Necessary Gear for Recording Your Group #1 - Computer and Digital Interface

Hey everybody! Over the next few posts, we will discuss, investigate, and price the equipment you’ll need for your recordings. There are so many opinions about gear these days. You live in amazing times though because you can purchase high quality equipment for hundreds of dollars that used to cost thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. 

For what you are doing, you can get by with a recording rig that will cost you under $1000 total and likely less than that.

First things first, you need a computer. I'm not going to count this in your $1000 budget because many people will already have this vital piece of equipment.

1. Computer  

All you need is a Macbook Pro, iMac, Mac Mini, Macbook, Macbook Air, etc or PC equivalent made in the last 4 years ($800 – $1200 new or used). Even an iPad or equivalent tablet could be used these days.

I recommend using a Macbook Pro. I'm an Apple person and a lot of recording software is built with Apple products in mind. 

Why a Macbook Pro (a laptop) versus the other suggestions?

Portability, stability, better CPUs for recording, more ports, bigger screen than other Apple laptops and tablets, etc. You'll be happier and more comfortable if you go this route.

Make sure that you also have the following on or with the computer.

  • Enough available USB and/or Thunderbolt ports for an external hard drive and your digital Interface to connect directly to the computer (not through a hub). 
  • A dedicated External Hard Drive for Audio - NEVER EVER EVER EVER record audio to the internal hard drive on your computer. Besides most internal drives being too small these days, your internal hard drive is very busy running your computer's operating system. Recording your audio and playing it back is very taxing and if you add that workload to the internal hard drive, you are asking for trouble. Don't take my word for it, most if not all audio software manufacturers recommend you use a dedicated drive for your audio.
  • A mouse to save on wrist/hand/finger fatigue. You will be doing A LOT of clicking/scrolling/moving.

 

 

 

 

 

2. Digital Audio Interface with at least two microphone inputs ($200 – $400)

A Digital Audio Interface is the device that takes your recorded audio and makes it into something the computer can understand. It has 2 components that are crucial to making your recording possible. 

1. Microphone preamps. These guys amplify the signal coming from your microphone and make it usable. 

2. AD/DA converters. Analog to Digital and Digital to Analog converters first convert the analog signal coming from your microphone into a digital signal that the computer can understand and then convert the computer's digital output signal back into an analog signal that your interface can send to your headphones or studio monitors (speakers) can play. 

Here are a few interfaces I recommend. They all sound great. Some have slightly nicer preamps. Some have nicer converters. Some come with recording software (Digital Audio Workstation like Studio One from Presonus), and some have name recognition. All sound great and will work well. 

Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 - $350

 

Presonus 44VSL - $250

 

MOTU 4pre - $450

 

Behringer FCA1616 - $250

 

Steinberg UR44 - $300


If you can, spend the most money on the interface. You can get $100 interfaces but I wouldn’t recommend it. The interface is the piece of equipment that converts your recorded sound to digital information. IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT!

Setting up your in/out routing in your DAW

All DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations - Pro Tools, Logic, Studio OneDigital Performer, Cubase, Reaper, Garageband, etc) are a little different in terms up set up and workflow but they all require you to route the audio you are recording so that 1. it gets recorded and 2. you can hear it playback. 

In this video I demonstrate some of the basic terminology and procedures for getting your routing set up.

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Why do it yourself?

What are the benefits of recording yourself? Here are a few...

SAVE MONEY!!!!

Most groups I record spend 3 – 6 hours (or more) tracking a song. Most great a cappella recordings these days are created by tracking each singer individually. This process gives you the in-your-face presence that you hear on those records. It also allows for ultimate quality control and flexibility. The average singer takes 15 – 30 minutes per song to record their part a couple of times at high quality with tons of energy. Do the math.

At $50 – $150/hour for most studios/producers and 3 – 6 hours tracking per song, that equals $150 – $900 in tracking per song. That’s a $900 – $5400 tracking budget for a 6 song EP or an $1800 – $10800 for a 12 song album. Tracking is usually the most time consuming step in the production process.

Flexible recording schedule

The most common hurdle I experience with high school, college, CAL, and professional groups is finding time to get all the necessary people to the studio. People are busier than ever and even finding a 2-hour window of time can be challenging. If you track yourselves, you can set up on your own turf. You can record every day with different members of the group. Record during regular scheduled rehearsals since you only lose 2 - 3 people from rehearsal at a time. Doing it yourself prevents needing to book one weekend and then cramming everything in… Less stress can lead to much better performances.

Time for experimentation and creativity

Maybe your group hasn’t recorded much in the past. DIY recording allows you to make mistakes and learn as you go. It also prevents you from making mistakes on the clock. You can also avoid having to settle for the performance that you could afford. Why not try out new ideas or get the best performance possible without having to watch the clock?

