Gettin’ Swingle Wit It. AcaVids 7-15

On Friday CASA announced the headliner for SoJam 2013, and I was like ^^. I Carlton’d so hard because it’s the Swingle Singers from the UK! You have no idea how lucky we are that they’re bringing their beautiful euphonies to us, filling our souls to the brim with happiness.

You think I’m joking, but I’m being 100% serious.

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Let’s go into some history, shall we? The original group was created in the 1960s by Ward Swingle. (Pause and recognize how cool his name was.) Until 2011, the group consisted of two sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses. The ever-changing group has collected several Grammy awards and nominations throughout the years. The Swingle repertoire is just as impressive, as they cover not only popular songs, but also classical pieces written by composers like Mozart and Bach. They really manage to cover every audience in some way. Despite having only seven people today, the Swingles manage to mesmerize with their jazzy arrangements, singing every beautiful note with purpose.

…but you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out some of the amazing music the Swingles have performed over the past few years:

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Okay, so this technically isn’t just the Swingles, but it was a cool way to open up the vid section. Note Jo’s crazy-good violin in the opening, Tobias’ impressive trumpet, and Sara’s wailing guitar. Ten points to you if you recognized The Boxette’s Bellatrix and Mo5aic’s Jake Moulton. Really a great move on T-Mobile’s part, especially now that the media has warmed up to a cappella, and how heart-warming was that? C’mon.

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I feel like this is the first time I heard the Swingle Singers, and I was completely in awe. This video truly personifies the Swingles’ ability to take a piece written for instruments and turn it into a compelling vocal production. They invigorate the music and really make it their own. Aside from the music, this video is pretty awesome. I love a good tango.

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Another well-known name in the world of a cappella, Peter Hollens and the Swingles collaborate to cover the classic Poor Wayfaring Stranger, with brilliant arrangement, vp, and baritone line provided by Tom Anderson. This is a cover that could bring your high school choir teacher to tears. The Swingles just redefined the word soprano for you. You’re welcome.

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Those sneaky Swingles. Here they are with Soul Bossa Nova on the Tube, laying down a tune on the subway. (I hope that guy turned his iPod off.) I’m always impressed by Tobias’ use of cup, so…nice one, guy. If this could happen on every public transportation ride, maybe people would grumble less. Just a thought.

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Finally, a song that could move the hardest of hearts. Björk is not an artist that people normally jump to cover because her music is so unique, using various sounds and instruments difficult to replicate with the voice, but the Swingles don’t shy away. This song really pushes them as musicians and vocalists. Just listen to all of the different noises they make on top of those beautiful chords to set the tone. The string section? It’s unreal. I cry every time I hear this piece just because it stirs so many emotions. How could your heart not feel something after such a performance, especially realizing that this was live? It’s inspiring in every way.

Hoo. Okay. Wipe those tears.

Did you fall in love at first click? Good. Then you should check out and support their 50th Anniversary Album project! Just click here to learn more about what these master musicians have up their sleeves and how you can help to get the ball rolling.

Oh, and don’t forget to come to SoJam to see them live!! Or to see me do this at their concert:

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(I just really like Will Smith, guys.)

Cheers!

– Heather

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.