Ben Folds a cappella CD

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Ben Folds a cappella CD

Postby iajaner » Sun Dec 27, 2009 9:02 pm

So I found in my stocking the Ben Folds all-a cappella CD, which I kind of forgot about after the competition was up. Anyway, I gave it a listen and it sounds pretty weak to me.

My big critique is the production quality... the groups all sound basically live (except for the group Ben put together to cut his own two tracks). What's worse, the groups are often not in tune, and some have weak soloists.

I can't fault many of the groups though... I have sung twice in concert opposite the Princeton Nassoons, and they sound a trillion times better live than they do on that CD (plus they have about 10 soloists who can outperform the one chosen for the track). So I don't want it to sound like I'm calling the groups bad.... the CD is just so poorly produced and contains a number of bad choices.

Not all the tracks are bad... I don't have the album on me now or else I would leave more specific comments. It's worth a listen, especially since Ben Folds is clearly going out on a limb to expand a cappella awareness, but it's really a disappointing product from what seemed like such an exciting project.
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Postby jmille22 » Sun Dec 27, 2009 10:09 pm

That's because it basically was done live, as far as I know and can tell. Ben was at my school to record the Ramblers on "Army" and he was using a pretty basic setup, sort of like a high-end version of the background mics you'd find at most college aca concerts. They just kept doing takes until they had something they liked, no punching in fixes or anything. And I think there was almost no post-production. Frankly, I'm impressed that a lot of it is as good as it is. It's damned hard to be that exposed without the Pro Tools safety net.

The lone exception might be "Selfless, Cold and Composed" which sounds to me like the version that group recorded on their own. Their YouTube upload sounds exactly like the track on Folds' disc: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB9hjYLkTMg

The buzz I read, largely here at RARB, also implied that this was kind of a low-budget thing for them. I don't think they had the financial backing to send everyone and everything out to our favorite mavens for star treatment. As it was, Ben was conscripted into doing two of his own tracks just to get his label to agree to the album. Unsurprisingly, they're the only ones with any semblance of production—of course, he also did all the vocals himself, so it's not like he had a choice.

Hope that helps answer some questions; if I'm misinformed on any of this, I'm sure someone more knowledgeable will set us both straight.

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Postby davecharliebrown » Mon Dec 28, 2009 6:05 am

If you're interested, there's another (kinda similar) take on the album here: http://www.mouthoffshow.com/2009/05/mouth-off-051709/
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Postby sghutchings » Mon Dec 28, 2009 8:11 am

jmille22 wrote:That's because it basically was done live, as far as I know and can tell.


That's exactly right. It was even Ben's intention to have the groups sound live. He said he was trying to capture a cappella in its natural environment. When With Someone Else's Money went up to his Nashville studio we were mic'ed by sections (bass, bari, tenor, alto, soprano 2, soprano 1, mic for VP, and mic for each soloist). We did somewhere between 5 and 10 takes with feedback inbetween, and that was it. Each one was straight through. It was nothing like how most aca CDs are recorded now.

jmille22 wrote:The lone exception might be "Selfless, Cold and Composed" which sounds to me like the version that group recorded on their own. Their YouTube upload sounds exactly like the track on Folds' disc: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB9hjYLkTMg


Ben liked their youtube version so much he just took the audio track from their audition and used it on the CD. The only other exception to the way most of the groups recorded (other than Ben's 2 songs) was Magic, but obviously everyone can already hear that!
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Postby dekesharon » Mon Dec 28, 2009 8:52 am

Having gotten to know Ben through the Sing-Off, I have a much better understanding of his album and why he was so insistent on doing it the way he did it. He's a purist, and he wanted a pure sound.

However, I think he learned through trial and error that his method wasn't the best, because he lost the benefits of technology, but also lost the live energy when he went in the studio. Add the nerves that college singers feel when recording for Ben Folds (!) and you have an album that doesn't live up to what it could be.

I urged him (via his management) before making it to use existing high-quality recordings or make new studio recordings using current techniques, but now I see how that fell on deaf ears. Were I to know then what I know now, I'd simply recommend he record the groups live - the precision wouldn't be there, but he'd have far more energetic tracks, and the audience would fuel the singers' emotional delivery.

