legitimacy as an a cappella song are somewhat surprising. Here's a few Facebook and YouTube comments for your consideration (and entertainment):

"I don't hear a capella here. I hear a synth. When I listen to other groups (Pentatonix comes to mind with this style) they make these sounds WITHOUT the use of pedals and other effects on their voices. So, sorry, this doesn't qualify as a capella."

"When you cover the voices in a billion different sound effects, it no longer become actual acapella (emphasis added). Listen to Rockapella or Pentatonix and take notes"

"Synthesizing or altering the sound like that pretty much defeats the purpose of the a cappella"

"Honestly, I think you guys have gone too far into the effects and production tricks on this one. I know you're amazing singers, but the listener is losing the sense of that behind all the effects. Instead of sounding like incredible first-rate a cappella (which you're obviously fully capable of), it sounds like ordinary second-rate electronica. I appreciate pushing the envelope, but I dunno... this seems like pushing it in a counter-productive direction. Just my .02."

"First, i'd like to say that this sounds good. It's a good tune, but it's not a cappella (emphasis added). This is just my opinion, but "Vocal Drive" sounds like an excuse to justify using digital enhancements on an a cappella track. You might as well not call this video 'a cappella' in the video title...this is 5 talented singers singing over a beat with synthesizers and a beat. That sounds like an accompaniment to me. Best of luck with this 'Vocal Drive' genre, though!"

Wayyyyy too many digital enhancements to be a "true" A Capella group (emphasis added) decent sound if they wouldn't have gone acca-crazy with the computer effects ...

"Ditto these comments. You can't have it both ways. I do, however, like the tune. Maybe it's time you quit leaning on the whole a cappella thing and move forward to your next chapter in music...before all your aca-heads rebel and you lose them forever. Just saying."

"From what I understand, y'all are a growing group, and that's really cool. But if all the effects are just some beatboxer, you guys at least altered his voice in post. This is a cool song but it's really not what a capella as a style is meant to be(emphasis added). I'm not sure why you guys are pushing that term so hard..."

Let me take a moment to address their common complaint. These particular comments attempt to discredit the song's legitimacy as an a cappella track with the main argument being something along the lines of "it has too many effects, therefore it's not really a cappella". If a cappella is defined as music with no more than x number of effects, you have a cogent argument, but that's not the definition of a cappella and therefore not a cogent argument at all. People seem too attached to a cappella's current array of sounds. Look at that damning dogma in the last comment! What the heck is a cappella meant to be then?! "Discernible bah jan rit dit dit doo's", says the contemporary a cappella purist fairy, but I'M NOT BUYIN' IT!  It's thinking like this in the a cappella community that will halt the art's development.

Let me tell you what I mean. Contemporary a cappella as we know it didn't always exist, right? We’ve moved far from how a cappella (literally meaning "chapel style") was originally defined to a music genre that simply means "without instruments" and is mostly popular in secular circles. We went from church singing, to barbershop and doo-wop, and eventually to the current mimicking walking basslines, drums, and other instruments. Sound engineering can make the mimicry sound more like the real thing and often is used to do so, especially when it’s time to cut an album. A cappella will continue to change and traditions will be broken. What I'm getting at is: it seems that a cappella is already headed in the direction that Mo5aic just took it.

Think about that. Does that not seem plausible? Have you not seen how far the genre has come in the last 10 years alone? A cappella is going there and sooner than we think! The day will come when more groups are using what Mo5aic calls "vocal drive" as a staple of their entertainment package. Engineers are experimenting more and more with the human voice. Live shows may eventually have more than one sound guy - one for the mixing board and a couple more to operate effects processors, samplers, and loop stations. A cappella in its next phases will still be a novelty, but not in the way it is right now. While we will be sounding more like mainstream music as a consequence of knowing how to manipulate our voices with technology, vocals will still be the lifeblood of our music i.e. still without instruments. Is that okay with everyone?  Is it okay that we’re working toward a more mainstream sound that will garner more attention for the a cappella community from the people listening to and buying the most music? Isn't that why we went from doo wop and barbershop to contemporary in the first place?  With what Mo5aic just did, it's apparent we have the tools to take a greater hold on the mainstream without losing our novelty. Why not embrace it? Why not chase it?

I can assure you I have a deep love and appreciation for (most of) what contemporary a cappella has turned out. However, as someone who wants to see the genre get more attention and respect from the mainstream media and as a proponent of growth, change and development, the change from a cappella as it is right now to vocal drive or any other form of "neo-acappella" seems to be needed and inevitable. Like it or not, vocal drive will likely be the next link in the evolutionary chain of a cappella entertainment - and that’s okay!

About the writer:
James Jones has been singing a cappella for nearly a decade. He currently sings with pro group The Fix based in Provo, Utah and arranges and markets for the group. He is also currently the CASA ambassador for the state of Utah and the newest member of Boston-based vocal band Ball in the House.