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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you all think?


A cappella Music Shouldn’t Be Limited To Cost-Effective School Music Alternative

Ben Folds is wrong. There. I finally said it.

Folds is the most recognizable face promoting a cappella music in America and he’s really good at doing that. In December, an editorial of his debuted over at Huffington Post just after the first episode of season four of The Sing Off.  Titled “Why A Cappella Rocks,” Folds discussed a cappella singing at the high school and collegiate levels and why it has taken to that age range particularly well. As a music teacher, I just have a problem with the way he did it.

“The data has shown us that test scores improved profoundly when academic classes are peppered with music classes,” writes Folds. “Students, like the young people of Vocal Rush, breathe life into those stats.”

Not exactly. See, the students of Vocal Rush went to an auditioned charter school in Oakland. Before they are allowed to step foot on campus, they must meet rigorous entrance standards including already having pretty good grades. The same is true in music programs around the country – it’s not that music makes kids smarter, it’s more that smart students gravitate to music and can handle the multi-tasking involved. Kids that aren’t smart or able to balance all the other responsibilities that go into being in a music group are weeded out – usually by the time they get to high school.

But this point isn’t that big of an issue. Most people believe it to be true even if it’s loosely based in actual research. My biggest problem in Folds’ argument came a few paragraphs later when he inadvertently said teachers shouldn’t get paid.

“Also, a cappella music is cheap, and in a world where fiscal responsibility actually drove policy, it would be noted that it cost absolutely nothing to sing,” continued Folds. “Schools are cutting their music programs in an attempt to save money. But wait. A crazy thing is happening. This next generation of students is filling the musical education void by just doing it themselves. Each year sees more and more high school and a cappella groups working outside the school systems, coming together and teaching themselves some kind of voice leading, and arranging skills enough to perform, and in many cases, perform outstandingly.”

No, Ben! Don’t give them ammunition to cut my school music program! I can just hear financially-conscious administrators around the country:

“Ben Folds says the next generation of students are filling their own music education void with this Acapulco stuff so we don’t need to fund it.”

It is always great when students take the initiative themselves but we teachers kind of, sort of, want to get paid to help them with it during classes that we teach. Those kids in Vocal Rush have extra music classes where they are learning this material thanks to their position at the Oakland School for the Arts. Instead of advocating the cost-effectiveness of outside-the-day a cappella groups, Folds should be touting the benefits of a cappella music alongside traditional music programs and as an integral part of those programs.

The thrust of Folds’ argument – that a cappella music is valuable and worth sharing – is certainly true. In the future, I just hope he empowers more teachers to use it in their classrooms instead of making it seem like this completely separate entity. It doesn’t have to be.

(I still love you, Ben. Send me a tweet. We’ll chat.)

The Sing Off Season 4 Finale

Here we are, the finale of what will hopefully not be the last ever episode of The Sing off. Ratings have been decent, so I suspect we might get another season next year, particularly if Pitch Perfect 2 actually happens this year.

The opening number is Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song which I have loved a cappella since I first heard a cover back in the late ’90’s on BOCA Vol. 3 by the Tufts Amalgamates. I dig the arrangement, some of the ladies are a little flat on the top line but there are some cool chords and textures going on which more than make up for it.

This is as good a time as any to point out that the three finalists are nominally Home Free, Ten, and Vocal Rush, but I sincerely doubt Vocal Rush will win. In fact, I’m pretty much certain that won’t happen not because they don’t deserve it, but because it simply doesn’t make sense for Sony or whomever awards the prize/contract (and thus makes the decisions) to try and promote a high school group. So, the real finalists are Home Free and Ten. If I had to guess, I’d say Home Free win because (a) they have this pseudo-country thing which the show hasn’t done before; (b) the gospel-tinged R&B thing happened with Committed (Season 2); (c) Home Free fit the mold of 5 or 6-member group (see Nota, Committed, and PTX).

I’m not super interested in the holiday numbers with the judges, so I’m gonna skip right past them.

I will, however, mention Pentatonix singing “I Need Your Love,” mainly because I love them, but also because I think it highlights just how much better they are than any other group that has ever competed on the show. That’s right, I went there. I know I’ve written about the elements which set them apart in the past, but it bears repeating- the rhythm section is super-tight, plus Kevin does all kinds of ridiculous things on the drums, and the top 3 parts are just so perfect for each other. They lock, they complement each other, and they are really just one of the best examples of what a cappella has to offer- and one of the most unique. I mean, Avi finishing that solo was just rubbing it in as to how talented they are from top to bottom.