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Postby billhare » Mon Dec 28, 2009 11:57 am

DekeSharon wrote:I think he learned through trial and error that his method wasn't the best, because he lost the benefits of technology, but also lost the live energy when he went in the studio. Add the nerves that college singers feel when recording for Ben Folds (!) and you have an album that doesn't live up to what it could be.


Though to be fair, Ben Folds standing in the room or not, this is how we recorded A Cappella albums from about 1900 to 1990. They were all a bit dull for the most part (with a few exceptions, and those recorded in front of an audience, as Deke said, fared a bit better at showing the true picture though usually with more technical warts). I also was consulted beforehand by Ben's management and let them know this, but they said Ben was going for more of a "National Geographic going to a remote village and recording the natives for posterity's sake" sort of thing. I understood that, but couldn't convince them that it had been done that way for the whole previous century and we learned that we needed to move on ourselves, and that this would send us back about 20 years. :-)

Still very glad that he did it at all, though!

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Postby dave sperandio » Tue Dec 29, 2009 10:06 am

When I spoke with Ben's management I kind of said the same things, but I was actually happy they were recording this way. I had a lot of fun at the session, and I'm pleased with the final result. As I have said before, the net gain is/will be far greater than any "loss".

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Postby billhare » Tue Dec 29, 2009 10:32 am

diovoce wrote:I had a lot of fun at the session, and I'm pleased with the final result.


But therein lies the crux of what I was saying: Having been there for the recording, you have the other 95% of the experience in your head to play back as you hear the track. The impossible-to-reproduce nervous/electric energy in the room, the smells, the fun things that were said or happened - the event in general outside the 3 minute snapshot that was taken. Because of that, the few lucky listeners who were in the room for any of these recordings hear (see) the final track differently.

One of my all time favorite albums is Stanford Mixed Company's "Dogs and Cats Living Together" (1994). An album that got panned by many, but it was so much fun to record that I have all this extra stuff I can fill in as I listen (like a popup video if you will). Even 15 years later, listening to these songs bring back memories of fun times in the studio, but I'm only one of 17 people in the world who were there for the sessions - everyone else hears it completely differently.

What do all of you imagine when listening to the latest Beelzebubs album (Play the Game)? I imagine Alex and Nick on the studio room floor putting together their Jigsaw puzzles. Bet I'm alone in that...

-B

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Postby dave sperandio » Tue Dec 29, 2009 10:59 am

That's a good point, but that's not the main reason I'm pleased with the result. I do replay the sessions in my head when I hear the tracks I was involved with, and that's fun and adds something to the listening experience, but mainly I tire of fabricating (even though I get paid well to do it)...and was happy to hear a return to a more natural sound.

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Postby mcbc » Thu Dec 31, 2009 7:30 am

I, for one, glad the BF did the album this way. Bill mentioned that albums from 1900 to 1990 were done this way. I'd also add there was this odd transitional period maybe three to seven years afterwards. Not exactly sure what that tipping point was. Although, I'm sure I could figure it out with a quick RARB search :). But I digress ...

Yes, it's another example of a cappella in the mainstream. But the big reason _why_ I'm glad the album was done that way is b/c for better or worse there are groups still having this discussion.

Can't we just record how we normally sing?
I need to sing with so and so and what's-her-face
It'll take too much time

Granted professional groups have a better handle on this but still ... So the next time, I hear those arguments I'll just point to good ol' BFs album and say "do what you want, but don't do it like Ben."
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Postby billhare » Thu Dec 31, 2009 8:39 am

mcbc wrote:Bill mentioned that albums from 1900 to 1990 were done this way. I'd also add there was this odd transitional period maybe three to seven years afterwards. Not exactly sure what that tipping point was.


The era in which we were all transitioning to digital recording, using cue tracks for the first time, and learning this new thing called ProTools!

