BOSS Spotlight: Tine Fris of Postyr Project

Next week is the Boston Sings (BOSS) festival, which will feature performances from 3 of the best professional a cappella groups in the world (Postyr Project, The House Jacks, and Five O’Clock Shadow). In an effort to provide a little insight and context leading up to that festival, I decided to ask one member of each group a few questions. First in the series will be our international guests, Postyr Project. Tine Fris was kind enough to answer a few questions for Acatribe.

Tine Fris is a soprano and arranger/songwriter for Postyr Project, a unique vocal group from Denmark with 5 singers and a tendency to fuse electronic or acoustic instruments with their voices. She holds a degree from the Royal Academy of Music in Denmark and is a music teacher who has written about vocal technique and songwriting for the Vocal Blog.

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Postyr Project will be performing at the famous Bitter End in New York City on April 4 and then headlining the Professional Showcase concert at the Boston Sings festival on Saturday, April 6.

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INTERVIEW

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Postyr Project grew out of two terrific Danish ensembles, Vocal Line and Vox 11. What kinds of different things were you all looking to do with Postyr Project?

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We wanted to explore the border between the natural softness of the human voices and the more rough and edgy sounds of electronic music. We also wanted to sing our own songs and to try to write new songs and arrange them in a way so they were bringing out the best in the voices – I think it is called voice idiomatic…? We want to explore. We want to tell stories. We want to feel. We want to change the perspective. We want to show all the colors, the pretty ones AND the not so pretty ones.

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Postyr Project is certainly something original in the vocal community. Do you see the group continuing to push forward in new, unexplored directions musically?

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We are still very much in the process of developing the group’s sound. We do that in the rehearsal room, but also very much in the studio. I think the focus more and more will be on the details and how we can refine the sound. Also, we can really feel that the new songs we write are written not only for voices and loops, but for voices, loops and “sound”/production.  It is a bit difficult to explain, but I feel that I get a better and better idea about what the possibilities are, and this inspires us all to compose in different ways.

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Your debut album features a number of songs which make use of electronic instruments, such as drums, and acoustic instruments, such as cello. Do you think this makes Postyr Project any less pure as an “a cappella” or “vocal” group?

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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…

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In January, 2012, the group pulled off two remarkable live, web-streamed concerts which drew in viewers from all over the world. How difficult was it to set that up and to actually perform two separate concerts with many of the same songs in the same evening? What kind of response did you get?

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Was it easy? NO! Was it fun? YES!!! Phew! That was a big project, and also quite expensive to be honest. But it was so much fun and something that we will never ever forget. As I said earlier, we love to explore and to find new ways of doing things, and with this interactive concert concept we saw an opportunity to reach out to our international followers and to bring some of the homey, casual feeling we have in our rehearsal room on stage and in that way gave the audience a chance to get to know us a bit better. To get closer. We had a lot of good feedback and viewers from more than 40 countries all over the planet. I sometimes meet people in concert that come up to me and tell me that they saw us online. That’s the best!

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Is this the group’s first visit to the United States? Is it your personal first visit here? If so, do you have anything you hope or plan to see while you are here?

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It is Postyr Project’s first visit to the United States. I have been here three times before, and I love it! Line and I decided to fly in to New York a few days early, so in a few minutes I am off to SOHO to do some serious (shoe) shopping. Later this week, I want to visit MoMA and Williamsburg and finish “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac while having a coffee at “Good Stuff Diner” or “Sunburst.”

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What are some other vocal/a cappella groups in Europe or America that inspire or intrigue you?

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I am very inspired by Latvian “Cosmos.” They don’t really exist anymore, but their album “Turbulence” is really something to check out! I am also very inspired by Jens Johansen, the conductor of the Danish XL vocal group Vocal Line, who basically taught me everything I know about vocal music. What else…I love to listen to Bjork’s record “Medulla.”  Besides that I am crazy about other vocal-based music like Oh Land, Susanne Sundfoer, Fallulah and singer songwriters like Tina Dico, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. Hmmm…. and when I want to disappear for an hour I listen to Keith Jarret’s Cologne Concert. This is pure beauty and creativity and being in the moment for me.

[Editor: I couldn’t resist looking up Cosmos, and this video is unique and utterly riveting…http://youtu.be/JbNI8huqG_M ]

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Your new album has received some positive reviews in Germany. Any idea when it will be released in the United States?

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We haven’t decided it yet, but we will let you know! :-)  And we brought a few of them here, so…

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What kinds of things does Postyr Project have to look forward to in the rest of 2013?

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We are touring throughout 2013. 70ish concerts in 12 countries in 4 continents. Not boring. Next stop after Boston and New York is The Netherlands, then Aarhus Vocal Festival in Denmark (www.aavf.dk), then Germany, Finland, Italy, Namibia, Germany, Taiwan, Latvia, Italy…and so on. We are also doing some collaboration projects with other groups, more about that later. While touring we are trying to write new songs and also we are busy putting more “wood on the fire” in Germany, where things are starting to roll with “My Future Self” on the radio and German MTV and much more. We are keeping our fingers crossed and we look forward to seeing the outcome.

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Tine, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. We are all looking forward to seeing you in Boston (and hopefully New York), and we wish you the best of luck with all of these amazing things coming for Postyr Project!
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Here is the latest video from Postyr Project-“My Future Self”- enjoy!
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Producer’s Spotlight: Dave Longo

Dave Longo is, in many ways, the future of a cappella. He founded Sled Dog Studios, an outfit which specializes in studio and concert production for a cappella music. When Sled Dog Studios recently merged with The Vocal Company, he took on the new title of Chief Executive Officer, and continues to act as a producer and engineer for the new business.

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Longo has also been busy recently working with Deke Sharon as a co-Executive Producer for the new weekly vlog “Inside A Cappella.” He was a co-founder and organizer for the Social Media and A Cappella Conference in 2011 (SMACC, which went on to become the Boston Sings A Cappella Festival), founder of the RIT Eight Beat Measure Alumni Foundation, and founder of the “Next Level” workshop series on producing a cappella music. If there is something contemporary or technologically advanced happening in American a cappella, he likely contributed to it, or knows quite a bit about it. Please check out his website here http://www.thevocalcompany.com.


TOPIC: STUDIO


Let’s start with the big news. In January, your company, Sled Dog Studios, merged with The Vocal Company. How did this come about?


