UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordings?

All things Recorded A Cappella Review Board.

UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordings?

Postby patrickwatson » Fri Jan 21, 2011 1:35 pm

Hey everybody,

So the latest review on RARB is of the latest album from the UMass Dynamics, you can read it here:

http://rarb.org/reviews/1086.html#

I'm a co-music director of the group, an arranger, and a co-producer of this album. I'm not here to whine about poor reviews, although I was a bit puzzled by them. A common sentiment among all the reviewers was that the album was very nice and listenable but that it lacked energy, save for the final track of the album, a rather ambitious medley (if I may say so myself) of Kanye West songs which received unusually high praise from all the reviewers. You can listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkVextXnCMc

To see if you might agree with the critics, here are a few more YouTube links of songs from the album:
I Wanna Dance with Somebody by Whitney Houston:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcPQJLTBWzg&feature=related
Man In The Mirror by Michael Jackson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bLMYsUFqrQ&feature=related
White Room by Cream: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBZzaYujKYw&feature=related
Breakable by Ingrid Michaelson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4YXgh3upcw
Where To Now, St. Peter? by Elton John: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjGqkS-SX_g

That's nearly half the album! So that should be a good enough sample.

I sat in on over 90% of all the recording sessions that we did with each individual singer (about 16 in our group at the time). In each session I gave critiques and direction to make each singer give their best performance, to be full of energy, verve and personality. We had the album professionally recorded and produced with some of the best equipment available. Yet the critical opinion is that the album is mostly lifeless. My question is, what do you have to do to get the energy of a live performance with the precision that you need for a recording? What are good examples of recordings with "energy"?

Thanks,

Patrick Watson
UMass Dynamics, Co-Music Director, Arranger 2006-2011
patrickwatson
 
Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Jan 19, 2011 6:04 am

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby johnhe » Fri Jan 21, 2011 5:58 pm

patrickwatson wrote:My question is, what do you have to do to get the energy of a live performance with the precision that you need for a recording? What are good examples of recordings with "energy"?

I don't want to extrapolate completely off of this quote, so let me know if anything that I'm saying off-base.

Live performances are perceived to be energetic not only because the singers have an audience to feed off of, but also because there are other parts of the experience other than just the music. Your singers may be particularly animated, your beatboxer may be air-drumming along with his perc, or your soloist might be really good looking. In any case, there's a lot of other sensory input you get at a concert that you wouldn't get in a recording, where all you get is sound. Bill says it well in his CASA blog here (you should read the rest of it, though it doesn't quite fully address your question):

Bill Hare wrote:Hearing only the audio of the performance as it was is like going to a movie, but the bulb in the projector is burned out. Heck, let's not even go to the theater, but just play a movie on your laptop with the screen turned off - you are removing about 95% of the experience for the person you were entertaining live - they have no context, and need to have things explained. It's become an "audio-only" experience, so there are a lot of senses to fill! Consequently, now they can concentrate fully on that 5% that's just the audio, and a million things they would have missed during your live performance become painfully clear. Add to the fire that this has now become a repeatable performance - they can't hit rewind while watching you live, and will forget about that clunker note in a matter of seconds, but every time it comes by on your CD it will sink in a little more. You don't have the advantage of being in the moment, visuals, etc to distract from that.


As such, your recording will need to do something to make up for that lack of sensory input...what Bill terms "about 95% of the experience." Which brings me to another part of your quote, where you mention that you have to have "the precision that you need for a recording." I don't disagree with you, but you must be very clear about which areas you are being precise with. If the areas are energy or phrasing, then these are indeed areas worth being precise in. However, if they are studio correctable things like pitch, rhythm, and (to a lesser extent) volume, then you're making a singer, isolated in the studio, worry about a bunch of other things that really aren't that important.

It also sounds like you gave comments and chose the take that you guys would eventually keep for each singer, so you might also want to consider that perhaps you may have been concerned with "the precision" that you thought was necessary. Again, I hope I'm not making too many assumptions based off of your quote; I just thought that this might be one reason you're confused about the review.

For what it's worth, I went through and listened to the samples you put up on YouTube. I for one agree with the reviews. The energy could definitely be improved; in a lot of the parts, it sounds like the singers are a little too worried about rhythm and/or pitch. Also, your singers could have a better grasp of phrasing, but that's an area that I think a lot of collegiate groups could improve in. If you need any examples, feel free to take a look at any of the more "highly reviewed" albums recently; groups don't get those reviews if they're lacking in energy.
John He
Executive Producer | Los Angeles A Cappella Festival
Music Director | Bruin Harmony
Nominator & Judge | CARA
johnhe
 
Posts: 108
Joined: Mon Mar 09, 2009 12:48 pm
Location: Los Angeles, CA

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby patrickwatson » Fri Jan 21, 2011 11:08 pm

Thank you very much for your response.

