How to get that Pentatonix vocal percussion sound.
I love this quote. It sums up why it is so important to have a coach or mentor. Or why it's important to bring in a qualified professional to do something that you might not have experience doing.
You may have also heard the cliche don't reinvent the wheel. Similar idea. When we start to learn something new we often don't want to listen to someone with more experience. Maybe we think we're going to do it differently or figure out some new way of doing things. You might, but most likely not.
Someone who is a professional or expert at something has already made hundreds of mistakes while learning to do what they now do so well. And for some reason, those same mistakes occur when anyone else starts to learn how to do the same thing. It saves a lot of time to listen to those people when they warn you about mistakes to avoid. Trust me, they know.
That's the main reason I started this site. At first it's a place for you to learn how to avoid all the mistakes I made as I learned my craft. And as it grows, I want it to be a place for you to learn from each other and share your own mistakes.
And remember, sometimes mistakes lead to some new idea or technique. So, listen to me, but don't be afraid to make your own big mistakes and find out something new.
In design, there's a concept known as "Less is more." Basically minimalism.
It's defined by Google as...
- That which is less complicated is often better understood and more appreciated than what is more complicated; simplicity is preferable to complexity; brevity in communication is more effective than verbosity.
The basic premise is that that simplicity and clarity lead to good design. Focus on the following ideas...
Don't use a lot where a little will do
Lower quantity means more quality
Make elements purer, more direct, and more potent
And this can be applied to many things in music...
Most often, I use it when talking to vocal percussionists (who often refer to themselves as beatboxers) which I will henceforth refer to as drummers. I find that drummers who started learning their instrument using their mouth and just creating sounds rather than sitting behind a kit playing along with Billy Joel albums or slogging through methods books by Carmine Appice have missed THE essential building block of being a great drummer. LESS IS MORE.
1. Focus on the form of the song and come up with simple patterns that support the form of the song (Don't use a lot where a little will do)
2. Focus on the groove and make sure it supports on enhances what the bassline is doing. You are part of the rhythm section. (Make elements purer, more direct, and more potent)
3. Less fills and only at transition points (Lower quantity means more quality)
If you want to understand how this principle applies to drumming, go listen to Steve Gadd (Paul Simon and pretty much everyone else), Liberty Devitto (Billy Joel), Larry Mullen (U2 and in particular Sunday Bloody Sunday)
You often hear the term less is more used in mixing as well. If you have too many parts/things in a mix, they end up competing for the listeners attention. Mixes have limited room for stuff and if you overload it with too many parts or plug-ins or tracks, the resulting clutter will just make your mix confusing and cluttered. Adding more stuff to make something sound big can actually have the opposite effect. Those competing frequencies can just end up making your mix sound small. The best mix engineers in the world have actually mastered the art of using the MUTE button.
Less truly is more
In our modern world, it's hard to practice the less is more principle. We're indoctrinated by our consumer culture that you should always have more, want more... MOAR EEZ BETTAH!!!!
But instead of doing more and assuming it’s better, if you focus on doing less and doing it really really well, you will be more deliberate, less scattered, more mindful, less flustered, and more present.
There are many reasons for recording in short segments when recording an acappella group. HEre are just a few.
For decades, acappella recording engineers have double-tracked the singers who perform the backing parts in an arrangement. All the tenors, altos, sopranos, harmonies, auxes, adds, trios, and even the basses end up with two (or sometimes more) separate and unique tracks of their entire part. Why? Danny answers that question with this video.
BONUS: he even shows you how the pros handle a divisi/split in a part when recording.
Do you have a personal project sitting around at home. You know the one I'm talking about. That song that you just can't get right... that you work on every few days in your free-time after work.
Maybe you're a group who's recorded a song 3 times and still don't like the energy.
What about that mix that you've been working on for 3 months but just aren't satisfied with...?
STOP and just GET IT OUT THERE!!!
1. You're stealing your creative energy from future projects and getting frustrated. Frustration is one of the worst things you can go through as an artist. I know it's your baby, but you have to let your baby leave the nest at some point.
2. You need feedback to grow and you won't get feedback until someone hears it. Yes, even negative feedback. Both criticism and praise will help you learn more about what your audience wants to hear from you.
3. You're depriving your audience. You are creating things in order to entertain them. No matter who they are, that's why your audience is there. TO BE ENTERTAINED BY YOU... Why are you keeping them from being entertained.
I've devoured plenty of books by veteran artists and engineers, heard too many interviews to count, and listened to many panels at conventions. If Grammy winning engineers feel like they never get it 100% right, how are you going to get there? Trust me, you'll never get that last 5 - 10% towards perfect. Perfect is impossible.
As long as you've done your best and what you created has integrity, you can be happy to let the world see what you've done.
Done is better than perfect. Get it out there.
Responding to a question about whether or not the tips in the first EQ video apply to other types of groups (all female, mixed, all male, etc).
One of my email list subscribers and workshop participants asked me to take a listen to a mix he'd done recently (ok a few months ago... sorry for the delay!) and while the mix was great, it suffered from a build up of frequencies because that's just the way it is with a cappella. Check out this video on a basic EQ treatment most aca mixes have.
A few months ago I made this video for my email list subscribers. Musicality is so simple to add yet it is missing from a great many a cappella performances and recordings I hear. Here's a few recommendations to help you out.
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.
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!
All DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations - Pro Tools, Logic, Studio One, Digital 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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What are the benefits of recording yourself? Here are a few...
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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Danny shares some examples of what raw, edited, mixed, and mastered versions of the same song sound like.
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...
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.
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.
Here are their takes on mastering. Thanks guys for sharing your expertise!
Dave Sperandio: 5 Reasons Your Music Needs Mastering
Bill Hare: What is Mastering? Song: Es War Gut So performed by Maybebop
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!
You've heard some nice low end on a lot of a cappella tracks. Does every group have a killer bass singer with huge low end? Nope... Here's what you are hearing.
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.