Home Free sings “I Want Crazy” by Hunter Hayes, which is right in their wheelhouse. This is fun, light, easy on the ears. Wow, that low note by Tim Foust is just sick. There are a couple of awkward moments where the group loses the tempo a bit, but nothing too disturbing and nothing which would suggest that they don’t deserve to win it all.

Ten is singing Beyonce’s “Love on Top,” and it has some of those lush chords which they are entirely capable of exploiting, but it somehow still feels a little empty; I think this has been the biggest problem for them from the beginning. They have these chords, this energetic style, but it never feels complete. Tonight, I actually think the solos are just pushing over the rest of the group, which hides some of those chords and this is actually disappointing for me.

Last up, Vocal Rush is singing Katy Perry’s “Roar.” I love the simple pad in the beginning, but the entrances after that are a little awkward. Then, the group starts rushing on the pre-chorus and I remember that they are just. so. young. Oops, spoke too soon, because #THOSEBELLTONES. I really love these kids, they have so much potential. I know that Sarah Vela is now singing with VR’s music director, Lisa Forkish, in a group called The Riveters, doing this

So, here we are. I think it’s gotta be Home Free, and… it is! Congratulations to the guys of Home Free, who were the best non-scholastic group in the competition, and certainly the most consistent. Kudos also to Vocal Rush, who really impressed me and opened some eyes about what high school a cappella groups are capable of.

If you haven’t read it, here is an interesting post by Deke Sharon about the persistence of Home Free, who auditioned for every season of the show:

There’s also a great interview with Deke right here:

and an interesting article by Rob Deitz about arranging for the show:

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this season as much as I did, and I can assure you that, barring some major life change, if there is a Season 5, I will be back to full blogging strength and longer, more detailed recaps.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment and let me know what you think about my recap or about the show!

The Sing Off Season 4 Episode 6 Recap

Here we are, the penultimate episode of Season 4. In many of the more critically respected dramatic television shows this year (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc.), the penultimate episode was often the most powerful, surprising, or compelling of the season. Let’s see if The Sing Off, which is nothing like those shows, follows suit. 😉

Episode 6 is called “Judges Choice,” which could be interpreted two different ways: the judges choose the songs for each group to perform, or as a tongue-in-cheek wink at the fact that the judges do not actually choose who advances or wins this show. I’m guessing it’s the former.

The opening number “Shake It Out” is strong, each of the soloists shines, particularly Tim Foust (perhaps the breakout star of the season?). The staging was a little more dramatic, which worked well for the song and I liked the clusters containing soloists from different groups. As always, the arranging staff and Mr. Deke Sharon deserve lots of credit for making a song like this work with lots of different types of voices.

First up, The Filharmonic with “Baby I Need Your Loving.” The judges, er, producers, picking a Four Tops song is smart for The Filharmonic, and I hope this means they have really chosen songs in the wheelhouse for each group tonight, letting them shine on their preferred type of song. My only concern is that doo wop is simple harmonically (see Street Corner Renaissance) and I think The Filharmonic should be trying to offer more complicated arrangements if they want to win it all.

Obviously, these guys are slick on the moves, but I do think they sound a tad hesitant compared to past performances and the tempo is pushing and pulling quite a bit. They try a few things to play with the harmonic structure, and I like the effort, but they don’t quite lock. Not sure this gets them to the final, but it all depends on whether the producers want the high school group to advance and if so, whether they prefer these guys or Ten.

Next up, Ten has been given something in their wheelhouse, “Proud Mary.” I am glad to see that the producers are giving each group a song which they can really sink their teeth into. I’m a little nervous about them saying “you cannot mess up Proud Mary” before they perform, because…you can mess up ANY song if you try it a cappella. I’ve seen chaotic versions of “In the Still of the Nite,” and that’s about as simple as it gets.

Well, you can tell they love singing this song, they’re starting to try and sound like a backing band instead of a backing choir, so that’s good. I don’t really love the frantic pace, I think it’s a hair too fast. I do like the breakdown, and obviously the solo is terrific. I agree with Ben that I’d like to see them take more risks. Much like The Filharmonic, though, I wasn’t totally blown away. I don’t feel like this was a performance that the winner of the competition should be putting out in the next to last episode.