Interested yet? Read on…

TO BE VERY CLEAR, I am only recommending tracking on your own and only if you really have to save money. Most experienced a cappella producers have knowledge, skills, experience solving problems, and a track record of being creative during the tracking process that usually results in a better end product. If they are a professional, they might have recorded hundreds of a cappella songs ( I have). Additionally, they will probably be much faster than you in all aspects of tracking. The other steps in the production process, editing, mixing, and mastering are best done by a cappella engineers. Mixing and mastering in particular should be reserved for the experts in my opinion. Those steps require much more experience and knowledge of the physics of sound and recording technology to create amazing productions.

 

If you are still reading, I’m guessing you might want to try DIY recording. Stay tuned for future posts. I will give you a list of all the equipment you’ll need including prices and shopping recommendations.

Great A Cappella Arrangements

There’s one step in the recording process that is more important than any other in making sure that the final product is awesome and uses the human voice most efficiently to create an awesome final product. THE ARRANGEMENT.

I’ve heard both pro and amateur arrangements that were amazing!

I've also heard many bad arrangements as well...

What do the great arrangements have in common?

  1. They are singable. For all voice parts. They can be sung easily. They make sense vocally. New arrangers often get stuck in transcription mode. Transcribing is great for learning and developing your ear. Once you know what's happening in a song, stop and try to sing what you just wrote. If you can't get it in 2 or 3 tries, try changing the syllables or simplifying the rhythm. You might even have to rewrite the phrase to make it fit in the singable range of the singer. The voice has problem areas like other instruments (breaks, extremes) and might have trouble doing everything you write.
  2. They use the voice as an instrument effectively to create essential elements in the song and help move the song forward. Motion and direction of energy is very important in a song. Energy flow is often what gives you goosebumps or makes you cry. Good arrangements harness this energy.
  3. When recorded, they need very few modifications and they frequently mix themselves requiring very little help from the mixing engineer. Great arrangements create natural balance between elements as they support the direction of the song.

 

I’ll share more about arrangements in the future, but for right now, as you begin to think about arrangements for next year, consider contacting a professional a cappella arranger and buying a couple of arrangements or having them edit a couple of your arrangements so that you can see the difference between what they do and what you do.

Here are a few arrangers I work with regularly who exemplify the things I shared above.

Tom Anderson - http://www.random-notes.com/

Ben Bram - http://www.thebenbram.com/

Robert Dietz - http://www.human-feedback.com/

Nick Girard - http://www.nickgirard.com/

Erik Bosio - http://www.ebosio.com/

Clare Wheeler - https://www.facebook.com/Clare-Wheeler-428253824014901/?fref=ts

Ed Boyer - http://edboyeracappella.com/

Christopher Diaz - http://www.heychristopher.com/

 

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What do the steps in the recording process sound like?

Danny shares some examples of what raw, edited, mixed, and mastered versions of the same song sound like. 

Examples:
The Inversions from Cedarville University - The Man Who Never Loved Somebody
2:02 = RAW
3:06 = EDIT
4:50 = MIX
6:15  = MASTER

Apollo5 - Johanna (Sweeney Todd)
8:00 = RAW
9:01 = EDIT
10:40 = MIX
11:57 = MASTER

Check out the explanation of these steps on the blog...

Pre-Production - http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/1/6/pre-production-the-most-crucial-step

Tracking - http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/4/21/step-2-in-the-recording-process-tracking

Editing - http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/4/30/step-3-in-the-recording-process-editing

Mixing - http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/6/3/step-4-in-the-recording-process-mixing

Mastering - http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/6/10/step-5-in-the-recording-process-mastering

The Human Voice

While having a shower thought-session this morning, I realized that I've been singing (in choirs, a cappella groups, and solo) for over 30 years now. I don't need to tell you guys why singing is awesome and how deeply it can move you while doing it. 

I started to think about why though. Why does it move me? Simple answer. 

THE HUMAN VOICE

Singing is the musical expression of OUR emotions using OUR voice. There is something so pure and authentic about it. 

I think that's why I tend to prefer a cappella that is more pure and focused on the human voice and the sound of voices working together. Probably why I also prefer arrangers who focus on the voice even when trying to arrange a song originally written for a band or "orchestrate" an original song for a vocal group...  and why I prefer recordings that retain a human/natural sound. 

Keep singing!

 

Step 5 in the recording process... MASTERING

If you missed them, make sure you check out our posts about pre-productiontrackingediting, and mixing before reading this post about mastering.

During mastering, the mixed material is processed so that it sounds great in as many different listening environments as possible

The mastering engineer tempers or eliminates any issues the mix engineer may have created that would be detrimental to the final version of the track. They can also creatively enhance elements in the mix. They maximize loudness to help your track in competitive noise environments and also make sure that the different songs on an album are all brought up to similar levels. Once complete, they create the media (CD, DDP, WAV file, etc) that will be used for replication, duplication, and/or digital distribution.

