Mixed Co review / recording question for college groups

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Mixed Co review / recording question for college groups

Postby dherriges » Sun Apr 15, 2007 11:17 pm

(Most of this is for the reviewers, but I'd appreciate feedback from people in collegiate groups on the question I pose at the end!)

First of all, thanks to Dave, Elie and Kimmie for the obvious thought and effort you put into your reviews! While we got panned for some stuff that I had already figured probably deserved it, all three reviews provided helpful criticism we'll take to heart. I really appreciate the detailed feedback in Dave Trendler's review (and all of the reviews he writes!).

I wanted to comment on the overall thrust of the three reviews, as exemplified by this quote:

"Mixed Company doesn't seem to know what it's doing."

I feel Dave is completely right on this as far as our mastery of the recording process goes, though not our singing abilities. This was the first album we tried to record on our own instead of in Bill Hare's studio, we were unprepared and in a time crunch, and we paid for it, both in the quality of the product and literally, in money paid to Bill to clean up tracks that weren't edited very well.

It might surprise some readers of this review that Mixed Company has actually been improving dramatically as a live group over the last few years. If you're in the Stanford area come to one of our shows and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised! I also think Shades of Red fares better in a side-by-side comparison with our last couple efforts ("Tree Museum" and "One Light On") than RARB scores might indicate. We took some musical risks and the album definitely has a lot of potentially good ideas executed poorly, but I'll take that any day over boring ideas and repertoire executed well. At the end of the day I stand by our decision to avoid some more "safe" repertoire and arranging choices that might have led to a more polished-sounding but less interesting, at least to my ears, product.

Reviewers seemed surprised that we allowed Stacy's Mom and especially the Disco Medley to make their way onto this album. Quite frankly, to answer that question, all I can do is plead the "group politics" defense. Those songs were live favorites and actually among our more impressive live repertoire last year, and our fans and alumni appreciate them. Things like the cheesy "My Girl" interlude in Stacy's Mom that flop miserably on the album garner reliable laughs in the live context they were meant for. A more disciplined group probably would have left those songs off the CD, but we voted to record them pretty much knowing they would get panned.

Quick question for reviewers / anyone else who's heard this album or just wants to speculate hypothetically: Obviously it's a good idea to front-load and back-load your best material, and judging from track scores I think we did that quite successfully. But I'm curious whether it may have been a bad idea to stick the three weakest songs (which we definitely knew were the weakest by a considerable margin, and the scores confirm it) back-to-back in the middle, versus interspersing them with better stuff?


Finally, a question for anybody from a college group that's successfully made the leap to do-it-yourself recording. (Back Row? Octopodes?) How do/did you handle the problem of quality control? Aside from running out of time and hastily recording some tracks, I find the biggest problem we had in recording Shades of Red is that not everyone was well prepared for the task of running the recording sessions. Anybody can learn to use ProTools software, but coaching the singers to give 100% in the studio is not an easy thing, and it became clear to me that of the 6 or 7 different members we had sharing that task, some had VERY different standards than others for what constituted an acceptable studio performance. One solution is to have the One Guy Who Knows What He's Doing™ sacrifice his life and GPA for a year to do a hugely disproportionate amount of the recording. Barring that unappealing option, what do you do? How do you get the quality control when not everyone in the group has experience recording and/or directing / coaching singers? I'd appreciate any feedback you guys have.
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Postby nycacappella » Mon Apr 16, 2007 8:35 am

Hey Daniel -
Feedback like this is always much appreciated (for me personally) because I enjoy knowing why groups made the decisions they did, such as your 'group politics' answer to the Disco Medley and Stacy's Mom appearance on the album. I think it's a very common thing to expect songs that translate very well in live performance to also do the same on an album, but it's not always the case. Thanks for this post, as it's very well-written and educational, at least from where I'm sitting.

I also think it's important to keep in mind that, while although Dave said 'Mixed Company doesn't seem to know what it's doing', it's safe to say he's referring only to the album. As reviewers, we're not asked to compare albums to live performances, and I don't think readers of the reviews would speculate that a great album automatically means a great, live performance (or vice versa). It's also a good opportunity to have a 'recorded' and 'live' version of a song: if you though the "My Girl" interlude would be bad for the recording, choose to leave it out.

As for your question about having 'weak' songs piled up in the middle of an album, whenever I've sequenced an album I have a very mathematical (and albeit extremely dorky) way of approaching it, AFTER I listen to just the general flow of the album. I rate songs on soloists, arrangements, production quality, energy (i.e. a fast vs. slow song). From a generalized point of view, I'd think no more than 2 weak songs in a row if you can avoid it!
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Re: Mixed Co review / recording question for college groups

Postby vkolko » Mon Apr 16, 2007 6:39 pm

dherriges wrote:This was the first album we tried to record on our own instead of in Bill Hare's studio, we were unprepared and in a time crunch, and we paid for it, both in the quality of the product and literally, in money paid to Bill to clean up tracks that weren't edited very well.