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Postby aekoutzoukis » Fri Jan 01, 2010 2:59 am

billhare wrote:What do all of you imagine when listening to the latest Beelzebubs album (Play the Game)? I imagine Alex and Nick on the studio room floor putting together their Jigsaw puzzles. Bet I'm alone in that...


i'm with you there, actually. :) and nick and i playing online chess while sitting next to each other, and the old spaghetti factory, and straw hat pizza (ugh)...

i definitely get ben's approach more after having had the chance to stand and talk with him about it in person. he even made some pretty direct comments to us on the show about what may or may not happen "if" we go record an album (something about going in beelzebubs, coming out "beelzetron"). but in reality it's two very different things. he wanted a yearbook album, a compilation of the "best" of a handful of not-so-ideal takes from each group. the energy generally isn't there, there are some really awkward drum fills, and i think the thing that kills me the most is how you can tell they were all recorded in the middle of a gym with no sort of sound dampening. the other side of it to me, an entirely separate discussion, is the art of well-produced recorded a cappella. we (a collective we, not just the bubs) aren't trying to claim this is our live sound; in fact we tend to embrace what we can do to a good vocal delivery with some decent equipment and the right personnel. it's fun in a different way than the live performances are. this isn't ben's style (despite his confusing delivery of his own two tracks on the album), and his reasoning is valid whether or not we agree with it. although i imagine some of us would have taken a different approach to his desired aesthetic.

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Postby thatarin » Fri Jan 01, 2010 7:45 am

billhare wrote: they said Ben was going for more of a "National Geographic going to a remote village and recording the natives for posterity's sake" sort of thing.


That sounds incredibly pretentious.

What it comes down to is really that he has a hybrid - a situation where the groups, probably unused to recording this way (not quite studio, not quite live - certainly with no audience), with the aforementioned nerves and the fact that the point wasn't to get it all perfect - and came out with something that is below par with what was recorded between, ahem, 1900 to 1990.

He's trying to bring back a style of recording with groups that have advanced beyond that type of repertoire/arranging style, for the most part.

You arrange differently. Groups arrange and rearrange for the studio all the time.
You record differently. With advances in technology, and that a group no longer has to record their part with other parts, you get a different mixture than when everyone is thrown into the pot together.

I guess for me it sounds like he just recorded a group's rehearsal of a song. And sometimes not even the best one.
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Postby billhare » Fri Jan 01, 2010 10:27 am

beatboxerr wrote:
billhare wrote: they said Ben was going for more of a "National Geographic going to a remote village and recording the natives for posterity's sake" sort of thing.


That sounds incredibly pretentious.


I don't see it that way - even though it undoes decades of my own work... He just came into it without knowing the internal history, and wanted to share his snapshot view. He talks about it here, also using the "National Geographic" reference:

http://www.benfolds.com/sites/benfolds6 ... llbio.html

-B

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Postby thebriz » Fri Jan 01, 2010 8:00 pm

I actually find it baffling that people are still saying anything negative about the album. I do not mean this in any sort of relationship to the sound quality of the disc. I think we have to put that aside and see it for what it is! First, look at the amount of the discussion the album stirred up on the RARB board. Did any other albums this year generate this much discussion? And thats among people who KNOW a cappella. Further, I think the reality is that people who "know" a cappella are smart enough to take the album for what it is. But I'm not sure this project was really about impressing the a cappella community. Ben Folds saw that his music was popular among college a cappella groups, he had a great idea that was a way of giving back to that community. Beyond that, he has no introduced a whole slew of his fans to this genre of music. Its people who may have never picked up an a cappella CD prior to hearing it. Now - how many of those people have gone on to become fans?

The old adage is "any press is good press". Someone made a comment earlier about Ben Folds sounding "pretentious" with his National Geographic quote (which, by the way, is a sort of reference to his song 'All You Can Eat). I think the pretentious thing is people in the a cappella community insisting on going ON AND ON about how much better the album should have been.

If you don't like it, don't buy it.

Thats just my two cents, and I know that I barely qualify as a knowledgeable person in the world of a cappella. I just think its extremely foolish for this community to do anything but embrace and promote this album for what it is, and use it (along with the momentum of shows like Glee and The Sing Off) to further promote this wonderful genre of music.

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