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Artist Spotlight: CCRMA recording engineer Elena Georgieva M.A. ’19 on working with award-winning Stanford a cappella groups

Natalie Francis interviews Elena Georgieva ahead of the 9th Annual Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards

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A previous headline of this article erroneously indicated that Elena Georgieva received her Masters’ degree during the 2020 school year versus in 2019. The Daily regrets this error.

Many Stanford students have seen the Knoll, the gorgeous mansion nestled between the upper-Row and FloMo that houses the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Few students, however, may be so bold as to venture inside while on campus. But not Elena Georgieva M.A. ’19, a music, science and technology (MST) master’s student turned faculty member who during the normal academic year lives inside the state-of-the-art recording studio. In advance of the 9th Annual Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARA) ceremony on Sunday, I spoke with Georgieva about how her music, technology and a cappella background informs the significance of four Stanford CARA nominees this year. 

Prior to coming to Stanford, Georgieva studied a blend of cognitive and computer science and music at UCLA comparable to the Stanford Symbolic Systems program. Georgieva traces her passion for music back to when she started choir in sixth grade after studying piano since age 6: “I found I was able to express myself better through singing than piano and I loved the community and group aspect.” She credits choir for introducing her to tuning and harmony, as she did not think about it too much when studying the piano. Georgieva continued with choir all through middle and high school, and since she knew she wanted to pursue collegiate a cappella, what groups universities offered played a key role in her college search process. She joined the UCLA community service-oriented a cappella group the YOUTHphonics as a soprano and by the end of her undergrad career learned how to beatbox. 

Georgieva’s first exposure to music-recording occurred her senior year thanks to her roommate, who was involved with another UCLA group that produced an album summarizing the college experience. Georgieva had serendipitously just gotten accepted to the MST program at Stanford, and the two coinciding events inspired her to spend the summer after graduation listening to a cappella recordings. When she arrived on campus, the first class she took was MUSIC 192: “Sound Recording Technology,” which became a touchstone of her experience working as a CCRMA instructor and recording engineer. 

When asked why she initially gravitated toward the recording studio, Georgieva smiled: “I had experience arranging pop songs from a cappella [in college] but when it came to performance, things never sounded the way I thought they would. When I started taking classes at CCRMA, however, I found that things could sound in tune with the vibe I wanted through recording, which is super exciting.”  

After taking the sound-recording class, Georgieva kept gravitating to the recording studio, where by chance she recorded the South Asian a cappella group Raagapella, then the comedy a cappella group Fleet Street and subsequently many others. She auditioned for five Stanford a cappella groups and ultimately joined the all-femme Counterpoint, excited to learn how to beatbox and sing the bass part with the all-femme group as well as be part of one of the oldest a cappella groups on campus. The 2nd year of her Masters, Georgieva TAed the course and as of this year teaches MUSIC 192 as the primary instructor. “All this happened because I am very passionate about recording a cappella and I got to take recording class,” she mused. For all those at Stanford interested in the intersection of music and technology, Georgieva recommends MUSIC 220A: “Fundamentals of Computer-Generated Sound” or Music 101: “Introduction to Creating Electronic Sounds” as good places to start. 

The a cappella recording process Georgieva fell in love with through CCRMA consists of four distinct stages: arranging, recording, fine-tuning, and mixing the tracks. Before coming to CCRMA, a cappella groups decide what songs they want to sing and how to go about arranging the vocal harmonies. Once the group has arranged (and perhaps performed live) its songs, it comes into the studio to record. “For recording, there is a click track that singers listen and sing along to,” Georgieva said. “I record people one at a time as a big part of recording is trying to get the best sound out of each person.” She frequently spends hours on end in the recording studio with a cappella groups, confiding that “the most important and hardest part of [my] job is getting people to give the best performance they can.” 

For a recording engineer, the process of fine-tuning, mixing and mastering the tracks varies in the level of creativity and technicality. Once all the a cappella members have had their individual parts recorded, Georgieva works on the tuning and timing of the tracks to get the ensemble up to an “inhumane” level of technical perfection. The next stage — mixing — is by far the most fun for her because it allows her the most creativity.

“Mixing blends sounds together and is where you can add pop production effects such as enhancing vocal percussion to sound like a live drum kit,” she said. “It is little details like these that make a cappella tracks more competitive for national awards such as CARA.”

Stanford has an amazing tradition of a cappella recording not that many know about, besides individuals like Georgieva who are passionate about a cappella and music production history. The Grammy Award-winning producer Bill Hare pioneered many of his innovative recording techniques on the a cappella groups here.

“For a while in the 1990s, the best a cappella recordings in the country were coming from Stanford. Talent and funding from the university were key to this,” Georgieva recalled, adding that “Stanford has not won very many a cappella awards in the past decade. This year however has been big.” 

The year 2020 may prove historic for the University with not one but four Stanford a cappella nominations for this weekend’s CARA awards. The Harmonics are currently contending for “best mixed album” and “best rock album” with “Signal Lost” (2019) as well as “best rock song” with their cover of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” (2019). Fleet Street has been nominated again for “All-Nighter,” this time in the “Best Humor Song” category. And Counterpoint is seeing their first nomination since 2008 with “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (2019) up for “best country song.” The degree to which Georgieva was involved in the recording process varies across the a cappella groups, with her recording and mixing Counterpoint, recording Fleet Street and advising the mix of the Harmz album. As an alumna, Georgieva feels the greatest pride in Counterpoint, who could foreseeably celebrate their 40th anniversary by winning on the national stage this weekend. 

While the collegiate a cappella consistently provides Georgieva with a sense of community, her work at CCRMA has broadened her musical network to encompass everyone from composition students to indie bands. Georgieva has worked with the Palo Alto-based band Handsome Hound, joined the Laptop Orchestra SLOrk, sound-designed for Ram’s Head Theatrical Society and done live sound at a cappella shows such as Love Sucks, Blacklisted and Encounterpoint. She relates that “Running live sound for a cappella shows requires that I listen to sound real-time, and figuring out what changes to make is definitely more stressful because you only get one shot.” 

While the COVID-19 crisis has unfortunately cancelled Georgieva’s various spring quarter gigs, she along with the rest of the a cappella community will have much to celebrate this weekend when Stanford secures one or more awards at the virtual CARA ceremony. Regardless of how the awards pan out, Georgieva strongly encourages Stanford a cappella groups to keep recording with CCRMA as “it is such a great opportunity!”

Ultimately it is to vibrant engineers like Georgieva, who defy the fuzzy/techie/creative divide, that we owe our ability to enjoy Stanford musical ingenuity whether on campus or elsewhere in the world. 

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Natalie Francis '22 (A&L Desk Editor) is a Classics major still figuring out how to combine her passions for classical civilization, eco-criticism and musical performance. A California native, you will find her jamming out to an eclectic mix of Hadestown, Legally Blonde, Frozen II, Surf's Up, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.