HomeBlogsadune55's blogRobert Dietz: "Sing-Off" Arranging Tricks Of The Trade

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Whenever I talk to people about The Sing-Off who are in the know about a cappella, one question invariably arises: “so how much of the arranging does the music team actually do?” The answer is more complicated than you might think!

Often when we think of “arranging” a cappella, we immediately think of a sheet music, paper arrangement – something that’s carefully crafted, or at the very least a strong blueprint for a performance. Often this blueprint reflects a single arranger’s vision and taste, and sometimes it may only be modified slightly from concept to stage.  On The Sing-Off, with so many groups to prepare and so many factors to consider, it’s very rarely that straightforward.

Arranging for the show is at its core a collaborative process. The team collaborates with the groups to figure out what works best on the fly, and we collaborate with each other when someone gets stuck or needs an outside opinion to keep the creative juices flowing (I’m a fan of The Newsroom on HBO, and this season I took to asking the other guys to “red team” things for me; to come in with a pair of fresh ears for feedback).

So, you may be wondering, what does this actually look like in practice? Well, I thought it might be fun to give the curious a little peek behind the curtain of episode 1. Without further ado:

Element - "Burn"

Element was a fairly young group when they first came to us, so our first challenge was simply crafting the group sound together! "Burn" was tricky, and it went through a few iterations before we got it right.

Round one was a written arrangement that (coach/arranger) Ben Bram and I did together. We hadn't worked with the group in person yet, and once we were all together we realized that the end result was a little too busy. We had a lot of bell tones and layers, and it was clear that we needed to strip it down and take it in a different direction.

The answer came around 1am just a few days before the first stage rehearsal. Hopped up on chocolate chip cookies, we were in the midst of one of many late-night discussions about other groups to look to for inspiration. One name that kept surfacing was Sweet Honey In The Rock

That sweet, soulful sound was intriguing to everyone, but we weren't quite sure how it might apply it to this particular song. The electronic textures of the original didn’t immediately seem to scream for a deep, melodious interpretation. In a great moment of brainstorming, Deke came up with the idea for the low chugging "burn" part that opens the song. Once we had that, everything else fell into place. We stripped down the original paper arrangement to its most soulful elements (no pun intended), keeping the “hnn ahs” and chorus “woahs” from our very first, paper attempt. Emily B and Emily G put their own spin on the lead, and the rest is history!

AcoUstiKats – Blurred Lines

The Kats came in with this one pretty fully formed, so all we had to do was add a bit of development to the arrangement. Those familiar with the original Blurred Lines (which at this point has got to be anyone within earshot of a working radio) knows that there’s not a lot going on there in terms of musical evolution through the song. We needed something a little more dynamic to stand up on screen.

One thing we discovered with this group early on is that trios were paramount. The Kats have a strong background in choral music, and they know how to blend with the best of them. Three-part texture was key in making that blend ring, and there were a lot of different combinations of voices within the group that really worked well together. You can hear in this arrangement two distinct trios – the rhythm pad that goes through the whole tune (opening from “ooh” to “oh” to “ah” – part of how we got the development), and the top harmonies that punctuate with “heys” and “good girl” trios.  

Once the texture was in place, the only thing missing was a big energy moment to propel into the last chorus of the tune. We knew we had Ron’s crazy falsetto to work with so we came up with a halftime breakdown that would culminate in him blasting out the high tonic. A few choreo hip thrusts later, we had the final version.

Robert Dietz is a Vocal Arranger and Coach on The Sing-Off

Questions posed by Evan Feist