The following article was written for TVC, The Vocal Company. It can be viewed on their site at http://www.thevocalcompany.com/2014/02/produced-vs-organic-a-cappella-production/.
So you’re recording an album. Great to hear! There’s a lot to think about, but before we get started, let’s take a moment to go back in time about thirty years …
… to record an a cappella CD. We’ve brought our whole group into a large room to sing into a pair of stereo microphones. Our soloist is in front of the group mics singing into her own solo mic.
Now flash forward to today: each member comes to the studio, one at a time, matching pitch with a MIDI and matching time to a click track.
What’s happened between then and now? When did a cappella start being about anything but making happy harmonies with pals? How could we possibly make those sweet sonorities ring when we’re all stuck singing along to computers?
Living in Isolation
Have you ever heard of Melodyne? It’s software that allows us to correct pitch and rhythm of recorded voices graphically, displaying pitches and rhythms as alterable “blobs”.
Cool! But: the hitch is that Melodyne and other, similar programs only allow us to correct isolated signals. That means we can only alter a voice if there are no other noises on the recording. Not just “no other singers”: no other noises, at all. Since microphones and software ‘hear’ anything and everything that’s happening, this means we need to record each voice in total isolation.
Right. But: do we need the kind of correction made possible by feeding an isolated signal into Melodyne?
Yes, we do, if we want the recording of your music to sound just as good as it possibly can.
If you think you don’t, it’ll be easy to tell: at your next rehearsal, bring a metronome. Pick one of your songs and then have two people on the same voice part sing through it. Try not to think of what they are supposed to be sounding like, but listen to the actual notes coming out of their mouths. Are they exactly the same in each attack, sustain, and release? Do they agree on all of the notes? Is each run and riff executed succinctly?
If you really want a challenge, record it with your iPhone. Pick any eight bars, record them, and then listen back five times in a row. How many notes are just a shade off? Just a shade may not seem to matter. But multiply that by the 12 people in the group, by the far more than eight bars in the song, by all the songs on the album … and “just a shade” has become “overshadowed”.
You may now be thinking, “Sure, when we listen to people like that we can hear some wrong notes or mismatched rhythms, but did you check out our YouTube video from our show? You can’t even tell!”
Yes, you can. The problem is the loss of closeness, of fidelity, and of depth, especially when played on a nice system. Isolation is a key player not just in editing pitch and rhythm, but also in mixing each individual track and groups of tracks together into the final song.
But that’s not all! Computers are amazing
Let’s hop back to thirty years ago for a second. If we wanted a huge clap sound with a large reverb, we might go to a large local church, set a mic up on one side of the cathedral, and clap on the other side.
Jumping back to today, we could record the clap in total isolation in a studio, then digitally place it in a huge space. We could even move the clap closer and closer as the song rolls on. This would be massively labor-intensive to achieve without the use of digital or analog reverb units, yet when listen (and watch) the song, our brains don’t really think twice about it.
Now, apply that idea of the digitally-affected clap to each individual element in your arrangement. Imagine sweeping sopranos, thunderous basses, and a solo that sounds as if it’s being sung right up against a brick wall. Where all these things once took time, sonic calculations, and imagination to create organically, we can now produce them efficiently and effectively through digital mix technology.
But why? Well …
… why are you recording this album?
If you’re now saying, “We don’t want thunder basses or swoop sopranos. We just want what we’re doing!”, take a minute and think about why and why not. Why are you recording at all?
Whether you’re making it for “our group to listen to”, “mom and dad to listen to”, “our alumni to listen to”, “the producers of The Sing Off to listen to”, or “our fans to listen to”, each of those answers ends with “to listen to”. You are making a recording so people can experience your group without having to see it in person.
If you are still saying “We don’t need production!” then I would go back to the iPhone. Record your group. Load it into iTunes. Put it on a playlist with other songs your audience wants to listen to. Listen back and think — really think — about the differences.
Are all of the uppers are clearly balanced? Is the soloist clearly audible? Do the drums and bass pop like you thought they would? Doeseach individual element sound exactly like you think it should?
For Comparison’s Sake
If you’re still with me, let’s bring two versions of one of my favorite a cappella songs head to head.
Chili con Carne (old version off of Nothing But the Real Group (1994)) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29HapNudYKw
Chili con Carne (new version off of Allt Det Bästa (2001)) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yzv1KS1xyNE
Let me list a few things I hear going from the old version to the new version.
- No “stagger” breaths
- Phrasing is perfect every time
- Pitch is right on, every note
- Movement and separation between spaces – in bass, floaty soprano/tenor/whistles, and in first line in first verse
- Drums are a lot more exploded/layered/processed (not less vocal)
These changes make the song much more listenable to me, a lover of most all music, without sacrificing any of the artists’ musical guts. The changes brought to the forefront all of the things the group was already doing well. With the speed and mobility of modern technology, the latter track could have been made in an afternoon in a coat closet, while the former was probably the best take on hand in a nice hall.
“Produced” is the best “Organic”
Hopefully you’re thinking of modern recording technology as not a hurdle to clear or something you have to struggle against, but rather a tool which will help you get the sounds you’re looking to make quicker and cheaper. That being said, figuring out what kind of sounds you want to make is quite a challenge. Refining an original vision for your music (especially your covers) is an uphill battle, and a good topic for a future blog post…