HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogWhat Makes a Good BOCA Track?

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RECORDING QUALITY: I list this first because it’s the first thing we notice (usually within the first 3 seconds), and can immediately disqualify a song, and more often an entire album. Does a track sound crisp and fresh, as though it was carefully recorded and mixed, or, at worst, does it sound like the group set up a pair of microphones in the middle of their school’s chapel and proceeded to sing through the bulk of their repertoire in an afternoon?

Whereas there is certainly value in having a “yearbook” recording of your group, the fact is BOCA was created to spread a cappella music to the uninitiated, and poor recording quality is the audio equivalent of “America’s (Insert-Adjective-Here) Home Videos.” A grainy home-video recording of Pavarotti live at the Met would not interest many people, and neither does a relatively careless recording.

This is not by any means to say that a great BOCA track has to be heavily produced with a modern sound and multiple effects. Some of my favorite tracks have been very choral-sounding recordings of straightforward four-part-plus-solo songs. We don’t expect, and don’t want, every track to be heavily produced, but we do insist that it sound clean, bright and full.

TUNING: Tuning is mentioned next because it’s often the next thing we notice (within the first 10 seconds). A song that’s been heavily auto-tuned (digitally pitch corrected) does not necessarily fall more favorably on our ears, but a song that’s clearly out of tune before the solo starts is a song that BOCA listeners would be eager to fast forward past if they’re anywhere near their CD or MP3 controls. 

The fact is college a cappella is an amateur endeavor, and we recognize this. As such, we don’t expect amazing tuning, and great tuning is rare (although more common with digital recording and editing technology). We’re happy to settle for good tuning, which we recognize is a moving target (a song doesn’t need to remain in A=440 for an entire tune, so long as the entire group gradually moves together). 

What exactly is “good tuning?” Well, to paraphrase a famous Supreme Court decision, “we know it when we hear it.” I’ll bet a computer analysis of every BOCA track past and present, as compared with tracks that were rejected, would reveal that we chose some tunes that had mathematically “worse” tuning. Fact is, the human ear is bothered more by some things than others, and sometimes questionable tuning in the service of emotion, mood or realism (capturing the flavor of an old Motown track, for instance) is preferable to a perfectly in-tune recording. Which brings us to... 

EMOTION: Call it mood, or vibe, or feel: so long as nothing leaps out at your ear as being clearly amateur or disturbing, this is what you’ll notice, even if you’re not paying attention. If the song has a constant tempo, does it groove or swing? If it’s a ballad, do the harmonies wash over you? Is the music expressing something? Does it make you feel angry, or relaxed, or happy?

This is perhaps the least measurable and most easily disagreed upon element of a BOCA track decision, and yet it’s arguably the most important. People love music that touches them, and walk away from music that doesn’t, even if it’s technically impressive. 

Mind you, all of this is processed in the first few seconds of a song, usually before the solo even begins, just as the first couple of shots establish a movie before the first line of dialog is ever spoken. There are enough very strong potential BOCA tracks nowadays that we don’t have to compromise in mood at all. If it leaves both of us flat, we move on.

SOLO: If the first few measures sets the scene emotionally, it’s the soloist who draws focus and takes us on a journey, be it silly, melancholy, or inspirational. Yes, a soloist needs to have a strong voice, and generally sing in tune, but that’s not the most important facet of a great solo. A great solo, more than being beautiful, must be honest, truthful and emotionally effective. Pretty voices can grow boring after a while, where as a Bob Dylan draws us in with his message.

ARRANGEMENT: A great arrangement no more needs to be complex than a Dr Seuss book needs to be verbose. Each musical style has its own idioms, and a hip-hop tune may be a copied-and-pasted four-measure loop. Extra “credit” is given in our minds for an arrangement that takes a song in a new direction, but this is rarely the case, as most college groups are striving to replicate the sound and feel of the original recording.

