The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

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The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby cforkish » Sat Aug 22, 2009 11:02 am

Thanks to Tom, Kevin, and John for reviewing our album.

Now that RARB has published the official review, we'd love to hear what the community thinks!

I'd also like to take a second to respond to something John said in his review:

The production is marked enough, however, that I found myself wondering what the group would sound like singing these songs live. In most cases, I simply couldn't picture it.


Neither could we. Consequently, since releasing "Escape Velocity" we have been focusing our efforts on bridging the gap between how we sound on our albums and how we sound in live performance. Check out a few videos from our latest show and let us know what you think!

http://www.youtube.com/stanfordharmonic ... TuF-54c6jQ
http://www.youtube.com/stanfordharmonic ... 02hYIR1R2k
http://www.youtube.com/stanfordharmonic ... ZQTdxx7VsM
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Postby davecharliebrown » Sat Aug 22, 2009 11:39 am

In an upcoming episode of Mouth Off, Christopher and I will be discussing this album and the Harmonics' live shows. Stay tuned...
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then: CASA president, CASAcademy director, CASA Bd of Directors | BYU Vocal Point | Noteworthy co-foun
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Postby brat » Sat Aug 22, 2009 1:02 pm

Call me biased (and, full disclaimer: I am), but how Tom gives this album a 4 is beyond me... The fact that he contradicts himself in the review doesn't help, and the fact that, based on his past reviews, he would seem to put this album on the same 4-star level as some of the other albums he has awarded a 4.. well... I don't know. I mean, here is a guy saying in the review that "tuning is spot on" and that "every note is honed to a fine edge" but then giving a 3/5 for in the numerical Tuning/Blend category... Really? I went back and listened to the album again after reading the review, and if the tuning/blend on the album is truly a 3/5, then there is something wrong with the scoring system. And regarding the comment as to the Harmonics sounding "disinterested and unsure during sustained notes"... well, where do you start with that. All I'll say is that some of the sustained notes on, say, Sound of Silence, are the most assured, confident, and goosebump-inducing chords I've heard on an a cappella album to date.

In any case, don't mean to come off bitter, but I really thought this was going to be an all-around 5-star album. I guess you can't have everybody agree with you always, huh? In any case, just wanted to give a shout out to the Harmonics on a groundbreaking album. To all the Harmz (and especially Charlie), I think you're a visionary, and that you are doing great things for the collegiate a cappella community on the whole. Keep pushing the envelope, keep innovating, keep up the ridiculous live performances (anybody who hasn't checked out the links posted above needs to this very instant), and above all, keep the vision. For what it's worth, I thought this was easily a 5-star effort, and fully deserved it's CARA for Album of the Year.
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Postby dherriges » Sat Aug 22, 2009 3:57 pm

I'll throw in 2 cents as part of "the community" - of course, I do come out of the Stanford a cappella scene, so I speak as a big fan of the Harmonics whose fandom is tinged with occasional jealousy/rivalry, especially around fall audition season. =P

I thought that 2 of the reviews were pretty unbalanced (Tom's harping on vocal technique issues, Kevin's overly effusive praise for its originality) but taken as a whole package, I think the three reviews got it about right, and I think the score of 4.7 is dead-on. Were I a reviewer, I probably would have given it a 5, cause (like Kevin, I think) I highly prize innovation and daring and that would tip the scales for me. But the album's hardly flawless, and I do think the bandwagon-style praise around this forum for something innovative and attention-grabbing can get over the top at times.

I'm a HUGE proponent of the radical-reinvention style of arranging (as will be obvious when you hear Mixed Co's new album coming out next month - whee, shameless plug!) and there's some legitimately brilliant stuff on EV, but my most nagging critique of this album is that a lot of it comes off to me as a bit gimmicky. "Imagination" in particular I don't really like, because while it's clever, it's "Hey-look-what-we-can-do!" clever and I find it lacking in any sort of emotional heft. "Sound of Silence" I like a lot better, cause it sends a chill down my spine. Cause isn't that ultimately the point of music? Impressing people is good, but you've got to MOVE them also.

