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A Cappella FAQ Part 4/7

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Subject: A Cappella FAQ Part 4/7

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
       A Cappella FAQ - Part Four: Arranging, Performing, and Recording A

Questions answered in part 4:
Q 4.1 Can anyone give some tips on transcribing music from a recording?
Q 4.2 Can anyone give some tips on translating an SATB score for use by my
TTBB/SSAA group?
Q 4.3 Can anyone recommend any books on arranging popular a cappella music?
Q 4.4 Can anyone give me some advice about arranging?
Q 4.5 Fill me in on vocal percussion. What is it? How can one learn to do
it? etc.
Q 4.6 What is the best microphone technique for a four part a cappella
group? Does one mike work well or should everyone have a mike? What types
of microphone are best for a quartet?
Q 4.7 Can anyone give some tips on ensuring good sound in an unfamiliar venue?
Q 4.8 What should we do about members missing or being late for rehearsals?
Q 4.9 Help -- my group has had a bit of, well let's say, tension when
trying to decide who gets the lead or solo in any new songs we start to
work on.
Q 4.10 Can someone give me some advice on recording and mixing an album?
Q 4.11 My group just made a recording. How do I start publicizing it?

Q 4.1 Can anyone give some tips on transcribing music from a recording?

When transcribing a song, listen for the bass line and melody first. Write
these down. They will often outline the chords and are much easier to pick
out of a recording than anything else. Then focus on the rhythm of the
other background parts. Once you've figured this out, try to pick out the
background parts one by one, starting with the highest part. If you're
having trouble, focus on the highest background part as a counter melody
or descant and write it down completely. Then try to figure out the
chords, using the pitches that you have written for the bass, lead, and
top background voice. If they don't cover all of the chord factors, mess
around on the piano until you have the correct chords. Then go back and
reconstruct the background parts based on this information. Finally, add
anything else in the arrangement (vocal percussion, sound effects, etc.)

The more you transcribe, the more you'll become familiar with certain
conventions (chord progressions, voice leading) and you'll find you become
better at "second guessing" the original arranger.

Q 4.2 Can anyone give some tips on translating an SATB score for use by my
TTBB/SSAA group?

For women, have the first sopranos read S, and the seconds read T up an
octave (not A); the first altos sing A as written, and the seconds sing B
up an octave. Same idea for a men's group: Basses read B, Baritones read A
down the octave, second tenors read T, firsts read S down the octave.
Schematically, then:

     Men Mixed Women
     T1 (-8ve) S S1
     B1 (-8ve) A A1
     T2 T S2 (+8ve)
     B2 B A2 (+8ve)

This preserves the relation between the outer voices and automatically
transforms many common open voicings into standard closed voicings with
the four parts in the natural order; e.g. the open D-major chord D-A-F#-D
becomes D-F#-A-D.

Note: If your tenors often sing up in falsetto range, you might try the
arrangement as is. For example, many doo-wop songs can just as easily be
sung SATB as TTBB with every pitch in the same place.

If you're interested in looking closer at this topic, the CASA songbooks
(See FAQ #3 for more information) are arranged SATB but have extensive
notes on how to translate each one to TTBB and SSAA -- by looking at the
music and how this is to be done in several different cases, you should
get a clearer picture of the process and issues involved.

Q 4.3 Can anyone recommend any books on arranging popular a cappella music?

There is a book designed just for the college a cappella arranger, called
"The Collegiate A Cappella Arranging Manual" by Anna Callahan. She has
assembled everything beginning and intermediate arrangers need to produce
interesting and appropriate a cappella arrangements. She gives advice on
transcribing from recordings and shares creative ideas to spice up your
arrangements. A tape is included which gives great examples, including
Greensleeves arranged in many different styles. This book is available
through the PAC and Mainely A Cappella (See FAQ #3 for addresses) and is a
must for every aspiring a cappella arranger.

There is a large manual available from the SPEBSQSA on barbershop
arranging (Arrangers Manual). It is very thorough, with lots of examples,
and details three different methodologies for approaching an arrangement.
It goes into such things as song forms, harmonic progressions, chord
vocabulary, chord voicings, etc. There is also a smaller manual called The
Theory of Barbershop Harmony, which you should know first before starting
to arrange.

Q 4.4 Can anyone give me some advice about arranging?

