This Spotlight series was initially created to focus on the important but often under-appreciated members of the a cappella community: the producers. However, many producers in this field are also performers. This week’s spotlight features someone who is not only a producer, he is a top-notch arranger and he performs in not one, but two vocal bands: one on each coast.
Nick Girard founded Boston’s Overboard in 2006, and in the 6 years since then the group has produced 6 albums and 52- that’s right, 52!- free tracks for download as part of the groundbreaking Free Track Tuesday series. The group has won the Boston Regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes competition, won and been nominated for many Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARAs) in categories as diverse as Best Religious Song, Best Holiday Album/Song, Best Jazz Song, Best Hip Hop/R&B song, and Best Pop/Rock Album, and many ACAs (A cappella Community Awards) as well. In addition to recording their own tracks, Nick and the group formed Overboard Productions, which has recorded, edited, or mixed numerous professional and collegiate groups and Nick himself has arranged, recorded, and mixed for the most recent season (S3) of The Sing Off. In late 2011, he joined The House Jacks, longtime vocal rock band based in the San Francisco area, and immediately went out on their tour to Germany and Austria.
He currently trades time and performances between both groups and coasts, and works with Overboard Productions primarily in the Boston area. Please check out the Overboard (band and production) website here and the House Jacks website here.
Nick- thank you so much for taking the time out of what seems to be an impossibly busy schedule to do this interview. I’d love for you to share a few insights as someone whose professional life seems to be saturated with producing, arranging, and singing a cappella music.
I get the sense that you started out in the recording arena as a way of getting your own group’s tracks and albums done, and then eventually decided to expand and offer the same services to other groups. Was sound reinforcement and production something that interested you back when you were in college, or did it develop more as a result of the work you put into Overboard’s albums?
In 7th grade, my junior high music teacher lent me a Fostex X-15 4-track tape recorder to play around with, so I guess you could say that’s where it all began. Then, in high school, I played in a few bands and we spent a bunch of time in the studio working on projects, as well as fighting the live sound battle, so a lot of my interest developed at a young age.
By the time Overboard started, I’d picked up a few skills here and there, but not nearly enough to do anything alone. They say necessity is the mother of invention and that couldn’t be more true here. We recorded our first album, Shipwrecked, in my living room with GarageBand after having known each other for two weeks. It was a bit of a disaster, but it gave us something to sell while performing on the streets, which was our ultimate goal. About a year later, we were in the middle of recording our first studio album, Stranded, when our budget began to run out. So, I borrowed an Mbox from my brother and edited the album in Pro Tools using an Auto-Tune demo plug-in.
After Stranded, we worked with Ed Boyer for our holiday album, Tidings, and I obsessively watched everything he did. When it came time to record our concept album, Help!, budget was a huge concern. We knew we wanted tons of tracks and layers and that we’d be improvising a bunch of the more complicated tracks, particularly “Good Night” and “Get Back,” so it would have been insanely expensive to have Ed track it from start to finish. Instead, he came up for a weekend, tracked percussion and some overdubs on “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Good Day Sunshine” and we laboriously tracked the rest throughout that summer.
Some guys from my college group, the University of Vermont Top Cats, heard Help!, liked what we’d done, and asked if I could work on an album for them. It was their first album in 10 years and I’d never edited beyond Stranded or mixed anything myself, but thankfully they trusted me and I learned on the job.
Once that project was winding down, Overboard’s membership had changed and we wanted to do something interesting as a follow-up to Help!. A few of the other guys had far more recording experience than I, and we thought that getting into production would be a good way to make some extra money to supplement our performing earnings. To develop our skills and promote the new group, we decided to release a new track every week for a year- Free Track Tuesday. We did the arranging, tracking, editing, mixing, and for most of them, the mastering. Without question, some tracks were better than others, but all of them taught us something. “FTT” was a great training ground and, within a couple of months, we began freelancing with other a cappella engineers, and then ultimately taking on our own clients.
Do you guys spend more time on tracking, editing, mixing, or live sound? Which stage of the process do you enjoy most?
For the first year of Overboard Productions, other than our own Free Track Tuesday work, we spent most of our time tracking and editing for other engineers. Then, in September 2011, we ran a Back to School Special- editing/mixing/mastering 12 tracks for $3,000. From that initiative and from good old-fashioned word of mouth, we’ve gotten more and more mixing projects. In addition to working on albums, a large part of our business this past year has also been arranging for collegiate and professional groups.
Although it’s hard to pick a favorite part of the process, arranging is my first love and probably the thing I’m most passionate about. Arranging, and music generally, allows me to communicate emotions when words fail me.
At present, we don’t do any work with live sound outside of our own shows, but I’ll definitely never say never. Additionally, we don’t currently master; most of our projects get mastered by Dave Sperandio of Diovoce.
I’m sure you get asked about this a lot, but the effects on Overboard’s version of “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter are pretty impressive. How long did it take you to get some of those instrumental effects, and was it largely a process of trial and error?
