“You know, I was kind of freaking out,” says Pranay Sharma. In between classes and studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Pranay acts as business manager for Penn Masala, “the world’s first and premier South Asian a cappella group.”
So when he was contacted by Deke Sharon, musical director for the film Pitch Perfect, about the group performing in the eagerly awaited sequel, freaking out did ensue.
“Eventually, I got it together, and he explained the process and what he wanted us to do. So we recorded a song for them,” says Pranay. “We worked remotely with them to do that. Then we went down to Baton Rouge for a week and filmed a couple of scenes alongside some very cool groups.”
For Penn Masala, the road to the silver screen stretches back long before Pranay’s time as their business manager. The group started in 1996 in a UPenn dorm room, born out of the dual musical identity that many children of South Asian descent experience. “We’ve grown up listening to American music with friends and Indian music at home. They’re both simultaneously part of our lives,” explains Pranay. “And in college, a lot of the a cappella options were great, but none of them quite captured that. What’s special about us is that we blend the two, and mix Western pop with Bollywood beats. It’s our spin on classic a cappella.”
That unique spin has taken Penn Masala to some amazing places. In just the past few years, they’ve performed for President Obama at the White House, an audience at the Kennedy Center, and a crowd of 20,000 people at the International Indian Film Academy Awards. And over the course of Penn Masala’s life, they’ve recorded eight full-length albums.
Bringing these opportunities to life isn’t just luck, though. Staying organized is critical, especially because Penn Masala’s lineup is constantly in flux as students start school and graduate. As Pranay explains, “People are constantly coming in and out of the group, and having a sense of continuity is so important to us. If things aren’t well organized, they’d fall by the wayside, and it would get very confusing very fast.”
"You constantly see the guys with their phones out, hooked up to Dropbox.”
That’s where Dropbox fits in. Pranay keeps three folders accessible to the group: one for administrative documents, one for marketing, and one for music they’ve recorded. This setup helps him keep the 13 members connected — and prepped for shows. “The guys constantly need to listen to their recordings for rehearsal,” says Pranay. “And the way they do that is by using mobile. So you constantly see them with their phones out, hooked up to Dropbox listening to background parts they’ve recorded earlier to learn them for shows.”
The music folder has even become an integral part of the recording process. Pranay describes how Penn Masala works with their studio engineer: “He takes all the files for a specific song and uploads them to Dropbox. It’s actually enabled us to see the evolution of each song. One song might have ten versions as we’re going through the process of recording it. Dropbox lets us make tweaks as we’re going and understand what’s changed from iteration to iteration.”
“It answers all their questions in one fell swoop, just like that.”
But more than just helping Penn Masala record their own music, it also helps them work with other artists from afar. “We recently did a remote collaboration with really fantastic artist by sending our recordings to her via Dropbox,” says Pranay. “That was how she got our files and sent hers back to us. I don’t actually know how we would have done it without that. She needed our background files to record her lead over, and we needed to hear her lead over the background to mix the entire thing afterward. I thought that was a very cool application of the whole thing.”
Dropbox also helps Pranay when it comes time to book performances. “Promoters typically ask me for a few things when they’re putting on a show: photos, a blurb about the group, some background,” he says. “So I prepared some marketing materials that I immediately share with them. It answers all their questions in one fell swoop, just like that. And it saves me the hassle of having to go through this process with each and every guy. Instead I just send them one link to a Dropbox folder, and show prep is basically done.”
But it’s not all recording sessions and film shoots for the group. The members of Penn Masala are, first and foremost, students. And that means balancing their studies with their music. Luckily, there’s a fourth Dropbox folder the group shares: the academic folder. “We all compile notes and study guides,” says Pranay. “And we keep it in one centralized place so that everyone can draw on it.” So professors and parents, rest assured: on stage and in the classroom, Pranay and the gang are taking care of the important stuff.
To check out Penn Masala’s music, visit pennmasala.com for info, videos, and tour dates, and be sure to follow them on Facebook. And, of course, you can catch them on the big screen in Pitch Perfect 2.