Gabe Rutman - member of the Los Angeles based group spiral mouth and
former U Penn Off The Beat music director has a slightly different view on

these are his top eleven rules for arranging cover songs for a cappella
groups. this is meant for those who need to rock, and to rock hard and
loud and fast, and don't have time for all this arranging bullshit. faq
maintainer's note - the lack of upper case is gabe's thing -- that's the
way he writes -- i think his shift key is broken  ;-D

1. i use a computer; sequence, notate, then by hand i write in syllables.
2. and i never write out the solo.
3. and i never write out the drums.
4. and i never write in dynamics. teach 'em at rehearsal
5. oh yeah: and use a CD, never a tape, 'cause a) you can hear more
(headphones help with this as well) and b) fast forward and rewind takes
no time at all. you can listen to the same bar 500 times in a row to try
to hear a particular guitar part or whatever.
6. don't get too complicated. learn to write solid, smooth arrangements
that cruise during the verses and explode into the choruses, then start
getting kinda complex if you feel like it. but too many people try to do
too much too early. which brings me to:
7. save the best for last.
8. do no doubt and soundgarden whenever possible.
9. go to live concerts by rock and roll bands, NOT a cappella groups. a
cappella is NOT popular; rock and roll is. learn from the rockers, not the
wuss-ass a cappella nerds like me.
10. try singing out the parts after you write them. if you sound stupid
singing them, chances are your group will sound like complete assholes.
but don't let that hamper your creativity with syllables; too many bahs
are fatal, too many doos kill.
11. don't let anybody sing the guitar solo, no no no no way.

Q 4.5 Fill me in on vocal percussion. What is it? How can one learn to do
it? etc.

Jeff Thacher ( of Rockapella writes: Seeking a more
contemporary rhythmic center, or sometimes merely a very defined rhythmic
accompaniment, modern a cappella groups of all types have been adding
"vocal percussion" to their sound in steadily increasing numbers,
beginning circa 1991. 

A vocal percussionist uses his mouth and all its parts to create mostly
drum-like musical sounds which generally fill the role an instrumental
drummer or percussionist would fill in an instrumental ensemble.  It is a
largely self-taught and imitative art -- imitation of actual real drums or
of their equivalent electronic versions.  

In a contemporary musical world filled with sounds manipulated
electronically, "VP" perhaps can be seen as a human form of computer
"sampling".  The VP is taking a heard drum sound or a memory and spirit of
many drum sounds and capturing it, through sheer physical practice, in his
mouth, changing it to suit his needs or talents, and performing it within
the a cappella idiom.  The range of styles of VP'ers now extends from the
purely imitative, all the way to the very human -- bodily sounds of grunts
or breaths, and everything in-between.  It can all be made to work
rhythmically in a cappella if you want it to.

Amplification is often the true friend of working contemporary a cappella
groups, and the vocal percussionist benefits the most (along with the
basses) from amplification of his sound.  Rhythmic spitting noises do not
travel over great distances or above belting tenors with much force.   

A whole new technique is being discovered and evolved for the
amplification and manipulation of vocal percussion, both in the recording
studio and in live performance.  With the development of performance
styles comes the recognition that more could be used than just what can be
picked up by handheld microphones at mouth level.  The amplification of
throat sounds in conjunction with mouth sounds has become a trend. 
Starting with the early experimental usage of a second handheld mic held
against the throat of Joe "Bob" Finetti of The Bobs and continuing with
the first full-time usage of throat amplification on the throat of Jeff
Thacher of the group Rockapella, it seems that every young amplified vocal
percussionist now wants to play around with the possibilities.   
And as guitarists have long used affordable foot pedal effects to enhance
their sounds and to extend their musical options, now vocal percussionists
are experimenting creatively in this realm as well, along with their
singing bandmates.  One or two VPers have even been spotted trying their
hand at performing with those guitarists in instrumental situations,
replacing the instrumental drummer with an a cappella equivalent, pumping
out a new sound within the well worn traditional rock band, all the while
giving listeners a taste of the a cappella world's creativity. 

As contemporary a cappella groups evolve inevitably toward the production
and performance of more original songs and fewer covers, the use of vocal
percussion will broaden, losing some of its impressive novelty but gaining
respect as a true and useful performance art.    "Spitting for money"
could never sound better.