Also, the soloists are good but not spectacular. They don't make me sit up and take notice. BUT - and this is the root of my jealousy as a fellow Stanford a cappellite - the Harmonics are terrifically good at covering for their flaws and accentuating their strengths. They are NOT the best singers, in raw talent terms, among Stanford's nine groups. (Hope I'm not offending any Harmonics by saying that... just my insider's perspective, and of course a bit of my rival-group perspective coming through.) But every couple years they come up with an album that blows anything Mixed Co could do out of the water. And I sit and listen to it, amazed. And now they've got a rocking, fully "plugged in" live show that's intense enough to make you think "Who gives a damn if these singers have nice vowels and blend?" So if anything they deserve huge credit for being one of the collegiate groups, nationwide I'd say, that has most successfully figured out what they do well, and, well, done it well.

One other nagging criticism: I think "Can I Buy You A Drink?", uh, sucks. It has nothing to do with the soloist, who's a friend of mine and who rocks. Or the arrangement. It's just one of the most terrible songs I've ever heard. =P

One other nagging criticism of the reviews: They didn't totally love "Rhapsody In Blue" as much as I do. Holy shit I'm obsessed with that track.

Props to the Harmonics for raising the bar, and congrats on great reviews!
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Postby vocalmark » Sat Aug 22, 2009 6:46 pm

Dear Charlie,

You guys sound pretty good.

-Mark

P.S. - ZOMFGWTFBBQGTFO (i.e. awesome dude :))

Mark Hines The Vocal Company - www.thevocalcompany.com SoJam, 2011 Executive Producer CASA, 2010 Board of Directors

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Postby Mnemosyne » Sun Aug 23, 2009 4:53 pm

brat wrote: I mean, here is a guy saying in the review that "tuning is spot on" and that "every note is honed to a fine edge" but then giving a 3/5 for in the numerical Tuning/Blend category... Really? I went back and listened to the album again after reading the review, and if the tuning/blend on the album is truly a 3/5, then there is something wrong with the scoring.

I think what Tom was saying in his review didn't concern the tuning part of the score, but the blend:
Tom, in his review wrote:When backing parts do come out, the poor vocal technique is clear: spread vowels, lack of support, swoopy, nasal, breathy in the men, mousy and overly trebled in the women. Baris and tenors are still mostly absent. The Harmonics have mastered short, percussive, and punchy singings, but sound disinterested and unsure during sustained notes.

Tuning is, after all, only part one of the package, and it isn't exclusive to a cappella. Imagine what would have happened if Robert Plant tried to sing with Kiss (just humor me). Plant and Simmons' vowel shape, tone, just about everything would be completely different, and would probably sound pretty bad (yes, the analogy comparing the Harmonics to Zeppelin and Kiss was very intentional). I'd venture that Tom meant it as constructive criticism because hey, it's a review - you're supposed to laud an album's successes and point out its flaws.

That said - WOW. Any more words fall short. I heard this way back in January and it basically made me fall out of my desk chair. Congratulations to all the Harmonics - y'done awesome.
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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby colton » Sun Aug 23, 2009 7:52 pm

cforkish wrote:I'd also like to take a second to respond to something John said in his review:

The production is marked enough, however, that I found myself wondering what the group would sound like singing these songs live. In most cases, I simply couldn't picture it.


Neither could we. Consequently, since releasing "Escape Velocity" we have been focusing our efforts on bridging the gap between how we sound on our albums and how we sound in live performance. Check out a few videos from our latest show and let us know what you think!


I have mixed feelings, and am probably not going to be able to express this very well.

First, the local perspective: what you have done is terrific. Groups first and foremost have an obligation to put on a great show for the paying audience. It's clear you're doing that, with what seems to be a high degree of artistry. That's fabulous. I think groups also have some sort of obligation to do what you're trying to do: make the live shows and the recorded music by in sync with each other. It's great that you have given/are giving that serious consideration.

Second, the global perspective: I'm not so sure this is a Good Thing, looked at from a distance (cue Bette Midler). If every group did this, we would basically lose the a cappella art form that so many of us love. However, even from this perspective I'm not *certain* it's a Bad Thing, though, because I don't want to see contemporary a cappella become what barbershop mostly has--all groups sounding nearly the same, rigidly defined (if perhaps unwritten) rules of what's acceptable, etc.

Third, the debate: I know this has gone around the forums from time to time, but what even is "a cappella" music? The usual definition is something like "singers singing without instruments". But what's an instrument? When I play trumpet, I buzz my lips together and the sound gets amplified and changed by the trumpet itself. Buzzing my lips together would qualify as a cappella music, I suppose (though not a particularly pleasing sort), but all would agree that adding the trumpet into the system causes it to cease being a cappella music.

