To Andrew DiMartino

All things Recorded A Cappella Review Board.

To Andrew DiMartino

Postby H.F. » Fri Sep 26, 2008 8:04 am

FYI, I posted this some weeks back but took it down, in the interest of giving a little more slack as you get settled at RARB. But seeing your newest review, I felt it was OK to at least voice my opinion:

____________________________


Welcome to RARB. Appreciate your efforts and what have generally been very well-written reviews thus far.

I wanted to point out, however, that for your sanity's sake - if not for that of fairness - you may want to get used to this whole "production" thing sooner, rather than later. If not get used to it, perhaps remove a bit of the bias/vitriol from your reviews when addressing "heavily" produced tracks.

Some quotes from your first 5 reviews:

Andrew DiMartino wrote:And sometimes the grotesquely aggressive production masks the finer elements of the group vocals; it's occasionally hard to pick out the individual parts.


Andrew DiMartino wrote:...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.


Andrew DiMartino wrote:If you're an a cappella purist, beware this record, because it certainly made liberal use of ProTools and its many magical effects.


Andrew DiMartino wrote: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.


Andrew DiMartino wrote:If you submit to this kind of magical production hocus-pocus....


Andrew DiMartino wrote: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. No surprise. I chose the latter.


And the most telling:

Andrew DiMartino wrote:You'll notice right away that the tracks were treated with ... er, generous post-production (either that or the Dynamics have a robot in their bass section). 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. But hey, that's almost become standard fare these days; collegiate groups make a ton of money from concert sales, and with little overhead to worry about, they might as well pump it into making a flashy CD with every studio effect they can fit into 40 minutes of music. 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.


I say telling, b/c I know how much the Achordants, your just-former group, pride themselves on clever arranging and fun and especially energy-filled performances, and translating same into their recordings, with a minimum of studio effects. I also know how much some of the past Achordants have distaste for the recordings of their fellow UNC all-male group, the Clef Hangers - at least when it comes to production used and the amount of money they pull in from their concerts and CD sales, and I suspect that may color your perception somewhat. That's understandable, I suppose.

But the fact is that you're going to be reviewing a lot of collegiate CDs, and with ALL due respect, you just won't find very many like "High Stakes Old Maid" (that is, well executed, good singing, with clever arranging but still plenty of friendly warts, and that doesn't try to be anything that it isn't). Part of that speaks to what a fresh, fun group the Achordants are, especially live. But more it's just the reality of the current recorded aca world. Statements like the ones quoted from you above clearly speak to how much you hate that it it so, but it doesn't change what is, and it comes across as slightly (or not so slightly) sour grapes more often than not.

The whole "pro tools and it's many magical effects" thing is here to stay - at least until many of the groups in existence disband and allow for a bigger talent pool for the remaining groups....which obviously isn't going to happen. Would many of us love it if there weren't a need for so many magical effects? Probably! But then again, many of us also enjoy listening to the songs as "normal" people, and actively do not like the clever arranging angle, but more prefer to hear a strong lead, strong rhythm section, and backgrounds that offer musical foundation and occasional brilliance without being distracting (or even all that distinct).

There's no right or wrong and you are entitled to your opinions, but I offer this as an alternate view based on my experience. Biases are unavoidable, but I kind of don't enjoy when a reviewer clearly has an axe to grind and does so at every possible opportunity. Not saying that's precisely where you are, but it is starting to read that way, and if I were amongst the majority of groups who submit their CDs to review (majority meaning accepting that production is a TOOL, and that a recorded project is in no way necessarily "supposed" to sound like the group does live (cue Bill and his Beatles examples now)), I would have to be kind of dreading getting you assigned to review my disc. Then again, perhaps reviewers like yourself and Colton serve a useful purpose for RARB, whether you're in a bit of "denial" or not. It's good to have all perspectives represented. At the least, you help bring the median score closer to 3, which statistically should be a goal I guess (um, Emery? we're waiting...).

I hope this does not come across as too much of an attack, and again I appreciate your efforts at RARB and your style of writing.
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Re: To Andrew DiMartino

Postby colton » Fri Sep 26, 2008 8:54 am

H.F. wrote:Then again, perhaps reviewers like yourself and Colton serve a useful purpose for RARB, whether you're in a bit of "denial" or not.