When I used the word "precision", I was talking about mainly rhythm and pitch. The way we recorded the album is we holed all 17 of us up in a large house for a week and a half, beginning each day by recording the solo scratch track, VP elements and bass parts. The singers would record with a dressed up midi, a provisionary percussion track and the scratch solo playing into the headphones. Next we would record the tenors, altos, sopranos, and then we would record the final version of the solo that evening. After that we would add "sprinkles", last minute ideas for the arrangements, little back up parts or harmonies we had come up with over the time we have been performing the songs. The number of parts in each arrangement ranged from 6-16. After the week and a half of recording was done would come the months-long work for the producer to put it all together. Due to the vast swath of work involved in sorting out all the recordings, it was prudent to try and get every performance recorded as close to the final product as possible, without needing a ton of little corrections for every singer, in every part, in every song which would make a massive tedious job that much more massive and tedious. And that meant making sure each singer sang their part correctly as well as with the appropriate attitude/feeling or sensitivity, which I thought I made sure of for both. I was sure that we were striking a good balance, but critical opinion says otherwise. If that isn't the way you do it, then how is it done? How do you achieve the best balance between accuracy and energy? They shouldn't necessarily be mutually exclusive, but that appears to be the paradigm in which the album was judged. Do the singers really have to party and drink Red Bull before singing happy energetic songs, and should I really be breaking them down to tears before singing a sad song or giving a motivational speech before they sing an inspirational song? Is that what people do? How do you coax an accurate performance with energy?
patrickwatson
 
Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Jan 19, 2011 6:04 am

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby billhare » Sat Jan 22, 2011 3:03 pm

Hey Patrick,

I just took a listen (or should I say a sampling of each), and yeah - it's all good and precise, but the biggest word that I would use is that it seems "careful". The hardest part about making a record is sounding like you didn't care - you just went in there and rocked it. It's not a matter of trying too hard, but of priorities. If a singer is putting out a gripping emotional performance but is singing out of tune or rhythm, the last thing I am going to do is let that singer know they are singing out of tune or rhythm, because then they will start to think about it, and lose the most important aspect of performance (which is, incidentally, performance).

patrickwatson wrote:How do you coax an accurate performance with energy?


Accurate is nice if you can get it, but performance is the key, and not even energy all the time either - some songs are supposed to be depressing or emotionally touching, and I see just as many of those ruined in the quest for "accuracy" as well.

Rather than wonder what the reviewers were talking about, maybe listen to some A Cappella tracks that might have some of that spark - check out tracks that were picked for Sing/BOCA/Voices Only for example - and let's ask the panel of experts here on the board - what should Patrick listen to that would best demonstrate what the reviewers were wanting to hear out of his group's album?

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

billhare
 
Posts: 2002
Joined: Thu Feb 13, 2003 11:14 am
Location: Silicon Valley, CA

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby jmille22 » Sat Jan 22, 2011 5:44 pm

Don't call me an expert, but these are some of my favorites for their intense, gripping performances. These all made me sit up and LISTEN because in addition to being precise, they convey an emotion.

Cornell Chordials - The Moment I Said It
Cadence - Don't Fix What's Broken
Tufts Beelzebubs - Vehicle
UNC Clef Hangers - Feelin' Good
Any track recorded by Firedrill!

And, of course:

Moosebutter - I Hate Mosquitoes

:)

For an example of hyper-precise yet still emotional, see:

transit - Hide and Seek
Last edited by jmille22 on Mon Jan 24, 2011 7:28 am, edited 2 times in total.

Jay Miller
University of Rochester Alum
Dept. of Mechanical Engineering
B.S. '08/M.S. '09
www.shminaminoo.com
After Hours Co-Ed A Cappella
Business Manager '05-'08
Member '05-'09
www.URAfterHours.net
www.youtube.com/URAfterHours

jmille22
 
Posts: 157
Joined: Fri Dec 18, 2009 1:05 pm
Location: New York City

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby johnhe » Sat Jan 22, 2011 6:07 pm

+1 to everything Bill says. "Energy" has become "that word" that you use to describe a good performance, but "performance" and "emotion" are probably better descriptors.

I'd be interested to know about the rest of your production process. Perhaps working with an editor in the future will allow you to worry less about getting it "close to the final product." If you aren't able to afford an editor, perhaps picking up some of the tools to edit (tuning, rhythm correction, etc.) would be beneficial in the future.

