A^2 to remix a capella

With two videos scheduled to hit YouTube in two weeks and a performance slated for next fall, a group of musicians plans to reinvent live a cappella performance with the help of sound manipulation software.

Using Ableton Live, a computer program that allows singers to layer and manipulate their voices using sound effects, A^2 — or “A squared” for a cappella and Ableton — aims to experiment with sound effects that can alter performers’ voices during a live show, said Jacob Reske ’14, the music director for the group, which consists of six singers and an electronic musician.

Performers using the software sing onstage into microphones plugged into iPads, on which each singer can choose various sound effects for his or her voice. The iPads are wirelessly connected to a master computer that electronic musician Hanoi Hantrakul ’15 uses to remix the songs. While artists like Skrillex use the Ableton Live software to produce albums in the studio and live performers have begun using analog foot pedals to create musical phrases to loop into their songs, Hantrakul said A^2 seeks to integrate digital, multi-layered sound manipulation into live performance with five singers, which could expand creative potential but also poses coordination difficulties.

“We’re a branch on an evolutionary tree in a cappella,” said Reske, who added that a cappella has tended to evolve with larger musical trends, though at a slower rate. “It’s a small step towards the spirit of the [new techno- and synthesizer-influenced] genre.”

Singer Keren Abreu ’15 said Ableton-enabled a cappella allows human voices to create unnatural sound effects and can amplify the sound of five singers to emulate 15. At a Monday night rehearsal, Abreu sang a low note that she instantly transformed into a high-pitched, whirring, mechanized noise.

Reske said A^2 does not want audiences to think of it as “cheating” by using the software, making live performance a crucial element of the group’s identity. A video recording of Ableton-enabled a cappella performance would not make clear that the singers were performing live, leading viewers to think the song may have been pre-recorded or manipulated in a studio by a sound engineer, Reske explained. If audiences see that the singers are creating the music with their voices in real time, they are more likely to appreciate Ableton as a musical instrument for the performers rather than a replacement for singers, he said.

In most live concert performances, Reske added, sound engineers backstage manipulate the live singing to create the sounds audiences hear through speakers. Ableton lets performers take on the role of sound engineers themselves, giving them more control over the final product, he explained.

Singers Nimal Eames-Scott ’14 and Paul Holmes ’14 said that A^2 has started working on improvisation and original songwriting. Although the group initially planned to perform arrangements of popular songs like many a cappella groups, the Ableton technology allows for a feeling of limitless experimentation on which the group wants to capitalize, Reske explained. As a group without stylistic constraints, A^2 has the ability to experiment with sound technology and the potential of live performance, providing the singers more compositional opportunity than traditional a cappella groups, Eames-Scott said. Eames-Scott, Jackson Thea ’15 and DJ Stanfill ’15 are also current members of the Duke’s Men of Yale, which is wedded to a more specific musical style due to its long tradition.

“Improvising is easier than doing an arrangement,” Holmes said. “You’re listening instead of reading off a page — it’s a lot more intuitive.”

The group is currently working on “Retrograde” by James Blake, “She Wolf” by David Guetta and “Lost in the World” by Kanye West, Abreu said, of which the Blake and Guetta songs will be on YouTube. Over the summer, Reske said he plans to write original songs and hopes to organize an A^2 performance in the fall.

The latest version of the Ableton Live software was released in March 2013.

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