I'm just curious... what would put the release of an album in a time crunch? Clearly I've never been involved in the production aspects, but why not put as much effort into the album as possible? The only thing I can see is getting the album out for an end of the year release at a goodbye show, but I personally would rather get a top-notch product later than a poorer one sooner.

Valerie
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Re: Mixed Co review / recording question for college groups

Postby dherriges » Mon Apr 16, 2007 7:54 pm

Valerie wrote:I'm just curious... what would put the release of an album in a time crunch? Clearly I've never been involved in the production aspects, but why not put as much effort into the album as possible? The only thing I can see is getting the album out for an end of the year release at a goodbye show, but I personally would rather get a top-notch product later than a poorer one sooner.

Valerie


The time crunch was trying to finish it by the end of the year, with half our members either graduating or leaving the group. We didn't get a very good start on recording until spring quarter. Because of this, a couple solos were recorded under less than ideal conditions (i.e. during finals week), and we weren't able to go back and re-record background tracks that weren't done very well the first time (be it because they were in a hurry or the person running the recording session was lazy / inattentive or whatever). We could have pushed it to next year, but at that point we would be dealing with auditions and then trying to teach songs to a new group, preparing for ICCA competition, all sorts of other stuff, and we didn't want to burden the new group with completing the last 20% of the old group's CD.

What actually hurt us more was editing over the summer. We left the editing job in the hands of essentially 2 members who were in the area over the summer; much of the other group leadership was off in foreign countries, including me in Peru and the other album manager in China. (Though I did manage to download some of Bill's rough mixes at an internet cafe and burn them to a CD in the middle of the Amazon rainforest - the wonders of technology!) One of the guys doing the editing, our former director, had some experience with that kind of work and a general grasp of how to do it, but I think not an accurate sense of just how much work it would be. We hit the point in mid-July where he couldn't spare the time to keep working on the album, and some of the first stuff they gave to Bill to mix wasn't edited as well as it should have been and cost us several hundred dollars per song more than expected. Suddenly we were in a financial crunch as well as a time crunch. We ended up hiring Ed Chung from Duwende to do some cleanup work on I believe 6 tracks, at a much cheaper rate than Bill, but the damage was done. I do think some of the tracks on the album could have been better given more money or time to throw at editing, though some of the raw tracks (including most of the instances of sloppy singing and tuning that Elie Landau commented on; believe me, I know exactly where they are) should have just been re-recorded.

All of that said, I think it's a shame that the end result is a bit unpolished, because I do feel there's some really good material there, including some creative arranging that maybe went unnoticed because the reviewers were focused on the poorly sung bits; and some strong soloists who, for whatever reasons, didn't deliver quite the performances in the studio that I know they're capable of. I still think there's a lot on the album to hold the listener's interest, and encourage people to check it out - we're on acaTunes with short sample clips, or you can listen to a few complete tracks on our MySpace page at www.myspace.com/mixedco . Don't worry, we spared you the Disco Medley. =) (Although... Lauren's solo on "It's Raining Men" may be the best solo performance of the whole album, so even an ill-conceived track like that has its redeeming qualities, and I certainly enjoy listening to it.)
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Re: Mixed Co review / recording question for college groups

Postby mattootb » Tue Apr 17, 2007 2:11 am

Valerie wrote:
dherriges wrote:This was the first album we tried to record on our own instead of in Bill Hare's studio, we were unprepared and in a time crunch, and we paid for it, both in the quality of the product and literally, in money paid to Bill to clean up tracks that weren't edited very well.


I'm just curious... what would put the release of an album in a time crunch? Clearly I've never been involved in the production aspects, but why not put as much effort into the album as possible? The only thing I can see is getting the album out for an end of the year release at a goodbye show, but I personally would rather get a top-notch product later than a poorer one sooner.

Valerie


For us, its a simple financial concern; we sell over 1/3 of our CDs every year during August at the Edinburgh Festival, and the cost of the new CD not being out by then is prohibitive.
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Postby IanG » Tue Apr 17, 2007 2:17 am

dherriges wrote:Finally, a question for anybody from a college group that's successfully made the leap to do-it-yourself recording. (Back Row? Octopodes?) How do/did you handle the problem of quality control? Aside from running out of time and hastily recording some tracks, I find the biggest problem we had in recording Shades of Red is that not everyone was well prepared for the task of running the recording sessions. Anybody can learn to use ProTools software, but coaching the singers to give 100% in the studio is not an easy thing, and it became clear to me that of the 6 or 7 different members we had sharing that task, some had VERY different standards than others for what constituted an acceptable studio performance. One solution is to have the One Guy Who Knows What He's Doing™ sacrifice his life and GPA for a year to do a hugely disproportionate amount of the recording. Barring that unappealing option, what do you do? How do you get the quality control when not everyone in the group has experience recording and/or directing / coaching singers? I'd appreciate any feedback you guys have.

