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Postby billhare » Tue Apr 25, 2006 9:04 am

I'll try to be more brief this time - cold reality: Let's relate our Collegiate A Cappella Population to the general population, using musical understanding, performance ability, and artistic creativity as our "commodities". At this point, I have to say that 90% of that world falls below the "poverty line" - they are just in it for a fun extracurricular activity.

Looking at the names associated with this thread, they are coming from the groups that have wealth in the above commodities. I mixed many of the albums being discussed in this thread, which represent both sides of the debate, so I probably sit at the best "outside/inside" vantage point.

Dave wrote:It's just that we're a tad embarrassed if it doesn't "represent" our group.


This group being the incredibly awesome Vocal Point, no? I work with the bottom 90% as much as I work with the top 10%, so let me tell you most of the time it's just the opposite - "That's what we really sound like? We're embarrassed! How can we make it better?"

Of course the first thing I will always try is to make them sing/perform better. I'm a very good coach if I say so myself, but then we get into the commodities issue again - most people in the general Collegiate A Cappella population have a certain glass ceiling they are going to hit before the ultimate performance comes out. Groups like the Bubs have a much higher ceiling, so then they can make a choice to go in many directions - Ed Boyer and I mixed both Code Red and Shedding the way we WANTED to, not the way we HAD to. Same 2 people in the same studio working with the same group, but fairly different albums in character. I'm proud of both, regret neither!

Many groups don't have this choice, and even after pulling out the best performances they are capable of, well... the capability just wasn't there. We're not even talking about arrangement and song choices here, which also have a big effect!

At this point, the best defense is to distract the listener away from the weaker voices, syllable, etc by injecting attitude via distortion, effects, etc, and for the most part it works. At this point I start letting the group decide what it wants to do, showing them options to cover the weaker performances. It is the way pop music has been produced from the beginning - it's part of the reason why there are effects in the first place, why else would we have even thought of them? ;-)

Not as brief as I thought, more to say, but I'll stop now!
-B

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Postby ELandau » Tue Apr 25, 2006 1:45 pm

Bill Hare wrote:
Contrary to popular opinion on this board, my opinion is that if someone puts out something that's enjoyable to listen to, no matter how they did it, it has worth.


I'm ignoring the original post a bit and addressing a topic that Bill and I have debated before but I had to ring in:

I'll agree with Bill that it has worth. Of course it does. Objectively, on its own merits, sure.

But if I build a piano roll that generates a breathtaking performance of a Liszt sonata and then I hear an equally brilliant version that was recorded live by a human pianist, am I wrong to feel that the human version is more satisfying (or dare I say "better") than the piano roll?

If a computer spit out a perfect rendering of the Mona Lisa or better, if I attempted to copy the Mona Lisa and then the computer "cleaned it up" for me, fixed my brushstrokes, color-corrected, blurred my mistakes into the background to leave me with a nearly carbon copy, would the end result be as enjoyed and revered as Da Vinci's?

As a critic, or even as a fan who is in a record store deciding what to buy (does anyone still go to record stores? I do, but they don't sell records!), the issue is not only whether it has worth, but do I feel it has more or less worth than another CD I might consider buying? Which one will I enjoy more? From which one will I derive more pleasure on repeated listenings?

In that respect, the (over)use of technology is a very relevant issue and worthwhile of discussion no matter how many times it's been discussed already.

Music, at least in large part, is defined and given its ultimate meaning in performance. It can be enhanced by the manner in which is recorded, it is preserved for posterity in a recording, and the recorder can even be an active participant in the creative process as it relates to the aural experience (see Bill's past and present comments re Ed Boyer on "Shedding"), but I don't believe it's wrong of a critic or a fan or anyone else to fault a group for using technology in exactly the manner that Bill has articulated in his subsequent post -- to mask performance flaws or "distract the listener". I'm not saying it is inherently wrong for them to do so -- as Bill notes, they want to put their best foot forward and what's more, the beauty of art is that no one can truly say what is "right" or "wrong" -- but I similarly feel it is absolutely fair game for a listener to call them out on having done so.

Yes, this is the Recorded A Cappella Review Board and we are asked to consider the recording and not the group per se, but (speaking solely for myself) my enjoyment of an a cappella CD, among many other variables, does include a consideration of how a group is able to replicate its CD tracks in live performance (or in some cases, my knowledge of what the group actually sounds like in performance) and an evaluation of how much of the weaker material/performances has been masked by the work of the engineer and producer. If those issues don't matter to you, I suppose you can always choose to skip my reviews.