Even though I master things occasionally, I am not an experienced mastering engineer. The art that is mastering takes years of experience and often specialized gear and plugins to become proficient. 

I send most of the mixes I work on to two highly qualified mastering engineers. Bill Hare of Bill Hare Productions and Dave Sperandio of Vocal Mastering

Here are their takes on mastering. Thanks guys for sharing your expertise!

Bill Hare: What is Mastering? Song: Es War Gut So performed by Maybebop

Use your words.

I occasionally listen to advice columnist Dan Savage's podcast and have noticed that he regularly comes back to a piece of advice in regards to relationships that we've all been hearing since we were children. Use your words.

It's surprising how well Dan's advice applies to relationships. A little honesty when its difficult <to be honest> can go a long way to strengthening a relationship.

This bit of advice is just as effective when talking about recording a cappella because lets face it, there are many relationships involved when you consider a cappella groups. You have friendships, you have romantic relationships, people end up getting married, people leave the group because of breakups, etc. An a cappella group (any performing group really) is a family and family dynamics can vary greatly.

In these close-knit groups, we aren't only building close relationships... we are singing too. We are using our voice. The most personal of all instruments. It's part of our body... and the same self-image issues we have with our body are connected to our voice as well. 

So just like in a relationship, we often have a hard time being honest in an a cappella group. The person singing flat might be our friend or lover. They might be dealing with any number of problems outside the group that you're concerned for them about. Heck, you might just be a really positive person that doesn't like to make anyone feel bad.

However, when there's a performance issue or other problem in the group, not being honest hinders the group and the singers individually.

 

Here are some tips to help you use your words, become a better group, and get better recordings.

The best way to help you avoid any discomfort in the first place is to do these two things.

1. Strive for a common goal. Some of the most successful and consistently awesome a cappella groups start with a common goal. Each year (or more regularly) they discuss their goals as a group. What they want to do, who they want to be, what they want to be known for, etc. Really its a mission statement of sorts. This informs all their decisions. It also helps them during their auditions. The group keeps their goals in mind when selecting singers. If a singer doesn't agree with or support the groups goals or they don't meet the level of quality the group has set for themselves, the singer doesn't get in the group (or doesn't audition in the first place).

 

2. Create an expectation of honesty within the group. Along the same lines as goals, you can discuss the importance of honesty as a group and set an expectation for it. Establish that honesty in rehearsals is not bad. It's never meant to be a personal attack or negative. It's constructive and always in support of the group goals. And then back it up.

Be blunt... often.

Be honest in a matter-of-fact way so that everyone gets used to the freedom honesty can provide.

If everyone is always being honest, everyone will get used to hearing the truth and won't freak out when someone tells them they are singing a syllable wrong. Face it... it is hard to hear exactly how you sound or if your section is in tune with the entire group on a certain part. The director or the people standing across the circle from you are in a better position to help. Trust them.

 

The Benefits of Honesty

1. Honesty will make your group and your singers better. When you are constructively made aware of issues with your and/or others' performance(s), you will become a better singer (your instrument) and a better musician (your art). You'll also understand more about how you fit into the group's sound, the arrangement, the energy of the song, etc.

Additionally, you'll trust each other and grow to become an organism instead of just a bunch of individuals. This is a big component of why some groups are amazing.

2. Honesty can save you time and money. What if someone who normally sings tenor on most songs isn't sounding right on the tenor part of a new song? If you have a culture of honesty, asking that person to switch down to baritone hopefully won't crush them emotionally. (never know with tenors though...)

Specifically as it relates to recording (after all, this is a recording blog), honesty can limit the amount of wasted time in rehearsal or in front of a microphone. If you are recording yourselves and someone just isn't getting a part or showed up sick or unprepared, a group with a culture of honesty can easily tell that person to come back at another time and prevent the lost time that happens as you struggle through a take or two with that person. If you've hired an engineer to record you, this can save money by not wasting time

 

Use your words... :-)

Thanks for reading! Have fun making great music!

 

 

 

Step 4 in the recording process... MIXING

If you missed them, make sure you check out our posts about pre-production, tracking, and editing before reading this post about mixing.

During mixing, all of the recorded elements are balanced, processed, and arranged in the sound-stage (the space from left to right when using stereo speakers) to create a clear and finished version of your performance.

The editor sends your tracks to a mixing engineer (usually a separate engineer who specializes in mixing). The mixing engineer uses compression, reverb, delays, and other processing to fit everything together so that everything is heard at the right amount. They create an atmosphere for the track that fits the style of the song or your performance. The mixing engineer will also enhance the most important elements of the mix (the drums, bass, and lead vocal) so that they are easily heard.