It’s funny – Mark, Nick, and I are all incredibly competitive people, but we are also very helpful and largely selfless people. It was interesting seeing the beginnings of both of our companies play out. Mark and Nick got me my first Sapphires live gig. We did a bunch of recording and editing for TVC during our start. We collaborated on CASA festivals. Etc.

It got to a point where we were doing so much work together…but marketing separately or against one another. It didn’t make much sense.

So what if… what if, you could take two of the most driven companies in a cappella, pool their talent, their resources, their offerings, and create one mega-organization? What if, Sled Dog was more than just a company – what if it was an idea?


Will you guys be merging names, adopting one name, or creating a new name?


All of the above.

Sled Dog Studios, LLC is now Sled Dog Music Group, LLC. SDMG is a family of brands designed to do more than just produce. We plan to introduce clients into our family and jumpstart their careers from there. More importantly, we plan to have an effect on the community – a real effect.

The Vocal Company is our a cappella production umbrella, with acappellaLIVE, acappellaEd, diyacappella, and a few others under it. Sled Dog Studios is now the name for our physical studio locations – such as Sled Dog Rochester.


What kinds of things do you guys see for the future of this bigger company?


We have many…many things in the works.

We have The Vocal Company doing its thing with studio work at an increased level of efficiency and collaborative creativity.

We just wrapped our live offerings into a new brand: acappellaLIVE. We now have multiple systems and engineers across the States and have introduced a lighting rig that will change your life.

Ben Stevens has joined as our Director of Education – that’s exciting at the level of mind-blowing. His first work is to tie up all the loose ends with the Next Level workshops and to rework DIYAcappella a bit. He is also assisting in managing the recently funded Eight Beat Measure Foundation scholarship fund.

The big one though – acappellaEd. Free seminars all across the nation with the cream of the crop of a cappella.

acappellaTV will be huge. It starts with Inside (which we pledge to maintain as a beneficial, ad-free, marketing-free news center), but will quickly expand out to exciting new content in the world of vocal music.

A bunch of other stuff is in the works but hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet. This combination of people is really breaking new ground fast. Keep your eyes on our website / Facebook page / Twitter for more info.


Now let’s get a little more into the history of Sled Dog. How did you get into recording? At what point did you decide to open your own studio?


I was in RIT’s Eight Beat Measure. At the time – the group wasn’t recording every two years, wasn’t gigging nearly as much as they do now, wasn’t doing ICCAs. It was almost a new group even though it had been around some twenty years before us. Our first album we did when I was a freshman was recorded at a local studio. We realized we needed some work. So, honestly, I bought a mic for rehearsal. I started recording us in different ways, experimenting. Then I got a second mic – we needed to mic the VP after all. Then I got a third, then a fourth. Next thing I knew I was inside of audio, surrounded by it, living it. I was assisting with the sound for all of our concerts, trying out pedals, wacky miking techniques. I still remember building a Decca tree out of copper pipe from the hardware store a few nights before my senior spring show. When I finally realized I wasn’t going to pursue a career in Mathematics, I signed up for classes at Berklee and did a Master Certificate in Music Production using Pro Tools. That solidified it. I was going to pursue music.

When I got out of school, there weren’t many positions open as a studio intern or some such. I wanted to do something specific and had some unique opportunities to do so. I was a finance minor in college and used those skills and some connections to seek out government funding to help start the business. It worked. We paid off the loan three months ago.


In recent years, more studios are essentially rooms with some Auralex or similar foam product and a few mics. Your studio was designed by JH Brandt and is more of a throwback to the days where musicians could feel comfortable in a unique or special space. Was it an easy decision to put so much money and effort into this kind of space, or did you seriously consider keeping it simple and stripped down before you went in this direction?


I had been to a number of studios with Eight Beat and others. I had tried different scenarios, different situations. The one that caused the least stress, the least drama in the group, was at home. Record in someone’s dorm, in your communal living area, whatever. Anything that was familiar.

Well what if (can you tell I’m a what if guy?) you could have a home away from home? What if there was a house big enough to house two groups with ease, with chalkboard walls, games, a breathtaking backyard, and room to just CREATE?! No spouses banging at the door, no RAs watching over your shoulder. Just….music. That is Sled Dog. That is The Vocal Company.

It was a no-brainer. I’m very much an all or nothing kind of guy.


Sled Dog has a pretty impressive collection of microphones, including some tube mics and ribbon mics. Do you get a lot of projects which are not vocal, or do you try using these different mics with different voices? If so, any really interesting results?


We have gotten a few here and there, but really we just use our collection on the voice. The difference between a condenser, a ribbon, and a dynamic is pretty striking – let alone the difference between a standard mic and the Placid Audio Copperphone for instance (a mic that telephones you – live). Does it do anything strikingly different than what most can do with an MBox and an NT-1A? Maybe…maybe not….but it certainly changes the workflow. These types of decisions force commitment in the moment. There’s no “Oh…I don’t know….maybe we’ll figure it out later.” Within a split second you are a telephone…running through a guitar amp…and into a reverb. No questions asked. No decisions to be made.


You guys do a series called #LiveAtSledDog, where groups can incorporate professional video with live recording. Do you think this is a service which is increasingly in demand given the massive explosion of YouTube in recent years?


I sure hope so! We’ve been discussing modifying the idea slightly and actually making it a private concert. Have a small number (10-20ish) of people act as the audience – lounging on bean bags or the like – for a small showcase. Live on air and in home. If anyone is interested – please, drop us a line.


You guys have done live sound and streamed it online for a couple of CASA festivals. How difficult was it to coordinate that? Have you considered experimenting with streaming more a cappella concerts?


We actually stream every concert we do. It’s not difficult at all. We are definitely looking at upping the bar in that area though. We’re just waiting on some new cameras to come in – but we have everything in place to handle multi-camera streaming. We’re also working on different delivery methods… more to come soon via acappellaTV.


TOPIC: INSIDE A CAPPELLA


In other news, you and Deke Sharon recently started a new project called “Inside A Cappella” which produces a weekly video clip hosted by Rachel Chaloub. This past week, the clip broke the news first about The Sing Off returning for a new season. How did this come about?


I attended Soup2Nuts for the first time this year. It was a week spent geeking out with Bill Hare and Deke Sharon. I’m not sure there is a better way to spend a week.

