The Madison Project - Late Night Drive Thru

All things Recorded A Cappella Review Board.

Postby J Fi » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:15 am

I've been lurking for a bit, I guess I'll weigh in:

To Andrew:
I haven't read many of your reviews... haven't really been following the RARB reviews so much since last spring-ish. No particular reason, just sort of fell out of the habit of reading them. I can't speak to specific instances, but what I can say will, I hope, make sense. You've been able to cite one example (or at least have chosen to cite only one example) of a time where you gave a heavily-produced song -- one song -- a good score, versus what is apparently an entire album that you've thrown under the bus. You say you can give merit where it's due, but I really think that you're going to hit this opposition you're hitting until you can show that you can be objective towards produced albums. In the meantime, if you can subtract the sometimes-annoyed stances some are taking and consider all of the things all have said from all sides -- I'm talking erasing your stance on purity as best you can and starting from scratch when it comes to reviewing -- you could learn a lot and, subsequently, groups could learn a lot from you rather than spend time being annoyed with you. I don't think you, nor any reviewer, should take a "deal with it, it's my opinions and you asked for it" stance (not saying you necessarily are, just pointing this out), but you should instead be saying "how can I help this group measure the success in their artistic vision... whatever it may be... and show them what can be done to improve upon it in the future." One last time, I admit to not being up to date on your writing, but I will say this: You don't just cause a stink out of nowhere, not even on this board. That you've been reacted to so strongly says something. It's okay to be purist, but it's not okay to be unfair to those who aren't.

To those opposed to Andrew/Yuri:
I openly admit to being on your side on the vast majority of the things you've said. That said, I think it's unfair to bicker. Not all have done it, but enough have to drag this whole review and its contributors through the e-mud. At the end of the day, even if Andrew sticks by his guns (as a purist, they may be muskets) for the rest of his days as a reviewer, it's not going to keep a well-produced track or album from getting recognition elsewhere if said track or album is deserving of it. And besides, if we were all honest with ourselves, we'd be able to say that us on the "production/compression/autotune/etc." side of the argument have something to learn from him. It might not be as grand and sweeping a gesture as his beliefs or Yuri's outspokenness would imply, but something small, something personal to each of us. Does he have some stuff to learn? It would seem so. But that doesn't necessarily mean we don't.

To Yuri:
Dude, you gotz to b chill'n out. You've had moments of properly-spoken, properly-thought-out ideas that are largely overshadowed by the times you haven't properly thought out what you were going to say. Andrew's your boy, passed the all-natural sound torch on to you so you could carry the Achordants in a similar way. I get it. I'd want to stick up for him too. But you've managed to piss people off, disrespect some, backpedal on others, and I'd bet if you were honest with yourself you'd be able to admit it's driven more by emotion than your push for purity. The bottom line is this: you've annoyed lots of peeps with those emotionally-driven moments... while it's okay to believe in something and stick by it, it's not okay to ignore other sides and drag your buddy Andrew through the mud. Stick up for him, that's cool, but if you're going to present an argument, be prepared to listen to the other side. Not just search for the holes in it, but listen. You've had some moments like that, but again, they're largely overshadowed by the moments you haven't had.

I come from the "Let's all be friends and learn from each other" school of thought. Also, that's the most I've ever used the "dragged through the mud" metaphor in one sitting. Lastly, a cappella is fun.
John Fiander
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Postby J Fi » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:18 am

aproximately a bergillion posts made it on the wall in the time it took me to write mine. double-you-tee-effff
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Postby phenylphenol » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:21 am

Matthewnym wrote:And someone is going to come along in the next few years, and say, I want to do something different, let's reduce the compression levels across the board. And then people will follow.


Well, the problem with the volume wars is somewhat unique, since people consume music one track at a time -- their iPods are something of personal radio stations. The problem is, when a track comes along that isn't very highly compressed, the consumer has to turn the volume up to hear it well. Then the next one comes on and blasts their eardrums out.

People have probably noticed this, but don't know what to make of it. This is where talking about what's going on is actually very very effective in stirring up the market demand.

It's a feature, not a bug!

Go Tar Heels!
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Postby phenylphenol » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:44 am

J Fi wrote:Dude, you gotz to b chill'n out.


Yeah, you're right. I got pretty carried away when I saw the massive pile-on as people went after DiMartino over and over again.

Oh, hot-headedness. Sorry for the big dust-up, all.

Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya...
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Postby Nick Lyons » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:47 am

Thank the heavens for iTunes' "Sound Check". ;-)
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Postby RnBMrE » Tue Sep 30, 2008 12:23 pm

Image

Matt Emery CASA Director of Communications Three-time Recipient of RARB "Post of the Year" Title

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Postby billhare » Tue Sep 30, 2008 1:20 pm

phenylphenol wrote:However, it is an example of production obscuring the singers. After all, you have a perspective that most people don't have -- and you find yourself needing to personally vouch for that vocal ability you observed since the consumer can't hear it themselves.


But that's the very point - you ARE hearing the singers - 99% of the time. The few times we put a guitar distortion or some such thing is obvious, but most of the stuff where we were really accused of "synthesizing" things are pure voices coming through. That you all think it's a bunch of computers making the sound is quite cool, actually, but it's more pure than MOST albums coming out these days.

-B

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Postby dr00bles » Tue Sep 30, 2008 1:37 pm

J Fi wrote: You say you can give merit where it's due, but I really think that you're going to hit this opposition you're hitting until you can show that you can be objective towards produced albums.


If you don't want to read my six reviews before making these claims, I can offer myriad examples where the production I have discussed is relevant to the end product. Sometimes they are good, sometimes bad, but they are always in the context of execution, not stylistic decision. I gladly will present this list, and if that still seems short, it's because I've only published SIX reviews to date. This is a list of comments I have made where I have mentioned production in the context of the end result:

Grains of Time (Overall: 4):
- There's a fair amount of studio magic, guitar sound effects and all, but there are also enough "real voices" in the mix to get a sense of the group's character.
- And it's a shame that the group's energy doesn't come through more often. Sure, the tracks offer some intensity, but it's mostly manufactured, because the phrases are largely stripped of dynamics and compressed until your ears bleed.
- The album also suffers from some boring, repetitive arrangements, which are treated with an extra dose of studio effects to help them carry their weight.

PennYo (Overall: 4):
(Production was not mentioned anywhere in this review, because it was standard fare and inconsequential to the relevant points to be made.)

The Dynamics (Overall: 3):
- The Dynamics have put together a body of work with questionable enthusiasm, and as a result, the songs have to rely mostly on aggressive autotuning and a few noteworthy soloists in order to boost the final product into the "average" territory.
- Pitch correction is applied liberally, and while this of course ensures that every chord shines with a full array of overtones, sometimes it also noticeably strips the voices of their natural timbre.
- That being the case, said studio effects have become the norm, and so (*gasp*) substance must prevail in order for an a cappella record to stand out of the crowd.
- Virtually every track is decidedly low in energy, so the sampled percussion and heavy compression only add to the issues, when they're actually meant to enhance the sound.
- The production isn't appropriate for the material.
- Long Train Running, for example: it's missing a certain edginess because of a muffled bass line, a laid back VP sample, and disinterested singing.
- Perhaps if more effort were given on the recording end, the production would compliment the singing more effectively.

Voices in Your Head (Overall: 3):
- I also found the lead on The Way I Am to be quite pleasant, and the female voices are refreshingly light and pure, making this track a very welcome break from the ultra-compressed, ultra-heavy tracks that precede it. (I cite the purity of the sound to be a better-sounding end result than the other tracks on the album)
- If you're an a cappella purist, beware this record, because it certainly made liberal use of ProTools and its many magical effects. (True, I don't qualify this, but I also say "IF you're an a cappella purist" - I don't impose my own views.)

Terpsichore (Overall: 4):
- The folks over at JowNow also did a commendable job with the production; everything is bright, clean, and well-tuned, while still preserving the natural variables that make a cappella music exciting (such as tone and dynamics).
- I also could have used a little less ultra-produced percussion, especially because everything else sounds relatively natural.

Madison Project (Overall: 3):
- So I face a decision: Submit to the changing of the tides and give this record a 5 because it sounds nice, or give it a 3 because I was expecting to be wowed by raw voices and instead was bored with mono-dynamic, ultra-compressed, emotionless block sound.
- The arrangements are functional and occasionally interesting, but they would have much more meaning in the context of a natural sound, where the mechanics of the writing serve a purpose and help drive the song forward (instead of sampled percussion doing all the work).
- A "raw" version of this album would have been much more engaging.