Indeed, looking back a few years, some of my earlier reviews may have shaded too much toward the "technology bad, natural good" school of thought. But for that reason, I've tried to offer a bit more insight in my more recent reviews that explain why "technology bad" if indeed it is.

For my money, technology bad...when it is used as a substitute for creative arrangements. Technology bad...when it strips the sound in performance of any last vestige of "humanness". Technology, maybe not bad but bothersome, when it can elevate the mediocre into the commerically pleasing (and yes, I would say the same of instrumental pop music too) having nothing to do with the contribution of the performer, arranger or composer.

Economically, professionally, commercially, technology good when it can help sell your product.

But artistically, technology good when it can make the terrific that much better.

My $0.02. Off my soapbox. Thanks for listeneing.

Wow...haven't blabbered like that in a while...
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Postby jesset » Tue Apr 25, 2006 2:28 pm

Elie's post reminded me of something...memory lane time...

When I was eleven years old, I joined a community boys choir, which was part of a larger choral organization that included an extremely skilled high school men's choir called the Young Men's Ensemble. An off-shoot of this choir was a five-man group called The Classics, and at the first winter concert of my 6th grade year, they became my first exposure to any kind of a cappella. They sang all the traditional cheesy tunes like I Can See Clearly Now, It's Alright, Change In My Life, etc., and I was completely and utterly blown away. So were the rest of us disgruntled pimple-faced middle school boys, most of whom had been forced to be in this choir by our well-meaning parents, and wanted to go home and play video games. Four of those same boys are now in On The Rocks, another I co-founded Dulcet with, and yet another I am starting a group in Portland with this fall.

Point being? Point is, one of the best parts about a cappella is that anyone who can sing can do this. By default, the genre lends itself to a strong Do-It-Yourself ethic. I know me and so many of my singing friends were inspired to be involved in a cappella because we saw groups and said, "That'll be me! Someday that's going to be me! I can sound like that too! My voice has that power! Not crazy expensive instruments, not sophisticated technology, my voice."

Will the overrun of studio technology tricks take away from that inspiration and ethic that I believe is so unique in a cappella? Maybe not. But it's something to to think about.
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Postby sizzles » Tue Apr 25, 2006 6:43 pm

Jesse wrote:Will the overrun of studio technology tricks take away from that inspiration and ethic that I believe is so unique in a cappella? Maybe not. But it's something to to think about.


Yep, that's what I was going for. And the natural sounding thing is even scarier, because that means you actually don't know anymore. It becomes impossible to tell mediocrity from brilliance. I almost wish I was born 15 years earlier so I could be where I was, understand what I was hearing, and experience the whole form before the computer age. That must have been awesome. And it's hard for me to believe that people who were there don't miss it.
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Postby dherriges » Tue Apr 25, 2006 6:58 pm

sizzles wrote: And the natural sounding thing is even scarier, because that means you actually don't know anymore. It becomes impossible to tell mediocrity from brilliance.


I'm curious as to why people are preoccupied with this idea of "telling mediocrity from brilliance" (assuming these are things that aren't evident from the final product). When I listen to music, evaluating the talent of the performer simply isn't on my mind. Maybe for a reviewer, but as a listener I just care if I like what I'm hearing. And regardless, I think real talent, creativity, and musical intuition always show through anyway. No amount of studio production can make a bland soloist sound interesting or turn a crappy arrangement into a good one.

This technology good or bad debate shows up on RARB once a month or so and I really feel like the positions people take can get polarized to the point of being ridiculous. Talking in generalities about the merits of modern production techniques is kind of a waste of time, if you ask me; they're here, and people will use them, and for good reason. Instead, why not discuss the artistic merits of specific uses of computer processing of the sound in specific a cappella contexts? Then the issue shifts from some idea of preserving the "purity" of the art form, to how technology can be used to move this art that we all enjoy forward instead of backward.

For example, distortion, flange, crazy effects like that, applied reasonably sparingly, I think are cool and can really enhance a recording. On the other hand, I think using a ton of reverb is almost always REALLY annoying, and the same goes for the kind of slick, shimmery produced sound that a number of recent a cappella CDs have. I think it's annoying because it hides the blend (or may hide a lack of blend I suppose), and it hides a lot of the little imperfections in the human voice that make it interesting to listen to. The result just sounds bland to me. It also has the effect of making it impossible to hear a lot of the little details in more intricate arrangements, which is one of the pleasures of listening to a cappella for me. So that's my beef with overproduction, and it has nothing to do with purity or hiding a lack of talent; it's simply the fact that I find the resulting music is less enjoyable to listen to.
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Postby billhare » Tue Apr 25, 2006 8:08 pm

sizzles wrote:I almost wish I was born 15 years earlier so I could be where I was, understand what I was hearing, and experience the whole form before the computer age. That must have been awesome. And it's hard for me to believe that people who were there don't miss it.


