The Return of The Sing Off and Instruments (and Both)

If it seems like we’ve been gone awhile, you’re not wrong.


I’ve been planning a post for awhile now on a growing trend in the a cappella community which may seem counter-intuitive: vocal music with instruments. The inspiration for such a post was the release in the past year of two albums from American professional vocal bands which contained actual instruments, not voices produced to simulate instruments. The Exchange and The Edge Effect released albums months apart which were similar in several regards, the most notable of which was the fact that neither was technically “a cappella.”

An interesting thing happened before I was able to publish this post. THIS website was updated

The most notable detail contained in the audition notice: “instruments and backing tracks are allowed but not required.”

Deke Sharon confirmed on Facebook in the comments section of the CASA group page post that the show will allow both options this year.

It is possible, if not likely, that some in the a cappella community will react negatively.  I wanted to take a closer look at the issue, so here we go.

First, let’s take a look at a cappella groups such as The Exchange and The Edge Effect offering albums with instruments. Both groups/bands have rich a cappella origins, with the former comprised of all contestants or staff from The Sing Off many of whom have been recognized for their prior experiences with a cappella groups. The Edge Effect too features singers with significant a cappella experience, including former members of Mosaic Troy Dolendo, Sean Gerrity, and John Gibson. So, both groups have a cappella credentials. They have also both put out prior recordings and/or videos of purely a cappella music.

Now, both groups seem to be mainstreaming their sound and approach a little, and it is difficult to blame them. With The Exchange, they’ve spent a significant amount of time in Europe and Asia over the past 12 months, and even opened for the Backstreet Boys on tour. They have over 1 million views on YouTube, which is pretty impressive for any a cappella group (or vocal band) not named Pentatonix.

The groups have taken slightly different approaches to the use of instrumentation on their recent albums.  With “Alphabet Radio,” The Edge Effect has essentially created a classic old-school R&B album, complete with real horns, guitars, keyboards, etc.   It’s tight, crunchy, funky. It’s not, however, a cappella. With “The Good Fight,” The Exchange has a more modern, pop-infused sound, as might be expected with producer and songwriter Tat Tong on board. It’s slick, catchy, and also not a cappella.

A few years back, a cappella groups began to experiment with inserting a keyboard or some other instrument occasionally, and the fellas at Mouth Off (including Christopher Diaz, now of The Exchange) discussed the potential ramifications. Things have evolved since then, with groups like Postyr using strings, electronics and other instruments more frequently.  When I interviewed Tine Fris of the group prior to the 2013 Boston Sings festival, I asked her whether she felt the use of instruments lessened their identification as a vocal group, and here was her response:

I don’t really see us as an a cappella group. I mean, we have a few songs we sing strictly a cappella, but the whole foundation of the group is to fuse the voices with something else, so I would say that we are some kind of vocal group that produces vocal-based pop music. Or something like that. It is always difficult to label yourself, don’t you think? Personally, I love to sing a cappella, however, most of the music I compose needs a touch of something else to create the sound I have in my head. For some reason, I need a bit of disturbance to the soundscape…

I don’t know if The Exchange and The Edge Effect had similar feelings or intentions as they wrote or prepared music for their newest albums, but it would seem that they agree with Fris.

It is not exactly a new thing for vocal groups to record with backing instruments or tracks. The Nylons, Take 6, The Swingle Singers , and others have periodically done it for years. With developments in recording technology in the past decade or so, it has become easy for groups and engineers to take vocal lines and transform them into instrumental or electronic sounds. The tendency is now for hardcore a cappella fans to ask why a group would shrug away from these developments and return to accompanied music. My question is– why does it matter? The ways in which a voice are manipulated with editing, tuning, and processing mean it hardly resembles the music which came out of the singer’s mouth, and as good as a cappella engineers and producers are today, it is still difficult to obtain many of the sonic details which a backing band or synth sounds can provide around the vocal harmonies. Many of the pop artists who have received the most coverage in the a cappella community, such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or even Coldplay, have done so because they create interesting melodic and harmonic moments. Nobody ever asks how they did so.

