As we all know from those times we’ve tried to serenade someone with “Happy Birthday” over Zoom, virtual singing is not exactly pleasing to the ears. This has inspired choirs and a cappella groups all over the world to get creative with their music-making methods during the pandemic, greatly increasing the popularity of a cappella multitracks. In a multitrack, separate recordings of each voice are mashed together to form one musical masterpiece, making it sound like an entire choir is singing at once.
If you’re looking to try your hand at multitracking, here are the steps for creating a basic version.
1. Pick Your Song
Some songs work better than others — a pop song with a distinctive melody and backing track would be a wiser choice than, say, a monotone rap song — but if you’re willing to get creative with it, any tune is multitrack-able. Just make sure that you’re excited about whichever song you choose.
2. Find or Create an Arrangement
There are several places to buy choral arrangements, including JWPepper.com, Singers.com (which has primarily a cappella music) or Musicnotes.com. Free arrangements for various songs can be found on the Musescore.org database. If those websites are a dead end, you can also just type “[song title] a cappella sheet music PDF” into the Google search bar and see what comes up.
If you don’t have access to sheet music, or want your multitrack to be entirely your own creation, you can arrange the song yourself. Flat.io, Noteflight.com and Musescore.org (my personal favorite) are all free options for notating your arrangement, which will be helpful when it’s time to learn the parts of the song and record your tracks.
Here are some tips for writing an original arrangement. First, make sure to listen to both the original song and as many a cappella versions as you can find on YouTube. This will give you ideas for back-up parts, what syllables to use and overall style. You can examine the chords of the song — Ultimate-guitar.com has a ginormous collection of chord charts — or look at instrumental sheet music for inspiration.
Before you actually start writing out parts, decide on the tone of your piece. If you want it to be sad, slow and homophonic, there is no need to write in a background part full of “dms” and “dahs”— two classic a cappella syllables. If you’re looking for something upbeat and rhythmic, you’ll have to try your best to imitate the sounds of instruments with your voice.
3. Learn the Music
When working with multiple people, you should assign parts based on people’s vocal ranges and send out your sheet music. Even if all members of your group are well-versed in reading sheet music, it can be a good idea to include a recording of yourself singing through or teaching each part — or organize a Zoom call to practice — to make sure that everyone has similar pronunciation, articulation and dynamics. If you’re making a multitrack on your own, you’ll need to practice all of the parts of the song yourself.
For recording, you’ll need a back-up track to listen to as you sing to ensure that tempo and key remain consistent. If you created sheet music online, you’ll be able to play your arrangement back to you, which makes for a great track to record with. You can also sing along with a YouTube version of the song, or have one person record their part first with a metronome and have everyone else record on top of that.
To ensure the best sound quality, use a microphone to record. However, if you don’t own any fancy recording equipment, that is perfectly OK; Voice Memos on an iPhone works quite well for a beginner-level multitrack. You can listen to the backing track on the computer (with headphones plugged in, of course) and record your voice on your phone.
5. Mix the Audio
There are several platforms you can use to put your multitrack together. GarageBand is a great free option, but you can also try Logic Pro or other audio editing software. For a basic multitrack, simply line up the clips and adjust the volume to your satisfaction. However, there are many other parameters that you can mess around with when editing the tracks, including reverb, pitch correction and EQ.
6. Create Your Video!
The traditional a cappella multitrack features a grid of singers lip-syncing their parts in a grid on the screen. To create this type of video, have everyone film themselves, and put the videos together using a video editing software — good options include Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro. Of course, this form of video is not required; feel free to think outside of the box and edit however your heart desires.
Hopefully, this guide was helpful in getting started on your next musical creation. However, it can be difficult to come up with a unique vision and bring it to life. If you’re looking for some inspiration, YouTube has a staggering amount of amazing a cappella performances.
Pentatonix, one of the greatest a cappella groups of the modern era, is constantly coming out with new, creative pieces. They only have five members, but their pure tone and impressive arrangements give them the sound of a full chorus. Pentatonix usually records together in-person, but recently, they have been coming out with a lot more multitracks, especially with holiday music. Check them out on their YouTube channel, PTXofficial.
Many college a cappella groups have been coming out with fantastic covers recently. The recent UpStaged a cappella competition brought out a lot of high quality content. My favorite multitrack was “Levels” by Doox of Yale, and the in-person video, “Circle of Life” by BYU Vocal Point, deserves a listen.
I know from personal experience that the University of Chicago has some outstanding a cappella groups. Check out “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a recent release from The Ransom Notes, as well as “Hold Your Head Up High,” performed by my very own a cappella group, Unaccompanied Women!
However, multitracks don’t require groups of people. Many solo singers make them independently. Mike Tompkins, whose “Dynamite” cover is one of the videos that got me hooked on a cappella in the first place, has been making multitracks for over ten years.
If you’re looking for gorgeous, dissonant chords, check out Sam Robson, known for his majestic Disney covers. Julian Neel, who goes by A Cappella Trudbol on YouTube, is the king of barbershop quartets. Another personal favorite, Nick McKaig, creates hilarious a cappella theme song covers, including The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Star Wars.
Of course, the groups and people I’ve listed barely scratch the surface of the a cappella multitrack world. Feel free to do your own research and find groups that you really love. Once you become acquainted with the a cappella lifestyle, it will be difficult to listen to anything else.