Playing With Your Voice
all the singer needs to know, part 2!
FOLLOWING UP LAST MONTH'S ULTRA VOX FEATURE, STEVE XERRI EXAMINES A FEW MORE TECHNIQUES AND TRICKS THAT WILL ENHANCE YOUR VOCAL PERFORMANCE.
SO YOU'VE BEEN practising hard, following all of last month's advice on how to improve your breathing, your resonance and your projection. You approach the microphone with the laid-back posture of a latterday Frank Sinatra, produce long strong notes with the lung-power of Meatloaf, and arrive at the end of your song still looking as fresh and cool as Annie Lennox. So far, so good: you've obviously found your voice and got it working for you. This is no mean achievement in itself, because even the most naturally sweet-voiced of us still have to learn how to use the instrument to its best advantage - so give yourself a gold star for firm and reliable basic singing which will get your material across to your audience without straining the life out of your throat.
But is that really good enough? Doesn't your brilliant songwriting deserve as professional a performance as you can give it? I'm not suggesting that you should charge off straight away to an expensive 24-track studio to reap the benefits of all the latest recording technology; I'm saying that there is yet more work to be done before you consider such a step. (See, I told you a singer's life is not all glamour.)
Sophistication is a bit of a dirty word in most pop contexts, conjuring up an image of glitzy Las Vegas performers who are all sequins and no heart. But adding a certain degree of sophistication to your vocal performances (and no, this does not mean singing in an American accent) can make all the difference between sounding simply competent and rather special.
To see what I'm driving at, make a Walkman tape of your next rehearsal or, better still, get someone to bootleg your next gig; if you can record the PA mix straight off the desk, so much the better, because it will probably emphasise the vocals. Now listen hard to your singing from the point of view of style. Be utterly honest with yourself: though you're working powerfully, pushing out those notes and making them all count, isn't the vocal just the teeniest bit dull? Why should that be? Well, the likeliest explanation is that, in all your quite proper concern with the mechanics of singing - will you hit the note? Will your breath give out? - you may have neglected the performance aspect. The result, to return to our metaphorical treatment of the voice as just another instrument, is akin to the effect you hear when a guitarist has reached the stage of being able to pluck complex melodies at quite impressive speed but has not relaxed into that ability and plays like a human metronome.
What is lost, in short, is the sense that there is some creative feeling going into the performance: and a vocal that sounds passionless and flat will arouse no corresponding emotion in the listener - unless you make that very flatness so much a part of your act that it takes on an appeal of its own. (Gary Numan could be said to have capitalised on the impression of numbness that comes across from his singing, but perhaps one Gary is enough.) Now, there is a deadly misconception concerning this business of singing with feeling, namely that you can't communicate something unless you are actually experiencing it. Ludicrous! If that were the case, however could a singer switch from a sunny love-song to a desolate blues in one set without suffering some sort of terminal emotional confusion?
Another often-aired fallacy is the idea that simply having an emotion is enough to put it over. But you can feel as chirpy or as pissed off as you like, and unless you find suitable techniques to express those emotions in your singing, no-one else will be any the wiser. Guitarists who wish to introduce some variety of mood into things do so not by trying to call up particular feelings in their heads, but by experimenting with the settings of the guitar and amp, treating the sound electronically, and hitting the strings in different ways - a bright and bouncy open-stringed treatment tending to sound more "up" than a softly-fingered one, for example. There are, similarly, a multitude of variations that a singer can make use of - indeed must make use of - if all the intended drama of a song is not to be flattened out.
The first of these is very obvious, but often forgotten - changing the volume at which you deliver. Simply belting everything out on one level tends to become wearing (it's useful for conveying punk's relentless anger, I suppose, but little else). Anger, ecstasy, or any emotion will come across all the more vividly for a little contrast with calmer moods, so save your loud climaxes for those points in the song where they are appropriate (that section of the lyric you want most to stress, for example). It is common for pop songs to start softly and gradually crank up the intensity; a good example of this is Simple Minds' 'Belast Child' - note how Jim Kerr achieves maximum impact by ensuring that the vocal follows the dynamic of the other instruments.
It is also a good idea to save your most raucous songs for later in the set - this will not only leave your audience on a high, it will also allow you to warm your voice up for that rousing finale.
Further expression will be lent to your material if you vary the tone in which you sing. Think how differently the same sentence sounds in spoken conversation according to whether it is breathed timidly, lisped seductively, or hollered furiously. Listen out for how often recording artists include such pointers in their vocals, knowing that their lyrics will make infinitely more sense to their listeners if they treat the words as something like a script to act out with the voice. Be prepared to sigh like Kate Bush, mumble like Nick Cave, or spit words out like John Lydon, as your material demands.
Another feature which helps to enliven a vocal is vibrato, that gentle wobble in the voice which many singers use, especially towards the end of a longer note. It has the great advantage of sounding warm and human (it's conspicuous by its absence from many digital 'voice' samples), and can turn an expressionless line into a wonderful controlled sob. Some voices seem to possess the knack from the outset, but if yours comes out dead straight, you can train the effect in - I know, because I've done it.
You begin by increasing and lowering the volume of a long note, slowly and exaggeratedly at first in order to feel the slight push in your larynx. Work at controlling the volume change and try to reduce it to as subtle a shift as you can manage. Next, unless you really want to sound like one of the Bee Gees, speed up the rate of the wobble. And that's it!