Wow, how did I get dragged into things? I'm not a purist, and I don't give bad marks just because an album doesn't sound like a live performance. In fact just yesterday I was listening to a California Golden Overtones album, and thinking, "This sounds just like their live performances [which I loved when I was at Cal], but I wish they had done a better production job on it." I do think that computer effects can be taken *too* far, though, and I may at times point that out in a review. Not to make this thread about me, but I'd be happy to discuss any of the reviews I've submitted so far.
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Postby H.F. » Fri Sep 26, 2008 9:09 am

Yeah for clarity's sake I probably shouldn't have lumped you in here. The reference, though abysmally made on my part, was to the fact that, just as Andrew has mentioned how much he hates production in one way or another in every single review( I think) he's made, you've done the same with Rap music. My apologies for muddying things.

What I'm saying here, or part of it anyway, the axe-to-grind part notwithstanding, is that the reality of the scene we're in is that most albums you review by college kids will have a very good chance of a) being "produced" and "compressed" and "tuned", and b) having some "rap-styled music" on it. So after a point, it starts to seem like you're actually trying to change that, by continuing to mention it in each review. And I don't run RARB, but I'm not certain that is your role. Maybe this is a little extreme way of looking at it, I'll concede. But when comments like

"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. No surprise. I chose the latter."

are made...well, this isn't the RAW VOICES REVIEW BOARD, after all. And one might make the argument that it does a disservice to the groups submitting as well as the average reader, to expect that what you're going to get to review is "raw voices". It just isn't reality. And hasn't been since Bill was young..or (gasp) even before Bill was young :) Even in the recordings that you THINK are just raw voices...I'd bet you my lunch money they're not. And if one were to make the argument that "well they SOUND raw to me at least", I would say that a) they're generally (moreso) professionals, and b) they probably have a much, much greater budget.

As had been said many times on this forum, there is absolutely no reason to expect that a recording will sound ANYTHING like the real group. Of course, it'd be nice if it did sometimes. but the assumption, I feel, is flawed. It's cool that Andrew has seen MP live and has a frame of reference. But will that be the case for every group he reviews?
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Postby colton » Fri Sep 26, 2008 11:22 am

H.F. wrote:Yeah for clarity's sake I probably shouldn't have lumped you in here. The reference, though abysmally made on my part, was to the fact that, just as Andrew has mentioned how much he hates production in one way or another in every single review( I think) he's made, you've done the same with Rap music. My apologies for muddying things.


No problem, thanks for clarifying. In my defense, I think I've actually only mentioned that twice. And I certainly didn't "deduct any points" from Outspoken because of their rap track--I still rated that track a "4", and called their album "quite possibly the best a cappella album that I've ever heard", after all.
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Postby H.F. » Fri Sep 26, 2008 11:31 am

That's a great point, John. Thanks for clarifying. I suppose I found it odd that you mentioned it at all, but it was certainly not fair of me to overly generalize in your case. From what you list as your favorite groups/CDs, I suspect our style-of-music tastes just differ a bit :) Nothing wrong with that.
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Postby dr00bles » Fri Sep 26, 2008 12:06 pm

H.F. - first off, this did not come off as an attack, so no worries. Appreciate the input. This is actually my second time writing this, as when I hit "preview" the first time it sent me back to the login page and erased it all. That was really frustrating. I'll try to remember everything I wrote the first time.

First off, let me come out and acknowledge that it is no secret that I am not a huge fan of heavy production. As you mentioned, I spent my college days with a group that valued a "natural" sound on recordings, and these values have stuck with me. It's just my preference. Many others prefer the clean, polished sound of records with lots of production. That's okay. There's no right or wrong. That's the beauty of opinion.

Secondly, let me address the point about how I'll be reviewing a lot of collegiate CDs - it's definitely true that most CDs that will come my way will have similar production techniques. If anything, this only reinforces and strengthens my scores of "3" - these types of records will become more and more commonplace, so my "average" reviews will become more legitimate. I will not change my opinions on production, and I will continue to discuss it in my reviews. It would not be fair to the albums I've already reviewed if I suddenly reached an epiphany about how heavy production is actually beneficial to the album's sound. Not that I'd ever reach that epiphany anyway.

Let me also say that I do NOT think that just because an album uses heavy production, it is a bad album. It may actually be very good, or even fantastic. It's just that of the albums I've reviewed thus far, I have felt that the production detracts from the sound. In other words, I believe that fewer production effects would have increased the listener's experience. As I stated in another post, I try not to argue against heavy studio magic unless it directly negatively affects the listening experience. I am fairly confident that in every case where I mention production as being problematic, I identify the specific issue that it presents. In other words, it's never "I noticed that they used sampled percussion and that's not cool," it's instead "The sampled percussion elimintates the natural energy that the group displayed in track 3..." I just hope readers understand that this is not "GRR THIS IS FAKE" but rather is "this takes away from the potential beauty of the group's sound." It is an important distinction to call out.

