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Face Vocal Band: Giving Rock a Human Voice

Great music transcends genre. The most memorable songs are able to cross over to different styles seamlessly. They’re timeless, because the melodies and lyrics reach people no matter what kind of music they favor. That reality is the root of Face Vocal Band’s success.

The Colorado band has been bringing audiences to their feet for seventeen years, using their uncanny ability to identify rock hits and the masterful talent to turn them into something completely new. When they take the stage, there are no guitars, no drums, no Marshall stacks—just their voices.

“We’re kind of easy, because it’s five guys, with five mics,” says Forest Kelly, the band’s audio editing and post-production engineer, and also the "bassist". His sonorous and crystal-clear voice often holds down the root of the group’s chord structures, while his partner in rhythm Mark Megibow provides a battery of percussion sounds using a rapid-fire beatbox technique that would astonish many drummers.

“Mark was a percussion major at Northwestern, joined Face Vocal Band as a singer, and when we decided to go vocal rock he learned to do beatbox, and now he’s one of the best,” says Stephen Ross, the band’s music director, music arranger, as well as baritone/countertenor.

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There’s a lot more to vocal rock than arranging a time-honored standard into five-part harmony. Stephen’s role involves figuring out exactly how a song like Thunder by Imagine Dragons will translate from its bed of electronic-infused drum patches, pulsing bass, synth pads and vocal samples into a sonic experience that will get grade-school students and their grandmothers on their feet at a summer festival.

This isn’t barbershop. And it isn’t what most people think of as a cappella. It’s vocal rock.

Building the repertoire

Ryan Driver (known as Driver) with his rock-solid tenor voice, is also the band’s tracking engineer, sound editor, and other music arranger. He describes the process of deciding what songs to do. “It’s whatever we have an inspiration to arrange. If there’s a song with built-in harmonies like Meant to Be (by Bebe Rexha with the Florida-Georgia Line), it’s kind of a lay-up for us.”

There really isn’t a science to picking songs.

Stephen Ross, Countertenor

Once the songs are chosen or written, Cody Qualls, the band’s high tenor, will craft the song before taking it into Sibelius. “When I first started to sketch some stuff out on paper, Stephen was adamant. He said ‘Sibelius is where you need to be,’ and he’s the reason we’re a Sibelius band. He’s the guy.”

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Ex: Arrangement of Thunder by Imagine Dragons

Stephen and Driver put Sibelius to work arranging the songs, and the group has even taught workshops about the software and how it fits into their songwriting and arranging process. “We will make some artistic decisions usually early on, like how true are we going to be to the original, or are we doing some interpretation of it.”

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A perfect example is their mashup of Jessie’s Girl and Stacy’s Mom by Rick Springfield and Fountains of Wayne, respectively. The arrangement requires finding the right chord positions, and even vocal sounds like “Gin gin gin gin gin…” to simulate guitar chugging and “Bang bang bang…” as a delay effect. And it has to be performed with five extremely versatile voices. Stephen explains, “We make choices about tempo and key, setting up the soloists for success, because we know our voices pretty well. We notate out four parts in Sibelius, and just let Mark do his thing with drums most often. The chords can only be so rich. We’ll figure out what the melody is doing. If the melody is on the fifth, we don’t overload the fifth in one of the voice parts.”

Usually we have an idea who’s going to sing the solo, before we arrange something, so we make sure the solo is in a good range for that particular person.

Stephen Ross, Countertenor and Music Director

From writing to recording

Stephen describes the process of taking the music from the sketching process to their complete in-home studio. “From Sibelius, we’ll send it out and read it in Scorch on our iPads. And we’ll rehearse it here. Typically we’re rehearsing it for live performance, but sometimes we’re working on a music video for it, and the next step there is to make the Sibelius file sound exactly how we want it.”

Driver adds, “More often than not we start with the live performance arrangements, the five parts, and when we go to record a song months, or even years, down the road, we’ll sit down and flesh that same arrangement back out. Like Stephen said, we’re trying not to overload a certain note in the chord.”