This is a long way of saying I don’t have a problem with groups using instruments or tracks in the studio.

When it comes to performance, though, I’m a little skeptical. Setting aside, for a second, that this is supposed to be a competition (which we all know is overshadowed by the big guiding hand of Sony Music), the use of backing tracks or instruments in a live setting does seem to have a different effect on the experience and the audience. You see, the thing we all tend to love about a cappella music is the live sound in a room, the sound of voices locking and singers working together to find those overtones, those harmonies. The first musical instrument was almost certainly the human voice, and likely the first organized music came in the form of combined voices.

Those of us who have performed a cappella music have often been happiest to do so in a bathroom or hallway, someplace which allowed the voices to cascade and swell around us, without regard for audience or atmosphere.

So, when you talk about introducing instruments and/or backing tracks into a show which is supposed to be devoted to a cappella music, there is a bit of a disconnect. Now, if we are going to look at it practically, the answer has to be that this show is a business, not a tribute to the art form. We could also acknowledge that there was likely some heavy post-production on some prior performances on the show, meaning we in TV-land did not hear (or feel) the same thing as those in the room that day/night.

Acknowledging this, I suppose we have no choice but to go along with it and trust that Deke will do what he can to keep the show at least marginally true to our interests. If nothing else, it is yet another opportunity to call positive attention to our community and for us to discover new vocal talents. In other words– we can gripe about the authenticity of it, but we as a community should remain positive and supportive of this show which we desperately want to return each year.

What do you all think?



  1. Aaron at Acaville   •  

    Language is an amazing thing. It is among the best (though by no means the only) way for us to communicate meaning to one another. Every language is shaped by what’s important to the culture that speaks it. In Japanese, for instance, there are an order of magnitude more ways to describe fish than in English. Descriptive words for snow are more plentiful in far-nothern indigenous peoples’ languages.

    When we call something a cappella, we should know what that means. It’s the voice. It’s not the voice and a piano. It’s not the voice and a flute. I think it can be argued about whether it means the voice and a fancy set of engineering effects, but that’s a discussion for another time. It’s not necessarily that something a cappella is better or worse than something ‘vocal’ (here used to represent a broader swath of music that features the voice, but potentially with instrumental accompaniment), but for clarity of definition, can we not all agree that it’s different?

    One of the reasons we founded Acaville Radio was that none of the music discovery services or radio out there classified a cappella separately from ‘vocal’ music. So you might start with the Bobs or Bubs, and then it was a Norah Jones bluesy track with piano. We’re not anti-Jones, but it’s a different thing.

    You raise the point about a cappella groups doing albums that are accompanied, or that have accompanied tracks on them. I’d submit that this means they’re not purely a cappella groups. AND THAT’S OK. Look at Groove For Thought – they turn out some amazing a cappella songs, with lush harmonies and blend – and on the same album, have great jazz tunes with instrumentation and … lush harmonies and blend. For years, they have been very clear that (despite being on the Sing-Off) they are not an a cappella group. They’re a vocal group that does some a cappella songs. Makes sense to me.

    Which brings me to the Sing-Off. Nowhere in the name or other external indicia of the show does it imply a cappella. Were this the first season, and we learned there were going to be instruments or backing tracks, it probably wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. What I suspect we’d all think was that the show was going to be another iteration of America’s Got Talent or The Voice, but with groups instead of individuals. Fun, entertaining – but not directly relevant to a cappella.

    So color me cynical, but that’s sorta what I expect. Amazing vocal groups (though none in high school, apparently, since the cutoff is 18 years old), bands, and some judging/feedback. Will I watch it? Sure – I also watch the other shows I mentioned. Do I expect it to be jaw-dropping a cappella? No.

