Producer’s Spotlight: Alex Green of Plaid Productions

Alex Green is one-half (or one-Alex) of the dynamic duo known as Plaid Productions. Alex was a four-year member of the renowned Amalgamates at Tufts University, including one year as Music Director, and while there he co-produced the EP “Teaser,” and the LP “Hands Off The Mannequin!” which featured the 2012 CARA-nominated Jonsí cover “Boy Lilikoi” and the 2010 CARA-nominated Foo Fighters cover “Let it Die,” a track also selected for the Voices Only and SING compilations. Since he founded the company with Alex Koutzoukis (formerly of the Tufts Beelzebubs) less than two years ago, Plaid Productions has worked with an expansive collection of collegiate and professional vocal groups, as well as a comprehensive list of fellow a cappella producers. Plaid Productions has also recorded and produced the collaborative tracks from the SMACC, SoJam, and LAAF a cappella festivals and the Alexes are Associate Producers of the upcoming BOSS [Boston Sings] festival.

Please check out the Plaid Productions website here.

Alex, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions today.  You guys are relatively new to the a cappella production scene, and I’d like to get your perspective on a few different aspects of the business, as well as your own experiences thus far.

TOPIC- Studio

According to your website, you guys started Plaid Productions a little over a year ago, yet you have worked with over 50 a cappella groups and 14 different a cappella producers. Pretty impressive for such a short while. Were you guys surprised by the scope and diversity of the clients who employed you in such a relatively short period of time?

Alex Green (AG): Surprised, sure, a little, but really more grateful than anything else. We’d both been working with people on a much smaller scale as independent engineers before we started the company together, so it’s really all because of people like Ed Boyer, James Cannon, Mike Boxer, and Dave Sperandio, who were really our first clients, that we even have a job right now. Then, of course, there are Bill Hare and John Clark, who each taught both of us either by observation or direct instruction how to do what we’re doing today.

Is a bigger percentage of your business right now tracking (recording), mixing, or mastering albums? (or other?)

AG: We started out mostly doing editing (rhythm and pitch alignment) as subcontractors for other producers, but now it’s pretty evenly spread. The month of May, for example, has us mixing three albums, editing two more, and doing tracking for two other albums, plus whatever comes our way between now and then.

It looks like the primary production experiences you guys got prior to starting Plaid Productions were the creation of your respective college groups’ albums. Did this relative lack of experience create any particular difficulties when you first started taking on clients?

AG: In this case, I wouldn’t say it was so much a lack of experience as a lack of breadth of experience. We spent about 4 or 5 years (between the two of us) working on our first albums, so while we hadn’t worked with a lot of different clients, we’d put in a ton of hours on the prior projects. I tracked about 95% of the first album I worked on, and I think I edited my first song three times before it sounded decent enough to mix, and that took about a week. That same song now would probably take either of us about three hours to do now. Meanwhile, the first album Koutz ever edited was the Bubs’ “BATTLE,” which averaged something like 60 or 80 tracks per song (your average song usually has about 20). We both got really used to working with familiar voices, but it didn’t really take all that much time to translate that experience to other groups. 

Do you believe that groups can buy a Pro Tools LE box and a mic and do all of their tracking and still get out a quality product if they have professional mixing and mastering done?

AG: It all depends on the passion and attention the group puts into their album. If you do single takes of a song, don’t fix any errors, and just figure a day’s worth of tracking and a hunk of money is going to give you an award-winning track, you’d be wrong 99.9% of the time (and the other 0.1% is the Swingle Singers). Sure, we can use all the bells and whistles in our book to try to make it sound better than it actually is, but there’s a plateau to just how good an album can be if the raw material is just “ok.” But, if you take the time to really pore over your parts, spend time getting the best performances (not necessarily “best tuning” or “best rhythmic accuracy”) out of everyone in your group, and send off tracks that already sound great, all we producers have to do is highlight what’s already there. 

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

AG: There are always the givens: keep healthy beforehand, bring everything you need to be there for a couple of hours or more with you, and don’t pull an all-nighter before recording your ’70s rock tenor solo. Most importantly, though, know your music. That means a couple of things, not just “know your part.” Yes, knowing what you’re supposed to be singing is the most basic part of the process, but it’s just step one. Anyone can read notes off of a page – if you really want your album to have an impact on people, make sure you know what the song you’re singing is about, and what it means. Have a talk before the start of each recording session and have your soloists talk about what they’re singing so the rest of the group can back them up emotionally as well as sonically. A cohesive song is almost always going to be better than one that’s only “musically interesting,” no matter how well-sung either of them is. 

Where do you draw the line in terms of your relationship with groups you are recording while they are in the studio? In other words, do you feel comfortable telling them that an arrangement really isn’t working or needs to be tweaked, or do you feel that would be crossing the line?

AG: We let groups know before we start recording with them what we’re going to do during the process, and that can (and almost always does) involve changing arrangements. It can be anything from changing one note in one measure to rewriting the syllables in the chorus or even teaching an entirely new bass line. When a group hires us, they’re not just asking us to come in and press buttons; they’re hiring us both for our technical knowledge and our aesthetic and musical experience and advice. It’s our job to make every group sound as good as they can, so if we think that means changing “joh joh joh” to a legato “oh” in the chorus, we’ll tell them so. 

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

AG: We’ve been asked this question before and honestly… it’s probably our ears. It really doesn’t matter how many guitar amps or lasers you throw at a part that isn’t sung well; if something sounds good to start with, you just don’t need to do as much to it afterwards. 

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

AG: Well, you could come to “Back That Track Up” at BOSS and find out… but I guess the most interesting thing that I’ve learned recently is that a part doesn’t have to serve its original purpose – or, at least, not only its original purpose. Pads can be rhythmic, and rhythms can be pads; it all depends on how you use what’s there. 

