RARB vs. outside arranging

All things Recorded A Cappella Review Board.

Should RARB reviewers use the origins of arrangements as criteria for reviews of recordings?

Yes, always
12
32%
Yes, if the arrangements are overdone
5
14%
Yes, if they know that the arranger in question is not connected to the ensemble
8
22%
No, never
12
32%
 
Total votes : 37

Postby dherriges » Mon Oct 20, 2008 7:48 am

randi wrote:I know it's a far stretch since the production side takes much more time/financial resources, but how come groups can use "outside" engineers for the production of their albums? I am sure there are students at many universities who do post-production. If we penalize outside arrangers, we should penalize outsiders for anything (artwork, production, who paid for the album).


Randi's quote makes me think maybe I see it this way:

From the reviewer's perspective, any album is a collaboration between the singers, the engineer / producer, the arranger(s) if not in the group, etc. - anyone involved in the process. That's fine. It's no different in the "real" music business.

There's a long list of famous producers in the pop music world, who are recognized for their creative contributions to pop music even though they were never the ones behind the mic performing. Same thing with songwriters. More in the early to mid 20th century before writing your own songs became associated with artistic integrity in the singer-songwriter era, but in recent pop too - I think of Max Martin taking much of the credit for the success of the late 90s teen pop acts whose hits he wrote. That's good. He deserves much of the credit. The guy's brilliant.

Now, from the perspective of an a cappella GROUP, rather than the reviewer, this should be an impetus to try to learn to do things in-house and take as much creative control of the project as possible, for your own pride if nothing else. I remember having the "how much production?" debate with my group when we started our last album. Our director said he was fine with studio tricks, distortion etc, but "If we get any awards for this album, I want it to be us getting the award, not Bill Hare."

In other words, I'm a little put off by an album only when I get the sense that the group did nothing remarkable and the only reason I'm enjoying what I'm hearing is the outside talent they brought in to help. But mostly, I'm put off by that only because I'm embarrassed for the group, wondering if they're feeling the same way about their own product.
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Postby warren b. » Mon Oct 20, 2008 7:58 am

randi wrote:2) Knowing the "dynamic" of a group - This ties into with what Warren said about wanting extra liner notes to explain relationships, etc... Groups don't just email me and say "Arrange this" and I say "ok". I ask them how many voices they have, what are their strengths and weaknesses, are there specific requests... these are the kinds of things anyone would like to explain in liner notes. For example, should it be stated that "I arranged song X using pretty easy syllables because group Y didn't want to have a lot of variation to memorize?" There are times I can be criticized for not changing up syllables enough, but some of those times there's a purpose for that and the intention isn't to 'sound boring'. Or what about when a group needs an arrangement yesterday and you don't have the time to spend that you'd normally spend working on something? You see where I'm going - there may be other explanations.


This was crux #1 of my original posting: some RARB reviewers seem to take it upon themselves to make assumptions about relationships between outside arrangers and the singing members of the ensemble, and then use those assumptions to color their reviews and scores, which leaves the ensemble helplessly watching as they get criticized for something that they-- including relative old-timers like me-- had no idea was a liability in the first place.

randi wrote:4) ...To me, it doesn't matter who does them. I know it's a far stretch since the production side takes much more time/financial resources, but how come groups can use "outside" engineers for the production of their albums? I am sure there are students at many universities who do post-production. If we penalize outside arrangers, we should penalize outsiders for anything (artwork, production, who paid for the album).


Hmm. The artwork angle would would depend on whether the judges are allowing the whole package to influence their reviews, or whether they are judging on the audio alone. In fairness, they are reviewing the entire package, and while there's no specific score for packaging, having crappy artwork or typo-ridden liner notes can only make the ensemble look bad and lower the reviewers' expectations.

Allowing engineers into the "outside" equation is a slippery slope, as so many recordings are done live, and a good live engineer will not necessarily make a group sound better, and a bad engineer can only make a group sound worse. And besides, expecting a singer to man the board while recording for posterity would be silly, especially if it's in performance.

Overdubbed studio recordings... well, that's a whole other kettle of fish. John Clark, Bill Hare, etc. have done amazing things with well-placed microphones and ProTools, and RARB doesn't seem to criticize groups simply for using someone else, but rather calls out the engineer/producer/mixer/masterer for specific things (too tinny, overprocessed percussion, solo buried in the mix, etc.). Logically, it would make sense to call out arrangers for arranging mistakes (missing 3rds, chords not appropriate for the genre, having sopranos sing too high above everyone else, etc.), and not for simply failing to be credited as a singer.

randi wrote:I review based on what I hear and based on the recording.


