No Instruments? For Pentatonix, It's No Problem

Nov 6, 2013
Originally published on March 18, 2014 3:40 pm

They start with a beat, then add in the bass. After layering the harmony on top of background vocals, the solo shines on top — you wouldn't even know there weren't instruments being played. Named for the pentatonic scales, Pentatonix is a five-person singing group that formed to compete in the NBC a cappella competition show The Sing-Off. Three of its members were friends from high school, but the full group met for the first time just hours before the show to rehearse. Pentatonix ended up winning the competition, as well as the record deal that came with it.

The group members are about to release their new album, PTX Vol. 2, which features original songs. The singers say they hope the record will present their craft in a different light.

"We try to do it in a way where you don't think of it as vocal music; you just think of it as music — as just a song that you're listening to and you don't miss anything," says bass vocalist Avi Kaplan. "We're just a band, and we just happen to use our voices."

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Our Steve Inskeep has been listening to a group that stretches the possibilities of the human voice.



It's a group that sings a capella.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two. One, two, three.

PENTATONIX: (Singing) Paste the (unintelligible) on my thumb. Novocain to make me numb.

INSKEEP: Pentatonix is a five-person group and they can carry off a song without instruments. But the amazing thing about them is that you can hear them without quite realizing that there are no instruments.


PENTATONIX: (Singing) One more time.

INSKEEP: We're hearing their version of hits by the pop group Daft Punk from the new Pentatonix album "PTX Vol. 2."


PENTATONIX: (Singing) Like the legend of the phoenix, yeah, our ends (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: So how do you put together a sound like that with nothing but five voices? You start with bassist Avi Kaplan.


INSKEEP: You add beats by Kevin Olusola.

KEVIN OLUSOLA: The kick, (makes noise). The snare (makes noise). Highhats (makes noise) You put them together you get a beat (makes noise).

INSKEEP: Remember, this is all just voices. Mix in soprano alto Kirstie Maldonado.


INSKEEP: Tenor, Mitch Grassi.


INSKEEP: And baritone Scott Hoying.


INSKEEP: And now let's hear them put it all together.

AVI KAPLAN: So we start the beatbox. (Unintelligible) to this part.


KAPLAN: And then we had the backup parts.


KAPLAN: Then we add a harmony.


KAPLAN: And then comes the solo.

PENTATONIX: (Singing) You don't know why. You don't know how. You don't know when the love came.

INSKEEP: Pentatonix formed to compete in the NBC a capella competition show, "The Sing-off." Three members of the group were friends from high school, but the full group met and rehearsed for the first time just hours before the show. They won and started a recording career.


PENTATONIX: (Singing) My heart was blowing in the hurricane. My heart was blowing in your love, in your love.

KAPLAN: We try to do it in a way where you don't think of it as vocal music. You just think of it as music.

INSKEEP: Avi Kaplan and other members of the bank know they're riding a wave of interest in a capella driven by shows like "Glee" and the movie "Pitch Perfect." Scott Hoying says their ambition now is to make a capella more than a novelty.

SCOTT HOYING: It's definitely become more relevant, which is exciting, and that's what we're going for and we're trying to push it even further, like to where it can win Grammy's to where it can be on the radio 'cause we think it has the potential to do that and it just - I needs someone that believes in it enough to take it there.

PENTATONIX: (Singing) I am at a loss for words. Can't believe I let you pull me down today. You stole my heart and soul...

INSKEEP: That's Pentatonix. Their new album, "PTX Vol. 2," is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.