I’ve always been inspired by Deke (as I think most are), but I don’t like being a fanboy. If someone inspires me…I typically have lunch with them. I get involved. I offer my services in some fashion. I asked Deke: “What is next for a cappella. What will take a cappella to the Next Level (TM), if you will?” His response: “There is no single thing in a cappella more important than Inside A Cappella.”

From there we discussed details of what would be necessary, did a private audition round for anchors, figured out how to develop and package the thing – and launched with our MVP. It was a hit – and we kept going, adjusting as we went using our viewers as the definition of the program.


What kind of future do you guys see for Inside A Cappella?


I only see Inside A Cappella growing. I think right this very second people are skeptical… I’m not really sure why. We want a cappella to grow. We want to introduce a cappella to children in Sri Lanka, senior citizens in Morocco, and teenagers in France. What better way to do that than 5 minutes of quick, exciting content each week? We are looking for more reporters, more content, more….just more.


How do you guys come up with your content each week?


We keep our ear to the ground for the latest mutterings in aca and what is going to be the next big news item. We have a network of reporters all over the globe feeding us content and ideas. Also…we ask. We open the floor to the people – members of the community, performers, viewers, producers, anyone and everyone. I’m sure I’ve annoyed someone with my incessant posting in the CASA group “FEED ME CONTENT.” It’s for the greater community and thus far, it’s working.


TOPIC: WORKSHOP


Sled Dog has hosted the “Next Level” workshop twice, with a third one coming up this June. How did you hope to distinguish yourselves from similar projects like Soup 2 Nuts and A cappella Boot Camp?


The idea at the start was for it to be the follow up to an S2N or an ABC. Again, thus far – it has worked. One of our first students, Peter Yang, has appeared on both Voices Only Forte and Sing with his personal multitrack recordings. Jim McCann was just up last week leading his group to their latest album (it’s going to be great). Mike Purcell is interning at our studio for the next two quarters. Students from the second Next Level are starting their own production businesses, revolutionizing a cappella at their universities and more.

With the prior knowledge of an S2N or ABC, so much more is open to you. Now that you’ve already spent time discussing what a microphone is and why illegally sharing music is bad, you can focus on how to get that extra 10% out of your recordings. You can have a SWOT analysis done of your life with Dave Sperandio. You can participate in a yoga session with Ben Stevens before discussing the philosophy behind the lead your about to sing. It’s hard to say “we teach you x” because realistically – we just chuck you into a house full of talented people and say “go!” with some direction and hand waving along the way.

We’ve also created a group for all Next Level alumni and are regularly trading work and assisting one another in any way we can.


Considering that you have professional Pro Tools training and certification from Berklee, how far do you think someone who is in a group or has an MBox can go towards creating their own EP or album without that kind of specialized training?


Oh gosh, yes. The training means nothing, as do most pieces of paper. What the training did, for me, was it gave me access to the staff at Berklee. It gave me the chance to turn the dials on a real Digidesign console at Future Media Concepts in NYC. It gave me the chance to talk to people. The reality of it – looking back many years later – is that I could have done the same thing by emailing Dave Sperandio (as I did), Bill Hare (as I did), or Mark Hines (as I did), or any other producer in the industry. We are all incredibly approachable and only want to see everyone succeed. I will say that my training provided a different perspective, a deeper understanding, one that I would not change.


TOPIC: PERSONAL


I know that you founded the Eight Beat Measure Foundation which recently had a successful drive for a scholarship fund. What are the goals for the foundation and the fund?


The goals of the foundation are to develop and spread vocal music. The goal of the fund is to provide opportunities to those students showing true promise. People like a Bri Holland who is in 47 groups, recording 14 albums, and is changing the face of a cappella as we speak. We would love to bring them to these festivals (a la CASA) where people’s lives are regularly changed. Attending an aca festival is a wonderful experience as you realize there are other people just as obsessed with this artform as you are. Not only that, but you can actually walk up to Avi from Pentatonix, say hey, and he won’t slap you (as far as I know…).

I had the idea while at the Westminster Chorus’s 25th anniversary show. Avi walked up to Martin (the bass for Ringmasters) and they just geeked out. It was too buddies geeking out over bass technique. And I thought well shucks, I’ve done that…we all have – but it takes proximity. You have to be able to walk up to someone to truly get that experience.


I know you were a singer with Eight Beat Measure. Do you have any plans to sing with a group in the near future? Do you miss singing in a group?


I miss singing more than I let on to most people. But, the reality of it is that I just don’t have the time, and my efforts are better spent helping others live their performance dream. Those couple hours of singing while directing recordings will have to suffice for now.

Thanks to Dave for his time and his insightful and thorough answers.

You can check out more on Sled Dog Studios here and The Vocal Company here, and don’t forget to follow them on Twitter here and here (respectively).

For more Spotlight series interviews, click on the “Spotlight” category on the right-hand side of the page.

Producer’s Spotlight: James Cannon

This may come as a surprise to some readers of this blog, but there are producers in our community who also work on music with [gasp!] instruments.  James Cannon, who is about as candid, unfiltered, and often provocative as possible on Twitter, is one of the most acclaimed producers in the a cappella community in recent years.  He is known for his big soundscapes and even bigger drums.  Cannon also produces hip hop, rap, and “bombass” music with instruments and synths.  

He was featured on a “Names You Should Know” segment of the February 28, 2010, episode of Mouth Off! and his work has been nominated for and won numerous CARAs, and been featured on BOCA, Voices Only, and SING compilations.

Please take some time to check out his various websites here, here, and here.

TOPIC: STUDIO

James, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your work both inside and outside of the a cappella community. I’m gonna start out with an opportunity for you to, as you clearly enjoy on Twitter, speak freely. What kinds of things really bother you in the a cappella production scene today?

I’m gonna try and keep this short . . . so probably only like 17 paragraphs.    :-)

1) I really dislike when groups or individuals rely on technology [especially on the back-end] as a substitute for recording and arranging well in the first place.

– Technology, like all things, is merely a tool which we should use to “enhance” good performances. Fixing some shoddy notes, cleaning up some timing errors, and whatever else is fine, but I’ve seen many instances of groups just going into the booth and literally not giving a shit and saying “You can fix it in the mix, right?”  That attitude leaves me livid, and those records always sound bad since that attitude permeates through every facet of the project.  Non-energetic backgrounds, shitty arranging that doesn’t go anywhere and barely, if at all, resembles the instrumentation of the song . . . I could start rambling, but I’ll go on.