And that was crux #2 of my original posting.
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Postby colton » Mon Oct 20, 2008 9:50 am

Warren B. wrote:Hmm. The artwork angle would would depend on whether the judges are allowing the whole package to influence their reviews, or whether they are judging on the audio alone. In fairness, they are reviewing the entire package, and while there's no specific score for packaging, having crappy artwork or typo-ridden liner notes can only make the ensemble look bad and lower the reviewers' expectations.


Speaking for myself, I *score* a group based only on audio alone, but I might *comment* on some of these other issues.
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Postby warren b. » Mon Oct 20, 2008 10:02 am

colton wrote:
Warren B. wrote:Hmm. The artwork angle would would depend on whether the judges are allowing the whole package to influence their reviews, or whether they are judging on the audio alone. In fairness, they are reviewing the entire package, and while there's no specific score for packaging, having crappy artwork or typo-ridden liner notes can only make the ensemble look bad and lower the reviewers' expectations.


Speaking for myself, I *score* a group based only on audio alone, but I might *comment* on some of these other issues.


If there were liner notes that misspelled members' names, credited incorrect songwriters and/or gave members sole credit for arrangements that are suspiciously simliar to traditional or otherwise well-known arrangements, I myself would be sorely tempted to bringing the overall score down.
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Postby seth » Mon Oct 20, 2008 11:02 am

I agree with a lot of what's been said here, and I've advised reviewers many times to review the product, not the process. It does get a little sticky in that a cappella is defined by its process, so enthusiasts do tend to care about it, but I don't want to turn this thread into a discussion of genre boundaries.

But the notion that we should ignore relationships makes me wonder: what's an original song? It's common to give extra kudos and creativity points to albums with original songs, but what does that mean? Some songs are clearly originals, and some are not, but I'm not sure it's always that clear.

Let's see if we can figure it out. Here are some cases of what I've heard people say are original songs:
  • a singer in the group writes a new song for the group
  • a friend writes a new song for the group
  • a hired professional writes a new song for the group
  • the group covers a song previously written by one of the singers (e.g. Sara Bareilles singing Gravity with UCLA Awaken)
And these are not cases of original songs:
  • group covers a radio hit by a stranger
  • group covers an old song most of us haven't heard of, but that was once popular
And here are some cases we might disagree about if they appeared on an album:
  • group covers a song written by a friend who only plays it on guitar in his living room
  • group covers a song written by a friend who plays it at local coffee shops
  • group covers a song written by a stranger who plays it at local coffee shops

Is it just a question of how many people know the song already? Is the question meaningful in the first place? Is originality of a song really a yes or no question, or are there degrees? I'm guessing the A Cappella Originals podcast uses copyright control as its test, which would make sense for practical reasons but doesn't address the philosophical question.

Sadly, this isn't a practical concern very often.
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Postby Chris » Mon Oct 20, 2008 11:27 am

Seth wrote:I'm guessing the A Cappella Originals podcast uses copyright control as its test, which would make sense for practical reasons but doesn't address the philosophical question.


Yes, I think that's correct. The vast majority of the songs in the CASA mp3 Library (this is where the podcast gets its tracks) are written by a member of the performing group. One exception is "Soundcheck", a track by Toxic Audio that was written by Deke. I don't recall if that was something Deke wrote for the House Jacks. (If so, is it a cover? I don't think the HJ ever recorded it on an album.)

Another question- is it a cover if group A does a song, then group B does the song without hearing group A's version of it? (I could see this happening if a songwriter who is in group A gives a song to group B because he/she thinks they'd be well-suited for it.)
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Postby dekesharon » Mon Oct 20, 2008 1:34 pm

I wrote "Soundcheck" for, well, soundchecks. We were finding ourselves increasingly frequently in front of audiences during our soundcheck, and we hated to "burn" a song.

I didn't think much of it, but I've actually heard a few groups do it (or largely copy it).

Toxic Audio, the classy folks that they are, asked if they could record it, but truth be told their version is as much theirs as mine.