    A cappella as a genre is a funny thing, and in a funny place right now. It’s constantly growing in wider acceptance and awareness, and largely I think that’s happening because fans of ‘vocal’ music are discovering a cappella. Yet I think there are fans of a cappella that allow their personal preference become a sneering superiority – instruments aren’t a cappella, therefore groups with instruments are a lesser form. Over the long term, an attitude that denigrates the genres that the masses are using as “gateway genres” to a cappella will significantly slow the rate of a cappella adoption.

    Better to embrace the wider field of ‘vocal’ music, recognize the wonder of the voice wherever it’s found, and then, for a cappella advocates, gently point out the idiosyncratically amazeballs things that can be done with voice alone. Because that’s something a bit different from ‘vocal’ music. Something a bit trickier. Something a bit, to my ears, cooler.

    It’s a cappella.

  2. Dave Bernstein   •     Author

    Very well said. This is frankly the kind of response I was expecting, and maybe even hoping to see. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear enough that I have a very strong preference for all vocal music, pure a cappella, and always will have such a preference. Have I listened to the albums referenced above and enjoyed them? Yes. Do I listen to them as often as I listen to groups I assume have not used instruments? No. I’d be curious to hear your response to the fact that while an album from Arora or Street Corner Symphony may be purely a cappella, it is heavily manipulated with effects, editing and pitch manipulation etc.. It’s technically all-vocal, but it’s not the kind of “a cappella” that the phrase was intended to connote.

    As far as the show goes, I must admit- it disappointed me when I first saw the rules allowing backing tracks and instruments. I may have written this post to convince myself that it isn’t the worst thing in the world, or maybe just to play devil’s advocate. In some ways I was already let down by the show a few years back when certain groups who were clearly immensely talented were kicked off before lesser groups because of the strategic populist decisions of the studio or network, and that may have dulled my reaction this time around.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, and thank you for what you guys do at Acaville!

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  4. Oliver Danni Green   •  

    I like instruments. I think instruments are great. But I feel like, as a cappella singers, we’re doing something really specific with vocal music that needs to be recognized and appreciated as its own art form. The reason why we all laugh and roll our eyes when Nick Lachey reiterates that the performers are using “only their voices” is because that information is so integral to this art form that (to those of us who know anything about a cappella music) it seems absurd to say it over and over again. I guess this is “The Sing Off” and not “The A Cappella Off”, but it’s always been an a cappella show and its fan base has been built from the a cappella community. So it seems really off to me to turn this show into something that isn’t a cappella. But I’m going to stay open-minded about it until I’ve seen it. I do think the idea of a vocals-with-instruments show is a neat idea, I just don’t want it to replace the a cappella show I’ve been following since day 1!

    • Although The Sing-Off has always been an a cappella singing competition…. I think this addition of instruments is a pretty cool idea… Considering the vast spectrum of vocal groups out there it could bring some diversity to the show

      I’m not saying like I wanna see full band arrangements or anything but maybe like a collegiate/church choir with a slight piano accompaniment, or a group like Honey Whiskey Trio that focuses mainly on vocals but has a guitarist…. They’ve even done a cappella festivals ( or live loopers that beatbox and vocalize on top of it…. A pedal is technically an instrument (Which is why SONOS/ARORA couldn’t use them back in season 3)

      Besides that fact, there are several groups out there that have instrumentals behind them that people acclaim for their vocal harmonies…. Boyz II Men, Take 6, Il Divo… just to name a few. Deke Sharon said when he announced that season 5 would allow instruments, that the sole focus would still be vocal harmony… Idk I might be in the minority here but I think it’s a pretty cool idea that will give new life to the show

