Wow, what a broad topic. This could be like tackling the Patriots' Vince Wilfork. Now that's broad. But let's attack this in two parts. (The discussion, not Vince.)
First there is the issue of developing the sound of the individual recorded tracks. Your group's album hopefully creates a vast soundscape, using elements from effects to arrangements to production and instrumentation (or voice-trumentation). But this is no audio producer's blog, so I won't try to tell you what works in the studio (though some friends will fill you in on it later in this post). My own expertise is based what I hear when I open up the mailbag at WUNH, so let's talk about the second issue: how to put those tracks together to build the overall sound of your album.
Lately, my mailbox has yielded a tumultuous assortment of high quality recordings, and one of the audible elements that really makes an album a joy to listen to is the layout of the tracks. Perhaps the best lesson is that there is no single best way to set up your album- but try out some of the following ideas, and see what best achieves your desired effect. And what better place to start than at the opening track?
A good opening track is like a good attack at the beginning of a musical phrase- completely necessary. (In that regard, I suppose it is also like breathing, but that is besides the point.) There are three main statements that groups seem to desire from their opening notes:
- HA! WE ARE HERE TO ROCK YOUR STEREO!
- Don't even worry, we're the chill guys from next door, we're here with a 6-pack and an afternoon of good grooves.
- Hi, we are ethereal beings with voices like heaven. Have a seat and just descend into our sound for the next hour.
Examples, you say? That is a service we are happy to offer- click the links that follow to be taken to the corresponding album on Spotify. Let's start with group 1, the type of song that aurally kicks you in the face, and you love it. Naturally 7's album Vocal Play takes such an approach with their song "Jericho (Break These Walls)." The 2009 Cluster album Steps with its opener "Just Kidding" fits the middle-energy groove profile of the second type. For type 3, in You're the Voice by Club for Five, the group chose to start with a smooth, ambient one-minute prologue that segues into the emotional, quintessentially human, bass-led "Brothers in Arms." There are certainly effective albums with all three opening styles, but 1 and 3 seem to headline the most consistently awesome track lists. They set an emotional and energetic extreme by which all other tracks can be judged, and more importantly, they reflect a dynamic album that offers contrasting highs and lows.
Since a cappella is a largely pop-based style, please note that most pop groups open their album with a catchy, high energy song. A wise choice may be to observe how the original artists of the songs you cover use those songs on their own albums. Train consistently opens with a happy, middle energy type of song, and The Black Keys just come out with both fists swinging, while Coldplay seems to appreciate the same approach as Club for Five, opening both of their most recent albums with some variety of prologue.
Track layout completely determines the flow of energy during a full album listen. Placement of each song is integral to your album's overall effect on listeners; from drawing your them in and keeping their attention, to holding them for a while, then releasing them at just the right time, feeling fulfilled, relaxed or amped up. I have heard several experienced performers suggest that the layout of an album is often the inverse of a live show: you want to put your best work first, and allow songs that are a little less popular, engaging or exciting to settle in to the later track slots. So ultimately quality and appeal may play into your track choice just as much as the energy level.
On the topic of quality, can you identify your best song? A catchy, relatable fan favorite? That might be the song that falls into the role of your equivalent of a 'first single.' Observing popular releases, the first single is fairly often the third track on the album. Looking back on previously mentioned albums, this is true of The Black Keys with "Gold on the Ceiling" and Coldplay with "Paradise."
Getting further into the track list, things will really start to differentiate depending on the prevailing styles and preferences of your group. You may stick with the simple descent from the first few tracks toward a smooth landing at the conclusion of the album, or you may prefer something more sophisticated, more of a roller coaster ride. Depending on the songs you have available, you could have a primarily upbeat first half, descend for a bit, peak again at track 7, then slide down for the end. In slightly longer albums, you might have time for two more full peaks and valleys, even.
Compilation album Voices Only Forte makes great use of emotional peaks and valleys. In piecing together a compilation, creator Corey Slutsky had the luxury of a wide selection of song types, representing the best that a cappella has to offer, so this album is constructed in an ideal environment from the perspective of track roadmapping. Take a listen through! You'll note that he manages energy by creating a peak or valley approximately every 4 songs (after the initial impression). Energy is at its highest in tracks 1, 3, 6, 10, 13, and 16, with the songs in between presenting a range of emotion. And speaking of emotional range, observe the juxtaposition set up from the very beginning: the towering "Born This Way" into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" followed by the hit "Firework." Take a listen for yourself! Not only are they great songs, but with at an album length of 19 tracks, there are a variety of transitions to consider. How do they work for you?
Of course, the sound is not complete without considering the aspects of individual songs. You want to hear them from the people who really know their stuff, from the people who do this full time.
Take Singaporean producer Tat Tong, for example. His studio, T2 Productions, has created pop songs that have become hits throughout Asia, and his work with American a cappella is equally noteworthy, including Sing Off stars The Backbeats and collegiate standouts Ithacappella. In a December 30th interview on The Voice Box, Tat said of hit songwriting:
"If you talk about mainstream radio stuff, at the bottom of it, it's not about creating super original music, it's about creating something stuff that works for this format. You don't write an essay on literature when you want one on history. Try to figure out what works for this genre and just write for it! You can't create something that works until you've heard and internalized things that other people have done, and worked."
A cappella groups, if you want to learn more about a sound that works, I cannot think of a better way to learn about it than to just always keep your finger on the pulse of what people are listening to RIGHT NOW. You can't effectively do this in a quick research session, but rather over time, by listening to pop radio, knowing the folk, blues, and classic rock that came before, and keeping up with prevailing personal tastes and critical opinions.
- At the Contemporary A Cappella Society website, hear insight from many true industry insiders, such as contemporary a cappella daddy Deke Sharon or master arranger Tom Anderson, who offer insight boiled down from extensive exposure to the style throughout time and throughout the world. And yes, I am calling a cappella an industry.
- The Mouth Off! weekly podcast offers a constant supply of insight, event updates, information and humor, as well as an album review each episode- the perfect way to gain exposure to a variety of approaches to album recording, with thoughts on how it worked (or didn't).
- For collegiate specialists, the aptly named A Cappella Blog states part of their goal as to "enhance collegiate a cappella’s accessibility to individuals lacking technical knowledge in music."
- Hear what people are saying about a cappella in real time at the CASA group on Facebook, where many contributors from other sources unite.
- Read the latest critiques and learn of more new albums at the Recorded A Cappella Review Board website.
There are a lot of ways to make an album, but make every artistic choice a DELIBERATE DECISION. You have put a lot of work into the performance of your individual songs, and they deserve to be part of an album that brings out their every strength. Plus, you should be able to take credit for each of the apparent decisions that make your album great!
And with that said... time to get working on that album! Don't forget to send it to WUNH when you are done!
Brendan McCann is the producer of the all-a cappella radio show The Voice Box on WUNH, which he created with the intent of playing and publicizing the work of vocal bands everywhere, while also giving insight into the creative process behind the music through interviews with artists, producers and others. His a cappella habit formed as a member of the all-male University of New Hampshire a cappella group Not Too Sharp, where he sang bass and served as the webmaster and publicity coordinator for four years. He has been a show host and WUNH member since 2009. Contact him here with feedback, discussion, questions or requests.