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Twin Voice

Cocteau Twins

Article from Making Music, July 1987

How do the Cocteau Twins get that fantastic voice? This was the question Tony Bacon put to lead singist Liz Fraser and lead knob-fiddler Robin Guthrie. What follows is Liz and Robin's answer — and as a bonus there's some helpful tips from singing tutor Lorraine Bowen.

WE'RE AT the Cocteau Twins' studio in a secret west London location, and we're here to talk about singing. Which is better than singing about talking.

With us today is Liz Fraser, the Twins' remarkable singer, revered among fellow singers for the astonishing range and tone of her voice, and Robin Guthrie, the producer and Fender fanatic of the group.

Later on, Robin will tell us about recording vocals. But first, what about this voice of yours, Liz? "I don't know anything technical," she says, scuttling off somewhere in an attempt to avoid being interviewed. She is what you would call a nervous person: the first impression is that she is rather like the Twins' music — extremely pleasant, but rather vague.

Robin cracks the whip, half-heartedly. "You're on the cover," he calls out. "You've got to talk."

She relents. "I'm a bit backward about getting forward, really," she laughs, wandering back in.

"I first started singing through boredom," she explains, sitting down in front of the mixing desk. "Boredom. I don't know what made me possibly think I could, I don't think I realised what I was doing really. I suppose I was just glad to have something to do.

"I hadn't sung before the Cocteau Twins — that was good actually, cos I wasn't worried. I was embarrassed, and it's taken me a long time to come to terms with singing, especially now that I'm doing it for a living. I still get embarrassed, I'd still rather say something else if I get pushed into having to talk about myself to people that don't know what I do for a living. I'd still rather tell a little fib, say I do something else. Specially cos I don't look very glamorous — it's so glamorous, isn't it? People have that impression. And of course if you look a wee scruffbag..."

Is singing something you can do from the heart without knowing the technicalities of it? "Well... some people seem to be able to. But I worry, I get myself into a state all the time — my head is full of chocolate bunny rabbits, really."

Singing in strange studios can be very off-putting for vocalists, can't it? "For me it's a nightmare — you're going into a strange place you've probably never been to before, you're singing in front of people who are in the studio as a job and they're seeing people coming in and out all the time."

You feel you're being judged? "Oh yeah, I suppose so, because they're always going on about these brilliant performers that have just been in. And then of course they tell you about all the people who were the worst...

"I feel sorry for musicians as well that worry whether they're good or not. It's not nice to worry about it and feel judged. Musicians are at an advantage though, with an instrument, because they can see what they're meant to be doing. It's not like singing and not really knowing where you're meant to be going. It's weird actually, because you don't always know what you're capable of. You can sit and think of something in your head and try and sing it, and find you can't. That's pretty strange."

Singing live brings a different set of problems, presumably? "Yes, the sound's shite. That can be a good thing: if it sounded the same all the time then you would do it the same all the time. Another drawback is that because I'm not technical at all, you can't explain, it's very timewasting for people that are there trying to get their job done."

A while ago, Liz had a problem with her voice. "It was cracking up," she remembers, "it got to the stage where I couldn't sing any more." She tried going to doctors and throat specialists, and they told her to stop singing for a while. "They told me it was overwork," she says, laughing, "but I know it definitely wasn't that!"

Then someone suggested she go to see a singing instructor/coach, Tona de Brett. "So I went, and she said I was giving my throat a hard time because I was singing incorrectly, giving it some rough treatment, and that I should find some other way to do it if I wasn't going to damage myself. She said a lot of the trouble was my breathing: I wasn't using my tummy, it was coming from the throat all the time. So she taught me how to breathe properly, and I suppose that was a godsend really.

"When you just breathe normally you probably don't even think about it — but you'll find that when you breathe in, the tummy will come in as well, which is the total opposite of what's supposed to happen if you're using your voice. If you're going to sing you have to make sure that your tummy comes out when you breathe in — you're trying to store as much air in there as you can, otherwise you won't hold a note because you run out of air."

Would you go for lessons again? "No, no. I'm very grateful, I think something dreadful might have happened if I hadn't gone before — but I felt like I lost a lot as well. I felt like the instructor took an awful lot of something away from me. She made me worry about myself, and I would turn round to Robin and object to some things that I wouldn't have before — limiting the Cocteau Twins, really.

"I just worry about damaging my voice. You get over-protective and you end up doing nothing — that's what it was like for a wee while. I thought bloody hell, that's it. Of course, it's not. I don't drink that much, I've almost never taken coke and things like that, but a lot of people are into that. That cannot do you any good — it's your ears and your nose as well as your throat you use, you've got to realise it."