It goes without saying that these techniques should not be overdone: sticking to one kind of delivery might be boring, but ladling on too many changes of expression will kill your material dead and make you sound like some kind of hammy comedian. Even that wily old comedian David Bowie restricts himself to one vocal manner per song, and he is careful to tailor his tone to the sense of what he's singing - witness the blankness of "I Can't Read" in contrast to the rougher treatment of Lennon's "Working Class Hero" on the recent Tin Machine album. Striking your own balance between deadpan and dramatic will come with practice, and in the meantime you can doubtless rely on your fellow group members to tell you when you're going OTT.
Using the techniques judiciously, though, will help even a rather anonymous voice turn in a performance to be proud of, and you needn't stop there. Work on your phrasing, the way in which you string the syllables of a lyric across the available notes of the melody, so that you don't always distribute them one to one. Aim to pack the words in for an effect of urgency or let them stretch out when you want your song to come off the boil: note the vocal interest generated by Neneh Cherry's switches from staccato rap to more fluent singing on her recent "Manchild" hit.
It doesn't take very long before learner guitarists try to enlarge the range of noises they play beyond simple plectrum-twanging, by scraping the strings, using feedback, even bashing the body of the guitar. You, too, should think of going beyond straightforward singing - use your instrument in as many extra ways as you can. Neil Tennant has employed the half-spoken vocal to great effect of late ("Left To My Own Devices" being a prime example), but he doesn't have the copyright so why not try some talking when the occasion allows? You can also whisper, scream, or adopt falsetto in order to enrich your performance, and singers have always sprinkled in all kinds of spontaneous-sounding vocal bits and pieces, from Little Richard's whoops to Killing Joke's flanged cough at the start of "Wardance".
None of this, of course, is an invitation to forget basic technique - if Black Francis of the Pixies were to do his famous raw screaming night after night without good breathing and a warmed-up throat, his vocal chords would pretty soon resemble a shredded old vest. Not nice.
Did your ears prick up a few sentences back when I mentioned the flanged cough? What about using effects on the voice, then, as a further steal from the other instruments in the band? There is scarcely any vocal on records these days which doesn't use at least a drop of reverb and maybe a touch of echo to lend gloss to the voice, so doing the same to your own recordings can give an instant professional effect, similar to the difference you get when you type up a handwritten letter. But while I'm strongly in favour of experimentation, let me add a few words of caution.
Firstly, effects are no substitute for technique; they can't disguise shoddy singing in the long run, any more than a distortion pedal can hide feeble guitar work. This is especially true in view of the fact that constant use of any effect becomes tedious to the listener. There are some forms of music - New Country, for example - where you would be ill-advised to do anything to compromise the natural sound of the voice, but if you use effects with a little discretion, all kinds of magic are possible. Reverb will tend to float your voice (best example, the Cocteaus), rapid light flange will scoop it out (check "Don't Be Cruel" by Bobby Brown). Even the fuzzbox has its place, giving an aggressive ragged sound (Big Black, Jesus Jones).
In the studio, your demos may benefit from a bit of help from all this electronic stuff, but don't get carried away with putting on every effect in the building. You've got to live with the result for a long time and you might come to miss your poor voice, buried under a load of repeats and distortion. Overdoing the amount of effect in relation to the original signal can also sound horrible: stray too far from the unadorned sound of the voice and you'll end up sounding like a Dalek (and that means boring, not shocking to the over-fives in your audience).
Playing live, you can get a lot of mileage from effects, but as they will be added via the send-and-return circuits of the mixing-desk, make absolutely sure you specify (in writing, on the set-list that you give to the person mixing) which one is to be used in which song, and that the precise settings are worked out at the sound check. Given that the room you are playing in will have its own characteristic ambience, it is generally unnecessary to use any artificial reverb live: if you do, you'll run the risk of muddying your sound.
Loss of clarity, after all your careful preparation, is perhaps the singer's greatest bugbear. The biggest single cause of this is a band's competitive attitude towards volume. As I began by saying last month, the voice is (whether you like it or not) the prime focus for most pop listeners and it is daft to ignore that. Of course every member of the band wants to be heard, but you will sound more like a proper unit that cares about its song arrangement if you don't insist on having each instrument turned up to full volume, creating an aural soup in which no particular element stands out clearly. As a singer, it is in your interest to make sure that you perform at a level of volume where you aren't having to shout to make yourself heard: that way, the hard-earned subtleties of your singing won't get lost and you won't be overdriving the dear old throat. Have the other instruments set their volume accordingly, and take a group decision to stop the pocket money of anyone who sneaks up the decibels afterwards. It is worth acquiring this procedure as a habit for weekly band-rehearsals, too.
Finally, you should take maximum advantage of the EQ facilities offered by the desk for both live and studio work. No two voices are exactly the same in terms of the frequencies they put out, so take a little time to hear what is gained and what lost when you change the tone settings while you sing. In general, tweaking up the upper middle range will add a bit of punch, but you should follow the profile of your own voice, aiming to boost what is already there rather than entertaining the forlorn hope that the machine will be able, for example, to give you the rich quality of a Jim Kerr if you start off with little vocal power at the lower end.
By considering the voice not as something that just sits on top of the music but as an instrument - perhaps the most important one - working alongside all the others to create the music, you will take a vital step towards ensuring that proper space is made for it in your band's thinking. Whether they want you to produce feathery tones like Elizabeth Fraser or the kind of subterranean roar that graces the work of Napalm Death, at least your fellow musicians will come to understand that being a singer isn't just a matter of fate but a job of real hard work that, like all human labour, should be treated with respect.
Feature by Steve Xerri
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!