The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

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Postby davecharliebrown » Mon Aug 24, 2009 9:17 am

I'm glad to be reading this discussion, as I also think about these concepts frequently.

Query to John: Do you feel like a microphone amplifying a singer's voice is an instrument? If not, what about the addition of a simple live EQ?
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Postby colton » Mon Aug 24, 2009 9:32 am

DaveCharlieBrown wrote:Query to John: Do you feel like a microphone amplifying a singer's voice is an instrument? If not, what about the addition of a simple live EQ?


Well, the original meaning is "in the chapel", right? So, no microphones or amplification there! ;-) I do sing in a classical ensemble with about 50% of our music a cappella and 75% of our performances actually in chapels--and we use microphones for recording, but never for amplifying our sound during a performance. So, we're certainly a cappella. :-) However, I'm certainly not that much of a purist/masochist to force other a cappella groups to do the same.

So, to answer your question, no, I don't think adding microphones, amplifiers, or even live EQ, crosses the line.

Obviously, the problem is that there's a continuum of computer/electronic assistance available, and by labeling a particular group (or album, or track, or live performance) as "a cappella" we necessarily must draw a line in the continuum.(*) I bet it would be easy to have a computer become a virtual trumpet, by having it analyze my lips' buzzing sound, pick out the fundamental frequency, then add an overtone series to make the tone sound more trumpet-like. Heck, that actually sounds like a great project for one of my undergraduate physics laboratories. But both Deke and I agree that that would no longer be "a cappella". So, where does the line get drawn? For me, right now, and after listening to the Harmonics' guitar solo, it's on the "no live auto-tuning" side of the fence. But I could change my mind.

(*) The solution, possibly, would be to just say "rock", "pop", "jazz", "folk", "country",(**) etc., instead of "rock a cappella", "pop a cappella", etc, but then this website wouldn't exist, would it? ;-)

(**) ...or perhaps just "music I like" and "music I don't like". :-)
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Postby H.F. » Mon Aug 24, 2009 10:28 am

billhare wrote:So much to say... I'll just start a mind-dump now with my personal experiences:

Kevin Sawyer, in his RARB Review wrote:Producer Bill Hare deserves special credit for bringing such an ambitious project to life. Where his past projects have suffered from a measure of conformity (albeit to a standard partly of his own making), Hare's work is notable here as much for what it doesn't do. He is unafraid of silences. Of grunts and whirls and visceral music-making.


I've gotta say, while working on tracks like Sound of Silence that I was scratching my head a bit, thinking things like "what the heck does Charlie want me to do with this??" While I'm happy to take credit for a lot of things I have done, I also give it where it is due, and I followed Charlie's brilliant lead on a lot of that. Not that he always knew where he was going himself, but I did find if I let him stew on things long enough (much to the worry of the people in charge of Harmonics' accounting) that he'd eventually be able to communicate to me these insane visions deep inside his mind.

I don't know about the "conformity" comment, though - not sure if Kevin has heard enough of my work to say that - I don't think if he listened to Bella Sorella, The Swingle Singers, Voces 8, Talisman, Cluster, The Ghost Files, Soul Influence, The House Jacks, Beelzebubs, Apes & Babes, +4dB, Maybe6ix, Divisi, Chordials, etc that he'd be able to find a specific "Bill Hare Sound" common to all of them, but I do admit that there are probably a handful of collegiate albums I do each year that sound alike, more based on budget and available "tricks" I might have to fix problems in a short time.


C'mon Bill! Natch™ gave the album a 5! This is a rare and wildly unpredictable occurrence, and should be cause for wonder and celebration! :)
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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby cforkish » Mon Aug 24, 2009 10:53 am

colton wrote:your mission should be to produce cool/artistic music that is pleasing to your fans and to yourselves. Period. And you are obviously doing so.


thanks john! for the above reason, we as a group don't really worry about this issue at all, but it's definitely cool to hear how the community feels. that said, i do have a question to contribute to the debate:

how would you classify the performances from those youtube videos if i put them on a CD? if i submitted that CD to RARB for a review you would no doubt review it, as the final product is hardly dissimilar from our album, save in terms of quality. the only real difference in terms of the process of making the music was time – on our album we spent forever on everything, whereas in these performances we did it all in one take.

