Criticisms of the Genre
The contents of this post are purely opinions, not facts, and are not meant to be construed as anything more than constructive criticism of a musical genre that I am deeply passionate about.
Gunpowder and Lead
OPB Miranda Lambert
Covered by NC State's Acappology
Listening to the original version, there are some background swells behind the plucky guitar that would've helped the arrangement with its growth. Listening back to the arrangement, I do hear these pads in place, but the dynamics there are nonexistent. Adding dynamics to these parts would have helped to give the song more life without changing the sonic quality of voices by adding excessive effects like distortion or overdrive.
In parts where the sound of the original song is noticeably squashed, like the chorus, arrangers should take care to put more activity in the arrangements. Before compression, these parts are where the songs really take off. The a cappella version is about 45 seconds shorter than the original, which accounts for the lack of a "guitar solo." A stylistic choice that makes sense, unless you have someone who can really wail with an authentic solo electric sound.
What I would change:
1. Repetitive "licks"
The male vocal parts for this song sing essentially the same thing for the entire song, the only difference being the distortion on the vocal during the chorus.
Fixing this is really simple. you can take a lot of the repetitiveness out of the lick by adding one more part to the arrangement that gives it a bit more sophistication and depth, or changing one of the notes every other 4 bars, like the original does. The lick should change to match the pad chords underneath it, like the original song.
2. "Wall of Sound" choruses
I understand and sympathize with the fact that the wailing "ah" pads are a really easy way to make an arrangement big, loud, and engaging. However, it's not engaging in a good way.
The "wall of sound" loses its audience appeal after the first time it happens, so it's a pretty good idea to save your biggest and best wall for last. However, an even better solution is to put the wall of sound first to grab the audience's attention and hook them going into the following verse, then take away from the pads and add technicality each time through the chorus by splitting the pads in two and giving one half new moving lines. Moving lines are always more engaging than stagnant lines, and the tradeoff in difficulty is minimal when compared to the additional "wow" factor of a well-executed "weave of sound" with cohesive moving parts. Plus, who doesn't like to sing moving lines in a song? Whole notes are boring.
3. Constant droning chord pads
Throughout the verses, there are constant chords that barely change their dynamic level. This does add weight to the song, but it should be interesting weight. With pads like this, the best thing to do is use ALL of the available dynamic range, from pianissimo all the way to fortissimo. This arrangement uses some dynamics, certainly, but when paired with compression on the recording, it might as well be nonexistent. mezzo-forte to forte just doesn't cut it anymore.
I would change this simply by making the chord pads far less prominent in the start of the song. They should start out as something that isn't really perceptible at first listen, but once they stick out, the listener should realize that they really have been there all along. You don't need to punch the chord pads hard in the beginning for them to fill out the space they are meant to fill. The brain does that subconsciously, and it's a much more interesting listening experience for the audience. The bonus is that in a great auditorium, the pianissimo really pays off.
Party Rock Anthem
Covered by RIT's Eight Beat Measure
To be completely honest, I had to go find a live version of this song on YouTube to actually believe that a song like this could be done live. Of all the songs I examined for this critique, this is by far the most over-produced. Right off the bat, the bass and percussion sound as if they were completely synthesized. There is not a single trace of the original vocal in the baseline for this song. The high, squeaky synths suffer from the same problem. The rest of the song is either chopped up or distorted. The whole drum kit suffers from what I'll from now on call "impossible perc. syndrome" I can't think of a single beatboxer that is physically capable of doing kick drum sounds and rim-shot sounds at the same time, or perfectly timed and chopped snare rolls. If the group usually has two beatboxers, make that known somehow by panning one's sounds to one side, and then the other's to the other side.
The most egregious overproduction in this sound comes during the part after the soloist says "shake that". This is a shameless dubstep mix section that sounds absolutely nothing like voices. Worse than suspecting over-production, this section makes me question if voices were ever used in the first place, which completely drains every last shred of respect I had for this cover.
What I would change:
I was able to find a video of this song being performed live. This gives me faith that just a quarter of the work put into making this nearly unbelievable production would make this sound quite good. I think someone got really carried away in the editing and mixing stages for this song, and it's unfortunate. This recording could have been great.
OPB Imagine Dragons
Covered by The Michigan G-Men
This arrangement reminds me most of something I would hear off of a Pentatonix album, and that's not a bad thing! The minimalist aesthetic in the beginning lends itself well to a cappella production, and this song takes off from there. I went in search of a live version of this cover to make sure it was as true-to-life as it sounds, and it was, to my great delight.
By doing so much with so little in the first half of the song, the door is really opened for the song to take off after the first chorus, filling in the arrangement with more pads, and since the song is so short, it doesn't get boring after the other parts come in. The tone of the bass is a bit questionable in terms of its authenticity, but listening to this performed live, it sounds mostly the same, aside from necessary pitch correction to make sure that it stays tight to support the chords above it.
What makes this song work is its willingness to not go all-out in the beginning, and instead draw in listeners with the tighter sound of fewer voices. The harmonies follow the solo for the first verse and chorus of the song, and that's all it is, with the exception of the bass establishing the root of the chords to come. When the rest of the backing vocals enter after that, it fills in the parts I didn't even realize were missing, which makes for a real treat.
What I would change:
To be honest, these are very minor things. Overall, this is one of my favorites of the six that I'm critiquing here.
1. Bass tone
Reading the comments on the live version from YouTube, it appeared that the percussionist/bass singer was using a throat singing technique to hit those low B's (!), and the fact that they are so low means that I really have nothing to complain about as far as this is concerned, but I would have tried getting a take of the baritone singing the same bassline in a comfortable octave, then pitch-correcting it down to match where the bass line is. This may or may not help, but at the very least, it would provide an option for thickening the sound where it gets thin, such as where the singer hits the 3rd note of the chord progression (A major if the song is in B-minor).
2. High-end mix
This is getting really nit-picky, I know, but there's something about the harsh high-end of this mix that just really doesn't sit well with me. A very light multiband compressor on everything above 7kHz would be a quick fix to tame this.
3.Mix Volume Levels in the Bridge
In the bridge of the song, it sounds like the point is for the entire section to drop out really fast, then grow into the last chorus. Problematically, when everything is fading away at the start of the bridge, I lose the lead vocal, which is already down at the lowest level for the bridge. Personally, I would have left the lead vocal closer to its regular level for this section, and allowed the background to be quieter and take care of the heavy lifting in the dynamic changes for the section.