– To be fair, I am not discussing groups that are using the technology in a purposeful and planned way. If you want to stack shit up like the [Tufts] Bubs, or really let the mixer have some fun with stutter-y shit, etc. . . . be my guest! In fact, pay me to do it! But generally, groups in this echelon have put their all into the project beforehand and you, as a mixer, aren’t trying to hide . . . crap.

2) I’m also not the biggest fan of how non-creative groups are with raising funds for albums these days.  Every group ever has a Kickstarter campaign.

– I understand that producing an album is expensive, but . . . back in my day, we had to find other means to finance our albums. It was hard work, but worth it. The tendency for groups now to sit about on their ass is annoying because it just doesn’t lend itself to the production side of the album . . . it bleeds over into the recording sessions . . . you can hear the apathy in the music. But I’m rambling again, so yeah, I’m just going to move on to the next question.

* To be fair, I’m not including groups like SONOS, etc., but . . . others. *

[Editor’s note: James subsequently sent me this link to a post on the terrific A Cappella 101 blog devoted to fundraising tips for a cappella groups]

What techniques, opportunities, and groups do you find promising in a cappella production right now?

The women and the high school groups are really bringing it these days. There is a lot better stuff coming out of the high school market than a lot of college groups I’m working with, which bodes well for the future of the scene and college groups, as a whole, over the next few years. 

Also, the female groups are really starting to go for it in their own right. You have female groups like The Boxettes that are rockin’ it or groups like Duke Out of the Blue, Elon Sweet Sigs, Divisi (though they have been at it for years) . . . and many more I’m not naming or may not know about. For me, these tend to be the biggest areas of growth recently. Creative and driven high school directors and powerful vagappella. I fux wid it.

Also, it’s great to start seeing more professional groups out there with a youthful energy that actually read well and read as *cool* to younger, more pop-friendly audiences. I’m probably the odd man out, but until recent years, aside from groups like Duwende, and the House Jacks, most pro aca was fairly. . . lame, at least with respect to reaching that sort of crossover mainstream success.  There were obviously more fringe groups out there like Ball in the House doing some cool stuff . . . and don’t get me wrong, I love the Swingle Singers and whatnot, but it’s great that now you’re starting to see groups that have more true *rockstar* or *popstar* images.  So, I think the Sing Off and such has afforded more opportunities for groups that are more in-tune to the pulse of modern music and things that are quote-unquote “hip.”

In particular, I would be on the lookout for some cool stuff coming from Threadbare and The Exchange pretty soon.  Both groups have all-star lineups and I mean . . . with [Christopher] Diaz and Fredo [Austin] involved, it’s definitely a talented bunch.  Also, rumor has it that some group called The Boxettes will be releasing an EP this fall, but that’s all just hearsay for now.

Shifting gears, I understand you were heavily involved in the album “Arrival” when you were a member of the Cornell Chordials. Was that your first serious experience with sound production? If not, when did you get started and with what type of gear?

“Arrival” was not my first “serious” experience with sound production.  I started playing around with sound recording and beatmaking when I was about 11 or 12 years old.  I played around with the HammerHead Rhythm Station WAY back in the day . . . you can probably still find it online. Hahaha, but when I “started” . . . it was with a 4-track cassette recorder, a couple Radio Shack microphones, and Cakewalk Home Studio like . . . 1 maybe? It was around ’98 that I started and really picked up in high school a bit when I recorded my boy band’s stuff that I wrote . . . which was awful . . . and some work with my high school jazz band that wasn’t too bad.

The Chordials record was pretty low-tech too, actually. Laptop, Rode NTK, Rode NT1a, Rode NT3, couple Auralex foam kits, and an M-Audio Fast Track.  It’s really about what you put into the gear, and not so much specifically about what that gear is. The performances we went for on that record were daring and I’m sure many of the group members at that time have a horror story or two about how demanding I was . . . I worked everyone pretty hard, but I think we put together something vaguely okay, maybe.

You’ve been called “clearly the best in the collegiate business with vocal percussion” by RARB reviewers. How do you go about finding the right sound for vocal percussion on a particular song or album, and is that the part of the mixing process upon which you spend the most time (sound versus sequencing/editing)?

I definitely spend more time  on the sonics of the percussion than the sequencing.  At this point, I’ve been sequencing drums professionally for like . . . 8 years, so it’s not all that difficult to break apart what’s happening. So, most of my time on drums, after ensuring I like the groove, is focused on making sure it comes out like what I hear in my head. 

The “right” sound is so variable. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to go after the sounds and sequences that are almost identical to the original tune . . . sometimes it’s more appropriate to go with something a little more weird or vocalized. 

The stuff I’ve done has varied from being very vocal, but out there stuff like spits and coughing and chewing cereal and gurgling saliva to stuff that’s literally sequenced out on a drum machine like the original songs often are.  It really just depends on the group, the song, and the project. The *right* sound for me lies somewhere between the original song and the group’s interpretation of same . . . where that line falls is highly variable.

I’m pretty quick in terms of sequencing.  Most songs have pretty repetitive patterns and I pick them up fairly quickly. Many times I’ll also put my own spin on stuff too. Gotta keep it fresh.

But yeah . . . most of my percussion time is spent designing the sounds and not so much on the actual sequencing. 

At the Boston Sings [BOSS] festival, you were on a panel where you mentioned the occasional need to replace or substitute for vocal percussion on a project with your own VP or digital drums. Have you had to do that often?

At least 75% of the time. Drum sampling, enhancement, and replacement is fairly common in the a cappella industry and even more so in the mainstream industry. Most drums are replaced on most commercial rock records these days and the same is true of a very large percentage of your favorite a cappella records as well.

I NEVER use “digital drums,” though . . . whatever that means. I do layout my percussion samples over a keyboard or drumpads for sequencing purposes, but everything . . . at least on a cappella records . . . is entirely vocal.

My goal is generally just to enhance the sounds that are recorded and sent.  Since a lot of the kids track themselves, the quality can vary wildly in terms of what is actually sent to create the percussion tracks as well as the techniques used to record them, etc. 

The kick may have a lot of air on it ’cause they recorded it without a pop filter or something, or the snare literally sounds like a fart . . . so you kinda beef up their VP with bits and pieces. 

Again, most other engineers will tell you the same thing here.

