HomeBlogsMister Tim's blog Inside View: 2009 Harmony Sweepstakes Finals pt. 2 of 2: Obligatory Sound Rant!

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Obligatory sound rant! 

The sound was really good. 

... hmm, that’s not much of a rant.  How about this:

The monitors were good.  Having heard several of the participating groups in regional competitions, I could hear the difference – Evolution and Rezonate, in particular, suffered pitch issues in their regional rounds, not, as it turns out, because of their own fault, but because the monitors were difficult.  I listened to both of these groups from the house during sound check, before I had been on stage and heard the monitors, and I could tell that it was a good, clean monitor mix because their sound was awesome.  They were dead on, which means they could hear themselves clearly and accurately, which means the monitor mix was good.  When I got on stage, yup, it was clean, still ‘flat,’ but flat as in clean and even, not flat as in dull (which is how most sound engineers interpret flat). 

Hmmm.  I might be losing my touch.  What do I have to offer if it isn’t frequent and expansive ravings about a cappella sound?  Well, how ‘bout this:

The quality of the Harmony Sweepstakes Finals sound puts most of the regional experiences to shame.

There.  Fine.  Nothing to complain about, right?


At the 2009 Harmony Sweepstakes Finals: the Barbershop groups sounded brilliant.  Ballads from the pop rock groups sounded brilliant.  Anything uptempo that included contemporary bass and percussion?  Blah.  Rezonate started with a breathtaking ballad.  Spine-tinglingly, palms-sweatingly amazing.  Balance, blend, tuning, phrasing, wow (twice as long as it should have been, but at least it was pretty while being too long).  Then they got to a pop rock song, and it was okay, but then every four measures or so I would hear a bass note and holy crap, that bass is LOW, and dead on pitch, and rocking his notes, and WHY IS THIS NOT SHAKING THE ROOM?  I literally could not hear him, at all, for most of his notes.  He was amazing, and I could not hear him.  How is that okay? 

Identical issue with most of the vocal percussion.  Not just for Rezonate: same applied to Evolution and Cartoon Johnny.

You can make a barbershop group sound lush and beautiful and rich and yum.  Why can’t you make a vocal percussionist sound like they are supposed to?  It ain’t rocket science.  Why can’t you let a bass who can nail low C’s ROCK THE ROOM?  If a low C is present in subwoofers it will be FELT as much as heard.  Vocal bands exist on this very principle - vocal percussion, bass singers, lip buzz, special sound effects exist because there is a microphone and a sound system.  That is part of their instrument.  

Why is it acceptable, nay expected, to accurately and perfectly reproduce a barbershop sound, and to make ballads lush and clear, and yet okay to not reproduce a low bass or drum sound accurately?  It’s not artificial – they are making those sound!  They are coming directly from their mouths!  Stand that group in a circle around you and you’re going to be blown away.  Put ‘em on mic, and oh, sorry, we have to have a ‘flat’ system, which means we can make barbershop sound exactly right and can’t do anything to allow low notes to pop, rock, hum, or, in most cases, even be heard.

Cartoon Johnny suffered from this the most.  I thought they were tight, and very impressive.  But they weren’t singing slow-moving chords and ballads.  They were flat out ROCKING.  Moving notes, harmonies, rhythmic stuff, drums, bass, the whole package… and we could not hear a clear drum sound, and we were not getting the accurate reproduction of the bass notes.  Why is that okay?  I thought CJ’s arrangements were top-notch.  I say thought, because without a solid bass, and a solid drumline, it’s hard to judge the overall impact of a song.

We were dealing with this issue with Mouth Beats – four vocal percussionists!!!! –We never were totally satisfied with the monitor mix – it was clean, and trust me, I’d take it over any other monitor mix I’ve heard in the last two months.  But, we wanted more low end (always more low end).  We just wanted the sound to accurately represent what we were doing.  We wanted to be able to MONITOR what we performing, not have to guess what it was sounding like.  I've sung on enough bad systems that I'm very, very good at singing without good monitors, but it simply should not be that way.  

Since I was on stage, I don’t know how it sounded in the house, but from the reports we heard, we hit a monster noise at the beginning of our set that was shaking the mirrors in the dressing room!  THAT’S something I’m proud of.  (And coming out of three straight barbershop groups, no less).  Also, I think an old lady exploded.

We pushed and pushed during sound check to get the low end pushed up.  Every vocal band I talk to has the same problem everywhere they go – IDENTICAL problem I faced at the big on-camera America’s Got Talent audition, and exactly the same issue as Mosaic had at the same AGT audition (write-up on that coming soon!).  It’s a bit understandable (though still frustrating) when dealing with non-a cappella shows.  The Harmony Sweepstakes?  THE a cappella competition? 

We want the kick drum to sound like a kick drum!  We want the bass to sound like BASS.  I guarantee sound guy is adjusting mid and high frequencies to sweeten the mix, make the vocal clear, to add crispness in the high end (at least at the finals, because he was good, and it sounded good).  A good sound guy will always mix EQ to optimize the sound.  ADJUST THE LOWS.  I’m hitting a kick sound, it’s going to be someplace between 60-90 Hz.  FIND THE FREQUENCY AND PUSH IT UP.  Push it up until my kick thumps the same way as your intro music thumps.  You put on a track of studio music, you know that canned whatever you play while you’re out smoking, and if that thumps more than my kick coming from the stage, YOUR JOB IS NOT DONE YET.  If the system can make pleasing boom boom sounds with pre-recorded music, it can make pleasing boom boom with my live performance. 

All the people want is some pleasing boom boom.