“We’ll just use piano sounds, so we don’t mess with instruments, because it’s so hard to emulate what we’re going to sound like,” Stephen says, discussing the process of bringing the files into Pro Tools to begin recording. “We get it close to what we’re going to do live, and then export it from Sibelius into MIDI, drop the MIDI file into Pro Tools, and use that as our template for key and tempo reference. Then we mute the MIDI tracks out as we fill in the voices.”

Driver oversees the tracking sessions, following the framework of the song laid out in the Pro Tools file. “We’ll track somewhere between 16 and 40 tracks for a song.”

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Forest or Mark, one half of the rhythm section, record first, but there is usually a scratch track of the solo, and we build it from the ground up, usually starting with the bass.

Driver, Tenor and Audio Engineer

“Most drummers already beatbox, when they sing the rhythms before trying them out,” Mark says. He takes a natural approach, using no notated music, but emulating the drums in the song as closely as possible to something he can do live.

Turning tracks into magic

Once everything is recorded, Forest steps out of the booth and into the control room. “Usually when I get the recording from Driver, most everyone has in background parts everyone has two tracks, and the soloist will have a couple of choices for the soloist options. I’ll split it up into quite a bit more sometimes, just to make sure I can do the automation I want to do.”

Last year we recorded Woodstock by Joni Mitchell, also recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and I had 26 tracks just for Mark’s drums. I just wanted to take every sound and just tweak it the way I wanted to.

Forest Kelly, Bass and Audio Editor

You might think that recording vocal rock relies heavily on effects for mimicking the sounds of speaker stacks and guitar distortion, but Face Vocal Band keeps it as natural as possible. “It’s a bit stylistic, because we don’t use a ton of effects, especially live,” says Driver. “There are groups that use a ton of guitar effects and whatnot, to play their voices through, at live shows. We’ve never gone that far. We’re just setting ourselves up for success, stylistically. If there is a song with a lot of effects or guitar solos, we really just translate it for five voices.”

Forest describes some of his go-to effects. “I like the Izotope stuff for the initial EQ and compression because it’s really easy to use. I use Trash for distortion, and the Vocal Synth sounds really cool, to add a layered part that’s almost inaudible, but we can boost the mix a little bit. I use H-Delay and an octave effect called LoAir from Waves. We’ll use LoAir for me sometimes and Mark. It’s almost inaudible but it gives a little octave bump on some of the low stuff.”

I also like Space. It’s my go-to for reverb, because it’s been sampled from places around the world, and some of them are just lush and beautiful, and you can really fine-tune those.

Forest Kelly, Bass and Audio Editor

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Forest’s effects game is really subtle, very natural. Stephen says it is the sound the band is looking for. “A natural sound is an approach that we take. It was trendy a few years ago to make a cappella music sound tuned and heavily effected to a point that it sounds like instruments. We’re still trying to elicit that rock sound, but as humans making the sound. We’re not going to over-process things. It’s a balancing act.”

The band does not rely on tuning effects for their recordings. As Forest states, “We try to track as close to the pitch as possible, and it’s pretty good. It’s just tightening up that last little 20% on some notes, just to get them in there, and we don’t go anywhere near using 100% with auto tune or anything close to it.”

“Driver does the tracking and half of the arranging and he has a vision of the final product,” says Stephen. “When we’re in the booth and we’re singing our part, his standards are so high that we’ll sing the same four measures ten times to get the right vowel, the right placement, the right dynamics, as authentically as close to the final product as possible. Then when they’re producing it, they have to do much less work and it sounds much more human.”

Sharing the music far and wide

Driver and the group have been exceptionally busy over the past seventeen years. “We have eight CDs and one DVD, as well as some singles.”

Stephen adds, “Heathens (by Twenty One Pilots) is a single. Thunder is a single. Parting Glass was released on a single but it’s also on an album. You wouldn’t think so, but the albums do pretty well at our merch table at a show.”