Home Free gets their comfort food with “Colder Weather,” and they are obviously excited to do a country ballad. Incidentally, I love Rob from the packages/bumpers, he’s hilarious, and as they get started I’m pulling for him on the solo. He’s definitely solid, a little nervous, but he has a sweet voice. It’s not the edgy, ripping kind of solo voice (a lot Scott Hoying), but more of that sweet, change of pace solo voice (a la Mitch Grassi) (sorry, but this is The Sing Off- no reason not to compare groups to Pentatonix).

Anyway, the song sounds good, I think the arrangement is a little boring at the chorus but again they sound good. I’d just love for them to thicken up the texture, spice up the harmonies without reaching too far. Frankly, I’m yet again not overly impressed. I still don’t hear that killer performance that you expect from a competition winner. Maybe all the groups were a little nervous tonight, but I so rarely notice that in a Pentatonix performance. Ok, at this point we can safely say none of these groups is Pentatonix. The question is, will any of them be capable of sustaining success for 6 months, much less years, beyond the end of the competition. At this point, I’d say Home Free has the potential, and Ten and Filharmonic haven’t proven it yet. Vocal Rush is a high school group, so no matter how good they are, they won’t be winning the whole thing. But they can still make it to the finale, so let’s see what happens.

Yes, they gave Vocal Rush a song that likely appeals to their generation, Fallout Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” It’s also high energy, which these kids actually do better, more consistently, than any of the groups in the competition.

Hmm, the tempo is fluctuating a little bit in the beginning, but it starts to settle in at about the 30 second mark. These guys are just so talented, I’m surprised that minor pitch issues are present (so rare for them). Sarah Vela is a vocal powerhouse, I like the breakdown, and it’s another solid overall performance. Flange (that droning sound in the beginning) can mess with tempo and pitch, but at least they’re experimenting with different sound palettes and textures. I don’t think it’s their best, but it’s worthy of heading to the finale.

Tough call- I would put Home Free and Vocal Rush through in a minute, leaving the tough decision between Ten and Filharmonic.

The producers agree, so we’re down to a battle between these groups. I think both groups are intriguing, though Ten has gotten better as the show has progressed whereas Filharmonic has actually stagnated a bit in the past 2 weeks in my opinion. If the producers agree, they’ll take the momentum with Ten. Also, and this shouldn’t matter, I think The Filharmonic are so appealing from a PR perspective that they might actually have some success in the mainstream media even if they get booted now.

The battle song is “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which seems wrong somehow. The Clash cannot be happy about this.

Ooh, not loving the intro from Ten, the beat is fine, but the backs are clearly out of their comfort zone. The Filharmonic seem way more comfortable on this in their intro. Ten responds with a weird rhythmic approach, and The Filharmonic responds with a dubstep breakdown, and now Ten have finally found their identity for this song. If this were a true battle, The Filharmonic would win by a landslide. Unfortunately, it’s not- so the outcome has already been decided regardless of performance.

And the producers took momentum, sending Ten on to the finale. I liked the Filharmonic in the beginning, they’ve slipped the past few episodes, but I would be willing to bet that we hear a lot more from these guys over the next 6-12 months. If they’re smart, they will be tearing it up on social media and YouTube, kinda like… VoicePlay. If you missed it, they’ve released videos in the past week with members from nearly all of the contestant groups, but this one with Home Free is my favorite:

See you all Monday night for the finale, and let me know what you think!

The Sing Off Season 4 Episode 5 Recap

Only 3 episodes left, which is both exciting and disappointing. Which also describes my feelings about Episode 5, loosely themed “Movie Night.”

The intro is “I Had the Time Of My Life,” starting with the subhuman voice of Tim Foust. It’s a nice enough medley, I’m sure it will appeal to a lot of people, I’ve just never really felt much about the song and this performance didn’t change my mind. Obviously my wife will hate me for even suggesting this about the song. 😉

Nick announces in the beginning that we’re going to have 3 full battles, which sounds both exciting and confusing.