“Hedwig’s Theme” was a big undertaking for us. Lots of tracks and layers, lots of critical listening in order to pull parts from the original orchestral recording. But, in the end, nearly everything you hear on the track is sung as-is, with the notable exception of the introduction. The intro is a collection of whistles, sequenced in the same way drums are typically programmed. Other than some reverb, the whistling has virtually no effects on it. Most of what you hear has some EQ and compression for shaping, and that’s about it. That track was really an exploration in sound production from the singer side of the mic, not the engineer side. And in many ways it’s a testament to the remarkable (and totally under-appreciated) vocal talents of Alex Green and Jeff Eames.
On a related note, 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 recording software? [trade secrets need not be discussed]
Other than an afternoon at Ed Boyer’s house before I began the Top Cats album, I’m largely self-taught. Most of what I’ve learned has been through trial-and-error and the kindness of a cappella luminaries like Ed, Dio and Bill Hare who (thankfully) answer my emails and give me advice. My own advice to anyone interested in working in music production is to start playing around with stuff– you never know what you’ll stumble upon. Also, spend time trying to listen to why things sound the way they do, physically. That’ll help you once you start sound designing.
Have you worked on any projects with Overboard Productions that did not involve a cappella music?
I’ve personally done a fair amount of non-a cappella recording, but Overboard Productions hasn’t done much yet. We’ve got a few projects coming up this summer that are either entirely instrumental or hybrids, so I’m really excited to explore that side of production.
What is your typical approach for recording VP, or does it depend on the client?
It totally depends on the performer. Everyone produces his/her sounds in a slightly different way, so the approach varies accordingly. Close-mic, off-axis, plosives…all depends on what the end aesthetic will be and how the source sounds are created.
What single track have you worked on in the past 6 months or year that you are particularly proud of?
I’m pretty self-critical, so a lot of the time when I listen to my own stuff, I only hear the things I wish I could do better, but here a few recent, albeit totally biased, examples.
From an arrangement standpoint, there are a few I did for The Sing Off that I’m pretty proud of: “Good Feeling” with Flo Rida, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds, and “Carol of the Bells” for the University of Rochester YellowJackets come to mind.
From a production standpoint, we’ve been lucky enough to work with the University of St. Andrews Other Guys on a few of their singles and on their last album. I edited and mixed their most recent single “St. Andrew’s Girls” (a spin-off of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”) and was pretty pleased with how that turned out.
What a cappella track have you heard in the past 6 months or year that made you say “Wow, I wish I had a hand in that project?”
I’ve been lucky enough to hear the evolution of the new Pentatonix EP, from the early mixes to the final product. It’ll be released on June 26, and it’s outstanding. I’ve always been a huge fan of Ed’s work, but he really outdid himself on this one. Moreover, you can really tell that the group, along with their arranger Ben Bram, took the time to hone each arrangement, each performance, each mix. I appreciate that attention to detail, the treatment of an album as a piece of art rather than an item on a to-do list.
I noticed you play the guitar. Do you feel that instrumental knowledge or skill informs or influences your arranging style in any way?
I feel strongly that it’s difficult to be a musician without being knowledgeable about music. That doesn’t mean that you have to have a degree in music to be a musician (my degree is in math), but it does mean that in order to understand musical devices, specifically in an arranging context, you have to study how music works in a manner that resonates with you. I didn’t really sing until college– all my music experience prior to that was instrumental as a guitarist, drummer, concert percussionist, and woodwind player– so coming from an instrumental background provided me with an understanding of the organization of music and why certain things work the way they do. After college, I took a couple of music theory courses and developed a deeper understanding of musical function, which has helped enormously.
You were the primary organizer of The PickUps, the collection of festival attendees who perform, at two recent CASA festivals (BOSS and LAAF). Why did you choose to get involved in organizing these groups?
I sang with the Single Singers at the 2012 London A Cappella Festival and was so moved by the experience of singing with a collection of musicians I had never met before. Many of us didn’t even speak the same language, but as soon as we started singing, we were all in our common element. It was a really cool collaboration and something that I thought would be an enjoyable addition to the domestic festivals– the opportunity for a cappella enthusiasts to share in an active musical experience while at the festivals. After all, we’re all involved in the a cappella community because we share an appreciation for singing.
What first drew you into a cappella music?
My college group used this audition slogan for years: “Chicks dig guys who can sing.” The rest is history…Seriously, though, before ever seeing the group or knowing they existed, I overheard them rehearsing late one night in the music building. They were singing “It’s Probably Me” by Sting, featured in the opening scene of Lethal Weapon 3, and I was super-impressed to hear a “pop” song performed by a vocal group. I auditioned for the group based solely on my assumption that they were, in fact, the group I had overheard that night…and the hope that their promise that girls would be impressed would prove true.
What is the best live a cappella show you’ve seen?
The Swingle Singers. Every time I see them, they blow my mind. I also saw FORK for the first time this past January at the London A Cappella Festival and was so inspired by their musicality, humor, and the shape of their performance.
Owing to the generous depth of his responses, which I (and I’m sure you) appreciate, Nick suggested we break this interview into two parts. The second part, featuring his responses to questions about his membership in Overboard and The House Jacks, is up now right here.