I know that a lot of your work comes in the form of either mixing for hire, or working on a full project from start to finish. Which do you prefer, and does it depend on the group?

That’s dependant on the group. I have a fairly specific hand when it comes to producing a record. There are things that I like in tracking, dynamics and energy being high on the list.  Some groups do not necessarily aspire to my “energy is everything” philosophy of producing a cappella records, but may benefit from the sonic stamps of my mixing work. 

If I can, I like to be involved from the start. . . helping to choose repertoire, offering guidance on direction and thematic elements, offering critiques on existing arrangements, etc..  I like to have control over the final product like that because then I can ensure that it’s musically “good” . . . though that’s fairly objective.

I can work in any capacity and it really depends on the group and their needs as well as their level of “comfort” with being produced by an outsider.

You’ve tweeted that you work with SONAR instead of Pro Tools. Why is that? Do you find any inherent benefit with SONAR for recording or mixing a cappella music?

I just dislike the workflow of Pro Tools. When I was trying out different DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) early on, I gravitated towards the work flow in Cakewalk and it just works well for me. Since everyone can exchange .wav files fairly easily, it’s not really a problem. I used to keep an MBox around with Pro Tools just to *maintain compatibility*, but I’ve recently sold off all of my Pro Tools stuff. Good riddance.

On that BOSS panel I mentioned previously, you sat surrounded by a deep team of aca-producers including Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio, the guys from Plaid Productions, Ed Boyer, and others. You all seemed very comfortable with each other, and I know that you are a member of the Vocal Source network. Do you find yourself getting competitive at all with these other a cappella producers?

HELL  YEAH WE GET COMPETITIVE.  It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys out here! Gun-slingin’ and all. THERE WILL BE BLOOD! PREPARE THYNSELF FOR THE ACAPOCALYPSE!!!! I AM THE REAPER. I drop bombs on ’em!

. . . except, not really that at all.

Really, it’s competitive in the way that brothers are competitive, ya know? At the end of the day, there is  a general respect among the producer community. We regularly share our *secrets* with one another and whenever we hear something that we think is disgusting . . . we go out of our way to let them know how much of a dirty, filthy slut they are.

*cough* Tat Tong *cough cough* John Clark *cough cough wheeze cackle snort vurp* Ed Boyer

but yeah, there is a kind of general brotherhood that’s great. I’ve learned a great deal over the years from everyone that I’ve worked with and have gained some truly wonderful friends in the process.

You’ve been praised for coming up with some pretty unique and exciting sounds on a cappella tracks. Is that largely a result of letting experimentation with plugins and/or outboard gear guide you, or do you have a fixed idea in your head before you start experimenting with the vocal tracks?

I have a weird brain. In terms of mixing a track, I tend to get a feel for what the big *moments* are and come up with sounds in my head that make sense with the song. So, things like guitar solos, or specific percussion sounds, or the sound of the bass, and the reverb on the lead, etc.

I hear what I want and then start fiddling with sounds. I’ve always been that way, though. I go about creating instrumental tracks the same way.  I’ll hear a melody and some sort of . . . instrument it should be. Then I’ll figure it out on the keyboards and look for the sound at the same time.

In the context of creating individual sounds in a cappella tracks. . . I always hear it before I start fiddling with anything. I don’t get how people could open plugins without at least a vague idea of what they’re looking for . . . you’re just kind of hoping for a miracle and that can only work so many times, I think.  That said, sometimes you’ll get some track from a client that should go in the mix and you have no exact idea of what to do with it . . . but you know the plugin you want to use for it . . . and you try a couple presets at random that sound good and something pretty much clicks.  Then you tweak to taste.

This doesn’t happen to me as much these days as it did 5 or 6 years ago, but sometimes you’ll get like somebody chewing cereal into the microphone or doing a bong rip and you know it should be . . . something . . . and it somehow becomes a helicopter.

*shrug*

Those are lucky times, though.

What are some of the best tracks you feel you’ve worked on in the past 6 months?

I really enjoyed working on the All Night Yahtzee album, especially “Never Alone” and “Lovegame.” Both of those came out exactly how I wanted. 

Also really enjoyed mixing the EP for Blueprint. . . those guys are a fun bunch and they can really sing well.  Their “Party Rock Anthem / Sexy and I Know It” mashup was particularly fun, but great EP. . . though I’m biased.

Also, last week I mixed a pretty awesome track for the Imperial College of London Techtonics.  Their cover of “Earthquake” was really fun and allowed me to really flex my creative muscles a bit.

What track(s) have you heard recently that you wish you’d worked on?

Fuckin’ “Phoenix,” [by Brandeis University Voicemale] man . . . perfect mix. Perfect arrangement. Heart-wrenching solo. John Clark makes me violently angry sometimes. Fucker is just so damn talented.

Also, REALLY would’ve loved to work on “Titanium” from [University of Chicago’s] Voices in Your Head.  Tat Tong did an excellent job (as is par for the course with him) . . . but damn . . . I remember seeing that shit live at BOSS for the first time. That’s all Imma say.

The Pentatonix cover of “Starships” or “Love Lockdown” are superb as well, and Scott Hoying clearly was a black gospel singer in a past life.  Either that or he’s fooling all of us and wearing reverse blackface. . . or he’s just disgustingly good at singing.

I know that you do a fair amount of work outside of the a cappella world. What are some of your favorite non-aca tracks and/or artists that you’ve worked on/with?

I’m a big fan of Chance Fischer. I’ve been working with him for about 3 years at this point, and he just kills anything you send him. His rhymes are smart, witty, and his hooks are pop accessible.

My favorite track that we’ve worked on together would probably be “The Lights (Unstoppable)” 

The storyline in those verses . . . smh.

Also, I’ve been working with Spits Nelson for about a year and a half as well. His current single, “Greatest Feeling Ever,” is one of my favorite beats that I’ve ever done.  And I like what he did with it. The track was a real collaborative effort with a fair amount of back and forth between us on arrangement, etc. 

Also, Dylan Owen is pretty dope. “Cold Wind Blowin” is a track I did with him about 9 months ago. I didn’t even send him a complete beat, it was just a drum loop and the main piano part. He sent me back a complete song that was dope like a week later. It inspired me to actually finish the beat and make it into something.