Also - I do NOT think that all production is bad or unnecessary. While I will probably very rarely praise the use of heavy compression or octavized bass, I believe that autotune and tasteful EQ are perfectly fine and even necessary, as long as they are in moderation. I only have a gripe with autotune when the artifacts are prominent and consistent. Few people can argue with that.

And finally, let me clarify that I have no axe to grind, no agenda, and no pent-up denial. I simply have opinions that I would like to share. I appreciate the fact that I have a voice in this community, and am committed to reviewing every record honestly and thoroughly. And to your comment about how groups might start dreading having me review their albums - they shouldn't. They just need to understand that every reviewer writes their qualitative assessments with different criteria, and they should be considered along with all of the other praise and criticism that I and my fellow reviewers offer. I articulated this better the first time around, but I'm kind of in a rush to get all my thoughts down again.

Happy to discuss further.
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Postby H.F. » Fri Sep 26, 2008 12:45 pm

Well damn, if you articulated it better the first time around, I can't imagine how. I thought that was an extremely well thought out and well written response. I'm not sure I agree with your logic in all cases, but at least you have some logic to base your thinking on, and I respect that.

One thing I noticed, in comparing my reactions to what you wrote here to how I felt after reading your reviews, is that I in the former case I wasn't left feeling put off by an almost bitter, vitriolic tone...Bitter isn't the best word I'm sure, but it's the best I can come up with right this second. Perhaps your use of words like "grotesque, magical, hocus-pocus, bleed", are the difference, and I'll submit that perhaps that is for entertainment value. Perhaps it's not. But it's almost like I'm reading something from two different people. In your reviews, when you mention production, one can almost visualize you literally spitting the word out. Seriously. What you wrote here doesn't have that tone at all. So...I feel a bit awkward, and like we should give you the benefit of the doubt here, in the future at least. Perhaps it's just chance that you haven't liked the way production was used in all of your first several reviews.

Yet, you didn't really address the most glaring part of your most recent review, in my eyes - that being that you essentially admit to dropping the score of an album by 2 full points because it "wasn't raw voices". Perhaps that was hyperbole...but it does seem to walk the line. I mean, RARB reviewers are supposed to be comparing albums to the "general body of recorded a cappella" or something like that, right? If your statement was not pure hyperbole, then one could say that you essentially said that according to "the tides" the album would merit a 5, but since it didn't sound just like the group you saw live (raw voices), it got a 3. I might be reading too much into that, but a statement like that rather leaves you open to such interpretation. Know what I mean? One does get the sense that even if you were being a bit hyperbolic, that this IS indeed how you think all recorded a cappella should sound, if at all possible. And I guess what concerns me about that (if "concern" can be even used when talking about an album review, lol), is that I suspect you're going to be disappointed more times than not. And that disappointment has, thus far and at least to this reader, manifested itself, again, as disdain, at best. It's going to make for a lot of upset groups.

Of course, I make all these points, arguments...and yet really on many days I lean towards your side. I'd sometimes love to hear more natural singing. But in my opinion that would require a lot of culling that I don't necessarily support, and that certainly won't happen.
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Postby pujo » Fri Sep 26, 2008 2:10 pm

H.F. wrote:that you essentially admit to dropping the score of an album by 2 full points because it "wasn't raw voices". Perhaps that was hyperbole...but it does seem to walk the line.


this was my gripe andrew. perfectly phrased. the specific critique of something like sampled percussion taking away from energy, doesnt make sense. i am paraphrasing your example but maybe im not grasping it, but it seemed like your review of the cd didnt match your score, your personal views against any form of production did. further, it seems that something is raw or its heavy production. what constitutes a fine middle ground? im quite sure that in some instances what you may see as gross production may very well be actual raw talent, so good you assume the performer is not talented. this leads to a review based off of what you see live to then say, they werent that good live so this must be production giving this sound.

that is my gripe. its your opinion, which is awesome, but it seems like the cd got your review of your personal preferences of a cappella in general and not what you actually heard.
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Postby PaulPatersen » Fri Sep 26, 2008 2:15 pm

dr00bles wrote:... this only reinforces and strengthens my scores of "3" - these types of records will become more and more commonplace, so my "average" reviews will become more legitimate.


