Producer’s Spotlight: Dave Sperandio

*** As someone who spent some time in a recording studio, spent some time owning a small studio, and someone who is fascinated by the process of tracking, mixing, and mastering, I am often curious about the people who choose to focus their careers largely or entirely in the field of producing recorded a cappella music.  So, I decided to start a series devoted to interviewing these people in an effort to learn more about what they do, how they do it, and who they are. I hope to get one of these interviews up at least once each month, though sometimes it may be more frequent and other times less so. I invite feedback as well as suggestions for future spotlight selections.

I was lucky enough to get the best possible choice for the first interview in this series, Mr. Dave Sperandio of diovoce, a full-service a cappella production company. 

Dave Sperandio is a nice guy. He is also a singer (formerly of the UNC Clef Hangers, Vocal Tonic, Almost Recess, and transit), entrepreneur, founder of diovoce, creator of the SoJam a cappella festival, creator of the “Sing” vocal compilation series, and the Director of Events for The Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA). He’s also an accomplished and talented producer whose tracks have been nominated for and won many CARA awards, been selected for BOCA, Sing, and Voices Only compilations, and received glowing reviews on RARB (Recorded A cappella Review Board). Basically, he is an a cappella force of nature. And he was nice enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions for me.  Please check out his websites, diovoce and http://www.davesperandio.com/.

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Dave- Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I’d like to ask you a little about the modern a cappella recording process and your own role and experiences as a recording, mixing, and mastering engineer, but I don’t want to step on the various workshops you teach at many of the CASA festivals, so please let me know if you feel an answer would be better or more appropriately presented at an upcoming festival.

TOPIC- Studio

Acatribe: Ten years ago, the standard process for recording a collegiate a cappella song involved entering the studio with a guide track (MIDI or otherwise) and having each section go in and sing through a song from start to finish together with each singer individually mic’d, with the section doing punch-ins or overdubs as needed. I get a sense that there is a lot more micromanaging of tracking or editing now. Is this true, and if so how does it work?

Dave Sperandio (DS): My approach during recording has always been to 1) Focus resources and B) Think about what you are singing.  Focusing resources can mean many things, from recording 1-4 bars at a time (focusing mental and physical resources) to only recording certain persons on certain parts (saving time / putting the best person on the part).

Thinking about what you are singing can mean the topic / mood of the song, the syllables and how they interplay with the arrangement, the instrument you are trying to emulate, the way you want your audience to feel when they hear the song, etc.

Acatribe: Some people say that this falsifies the process, because a group isn’t really singing the song from start to finish, at least not as they could do live. Do you take any position on this argument?

DS: Movies are not shot in one contiguous take. Much of art is not created in one sitting.

What is the single most common mistake groups make when coming in for a recording session?

DS: Failing to take the preparation and process seriously. Getting trashed the night before. Showing up late or without their music. Not knowing their music. Being too tied to the written arrangement.

What is one thing you would recommend all groups do or prepare for before coming in to record?

DS: Be prepared. With hearts and ambitions bared, of course. Here’s a basic doc with more details. 

Do you encourage groups to use a single engineer to mix their tracks/albums (yourself or someone else) or do you recommend that they search for individuals who will fit the different songs accordingly? If the latter, do you feel that hurts the overall continuity and flow of the album?

DS: I think it depends on a number of factors. I work with colleagues every day, collaborating on albums. If I have a very strong relationship with a group, or have a “vision” for how an album should be made, I may take on more of the work. But almost always there are multiple engineers involved now. If I’ve already mixed 8 versions of “Animal”, I’m not doing to do the 9th one justice. If I’ve had the soul-draining experience of editing a track, I will be pretty tapped out creatively when it comes time to mix it, and my perspective will be skewed.

Along these same lines, if you mix a project, you usually shouldn’t master it as well. The value of a good mastering engineer, aside from their specialized experience and equipment, is their perspective. This is a big part of why so many other a cappella engineers send me their projects to master: they are too close to the project, and they recognize that what is best for the project is to have someone who knows what the “sound” they want is, but who isn’t going to be mired down with remembering that little edit they made that only they can hear and worry about, or be “blinded” by other factors.

What is the one plugin (or, if you use them, piece of outboard gear) that you use the most or feel is the most indispensable to what you do?

DS: My brain. The only advantage I have over anyone else is the volume of mistakes that I have made, and the perspective gained from same.

Do you believe in using different mics for different voices or different parts, or do you have one mic that you feel gets the job done for most or all parts?

DS: If you’re recording 50-190 audio tracks, you should never use the same mic for all of them. Other than that, there are no real rules – if it sounds good, it is good! 