We’re looking to put out an EP at the end of the year. We’re both big fans of one producer / one artist type albums (guest feature verses are ok) . . . we both dug Skyzoo & Illmind’s “Live from the Tapedeck” as well as Saigon’s “Greatest Story Never Told” and Chance Fischer / Kleph Dollaz “Passport to Nowhere” EP as well as the original Asher Roth & Nottz Raw EP, to name a few, and after talking a bit we decided to make a go of it. I’m consistently impressed with the quality of the material we work on and it really inspires me to work that much harder to make the project something worthwhile. 

I also really like “The One That Got Away” by Fritzwa. . . I remember hearing the first laptop microphone recorded 2-chord mp3 she sent and knowing we had something and fleshing it out with  her was a great experience. 

Oh, and I’m going to be working with Alfredo Austin on some pretty cool stuff soon that I’m excited about. He sings pretty not terribly or something and the direction is really interesting.  Can’t say much more about that now except that I’m looking forward to working on it more in the coming months.

Is your heavy experience in a cappella a source of friction or conversation with other artists, or something you prefer to avoid bringing up because of any old-fashioned stigma (barbershop, glee club, etc.) that may exist?

I don’t go out of my way to not talk about it or anything, but I definitely don’t go out of my way to bring it up at all. A cappella is fairly helpful when writing background vocal arrangements for R&B or pop tunes and is a great tool especially in making little “a cappella breakdown sections” that are really cool.

That said, most people have a pretty nerdy view of a cappella. When people that I work with that I don’t know very well ask me what I do for a living besides producing, I tell them that I mix vocal music . . .  kinda like the stuff on Glee . . . and then move the conversation back to the instrumental music that we’re trying to create.

How (if at all) do the techniques that you end up using with a cappella groups translate to other types of artists and music that you produce?

I don’t really treat  a cappella and *real* music any differently. My goal is to make good music. . . no matter the medium of expression. To me, it’s all just signal and thusly can all be manipulated to make it do what you want. . . you just need to know what it is. . . and to a slightly lesser extent, exactly how to achieve it.

That was actually one of the goals of Next Level; to show that aca isn’t some totally exotic beast living on its own island . . . the same basic principles apply no matter how you’re creating the soundscape for them.

TOPIC: WORKSHOP 

You were recently involved with the Next Level Recording workshop with Sled Dog Studios in western New York. How did the workshop go? Was it pretty much as expected?

I was really happy with the results of the workshop. We created some pretty awesome songs and the participants got to be pretty hands-on for the whole process. The feedback I’ve gotten thus far has been fairly positive. 

We didn’t really have any real expectations for the workshop as none of us had actually been to any of the other existing workshops like soup2nuts or aca bootcamp. A few of the participants had been to those, though, and were still able to get something new and different out of Next Level . . . so I think it went not too bad.

We’re actually looking to potentially put on another, more condensed version on a weekend in November. We are trying to gauge interest now and move from there. Tat is going to be back in the States again for SoJam, so it all just kind of makes sense.

Did you discover significant differences or commonalities between your techniques and those used by fellow producers/instructors Tat Tong and Dave Longo?

At this point, I’ve been working with Tat going on 7 years, so we’ve been sharing techniques and such for years. It’s always interesting to me how differently we approach the material though even when using similar techniques.  It was great to share some plugins and tricks with one another.  Also, Longo mixes in Pro Tools . . . which neither Tat nor I use, so it was interesting for us to actually be sitting shotgun on the mixing end.  Was actually pretty cool to make Dave sweat with all the nitpicky tweak-y stuff that we kept asking of him.

But yeah . . . a lot more similarities in how we approach things. We all like loud drums, heavy bass, and cracking open the efx workshop.

Would you do a workshop like that again in the future?

Already looking into it!

TOPIC: PERSONAL

On Mouth Off, they mentioned that you went to college as an instrumentalist (reed player?) before getting involved in a cappella. A lot of instrumentalists get to college having never heard about a cappella music. Were you in that situation?

Yep! I wasn’t even peripherally aware of it before college. Well, I mean. . . I guess I grew up watching Carmen Sandiego, but I didn’t know it was anything that young kids did.  There are so many groups at Cornell though that it’s hard to stay ignorant of a cappella’s existence for long.

Are you ever in a position now (studio or otherwise) where you need to play an instrument?

All the time! Producing tracks for other artists involves fairly extensive keyboard use, drum programming, and I utilize an Akai EWI [Electronic Wind Instrument] when composing tracks as well since my first instruments were all winds . . . not keyboards.

You have also been praised (Mouth Off, RARB) for your singing voice. Do you ever think about getting involved in performing again?

Well, thank you kindly sir! As far as singing is concerned, there may be some secret projects in the works with a few previously mentioned folks, but I don’t see myself being up on a stage again anytime soon. These days, people ask me to rap way more than they ever ask to hear my singing voice anyway!

I’m not all that old, so I’ll never rule anything out, but for now I’ll be keeping myself behind the glass.

I also heard that you were once interested in law school. As a musician-turned-lawyer, I can tell you forgoing law school was a wise decision on your part. But, if you had to work in a profession other than music production, what would it be?

These days, if I weren’t producing I would still want to be involved in the music industry in some way . . . maybe as an A&R or something like that. Had I never joined that damn a cappella group I would probably be just finishing up law school about now.

James, thank you so much again for agreeing to do this interview. Are there any exciting projects you’ve been working on which we should be looking forward to in the future? 

Tom Anderson and I are collaborating on something pretty dope that, at least for now, we’re keeping a bit mum about; however, it should be really fun and more details will come soon enough. Traces, the co-headliner for BOSS is working with me to produce an EP due out this fall. We’ll have arrangements from Roger Thomas (Naturally 7), Tommy G (Committed), and Tom Anderson (Random Notes). I’m pretty excited about the potential for this.

Will also be co-producing a pretty powerhouse EP from a previous CASA festival headliner with Ed Boyer that should be dropping this fall.  And on the non-aca front, both Spits Nelson and Chance Fischer are preparing to release their albums at the end of the summer and I produced some tracks for them that I’m really happy with.

I think that’s it for now, but since I tweet about . . . everything . . . as soon as there is more cool stuff, I’ll be sure to let you know!

#TwitterFromTheShitter #p00psplosion #acappella #YouKnowYouLoveMe

—-

Don’t forget, you can check out James Cannon’s websites herehere, and here and he’s on Twitter right here.

Also, you can check out my prior interviews in the Producer and Professional series by clicking on the “Spotlight” category to the right.

