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.”
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?