Home Free starts things off with the oft-covered “Pretty Woman,” performed with extreme regularity by male groups and Rockapella for the past 18 or so years. They’ve added a few different elements, namely the “hey” shouts, the early beat, and the shift to a doo woop mid-section, but this might be the first underwhelming performance by Home Free. To put that in perspective, they are still in tune, they sound great, it’s just not doing anything for me.

Vocal Rush is going with “Against All Odds,” and they’re letting the vocal percussionist Kyana take a stab at a solo- with good reason. She has a terrific voice, and the arrangement is pretty meat and potatoes but powerful; the only thing is they hit some weird moments in the backs about a minute in, but the recovery is quick and total. Another very solid performance from Vocal Rush.

The AcoustiKats are going with “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and I suspect this might be their final performance on the show. They trade the solos around, which is nice until they get to operaman. It’s a big finish, and they still have lots of energy, but I don’t feel like this performance was any better than dozens of other college groups out there. Basically, I don’t think this saved them.

The Filharmonic are doing “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from Armageddon, a song which was literally unmissable on the radio for 9 months back in 1998-99. Oddly enough, I don’t recall hearing an a cappella version of it before. The intro is pretty, but the chorus is totally underwhelming and not nearly big enough. This is where the smart arranging of a group like Pentatonix is so obvious. These guys have the same number of singers, but the chorus is far emptier than almost anything PTX does. It was an emotional performance, powerful in that sense, and they are still great singers, it was just kind of boring. Joe’s open weeping suggests to me that they will NOT be going anywhere tonight.

VoicePlay is up with “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and they’ve got the Breakfast Club theme going. It’s very clean, maybe even a little clinical, in the beginning, and all kinds of things start happening in the arrangement. This is actually the precise opposite of the Filharmonic song, which was straightforward and boring. This was busy and active, and I found that interesting. It fell apart a little bit, but overall I thought it was fun and cool. Not sure the judges felt the same way, and it makes me a little nervous for them.

Next up, Ten is going to cover Adele’s “Skyfall” theme, and I am eagerly anticipating it. This seems like it could be a good fit for them, depending on how they approach the backing parts. There are some cool chords going on, I like the atmosphere, but there are also a few weird notes here and there (particularly in the bass). The modulation is pretty solid, but after it, they go back to a very vanilla, choral approach which I don’t like as much. Whoa, nice breakdown and another modulation, and they’ve got my attention again. Only problem was some weird VP at the end, but this was a very solid performance.

Now, the “battles,” which are really more like mini-opening numbers with just two groups, and you know what? I’m not mad about it. I actually really enjoy this part of the show, particularly knowing that the producers are going to choose who they want regardless of the performances in the battles anyway. So, first up is VoicePlay and the AcoustiKats with “Eye of the Tiger,” and it’s fun. I don’t love the AcoustiKats arrangement in the beginning, but I love the VoicePlay rendition. The ‘Kats chorus is better, and then VoicePlay changes to a Latin rhythm which is fine, and then it  is full-fledged collaboration, which is what I wanted. Great arrangement, so much fun. If the producers plan to eliminate one group from each pairing, I think the ‘Kats will be headed home.

Next battle is Vocal Rush and Ten, doing the theme from “Fame,” and it’s compelling from the beginning. Ten does some nice harmonic shifts on the chorus, and now I’m starting to wonder if Ten will actually boot Vocal Rush off. The groups join together, and it’s huge, beautiful-sounding, and again- lots of fun.

Last up, the most puzzling matchup to me, Home Free versus The Filharmonic. I had assumed the producers want both of these groups in the final, so I wonder if we’re being tricked on the format here. This is actually the best of the 3 battles, and both groups are so good at their respective styles, but they also work pretty well together. This is particularly important as they are just jumping through various musical styles on this song, which is a great idea since the original is not a very interesting song.

Honestly, i don’t know what’s going to happen. I would suspect the bottom two groups for the evening are the ‘Kats and _. As in, it could be The Filharmonic, it could be Ten, maybe evenVocal Rush or VoicePlay. The only group I think is untouchable is Home Free.

Well, it seems a bit unfair for them to eliminate both VoicePlay and the ‘Kats since they battled each other and both lost, but it only proves that the whole thing is a big facade, and the only thing that matters is whether Sony thinks Home Free, Ten, or The Filharmonic is the most marketable group (and thus will win it all).

This was a big episode, but tomorrow we’re back to one hour.

What did you all think?