HomeBlogsbillhare's blogGetting Stuck On (And Paying For) The Details

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I get paid for a lot of things that never make it to the final product. I get paid for inter-group arguments. I get paid to go back several steps in a mix back to a point when something was working well and should have been left alone. While of course I don't MIND getting paid, I'd rather have the time to work on more projects rather than have to keep redoing minutia in the same songs over and over.

The biggest mistake I see a cappella groups make (especially younger, non-professional ones, but even the most famous professional ones on occasion), both artistically and financially, is focusing so much on the details that the big picture gets lost. Some of the highest rated and most-enjoyable-to-listen-to albums I've worked on have also been some of the cheapest and quickest. And the opposite is true as well - overworked albums that come off as lackluster because there is no feeling left in them, but every chord is precisely balanced, and every consonant lined up can cost tens of thousands of dollars and be received with a lukewarm reception from the public as well as the reviewers these groups are sometimes trying to impress.

A lot of performers (and especially arrangers) tend to overestimate their audience in that they think the listeners care more that we hear the clever rhythm or note in bar 34 than notice that the lead vocalist has no idea what she is singing about or that the background (while musically perfect) has no attitude whatsoever! They also think that they have to be clever every second of the arrangement, and that the audience will get bored if the second chorus doesn't totally blow away the first. If we're talking collegiate a cappella here, we're also most likely talking about a cover song, and if you pay close attention to the original, you'll most likely notice that the original group doesn't seem to sweat the details as much as your extracurricular collegiate group seems to want to. Repeated (looped) phrases, not a lot of dynamics, some parts hard to pick out of the mix, and so on… on a million-selling record!

But the big picture IS there - the song makes you FEEL something, hopefully, which is why your group decided to do it in the first place. You don't need to copy it, but the essence of the song - the attitude, the meaning, the drama - needs to be there. The arrangement is just there to support the song.

This isn't to say the arrangement can't be clever, new, innovative, etc - but without the character the SONG needs, it's just a musical experiment. A lot of a cappella becomes a Letterman-style "Stupid Human Trick" - groups that put the songs before the arrangements are usually the more successful, and those with a great balance between the two are the heroes of the a cappella World. Measure 34 is just a fraction of a second in time – make sure the whole 3 minutes make you feel something before worrying about a blink of an eye that most people won’t catch anyway.

So, let's assume we are past this hurdle, and we have some good feeling tracks laid down. The next step is to mix it well, but not mix the life out of it. This is another delicate balance, and the one I find myself in the middle of some group's inner turmoil quite often. Here is the part where they need to let go a bit (or at least agree with each other), while still maintaining their artistic control. While it is most likely the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd album this particular group of people have worked on, and probably my 1,458th, I need to be able to give them the benefit of my experience, while at the same time keeping in mind that it's THEIR album, and they should be able to be proud of it. This can be a sticky thing, though, because there are a lot of things that I know I will be asked to do that my decades of experience tells me won't work, but they'll have to pay me to find that out! So, in trying to save them the money I spend a lot of time telling them why they shouldn't turn Johnny's "cool" dissonant note way up in the mix (usually it's something that was so far back on the original and after 100 listens the transcriber finally figured it out and wants to show their "discovery" to the world!)

There's a reason the original had it so low - it does its job just fine down there!

Sometimes they will insist on trying it anyway, which is fine, but a lot of the time, after doing the 4th mix of a certain song for a group they'll start asking for things to be put back where they were in mix number1. This is all well and good, but a few hundred dollars has been spent on this experiment already by this time!

Now, this is not to say that I (or any other producer) is always right, and you should always feel free to communicate your artistic visions to your chosen producer because they can’t always see the forest for the trees either. They do, however, have many years and many albums worth of mistakes we have made that we can give you the benefit of not making.

Other times the group will simply not be able to agree on the direction they want to go – half want to be cutting edge and others want to sound the way they do in a dorm show. These are both fine options, but not decisions to be made thousands of dollars into a mix. Make sure your group knows what the options are – listen to the different stuff that is out there and see if there is a middle ground that can be decided on. I have sooo many stories I can tell about these subjects, but I’ve already become long-winded and convoluted! You might say I’m “getting stuck on the details?”