Back in 1985 my brother Houston introduced me to Todd Rundgren’s innovative album, A Cappella [sic]. Rundgren used digital sampling to create an album made up only of the human voice. He added distortion and manipulated the sounds to emulate drums and other instruments. Back then this was really impressive, and I was amazed that one human voice could create such music.
Of course, now this is common place. Beat-boxing came in with rap music about the time Rundgren’s album came out. TV shows like Glee have renewed interest in a capella singing, specifically with Do Wop and other popular music that wasn’t originally arranged for voices only. Combine that with technology that can turn just about any computer into a multi-track recording studio, and you have many people turning out their own a capella renditions.
The newest twist is to add a visual element. Amateur multi-track artists are now creating videos with multiple overlays, so that you can also see them singing harmony with themselves. One of the first to do this was the French artist FranÃ§ois MacrÃ©. Last year MacrÃ© stunned YouTube with a multi-channel a capella rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The screen was subdivided into 64 squares, each representing a different instrument. Here’s the result…
MacrÃ© has followed that up with a rendition of “Starlight”…
Others have jumped on the multi-track bandwagon. Some of them are quite good, others…not so much. Here are a few of the ones that I’ve enjoyed. First is the YouTube artist SgtSonny. Like MacrÃ©, Sonny uses interesting video arrangements for his pieces. Here he is performing “And So It Goes…”, with the lyrics added as subtitles below:
…and here is a barbershop quartet tag of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from the musical “Guys and Dolls.” This one was done as a visual tribute to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Another excellent artist is Vance Perry, who also does barbershop arrangements, as well as spirituals and other pop tunes. In this video he does the arrangement of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, as arranged for the TV show “Glee.”
There are several other outstanding multi-track artists. A few that come to mind are Michael Saunders, Naya Marie, and Del Soul (Daiyel.) Just doing a search for “multitrack a capella” in YouTube will bring up most of these, as well as many others.
Of course, having seen this I wanted to give it a try myself. Most of these folks record the audio first and make sure it sounds great. Then they lip-sync to the video.
Audacity is free, and it will do just about everything you need in order to create multi-track recordings. I used it to lay down some sample tracks with myself singing TTBB harmony on Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time.” I found it useful to have a metronome track to synchronize everything, so I recorded one track with my faithful metronome clicking away at the correct tempo. I also put down a couple of piano tracks just to keep me on pitch, which I later removed. The results were, well… Let’s just say that audio file isn’t going to hit the ‘net anytime soon. However, the process was sound (no pun intended.)
I switched gears and tried using Garage Band on my Mac. I haven’t really gotten the hang of this program, but I found it to be decent amateur recording software. This time I picked the Sacred Harp melody “Antioch,” and laid down SATB tracks. The results were pretty good. It helps that Garage Band has a built-in metronome. I was able to punch in and re-record a couple of problematic sections. I only recorded one verse, and here’s the result:
It’s pretty rough, and I had some trouble with the upper ranges. I did duplicate the four vocal tracks and I added a bit of reverb to create a fuller, more choir-like sound, but it’s just me singing all parts. One could get better results with a better microphone and professional software such as Steinberg’s Cubase, but I’m happy with it. I may have to come back and record the rest sometime.
Here I wasn’t so lucky. I’ve got iMovie on my Mac and Pinnacle Studio 11 on my laptop. Both of these allow for simple picture-in-picture effects, but neither of those support multi-layer video, which is what I would need for more than two voices. For this I would need one of the following: Adobe Premier or Sony Vegas for Windows, or Final Cut Express for the Mac.
I may looking to getting the correct software sometime, but for now I’m happy just putting down audio tracks. I may build up a library of them so that I’ve got starter material for when I do get around to adding video.