Wes Carroll ( of The House Jacks, and formerly of Five
O'Clock Shadow, writes: "Vocal Percussion" (also called "mouth-drumming,"
"beatbox," "oral percussion," or, in a cappella circles, simply "VP") is
the art of expressing rhythm with nothing but your lips, tongue, and

It is one of the factors (along with use of amplification, non-classical
vocalcolors, and original songwriting) which seems to be contributing to
contemporary a cappella music's continuing rise in visibility. These
factors help today's a cappella performers and audiences bridge the gap
between instrumental pop music and more traditional forms of a cappella

Doing vocal percussion can be as simple as trying, and being willing to
look a little silly at first. :-) The dedicated student may want to find a
local instructor (contact CASA at for assistance) or
to study some instructional material such as "Mouth Drumming: Lessons in
Vocal Percussion"now available from Mainely A Cappella at or by calling 1(800)827 2936 (in North America).

Finally, although it may not be obvious at first blush, the real point and
purpose of vocal percussion in modern contemporary "a cappella bands" can
be the same of that of a kit-drummer in an instrumental band: to define
the style of music by the degree to which he or she, along with the
bassist, provides or subtly alters the rhythmic pulse of the music.

Matthew Selby ( of m-pact gives this advice. My take on
VP is simply this: I like it when it is being true to the music. There are
so many times when it isn't necessary, that it is still used (or misused).
I think that, when used correctly, it adds to our performances of tunes
that call for it, and adds to the tunes where we don't use it (when it's
not needed) because that makes those tunes stand out as something special.

I think that it is definitely an art, that with practice can really bring
something special to a performance.

Elaine Chao has created her own web site which is a primer on VP --
complete with definitions, performance hints, etc., and she's even selling
the T-shirt emblazoned with "Got Spit?" that she made famous at the East
Coast Summit in 1998. Go to

Q 4.5 What is the best microphone technique for a four part a cappella
group? Does one mike work well or should everyone have a mike? What types
of microphone are best for a quartet?

Four directional mikes (hand held or on stands) are great *if* you have a
competent sound person, who understands that a properly balanced quartet
does *not* mean that all four parts are of equal volume.

Next best is one omni-directional mike. Here, though, you need to work
very carefully to keep the singers at equal distances from the mike. Some
places provide two directional mikes, which is awful. With this set-up,
try pointing the two at the center of the quartet and cluster your group
very close together.

An important consideration is that low voices need to be closer to mikes
than high voices. The "proximity effect" occurs when a bass singer is
almost swallowing the microphone and results in an extremely full low
sound. Each singer needs to take responsibility for getting closer to
his/her own mike at bottom of his/her range. It's safer to have individual
mikes, practice your technique and be sure to have an alert sound tech. Or
consider the intermediate approach -- two singers on each of two mikes. If
the heights are close enough, this works pretty well.

Dave Boyce of Extempo - . For one mike, you must have
strong vocalists and a *very* good omnidirectional mike. Sennheisers work
acceptably well but it's a lot easier to get good sound levels and
balances for recording with individual mikes. One or two PZM-style surface
mikes with extension stands work well for larger groups. For individuals
and studio work, the Sennheisers are absolutely a better choice. They
don't travel well, and they're expensive but they're worth it in response
and sound. The SM58s are a good touring mike but tend to have somewhat
uneven spectral response as the elements age. SM58s tend also to become
more directional with age but that can be both a blessing and a problem if
your soundman isn't aware of it.

Q 4.7 Can anyone give some tips on ensuring good sound in an unfamiliar venue?

Dave Boyce of Extempo - writes: There are several things
that a can be done, even when working in a union house, to ensure good

1) Submit a detailed technical rider that requests specific equipment that
is tried and true for a cappella. It is naive to think that whatever hall
is being used will automatically have equipment that is suited for a

2) Schedule adequate time for set up and sound checks -- at least 30 - 45

3) Communicate with the engineer before hand. Set lists, song notes,
photos (with names marked) of soloists, etc., help with the overall

4) Request a specific engineer. Don't just let the house assign you a
random engineer.  Even if it is a union house, you can request specific
experience. We've even brought our own engineer to work alongside the
"house engineer." This seems to work great -- the house engineer knows the
hall, and the a cappella engineer knows the sound. Together they can make
a great show. You can also coordinate with and educate the engineer prior
to the day of the show. Not EVERYTHING can happen in the three hours
before the doors open.

