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).