We do Spotify and Apple Music, for about the past three years, but didn’t really take it too seriously until the last year or so. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall, you just don’t know what’s going to work.

Stephen Ross, Countertenor and Music Director

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The band is also building a presence and a reputation online, Stephen says. “We’ve got YouTube videos going back five years, and Facebook. The thing with Facebook music videos with rights and royalties is that it has to be a public domain song. We did The Parting Glass (an 18th century Scottish/Irish ballad) in 2013, and made a music video a few months ago. On our Facebook page it has one and a half million views, and another page called Legendary Vocals picked it up and it was coming up on ten million views. That’s been this crazy viral thing that we never expected to do as well, so it’s this conundrum that we’re this vocal rock band, but the only things that go viral on Facebook are these old-timey folk songs.”

In addition to hitting the high notes, Cody is focused on getting the band into those social media viral whirlwinds, as well as curating their work for the varied sites. “I’m doing most of the social media and getting our recordings online. Our fans are such supporters and people like seeing Face winning and they like seeing what’s coming up.”

If we’re doing pre-recorded stuff for social media, we use Pro Tools to edit the audio for all of our Facebook and YouTube videos where we’re singing.

Cody Qualls, High Tenor and Music Arranger

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The talent it takes to translate rock into five-part vocal is completely transferable to original work. Cody describes the process of writing using Sibelius and Pro Tools. “The way that I’ve used these in the past is to create starter ideas and communicate sketches of songs. The last album we released was completely done in Pro Tools. It set Red Rock’s sales records. And the title track of that was an original song. As one of the writers—a lot of the guys write, actually—it really is really thrilling to see that.”

Taking it to the stage

Over the years the band has evolved to the style of music they focus on now, Stephen explains, “We were a little more risqué when the band was starting, but we try to be family-friendly. We have a lot of families with young kids coming to our shows, and we do a lot of outdoor summer concert series. We do a lot of outreach for music education and high school choir programs. Because we do a lot of summer shows, we’ve discovered that slow, pretty songs don’t work well outdoors. People check out, so we try to keep it upbeat, and we try to have two or three modern songs off the radio in the last year or two, especially in our summer set.”

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In live performance, the band doesn’t require much, Forest states. “Most of the time, we’re kind of easy, because it’s five guys, we have five mics. We sometimes use seven mics because Driver and Stephen will sometimes slip out and do bass or percussion. They go into a Midas DL16 16x8 box. Ryan Gharahee, our dedicated sound engineer, comes to every show and mixes on a Midas M32 rack with an iPad. Then we send out to whatever the house has.”

In the spirit of versatility, Forest provides more detail on their gear. “We also have a Mackie system for some of the smaller shows if they don’t have a sound system, or if we think it’ll work with our stuff. Maybe 60-70% of the time we’re using the house system or we’ve having the venue rent something for us, and that can be something like 2 to 6 boxes per side in a line array and something like four to eight 18” subwoofers. And we don‘t use any kind of wedges so everything’s in-ear. And the M32 lets you send a few mixes out so we do that as well. And it’s not studio magic or trickery or anything like that but Ryan also sends us a click where he hits play and it’ll count off. The audience never hears that, it’s so that we can stay in tune with each other. We’re pretty good at that but every now and then it helps to have that”

We get in our ears, it’s me recorded, I say ‘One, two, ready, go’ and we have the chord behind it, so what the audience perceives is just a seamless transition.

Stephen Ross, Countertenor and Music Director

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Stephen adds, “It’s a pretty hi-energy dynamic show, we’re dancing around, there’s movement and choreography so it helps us stay together.”

