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Getting a Radio DJ's Attention, Part 3: Plan Your Sound

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.)

Vince Wilfork says hello. Who you callin' broad?

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:

  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Rollercoaster. The literal kind.

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!

> Go to Part 1: Album Design
> Go to Part 2: Tell Your Story

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.


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The Voice Box Blog: Getting a Radio DJ's Attention

Head over to wunh.org/blogs/brendan to check out a new blog series from WUNH DJ Brendan McCann (The Voice Box) about getting radio DJs like us to play your group's music. This 3-part series will cover aspects of design strategy and publicity through storytelling, all with the goal that you, the artist, can incorporate some new ideas for creating the most marketable album ever. Don't forget to send it to WUNH when you are done!

> Go to Part 1: Album Design
> Go to Part 2: Tell Your Story
> Go to Part 3: Plan Your Sound


Hipster cat


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Getting a Radio DJ's Attention, Part 2: Tell Your Story

So you have yourself a shiny new album. It is ready to go out to eagerly awaiting fans everywhere. The pre-orders are in. The early birds are lining up down the street just waiting to wrap their ears around your latest piece de resistance

Lined up for album debut

And nobody else has any idea what this handful of fanatics is waiting for.

How do you present yourselves to the rest of the world? How do you tell them, "Look, we've achieved everything we strove for in the past year, and now it is right here, ready to go home with you for your perpetual entertainment!"?

The answer lies in every reality TV show that you have ever seen. Note that every contestant on American Idol, every group in The Sing-Off seems to have one element in common: a story. It may not always be the world's most compelling content, but it gives audiences something to relate to, something to follow, evaluate, and talk about. Essentially, it creates a shortcut for those who are less familiar with you and your music to reach the same level of familiarity as the pre-order crowd. This could be in a letter to a DJ alongside your album, in an interview with the college newspaper reporter, or snippets used as introduction during your album debut concert.

As you craft your album, think of the story that comes along with it. Of course, anyone who has been to elementary school knows that the basic structure of a story includes a beginning, middle, and end. As this relates to the timeline of your album, you should think goals, process, product. Cover these aspects, and you will know all the details you need to answer questions about the album, provide the college newspaper with effective article-writing material, and give DJs the details they need so that there is always something to talk about when they play your music. And you might just create a more focused, purposeful album in the meantime.

So let's start at the beginning! What were the group's goals or inspiration in creating this album? In a changing aural landscape, the culture of every group is unique, with some embracing a more organic sound while others love the bleeding edge of the soundscape. You could tell a continuous story with a clear path, like the relationship that Voices in Your Head create on I Used to Live Alone, or just make top-down driving, good times music. The goal could be to use the album as a 'sandbox,' testing the writing and engineering abilities of the group's members. Or perhaps there is something about your group in particular that you really wanted to capture.

For others, the sound itself is not so important as source of the content, and explanation can make all the difference here. Take Ami Loove, a 16-year-old songwriter from who sent me a package containing a homemade album done 100% from the young artist's home. A letter that accompanied the delivery explained that in her religion, musical instruments were not allowed- thus the inspiration for her a cappella creation. Despite an album that reflected the limited recording resources put into it, the unique background was enough to earn an interview on the show, explaining the religious beliefs that brought about a style whose very name means "in the style of the chapel." Here is an example of a time that simply by having a different approach and taking the time to explain it earned a significant boost in attention and an opportunity for publicity.

Next up, the process- this may include artistic decisions made in the studio, who worked on the album, track choices, and the actual recording process. This is perhaps the unfamiliar to the casual listener, so understand that any recountings of the process by DJs and reporters will likely be simplified. There's a lot to it, but think short-story writing, where every single sentence is included for a reason (or at least that's what your high school American Lit teacher claimed). What did you differently from previous albums? What part of the process was new to you? Did you differentiate you studio recording from what you had done live in the past? What made you do the things that you did?

Groups have built significant success upon the process section of the production, and if you are one of those groups, feel free to show your enthusiasm! I'm thinking of Brandeis VoiceMale and their original compositions on Phoenix, including the song penned by Adam Levine that gave the album its name. If emotional depth was the goal, then good lord did they create some here. For other groups, recording and engineering by group members has become a focus that led to entire careers, like the Tufts boys of Plaid Productions or former Cornell Last Call member Tat Tong. This level of involvement defines an album, and is worthy of emphasis in your story.

Finally, everyone's favorite part: the product. What have you created? Did you achieve or change your goals? Were there any surprises? This is also where you get to highlight your favorite parts- soloists, tracks, transitions, VP, cool chords and arranging, and more. In fact, try to choose 2-3 tracks that represent the album (and group) well, and bring those to the forefront for DJs and other new listeners who are scoping you out. On the radio, these are sure to get the most airplay, at least until DJs get a feel for the album and its popularity. General programming DJs often play music without ever hearing it, based on information passed around the station, so you can plant the seed with the information and suggestions that you include. Suggest songs that represent you well, and are radio-ready (clean is preferable). Fan or group favorites, the most energetic, and the most emotionally dynamic song are great choices.