Mixing takes many years of practice to gain proficiency and requires that the engineer have significant knowledge of the physics of sound. A mixing engineer that works with bands has to make sure that many competing voices and instruments in a mix have their own space and can be heard. This can be hard to do when many instruments sit in the same frequency range. Acappella mixing can be even more difficult because you're dealing with many tracks of the same instrument (the voice) stacked on top of each other, competing for the listeners attention.

I've heard several Grammy-winning mixing engineers say that they are still learning and struggling with every mix they do and that they change parts of their approach regularly as they continue to learn and improve.

Like editing, this step is better left to those with experience. It will save you time and money.

Step 3 in the recording process... Editing

If you missed them, make sure you check out our posts about pre-production and tracking before reading this post about editing.

During editing, the recorded material is tuned and time corrected to varying degrees to make your material more pristine. As I mentioned in our tracking article, it's really important to get as good a recording as possible during tracking so that you don't have to edit as much. You will need to edit some though and I definitely recommend hiring someone with large amounts of experience to do this step for you.

An editor (sometimes the producer who tracked you, a separate editor, or perhaps someone from your group who wants to learn how), imports your tracks into editing software like Melodyne and spends 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or more hours cleaning everything up so that it all fits together and is in tune.

Editing is not a cookie-cutter formulaic process. Each recording is different and needs different treatment. Music is diverse and an editor needs to be a good musician that can make choices based on the music that they are editing. It's very easy to over edit and finding someone with experience can make all the difference in getting a great edit that doesn't sound like you were edited. 

"How do we get one of our tracks on __________?"

I get this question at least once a month from groups around the world. "How do we get one of our tracks on BOCA, BOHSA, Voices Only, SING, etc etc?"

Since BOCA first appeared over 20 years ago (man, I'm old...), compilations have been a goal for many groups. I spent much of my a cappella "career" agonizing over getting a song on one of these compilations. It was a big goal for me.

In the past 10 years, recorded a cappella has gotten more and more competitive. The bar is higher, and more groups who work with one of the many professional a cappella engineers are able to reach the bar. It's hard to rise above the crowd.

My friend Deke Sharon, creator of BOCA and BOHSA has an excellent video telling you how to get on BOCA and all of his advice works for most of the compilations and really for the general success of your recordings.

Pay particular attention to what he says from 3:00 to the end of the video.

Heart... A recording that has passion, energy, intensity, is honest and authentic and deeply moves people in the outside world will increase it's chance for success however you might define it.

Having now had several songs selected to compilations, I can tell you, it feels nice. It's cool to be recognized for your efforts. Would I rather make my audience happy and give them a great product though? Any day.

Thanks for reading! Have fun making great music!

Why are we trying to be so perfect?

The death of Prince today and David Bowie recently serve as reminders to me that great music is rarely if ever perfect. Listen to how beautiful their music is... and listen to how imperfect many of those recordings are. As I mentioned in a recent post, editing technology has led to a need for music production to be razor perfect in pop music today. To me, that strips the music of some of its humanity.

Join me in revisiting some of these great recordings. Enjoy their imperfections. Enjoy their beauty.

Step 2 in the Recording Process: Tracking

Let's continue our exploration of the recording process. Take a look at our discussion of the first step, pre-production, if you missed it.

Tracking = the actual recording of the material

On most acappella recordings today, the vast majority of recording is done individually. One singer standing very close to one microphone... or a few singers each on their own microphone with plenty of separation or isolation. This allows for control in the editing and mixing process. It also contributes significantly to the "in your face" sound that you hear on many modern a cappella recordings. Imagine if you had 16 ears and each ear was within 6 to 8 inches of each singers mouth (without the spit of course). That's what you are hearing.

There is usually some type of guide track playing while singers record so that they have a pitch and time reference. Most often this is a MIDI file of the arrangement, an audio file of the original song, or even a live performance by the group. Most people tend to use MIDI files because they give you a consistent and controllable source of pitch and time and also provide data that can be helpful in the editing and mixing part of the process.

Tracking can be done in almost any order but we made some recommendations in our post on creating an effective recording schedule.

Tracking is so important to the final product. Technology these days can fix just about anything... tuning, timing, noise, tone, etc. It's easy to fall into the trap of saying "we'll fix it during editing" or "we'll fix it in the mix." In an effort to save time or money we often say those things over and over. This is dangerous though because ENERGY, PASSION, PERFORMANCE INTENSITY, and MUSICALITY are hard to add/fix in the later stages of the recording. Take the time to get it right in tracking. It will lead to a better product and save you time and money in the long run.

At the end of the tracking process, you have a bunch of raw tracks that fit together but might have tuning and timing issues here and there. These are fixed in editing. We'll discuss that next week.

Thanks for reading! Have fun making great music!