Brian Brandler

Alternate Take: Mics For All?

Deke Sharon is, for all intents and purposes, the “father” of contemporary a cappella. When he gives the a cappella community advice, we listen.  For obvious reasons, it’s hard to argue with the guy…

However, I simply do not agree with the message in one of his recent blogs.  Sharon, inspired by some collegiate groups’ adoption of individual handheld microphone sets, encourages all collegiate groups to follow their lead.  Although stage area micing has been the standard at college concerts, Sharon says that the time of handheld mics is long overdue: “It has become increasingly clear over the past few years that there’s no other option.”

To a certain extent, Sharon is right. Every single point made about these mic systems and how they affect the professional sound of a group are valid. However, I fear that this concept will start moving the collegiate cappella community in the wrong direction. What’s going to occur if this advice is taken seriously is the formation of a great divide in collegiate groups between those perceived as “professional”, and those who are perceived as “amateur”.

On one hand, you have the “professional” collegiate groups. Some of these groups already exist, and you know them well. They’ve gone on world tours, or they’ve gotten major exposure in competitions like NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” Add to these groups the ones who, let’s be honest, aren’t really that popular on campus, but they have a lot of funding from alumni, or other outside sources. All of these groups will follow Sharon’s words, purchase individual mics, and won’t look back. And you know what? Sharon is right: they will sound better than everyone else. No matter how the singers in these groups sound naturally off-mic, their blend and balance will all be mediated and improved by a little sound engineering magic.  Arrangement balance problems, be gone. Go ahead and skip the step where you revise your arrangements for recording, because it’s all the same difference now. Heck, don’t even bother accepting more than one bass if you’re one of these groups: according to Sharon, one is enough, with the right mic.

This approach is fantastic… for the groups that can afford it.  For everyone else, it’s going to be perceived as collegiate “amateur” hour. Full disclosure: I was in a college group that couldn’t afford and wouldn’t ever dream of dedicating a budget to adopting individual mics; so perhaps I’m biased.  But, consider next winter season when you make plans to attend all of the a cappella shows on your campus: two or three of those shows will have masterful sound; the rest will have the standard area mics, and will be without the clarity provided by handheld mics. No matter how talented the singers are in the groups without handheld mics, you won’t be able to shake the feeling that they just sound more “amateur” than the other groups who held mics in their hands the whole time.

It’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation that’s being set, and all it’s going to do is discourage those in the less fortunate collegiate groups.

In post-collegiate a cappella, there is a natural divide, one which has been nurtured and encouraged by CASA.  Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL) groups do not pursue a cappella for a living, and so, they cannot and should not be compared directly to those that do. No such divide exists, nor should it, in collegiate a cappella. Sure, there will always be groups that are more popular and better funded than other groups.  But by claiming that, “there’s no other option”, we’re not going to even give the other groups a chance to be perceived as successful.

And that would be a shame because some groups just don’t need the advantage that handheld mics provide. For your consideration: the Embassy’s very own UMD Faux Paz performing Florence and the Machine’s “Cosmic Love” in a classroom with a single radio mic. I’d rather hear them this way than on-mic any day of the week.  (Having some technical difficulties getting the video to start at the right time – “Cosmic Love” starts at 6:20).

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3 Responses to “Alternate Take: Mics For All?”

  1. dekesharon →
    April 7, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Brian,

    As a San Francisco Left Coast Liberal ™ I take your concern to heart.

    But by the same measure, should we not have groups spend $15,000 making an amazing collegiate a cappella recording because not all groups can? I’m sure you don’t think that kind of handicapping makes any sense, even if it means an underfunded collegiate group has little chance of winning a CARA.

    Fact is, the ICCAs, along with the CARAs, ACAs, BOCA and every other competitive collegiate a cappella program I started was for one purpose only: Publicity.

    Art is not like broad jumping; there is no ultimate measure. One guy loves the Real Group, another loves the Persuasions. Who is right? Both.

    As such, it’s foolish for us to handicap music quality for “fairness” when there is no fairness in art. Only quality, however you measure it.

    And in the end, all that matters is how much the audience enjoys the show. Which, in the case of an audience seeing a group without individual mics, can be a limitless amount. Just ask the Whiffenpoofs: they’ve done pretty well for themselves unplugged for the past 100 years.

  2. Jeeves Murphy
    Jeeves Murphy
    April 7, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    Deke, I see your point. For publicity sake -- for getting a cappella mainstream and for people to stop thinking it’s lame -- there is nothing like adding handheld mics. I mean, when I first introduce someone to contemporary a cappella music, I don’t pull out “The Bobs” or even “Hookslide” (sorry guys). I usually gravitate to something like “Crazy Train” by The Clef Hangers from UNC Chapel Hill off of BOCA 2006 or “OMG” by The Bostonians off BOCA 2012 or even “Break Anotha” by Redline off Too Cubed. Something with a big sound, well mastered, that probably was pretty expensive for the group to afford. For publicity sake, these are the things that will get people interested in a cappella music.

    But where do we go from there? Do we try to get all the college groups to strive to be like these groups and ignore the musicality or ignore their own individuality? I mean, so many of these groups (actually, pretty much all the ones above), if I didn’t already know who sang what track, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference -- I couldn’t tell Clef Hangers from Redline. I would hate to sacrifice artfulness and skill for the popularity of our niche genre.

    Now of course, it’s a little bit of a difference between recording and live sound, I think you know what I mean. I guess what I’m saying is that the focus shouldn’t be getting on mics -- the focus should still be on the music. Performing regularly on mics is an expensive process and, really, unless you’re using the same mics all the time, is pretty useless. Some of the groups around this area have been working a lot with Clear Harmonies productions and have been getting used to using the same mics at every show -- and it does come out in the sound.

    So I conclusion -- I say yes to mics, but not at the cost of musicality. To be blunt -- if you sound shitty, the mics will simply amplify the shit haha.

  3. dekesharon →
    April 9, 2012 at 1:18 am #

    The focus is always on the music, or should be. I’ve never suggested groups take away rehearsal time to learn live sound mixing, but rather if they’re going to be amplified learn and use handhelds.Not a huge learning curve, much much better results. Plus, with most live area micing involving a solo mic, a duet mic, a VP mic and a bass mic plus 2-4 area mics, it’s not even that much larger an expense in sum total. If you’re gonna do something, do it right!

    Where do we go from here? Same as always -- make music you think is great, music you think others will want to hear. Music is communication -- say something that you care about in a way others will understand.

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