Pentatonix – PTX – Pitch-Perfect in Every Way
by Mark Mussari
An eargasm. There’s no other way to describe the experience of hearing the five-member a cappella group Pentatonix sing live.
Intricate harmonies buzz in a way not heard since the Manhattan Transfer’s heyday. The band moves deftly among dubstep, ballads, hip-hop — even a cover of Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack” (a song first recorded in 1960 as an a cappella demo).
The aural experience of seeing Pentatonix live is exhilarating. The crowd is surprisingly mixed: anyone who thinks the group’s fans would be all teenagers is in for a huge surprise. People of all ages are obviously enthralled by the group’s vocal calisthenics. Singing never had it so good.
Indeed, the heart of Pentatonix is the tight harmony and syncopation among its five members: Mitch Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Olusola. Hoying adds an angular sound, especially when singing leads, while Grassi’s soaring tenor and Maldonado’s warm alto easily shift positions.
“Kirstie and I have similar ranges and our timbre is also very similar,” explains Grassi. “We can weave in and out of harmonies.”
Kaplan, the bass and a crowd favorite, adds a deep, rich, almost synthetic sounding bottom. The secret weapon in all these polyphonics is beatboxing Kevin Olusola, who will make you forget there are no instruments present.
And then there is the sheer musicianship. Grassi, Hoying, and Maldonado were choir nerds who met in high school in Arlington, Texas.
“A lot of us are trained,” notes Grassi. “We all did choir. Scott’s trained in pop music, and Kirstie and I did a lot of musical theater. Avi was classically trained in opera.”
Olusola is also trained in cello, which he brings out and plays at one point while simultaneously beatboxing — or “celloboxing” as it has been dubbed — and it brings down the house.
The full band formed when Hoying met Kaplan and discovered the depth of his range. The original trio then also found Olusola, a Yale grad, on YouTube — a prescient move, as YouTube would become pivotal to the group’s eventual success. Today, their own YouTube channel boasts more than five million subscribers.
First, the band established itself in 2011 by winning The Sing-Off, a television competition for a cappella groups. With only five members, the band seemed like a long shot against the multi-member college groups at the season’s start. Yet, their infectious sound, vibrant personalities, and inventive arrangements quickly won over both the judges and the audience. By mid-season, their win seemed inevitable.
Grassi observes some changes in their sound since then. “I remember our arrangements on The Sing-Off being a little more screamy and high,” he recalls. “We’ve kind of reined it in a bit. It wears on our voices, and we don’t want to be just a group that can only belt their faces off.”