Why do we record like we do, or, why don’t we sound like Don Henley?
The modern a cappella record is an extraordinary beast – multi-tracked, multi-award winning, and sounding perfect. Track after track rolls past, absolutely in time, perfectly in pitch, with effects that allow a voice to sound like it’s singing in the Sistine Chapel or at a rock festival. A complete aural environment is created in your headphones that shows off the best of the group – and more.
So why don’t In the Smoke do it?
Bill Hare has argued very persuasively about how an audience recieves a performance on a stage differently from a recording. Aurally, we’re all attuned to the modern, bright pop sound, and modern recording techniques allow each singer to be recorded individually and auto-tuned to achieve something similar from an a cappella group. However, In the Smoke are ploughing an increasingly lonely furrow as one of the few groups that actively chose to record en bloc, in front of a couple of microphones, often with the soloist in the same room.
We do so for many reasons, but the most important is enjoyment. We love to sing, and love to sing together. We feed off the energy in the room, the look on someone else’s face when they hit a note just right, the pleasure of blending that chord. It’s the old adage about the sum of all the parts: it makes us a collective, In the Smoke, rather than a group of singers of varying quality. And we hope it comes across – that energy that we know is present in our live shows is there in the recording too, and we’ve worked hard to fill the gaps and sound as good as we can to make up for the lack of visual stimulation.
We also have different reasons for recording. We are trying to make a record (ha!) of how we currently sound, of the current soloists and arrangements, of the make-up of the group and the blend. Whilst we shouldn’t say this to you (our potentially-purchasing-public), we make a CD as much for us as for you. This method allows that; we do hear the imperfections, but they’re real and part of what happens to us as a group. We hope that this makes sense to a listener too. If you really wanted to hear what “Boys of Summer” sounded like, you would probably visit iTunes and let Don Henley rack up a couple more pence of royalties. But we think you want to hear us; so we do our best to sound as good as we can, nip off to France for a few days, work hard and record a CD that reflects us.
To some of us, it’s also a question of philosophy. A voice is an instrument, as much as a guitar or a snare drum. However, with production, a voice sounds very different to what is does on its own, and the production becomes part of the instrument. By choosing to sing a cappella, we’re choosing to sing without additional help from a bass or a piano, on our own. So is a mixing desk with a virtuosic masterer an unsung instrument on a recording, and does it create an a cappella falsehood? It’s grey line of course (and we’re immensely grateful to Pauline Morgan, our wonderful recording engineer) but my feeling is that it still needs thinking about.
Many incredible records have been made by multi-tracking and using all the tools available. We’ve chosen to follow the other path. Never let it be said that In the Smoke are afraid of doing things differently.
P.S. If you want to see how we do it, here is Brave (Leona Lewis, arrangement by James Crawford), recorded in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, France on the 1st June 2013.