I think the one-person or two-person headed project is really the only way to go. I can't imagine recording an album with 6 or 7 other engineers, that must have been crazy. Find the guy/girl who is passionate about it and can dedicate their life to it, and do it over the course of a school year. We did our debut album in 9 months, and we're about to release our new album in a couple weeks, which took me about 3 months to record. Give someone the role of engineer, maybe have the MD looking over their shoulders, and let them dive head first into it.

You learn most by experience, so I'd say it's better to have one person really develop and hone their skills rather than have 7 people all learn a little bit at a time. That person will learn how to coach people best, how to arrange for the studio, and will get more executive power to override group politics when people are demanding to take the album in a certain direction (such as recording a Disco Medley which sounds like you weren't fond of in the studio).
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Postby mcbc » Tue Apr 17, 2007 7:12 am

Wow.

Reading this thread reminds me how far removed the judges and such are removed from the groups. That's not a bad thing at all, it's just fascinating.

Unfortunately, "group politics" plays a huge role in song selection. The senior that 'should' have a solo ... The 'crowd favorite' that _has_ to be on the album ... etc. etc. the list goes on. I've seen it happen and been involved with too many projects like that. Should it play a factor in the RARB ratings -- no. But it is a factor in the quality of collegiate albums.

Album release date is also key. In my groups, releasing the album for the winter concert and then touring with it for the remainder of the semester and the next generated significantly more dollars than any other set-up. That initial boost of money went into the next CD. Miss that sweet spot and you're forced to delay the next album.

Then there's university funding ... At my former schools, if the administration funded or partially funded an album they wouldn't fund another until the first actually generated dollars.

That's why releasing an "inferior" product happened in my experience. Sometimes you have to make the call between an album of 3 or 4 good songs and Xsquared dollars vs. 6 great songs and x dollars.

Of course, the groups that are album-machines and have large bank account are immune to all of the above. :)
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Postby billhare » Tue Apr 17, 2007 9:10 am

mcbc wrote:Of course, the groups that are album-machines and have large bank account are immune to all of the above. :)


This is not true, actually. Mixed Company spent quite a bit more on the mix of this album than The Beelzebubs and Divisi (last years top male and female albums in the CARAs) COMBINED! Having mixed all three, I can be the "horses mouth" on this.

I actually kept trying to talk Mixed Company out of spending so much money (even though I was the recipient) because I knew that value for money was a bit more out of my control than usual, because of the other issues (rep choices, solo ability, etc), and because of my long personal relationship with the group - 17 years - was giving them quite a bit of "tough love" along the way. Ultimately, though, it's all the choice of the group itself, with all of the politics involved (which yes, I'm QUITE aware of after more than 20 years of dealing with Collegiate A Cappella groups!)

For those of you who haven't done so, please read my articles on CASA.org - I know that with some awareness, most of these pitfalls can be avoided.

George Martin once said (and many agree) that the Beatles "White Album" could have been their best ever had they just edited themselves a bit by not releasing 30 songs of various brilliance and mundaneness, and picked the best (and cohesive) 14 or so - There are some great moments on this Mixed Company album as well, which shows the group CAN do amazing things... we just need to keep the great moments up and really try to downplay the others.

On the other hand, the thing about senior solos, audience favorites, egalitarianism, etc, isn't totally lost on me - I just think those albums (aka yearbook albums) serve another purpose, and probably shouldn't be sent to RARB, CARAs, etc, if the people making the albums will feel unfairly thrashed. I think Mixed Company can feel proud of what they did no matter what the community thinks, because their families, friends, and local fans will be thrilled with it no matter what.

If you DO care what the community thinks though, you will need to play a different game...

-B

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Postby dherriges » Tue Apr 17, 2007 10:02 am

billhare wrote:[On the other hand, the thing about senior solos, audience favorites, egalitarianism, etc, isn't totally lost on me - I just think those albums (aka yearbook albums) serve another purpose, and probably shouldn't be sent to RARB, CARAs, etc, if the people making the albums will feel unfairly thrashed.


The great thing is, I don't feel unfairly thrashed, and I've talked to the other people who were in leadership roles in Mixed Co last year and had a lot of stake in this album, and none of them seem to feel that way either. (Well, Kimmie's score of 2 for Such Great Heights stings a little... I'm not totally fond of my solo on the second half of it but there's no way that track merits lower than a 3 or 4. ;) ) I think the review comments are mostly right on the money, and a good lesson to us about problems we should have seen coming by last June but kind of ignored the warning signs.

