HomeBlogsbillhare's blogPlanned Randomness, And Literally Phoning It In

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What makes it work, of course, is style, expression, lyrics that tell a story (or even don't tell a story but at least can be related to), and the fact that there are no real rules to break. We in the A Cappella world are actually more constrained than most because we have a BIG rule in that we can't use instruments. This doesn't mean, though, that everything has to be sung to an arrangement, or even sung at all in a lot of cases. There are a lot of sounds that we are capable of making outside of singing, make sure you know what everyone in your group can do, because there might be a lot of untapped talent there - if Johnny can do a good imitation of Freddie's 1974 Chevy with a bad transmission, keep that fact in mind - you might be able to use it as ambience behind the verse that talks about a car breaking down. Basically knowing what's in your "library" can really help you start thinking outside the box. Maybe start by having a group brainstorming session (or better yet, a talent show), then making a list of all the "stupid human tricks" your members can do - you'll discover a lot about your friends, and probably find many things that can enhance both your live and studio output!

Besides just sound effects, there are many ways to break up the monotony of repeated phrases. Of course most of the time you shouldn't need such devices, your performance will stand on its own, but other times, no matter what you do, a song will need something more. This is where random events can really help distract from a recording that just "sits there".

I just went out to the studio to see if there is anything I am working on currently that employs some of these tricks for some audio examples, and I found one 15 second snippet that has many of them going on at one time! We'll listen to these in a bit, but first I'll tell you a bit more about why we might want to use these techniques:

One of the easiest things that can be done to put some excitement in a recorded song is the famous "Party Track" trick. This doesn't mean that it has to be a wild party with lots of drunken yelling - it can be as simple as a few people having a conversation in the background. This just creates the feeling that there are more people there, that more things are going on in the particular space that the song is happening in, etc. Of course, it should be used sparingly, not for more than one or two songs per album, but the results can be dramatic for a song that needs it or calls for it. This doesn't just apply for songs that need to rock - a very famous example of this technique is Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On", a very dark, mellow song that would be very different sounding without that party track (which was voiced, multitracked, by two football player friends of Marvin's.) Listen to that song and try to imagine it without the talking in the background and you might get my point!

Another thing that can be done to randomize repetitive sections is what I call a "chaos loop". Basically, it's elements of vocal percussion (usually high hat patterns) that are cut into odd numbered beats (like 17 sixteenth notes, so that it takes awhile for the loop to come back to its main placement.) I'll sometimes do this to several loops, all cut to different odd lengths, panned to different speakers, so that there is always something different going on. Yes, these seemingly little details can do a lot in keeping the listener from feeling like he's heard this exact section before, even though the basic arrangement is repeating over and over!

Sometimes, just processing a recording to sound a bit more "distressed" (such as making it sound like it's coming over a telephone ) can go a long way. This puts a distance to that voice away from the blend of the other parts, creating more random spaces for the listener. There have been times where I've actually recorded a performance over the telephone, in that the singer forgot to put the part down and is now out of town, or again, simply as an effect because it's fun and a nice story to tell your grandchildren about the album production in the future (you see, we had these things called "telephones" when I was young, and that's what voices sounded like over them...)

I've made a few audio examples out of an unfinished song by Testimony (Stanford University's Christian A Cappella group.)

Example 1 shows a bit of a chorus as it was sung, with some VP to keep the beat. Sounds pretty good already, but let's see if we can spice it up!

Example 2 adds the "chaos loops" to the equation.

Example 3 brings in a "party track". This was just the tenor section after recording their parts, and I had them do one pass of just responding to what was happening on the track. I then took other sections of the same track and looped them behind the main party track at a lower volume to make it sound like more people.

Example 4 and Example 5 adds a guy saying "What you wanna do?" and "take 'em off, take 'em off" in both his natural voice, and the more distressed version which I think is much more effective, even though it's technically "bad" sonically!

Now, after listening to Example 5, go back and listen to Example 1 again - has the apparent impact of Example 1 changed since you first heard it a minute ago? Now, what can you add to some of your own songs to fill the gaps? Go have yourself a party!