I don't miss it in the least! I first started razor editing tape in 1974, multitracking a few years later as a hobbyist and have been a full time recording professional since 1984. Computers didn't come into it until the mid 1990s in any really effective way, and let me tell you as someone who was there it really wasn't the "golden age" that you might think! I believe that the computer age has actually created much of this scene with the internet as well as the recordings out there. If you are talking about the "form" of A Cappella before the computer age, search out the older groups and get copies of their recorded output of the 70s and 80s - I don't think you'd be that impressed! ;-)

It always looks more idealistic looking back - I was too young to go to Woodstock in 1969, but several of my friends were there and when I would say "wow, that must've been sooo cool to be a part of that" they look at me like I'm crazy and say it was like the worst camping trip they had ever been on - wet, cold, and they couldn't see the stage anyway!

-B

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Postby jrhailey » Tue Apr 25, 2006 8:15 pm

I've enjoyed reading everyone's opinions on this thread. And everyone has been so well-behaved!
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Postby AVModelCadet » Fri Apr 28, 2006 10:02 am

jrhailey wrote:I've enjoyed reading everyone's opinions on this thread. And everyone has been so well-behaved!





F#$% UP!



Edit: Forgive my trite post. This is actually a really interesting discussion, with many intelligent points.
Last edited by AVModelCadet on Fri Apr 28, 2006 7:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby billhare » Fri Apr 28, 2006 5:35 pm

Yay! Elie and I have fun in these debates every year or so because neither of us will ever win the argument since we are both right, and we're both horribly, horribly wrong at the same time! :-) But to further drive it into the ground....

Elie wrote:But if I build a piano roll that generates a breathtaking performance of a Liszt sonata and then I hear an equally brilliant version that was recorded live by a human pianist, am I wrong to feel that the human version is more satisfying (or dare I say "better") than the piano roll?


What if you didn't know which was which? Let's say that you heard the human version first, then later heard the "equally brilliant breathtaking performance" from the piano roll not knowing that it wasn't played by a human? If you fell in love with that version and listened to it for months before finding out the sordid truth, would the "human" version all of a sudden become the better of the two again?

Building a piano roll that plays a "breathtaking performance" is musical art in itself, is it not? It takes human emotion, dare I say human imperfection, to make it breathtaking in the first place.
Mr. Landau wrote:If a computer spit out a perfect rendering of the Mona Lisa or better, if I attempted to copy the Mona Lisa and then the computer "cleaned it up" for me, fixed my brushstrokes, color-corrected, blurred my mistakes into the background to leave me with a nearly carbon copy, would the end result be as enjoyed and revered as Da Vinci's?


Probably, as long as the two weren't compared side by side by art experts. Does it look good hanging in your living room? Do you enjoy having such an exact copy that no one else has besides the Louvre? Then it has worth.

Would you put it up in your living room if it was a paint by numbers kit and you had limited ability? Probably not, but you like to paint and want to show the world, right? If you can show your own image of what the Mona Lisa should be, not DaVinci's, that's all the better. At that point, you have something to say - the smile should be slightly different, and the background can be more green. You still have limited abilities as you are not a trained painter, just a hobbyist, but technology can help you get your point across. Now it's good enough to share with everyone so they can see the Elie version of the Mona Lisa, but won't be distracted by the fact that you can't paint eyeballs.

The Elie-nator wrote:From which one will I derive more pleasure on repeated listenings?


The one that's not out of tune?

The ElieCappella-Meister wrote:For my money, technology bad...when it is used as a substitute for creative arrangements. Technology bad...when it strips the sound in performance of any last vestige of "humanness". Technology, maybe not bad but bothersome, when it can elevate the mediocre into the commerically pleasing (and yes, I would say the same of instrumental pop music too) having nothing to do with the contribution of the performer, arranger or composer.

Economically, professionally, commercially, technology good when it can help sell your product.

But artistically, technology good when it can make the terrific that much better.