the effect of using autotune to make voices sound more like guitars is utilized all over Escape Velocity, not to mention a good portion of the contemporary a cappella albums being made today. so it's a cappella when it's played back, but not as it's sung? the guitar solo in "Battle Without Honor Or Humanity" was done in almost exactly the same way as the live guitar solo in "Comfortably Numb." in fact, it sounded pretty much the same while it was being recorded as it does in the finished product – everyone in the studio, including the singer, was hearing the autotune and distortion as it was being sung live. so was it something other than a cappella while she sang into the microphone, but then suddenly it was a cappella when we listened to the recorded track? in the case of the "Comfortably Numb" solo, would it be a cappella if there was no audience and the room was smaller and looked more like a recording studio? what if i didn't add the autotune until after it had been recorded? for that matter, how do you know i didn't?

what about "Dream for the Moment"? we performed it live almost exactly as it sounds on the album. how can it be that we can use the cher effect on our album and still be called a cappella, but when we use it live we're called something else?

i agree with deke on this one: electric guitar music is still considered guitar music. there are a lot of crazy sounds you hear on rock albums these days that are made by highly processed guitars. but if you want those crazy sounds in your recording and the instrument you know how to play is the guitar, then that's how you make those crazy sounds. my personal view is that a cappella is music created by people whose instrument is their voice. if those people are interested in making music that has crazy sounds in it, they're going to process their voices to make crazy sounds. and the cool thing is there are a lot of awesome crazy sounds that would be really hard to make by any other method than processing the human voice. in the harmonics, ultimately we're not trying to use processing to make our voices sound like instruments; we're trying to use processing to make our instruments – our voices, that is – sound as awesome as possible. and as long as our instrument is our voice and the skill set we're employing to make our music is what is commonly known as "singing," we're going to continue to consider ourselves an a cappella group.

actually, that's a complete lie. we prefer to think of ourselves as a "vocal rock band."

oh!
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Postby ceegers » Mon Aug 24, 2009 11:52 am

colton wrote:
Mnemosyne wrote:Partly, I think intent comes into play. When you play a trumpet, you intend to sound like you're playing a trumpet. Generally, when you sing, even through a ton of DigiTech effects pedals or AmpliTube or Camel Space (everyone should get their hands on that last one), you're still intending to sound like you're singing.
Same question. Does the Harmonics' "guitar solo" cross the line for you? The intent seems to be to make it *not* sound like a voice any more.

This here is kinda what gets me about some of this stuff. To me it seems the intent is certainly the opposite on this guitar solo: to sound completely Not like a singer. Basically, to get rid of any way to tell (aurally) that you might be actually singing.
This guitar solo is not so much about the singer as it is "look what we (or more accurately, whoever's setting up and running the tech) can do with some crazy effects!"

Is it entertaining? Yes! Is it still a cappella... eh... *shrug*

Edit: In a sense it's less impressive, because I know it's not just the singer making this stuff.
Easily my favorite part in the sound of silence is 4:30-4:45 because it's sheer awesome singing that is clearly singing, and that rocks! I love this section better on this video than I do in the studio recording actually.
Last edited by ceegers on Mon Aug 24, 2009 12:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby kevin47 » Mon Aug 24, 2009 12:17 pm

If every group did this, we would basically lose the a cappella art form that so many of us love.


Would we? I feel as though the biggest risk to the "art form", particularly at the collegiate level, is the propensity to devote enormous time and resources to recording, and not nearly enough to live performance.

It's not like you can take an average a cappella performance, throw some camels (?) front of them and suddenly have a rocking sound. What you would have is a fog of low end and high end that doesn't resemble music.

The blending of human voices sounds different from anything else on Earth. It doesn't matter what filter you put on it. Therein lies the legitimacy of this genre, as well as it's commercial future.

