Recording A Cappella At Surrey University

As a small group of five with no musical director, we record ourselves a lot.  Almost every rehearsal ends with the song we are working on being recorded on a phone or MP3 recorder, and we have used some of these on our web site when we had nothing else.  But we jumped at the chance to be recorded more professionally.

The University Of Surrey in Guildford has a suite of performing arts studios and we teamed up with Sam Grainger to produce a recording that he can submit as part of his portfolio on the Tonmeister course, a degree course which combines musicianship and sound engineering skills.

There are two schools of thought about recording a cappella.  The first is that you record the group performing as a whole, but with an individual microphone for each singer.  This gives you the intimacy and atmosphere of a live group performance, but has the disadvantage that it is not  easy to edit individual voices after the recording.  Each microphone picks up a little bit of the other voices in the background, and it is therefore hard to isolate just one voice and manipulate it.  Group recording is the technique recommended by our a cappella neighbours up in London, In The Smoke, in an articulate post on their blog site.

Academix Recording Surrey University 2014-11-11 CF and JFThe second approach is to record each voice individually using a guide track which is dropped out of the final mixed production.  This technique gives the audio producer much more freedom to modify recordings after the event.  A really helpful series of blogs by Danny Ozment shows the astonishing changes that can be applied to a recording made inexpensively using a PC and some microphones.  Indeed Academix recorded two tracks this way over the summer.  (At least that was the explanation Neil gave his wife for the series of attractive women he took up to the spare bedroom.)  Individual track recording seems to be the technique favoured by the a cappella pros.  The 2012 London A Cappella Festival included a workshop with Bill Hare and Eric Bosio who were passionate that there was no other way to record.

Our session last night had a little bit of both.  Over three hours we recorded two tracks, first as an ensemble and then in parts.  For example, in “Fix You”, we recorded the bass harmony parts first, then the lead vocal on top, and finally the vocal percussion underneath.  This was a test of concentration in which some of us did not fare well!  In this song the harmony parts repeat the same riff about 90 times before the chorus, and it is by listening to Anita’s vocals that we know when to change.  Running the song without any words required a feat of counting which turned out to be much harder than it should have been.

One disadvantage with the second technique is that you have to wait a while to hear the mix that you’ve recorded.

Cate and Cat waiting for their turn to sing
Cate and Cat waiting for their turn to sing

Sam and his colleagues were very professional on the night and we were able to listen to some rough cuts.  But we opted to use as much of the studio time for recording rather than listening, so we’re now in the modern digital equivalent of having send your holiday photos away to the chemist and waiting impatiently for them to flop back in through the letter box.  There was a video camera on us for most of the evening as well, so who knows what will turn up.  Voice Festival UK are using video entries to qualify which groups will reach their final: perhaps we will be able to use one of these?

But then there is a lot of waiting involved in recording music.