man, you should run for office. on one hand, i've gotta give you a lot of credit. you found a way to embrace the attack on you and put a positive spin on it. that, in and of itself, is *very* impressive. on the other hand, this is a complete load of poop, albeit on a gold platter.

you have, effectively, completely devalued the a cappella recording process.

dr00bles wrote: It would not be fair to the albums I've already reviewed if I suddenly reached an epiphany about how heavy production is actually beneficial to the album's sound.


on the other hand, it could mean you've become a bit more open-minded about the whole process. but, based on your background and history, that doesn't seem all too likely.

dr00bles wrote:While I will probably very rarely praise the use of heavy compression or octavized bass...


case and point. you said earlier on that albums of this nature are becoming more "commonplace". unfortunately, you're rating the overall score based on one aspect of the album. i'd be completely fine if you were to give the album a 4, and sound/production a 1. you sound smart enough to know what the voices started out as, before they were "stripped" and made "perfect."

however, because it's you, and because you do have your own opinion, this one aspect of the process is enough to lower the overall score of the album from spectacular to average. not only is it unfair, it's completely short-sighted.

in closing, i know you've taken a lot of bullets, and i'm not trying to attack your character, just your viewpoint. i feel like you're trying to make the argument that your reviews aren't unfair, and that production is only one aspect of what you're reviewing. i know it ruins the process for you... but as a reviewer, i guess i feel like you owe it to the rest of us to try to be a bit more open-minded. your most recent review reads largely like a rant, more than a review. just perhaps some thoughts to keep in mind, next time around.

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Postby dr00bles » Fri Sep 26, 2008 2:25 pm

I totally hear you. I will admit that the review is a bit soap-boxy, but I stand by it, and I think it's perfectly relevant to the CD I'm evaluating.

As for the "5" to "3" comment, perhaps the phrase isn't as clear as I intended it to be. I wasn't saying, "I'd give this CD a 5 if it had raw voices." I'm more trying to articulate that it's becoming increasingly clear what kinds of CDs get 5s, and I don't necessarily agree that they always deserve 5s. I didn't "drop" points. I happen to think the CD is standard-fare, mono-dynamic, and unexciting, and some of that is the result of the production decisions. I also think it has many redeeming qualities - specifically, the solo work - so it nets out at about average. That's a 3. (Thanks for clarifying your gripes - in retrospect, that part of the review could have been phrased better. My apologies.)

And H.F., regarding my dual personalities, I appreciate you pointing out my strong word choices. They're not really for entertainment value - it's actually just the way I write. I guess I utilize a different tone to defend my ideas than I do when I am trying to express them in reviews. Never noticed it before, but I'm glad you brought attention to it.
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Postby dr00bles » Fri Sep 26, 2008 2:34 pm

PaulPatersen wrote:...this one aspect of the process is enough to lower the overall score of the album from spectacular to average. not only is it unfair, it's completely short-sighted.


See my other responses. It is not one aspect that affected the review. It is instead the case that, in my opinion, the production affected OTHER aspects of the CD - namely, dynamics and energy. This combination of concerns has rendered it an average listen to me. I have tried to make this clear on several occasions. Also, see my previous post - I most certainly did not "lower" any score. I evaluated the CD and gave it a 3.

And yes, Paul, I have taken a lot of bullets, but if I'm able to express my opinion, you should be able to express yours.
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Postby matthewnym » Fri Sep 26, 2008 4:09 pm

After reading the explosion of posts regarding this issue, I thought I'd toss my hat into the ring and put forth my two cents. In my mind, the problems we're seeing here have nothing to do with Andrew DiMartino and his production preferences, but rather with the inherent contradictions of RARB's reviewing structure.

As its stated role, RARB is in organization that reviews a cappella recordings. The primary role of each reviewer is to basically tell the reader whether or not he/she liked the CD, so the reader has a better idea of whether they would enjoy the CD, and therefore whether they choose to buy it or not. Individual reviews play other roles, such as providing constructive criticism to the submitting group, but these are secondary considerations, according to RARB's self-description.

So, 3 reviewers listen to each album and basically say whether or not they like it. That's all Andrew DiMartino has done, despite the fact that his personal preferences run counter to many of the posters here. I'd go further and say that his opinions are not only welcome, but necessary. Each reviewer has personal preferences that over time will come through through his/her reviews. There are reviewers that would rather hear an in-tune and rhythmically precise album, even if it's a little electronic sounding. There are reviewers that would rather hear emotional investment, more than musical precision and cute arrangements. And there are reviewers, most prominently Mr. DiMartino, who would rather hear the flaws and blemishes in natural vocal sounds.