5) In my experience, ANY hall can be made to sound good with the right
set-up. Yes, even a high school gym, a parking garage -- anything. It's a
simple matter of planning ahead, using the right people and the right

I've worked in a lot of union houses. When you're the one paying the
bills, you can request what you want. If you are specific and have a high
standard, you will get a good sound. If you take "whatever the hall has,"
you will get whatever the hall has -- usually sub-optimal sound equipment
and an engineer that is "clueless about a cappella" (90% of live engineers

Q 4.8 What should we do about members missing or being late for rehearsals?

The first thing that is needed is an objective measure of the impact of
lateness or absence on the rest of the group. It's important to get it out
of the realm of emotion and personal opinion and to establish something
that is measurable, independent of personalities.

The second key thing is to separate the actual impact of the absence from
the reason for the absence and deal with the two separately. If someone is
absent a lot even for the best of reasons, it damages the preparedness and
quality of the performance just as much as if the excuses were bad. The
nature of the excuses is very important too, of course, but this is a very
different kind of discussion. When someone is missing frequently, the
discussion is, first, "how much have you damaged the group by not being
here?" and, second, quite separately, "is this behavior likely to continue
in the future and does the group value you enough to be willing to
tolerate this damage?"

Q 4.9 Help -- my group has had a bit of, well let's say, tension when
trying to decide who gets the lead or solo in any new songs we start to
work on.

Here's some advice, straight from our esteemed CASA President and Musical
Director for the House Jacks, Mr. Deke Sharon.

1) Sit down and have a group discussion about solos and if they need to be
shared evenly. Is one solo per person enough, with some people having
more, or should each person have the same number?

2) Discuss the strengths of each person's voice and have the group suggest
some songs that would suit each member well. Also, if people can take the
heat, talk about what kinds of songs wouldn't work (so individuals don't
have unrealistic expectations). Vocal range, tessitura, mood, and how
appropriate a song is for a person (as well as the group) should be at
least touched on.

3) Have each person bring in a song or two that they'd like to have as a
solo. Provided the rest of the group likes at least one song per person,
everyone will have a solo.

Q 4.10 Can someone give me some advice on recording and mixing an album?

Check out the Recording Resource Database. Here you will find a central
reference for knowledgeable studios, engineers and producers available to
help with your a cappella album and recommend (or not recommend) the
studio/engineer/producer who did your last CD, anywhere on the globe. For
details on how this works, stop by at

Jonathan Minkoff of JUNGLE STUDIOS ( has some great
tips for mixing an album which he recently posted on the newsgroups in
response to a questions from a first-time mixer.

1) Understand your job. It is your engineer's responsibility to bring
"know-how" and it is yours to make the musical decisions. Know what you

2) Do your homework. Nothing wastes more time than getting familiar with
the recordings while you are on the clock. 

3) Be organized. Know what you want to fix and how badly it needs fixing.
Work in order of importance as you may find yourself in a time crunch. 

4) Let your engineer know what you want to accomplish right at the
beginning. Ask her to help keep you on schedule. She may have opinions as
to the best ways to proceed. She ought to let you know which parts of your
mixing wish list are reasonable, possible or completely out of the
question given your time, money and studio toy restrictions. 

5) You don't have to know the solutions, just the problems. The engineer
should be able to solve or come close to solving the problems that you
point out. If you can't point them out, the engineer may not ever know
that they need fixing. If you know what you have and what you want it to
sound like, you are in pretty good shape. A good engineer can do a lot to
bridge the gap.

6) Bring recordings of anything you like and tell your engineer to emulate
them. Don't try to put into words what you can more clearly demonstrate
with a recording. 

7) If you know that you can tell the difference between EQ, chorus, reverb
etc., then go ahead and bring in different examples of what you want in
these areas or specify by name. If you're not so sure, then just say
"Please make it sound like this." The engineer may not be able to do it,
but at least she'll have an aural target to aim for. And you may even hit
on something you like better. (I'm an optimist at heart!)

8) You should probably have 2-4 people (other than the engineer) who WORK
WELL TOGETHER in the studio. I suggest 2 and a go fetch-it person. You
should probably know in advance who makes the final decisions if/when you
don't all agree. You don't have time for arguing. The role of the go
fetch-it person is to just be helpful in giving opinions when asked,
getting snacks or fast food when needed and going out to run whatever
urgent errand needs running as there always seems to be something. Just
make sure that studio doesn't turn into social hour. 