How did the damage manifest itself, I wondered? "My head's nearly exploded a few times. My ears have fallen off a few times. You can't see the join. I've got a few wrinkles as well. Some people don't bother, don't put that much into it.

"Some people find it easier to sing than others, I s'pose."

Liz wanders off, and Robin takes the interview seat in the studio control room. "I'm not an authority on recording," he insists, "you should know that by now. I just have my own way of doing things." Which is exactly what makes you interesting. He nods some kind of agreement. "My experience is twiddling knobs till it sounds right."

Recording vocals, which is what we want to talk about today, is all down to microphones — naturally enough.

"I've not had huge experience of recording things with mikes," Robin muses, "and I think that's the trouble with many people who call themselves engineers these days. It used to be working with microphones all the time. Nowadays engineers have to know how to program sequencers, sample, everything. The microphone bit of it is just a little part of what they do now.

"Musicians are at an advantage, with an instrument, because they can see what they're meant to be doing. It's not like singing and not really knowing where you're meant to be going."

"I don't have any knowledge of formal mike technique, I just follow my nose. But that's because I've not picked anything up over the years from other engineers — instead of shifting the mikes about they'll just muck about with the EQ, which is not the desirable thing to do I would have thought."

But is there such a thing as a scheme for Robin when he's recording vocals, particularly with Liz? The first thing to do, he explains, is to get her a comfortable sound in the headphones to sing to.

"If the music's too loud, it's possible for a vocalist to sing sharp; if the music's too quiet the vocalist may well sing flat. Always that way. I don't know why — I suppose if the cans are loud they're straining more, pushing, and more likely to sing sharp. Liz doesn't really do that, but lots of other people do. She often doesn't sing with headphones on anyway — she has them round her neck so they all spill over into the mike and make my life difficult. She even went through a phase of putting a little speaker in the room and singing along with that. The headphones upset her hairstyle.

"But it's not just a case of sticking a mike up in front of her face and telling her to sing. First I'd get her to sing along with the track while listening to the voice soloed in the control room, looking for esses, pops, listening to the actual tone of the voice, which depends very much on the positioning of the mike. The timbre will change if she's singing directly into it as opposed to singing across it, for example."

What's their favourite mike for vocals, I wonder? Robin points at a huge, expensive Neumann 87 on a stand in the vocal booth, an industry standard vocal mike. But the size... isn't it a bit intimidating for vocalists, faced with a bleedin' great thing like that?

"Yeah, I remember the first records we ever made, we'd never been in a studio before, and the engineer would put up a standard, small vocal mike, and put the real, big mike behind it so that Liz would think she was singing into the Shure or whatever."

But nowadays, Robin reckons the 'problem' with Liz's voice is its dynamic range. "She can sing from a whisper to a scream in the space of one line, peaking at minus 35 one second, the next right over the top into overload."

What can you do about that? "I usually punch her about a bit." He's not serious. "It's good to get her to learn where to move back from the mike and where to come up close. You can ride a fader during a vocal, yes, but obviously you've got to learn the piece inside out. I'll compress the vocal at maybe 3 or 4 to 1 compression ratio, quite gentle, as it goes down, which helps too. Most people when they use compressors feel like they've got to hear it working, they feel like they've been cheated unless they can hear it working. They whack it up to 20:1 and go hey, yeah, it's working now, let's do it! It's there not to be heard — if you hear it working you've got it wrong."

At this stage Robin points out the two main outboard racks in the control room. The tallest one has maybe 20 rack-mounted units, what he calls "my helping hands"; the other shorter one includes a mere dozen or so effects units.

The helping hands are things like expanders, compressors, and graphics, used to get stuff on to tape in a useable form. Robin highlights a few that are useful for getting down vocals.

"This is good, the Valley People Dyna-mite," he points out. "It's an expander that also works as a limiter and a de-esser. With an expander, anything below a certain level gets cut out, attenuated. With a vocal track it's really useful to cut out breathing, clicks, pops and stuff — the words are still audible. It was really difficult to do that before I found this machine — I'd work my way through the track before, trying to gate it, and end up losing half of Liz's vocals. So I'd not use it and live with the clicks and pops. The Dyna-mites are very good for getting rid of things like click-track spillage, too, where the click-track, if you're using one, has got from the headphones to the vocal track.

"For de-essing — getting rid of singers' exaggerated Ss — I can use this Brooke Siren Systems DPR402 compressor/peak limiter/de-esser: you select your frequency, set the 'threshold' for it, and then every time an S comes up it dips it out — it compresses the S. Where the S's frequency comes depends very much on the singer: 4k, 6k, 8k, all over the place. It depends on the actual S as well, it can vary within a song.