Engineers are frequently learning new and different techniques for recording and mixing. Have you had any cool and unexpected tricks which might be interesting to those out there who dabble in Pro Tools or other digital recording software? [trade secrets need not be discussed]

DS: Honestly, some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever done was as a result of a mistake made – leaving a plugin on when it “should” have been bypassed, letting a singer sing something the “wrong” way, trying non-traditional configurations of mic placement, compression, etc. Yes, this is a license to go into the studio and “screw around” – as long as you’re doing it with a purpose :)

What single track have you worked on in the past 6 months or year that you are particularly proud of?

DS: For recording / mixing: probably the last two albums from Duke Out of the Blue, and the new release from UCLA Bruin Harmony. Both examples of excellent planning, vision, singing, and overall execution from start to finish. True works of “art”.

For mastering: way too many to count!

You started diovoce 12 years ago. How has the business side of it changed over that time frame?

DS: The model I created has enabled many others to shape their own vocal production companies in our image, to the benefit of the community, I believe. We have helped to accelerate the growth of contemporary vocal music by inspiring others.

Aside from that, expectations grow exponentially with each year. Clients who may have put out “terrible” albums just 2-3 years ago now expect “draft 1” to sound like every track on BOCA. That’s frustrating at times, but a real testament to how far we have come.
 
We also do the bulk of our work online now – FTP, Dropbox, etc. are the order of the da (sorry, USPS!). I often never meet many of the clients I work with, though I often get to catch up with them at one of CASA’s events.

Do you have any big changes or plans going forward with diovoce in the coming years?

DS: More and more of my work is transitioning into mastering and live event performance (SoJam, LAAF, BOSS, Acappellafest, VoCALnation, etc). I’m privileged to work with many of the top a cappella producers in mastering much of their work (Ed Boyer, James Cannon, James Gammon, Tat Tong, Mark Hines, Dave Longo, Danny Ozment, Nick Girard, Charlie Friday, Alfredo Austin, Tim Bongiovanni, Eric Talley, Angele Ugolini, and so many other wonderful producers).

TOPIC: SoJam

I know that you started SoJam back in 2003. What did you hope to achieve with the festival?

DS: I wanted to create synergy within the region, and to begin to cross-pollinate between college, pro, semi-pro groups. I wanted to give them a stage and an environment to become truly great.

How has the festival changed since that time, and are you satisfied with the direction it has taken?

DS: It has grown tremendously, and it has fostered and even spawned many of the brightest stars in our community. Christopher Diaz, Alli Brooks, Mark Hines, Nick Lyons, Lo Barreiro, Angela Ugolini, and many others are who they are today in no small part because of SoJam and the spark it provided to their already plentiful “tinderboxes”, if you will. It’s been quite an honor to watch them and so many others grow.

Any plans to change or expand upon a particular aspect of SoJam going forward?

DS: SoJam X is this year – stay tuned!

TOPIC- CASA

I know that you are now the Director of Events for CASA Festivals. I saw you tweet recently that there are 2 “undisclosed” CASA festivals to look forward to in the future, perhaps this year. What goals do you and CASA have in expanding the number of festivals?

DS: We are doing our best to manage our growth intelligently, and to always keep our focus on excellence and the “right” way to do things, rather than growing for growth’s sake, or for our own edification. To steal from the great Steve Jobs, the more I am involved in this community, the more I realize that motivations truly do matter. They are everything.

It seems that the festivals all follow a particular format, with the Friday night scholastic showcase and Saturday night professional showcase, as well as a number of repeat lecturers for the workshops (e.g. Tom Anderson, yourself). Have you been tempted at all to change up the format or the workshops for any future festivals?

DS: We’ve changed things up a bit here and there – LAAF 2012’s competition was open to all scholastic groups, for instance. BOSS 2012 will feature a radically different competition structure, somewhat more akin to a reality show format. One thing that is always hard to manage is the temptation to try to cram in as much as we possibly can into the events. Again, to borrow form Apple: focus is key, in my experience. This is something that I hope differentiates us from other festivals and vocal events.

Has the attendance at these festivals generally been fairly consistent, or is SoJam the top-drawing festival with varying degrees of success behind it?

DS: SoJam is the largest in terms of workshop attendees, though we have artificially limited its growth in order to maintain our standards. LAAF has the most concert attendees, because of the size of the venue. This could all change in 2012, however! 

Acatribe: Dave, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it, and I wish you the best of luck with diovoce, CASA, and all of your other projects.

— Once again, you can find out more about Dave Sperandio and diovoce by clicking here and here respectively.