9) If you can bring someone who knows a lot about studio engineering and
your music -- GREAT! If you can also bring someone who hasn't heard any of
the rough recordings yet, that's great too. It's good to get fresh ears --
possibly even part-way through the mixing session. Often, hearing
something several hundred times can color the way you listen, making you
either too picky about small details or missing some larger element
because you are "too close to the mix."

10) Stay focused and energetic, but don't lose sight of the fact that this
is a labor of love. You love singing a cappella (I assume) and you care
about the final product. Having fun in the studio, even in mixdown can
really help translate to a better album and certainly to a better mixing
experience. Happy people are better problem solvers and more productive

Q 4.11 My group just made a recording. How do I start publicizing it?

1) Send a copy to every radio station with an a cappella show (See FAQ
#2). Actually, send two copies -- one to play and one for an on-air
giveaway (additional publicity). You can also ask that they mention how to
order it over the radio.

2) Send a few promotional copies to CASA (See FAQ #1). In exchange, they
may give you an 1/8 page ad in the next CAN to publicize the album. (Be
sure to include any text you'd like included in the ad).

3) Send copies to Primarily A Cappella and Mainely A Cappella (See FAQ #5
for addresses) and tell them you'd like them to carry it. There's no
guarantee that they'll decide to sell it but it's definitely worth a shot.
Complete submission guidelines for Mainely A Cappella can be found at

4) Post about your album on the Internet Usenet newsgsroup Be sure to mention all of the song titles, a
description of the group and how to order. Don't post repeatedly about
your album, however -- it's bad netiquette and might well get you flamed.

5) Send two copies to Virtual Voices (see FAQ #5 for address), a service
that welcomes the business of smaller indie groups as well as the big
names (college groups are welcome, too).Virtual Voices has an 800 number
to call to order your CD and other products with a credit card, provides
you with "Buy Now" buttons to put on your web site for secure internet
credit card purchases, and handles the shipping of your product to the

6) Take out small ads or classifieds in the music section of local papers.
Always list the best known songs on your album to generate interest.

7) If you're looking to get this album everywhere, sell it for as little
as you can -- $12 for a CD? $10 for a CD? The lower the price, the higher
the chance for an impulse purchase. And most of the people buying it, not
having heard your group, will have to take a leap of faith. Less money
means less leap.

8) For college groups -- poster all campus sites. Also, put posters and
ads in every music-related store in the area. Make sure it's clear that
you're a cappella and that the posters are well-designed and reflect your
group and style.

9) Approach all local stores that sell recordings to sell it on
consignment. This isn't just record stores -- often department stores,
discount outlets, even convenience stores sell albums. If you want to be a
presence in your area, having your album everywhere possible will generate

10) If you are a college group, contact the admissions and alumni
relations departments. Do as many shows for them as possible and bring
lots of discs. If you get your album associated in people's minds as a
school "artifact", people will think they have to have it. Sing a school
song every once in a while at important campus events or the National
Anthem at school sporting events -- this helps connect you with the school
in people's minds.

11) ALWAYS have your album available at every performance. Bring a folding
table, if you must, and your promotional posters. Have someone sell them
before and after every show, even if that means they have to run out
immediately so that the audience has every opportunity to pick up a copy.
The easier you make it for them, the more you'll sell.

12) Start a mailing list of people at shows (on-stage say something like
"Are you guys having a good time? Well then, before you leave, get on our
mailing list"). Keep track of fans and, if you're singing at a college, be
sure to get a "home" address as well as a local address so that you're
mailing list doesn't become partially defunct every June.

13) College Groups: perform at as many high schools as you can
(particularly prep schools). They LOVE college a cappella and will
purchase accordingly. Professional Groups: perform at as many fairs and
festivals during the summer as you can. Although the pay isn't always
great, you can often make more money on merchandise than your gig fee. 

14) Collegiate-Acappella offers sales and marketing services dedicated to
the collegiate a cappella community. See our online brochure at

15) Submit your album to the Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB). This
is a group of volunteers who review albums and publish their reviews on
their web site at . But you must remember, these are
reviews and they will not always be glowing. So it is a bit of a risk. 

A   PMB #1449, 1850 Union St. #14
S   San Francisco, CA 94123-4309 USA
A   415.563.5224 -

End of FAQ Part Four

                   Ann Griffee - FAQ Maintainer 
           The Contemporary A Cappella Society - CASA
          Reply to or
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