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Postby soundslikedrums » Tue Oct 21, 2008 8:29 am

i understand making comments in the review based on personal preference. but as far as docking an actual score based on outsourcing... why is this even an issue?

in defending the notion that innovation/creativity scores should be lower for groups that outsource arrangements, one RARBer said:

rjoyce wrote:outside arrangements don't reflect the group's creativity in my book.


sorry, but RARB doesn't do reviews of groups or singers - they review albums. outsourcing may reflect on the people in the group (though i don't think it does), but it doesn't reflect at all on the album - which is supposed to be the subject of the review. if you're reviewing the group instead of the album, folks, you're doing it wrong.

the category is not called "innovation/creativity of the people who sang the notes on this cd." it's just called "innovation/creativity." we can debate the rightness/wrongness of, say, adding another category entitled "self-reliance," but with the categories we have now, the source of an arrangement (provided the source is properly credited) has zero bearing on whether the arrangement itself is innovative or creative. if i arrange a song on group X's album, then the score for that song, as well as whatever prorated component of the inno/creat score is attributed to that song, is partly directed at me, just as the "sound/production" numbers are directed at bill or tat or dio or whomever.

i, for one, don't care whether pop artists write their own material - i'm just as impressed when a hired gun writes a great song as when the artist himself/herself does so, because either way, it's a great song. and an innovative/creative arrangement done by an outsider is no less innovative or creative, in and of itself, than one done by the group's current MD.

warren - thanks for starting a great and useful thread.
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Postby warren b. » Tue Oct 21, 2008 9:04 am

soundslikedrums wrote:
rjoyce wrote:outside arrangements don't reflect the group's creativity in my book.

sorry, but RARB doesn't do reviews of groups or singers - they review albums. outsourcing may reflect on the people in the group (though i don't think it does), but it doesn't reflect at all on the album - which is supposed to be the subject of the review. if you're reviewing the group instead of the album, folks, you're doing it wrong.

Y'all are far more eloquent than me at this. I'm with that 100%.

soundslikedrums wrote:the category is not called "innovation/creativity of the people who sang the notes on this cd." it's just called "innovation/creativity." we can debate the rightness/wrongness of, say, adding another category entitled "self-reliance," but with the categories we have now, the source of an arrangement (provided the source is properly credited) has zero bearing on whether the arrangement itself is innovative or creative...

...and an innovative/creative arrangement done by an outsider is no less innovative or creative, in and of itself, than one done by the group's current MD.

That was the irony of our last review. The overall impression we got from RARB was

"This production by their outside producer is top-notch; give 'em a 5.
These arrangements by their outside arranger are top-notch; give 'em a 3."

Seemed incongruous. if Samrat-- again, the greatest vocal arranger alive, IMO-- can only poison reviews by virtue of not being a member of the groups he does brilliant arrangements for, then at what point can Samrat be complimented? Seems even more unfair to him than to us. Does he have to start his own group, or at least pretend to be in one, to be able to point to a RARB score that reflects, rather than downplays, his contribution?

Taking another angle: Samrat was the most prolific arranger ever for The Hyannis Sound (9 of 15 tracks on Cape Standard Time and 11 of 16 tracks on 110, and most the rest were long-time group standards); should RARB have penalized the group for not having enough arrangers, proportionate to the number of people singing on the album?

Perhaps we've all drank the Kool-Aid at this point and are willing to overlook the gorillas in the recorded a-cappella room-- i.e. slick mixdowns and countless overdubs-- so we focus on the remaining non-technological aspect short of the actual singing.
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Postby tekay » Mon Nov 03, 2008 2:43 pm

Just a quick response on my end, please forgive any typos. Just thought I'd say a few things regarding this very intriguing thread.

Since Kimmie wasn't quoted in this thread (though she gave the same innovation/creativity score that I did), I'm going to assume the top-notch/give a 3 comment was directed at me. I don't have my notes in front of me, but I would state that it's unfair to assume that the "3" for creativity was derived solely from the the "outside arranger" comment.

In fact: "On the other hand, I mean, the arrangements are by Samrat! If you can sing a lick (a Southern colloquialism if you are wondering), then having a Chakrabarti arrangement will vault you to that next level" would seem to indicate the exact opposite.

Plus I make the comment: "As if it were the only one not specifically arranged for the group (I have no proof that any of them were, but this one sounds the most stale and sour.)"