I also feel it was important to submit to RARB because Mixed Company is one of the oldest co-ed a cappella groups in the country, we've had a high profile in the a cappella community historically (5 BOCA appearances!) and I'd like to keep that high profile, so all (not entirely negative) press is good press in a way. And none of the reviews totally trashed us - there's some really good stuff on the album that got deserved praise, and would have simply gone unnoticed had we not submitted.
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Postby dekesharon » Tue Apr 17, 2007 1:50 pm

billhare wrote:George Martin once said (and many agree) that the Beatles "White Album" could have been their best ever had they just edited themselves


And here I think the White Album is indeed their greatest achievement.

A testiment to what pop music should be as opposed to what it is. The very fact that they didn't much edit themselves, and didn't have to, is in part what makes this a watershed artistic statement.

Then again, some critics think the last movement of Beethoven's 9th doesn't really work as part of the unit - the chorus is tacked on, and the opening passages strain to pull it all together. And with them I actually agree.

So, I am all for editing, if not the White Album (although I do skip Revolution 9, as important as it was at the time).

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Postby mattootb » Tue Apr 17, 2007 2:54 pm

DekeSharon wrote:
billhare wrote:George Martin once said (and many agree) that the Beatles "White Album" could have been their best ever had they just edited themselves


And here I think the White Album is indeed their greatest achievement.

A testiment to what pop music should be as opposed to what it is. The very fact that they didn't much edit themselves, and didn't have to, is in part what makes this a watershed artistic statement.

Then again, some critics think the last movement of Beethoven's 9th doesn't really work as part of the unit - the chorus is tacked on, and the opening passages strain to pull it all together. And with them I actually agree.

So, I am all for editing, if not the White Album (although I do skip Revolution 9, as important as it was at the time).


Or... we can take the lead from modern pop musicians. Record 30 songs, cut out the rubbish claiming its not fit for human consumption, and then release it all as a 'B-Sides best of please give me some more money' disc 6 months later.

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Postby lcmike » Tue Apr 17, 2007 10:05 pm

MattOOTB wrote: "Wings, they're only the band the Beatles could have been". Bonus point for identifying the source of this quotation.



Alan Partridge.


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Postby mcbc » Wed Apr 18, 2007 7:43 am

billhare wrote:
mcbc wrote:Of course, the groups that are album-machines and have large bank account are immune to all of the above. :)


This is not true, actually. Mixed Company spent quite a bit more on the mix of this album than The Beelzebubs and Divisi (last years top male and female albums in the CARAs) COMBINED! Having mixed all three, I can be the "horses mouth" on this.


Actually, I only meant the broader question of album release seasonality not the "more money" = "better CD" argument. With more money in the bank, the less the dependancy for immediate album sales. I really should watch my use of the word "all" hehe. My bad.

By the by, I like this discussion about a group sincerely looking for criticism. It doesn't happen enough.

Oh by the by, to answer one of the questions posed ...

dherriges wrote:But I'm curious whether it may have been a bad idea to stick the three weakest songs (which we definitely knew were the weakest by a considerable margin, and the scores confirm it) back-to-back in the middle,


Having heard the album, yes (in my opinion) it was. Three in a row that early for any album is especially irksome for me. It makes the first half of your album, or the A-side if you're old like me, somewhat sour. Again just me.

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Postby billhare » Wed Apr 18, 2007 7:46 am

DekeSharon wrote:
billhare wrote:George Martin once said (and many agree) that the Beatles "White Album" could have been their best ever had they just edited themselves


And here I think the White Album is indeed their greatest achievement.

A testiment to what pop music should be as opposed to what it is. The very fact that they didn't much edit themselves, and didn't have to, is in part what makes this a watershed artistic statement.


And you're in the company of millions with that thought as well - though it would be hard to look unbiased at something we already know so well as to what it could have been. I personally love the album too, though if you cut it in half, trim some fat, add back some of the stuff they had already recorded that became the ill-fated "Let It Be" album a year and a half later, made 2 albums that included other tracks that later became solo projects (Not Guilty, Maybe I'm Amazed, etc)...

But then, how would that have changed the "Abbey Road" album... ?

Ya never know...

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Postby uscpossum » Sun Apr 22, 2007 12:57 pm

I also feel it was important to submit to RARB because Mixed Company is one of the oldest co-ed a cappella groups in the country, we've had a high profile in the a cappella community historically (5 BOCA appearances!) and I'd like to keep that high profile, so all (not entirely negative) press is good press in a way. And none of the reviews totally trashed us - there's some really good stuff on the album that got deserved praise, and would have simply gone unnoticed had we not submitted.


And I felt pretty important singing with Mixed Company when I was a student at USC. Shoot me an email at kimmie at rarb dot org if you want more of my notes and opinions on this album. :)
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