But it has to be able to stand up against live performances in other genres. We are in an era of loud music, to which listening audiences have become accustomed. There is no reason vocal bands shouldn't be able to participate on even keel.
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Postby ceegers » Mon Aug 24, 2009 12:33 pm

DaveCharlieBrown wrote:Query to John: Do you feel like a microphone amplifying a singer's voice is an instrument? If not, what about the addition of a simple live EQ?

I know you weren't asking me, but what's a forum for but for other people to jump in? :P

The music director for my first three years was kinda weird as far as a cappella people go. To exaggerate, he thinks most groups' studio CDs, and BOCAs, are "evil". He is very much against using effects and such in an a cappella group.

So answering based on what I think he might agree with...
You can do things that are simply in order to obtain a sound in the current room that you could do in another room, but not the room you're in.
As a result, that's about all we would ever use. We absolutely loved singing in dorms and stairways because we didn't need anything to help our sound or balance out.
When we would sing in certain sucky-places-to-sing on campus, we would use microphones with simple amplification (solos, sometimes beatboxer, sometimes overall group mics) to obtain the presence and balance we can obtain in better spaces.

Do I agree? Not exactly, but I'm just giving it from his probable point of view.

C.J. Smith Hempfield HS R# founder/director 03-05 U. of Hartford Hawkapella 05-09 Currently doing many musical things that do not include a cappella groups :-( :-(

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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby Mnemosyne » Mon Aug 24, 2009 1:00 pm

cforkish wrote:there are a lot of crazy sounds you hear on rock albums these days that are made by highly processed guitars. but if you want those crazy sounds in your recording and the instrument you know how to play is the guitar, then that's how you make those crazy sounds. my personal view is that a cappella is music created by people whose instrument is their voice. if those people are interested in making music that has crazy sounds in it, they're going to process their voices to make crazy sounds. and the cool thing is there are a lot of awesome crazy sounds that would be really hard to make by any other method than processing the human voice.

See, wording things like that is why people call you a freakin' genius (paraphrased). I try to make the same point about the voice being an instrument in and of itself all the time. It can do things that no other instrument can, and can even do things that those other instruments do exclusive of anything else. Lots of orchestral instruments are compared to the human voice, but an octet of cellos, for example, just doesn't sound the same as an SSAATTBB choir, nor does it carry the same impact.

Charlie's point about the voice being able to do things that other instruments can't rings particularly true with me after the marathon I spent last week mixing. In the latest song we've been working on in the studio, there's a huge pick slide in the original track that slowly pans from left to right, and has a giant phaser slapped on it. Sure, we could have stepped up to the mic and recorded a "SHHHHEEEEEEOOOOOWWW" (again, paraphrased), and just panned that, but it wouldn't quite create the same effect as what we ended up producing with a sustained "weh" on the tonic of the song, a modulation plugin, and an amp modeler. It's purely atmospheric, and it's a long way from the source audio, but we got the exact sound we were looking for.

Heck, even the fact that there was a pick slide in the original might bring a "purist" pause. In the technical sense, it's not "playing" the guitar in the same way that strumming or picking is, and it doesn't even sound very good or "right" unless you overdrive it, amplify it, and maybe even put it through a stompbox. What about strumming the strings above the nut on the headstock, or turning the guitar upside down, facing the amp, and hitting it on the back of the body to create feedback? None of these are "traditional" uses of the instrument, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a person that would say that Pete Townshend wasn't playing his guitar at any point on Who's Next. I'd say anyone that finds out of the ordinary uses for an instrument - kettle drum, oboe, human voice, mbira, whatever - isn't violating some deep-seated musical rule against the instrument's nature. It's just a different way of making music.
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Postby colton » Mon Aug 24, 2009 1:59 pm

Hey, Alex, what about the guitar solo/intent question I asked? (last post of previous page)
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Postby dfeder » Mon Aug 24, 2009 2:08 pm

As another current member of the Harmonics, I thought I might as well throw my 2 cents into the debate.

First off, though, I wanted to join Charlie in thanking Tom, Kevin, and John for their time and effort reviewing Escape Velocity. Definitely some interesting feedback, and some great things to think about when we start on our next album.

Now, about the whole "is it still a cappella?" question.