Professional Spotlight: Nick Girard (Part 2)

In part 1 of this interview, which you can access here, Nick Girard talked about his experiences with a cappella recording, mixing, and music in general. In part 2, he talks about his experiences as a performer with the prominent vocal bands Overboard and The House Jacks.

TOPIC: OVERBOARD

Acatribe: Over the past few years, Overboard can be safely described as “ambitious” with projects such as “Help!” and Free Track Tuesdays [which are available for listening on the Overboard YouTube channel here]. What did you guys hope to accomplish with each of these very original and ambitious plans? Did the entire group agree with the scope and direction of these projects?

Nick Girard: Since Overboard started as a summer street performing group, we have always tried to maintain a healthy balance between art and commerce.  Our first audiences were tourists and 50-year-old New Englanders who, by and large, were expecting a cappella to sound like their college glee club or like Frankie Valli.  So, at times, we’ve had to sing songs that all members may not have been wholly passionate about, but that allowed us to earn money.

This may be an old man’s tangent, but I believe it strongly: Growing groups sometimes need to suck it up and sing shitty songs. Shitty songs pay bills. Overboard didn’t become financially viable singing our dissonant version of “Toxic” or whatever Rihanna song is in heavy rotation. Music snobs won’t find you if you can’t get gigs and kids don’t pay for music. 

That means that in the early years, and sometimes even still today, we’ve made easy money singing “In the Still of the Night” and “Stand By Me.”  And if that makes us sellouts, so be it.  But we’re sellouts with a full sound system, six albums which are fully paid-for, a ton of recording gear, and music careers that now take us all over the country.  Every crappy gig we did, every High School Musical 2 song we covered for a five-year-old’s birthday party, every Temptations song covered for a sixty-five-year-old’s retirement party paid for something we needed to move forward.  Aside from putting in a few hundred dollars ourselves here or there in the early years, we’ve always paid for everything with money we earned before we bought the item in question.  I can look at our gear and our albums and know exactly which gigs bought what.  Funding for albums (soup to nuts, if you will) is always completely secured before we break ground.  We’ve sacrificed a great deal of our individual cuts in order to grow the group; we’ve never gotten loans, used credit cards, or done a Kickstarter [campaign].  And, sometimes that meant having to arrange the Notre Dame fight song for a graduation party or “Into the Mystic” for an anniversary dinner and I was happy to do it.  Even serious actors do CGI-laden blockbusters.

Does this mean I don’t have artistic integrity?  Some people say I don’t (but only if they think I can’t hear them).  And I don’t care.  When I started Overboard, I was a carpenter.  I didn’t give a shit about artistic integrity, I just didn’t want to be a carpenter forever.  And I can promise you, singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” at a pre-school is way better than planting pine trees in December or roofing a house in August.

The projects you’re asking about allowed us, more or less, to grow beyond singing for our supper.  With our holiday album, Tidings, and certainly later with Help!, we were trying to strike the balance between creating songs in styles our audience could relate to, but also to develop ourselves more as artists.  Both projects were marketable- people understand what you mean when you say “holiday album” or “Beatles tribute album”- but also allowed us to develop as arrangers, singers, and performers.  Free Track Tuesday also allowed us to add production to our marketable skills.

That’s a roundabout way of answering both questions.  The goal of these projects was to push us towards music careers.  And yes, at times my personal goals and my goals for Overboard were not consistent with other members’ artistic visions.  Or, more often, with their faith that the amount of work required to do the projects well would be met with commensurate rewards down the line.  I try very hard to make sure that if a member loses one battle, they win another; it doesn’t always work out that way, but I make the effort.  And some people don’t like me.  And I’m okay with that. 

Between the Free Track Tuesday series and the albums you guys have put out, the group has recorded a pretty wide variety of musical styles.  Do you feel that Overboard has a style of its own, something distinctive or is the group’s style reflected by its versatility?

We’ve always maintained an eclectic repertoire since doing so dramatically increases our gigging opportunities (see above!).  Our approach to arranging binds the material together and helps contribute a cohesion to our “sound.”  More specifically, perhaps the most definitive thing about Overboard is our song reinvention, a trait we’re looking to develop further in the coming months.  Otherwise, we just try to get by on our charming good looks and exuberant personalities.  😉

I believe you are the only original member (being a founder) of the group still involved. Considering you are a small band with very specific sonic demands, how difficult is the transition for you musically when a group member leaves and somebody new comes in?

You are correct, I am the only remaining original member.  Scott joined the group about nine months in, well before we embarked on any of our “definitive” projects, so he very much feels like an original member to me. 

Replacing members is always difficult. No two singers are alike and a lot of the time the guy leaving is a good friend and the new guy is a total stranger.  Everything needs to change when someone new comes in.  And, depending on what role(s) they serve, those changes can be subtle or drastic.  But yes, if you could take a cross-section of the group’s history and listen to it, you would notice DRASTIC changes in style…and tuning.

With “Help!” you used not only the most popular Beatles songs, but also a few lesser-known (or deeper) Beatles tunes to tell a story.  Were you familiar with some of these more obscure tracks already, or did you end up listening to the entire Beatles catalog in order to piece together the tracklist/story?

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but before working on “Help!” I didn’t know nearly as much about the Beatles as I should have.  After we finished up with “Tidings,” my girlfriend, who is an avid Beatles fan and does a lot of Overboard’s behind-the-scenes work with scheduling, accounting, etc., suggested we do a concept album based around the Beatles catalog.  So, one night in December 2008, she and I sat down, combed through song after song and, over the course of a few hours, we built a story around these forty-something songs.  With the exception of one or two songs and a couple of transitions, that draft is what you hear on the final recording.  On my own, I never could have come up with some of the ideas she did, not just because I didn’t know the source material as well as she does, but also because she’s so much more willing to take risks than I am.  It’s my nature to say “No, that can’t be done”  and hers to be like “Cool, see you in an hour. Make it good.” “Hello, Goodbye,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Good Night” are probably the best examples of the product of our collaboration, and they’re some of the most talked-about tracks on the album, as well as some of my personal favorites.

Perhaps the one notable absence in Overboard’s repertoire are original songs.  Are there any plans for Overboard to develop some original tunes?

The current answer is yes.  Ask me again tomorrow, and that may change.  I’ve gone back and forth about this for years. 

