Northfire Recording Studio

A Capella Guide

Welcome to A Capella at Northfire! Over the years we’ve recorded a broad range of a capella projects here at the studio. We’ve built up a solid base of experienced a capella engineers, and a large collection of techniques for guiding the project along the path from conception to release. With that in mind, we put together this guide to help a capella groups know what to expect, how to have a project go as smoothly as possible, and how to create a fantastic sounding a capella record.

If this guide seems a little daunting, don’t worry! It’s all actually pretty straightforward and we can help you through it easily. Ultimately we want to offer our help, but do the project however you want to do it.

The Beginning
It all starts from the concept for the record. Be it a collection of current repertoire, a concept album, or a tribute album, we can help you pick songs, select arrangements, and license compositions so that the record can be legally sold (more on that later). Once the overarching idea for the record is in place, working closely with the right management team and creating a smooth communication flow is key.
The Team
Many a capella groups have great management in place, with solid treasurers, talented musical directors, and experienced facility oversight. Challenges can arise however when semesters pass by and management, who may be just as skilled but has a different vision steps in. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a change in course, it’s important to realize when it’s happening and what the implications are with scope, budget, timeline, etc. To help these transitions, communication is key. Our engineers work hand-in hand with the group’s management team to make sure we’re doing the work the way they want it done, the budgetary choices fit their vision, and the product is as they want it. And when the people in the management roles change, we check in with them to catch them up on choices made so far, what’s been done, and what remains to be done. We’d much rather give the time to have meetings than have a client unhappy with the process at the end of the record.
Budget and Payment options
As fun as it would be to explore every creative side trail and make everything absolutely as perfect as can be, the reality of budgetary constraints have to be respected. That said, we try and be as flexible as we can, from payment options (pay as you go, monthly payment plans, etc.) to helping craft a project plan that will keep everything on-budget. In our initial meetings we work with the treasurer and musical director to come up with a plan that works both budgetarily and creatively, and we can give updates throughout the project to make sure everyone’s aware of the current project status.
How to prepare for coming in the studio
If a group is as prepared as possible before coming into the studio, they can utilize their studio budget to the best effect. Being fully prepared can include a few different facets:

• Preproduction
Preproduction includes choosing and fine-tuning arrangements, producing MIDI tracks for all of the parts of the songs, and recording sectional rehearsals (a voice memo on a phone will do) for the musical director to see how everybody’s doing. Also, making sure all song tempos have been decided and checked by doing a super-rough recording (again, using that voice memo app) is a great way to make sure that studio excitement doesn’t lead to hyper speed metronome choices.

• Preparing an extra song or two
It can be a great idea to have an extra song or two ready to go and build it into the budget, that way if one just isn’t coming together the way the group likes, there’s an alternative ready to take it’s place.

• Production meetings with Northfire staff throughout the process
We’ve seen many projects here, some with better preparation than others. With just a couple meetings we can help our clients be as prepared as possible so that they can use the budget making the record great, not rehearsing or rehashing arrangements.
The steps of making a record
Once all of the planning, preparation, and preproduction are done, it’s time to start the recording.

- Tracking: Working most often with MIDI tracks as guides, the singers all record their parts. We can record fixes for any mistakes at this point, or improvements on any lines that are to be redone so we can get all of the parts as close to the finished performances they want as possible.

- Editing: This can include correcting pitch wavers, tightening up beginnings and ends of notes, flying phrases around, and generally giving the performances whatever degree of polished perfection the group desires.

- Mixing: Whereas editing polishes the performance, mixing polishes the sound. We take all of the separate tracks and fine tune the sound through the use of various types of audio processing. We then combine them, adjusting the sounds so they work well together, and set levels of the different parts. Lastly we dynamically automate levels so that each part can be heard, blending is smooth, and the listener’s focus is drawn to the right places.

- Mastering: This is the final step of audio processing, and also the first step of getting ready for manufacture and distribution. It involves compression and limiting to bring the volume of the mixes up to release level, some subtle overall EQ to give the final polish, and sometimes stereo image processing. Also it is at this stage that we adjust song spacing, song order, clean up beginnings and ends of songs as needed, enter metadata, and prepare the final DDP file that goes to the manufacturing plant.
Having arranged, rehearsed, recorded, overdubbed, edited, mixed, and mastered (phew!) the project, the next step is release. This can take a number of forms, from just selling a cd at concerts to a full-fledged publicity campaign, radio promo, digital distribution, etc. There can be great reasons for going the simple route, but if the group wants extra sales, a little promotion work can go a long ways. If the group or administration has the staff for it, a marketing officer dedicated to online marketing, tracking sales, and promotional attention can make a big difference in sales numbers.
Interestingly, many a capella groups record albums that can’t be legally sold. The reason for this is that they often don’t license the songs they release. Congress has set up a system for licensing that is quite simple, and as long as the song has been previously released, it’s guaranteed (the copyright holder can’t refuse to license the songs). We can help walk you through the process or connect you with various other companies that do it for you. They usually charge about $15 per song plus the license fees (9.1¢ per song for each CD manufactured). It’s a really good thing to do, it means that you can promote at will and sell as many copies as you can without worrying about being sued.
Benefits of recording at Northfire
It’s always a little awkward to talk about the quality of one’s work, but in all seriousness our engineers do an incredible job at making a capella CD’s. There are a lot of places it’s possible to record, we really encourage you to give a listen to the work that comes out of the studios so you can see why we’re a great choice. The vivid clarity, balanced blends, cohesion and overall sonic feel of our albums stand out. In a genre where most people record a small number of albums, its worth making them phenomenal.

In addition to the final product, the experience is highly important. We’ve made a ton of a capella albums here, and we know how to do it smoothly, efficiently, comfortably, and with the kind of respect and attention everyone deserves. We hear a surprising number of stories of people’e experiences elsewhere where they are told the way they want to work is wrong, engineers getting angry with their clients, staff not taking women seriously, files being lost, etc. Quite simply, these kinds of things don’t happen here at Northfire.

Lastly, we can help you with the entire process, not just producing audio. We can help our clients with licensing compositions and copyrighting their recordings, guide them through preparation, assist them in producing a promotion and sales plan, and connect them with anyone else needed to help make the project as great as it can be.