So, how about a computer running real-time autotuning software? The computer system amplifies and changes the character of the voice going in, in what seems to me to be nearly the exact same way the trumpet does to the sound produced by the buzzing of my lips. So to me, the "Comfortably Numb Guitar Solo" has crossed a line and is now no longer a cappella music. To someone who disagrees, please tell me how "computer as instrument" is essentially different from "trumpet as instrument".

Back to the group: I don't necessarily think you should be concerned at all about my "global perspective" or "debate" paragraphs. Again, 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.

But still, I am disquieted...
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Postby billhare » Sun Aug 23, 2009 8:05 pm

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.

But back to Escape Velocity:

On other tracks, I took a more active role, such as the opener Battle Without Honor or Humanity.

Tom Czerwinski, in his RARB Review wrote:Yet throughout I couldn't help but notice the mediocre singing. Tuning is spot on, but clearly helped out by studio wizardry....When backing parts do come out, the poor vocal technique is clear: spread vowels, lack of support, swoopy, nasal, breathy in the men, mousy and overly trebled in the women.


This can be said about many of the great "singers" throughout history. What kind of vocal "technique" did Astrud Gilberto use? Or Joe Cocker? Two of my favorite vocalists. It's about the character - the attitude - what moves you. Let's talk about untuned, not-a-whole-lot-of-wizardry, anti-technique... which I actually love!

I would send several of them into the booth, some probably not-so-sober, and say "sing something like this - ya ya yaya ya ay ya" but not giving them a lot of syllabic or note direction.

"Which notes?" they might ask.

"I don't really care" I would respond - just rock!

And rock they did. I wouldn't (and couldn't) do this with a lot of groups, collegiate or otherwise, but I know the Harmonics aren't shy. Even if unsure, they are going to make a sound, make it loud, and not apologize for it. And since they are all singing together, there's nothing I could do to "fix" the tuning even if I wanted to (and I don't want to).

Blend? Who gives a damn? I sure don't in some circumstances. Applying choral values to this music makes no sense to me. If guitars and horns can be deliciously out of tune and timbre on some of my favorite records of all time (ever notice the trombone sticking out on all those great Chicago records? Go Jimmy Pankow is all I have to say to that!)... well, you know where I am going with this...

Speaking of going, I just got back into town, catching up on emails, and probably should unpack the suitcase. More later.

-B

Bill Hare Some dude who records and mixes people who can't play instruments. http://www.dyz.com

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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby dekesharon » Sun Aug 23, 2009 8:36 pm

colton wrote:To someone who disagrees, please tell me how "computer as instrument" is essentially different from "trumpet as instrument".


Regardless what you do to it, it's still considered a guitar. Plug it in, you call it electric guitar, but no one says "you've ruined guitar music!" (well, since Dylan went electric, that is).

Every other music making device is given complete latitude. Make it sound good. And then people expect the voices to stand in the front and sing lyrics, or something vocal sounding. Without effects.

Moreover, people who complain are happy to use a computer for hours to fix tuning and rhythm, but then get up in arms when it's used briefly to alter the sound of the voice. In the latter case, less computer is used. No one cares if Pat Metheny's guitar sounds like a keyboard, or if Kenny G's sax sounds like ass (sorry, couldn't resist).

I've considered all of this for hours, days, weeks, months, years, and I'm through to the other side. Make good music, using your voice. Use effects, if they make the music better, but not if they don't.

Either way, no matter what, your ear and your mind are the real instrument.

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Re: The Harmonics: "Escape Velocity"

Postby colton » Mon Aug 24, 2009 5:10 am

DekeSharon wrote:I've considered all of this for hours, days, weeks, months, years, and I'm through to the other side. Make good music, using your voice. Use effects, if they make the music better, but not if they don't.


Oh, I absolutely agree that's what groups should do. That's what my "local perspective" paragraph was saying. It's just that I'm not sure it should be called "a cappella" music any more after a point. If that matters.
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Postby dekesharon » Mon Aug 24, 2009 5:23 am

But why not? Stanley Jordan is considered guitar music the same as Segovia, and John Cage's works for prepared piano are piano music, same as Chopin.

I agree there are more effects and manipulations used in modern music, but there's not a single person who would argue that the Edge is not a guitarist compared to Jimi Hendrix. A Cappella is no different.

I posit that the change should perhaps happen in the people who reject the modern sound: call them purists. That's fine - traditional a cappella as opposed to modern a cappella or some such. I don't have any problem with someone who doesn't like the sound of a distortion pedal on the human voice - I just don't think they should then be able to determine that it's no longer a cappella. Put avocado on a burger, we're all still gonna call it a burger, even if it makes you throw up a little in your mouth :)

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Postby colton » Mon Aug 24, 2009 5:55 am

DekeSharon wrote:But why not?