And no, this does not give an advantage to the pop/rock groups - it only levels the playing field.  I've sung in all-guy groups at competitions when all the mics were 'flat,' meaning they naturally pick up the frequencies that make female voices sound good.  Guess who sounds best at the show?  It ain't the low-singing dudes.  Is that fair?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  There is nothing equitable about it.    Fair, even, equitable is to let each group sound the way they sound.

And face it, it will make a more pleasing experience for the audience.  You will sell more tickets.  people will buy more CDs.  Everyone will win.

Alternative #1: don't allow vocal percussion at the competition.  Because modern harmony groups use it, and if they are in the competition, they *of course* ought to sound good, but since they don't sound good, it must be that they don't belong there.

Alternative #2: everyone sings on area mics, no handhelds, since that's the optimal sound we're going for.

Please also don't mistake this for an anti-barbershop rant.  I have my personal opinions about barbershop, but I have absolutely no problem losing to a barbershop group (or two) as long as I'm sure all the other groups got to sound their best.  Barbershop wins because they are fun, personable, and (frankly) are usually the only groups in the competition that can genuinely sing in tune.  Bully for them!  At least two of the groups at the Sweeps Finals, I could not tell if they were singing in tune because I could not even hear all the parts.  How is that fair?

Um, but as for the 2009 Harmony Sweepstakes Finals, the sound in the house was better than a cappella shows usually are.  It was actually quite good, even for a relatively small system (at least they had subwoofers!).

I love the Harmony Sweeptakes.  Seriously.  It’s an amazing thing.  I was at five regionals this Spring, including the finals.  I would do it again.  Next year, if scheduling and availability allow, I might.  Maybe it’s time to see the East Coast regionals?


that must have been messy

"I think an old lady exploded."

Ha ha!


Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.


 ...i am with ya mr tim.... i recently judged 2 levels of the ICCA's and thought that same thing... and was told that the sound people are instructed to set a general level on everything at the check and not to touch it during the show.   absolutely the worst idea ever.  i am not privy to the exact information that is given to them, and do not know enough about the competition rules to KNOW what is supposed to happen, but it was pretty lame.  was also told that it was so no one had any kind of "advantage" over another group.  well, it was EQUAL alright,  the audience that paid money to see this show was treated to a poor sound representation from EVERY group.... like when a small women's group, that didn't sing out much followed a large all-male 'shouting' group (you know the kind;) ), the guys were peaking and distorting the group mics AND the solo mics... with NO adjustments..... then the girls got up and you could not even hear them.   i suppose i understand drawing the line at adding a whole bunch of outboard gear/effects/processors/etc... but just general blend/gain/balance?    

and to mr tim's comment about the bass and drums, i also agree......if there was a music competition that included instruments, would you only allow the singer-songwriters singing and playing guitar to sound good, while not really dialing in the bands with, well.. BASS and DRUMS?   oh, wait... i guess that kinda happens, too sometimes..... but that doesn't make it right ;)

wow... my first post/reply to ANYTHING here.....  wonder if anyone will even read it?   hmmm... oh well, at least i feel better!


p.s.... i would GLADLY be the sound engineer at ANY of these events, anytime..... ;)



I'd gladly have you as the sound engineer at any of these events! If it were up to me.


Finally seeing this 4 months later, but want to say thanks for the kind words re: Cartoon Johnny. We have always felt that many contemporary groups are at a sound disadvantage because of frequency bias that comes from the flat sound approach. It is a conversation we have had with various Sweeps personnel, and everyone has an opinion about what it means to have a level playing field.

What has always concerned me the most is that the flat sound approach at most Sweeps competitions is assumed to be most fair.  I think you have eloquently made some great points as to how this is not the case. While we have always been OK with foregoing some of the effects we use in our typical shows, we have always found that sound reproduction at Sweeps that does not fairly amplify some of the frequencies we employ in the low end takes away from our already modified-so-we-can-participate art. I do hope that one day the Sweeps competition will recognize the difference between barbershop and contemporary pop/rock groups when it comes to sound amplification, and take an approach which better supports the different approaches to vocal art, which will in turn perhaps create more opportunities for all kinds of a cappella to be heard in its best possible presentation at such high profile events. It is hard enough to compare the drastically different styles lumped together under the a cappella umbrella, but to do so and not support the technical requirements for properly presenting the different styles so they put their best foot forward to the audience is major mis-step. For basses and VPs across the field, I say LET THEM BE HEARD! :-)

This said, even just having the backstage monitors for sound, we were amazed at what all the groups did at this year's finals. The performances were a treat all around. We congratulate the winners, applaud every single participant for fantastic performances, and count participating in the finals concert as a highlight of 2009 for Cartoon Johnny.

Thank you, Mr. Tim, for putting the sound discussion in this forum. I know that it has been an issue for pop/rock groups for more than a decade now, and I can only hope the approach to house sound at Sweeps regionals and finals will evolve in the future as discussion continues to that the audience will experience every group at their best.

One more thing: regardless of how things are EQ'd, wireless mics should be a GIVEN at the National level. If 50% of the score is presentation/entertainment value, anchoring groups to a corded microphone adds an unnecessary challenge that almost certainly hinders the performance of groups who incorporate more coordinated movement to their performances. Here's hoping 2010 brings wireless to the show!


Kieran Daly Cartoon Johnny kieran@cartoonjohnny.com


Wireless mics.  Wireless mics.  Wireless mics.  Mics... without wires....

It was absurd when we were there in 2003 without wireless.  2009?  One of those things I just don't think about lest I turn green and start throwing cars.

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