In terms of getting a good performance out of every singer, one thing that I've found practically is singing in very short phrases. It allows singers to put everything they've got into the performance for those couple of bars. If every little bit is sung with 110%, then the whole product should be full of life, emotion, and all that good stuff.
John He
Executive Producer | Los Angeles A Cappella Festival
Music Director | Bruin Harmony
Nominator & Judge | CARA
johnhe
 
Posts: 108
Joined: Mon Mar 09, 2009 12:48 pm
Location: Los Angeles, CA

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby dekesharon » Sat Jan 22, 2011 7:32 pm

One important consideration in this heady brew of perfection vs energy: you can have both.

Background parts, especially those filling the role of instruments are able to be super-tweaked without losing passion.

On the other hand, the lead vocal should be imperfect. Needs to be imperfect. Sometimes more than you're comfortable with, especially if it's you singing, or your group and you're engineering (because you're going to feel as though the "error" is a reflection of your talent).

Everything else you track wants to fall somewhere in between: A rhythm guitar part can be super clean... unless it's a funky line that wants to be a bit out, or a lead guitar part that would be bent and often land in the cracks.

Oh heck, who am I fooling. It's all just a big messy process in which there are no rules. Only taste, and finesse, and decisions. Many decisions.

Just don't always make the decision to tune, or else you'll end up with a giant shiny crystalline tower that's perhaps a little cold and unwelcoming. Unless it isn't. But it probably will be. To some people. But then again not to others.

So there.

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

dekesharon
 
Posts: 1585
Joined: Fri Jun 13, 2003 8:01 am
Location: San Francisco

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby patrickwatson » Sat Jan 22, 2011 10:40 pm

Thank you very much for your responses!

Bill - Funny you mention Voices Only...We actually did have a track from our last album featured on Voices Only in 2008, and "Love Games" received even harsher reviews than "Barking Mad"!

johnhe- Well the producer was the editor- he did everything, he was the recording engineer and the producer. I don't know much about what went into production- those are his trade secrets. We trusted him to assemble the best takes from every singer since we know he has good musical instincts as a musician himself, and it was pretty obvious sometimes which takes were the best, which we would note right after we finished recording. Once he came to his first complete drafts, the drafts were circulated to the music directors and we would make comments and suggestions till we were really happy with it and then he would come to the final mix. On the last album "Love Games" we had Randi Stanley do most of the arrangements, we consulted her on the couple of original arrangements we had, and then she gave input on the drafts. This time around for "Barking Mad" all the arrangements were done by members of the group and a couple by another student arranger. I was kind of insistent that we really try to do everything ourselves, but now I wonder if I should have looked for an outside opinion while we were at the stage of reviewing drafts.

We did often record songs in sections instead of trying to get one perfect take the whole way through, definitely helped for some tricky parts.

jmille22- Thanks a lot I will definitely check out the list!

Mr. Sharon - Thanks for responding! I'm a big fan of yours, your arrangements have such a Bach-like clockwork perfection to them that really inspired me in my own approach to arranging. While the reviews weren't so positive for the album, I managed to get a couple of positive shoutouts from the reviewers for my arranging, so I see that as yet more evidence of your enduring bonifying influence in a cappella. ::fanboy gratuitous praise over::. I think you're right. I'm beginning to truly understand what I only passively accepted as true before, which is just what you said, there are no rules, just decisions. There isn't really a list of things that necessarily guarantee something to be a success, you just get there. Having said that though, I stand by my work on the album.
patrickwatson
 
Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Jan 19, 2011 6:04 am

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby billhare » Sun Jan 23, 2011 10:10 am

patrickwatson wrote:Thank you very much for your responses!
Bill - Funny you mention Voices Only...We actually did have a track from our last album featured on Voices Only in 2008, and "Love Games" received even harsher reviews than "Barking Mad"!


Which shows how subjective this all is. A different set of reviewers on your last two reviews would have probably given different results as well. What gets onto Voices Only may or may not get onto BOCA and vice-versa, as Corey and Deke/Amanda are different people with different tastes/values/sensitivities. Amazing art has been panned, terrible art has been lauded, then tastes change and they switch places. 100 years from now, history might show Cyndi Lauper and Doug Henning as the greatest artists of the last 5 centuries.

That all aside, the concrete side of this is that the end result at least needs to make you feel something (not just musical math), and even the most pre-fab Disney TV show band can do that (at least for some) with proper production oversight. That some people (like musicians and music industry people) can see through this doesn't matter - they are making a connection with an audience who buys their product. If Mitchell Musso is selling more records than I ever can, more power to him, I say. :-)

patrickwatson wrote:Well the producer was the editor- he did everything, he was the recording engineer and the producer. I don't know much about what went into production- those are his trade secrets.


