I don't know you, Charlie, but thanks for starting this discusssion.
Let me begin by saying that I am a die-hard Rockapella fan. I had organized the "group of 30" people Scott Leonard mentioned from the stage when they sang "Don't Tell Me You Do" as a request...one of their best songs ever. But I digress.
In terms of most of the contemporary a cappella groups I have heard in concert, I agree with you up to a point. Too many are just simply too loud, trying perhaps to dazzle the audience with volume to distract from out-of-tune notes and chords that don't lock in. And mixing and eq, I agree, are always touchy subjects; too much of this, not enough of that, etc. Throw in the controversy over electronic effects such as the octave pedal and you could keep a roomful of singers up half the night arguing about what "pure" a cappella really is.
Interestingly, however, I've seen Rockapella now about 4 or 5 times and, while they aren't completely free of the sins you mention, they are among the least offenders; Toxic Audio is another, tho as good as they are they certainly don't need to be so freaking loud.
MY ongoing quibble is with Rockapella's Scott Leonard...and it may address part of your issue with making out the treble voices...in this case, Scott's. This amazing tenor front man is almost superhumanly smooth...often TOO smooth, I'm afraid. Rockapella's lyrics are almost as good as their singing, but I do wish Scott would chew his words a lot better so we could understand them better. At times he is so indistinct, he almost sounds like a half human, half musical instrument: sounds fabulous but the text is often obliterated.
On another topic, SO GLAD you mentioned the special needs child! I knew the non-mic'd part of the show was coming and was looking forward to it. I was sitting not far from the boy and, perhaps like others, cringed a bit when he cried out, "marring" the performance. But then the moment, as you suggested, turned sublime when Scott several times looked at him and, from where I sat, appeared to sing TO him. Suddenly it was like being in church, in the best sense...you could have heard a pin drop...and, at the risk of going too metaphysical, you did indeed feel the healing power of a cappella!
Let's hear from more of you who were there...
On Sat. Oct 18th Rockapella performed at the Music Hall in Portsmouth NH. The had a great un-microphoned piece at the front of the stage's apron. Nice balance, nice tight arrangement. Unfortunately the rest of the night was pretty much a total disappointment. The sound tech had the bass "George Baldi" and the vocal percussionist "Jeff Thatcher" on microphones that were turned up way way too loud and with an imbalance in each singers treble-bass balance. Totally over bassed equalization to the point were it sounded like a bad synthesizer thick fog of droning sound. Couldn't hear any vowels from George, now color, style, finesse, just an over-amplified rumble of tonal droning. It created an electronic monster. Enormous distortion of any note George sang below an E. It drowned out the 3 tenors, Elliot, Scott, and Keven. What a bummer. Only during those times when neither the bass or vocal percussionist sang was the sound representative of the human voice.
We need to make sure our sound techs don't make us sound non-human. They ought to go into the audience a with a meter and listen with their own ears without a headset. And make sure the amplification is representative of the beauty of the a cappella close harmony sound we all strive to create. Not a bass amped monster.
A special moment:
A young man most of us with school aged children know, who has special needs was in the front row in his wheelchair. During Rockapella's un-microphoned song, the best sound of the night, with the hall quiet and attentive, the young man moaned and groaned in response to this quieter more beautiful singing. Scott was singing solo and when this sound started emanating from this special needs boy, Scott turned and with appreciation of this boy's own way of applauding, Scott bowed, was appreciative, thankful, honoring, and treated this special boy with dignity. This was CLASS. It really made an impression to the other kids in the hall. The young man was so moved by this gesture of recognition and acceptance. He knows he sounds different and many are uncomfortable with what he is capable of, most people put up with and accept his imitations but he never expected to be treated with honor.! Scott made us proud to be a cappella singers.