  5. Daniel Alan   •  

    Hey Acatribe, Daniel Alan of The Edge Effect here. Firstly, great article! I stumbled across it, thoroughly enjoyed your take. I thought it was really cool when both The Exchange and The Edge Effect put out new original music that was vocal based but not acappella and thought I would chime in with some perspective on our approach and thinking on our originals album. A little background: 5 members of the group all come from an acappella vocal background. You mentioned the former Mosaic members, along with Karl Hudson our bass who was a founding member of internationally ranked barbershop quartet Men In Black and full time member of The Voices of Liberty at EPCOT, and myself who was formerly a member of 42Five ( now Voiceplay) and a sub member of Toxic Audio. We’ve all done years of Acappella singing and still do as part of The Edge Effect. We love it and it will always be where we are rooted. However, when we decided to do our album, we didn’t want the production to be limited by just voices and the tech which can manipulate it. We all write and play different instruments, and wanted to create the songs that we and our producer heard in our heads. The only way to accomplish that was a hybrid vocal/instrument mix. We took an old school approach: all backgrounds were sung in group around a single mic, mixed on an analog board, no auto tune was used on the vocals, and the only melodyne used was to line up stacked BGV’s. The bass is all Karl, and Troy did ancillary VP against the drummer. It worked for us, we are happy we took a chance and that people have seemed to enjoy the music we created. The great part about being an artist is that you can do whatever you want! The people will decide whether or not they connect. I have personally found that labels can sometimes put you in a box, and the artists I admire have always taken chances with their music. The album was an incredible experience, and the shows to support it have been a blast. But we are Acappella singers at heart and to scratch that itch, we’ve been working on an acappella release coming late Fall. After that, who knows? Maybe an album of all Polkas! There will always be acappella purists, and that is ok. They support and foster an incredible community, one that we’ve been blessed enough to be accepted into. But don’t let that keep you from enjoying and creating all sorts of music. The voice is the cake, everything else is just the frosting 😉

  6. Chad Bergeron   •  

    Hmm. There are definitely two ancestors to modern a cappella. One is the strict a cappella – barbershop quartets, men’s and glee chorales, church choirs (it’s in the literal words a cappella!), etc. But there’s also the other roots that give more of the ‘modern’ to modern a cappella – doo wop, vocal groups, folk artists, and so forth who often sang unaccompanied, but at least as often had simple (or sometimes not so simple) accompaniment. How many of us got into close harmony singing and vocal music because of groups like the Nylons, King Singers, Hi-Los, Simon and Garfunkel, Beach Boys, or even Queen or the BeeGees? And how long have what we welcome as a cappella groups used pedals and effects, studio finessing and pitch correction? Or even custom gear like Thumper Mics or live looping stations? These all fundamentally alter what the performer(s) are naively capable of, and yet we have come to embrace, or even expect them. So I’m willing to give this new show format a shot so long as it continues to focus on the things that have made it different from other competition shows: the SINGING, the groups, the camaraderie within and across competing groups, the mass numbers, the innovation, the creative arrangements… you get the idea. The Sing-Off has always been less about the judges, the judging, the snarking, and the product placement than other competition shows. So long as it doesn’t devlolve, I’ll be happy, even if we do see drum tracks or violin strings.

  7. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    Back amongst the electrons after a few weeks of unplugged vacation, and I love the discussion here in the comments – it provokes some thought. Even after a long vacation, I appreciate that! :-)

    There are lots of frames of reference for this perspective, of course – Daniel Alan aptly provided an artist’s perspective, for instance. I think he’s right on target when he says that it’s the artists’ prerogative to make music that as closely matches what they hear in their head as the ideal. Whether that’s with or without instruments is far less important than the fidelity the result has to the intention. The branding and classification can happen later; the goal is “good” music (however the artist and, perhaps, the listener defines it). I dunno if I’m a ‘purist’ on that side of the house – I don’t begrudge anybody creating art, and in fact, I think the more, the merrier.

    An interesting thought about this current direction of groups who often do a cappella songs and albums incorporating instruments is about the future of the form itself. As a cappella continues to become more popular and more mainstream, does it eventually get absorbed into broader genres like pop, rock, and country – just being a more vocally interesting subgenre? That is, will contemporary a cappella effectively cease to exist within any kind of boundary, where distinctions between all-vocals, vocals+effects, and vocals+instrument(s) totally blur? Perhaps unlikely to happen altogether, but certainly a possible outcome. Not sure if that’s good or bad; worth considering, though.