From one end of the story to the other, a great example of this presentation is the Centerville, OH high school a cappella group Forte. Their latest project is creating an album of all original music written by the group's members (goal). Can I remind you they're still in high school? Okay. Then they will send off their music to top a cappella arrangers, then have all recording, mixing, and mastering done by the best in the business (process). And in Summer 2012 we will bring you their highly-anticipated all-original release (product). Looking at this group from a DJ's perspective, they will certainly have something to talk about on air, and they have done a good job getting the word out. They easily could have gone through this project without sharing the story, and they would have just slipped under the radar... at least for a while. 

Forte A Cappella

Creating an album is no small task, so being able to present it effectively is a great boon to your group. People love a story, a way to show off what is best and unique about you. Ultimately, the music will speak for itself, but every love story starts with an introduction, and the same goes for listeners' and promoters' relationship with your album. 

> Go to Part 1: Album Design
> Go to Part 3: Plan Your Sound

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.


Brendan's picture

Getting a Radio DJ's Attention, Part 1: Album Design

If you are part of an a cappella group (or other band) with a new album, you've not doubt faced the question, "Now how do we get our baby out into the world of opportunity that awaits?"

Alright, so maybe those were not your exact words, but I hope I've captured your general intent. Regardless of who you are- collegiate a cappella group, professional musician, part-time gigger, or do-it-yourself soloist- that new collection of auditory masterpieces deserves a fighting chance at reaching the ears of the many individuals sure to be interested. And don't be fooled; these potential fans are not all waiting at your door, at big local gigs, at the record store or even online to find what you have to offer them. No, they often don't even know they are waiting for you. But they are, if only you can manage to find them.

Radio is one method of delivering your tunes into the lives of unsuspecting fans. Bands with instruments seem to know this, and some even fixate on making sure their recordings find their way into the hands of a radio DJ as if that alone defined success. However, vocal groups seem to pass on this opportunity. This is likely because of the style's roots in streetcorner performing, which leads groups to focus on live performance as their sole means of spreading their name. Nonetheless, with local appeal and- especially for collegiate groups- easy access to independent radio stations, many groups are well-positioned to get airplay. Having your music in a station's collection means that you are available full-time to DJs who can spin you into any playlist that they see fit, broadcasting your voices out to a significant audience.

SO... let's get down to business. How do you, a vocal group with great ambitions, create that album that DJs heap public adoration upon?

Visual presentation

This week, let's start with a functional approach to album design. When a radio station's music director, show producer or target DJ gets your work, this visual presentation is the first thing they see. Viewers will assume that the design budget was proportional to the audio production budget, so make sure your cover reflects that! You have to convince them that your album is going to be high quality enough to sound seamless alongside the rest of the music in the playlist. Let's use my own former group's debut album as an embarrassment-free example...

Quick album design Good album design

On the left, Not Too Sharp's debut On Our Way (2004). While not ugly, per se, it reflects an album from a young group doing it all themselves. On the right, CoCo Beaux's Sundial (2008). Coco Beaux's creative, crisp looking design does a great job of putting forth a professional face that is going to get them more serious consideration from anyone who picks up the album. Interestingly, the content is similar, as both albums have something of a 'live in-studio' sound to them.

Common issues: Pixelation. Text that doesn't match the plane of the surface it is intended to be written on. Photos with questionable white balance (see how, below, the lighting in the original photo makes skin look yellow and zombie-like). Even the color in Cee Lo Green's The Lady Killer could use more rich color balance (though I love the music).

Brendan demonstrating color balances The Lady Killer

A couple quick fixes: Fades or vignettes add a dynamic look to otherwise straightforward photos, as any good Instagram addict will attest (below, left). There are innumerable fonts out there; choose yours carefully, even obsessively (but pay attention to licensing!) Be sure that all writing has good contrast with anything behind it. Give depth by using shadows behind elements, or by embossing text or adding an outer glow (below, right). And never be afraid to look outside your group for ideas; often hiring a professional really is the most economical option.

Vignette exampleEffects to have you feeling textual

But you could spend four years learning about effective ways to design the best album cover, and we are just concerned with pragmatic elements, so let's talk about the information that makes your album easy to navigate and informationally friendly to DJs, reviewers, and others.

All the information

It is common practice to include a track listing on the back cover. Perhaps my favorite element that is completely unrequired by visual design standards, legal issues or any other possible reason is numbering for that track listing. How is such a simple inclusion helpful? For buyers, it makes checking the number of tracks instantaneous. For those listening on car CD players or other systems without an intelligent display, it is a quick way to check what track is playing. For DJs like myself, it means that while I am operating an on-air mic, computer and sound board, I have a quick means of checking which track I want to queue up, a massive help. This does not have to create a blatant numbered list; instead try incorporating the numbers into your design creatively, perhaps as a faded, larger font set slightly behind the track name.