As Charlie mentioned, as a group, it's not something we lose sleep about. But it is definitely an interesting question.

colton wrote:To be specific, though, how about the "guitar solo" in the second Stanford Harmonics link above? In that case, it seems to me that the computer is manipulating the voice nearly as much as a trumpet does the buzzing sound. Both force the tone into distinct pitches--the computer via autotuning, the trumpet via its resonant modes. Both change the way the pitch sounds--the computer by making a voice more guitar-like (unless the bulk of it is done the singer like a "regular" instrument imitation), the trumpet by changing the buzzing into a more pure tone. Has that crossed the line for you, or is that still a cappella?


I can absolutely see the potential for the computer to be just as much of an instrument as the trumpet is, as you bring up. As a group, we could all just make the same buzzing sound on stage, and let Charlie and the technology transform said buzzing sound into the notes, chords, melodies, etc that you hear coming from the stage. And in that case, sure, the computer would essentially be no different from a trumpet. But that's not we're doing (nor is it where I personally see the future of a cappella going either, but maybe that's just me.) At least as far as I understand how to play a trumpet (which is not very far, so correct me if I'm wrong), the music issuing from the trumpet isn't coming from the musician's vocal chords. It's a combination of the way in which the musician blows air into the mouthpiece and the valve positions (handled by the fingers) that determine what note comes from the instrument. There is clearly no singing involved.

But with what we're doing live now, the singing is still being handled by the singers. Yes, the sound that comes out of the speakers has been altered, and has been aided by the computer. But the raw material is still coming from our vocal chords . Sure, it could be done without really engaging the vocal chords - as I mentioned before, we could all stand on the edge of the stage buzzing quietly into the mics and let the computer (and the person running it!) do all the work. And for me, that would probably be the point at which I'd cease to consider what we do a cappella. (That would also be incredibly boring, both for us and the audience, but that's beside the point.)

So in the case of Comfortably Numb guitar solo, the reason that Erica (the "guitar soloist" in the video) is different from a trumpet player is that she's still singing. And as someone who's heard her practice the solo MANY times, both on- and off- mic, what you hear is still largely coming from her mouth. The computer is certainly helping, but the pitch, the rhythm, the attitude, the shaping of her mouth - it's still her. So much so, in fact, that when I listen to the solo, I can absolutely tell that it's Erica singing. It still sounds like her - it obviously helps that I've heard her sing it so many times off-mic, but I'd wager than most people who really know her individual voice could tell you the same thing.

Now, I'm not proposing that the "is-it-or-isn't-it-a-cappella" line can/should be drawn at whether or not you can recognize the voice of the person singing. Nor am I saying that to consider something "a cappella", you can/should always be able to recognize the original voice. But I'd wholeheartedly disagree that the trumpet and the computer are essentially one and the same.
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Postby billhare » Mon Aug 24, 2009 4:05 pm

dfeder wrote:The computer is certainly helping, but the pitch, the rhythm, the attitude, the shaping of her mouth - it's still her. So much so, in fact, that when I listen to the solo, I can absolutely tell that it's Erica singing. It still sounds like her - it obviously helps that I've heard her sing it so many times off-mic, but I'd wager than most people who really know her individual voice could tell you the same thing.


This is a good point - it takes quite a bit of vocal talent to make the effects work in the first place. If it were just as easy as breathing into a mic and letting the engineer manipulate it into a symphony, that's crossing the line for me. As one of the original "destroyers of the art" let me say that I also have my limits - re-synthesis is a no-no in my book - it's that point where the voice disappears, and I refuse to do it. Everything I do would be completely different with a different singer, or even different take of the same singer.

I seem to regurgitate this every few months, but I'll say it again. Exactly at which point did we "lose" Rock and Roll? When Elvis came in as the first white rock star? When the Everly Brothers softened it into cheery harmonies? When the Beatles added exotic instruments and other electronic sounds that couldn't be reproduced live? Did Rock and Roll die with Led Zeppelin's blues-based explosion of sound and screaming vocals? Or Elton John's, David Bowie's, or KISS' theatrics? It had to have been dead by the Disco era, right? Or maybe Punk was the end of Rock. But wait, could it have survived the New Wave? Are we not men, or are we Devo?? Rock was long gone by the time John Mellencamp did R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.... or was it? Maybe it disappeared with Nirvana and all the grunge/alternative of the 90s? Could Rock and Roll still exist after 50+ years? Probably not in the mind of the original rockers - if I brought some recordings of The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, Imogen Heap, or even Hanna Montana back to 1955, it would just sound like noise to the ears of Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly. But we still call it Rock & Roll. And it constantly "crosses the line" for many people.

