The world of a cappella is constantly innovating and progressing, and at the forefront of this is the rapid rise and use of electronic arrangements and production. By experimenting in all areas of your work, and broadening your horizons into the world of EDM, groups are discovering new music and sounds they never thought their group could achieve. We've experienced this first hand, most notably in the 4 out of 5 of the CARA Nominations within the electronic/experimental category, one of which is our own track from Next Level!
These tracks are a great sampling of the fresh, boundary pushing ideas within a cappella recording. However, the limits of technology when it comes to a cappella are controversial - are these tracks displaying true, pure vocal a cappella? Does the use of vocal manipulation tools give a false representation of what is actually possible? What about the recording process? Mixing magician Dave Longo, The Vocal Company’s CEO, has had a hand in the majority of these nominations, so we took this opportunity to ask him about it, and why it's time for your group to start experimenting.
Where do you think the limits are with a cappella, technology and experimenting?
Dave: When you plug a guitar into an amplifier, is it no longer a guitar? When you run a voice through an equalizer, is it still a voice?
I think this requirement that everything is natural is a farce. We, as humans, are pre-programmed to fit ourselves into categories. As such, a cappella purists stick to that defense of why they are what they are inside of their niche. However, I do believe that greater art can be made in some (if not most) cases by utilizing the voice for its strengths, rather than for its existence.
If you ask the Swingle Singers why they perform a cappella music, they will tell you that they created music, and the best instrument for that music was the voice. If in a given situation a bass guitar or real drum set serves the music more appropriately, they will use those pieces (see also: Deep End).
We think Faux Paz's CARA nominated "Where Are Ü Now" perfectly demonstrates how Faux has used electronic elements of production to make their music better and really enhance their arrangement. The album's not out yet, but you can catch it on CASA's Sing 13 compilation:
What are the benefits and gains of doing more "experimental" or electric tracks in a cappella?
Dave: First, let’s talk about why the voice is a superior source. The voice allows us to phrase passages naturally and emotively in a simple manner. Perhaps we can do similar with a keyboard or a guitar, but the ease with which we can utilize our breath, the breath we use day in and day out, is far greater.
Now let’s talk about why experimental or electronic tracks are beneficial for a cappella singers. In more contemporary music, it is a question of timbral palette. It is wonderful to make harmony work with just the voice, and to play with combinations of harmonies to make overtones happen and such within the voice. But what about something as simple as a bottom extension of the bass voice? This requires an octave shift, usually by way of a guitar pedal, which expands the sonic range of our group. In a Bach fugue, certainly we should avoid such a thing, but in a club banger… without the low extension, the song just doesn’t work. Utilizing effects and electronic stylings allows a new palette of timbral layers.
One Note Stand's CARA-nominated "Latch" perfectly demonstrates the different layers, sounds and timbres you can achieve when you experiment -
What is the hardest part both in terms of the arranging and actual skills required to pull it off?
Dave: The hardest part of the arranging and the skill required to pull “electronic” a cappella off is the line between human and machine. The Hexachords' "Addicted to a Memory" is a battle of human versus electronic, where motifs swap between the actor and change timbre mid moment.
Knowing how to achieve the same FEEL and the same REASON for an electronic sound without simply programming out an electronic sound takes craftsmanship, but the result can be jaw dropping. Pentatonix’s Starships for instance, does not use any fancy electronic effect, but the writing makes the listener satisfied without the electronics. In the case of Sweet Nothing or Addicted to a Memory, by adding back in those electronics, we elevated already tight writing to a new level.
Where would you advise a group to begin with something like this?
Dave: While in the studio, EXPERIMENT. The best productions we’ve done have allowed the vocalist to sing into a guitar amp, to hear themselves with the whacky delays, to hear themselves shifted octaves. At that point, the production is no longer an electronic mix of an a cappella track, but an electronic a cappella production.
If groups are looking to dabble in this realm, I would always advise them to start with why. Do you need an octave? Try it. Find a used octave pedal and an impedance converter on Craigslist and go to town. If it makes your music better, use it. If it doesn’t, drop it.
So folks, time to get into the studio (or the dancefloor) and get your creative minds moving! Congratulations again to The Hexachords, One Note Stand and Faux Paz - make sure you catch them teaching and performing at BOSS before they head to the CARA ceremony.
As Winston Churchill put it, “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”