“For live effects, basically it’s five guys with a little reverb, and depending on the space, Brian will add some delays on certain things,” Forest says, describing the band’s focus on a natural sound on stage. “Sometimes we add the sub-octave but not as much anymore. The percussion mics use a different EQ setting, and it’s a different capsule. We sing into a Shure ULXD system, and most of us sing with a KSM9 capsule, but Mark uses a Beta-58 capsule, and so when these guys are doing their beatbox, they also use a Beta 58 on that other setting. The big diaphragm has that proximity effect.”

“It’s also more durable. Because I break microphones,” adds Mark. As you might imagine, beatboxing is tough on a mic. “For beatboxing you need a hammer.”

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Tomorrow, the world

Face Vocal Band has a lot of shows coming up, and as they continue to headline festivals and perform as direct support for artists like Jon Bon Jovi, Manhattan Transfer, and Barenaked Ladies. Cody states that when the group is performing, people sometimes confuse their show with other types of a cappella acts. “People are familiar with a cover group that has iPads up on stage with 200 songs, so they come up and say, ‘Hey, do you have this or that?’ But for us to really get a song really tight on stage from arranged to finished, that’s about a six-week process so that it’s super-tight.”

Forest adds, “Our demographic is pretty large for our live shows, especially in the summertime. We see little kids dancing in the front row, to people in their 80s. They’re getting into songs they wouldn’t normally play on the radio but somehow the accessibility of a cappella, it’s like ‘I like this now,’ because it’s not as loud, maybe or as crunchy or whatever.”

“It’s the human voice,” adds Driver.

“Yeah. Metallica becomes permeable and your grandma can access it,” Cody says. The band has been together now for long enough that they anticipate each other’s responses as if in choreographed performance.

When describing the astonishing list of upcoming productions and shows (not all yet to be shared), they trade lines like you might expect skilled musicians would.

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Sometimes the songs are dictated by what’s coming up,” Forest says. “Right now we’re in the run of this 80s show coming together, and we added a few new songs. One is a hair band jam, it’s got all the artists like…”

“AC/DC, Def Leppard…” answers Driver.

Call Me by Blondie is on the Big Time CD,” states Stephen. “Don’t You Forget About Me, Here I Go Again, Safety Dance. People will have a good time, we have costume changes and ridiculous dance moves. A-Ha is in one of the medleys… Michael Jackson.”

“Yeah, all the ones you’d know,” Forest adds. “We’ve been working on that really hard for a couple of months, and we’re about to pivot to Christmas music…”

Stephen says, “Because it’s already Christmas now, it’s crazy.” Like any business, Face Vocal Band has to think pretty far ahead.

Christmas is such a big part of our year, so we start that in August now. Our Christmas season is absolutely huge. We have a lot of live shows there.

Cody Qualls, High Tenor and Music Arranger

Forest continues, “Yeah, and as soon as we’re learning the Christmas music, we’ll pivot to something we have coming next spring, so there’ll be some songs we’ll need to maybe learn from scratch or learn a new way, so a lot of our schedule dictates what songs come in.”

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The band has been around the world, and in the coming months, there will be a lot more of that as well. Cody lays out the group’s travels. “We made our first international tour in 2013, and on that tour we went to Iceland, Scotland, London, Paris, Sweden. Sweden has kind of become our home in Europe, and we’re going to Sweden again next year and possibly the UK. We’ve also been to Australia, and just in the United States, we made our New York City debut. We’ve been to LA a couple times, Indianapolis a couple times, we’ve been to Nashville, Asheville, New Orleans.”

Mark adds, “And that’s just this past year.”

“It’s been ramped up a little bit. We get some different states.”

“He forgot Luxembourg,” says Mark.

Cody nods. “That’s right, Luxembourg.”

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A lot closer than Luxembourg, Face Vocal Band will perform at the Denver Broncos halftime show on Sunday, October 14. The theme of the event is “Fight Like a Bronco” to raise cancer awareness and honor survivors, performing songs by Garth Brooks and Justin Timberlake.

Here’s Face Vocal Band performing Hallelujah & The Secret Door by Leonard Cohen, Arrangement by Ryan Driver:

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