Elie really is correct in principle, when it comes to the upper echelons of musicians and artists. But there are many people who don't have the ability to write a creative or even musically cohesive arrangement, and bless their little hearts they are trying anyway. Usually this person is a member of a group that has a majority of hobbyist members with very limited abilities whose very humaness is the element that would make the recording sound like nails on the blackboard unless there was some technological intervention. I could post "before and after" examples, but wouldn't want to embarrass anyone in the process! I think though, that anyone, including Elie, would choose the "bastardised" versions! :-)

-B

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Postby jrhailey » Fri Apr 28, 2006 7:09 pm

billhare wrote:
Usually this person is a member of a group that has a majority of hobbyist members with very limited abilities whose very humaness is the element that would make the recording sound like nails on the blackboard unless there was some technological intervention.



Some technological intervention. Yes, we need some technological intervention. I don't think many people would disagree with that. It's just a matter of where and how it's used that concerns me. That's one thing I was trying to touch on in my posts. No one wants to hear a crappy, out of tune recording. But I think a lot of people want to hear polished recordings that sound like people singing... with humaness Most people don't want to hear a studio-built piano roll (yes, I know this was just used as a hypothetical example, but I'm running with it to generalize things that I previously called "digital joyrides"). I wouldn't know where to begin in constructing a piano roll. I know that there are people who could do it, and even make it sound really good. And it probably wouldn't be easy and would take a good amount of time. In the end, at best you'd have something that would sound like a piano roll. Although impressive to some people, most people would hear it and say "wow, there's no way this group could sing that." And they'd be right.

Maybe what I'm wanting is too plain for some people and not as exciting as copy/pasted drum fills. If I want to listen to "Boys of Summer", I'll listen to Don Henley's original or The Ataris, who at least did something different with it. What I don't want to hear is something that claims to be an a cappella version, where the human voice in the entire intro is completely undetectable.

So generally speaking, why waste time on gimmicks like this when the group's money and producer's time and technology could be spent on making the group sound like a good a cappella group? If the group wants gimmicks, then that's one thing. But I feel like most a cappella singers are like me and want to play their albums for friends without having to explain technological wonders.
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Postby billhare » Fri Apr 28, 2006 10:11 pm

jrhailey wrote:But I feel like most a cappella singers are like me and want to play their albums for friends without having to explain technological wonders.


Not necessarily. I know your voice very well, as well as the voices of your peers in AVP of a few years back - these are not really the people I'm talking about. When I'm talking about needing to fool the listeners, I'm talking about groups that would be nowhere near an ICCA competition, groups that would most likely not be a part of this forum, etc. I'm also not talking about techno wonders that are just flash, but the artificiality that comes with having to severly tune, edit, sequence and loop performers who don't have the consistency to carry it off themselves. This is not about Code Red as much as more "puristic" albums that sound so robotic because the pitch is so clamped down, even if no distortion or spacy flanging ever appers on that album. These directives come from the groups themselves to fix these problems - it's what they pay me for. Hopefully most of the time I get away with it - looking at the last 40 tracks I engineered that got on to BOCA, I believe at least 15 of the groups were not the "Best of" Collegiate A Cappella, but they WERE able to make something enjoyable that got the respect of their peers. No matter how they got there, they worked hard to make it that way. We producers get way to much credit/blame for the end result, because ultimately we are just being guided by the groups' wants and needs. I would consider "Scantily Plaid" to be an AVP album, not an AVP/Bill Hare album - I was very proud to be a part of it, but I definitely worked under the direction of the group rather than dictate what it was going to sound like. And that's how it always is...

-B

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Postby dekesharon » Sat Apr 29, 2006 8:32 am

I think it fantastic that this ongoing discussion of artistry in collegiate a cappella is so passionate.

But Bill is 100% right: amateur singers, amateur arrangers, student directed and lead productions, from rehearsals to CD delivery. The fact that there's significant artistic merit so much in a cappella is something amazing, not something to be expected.

Whereas there have been some fantastic advances in technology, as well as some wonderful forward motion in the use of voices in collegiate a cappella, I don't think singers today are considerably better than they were 20 years ago. If anything, I'd argue they're on average worse, with less money going to the arts in public schools around the country. People aren't better leaders or managers now either.

I think groups are spending more time and money, and have a tradition of more complex and varied a cappella to build upon. Plus, there are more groups, so the top 2% is 20 groups now, as opposed to 4 groups in 1985.

And I think we should all keep pushing for greater artistry from college groups, and helping them find it themselves, with occasional help from professionals when needed.

But I think it wrong to expect it. Sure, there will be glimmers of greatness every once in a while, but to take a specific group and hold them up to a standard now that's essentially that of a pro group (fantastic, emotionally moving recordings and flawless performance) is as unrealistic as walking down your dorm hall and wondering why every girl isn't as beautiful as the airbrushed model on the cover of this month's Elle.

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