Mister Tim of moosebutter shares what every vocalist wants to know about a cappella but may be too afraid to ask…
Over the next two weeks, I’m going to be urging vocalists to consider adding an a cappella dimension to their performances—whatever their style of music.*
This is because a cappella is not a style of music; it’s an instrumentation.
Rather than associating a cappella with a specific genre such as barbershop or classical, it should really be seen as a means of conveying your musical message within (not outside of) your own musical style.
It’s In the Mainstream
Just think of some of the prominent artists who have performed a cappella tunes: Billy Joel’s For the Longest Time and Huey Lewis’ It’s Alright are among the better known songs.
Boyz II Men, Take 6, The House Jacks, The Blenders, Michael Bublé, Naturally 7, ‘N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys have all performed using just their unaccompanied voices to great effect.
Having said this, there are groups and audiences devoted solely to a cappella and their dedication to this instrumentation has helped a cappella to enter the main-stream.
A Cappella: Happily in Bed with Technology
When you’re considering using a cappella in your music, remember that you can process your sounds as you would any other instrument. In fact, most contemporary a cappella groups now use technology as an instrument.
Although there are still “non-effected” a cappella groups, where if you took the group off the mic they would sound virtually the same, many groups are now using their sound systems to do things they otherwise couldn’t.
Rockapella has achieved a distinctive sound which has everything to do with technology: heavy compression, reverb, and delay. This is similar to the way guitar players use reverb, delay and other effects to achieve their unique presentation.
I have people tell me all the time that with moosebutter and my other a cappella work I’m cheating – because we use technology!
But think of it this way: with bands you never hear a ‘pure’ guitar sound; the audio is always processed and people accept that one instrument can be used to produce a variety of sounds.
When mic’d or plugged into a direct box, even the ‘pure’ sound of an acoustic guitar is actually the result of processing, compressing and equalizing technology.
Likewise, the ‘pure’ vocal sound we associate with great live and recorded singers is processed: reverb, delay and electronic tricks make the voice sound natural…when in fact it is anything but.
Particularly when the whole ‘band’ is a cappella, different singers function as different ‘instruments,’ so changing the sound with technology to make it more interesting is no more cheating than a guitar player plugging into an effects pedal.
Thus, today’s singer shouldn’t take a limited approach to the voice; there are many different ways to sing ‘naked’!
In other words: ‘pure’ and ’processed’ are not mutually exclusive.
Technology is a tool that can enhance the voice in the same ways that it long ago set the electric guitar free to produce a multiplicity of engaging sounds.
If you’re producing and/or performing music which doesn’t currently use a cappella, here are some ideas that might infuse new energy into your repertoire.
Firstly, regardless of your genre of music, clean a cappella vocals can add a stunning and delightful contrast to your normal sound.
Think of how many classic songs have an a cappella element: the opening of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and the end of The Doobie Brothers’ Black Water.
Repeating a song’s chorus sung a cappella by the members of your band equals instant dynamic contrast (and all but guarantees the audience will sing along).
Why not have members of your band sing their instrumental parts? It can be fun for your band, and might be great fun for your fans.
Next week I’ll look at a revolution in a cappella work: vocal percussion.
*Written by Mister Tim in conversation with Gregory A. Barker
Mister Tim creates, directs, sings with, and composes music for over a dozen successful a cappella acts and has a solo vocal live-looping show. His music is influenced by Bobby McFerrin, The King’s Singers, Spike Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Rockapella, Beethoven, and a host of others.