J Fi wrote: At the end of the day, even if Andrew sticks by his guns (as a purist, they may be muskets)


This made me chuckle. Very nice, my friend.
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Postby dherriges » Tue Sep 30, 2008 1:45 pm

On showy production: I might observe that the aca CDs that have taken the most over-the-top liberties with studio effects were almost all made by very talented groups and it shows. Code Red, or the track "Perfect Drug" from the Chordials' latest - yes, when I listen to it I think "Whoa, look what Bill Hare can do!" but there's also an amazingly energetic performance in there that Bill Hare clearly took pains not to smother. Pretty much in every case when a group has chosen an ostentatiously "produced" sound, it's a group that's got a lot going for them musically, and the production choice has just made the final product more distinctive, rather than hurting it or masking any of that group's strengths.

There are a lot of albums with a produced, sequenced, compressed sound that are boring. They're boring not because of what's there - the production - but because of what's not there - interesting arrangements, interesting singing, genuine emotion. And in most cases, the production ITSELF is boring on those albums too. Interesting uses of studio production, I feel, are usually a collaboration between an interested group (or even just a couple group members full of ideas), and a producer who's excited about the project and has good raw material to work with.

As far as an educational experience for college students, I think when you get the above scenario (admittedly, not that common in our scene) where the group is excited about the possibilities of studio production and very involved in learning about that process, it's just as much of a musical education as making a raw album that emphasizes pure vocal performance. Arguably much more of one.

As far as Andrew's review: Your recent post gave a good sense of how you feel about the Madison Project album, what about it was disappointing and merited a "3". I think the reason many of us are put off by the wording in the review is that you make it sound like heavy / audible studio production unavoidably takes interesting, powerful raw material and makes it emotionally flat and lifeless.

Andrew DiMartino wrote:Pitch-perfect group sound. Booming, thumping, rich bass. Authentic drum effects. Fade-outs at the ends of songs.

These elements are all present in The Madison Project's Late Night Drive-Thru. They make the tracks shiny, sparkly, and virtually flawless in execution. They are also all impossibilities in the "real" world of a cappella, which may help explain why this CD gets a "3" instead of a "5."


I've heard studio production in the pop world take good material and make it flat out worse, so it's certainly possible - Jason Mraz's debut album comes to mind, for example. But that's the result of specific bad production choices. This particular review, rather than singling out those choices, makes it sound as though heavy production on an a cappella CD will inherently lead to a soulless, uninteresting product. That, I think, is unfair and unwarranted.

As far as reviews in general go, I feel very strongly that RARB reviews should emphasize artistry and a real interest / novelty factor in the final product. I hate seeing technically perfect but emotionally lifeless albums get 5's. I hate seeing albums get 5's when the reviewer clearly didn't even love the album. I love seeing adventurous arranging get credit where it's due, and it's a huge pet peeve of mine to see groups substitute technological wizardry for interesting arranging and not get called out for it. It bugs me that 80% of the arrangements on the last two BOCA CDs are boring as hell. I think that's a negative trend in collegiate a cappella. Basically, there are all sorts of reasons it's ENTIRELY appropriate to call out a group in a review for overuse of studio production, and / or dock their score for it. What's not appropriate is to frame it the way Andrew appeared to in the above quote, which makes it sound as thought the production techniques themselves are the problem, not the way the group chose to use them. I don't think any open-minded listener who's being honest with themselves can really consider that to be the case.
Last edited by dherriges on Tue Sep 30, 2008 1:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby billhare » Tue Sep 30, 2008 1:56 pm

phenylphenol wrote:
billhare wrote:but don't tell Mayer fans that his albums shouldn't exist. That's just short-sighted, if not a little rude.


Again, not my intention at all


dr00bles wrote:This is fair, but again, I don't think everyone is quite grasping that my reviews will never fault a record simply because of its production choices


Oh sorry, that wasn't directed at anyone specifically, I just go off on my own tangents sometimes, regardless of where the thread has been...

-B

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Postby dr00bles » Tue Sep 30, 2008 1:59 pm

dherriges wrote:This particular review, rather than singling out those choices, makes it sound as though heavy production on an a cappella CD will inherently lead to a soulless, uninteresting product. That, I think, is unfair and unwarranted.


I agree with you about the introductory statement. The beginning of the review could have been phrased differently. Once we get into the meat of the review, I think I cool off and explain things reasonably well, but I see how/why people have reservations about my language in the intro. Again, I stand by my review, but I also acknowledge that it may rub the wrong way.
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Postby billhare » Tue Sep 30, 2008 2:03 pm

dherriges wrote:I've heard studio production in the pop world take good material and make it flat out worse, so it's certainly possible - Jason Mraz's debut album comes to mind, for example. But that's the result of specific bad production choices.


