Even though the landscape is different today and you may not be doing a full album, planning and pre-production are still the most crucial step. Do them and you will get a better result.
For many groups, recording is a given. "We're in an a cappella group, we have to record." That's where I was when I started a group in college. I heard the groups on BOCA. Going to school in Virginia, I heard some great albums from groups like the Virginia Gentleman and the Hullabahoos and I just assumed that being a college group meant that you had to record. Every year.
That used to be the case. Many groups put out an album each year or every other year of the stuff they'd performed. That's what we did. And you know what, our albums were always a bit of a let down. Things just didn't fit together or keep the listener interested.
Why were they a let down? We didn't do any planning for them. At all. We just walked into the studio ready to record what we'd done on stage. There are so many issues with that.
If you want to record your group, first ask yourselves a very important question.
WHY ARE WE MAKING A RECORDING?
It's so important to state an overall goal and vision for the recording. You're about to spend a lot of time, money, and effort on a project that will exist forever. Do you just want a record of what your group sang this year (a yearbook album)? Awesome! Maybe you want something to use as a marketing tool for your group. Do you have a great artistic idea for a themed concept album? Go for it. Maybe you have an enthusiastic audience who wants to listen to your stuff on Spotify. Fame and fortune???? Yes!
All of these are great goals/visions. You have to state them and you have to get everyone involved in the project to buy into these goals. If you do, you'll have a much better chance of reaching your goal.
Once you've agreed upon and stated your goal and vision, you need to start selecting songs for your project whether it's an EP or an album. Remember how I said this recording will last forever? Even if you are just creating a yearbook album, you probably have more songs in your current repertoire than will fit on an album. Maybe you want to get all your graduating or retiring members solos recorded. This can work though I'm much more a fan of thinking about your current and future audience when selecting songs. What do people outside the group who support you and are paying money for the recordings want to hear? Which songs might hold up 10 years from now? Even if you have to record all of your songs, you can always pick some songs to go on the EP or album and release others as singles. Think about which songs fit well together or are most popular with your audience.
Dare I say it, you may even need to ask yourselves which solos are the best? I'm hoping you don't have this issue because you've followed the advice of not arranging or performing songs for which you don't have someone capable of singing the solo but if you do, or if you have too many great solos, you might have to choose.
If you have a theme for an album or EP, that may inform your selection process as well.
The rest of pre-production is mostly technical and preparatory. If you listen to a lot of a cappella recordings (or any recordings for that matter), you'll notice that the majority of recordings are slightly different from the live version. This became standard with the dawn of multi-track recording where bands could overdub (record additional tracks over what they play live) parts onto their albums. A 4-piece band like the Beatles could add additional percussion, brass, strings, and synthesizers to their songs. This is not as much the case any more because many bands actually play live with their additional tracks being played live by a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Pro Tools while they play their core parts.
The recorded version of the song became the band's ideal version of the song because even though they may have written the song and played it a few times live, they were crafting the completed version of the song in the studio first and then playing the song live. A cappella groups can benefit from this as well even though you are usually arranging a song to perform it live and then recording it later on. This is your chance to do some things that you can't do live or tweak some things that will sound different in a studio mix than they would live without microphones. We'll talk more about arranging for the studio in future posts.
Once you have your recording arrangement done you'll need to prepare guide tracks for your singers to listen to while they record. These will provide your singers a pitch and tempo reference so that everything will stay in the right key and consistent across the recording. Most often I use the MIDI file from your arrangement to create these guide tracks. Maybe you don't have a written arrangement for the song. You created your arrangement while singing along to the original version of the song. You could always record to the original recording though I tend to recommend writing things out so that you know what is being recorded.
Along those lines, you should start rehearsing with recording in mind. People will be recording individually or in small numbers while listening to a piano track and metronome in their headphones. That's a very different experience than singing live in a group. Start isolating voice parts in rehearsal. Check parts that may have evolved over the course of singing a song throughout the year. Ever played the game "telephone?" You know what I mean...
Lastly, it's a great idea to choose a producer to oversee the direction and logistics of the album. They will be responsible for creating a recording schedule and keeping things on track. They can keep the goal in mind and the group focused. They'll also communicate with any outside professionals you use for editing, mixing, mastering, graphic design, licensing, distribution, and manufacturing.
Thanks for reading! Have fun making great music!