"But this one here, the Valley People 415 De-Esser, this is dead clever. It doesn't de-ess in the same way as any one that I've come across before, because it doesn't actually compress. What you do is to select your frequency — you can select the bandwidth, too — and it introduces a phase cancellation of that actual frequency. Presumably within itself it splits up the signal, inverts one of them, and then sums them again. If you use a regular de-esser too much it tends to make the singer sound like they've got a lisp, makes them sound like Daffy Duck. But this one's better: it doesn't have a sound, basically."

At this point, then, let's assume you've got your vocal on to tape satisfactorily. Now we EQ, yes?

"Everyone's into boosting," moans Robin, "put that up a bit, turn that 5k, blah blah. But cutting is just as important. Quite often you've got a middley sounding vocal, so people add lots of top and lots of bottom to it to stop it being middley. What I would do is cut the middle and boost the gain — that makes more sense to me, though I don't know if it's the technically correct thing to do.

"I'm a great person for taking 1k out of everything, and then putting a little bit of it back later. Because I've got this personal thing against 1k. I always find if you whip that frequency out of guitars and pianos they always sound much nicer. It's a very handy frequency to whip out now and then."

EQ done, we switch to rack two and treat with effects, yes?

"Sparingly," affirms Robin. "I use a lot of things like delays, but I won't use them for repeat echoes — I mean they'll be set up for repeat echoes, but you won't hear them in the mix as such, the effect is mixed quietly in the background. I try to steer away from using reverb on vocals until the very last minute, because it's so easy to get so you can't hear any of the things you've been trying to do with your compressors and your de-essers and your EQ and all that. It doesn't matter how good you get it sounding, if you put too much reverb on it's gonna sound awful. A little bit of something natural sounding is best — a lot of people prefer plate reverbs for vocals, but I think a nice room sound, from a digital reverb, is more natural."

And finally we mix, yes?

"Yes, and the position of vocals in the mix is important. When people listen to records they listen to the words, don't they? In Liz's case, some of the things she sings are not so... lyrical, more sort of atmospheric. So I have them in there somewhere. But any times she does sing anything to be grasped they're always quite up-front.

"If you're mixing double-tracked vocals then it's really silly to pan them in opposite speakers. First, cos it sounds a bit funny, and second cos when you go to mono on the radio, the vocal can disappear through phase cancellation. Same as if you're using any sort of chorus on the voice, try not to pan it to extremes. It's fine to have it panned at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock, cos then when you go to mono it doesn't cancel so much. If you're putting something out on seven-inch, it's worth making it mono-compatible."

Well, that's that then. A last comment from Robin: "I always record the music and stick the vocal on last, and then mix the music and stick the vocal on last — what you do to the vocal depends on how the rest of the track sounds."

Helpful Tips

- Listen to the song, write down the words, and follow them through the song. Tick the places you think you should take a breath, and sing or say the song through again to make sure that the phrases are not too long or too short, and that they make musical sense.

- Get yourself into a good posture, preferably in front of a mirror. Your body should feel relaxed, with the shoulders and arms hanging loosely and the chest held up steady so that you breathe in and out without it rising and falling, wasting a lot of energy and causing lots of breathy noise.

- Try 'lowering' your breathing over the next few weeks by pretending that every time you take a breath, you have to keep your skirt or trousers from falling down! By using this great technique, you should start feeling the lower bits of your lungs coming into action round your back, and your stomach gently filling out forwards when you breathe in.

- Loosen the jaw by giving a big yawn and feel that space opening up behind the back teeth. It doesn't often get the chance to resonate and amplify the sound because of a tense jaw and throttled neck, so let the jaw hang loose so that a nice stream of steady sound can flood out.

- Try imagining that your voice is rising up from your feet, swelling in the chest, bypassing the neck, then pinging off the front teeth. This may seem strange, but it works and also saves the neck from early retirement.

- Often singers become scared at high notes and lose control altogether. If there's a place where the voice has to soar too high for comfort, think of that phrase as being low in pitch, and it might not be so difficult

- If you've got something to sing about, let's hear the words. Sing or talk your way through the lyrics again keeping the neck fairly still: let the lips do the most of the action with vowels and consonants. Try "hey, ho, he, haw, hay".

- Record your practicing and rehearsals and then listen back with a critical but positive ear. Take care not to overdo the vocal practice. Like most skills, It'll take a while to learn to control the voice.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987


Cocteau Twins



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