Nice Voice. Is It Yours?

Engineering a cappella.

January/February 2010

Reading time min

Nice Voice. Is It Yours?

Toni Gauthier

They're budget-challenged, so their public performances are sporadic. They abide in the easily overlooked niche of college a cappella. And their style defies a succinct description.

But the Harmonics, part of Stanford for almost two decades, are about as musically big as a small set of student voices could be. The group's penchant for creative risk has been galvanized by departing music director Charlie Forkish, '11, who over the last three years has driven the Harmonics into such technologically edgy territory that they've gotten national attention. The result is a cappella that's electrified and, depending on your taste, electrifying.

The goal, says Forkish, is to deliver "a vocal rock show" in "the way that is the most fun and most entertaining." Part of what that means is miking each singer during live shows, allowing Forkish to effectively intertwine computer and other electronic effects from offstage. Of course, if someone is using software to imitate a guitar, or to add reverb and distortion, the standard definition of a cappella—voices without instrumental accompaniment—pretty much goes out the window. "We'll let the critics decide what to call it," says Forkish, a music, science and technology major.

Though individual singers come and go with each school year, a shared artistic identity has flourished. Consider this assessment from one of Forkish's former instructors, music professor Chris Chafe, DMA '83, director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics: "Charlie's digital work has taken the Harmonics to a new place. It's still 'all voice, all the time' but hitting a new level of expression using several effects that the group has achieved a real command of." The upshot, said Chafe by email, is "a kind of a super a cappella."

One part of Forkish's arsenal is Auto-Tune, software with the ability to correct vocal flaws by processing the audio to make singers sound pitch-perfect. Producers also can create an assortment of effects. Last year, the Wall Street Journal devoted a story to how controversial the use of mechanized tricks had become. The article spotlighted the Harmonics' use of Auto-Tune in live performances as a catalyst for debate about what should be considered authentic a cappella.

Julian Kusnadi's opinion comes from his perspective as director of another Stanford a cappella group, the Fleet Street Singers. "Many students," the junior said by email, "at least on the Stanford campus, feel the engineering, Auto-Tune and reverb effects heard in their performances and albums are 'fake' and mask any true musical quality, but I would argue that it's simply a different kind of art form from what many might expect from an a cappella group."

Exactly, says Forkish. Pitch correction has made Auto-Tune notorious, but it enables him to manipulate voices "to mimic things like synthesizers and other electronic effects." Voices can be shifted artificially, snapping from one note to another instead of sliding up or down. That produces a less human sound, which Forkish can blend with other elements—bass octave pedals, subwoofers and more—to manufacture an innovative, hard-rock brand.

"He's taken us somewhere different than where any other a cappella group has gone," says member Robbie Ruelas, '11.

The Harmonics get their core funding from the student government, but their tech-fueled shows are particularly expensive to stage. (They also perform acoustically at times.) When they've been able to pull everything together, as with a show last spring, the results have been more than gratifying. Their next major performance is planned for March.

Former Harmonics member Jonathan Pilat, '99, does arrangements for the group, and he's thrilled with the translation of his work. "It's a huge evolution of what live a cappella can be."

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