I should also mention that’s it’s often very difficult to tell where the role of the arranger ends and the director or producer begins. Fact is, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter, as we’re not assigning an award based on a student’s work, but rather judging the overall quality of the track, and a talented, experienced engineer or producer may have had a hand in the recording.

A few names, like Bill Hare, Gabe Rutman, Dave Sperandio and Freddie Feldman often appear somewhere on the CDs we find most to our liking, and that’s neither surprising, nor problematic to our way of thinking. Great music is great music, and as these folks will be the first to admit, much to most of the greatness in the recordings is the result of great singing, arranging and directing. They’re mearly carefully polishing an already delicious apple. Moreover, they’re entirely incapable of spinning gold from straw.

SONG CHOICE: In over 10 years of BOCA, we’ve never repeated a track. It’s possible that will one day change, but it’s unlikely, especially when most BOCA tracks are reflections of the original (or best known) recordings of a song.

In addition, we’re on the lookout for a few notable tracks: an opening song that sets the stage for the album, at least one very traditional sounding track, and a closing song that’s somehow silly/crazy/irreverent.

And finally, we steer clear of songs that have already been made famous in an a cappella form. The world already has definitive versions of “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” and “Kiss Him Goodbye,” so unless a new recording takes the song in a significantly different direction, we’ll pass.

ORIGINALITY: Occasionally we’ll come across an original song, or a very original arrangement. We’re always excited to include these, and as such they have an increased chance of making it on an album, provided all else is essentially equal (we’re not going to include an original song that pales in comparison to the other tracks).

VARIETY: This means many things- variety of styles, of tempos, of decades, of male/female/mixed groups. The sum of BOCA, ideally, is greater than its individual parts in that it both makes a statement about a year in the collegiate a cappella world while making for a very pleasant listening experience from start to finish. 

There is no single formula for this, and there have been BOCA albums that have favored ballads, only to be much more aggressive the following year. Much as a magazine’s “year in pictures” strives to capture the highpoints of a year while at the same time reflect the diversity of experiences that happened, with BOCA we’re hoping to show both breadth and depth.

So, if your group has recorded an excellent album of South Indian songs, you do have a better chance of making it on than a group whose best couple songs are mid-tempo jams in a year when we’re swimming in R&B. 

NEW GROUPS: We love to include groups that have never been on BOCA before, especially from areas or schools that have not yet had a BOCA group. With BOCA we’re hoping to spread collegiate a cappella, and give a pat on the back to groups who have made great music. Chances are a newly included group will take their inclusion to heart and begin to release increasingly consistent albums, as they realize their music is reaching far beyond their own campus, and will be heard for decades to come.

And that’s about it. There are also perhaps some small factors that come into play, such as not wanting to include a song that’s already on two other sampler albums, or wanting to include songs that made a big splash in live form (perhaps in the ICCA’s) but these are minor concerns that rarely cross our minds, as the above factors outweigh them.

In the end, if your hard work is not rewarded with inclusion on BOCA, you should know a few things:

*For the past couple of BOCAs there have been a plethora of A-level tracks (we do a first pass, and then narrow from there). A recording that would have made it just three years ago is now sometimes not included for very minor reasons (such as our desire for variety).

* The tracks are not chosen for the a cappella community. They’re chosen for the general public. As such, things that appeal to “acappellaheads” are sometimes less important than things that will appeal to a first-time a cappella listener. Right or wrong, that’s why I started BOCA, and why we keep making it. The good news is that a cappella fans will most likely seek out and highly applaud your recording regardless of BOCA inclusion, as they’re a wily, thorough bunch.

* There’s no accounting for taste. Different people would choose a different BOCA, and I don’t believe that there’s any way to objectively judge a track’s quality as being “better” or “worse” than another. I like what I like, and I have to choose tracks I like and tracks I expect other people will like.

And as Forest Gump said, “That’s all there is to say about that.”

I’d love to stay and chat, but I have about 30 days left to listen to 2,500 tracks...