The key point is, our a cappella community is not homogenous. There is a significant portion of a cappella singers and listeners out there who correspond to these various musical preferences. And frankly, it is valuable to have someone like Andrew reviewing to let people who do not enjoy highly produced albums know whether or not they should purchase a given album. There will be people who disagree with his views. The answer is not to blast him for stubbornness or a refusal to acknowledge the current recording trends. Just ignore him. That's what I do. I don't mean that in any personal way, I just know that what I like in a cappella music, he doesn't usually like, and vice versa. Therefore his reviews are not particularly valuable to me, and I pay more attention to reviewers who I know have tastes closer to mine. But there are surely people who agree with Andrew, and tend to ignore other reviewers who praise highly produced albums. His opinions play a valuable role that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Now, what seems to be the biggest issue among several posters is the fact that he seems to have a pattern of giving numerical scores based on these production preferences. As he has explained numerous times, he is not reducing the score because he disliked the production, but that for him the final product did not merit a higher score. Do his preferences play a role in how he feels about an album, and therefore how to score it? Absolutely. But the same can be said for all reviewers. And there lies RARB's biggest contradiction.

RARB's numerical scores are incredibly subjective and nearly impossible to standardize, to the point of being nearly irrelevant. This is not a dig at RARB, but is just the simple reality when you try to take a subjective art form like music, and apply a strict, objective number to what you hear. The value in having different reviewers is that each one has a different background and perspective, but it also makes it impossible to standardize a scoring system. It's all well and good to state that the scores should be scaled against the general body of a cappella, with 5 being outstanding, and 3 being average, but you can't tell people what to think is average or outstanding. Everyone has a different view of what they like, and a different view of which albums they think are good or bad, and a different view about how each CD fits into their own personal spectrum. You cannot possibly expect that 18 individuals will categorize every album in the same way.

The problem is that we do place a lot of value in the numbers. That's just the way our society is, because when you have numbers, it's very easy to say that CD X is better than CD Y. Numbers are nice and orderly, and we know how everything fits together hierarchically. This is surely why RARB made the decision to include numbers in the review process in the first place. But then you get the current situation, where the score an album gets in some ways depends on the reviewer. And then you start getting insinuations that the score would have been different with different reviewers, and that a CD which is "better" may have a lower score than a CD which is "worse." But hey, that happens sometimes. It's just the flaw in the system. Overall, I think it's acceptable given the other reasons for the way the review process is structured the way it is.

In the end, any intelligent reader will be able to read the reviews and get an accurate impression of any CD, regardless of the score. Yes, the Madison Project album garnered a 3, 4, and 5, but in reading the reviews, I got a mostly positive vibe. Even in Andrew's review, he admitted that he disliked the production choices, but he could still tell that the musical qualities of the recording were very good. Just to illustrate the point further, the opposite effect can also occur. I remember when the Clefs last CD was reviewed, it received 5's across the board, but the vibe of the reviews was generally guarded, even off-put at times, because the reviewers didn't wholeheartedly endorse the sound they heard.


The scoring nuances are never going to be perfect. People just need to deal with that. No one is to blame, especially not Andrew. It's just the way things are. Forget the numbers and read the reviews, and you'll get all the information you need to know.
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Postby colton » Fri Sep 26, 2008 6:05 pm

pujo wrote:the specific critique of something like sampled percussion taking away from energy, doesnt make sense.


For what it's worth, I nearly wrote the exact same thing in a recent review I wrote that hasn't been published yet, but I ran out of space so I took out the comment. (Reviews are supposed to be around 500 words at most; I often go a bit over, but decided I was already too far over in this one.)

Anyway, for one of the tracks on the album, I had the same song with a very similar arrangements done by a different group. Same song, two different groups. One group used sampled percussion and the other didn't. When I listened to the two songs, I realized that the one that used live VP felt like it had 10x the energy of the one that used sampled VPIt wasn't even close. I'm not sure that the sampled percussion was the *only* difference, but after listening to the two tracks over and over, back to back, I concluded that it was indeed a *major* difference.

After thinking about what I was hearing, my observation was that the group without the sampled VP changed their tempo slightly throughout the song. Conversely, the group with the sampled VP kept the exact same tempo for the entire song. And that made the bulk of the difference in the energy level. Same tempo = boring. Changing tempos (tempi?) to emphasize harmonic and lyrical points = interesting.
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Postby colton » Fri Sep 26, 2008 6:47 pm

And thanks, Evan, for that very eloquent post.
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