TOPIC- THE HOUSE JACKS

A staple of any live House Jacks show is the improvised section where the group takes requests from the audience and mashes a bunch of them together.  I have 2 questions about this practice: 1) What was it like the first time you had to do that onstage? and 2) I’ve seen the group many times over the years, and I’ve seen very few total flops on a request. Have you had any experience yet where the group couldn’t pull of a requested song?

Requests are always terrifying and my first time was no exception.  We were in Germany.  It was the first time I’d ever performed with The House Jacks or to a foreign audience and I quickly realized that I don’t know nearly enough Earth, Wind, and Fire tunes to satiate the average House Jacks fan.  I am one of the shyest people you’ll ever meet (don’t believe me? try to get your hands on an old video of me performing with the Top Cats… on second thought, please don’t!).  It takes everything I have to get out there and be spontaneous and funny and to just generally make an ass of myself.

I guess it’s kind of like Saturday Night Live skits or old Carol Burnett shows; the trainwrecks,  when everybody looks confused and starts laughing, are sometimes the most memorable moments.  It helps that the guys are pros.  Deke is one of the fastest people you’ll ever get to meet, musically, comically, and just generally.  He’ll just rattle off a retort before you even process the impetus.  Austin and Troy are both insanely versatile performers with incredible instincts and killer stage presences.  They can do great impersonations, but also make songs their own.  John has had a successful solo act in Austin for years, so he’s super comfortable onstage.  It’s hard to flop when you’re working with such a great group of musicians.  When it does happen, we laugh it off and try to do better with the next one.  Not much more you can do than that.

In the original announcement that you and John Pointer were joining The House Jacks, there was language indicating that you would be alternating between singing tenor and vocal percussion with the group.  Has that been the case, or have you settled into more of a defined role?

Yup, that’s very much been the case.  I’m happy to be the utility guy, so I sing bass, tenor, and do VP.  John’s VP style is very different than mine- he’s more of a beatboxer, and I’m more of a vocal percussionist- so we are both utilized in different ways, which basically amounts to us splitting the set 50/50.  I was a singer though most of my college and Overboard, so it’s been awesome to have some time to focus on expanding my VP skills.  That said, living up to The House Jacks’ lineage of percussionists (Andrew Chaikin, Wes Carroll, Jake Moulton) is unbelievably intimidating, so most days I just feel bad about myself and obsessively practice, much to the annoyance of everyone around me.

[Editor’s note: you can see a clip of the 2 of them trading off VP right here – John is on the left, Nick on the right]

Deke (Sharon) recently wrote a blog post for CASA.org explaining that part of  (if not all of) the reason The House Jacks has been around as a group for 20 years is that it is run like a “communist collective.”  Do you think this approach works? Do you find that the group’s approach and structure are similar to how Overboard works internally, or are there significant differences?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since meeting Deke.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that our approaches are similar, but different.  The best way I can explain it is to liken it to parenting styles.  Deke/Austin and I are the parents of our respective groups.  My child, “Overboard,” is a six-year-old with certain aspirations, but with the natural limitations of being a kid still figuring out what kind of person it wants to be.  Deke and Austin’s child, “The House Jacks,” is a twenty-one-year-old with character and accomplishments, already possessing a pretty clear vision of who it is in the world.  Both benefit from parenting, but the characteristics of that parenting vary dramatically in accordance with the situation in question.

I will say, learning more about The House Jacks’ history, its struggles and growing pains, has made me feel much, much better about Overboard.  I spent years thinking, perhaps arrogantly so, that our problems were unique and beating myself up that they were all my fault.  But, the more I get to know people in established pro groups, the more I realize that the drama Overboard has faced over the years is pretty typical.  I may be crazy, but at least I’m not alone.

Any exciting news, projects, or opportunities involving Overboard or The House Jacks that you’d like to plug?

In the near future, I’ll be on the road a ton with both groups.  Overboard has significantly expanded our national touring dates, and we’ve got a few international mini-tours hopefully being finalized in the next couple of months.  The House Jacks will be headed to Sri Lanka next month, Rio in September, and then back to Germany for our annual tour in November.  We’ve got a few really exciting opportunities coming up in Asia over the next year or so as well.  Beyond touring, both groups are changing up our stage shows, looking into new album projects, and expanding our outreach projects.

TOPIC: (VERY) PERSONAL

I know that organ donation is an important topic for you and I was wondering, if you don’t mind sharing, why that’s the case?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak about this.  When I was 22, my father was diagnosed with advanced liver failure.  Two months later, he was lucky enough to receive a full liver transplant from a car crash victim.  In the years since, his health has been pretty unpredictable at times, but the transplant unquestionably saved his life.  Not everyone is that lucky.  In the United States alone, it’s estimated that 7,000 people die annually while waiting for an organ.  Experts believe that heightened awareness about organ donation will go far in solving this crisis.  I know that organ donation is a very personal issue, and I by no means want to preach to people about it.  However, for those of your readers who are organ donors, they can help spread awareness about organ donation.  Facebook, for example, now allows you to include your organ donation status on your timeline.  It may seem like a small gesture, but if even a fraction of Facebook’s 900 million users join the conversation about organ donation, we can help people like my dad get the care they need.

Nick, I know I speak for many of my readers when I say thank you so much for taking the time to offer such extensive and candid answers.  It is great for the community anytime we can engage in honest discussion about what groups are doing and how they work (or don’t).  I wish you the best of luck with both groups and the production company, as well as any and all other creative projects you are working on.

For readers interested in checking out how to register as an organ donor, please start here. In many states, including my home state of New York, you can register when you renew your driver’s license or register to vote, in addition to other places. I am proud to be an organ donor, and I would add that blood donations are also dangerously low in many states, and they require no formal registration other than walking into a local blood donation bank or drive, but you can learn more about that by clicking here.

You can find Overboard on the web here and here.

You can find The House Jacks on the web here.

Professional Spotlight: Nick Girard of Overboard, The House Jacks, and Overboard Productions (Part 1)

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.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
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.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
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.
ANY CHARACTER 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.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
TOPIC- STUDIO

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?
ANY CHARACTER HERE
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.
ANY CHARACTER HERE
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?
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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.
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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.
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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?
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“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]
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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?
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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?
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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?
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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.
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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. 
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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?”
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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.

TOPIC- PERSONAL
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I noticed you play the guitar. Do you feel that instrumental knowledge or skill informs or influences your arranging style in any way?
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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?
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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?
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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?
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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.
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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.