The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Coming Out


I tried to reform. After leaving college, I had to confront the fact that my activities during those four years were not socially acceptable. I assiduously removed all references to that lifestyle, reforming some of those dead-giveaway behavioral tics, brushing up on new conversation topics, even tweaking my music collection.

It was hard. It had been a wild four years, and I was still in the thrall of college a cappella. I had to move on.

But last week, my former a cappella group’s CD was released, it arrived in my mailbox on Thursday, and folks, I have backslid completely. I have not stopped listening to this thing since I got it. I am absolutely swimming in six-part harmony cover versions of contemporary pop songs, and I’m no longer going to hide it. Call me a degenerate. I don’t care anymore.

In fact, I’m posting three snippets of the album, three of my favorite parts. How I love this stuff.


I really liked this, Matt. Maybe I told you I’m a lapsed (very lapsed) church choir and barbershop singer …

One question: how do drum machines and synthesizers related to “a cappella”?

Thanks, Howard. I didn’t know you sang barbershop!

Actually, all the beatbox/synthesizer-sounding things you hear are human voices filtered through a software program. Every sound on all of those tracks started in a human mouth.

Ever since the invention of ProTools (a software application that replicated all the effects of a recording studio on a computer) practicioners of a cappella have been doing a lot of soul-searching over how much audio manipulation a piece can undergo before we can still call it “a cappella.” There’s a profound split between the purists — if it can’t easily be reproduced like that live, it’s not a cappella — and the engineers, who say recorded music is a very different medium from live performance, and should be treated thusly.

Innovation in a cappella audio engineering has been led by small (four- and five-member) professional groups, who can usually swing a sophisticated enough mic setup to replicate a lot of their studio effects in live performance. They can put the bass on a mic with an octavizer, run the tenor’s mic through a vocoder, etc. As it became easier to do with a mic what a studio engineer can do with a mouse, the line between what is possible on stage and what is possible in the studio was hopelessly blurred.

I’ve always been a little torn between the two myself. Hearing overproduced a cappella tracks makes me feel as though I’m missing the unmistakeably organic, human sound that drew me to a cappella in the first place. But music that’s coming at me through my speakers often seems even less organic when it hasn’t undergone at least some studio enhancement.

I’m biased, of course, but I think the Callbacks continue to keep a good balance between production and purity. Even “Song for Holly,” the most engineered song on the album (to my ears), wouldn’t be remarkable without those warm, human chords underpinning it all.

Check out Mark Manley’s thesis on the matter for a detailed exploration of the issues.

One word about all this: Wow.

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