HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogBuilding Battles: Behind the Ultimate Sing Off

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The triumphant return of The Sing-Off to NBC is worthy of something special, so when the new showrunner Jane Mun (from Mark Burnett Productions) asked if we could find a way to have a battle round at the end of each show, I said "absolutely!" Even though, on paper, there are a hundred ways it could go wrong, and only a few ways it could go right.

I know much has been written and discussed about the potential for a real life "riff-off" between two a cappella groups, but in reality it's far more difficult. First of all, nothing can be improvised; much as I know how much fun it is to make up an arrangement on the spot (and do it on stage with the House Jacks), we cannot cross our fingers and hope a group will be brilliant under the pressure of 3 judges, 15 cameras, and millions of viewers. Rehearsal is needed.

The song needs to be set in advance (and legally cleared - a requirement for all non-live broadcast television), and it needs to be a song that works lyrically (something that fits the idea of a battle). Next, we need to cut down the full length song into a roughly 2 minute segment, and put it in a key that will work for both male and female lead vocalists. Plus, we need to speed it up a bit, since a cappella usually benefits from a small tempo bump (or, to be more precise, when a song is sung without instruments it often sounds like it's slower than the original when it's at the same speed).

Problem solved? Hardly. Next we need to have each group prepare their own compelling two minute version of the song and rehearse it well, as they'll be required to both drop out and start back up several times throughout the song, right where the other group drops out. Lest that seem rather easy to you instrumentalists out there, remember that an a cappella group is more likely to shift in pitch and tempo than perhaps any instrumental ensemble, especially when performing, moving, and under the stress of a do-or-die moment in a reality show where they have one chance, no do-overs, and the loser goes home.

We chose the song "Bye Bye Bye" as our first battle as the lyrics were perfect, it didn't take much of a key change or tempo shift to get it in a sweet spot for everyone, and the song would lend itself well to many different stylistic interpretations, which we most certainly got. Home Free gave us a hilarious quick double-time country version, Calle Sol took us to the Caribbean, Ten brought a cool gospel groove, and so on. However, with 10 groups in the first show and no idea which two would end up in the bottom, we had to rehearse different pairings, giving groups an opportunity to experience what it would be like on show night.

On show night, as soon as the bottom two were announced on stage, we took as short break, and I'd assign which sections each group would be singing (who would go first, where the song would swap back and forth, and if they'd be singing together at any point, usually the end). And in case you're wondering, yes, we would run it once or twice to make sure it wouldn't fall apart - but not in front of the judges, so their final decision would not be altered in any way. The groups did it just once for our judges - that's the one you see on television, and that's the one that counts.

I don't want to bore you with too many details, nor give away too many twists about upcoming episodes, but suffice it to say the battles (technically the "ultimate sing off"s, but we just called 'em battles) proved to be a big success and provide some of the best moments we've ever had on the show.

Perhaps this concept will find its way into live stage performances or competitions. It's certainly a very exciting experience, both for the group and for the audience. Two bands could never create such a compelling battle, as they're not able to shift styles and sounds as easily; vocalists can jump from Gregorian chant to classic rock to hip hop in a second, whereas a band would need everything from a string orchestra to electric guitars and a pair of turntables to create the same effect. Plus, the energy that singers can create when everything is just them - their voices, their faces, their bodies - is uniquely compelling.

Stay tuned, there's plenty more to come.


Deke Sharon founded CASA (and other stuff), makes TV shows ("The Sing-Off"), movies ("Pitch Perfect"), sings (The House Jacks), produces albums (Straight No Chaser, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, Nota, Bubs), wrote a book (A Cappella Arranging), publishes sheet music (Hal Leonard), and custom arranges music (over 2,000 songs). You can find him at www.dekesharon.com