The great thing is, we can listen to Chuck Berry if we want, and not listen to Pantera if we don't want. But I don't see anyone trying to kick Pantera out of the club. There are thousands of groups, many staying traditional. Those of you who like that can listen to those groups, but there's no reason to say the other stuff shouldn't exist. "A Cappella" as we know it would already be dead by now if this were the case...

-B

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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby dherriges » Mon Aug 24, 2009 10:09 pm

cforkish wrote:my personal view is that a cappella is music created by people whose instrument is their voice. if those people are interested in making music that has crazy sounds in it, they're going to process their voices to make crazy sounds. and the cool thing is there are a lot of awesome crazy sounds that would be really hard to make by any other method than processing the human voice. in the harmonics, ultimately we're not trying to use processing to make our voices sound like instruments; we're trying to use processing to make our instruments – our voices, that is – sound as awesome as possible. and as long as our instrument is our voice and the skill set we're employing to make our music is what is commonly known as "singing," we're going to continue to consider ourselves an a cappella group.


Charlie, this debate happens every few months on the RARB forum like clockwork, but I have to say, that is the best answer to the "Is it still a cappella?" question I think I've ever seen. Bravo for managing to put it into words so succinctly and clearly.

If a guitarist who deliberately makes his guitar sound like birds chirping is still playing the guitar (and quite skillfully, most likely!), then a singer who deliberately makes her voice sound like a screeching guitar solo (using much the same kind of technology) is still singing. Even if the intent is that it not sound like what it is. Even if the intent is to straight-up fool people.

Then again, I realize most a cappella singers themselves are gonna be hesitant to come around to this view - I certainly was - and, of course, most of them became interested in a cappella because they loved the unadorned sound of the human voice. And that's cool. There's always gonna be a huge place for that.

Even studio gimmickry aside, when I talk about contemporary a cappella arranging (I do a little seminar on it for the Mixed Co newbies every fall), one of my basic goals is that novice arrangers get their heads around the idea that the human voice is an instrument, and can be experimented with freely as such. That is a paradigm shift for arrangers who grew up on choral music, and even the vast majority who accept that idea still seem to be very limited in the repertoire of sounds they think to experiment with. (My most common critique of a first-time arrangement: "You know, there are consonants other than "b" and "d" in the alphabet. Have you heard of them?)

And that's cool. Who knows what pop music will sound like in 2050, but I think we can all agree that plenty of people will still enjoy a good song performed by one guy and a guitar. Just as surely, I think we can all agree that people will still enjoy the sound of voices blending in harmony. So purists, don't worry - your kind is not endangered. =)
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Postby dherriges » Mon Aug 24, 2009 10:17 pm

P.S. One of my favorite things about Escape Velocity is how much of it actually sounds vocal. At least to my ear - which is used to the magic of Bill Hare. The "guitar solos" may not sound like voices, but in context they sounds vocal - when you listen to Battle Without Honor or Humanity there is no question, for even a second, that it's being performed by singers. And that's very cool, IMO.

Even more so with Rhapsody in Blue - I find that arrangement brilliant precisely because it's so transparently vocal. The voices, and the "syllables" being used, are actually more evocative of instrumental sounds than strictly imitative of them, and that's a key difference that makes the track so cool. I don't think listeners come away from that one thinking "Look what Bill Hare can do" as much as they might from some of the other tracks. I for one came away on first listen thinking "Look what Jon Pilat can do!!!"

