By Dr. J.D. Frizzell
Contemporary a cappella is the fastest growing trend in music education today. As a choir director, this is exciting to me because a cappella singing promotes individual musicianship, confidence, tone, blend, balance, intonation, and much more– all while being, well…cool.
One of the biggest missteps I see is when a choral director decides to record his or her new a cappella group in the studio. Most approach it the same way I did. My thought was that if I took all my singers into the studio, had them stand around a few good microphones (maybe even in sections), and then sang each piece together, the result would be an accurate representation of what we did and sound good. I was wrong. After spending a lot of money and time in the studio, we had an album we were proud of, but only because we kind of had to be after the investment we had made. Luckily, it was only an EP, and we moved on — and removed it from iTunes later!
If you haven’t ever recorded a contemporary a cappella group before, stop right now and go to the A Cappella Education Association site, sign up (there’s even a free membership) and read their recording guide. It was written by top a cappella recording experts. It is comprehensive and very good.
If that is overwhelming to you, or you’re looking for the most salient points as you’re preparing your group to record, here are my most important guidelines:
Set realistic goals
Start with something approachable, like a 4 or 5 song EP. You don’t have to create the next BIOLUMINESCENCE right out of the gate (but you should check out that album…it’s sublime).
Record one singer at a time
Really. I know, I know– it’s not how you sing as a group, so why would you record this way? Did you know that most bands don’t just go into the studio and play every single instrument on every single song all at once, either? The reason is the same– to get the most energetic, passionate, articulate, and musical take on each phrase from each singer. Once you’ve sung a phrase or two well, double track it.
What is a guide track? A guide track is a reference recording of all the parts in a song together, usually from MIDI. We use guide tracks to keep a group in the same tempo and key.
This should really have been my first guideline. Know the music inside and out. The most expensive place to learn notes and rhythms is in the studio. I have my singers record their parts by themselves and send them to me for further comment (this is after we have learned and practiced them together as a group). Once I’m satisfied with a recording, I check that song off for that singer in a spreadsheet.
Focus on expression, not perfection
As choral directors, we are hardwired to make music as perfect as possible. In the studio, we should fight these instincts to create something compelling and beautiful. If you focus only on perfect intonation, you’ll probably end up sounding like a sterile choral-crossover rendition of a pop song, which is usually not what people want. Instead, focus on getting the most energy, emotion, articulation, and dynamics out of your singers. As many of my recording engineer friends say, “there are no plug-ins for emotion.”
Sing good music for your group
This goes without saying, but I still hear so many groups who aren’t singing the best pieces for them.
When considering if a song is good for you, ask yourself:
Do I have a soloist who can sell it stylistically and vocally?
Are the ranges well within my singer’s voices (I try to avoid extreme registers)?
Does the arrangement compliment the song?
Can my singers connect emotionally with the lyrics?
Work with a professional
The best money you can spend in your recording budget is not to get in a fancy studio. In fact, most a cappella groups record in a padded closet, classroom, or basement on a single microphone. Spend that saved money on a professional a cappella specialist, who will help guide you from preparation to completion. Personally, I’ve done almost all my recording with Dave Sperandio of diovoce and vocal mastering, who has won more awards than most humans are able to count. However, there are a growing number of engineers out there who can make you sound your best (see the comments!).