    From a TV viewer’s perspective, Chad and Trevor bring a positive, optimistic tone, and I’d like to think I’m right there with them. Purely from a TV perspective, as long as the show has the same focus on the elements that Chad mentioned and doesn’t lose itself, I’ll be happy to watch and root for performers and gripe about my favorites going home too early – all the usual stuff. Hopefully, the showrunner(s) don’t feel like those elements are what kept viewers away from earlier seasons, resulting in changes that really mutate the show’s DNA.

    But for me, from the perspective of being passionate about the form, I’m not sure that’s the right question. When the Sing-Off premiered, and certainly through the wave of Pentatonix furor (that they have very-nicely capitalized into a tremendous and well-deserved career), one of it’s abstract but critical virtues to me was that it advanced a cappella. Yes, Oliver Danni Green rightly pointed out above that we all snickered every time Nick Lachey or (god forbid) a Pussycat Doll harped on it being music from the mouth – and I think it’s correct that we did so because it was so integral. But you gotta imagine that every time someone said that on air, somebody (or, probably thousands of somebodies) said to themselves, “Really? How can that be?” and got more interested.

    That kind of “brand awareness raising” for a cappella, if you will, is significantly eroded when it’s an amazing trio like Honey Whiskey Trio with a guitar, or a great choir with a piano. Doesn’t mean it’s not great music, or that it can’t be great TV. But I don’t think it (entirely) makes me an a cappella purist to say that IMHO, it’s not as good for a cappella.

    P.S. Dave, you raised a great issue in your reply above about the role of pedals and effects. That’s a tougher one for me vis-a-vis a cappella. I probably have another several hundred words on that, so I’ll leave it for another day. Plus, I still have thousands of e-mails to wade through from being gone, and I shouldn’t procrastinate any longer by typing this comment! :-)

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  9. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    OK, now I appear to be commenting on my own comment. Which could be approaching the height of narcissism. Risking that, however…

    Dave, in your Congratulations post, you made some great points; there’s one in particular I want to respond to, and it’s been eating at me for years now. Where’s the line of ‘a cappella’?

    You mentioned that the last true pop all-a-cappella may have been street corner doo wop, and that everything since has traveled that slippery slope to instrumentation. I might quibble on the history a bit (a live Take 6 show in the late 1980s sounded a lot like their debut album, and there was nary a pedal in sight), but I take your point. But I guess this is where I have to turn in my purist card — I think tools are not necessarily instruments (and in the hands of a poor player, instruments are not tools, but that’s a different thing).

    So if you have a voice and you process it through an octavizer – something I watched firsthand a few days ago with Delilah at the Clarkston Festival – I think that’s still a cappella. The operative bit there is still the voice. Adding reverb or echo or flange or whatever effect in the studio (or from a live mixing board) feels much the same way to me. Heck, even The Bobs travel with a distortion effect pedal for their live shows, and they tend to travel light (and I don’t think many people would consider them non-a-cappella). All that feels OK to me.

    But instruments are different. It’s the Rubicon for me. The kazoo notwithstanding, the voice isn’t the operative bit. It’s an admittedly somewhat arbitrary distinction, and I’ll be the first (and probably not the last) to say that while it works for me, it’s not for everyone. It is, generally, the rubric we use at Acaville for what makes it on the air as well.

    So in the case of The Sing-Off, (other than some ill-considered choices for the holiday episodes or last season’s Pat Benatar finale song) if I don’t see actual instruments and I don’t hear actual instruments, I chalk it up to the a cappella column. I agree with you completely that it’s certainly sweetened in the mix, and in post-production as well. But none of that loses the a cappella essence for me like a piano or a club-mix thumping bass/perc mix does.

    Like you, I’m hopeful about this iteration of the Sing-Off. Optimistic? I’m not sure I’d go that far. Ratings > Purity of Concept. Every time. But good people are involved – people who get it – and that’s a great start. Whether THEIR voices are heard may determine whether performers’ voices are all we hear when the show airs.

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What do you think?