Which leads me to this thought: the creative growth of our genre lies as much in the hands of arrangers as those of producers. Probably much more so. Keep stepping it up, folks. =)
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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby colton » Tue Aug 25, 2009 6:47 am

cforkish wrote:how would you classify the performances from those youtube videos if i put them on a CD? if i submitted that CD to RARB for a review you would no doubt review it, as the final product is hardly dissimilar from our album, save in terms of quality. the only real difference in terms of the process of making the music was time – on our album we spent forever on everything, whereas in these performances we did it all in one take.

the effect of using autotune to make voices sound more like guitars is utilized all over Escape Velocity, not to mention a good portion of the contemporary a cappella albums being made today. so it's a cappella when it's played back, but not as it's sung?


Yes, autotuning to make voices sound like guitars on albums troubles me(*) as well. However, with live performances as a sort of "reality check", it hasn't worried me as much as the live autotuning does.

(*) troubles = from the state of the genre perspective, not the state of the group perspective, as explained in my initial post in the thread.

cforkish wrote:i agree with deke on this one: electric guitar music is still considered guitar music. there are a lot of crazy sounds you hear on rock albums these days that are made by highly processed guitars. but if you want those crazy sounds in your recording and the instrument you know how to play is the guitar, then that's how you make those crazy sounds. my personal view is that a cappella is music created by people whose instrument is their voice. if those people are interested in making music that has crazy sounds in it, they're going to process their voices to make crazy sounds. and the cool thing is there are a lot of awesome crazy sounds that would be really hard to make by any other method than processing the human voice. in the harmonics, ultimately we're not trying to use processing to make our voices sound like instruments; we're trying to use processing to make our instruments – our voices, that is – sound as awesome as possible. and as long as our instrument is our voice and the skill set we're employing to make our music is what is commonly known as "singing," we're going to continue to consider ourselves an a cappella group.


And yet, "a cappella" does not mean "from the mouth". It means "in the chapel". In this context, "in the chapel", in my opinion, most closely translates to "without additional instruments". Therefore, if the computer reaches the stage of an additional instrument (which it may or may not have, here), then it is no longer a cappella regardless that the sounds are originating from your mouth.

That's one reason why I do not find Deke's guitar analogy entirely compelling--guitar music does not have the "no other instruments allowed" history that a cappella music does. A cappella music, whether or not it's appropriate to be sung in a chapel, should be *able* to be sung in a chapel, with nothing but the singers and their voices. In my opinion. If groups add mics/amps/equalizers/bass pedal to a live performance to enhance things, that's fine with me, but said group should still be able to give a tolerable performance without the additions.

But the point at which the computer becomes *necessary* for the performance, is the point at which it ceases to be a cappella music to me--because an additional "instrument" beyond the voices is *required*. At least, that's what I've decided in the last 24 hours. Maybe I'll change my mind later. Perhaps a new word should be coined to describe that kind of music. Now, that's not to say that I'll stop reviewing albums that do that, or that I will penalize groups in my ratings. It's not to say that I even *dislike* such music, or that I think groups should *not* do that... I do after all like Escape Velocity a heck of a lot and gave th Harmonics a lot of praise in my review. But, as I mentioned at the outset, if everyone starts doing it, especially in their live performances, in my opinion the genre will cease to exist.

Another reason the guitar analogy doesn't work for me is this: think about the skill set required to play the guitar. Does this skill set change at all when distortion, etc., is added? No, not really.

Conversely, think about the skill set required for singing a cappella. Two of the largest skills are (a) the ability to sing in tune, without backing instruments, and (b) the ability to make pleasing vocal sounds. Does this skill set change at all when real-time autotuning with tweaks to make the voice sound like a guitar is added? Absolutely. Or so it seems to me, but I've had no direct experience so I'll take your word if you disagree.

Closing thought: could T-Pain sing in an a cappella group, like the kind that submit to RARB? I very much doubt it. But could he do his type of music without other instruments besides his autotuning computer? Probably so. That says something to me.

Whew. That's enough. Apologies for the long post.
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Postby colton » Tue Aug 25, 2009 6:49 am

kevin47 wrote:But it has to be able to stand up against live performances in other genres. We are in an era of loud music, to which listening audiences have become accustomed. There is no reason vocal bands shouldn't be able to participate on even keel.


Read all my comments. I've consistently said that the group should do what's best for them. Period.
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