Pop Filter: A sound strategy

Perhaps a more underappreciated aspect of a cappella music is the technology that supports the singers, amplifying their sound so that it can be heard optimally in a given performance space.

A cappella is often described as the music of the people in that it relies solely on the sounds made by the human body, but performers are still very much reliant on sound equipment to make those sounds reach the ears of the audience.

There are numerous locations on campus where a cappella groups are frequently invited to perform that do not allow for adequate resonance or do not have the equipment necessary to capture a full, nuanced sound, and it has a noticeable impact on how well we come across as performers. 

Since my group is entirely composed of musicians who do not have a lot of experience with sound systems and equipment, figuring out how to go about getting set up has proven to be a significant challenge. Thankfully, we found a sound design consultant who helped us learn what equipment we need and how to set it up. Without him, our performances would have suffered greatly. Once you hear the difference between a performance with a proper mic setup and one without, there is no going back.

Sometimes, the audience ends up missing out on a lot of interesting things happening in the background while the soloist steamrolls over everything. As much as we wish that our performance could be equally successful whether we are in Goddard Chapel or Gantcher, that is unlikely to be the case. The space, along with the equipment, is a huge factor in the sound quality, which is a reason why you will find that groups sound best when they choose the location and the audio setup.

After receiving feedback from our winter show, this semester we increased the number of Shure SM58 microphones from four to six and positioned them so that instead of surrounding us as they did in the past, there were two mics placed in between the rows to better capture the lower voices. Putting mics solely on the periphery tended to pick up only the female voices, and while those are lovely to hear, we needed a lot more from the bass, tenors and vocal percussion.

This time around, all three of those parts had their own mics, and, judging from audience comments and a review of the video recordings, there was a noticeable improvement in sound quality from previous semesters. Most importantly, we had bass consistently throughout — even during the times when we only had one person on that part — and that alone makes a huge difference. As I’ve stressed in previous columns, bass is a huge deal, and the strength and clarity of its sound helps me realize that our efforts to work on making sure everyone is heard the right amount has paid off.