I’ll be there. What single track have you worked on in the past 6 months or year that you are particularly proud of?

AG: Probably the SoJam Collaborative Recording track, “The Bones of You.” Not only is it a song both of us have loved for a while, but it was a huge project involving tons of talented people, all of whom were amazing to work with. 

What a cappella track have you heard in the past 6 months or year that you said “Wow, I wish I had a hand in that project!”?

AG: That’s actually a tougher question, and I’m not totally sure why. For the most part, I’m impressed by projects that sound totally different from what I was expecting, or just include people I’ve always wanted to work with. Basically anything the Swingle Singers or Cluster have done… that would’ve been fun. 

 

TOPIC: CASA Collaborative Recording

 I know that you guys were involved with the CASA collaborative recordings at SMACC,  SoJam, and LAAF…how did you come to be involved?

AG: It’s kind of a funny story actually. About a week or so before SMACC, “All of the Lights” started gaining ground on the charts, and Koutz contacted Christopher Diaz with the idea of recreating the same “all stars of music” feel with the groups in Syracuse. So, while I spent most of Saturday editing a track to send off to North Carolina, Diaz and Koutz sat in a hotel room with a laptop and a microphone and arranged the song on the spot. We sort of blindsided all the talent along with a couple of groups at Syracuse, Mark Hines, Dave Sperandio, and the guys from Sled Dog and said “Come into this room, sit around and be quiet, and then sing when we tell you to.” We did a little more singing back at home, had some more guest stars come in after prodding them via email and… voilá!

Since then, it’s become a sponsorship position at CASA festivals, and we participated at SoJam and LAAF with Danny Ozment of Emerald City Productions these past times around. We’re going to have the track from LAAF (featuring Hookslide, Duwende, and Pentatonix) done by the time VoCALnation rolls around. There’s also going to be a Collaborative Recording at BOSS, but since we’re going to be busy producing the festival, we decided not to do it this time around.
 

Do you plan to be involved with every CASA festival going forward?

AG: Whenever we can, of course. VoCALnation is next, and this time we’re not sure if we’ll be able to make it down to DC, but we’re sure going to try, especially because Cluster is… well, this. 

What are the biggest challenges with those collaborative recordings?

AG: Honestly, it’s always the scheduling. Between finding time to do the arrangements beforehand (they’ve always ended up happening while we were at the festival – we recorded three guide parts for “Princess of China” before arriving in LA, and that’s a record high), and then making sure we have all of the performers and VIP’s there for a long enough time before their flights leave, it’s always a little bit of a scramble. But by the time everyone starts singing and getting into the song, it seems like time slows down a little, and even when we go a bit over everyone ends up staying later than they originally planned because it tends to be kind of fun.

Do you guys do the arranging for the collaborative recording projects?

AG: Yup. We rarely if ever write anything down – usually it’s “3 part pad chorus” or “G-C-D | A-C-E | A-C-D” or some other totally non-sensical short hand that only makes sense in the moment. Some people (notably Tom Anderson) poo poo us for not writing sheet music, but usually that’s just another step between thought and recording that we don’t take. “Brain to tape” seems to work pretty well for us. 

I noticed that you guys are going to be producers with BOSS [Boston Sings festival]…how did that come about?

AG: Well, the both of us had always wondered why there wasn’t an a cappella festival up here (or, why there hadn’t been since the ECS stopped happening in the early 2000’s). Then, when I moved into our house in Somerville with my girlfriend Lauren Barreiro (Musae, AcaBelles, The Vocal Company), this perfect storm of want, need, and Dio-spearheaded CASA assistance made this more of a possibility. Add into that Meg Alexander, producer of the SMACC Festival, moving to Boston, and we had a dream team heading up production of the festival. 

 

Topic: Personal

You guys each sang with one of the more celebrated college a cappella groups in the country…are either of you singing with any CAL or other groups now?

AG: Actually, no. Frankly, we’re so busy nowadays that any more singing sounds kind of bonkers. Maybe when things settle down or we just get a better handle on a more regular schedule (not that something like that really exists in this business). Who knows! 

I noticed you are a RARB reviewer. From your experiences there and in the studio, what is one of the most common mistakes you see groups make when putting together an album?

AG: That’s one heck of a loaded question. Really, it’s all the stuff I’ve already mentioned – just know what you’re singing, and sing like you mean it. The threshold for getting a “3” (out of 5, or “average”) keeps rising as both groups and technology improve, so to rise above the masses, you need to bring something more than just singing in tune and in time.

If it has to be something I haven’t mentioned yet, it’d be: pay the proper licenses on your songs, and credit the songwriters. There are professional musicians whose livelihood doesn’t depend on CD sales directly, but on people who cover their songs doing all the right things to make their respective albums legit.
 

Do you ever take a step back and think “wow, I can’t believe this is my job”?

AG: Hah! All the time! I still can’t believe someone pays us to make music. This is all just fun for us!

Alex, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. I wish you the best of luck with BOSS (which I will be attending) and with Plaid Productions.

— Once again, you can check out the website for Plaid Productions, which offers a free download of the SMACC collaboration track “All of the Lights” mentioned in the interview, here.  “The Bones of You,” recorded at the SoJam 2011 festival, is available for listening on the same website and available for free download to all CASA members. You can join CASA, which also entitles you to many other wonderful benefits, here.

Producer’s Spotlight: Dave Sperandio

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

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

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

—–

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

TOPIC- Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For mastering: way too many to count!

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

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

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

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

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

TOPIC: SoJam

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

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

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

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

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

DS: SoJam X is this year – stay tuned!

TOPIC- CASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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