Some may consider a cappella nothing more than a joke of modern popular culture, but the practice of singing without instrumental backup has become more popular than ever, with fans swarming toward unique versions of hit songs. The number of college a cappella groups — always an incubator for this genre — is skyrocketing nationally.
“I understand why people make fun of it,” said Mickey Rapkin, author of the book “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory,” in a recent interview. “It’s a group of guys sitting around singing Justin Timberlake songs without instruments. But there’s revenge. They’re laughing too, but they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”
Boston is home to several college and semiprofessional groups, including Overboard, which consists of eight men living out the dream of rock stars, complete with gigs, fans and recording albums, when they’re not at their full-time jobs.
But don’t compare this contemporary a cappella group and others like it to those glee clubs your grandparents knew, with four people standing around a microphone singing barbershop tunes, or the Tone Rangers full of sexually ambiguous men.
The men of Overboard, who range in age from 23 to 31 and balance their regular lives with their singing commitments, take the hits of artists like John Mayer, All American Rejects, Rob Thomas and Fall Out Boy and recreate the original songs’ rhythm and feel using just the sound of their voices.
“The thing I really like about a cappella is that you don’t need any equipment to do it,” said 29-year-old Nick Girard, who founded Overboard in the summer of 2006. “I don’t like to use the word organic, but it’s really such an easy, spontaneous thing to do.”
Arranging a cappella, however, is no longer as simple as gathering individuals to sing a song. Not all songs are compatible with the style of a cappella, and writing the score or rote memorizing the compilation can take days for some groups.
Girard said a song with a strong chord-based foundation lends itself to a cappella better than a song with the guitar and bass playing repetitive and similar notes.
When he arranges a song for a cappella, Girard said, he generally starts by concentrating on the bass and then bringing in the sounds of the other instruments, like the guitar or piano.
“You have to figure how many people are in your group and how many notes you need to represent to make your song sound like the real thing,” he said.
The common sounds used in a cappella to mimic the rhythms of background music include “ooh”s for softer sounds, and “ah”s “dum”s, “do”s and “jen”s for hard sounds.
But why bother making the human voice sound like an instrument when computer technology can manipulate sounds and certain instruments can modernize even the most classic works of music? Is a cappella even relevant today?
“The point is to entertain other people and to entertain yourself,” Rapkin said. “Why would technology keep people from singing together? You don’t need to set up; you just need your friends.”
Old school a cappella was primarily based on barbershop quartets singing jazz, but in the 1990s, the all-male group Rockapella seemed to reinvent the art form, channeling the theme that all sounds would be provided by the members’ “voices and appendages.”
Today’s groups incorporate contemporary music into their repertoires and make each performance “an exercise in how…close the human voice can come to real instrumental music,” Gerard said.
“It definitely has a certain charm to it, and it’s always well-received no matter who we sing to,” he added. “Turning popular music and being able to perform it the way we do is an interesting novelty that a lot of people haven’t seen. And there is a lot of money to be had. It’s family friendly and extremely portable.”