And again, different strokes for different folks. What would have made that album better in your mind, Daniel? Personally, I loved it, and had no problems with the production of it, compared to much of the other stuff coming out around that time.

-B

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Postby MPJackV » Tue Sep 30, 2008 3:58 pm

Wow...as someone who's fairly new to a cappella, I didn't realize that things could get so REAL on these forums. These arguments that I've been reading for the past hour or so have really turned my frown upside down (RARB is slowly replacing my facebook addiction).

Here's an interesting story that you all should hear about "Late Night Drive Thru" while it was in the process of being recorded:

Myself and two other Madison Project members (this was before i got into the group) were driving home from ICCAs at William and Mary. We were a little let down since our sister group Note-oriety didn't place, but we were still pretty stoked that we picked up the new BOCA 2008 CD at the competition. Anyway, we put the CD in excited to hear the hottest collegiate tracks and sadly, we were pretty bummed after the last track played.

The reason why is because we felt that a lot of the submitted tracks were (dare I say) over-produced in our opinion. Some tracks featured crazy amounts of distortion and octavizers were used for some of the all girl tracks because frankly, they can't sing that low (I hope). Shortly after, we got into this huge discussion about natural vs. over-produced (you know you're in a cappella when you talk about...), which of course went in circles.

It's funny, because after hearing BOCA, Jeremy and Josh (the two project kids in the car with me) both stated that a goal for the album was for it to not come off as over-produced. They wanted an album that just sort of reflected their truly ideal live performance.

Granted they weren't naive enough to think that they could get away with not using things like auto-tune and other polishing functions that people use in the studio (because no one really wants to listen to rough cuts, let's be real), but for the most part, they aimed to not have it sound "robotic."

I'll admit, IMO there are some things on the album that are over-produced. I don't really like how "September" just sort of fades out, because it's something that we can't do live and more importantly, the way we end the song live sounds effing sweet. If I had been in the group at the time, I probably would've voted against that. But I'm sure the guys had their reason for ending it like that.

I guess the point I'm trying to make with this post is that an expressed goal for the album was for it to sound natural. Whether we accomplished that or not is up to you, but as a group we stand by our work. No one in the group has lost sleep over the review, we've actually have been celebrating about it considering that our overall score is the highest among all of our CDs to date. And as far as the critiques by Andrew DiMartino go, we appreciate his honesty. We just think that it's odd that he called us out on things that we don't feel really exist. Like "octave generators" and such. But who cares, really? Definitely not Project.

I just thought I'd share. It's funny to look back at things like that.
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Postby dr00bles » Tue Sep 30, 2008 5:07 pm

MPJackV wrote:I guess the point I'm trying to make with this post is that an expressed goal for the album was for it to sound natural. Whether we accomplished that or not is up to you, but as a group we stand by our work.


As you should. Don't let chumps like me make you second-guess your work. :)

But seriously, what's really important is that you are happy with your final product. And may I publicly mention to the forum that the members of the Project have been nothing but respectful and awesome to me during this process (even though they certainly did not need to be!). They are the gold standard in professionalism.

And, good sir, I mean this with no sarcasm or suspicion - if you say you did not use an octave generator on the bass lines, then you have bass power that I have never heard before (listen to the intro to "Crazy!").
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Postby s.phypers » Tue Sep 30, 2008 5:12 pm

Not taking either side here, but just a funny aside...

In my A Cappella class today I played my students Premium Blend's newest track and gave them a brief overview of what happens in production (as I played them a tuned and aligned version and then the mixed final copy so they could hear the differences). They are just starting to get involved with collegiate style a cappella music as their past rep has been a lot of classical choral rep.

Anyway, so they asked me how you edit a track, so I tried to draw a picture of what melodyne files look like and explained to them the steps I go through to tune and align tracks when I edit.

And then it happened... The hand went shooting up... and the student said,

"But wait... isn't that CHEATING?!?!?!"

and then the next 20 minutes was dedicated to a fairly heated discussion about if what we do is "ok" or not. Not really what my lesson plan called for, but it was 20 minutes well spent because it got them thinking/talking.

Here comes the next generation of Aca-geeks!

Shannon Phypers Choral Director, Marlborough High School Ithaca College '07 - Current slave to BU's M.M. online degree program

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