Then there are other tidbits of information that you simply want people to know. The year of release gives a cappella insiders a standard by which to judge the music. Try listening to different BOCA (Best of College Acappella) collections. You'll note that a good recording from 2004 is a world apart from what is considered a top recording in 2012. Even professional groups like Rockapella- who have always had a good production budget- have a very different sound now from in the past.

Especially for those unfamiliar with your music, performing group details are essential. What country, state, town, or school does your group consider homebase? Are we listening to 5 voices or 15? Male, female, or mixed? What is the best website or email address to learn more about you? These may seem like basic details, but they are more frequently overlooked than you might expect.

And here is a way to give back to those who have contributed so much to the success of your recording... let people know who produced your album. All steps are significant- recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and production oversight. Let us know the individual or company who did it, where they are located, and an email or website to find out more. Producers appreciate this contribution to their reputation; if other groups like what they hear, then your album practically serves as advertising for whoever created it. This goes even more if you have done all or some of the work yourself!

Copyright elements

Finally, there are some credits that are necessary for your album even to be legal. Including any covers of songs from other artists? Yeah, I thought you might. If you read through the contract that you signed upon purchasing licensing for those tracks, you'll notice that the copyright owners must be stated in the liner notes or your license may be considered invalid (see item D in this example license agreement from Harry Fox Agency). Typically you can find this information published on an inner fold of the liner notes, as in the example from Straight No Chaser's Holiday Spirits (below left).

Example track credits from SNC Credit where credit is due. Everywhere.

Also Included here are other great tidbits, like the arranger and soloist. If yours changes from song to song, you might also include the VP (vocal percussionist) here. For curiosity's sake, you may even include the original performing artist that your arrangment is based upon, often using the abbreviation OPB for "originally performed by." And if you think this is a lot of information to include, just take a look at what is included for SNC's famous "12 Days of Christmas" medley (above right, click to enlarge).

If you have managed to include all of the elements here, you have quite a nice package. Visually and informationally you will be prepared to roll out an attractive, helpful, legal piece of art. I recently attended a workshop on designing curriculae for students with special needs, and one of the core concepts was that designing something that is accessible to those with the most specific requirements (in this case DJs, reviewers, etc.) will lead to a product that is maximally useful to all audiences.

Album design is just one part of creating your most easily marketable music, though! Check back in two weeks for ideas on how to present the latest iteration of your group with detail and charisma.

> Go to Part 2: Tell Your Story
> Go to Part 3: Plan Your Sound

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 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.


Brendan's picture

Voice Box Tops, 2012 edition

It's been one full year since The Voice Box debuted, on February 18, 2011. In that wild year we've had some 7 guest DJs, interviewed dozens of guests on 3 continents, had 2 in-studio performances, and broadcasted 3 live concerts from other venues on campus. And all with the live-broadcast charm inherent in all WUNH programming!

Well, we tracked the music played on air during that first year, and after crunching the numbers, here are the Voice Box Tops for our first year. The songs, groups, and albums that follow were our most played in 2011. Check out links for more on the groups and to purchase their music! Listen to the Voice Box Tops segment in the 9pm hour of the February 24, 2012 episode.

Keep an eye on this blog and The Voice Box page on Facebook for an upcoming weekly series on strategies for grabbing the attention of DJs and listeners- and elevate your group into charts like this!

    Top Groups:
  1. Straight No Chaser
  2. Overboard
  3. The Hyannis Sound
  4. Not Too Sharp
  5. Naturally 7
  6. Brandeis Voicemale
  7. The NH Notables
  8. Alabaster Blue*
  9. The Beelzebubs*
  10. Club for Five*
  11. Firedrill!*

    Top Songs:
  1. transit - Home
  2. The Hyannis Sound - Carolina in My Mind
  3. Naturally 7 - Ready or Not

    Top Albums:
  1. Free Track Tuesday (Overboard)
  2. Shifting Gears (Not Too Sharp)
  3. You're The Voice (Club for Five)
  4. 10 Songs, Any Style (Alabaster Blue)
  5. VocalPlay (Naturally 7)
  6. Voices Only 2011 (Compilation)
  7. Ferris Wheels (The Swingle Singers)
  8. With A Twist (Straight No Chaser)
  9. Nota (Nota)
  10. Suit Up (Brandeis VoiceMale)

    Most Listened-to Online Broadcasts
  1. Sept. 16: UNH A Cappella Night live, with each campus group and Overboard
  2. Aug. 5: Interview with Tat Tong of T2 Productions, introduction of Perpetuum Jazzile and Voices in Your Head
  3. Dec. 9: Not Too Sharp concert live
  4. Aug. 12: Interview with Dave from Ball in the House, introduction to transit, The Bobolinks, and acametal with Dokaka
  5. Dec. 2: Interview with Tine Fris of Postyr Project, debut of new Postyr single, and SoJam wrapup set

  6. * = Tie