Because computers are manipulating the sounds as much as my trumpet does. Therefore, if the trumpet is an "instrument", so is the computer.

Repeating my earlier question, how is the computer different than the trumpet?
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Postby dekesharon » Mon Aug 24, 2009 6:33 am

colton wrote: Because computers are manipulating the sounds as much as my trumpet does. Therefore, if the trumpet is an "instrument", so is the computer.

Repeating my earlier question, how is the computer different than the trumpet?


I can't tell if you're asking this in earnest, but I'll try to answer it as such.

The computer doesn't manipulate the sounds in the same way as your trumpet does.

If with your voice all you're doing is creating a little buzzy sound on a single pitch and then you use your computer to manipulate the sound, then I'd probably agree that your computer is more important than your voice, and you should call it computer music. I wouldn't call that a cappella, personally. I don't think anyone would.

But when you have an entire group of people singing a wide variety of things and then they record it into the computer where it's manipulated, I still think it's called a cappella. Sure, you can change the occasional pitch and line up rhythms, and add effects (that are added to every other instrument with that instrument retaining its name) but it's vocal music.

It's not pure, unadulterated vocal music... but neither is most rock and roll music nowadays pure, unadulterated rock and roll, devoid of effects and studio correction.

There is a name for music in that grey area where the computer does the vast majority of the work - electronica - but it's the rare a cappella song that qualifies as electronica, in my opinion and to my ear. YMMV.

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Postby Mnemosyne » Mon Aug 24, 2009 7:03 am

colton wrote:
DekeSharon wrote:But why not?


Because computers are manipulating the sounds as much as my trumpet does. Therefore, if the trumpet is an "instrument", so is the computer.

Repeating my earlier question, how is the computer different than the trumpet?

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. Of course there are exceptions, like, for instance... well, the guy who just said something more cogent than I could while I was typing this (whoops). Still, when Deke does his muted trumpet, I'd wager that he isn't trying to hide the fact that he's singing. Rather, it's more impressive that he is singing, and it just wouldn't be the same if he just pulled out a trumpet. That said, it might be kind of cool if you busted out a trumpet at your next show, acted like you were playing, then just dropped the thing and kept going. Just a thought.

You have to wonder what crosses the line though - a lot of people have very indefinite standards of what's "natural" and what isn't. I'd guess a snare drum is a pretty big subject of contention among some people. What sounds more natural - a heavily compressed, gain-normalized snare that's been pitch shifted down 3 semitones to fit into the mix, or one that's just been lightly compressed, and boosted with a notch at 250Hz to create the "tone" of a drumhead. Technically, less has been done to the latter one, but the first one may sound more untouched.

My motto in regards to use of effects and processing (N.B. huge pet peeve of mine, can we please stop blanketing it all as "production?") has very rapidly become "if it sounds good, it is good." It's right up there with "garbage in, garbage out" and "hakuna matata" on my list of things-that-just-make-sense. I'd wager that Eno, Lord-Alge, and all the rest of them have the same general opinion. That said, I'd love to see the look on Chris Lord-Alge's face if someone gave him an aca PT session and said "go." That'd be worth the $7 for a medium popcorn to watch.
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Postby colton » Mon Aug 24, 2009 9:15 am

DekeSharon wrote:The computer doesn't manipulate the sounds in the same way as your trumpet does.

If with your voice all you're doing is creating a little buzzy sound on a single pitch and then you use your computer to manipulate the sound, then I'd probably agree that your computer is more important than your voice, and you should call it computer music. I wouldn't call that a cappella, personally. I don't think anyone would.

But when you have an entire group of people singing a wide variety of things and then they record it into the computer where it's manipulated, I still think it's called a cappella. Sure, you can change the occasional pitch and line up rhythms, and add effects (that are added to every other instrument with that instrument retaining its name) but it's vocal music.

It's not pure, unadulterated vocal music... but neither is most rock and roll music nowadays pure, unadulterated rock and roll, devoid of effects and studio correction.

There is a name for music in that grey area where the computer does the vast majority of the work - electronica - but it's the rare a cappella song that qualifies as electronica, in my opinion and to my ear. YMMV.


Good, valid points. (And yes, my question was serious. Thanks for the serious answer.)

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?

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.
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