I don't think any of us have "trade secrets" - I know I don't - even if my biggest competitors ask how I did something, I don't hesititate to show them. Who WAS the producer on your album, BTW?

patrickwatson wrote:I was kind of insistent that we really try to do everything ourselves, but now I wonder if I should have looked for an outside opinion while we were at the stage of reviewing drafts.


Those who know me know I'm constantly pushing the "outside ear" thing. Read my CASA Blog for much more on that. Even top professional artists need that input (think about how the biggest movie directors in the world do test screenings in all demographics when the move is half-finished, then takes that input to re-write the whole ending - that's what I'm talking about - major label recording artists do the same thing). Why would amateur singers, most of the members of the group recording an album for the first time, make all these choices on their own, not being able to tell whatsoever what this sounds like to someone not intimately familiar with every voice, every note of the arrangement, every experience the group had with the song, etc? While the song might remind the group of that awesome night in New Hampshire every time they hear it, the other 6,895,365,792 people in the world have not had that experience.

I liken the recording experience to making a movie. Even though watching a film gives the illusion that a guy is driving down the road, then gets out of his car and walks into a house, then walks down the hall, into the bedroom, sets an alarm clock, walks out of the house, and the house blows up - each of these scenes, even though taking a combined total of 45 seconds, were shot separately, in different locations, on different days, and not necessarily in order. Each was optimized for greatest impact. Think of your parts as separate "scenes" - if you go 4 measures with a 16th note guitar-type part, then the next 4 measures have you going "oooooooo" very softly, then the next 4 have you in harmony with the lead vocal, and after that with a loud "jen-joh-jun-jun" chorus - why do it all at once? Not a lot of quality control there. Work each little part until you get it right, keeping in mind the character and emotion (you can even direct it like a movie - "here you are on a mountaintop, and the person you love is on another mountaintop and you are separated by a snowy valley - show your love!"). Keeping the emphasis on character, but repeating the short few measures (keeping it to one idea) will bring the accuracy up as well.

-B

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

billhare
 
Posts: 2002
Joined: Thu Feb 13, 2003 11:14 am
Location: Silicon Valley, CA

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby patrickwatson » Sun Jan 23, 2011 10:35 am

Thanks for those points Bill, I will have to get back to you later today when I have more time but I can quickly tell you that Jack Ludden of PolyTone Studios was our producer. He recently had to change the name of his business but you can see his site at pinewoodproductions.net.
patrickwatson
 
Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Jan 19, 2011 6:04 am

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby dekesharon » Sun Jan 23, 2011 10:43 am

patrickwatson wrote:I stand by my work on the album.


Good. Never let a review erase pride.

A challenge for the future: make a track that's ugly, that's muddy, that's dark and conflicted and confused. That process might help exercise the muscle used to keep things from being too clean, too shiny, too pretty.

Also, listen to old recordings before you track. Listen to Motown - great, loose vibe and feel, with LOTS of out of tune notes, and yet for the most part no one cares.

A passionate speech with a couple of muddled words is far better than a perfectly pronounced, empty one.

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

dekesharon
 
Posts: 1585
Joined: Fri Jun 13, 2003 8:01 am
Location: San Francisco

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby patrickwatson » Sun Jan 23, 2011 5:59 pm

I was going to write some more but after reading what you, Bill, and Deke have to say, well basically I just wish I could do the forum equivalent of pressing "like" on Facebook. Thank you so much for taking the time to offer your thoughts, I really appreciate it.
patrickwatson
 
Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Jan 19, 2011 6:04 am

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby johnhe » Sun Jan 23, 2011 9:38 pm

billhare wrote:I don't think any of us have "trade secrets" - I know I don't - even if my biggest competitors ask how I did something, I don't hesititate to show them.


You have competitors, Bill??
John He
Executive Producer | Los Angeles A Cappella Festival
Music Director | Bruin Harmony
Nominator & Judge | CARA
johnhe
 
Posts: 108
Joined: Mon Mar 09, 2009 12:48 pm
Location: Los Angeles, CA

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby WildGuess » Tue Feb 08, 2011 10:47 am

Dear Mr. Watson,

We are a new a capella vocalgroup from Holland and we listened to Umass Dynamics and we like them very much so we are wondering if you could bring us in contact with them because we want to make our repertoire bigger. Could you help us?

With kind regards, Wild Guess.
WildGuess
 
Posts: 1
Joined: Tue Feb 08, 2011 10:34 am

Re: UMass Dynamics- Barking Mad review/ "energy" in recordin

Postby patrickwatson » Tue Feb 08, 2011 3:42 pm

Wild Guess,

Uhm, sure! My email is patrickianwatson@gmail.com, feel free to email me more details and I'll see what we can do.
patrickwatson
 
Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Jan 19, 2011 6:04 am

Next

Return to RARB

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests

cron