Had it been stated that Samrat was the songwriter for the group, would that have changed my opinion in this particular instance. Possibly. That's a completely different dynamic. Why are certain groups beginning to credit their board operators/sound guys as an additional member of the group? S/he isn't singing, but is just as influential on the finished product. Same goes for the beginning with the arranger/songwriter. I'm not making assumptions about anyone's relationships, but I believe there is a vast difference/investment between a working situation (hiring outside arrangers) and creating something in-house regardless of the intimacy of the relationship.

Tis funny that several people exalting Frank Sinatra as a performer and defending his not writing his own music, but have no problem denigrating current pop stars (read as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys or many others of the ilk) when they were only singing songs by Max Martin. Yes, I'm comparing Frank Sinatra to Britney Spears. Deal.

As the experiential/emotional bitch of the reviewing team...I do take into consideration outside influence and contributors to the finished product. If I'm reviewing only the album, every review would read "the disc that I received was shiny." Because that is the album. The music coming out through the speakers is another beast. People are at the heart of making this music, and the final product is derived from what each individual has done.

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Postby JDubbs » Wed Nov 05, 2008 5:11 pm

Darn you A Cappella enthusiasts for your wit and your compelling arguing, for after a year of occasional forum/review readings, I have finally succumbed to the pressure and am making my first post.

This is quite the thread this time around. I agree with a lot of what has been said, especially the singer/songwriter analogy. I am surprised that no one has mentioned the ability of an arrangement to be cultivated by a group. As an outside arranger for groups on campus, it is tough for me to side with the idea of demerits to groups who do not arrange their own music, regardless of the quantities of arrangements borrowed. Sometimes groups fall into not having many or any arrangers on hand in a given year. As arrangers, we often give groups the ability to sing in the first place. A lot of groups that are fresh out the gate may not have the resources to put together music for themselves. As long as those arrangers are included in the liner notes, thus contributing to the "Product" being reviewed, they can only be faulted if the product is not a good one.

With that being said, an in-house arranger should, and often does have an advantage to put out a better product. I know my current group better than any outside arranger could. The fact that I (and others in my group) have the skill to arrange definitely benefits us more than an outside arranger could, that's why we stray away from them, the same way that a coach tailors his or her plays to the players on his team, and the same way a recording artist can perform his or her songs better than anyone else could. In that same strain, if an outside arranger is familiar with the group it arranges for, it will often lead to a stellar product. But knowledge of the group is all in the process (which is not being reviewed), and not in the product (which is being reviewed).

But all in all, it is just a review, and opinions are opinions.
Jeremy "JDubbs" Winston
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Postby vkolko » Fri Nov 07, 2008 1:55 pm

I apologize for coming into this thread late. The thought of SoJam is making me a little giddy. (That's right. I said giddy.)

In general, when I reviewed, whether an arranger/arrangement came from inside or outside of the group made no difference to me, and my scores would reflect that. I may have mentioned in my narrative, however, that in order for the group to become more well-rounded, they could start home-growing their own pieces. I believe that knowing how to arrange makes one a better musician in all aspects, and that it can greatly help a group when the piece is designed specifically to the voices that are within it. But overall, it did not affect my scores. We're judging sound, not the meta-scheme behind the music.

However, if I've heard the arrangement before, if it's weak, if it's 100% redone (which is rare these days, but still happens), the score would be lower, particularly in innovation. To me, RARB is about the execution of the pieces, no matter where they come from.
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Postby Mnemosyne » Fri Apr 10, 2009 5:41 pm

I actually have a technical question about arranging. This might actually have more to do with the CARAs, but how does everyone feel about arrangements collaborated on by current and former group members? Say, for instance, I were to do an arrangement along with John Clark. Not that we could prove we did equal work on it, but what if?

Any thoughts/input from the CARA rules board?
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Postby davecharliebrown » Fri Apr 10, 2009 6:09 pm

Wow, Alex -- way to resurrect an ancient thread.

I get to nominate and vote on CARAs, but I don't pretend to know all the rules by heart. That's Julia and Jon's job; I'll let them pipe in.

If you don't hear back, feel free to email them at cara@casa.org.
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Postby Mnemosyne » Fri Apr 10, 2009 6:26 pm

DaveCharlieBrown wrote:Wow, Alex -- way to resurrect an ancient thread.

Well, I am an archaeology major. Among other things.
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