I have been teaching for nearly two decades now, and have had the joy of working with thousands of vocalists of all sorts. My name is Annika, and my work is about enabling artistry. I’ve taken on a multidisciplinary, science-based approach to voice teaching and specialised in vocal technique independent of style. I also hold a special interest in the psychology of performing and learning – and of life in general!
When you have the right strategies, it’s possible to make your voice work and sound basically any way you want. This has proven true in my work with singers of all styles, and everything from theatre productions to experimental music tours. Slightly surprising given my own background, I’ve also become somewhat a magnet to metal vocalists!
I never planned to become a science geek, or a teacher at all actually. I am an all heart singer, who started writing songs at young age. I’ve had my own indie band and singer/songwriter act, and vocal technique just didn’t seem to rhyme with soulful expression. But it soon became clear, that although technique is not a goal in itself, it can certainly be a way to enable expression. Not the least – to have a voice at all!
There is one thing I’ve never changed my mind about though, despite all the theory and techniques I’ve come to learn: Vocal technique without a communicational or artistic intent is nothing. So with this article, I’d like to share some tips and tricks for getting your voice to do the things you want with both functionality and artistry in mind.
Today I will be addressing the more extreme aspects of the voice, such as singing with effects like distortion, growl and more. These tips and tricks are in truth applicable to any type of singing, so you can use them regardless of which style you personally prefer! For the science types, there’ll be a list of resources and science-y references at the end of part 2, so stick around for a full nerd out.
What are vocal effects?
Vocal effects are sounds we make to enhance and intensify expression: roughness added to a tone, quirks and turns inserted on or between notes, sudden outbursts, and more. They all stem from an urge to express something more than is possible merely through words and melody. Vocal effects are use in all styles of singing. Rough effects can often be heard in for instance death metal, ‘screamo’ and black metal, but also in pop, rock, soul and folk music traditions. An example of a singer utilising vocal effects is the late and legendary Ronnie James Dio:
We also use vocal effects in speech, often without being aware about it. For example, you might notice a creaky sound sneaking in when you are tired or unengaged, or when your energy drops off at the end of a sentence. Or if you are like most people, and sometimes get frustrated about things, you might catch yourself making little grunts to express your impatience.
Common terms to describe vocal effects are growl, creak, grunt, distortion, and more. Also vibratos, breath sounds and ornamentations can be seen as effects, since they are generally not part of the planned content.
How does the voice produce effects?
Especially rougher vocal effects may perhaps sound damaging to the vocal folds but in reality, many of these sounds do not even directly involve the vocal folds at all. I say directly because even if a sound is created at one place, it does have potential to affect the circumstances for the vocal instrument as whole. Vocalizing always involves an interaction of several parameters:
The airstream acts as a power source, giving the air movement needed to start a sound and keep it going.
Next we need some kind of sound source and in most singing – that is created by the vibrations of the vocal folds. However, we can theoretically use another source instead – or why not two! Almost all rough effects are created at levels above and apart from the vocal folds. In science this is described as happening at a “supraglottal” level (supra = above the glottis). There are of course names for the specific parts involved too, but as a singer you really do not have to know them. (Okay geeks, see links at the end of part 2 of this article here). It’s just various little cartilages and mucus membranes shaking and having a party in your throat. When they vibrate against things or each other, they act as a second sound source. This creates a rougher sound, given the more “clumsy” figure of for example cartilages, as compared to vocal folds.
A second sound source can be active while the vocal folds keep vibrating as usual too, creating the tone. Together the result is a tone with a rough quality. If on the other hand something else than the vocal folds alone is creating the sound, we will only hear the roughness, without a note.
Finally we need something to amplify the sound – a resonator. The vocal tract does this for us and has the potential to both amplify and dampen different aspects of the sound depending on how we shape it.
These three parts – the power source, the sound source and the resonator, always need to interact in a balanced way for it all to work. If you change something at one end, the others need to adjust too. Therefore there exists no constant state of any parameter, but rather various places of perfect balance, for every different sound you are making.
Effects at different levels
An effect that actually does directly affect the vocal folds is creaking (sometimes referred to as vocal fry). The vocal folds keep vibrating – they just do it in a different kind of pattern that creates the creakiness. This effect is generally produced at fairly low volume and amplified by external means, such as a microphone! During the effect distortion on the other hand, the ”false folds” (ventricular folds) situated right above the vocal folds, are creating an audible vibration. Growl and rattle are examples of effects produced at a level a bit higher up than distortion. And perhaps the most aggressive effect of them all is Grunt. Here there is a whole bunch of stuff vibrating – basically the whole base of the vocal tract. Talk about rocking the house!
Apart from that effects can be created at different levels, they can also be created at different intensities. For instance in more aggressive metal styles, more noise from the effect can often be heard, while in for example a pop song, there might be just a slight raspiness added to notes. The intensity of the underlying note also has a great impact on how aggressive the sound as whole will seem.
Growl, grunt, what?
If you have been hanging out in the heavy metal community, chances are you’re wondering what on the earth I’m talking about. You have the right to. Voice pedagogy is not exactly known for being consistent when it comes to terminology and vocal effects make no exception. Words mean different things to different people. For example, vocalists and music listeners often use the word “growl” to describe a whole style of singing. But in scientific contexts, growl may refer to a certain gesture and vibration that is taking place in the throat. Specifically, the term growl can be found in voice research describing the type of effect that can be heard in Louie Armstrong’s singing.
In the same way, people will often call anything that’s a bit rough sounding distortion. Yet in science distortion has been described as an audible vibration of the “false vocal folds”. To make matters worse, some also call one type of effect ”false fold” – even if the sound sometimes referred to might not always be created by the false vocal folds. What a mess, huh? In summary, just be aware that people use different words to describe stuff. So whenever in doubt, make sure to communicate using real sound samples instead! (In this article, I am using terminology as described in Complete Vocal Technique.)
Can really anyone learn to sound rough?
It is indeed possible to both learn to produce effects, and to avoid them if that is what you want. It is just a matter of knowing how to maneuver your voice in a particular way. I’ve taught numerous vocalists to safely express all kinds of beautiful, aggressive, joyful, weird, and fill-in-the-blank sounds they needed in order to be the singer they wanted to be. I also often work with vocalists who already are able to make effects, but need to adjust them so they can last through full tours and recordings. In fact, most people have already made most types of sounds at some point in their life. Remember that vocal effects are part of our natural way of communicating and many of the most extreme sounds can be heard already in the baby’s cries and screams!
So yes, anyone who can talk can also make effects. The process is however individual. The sound has to be designed to fit your personal preferences artistically so there is no one size fits all for this. The same goes for the way we best learn. Find the approach that works for you. Today there are many learning resources available (some are linked at the end of this article). Understanding how the voice works, and taking use of theory, imagery, psychology, practice techniques, and more, can be incredibly helpful. Not only to help you find a desired sound, but also transfer it into automatised and effortless vocal behaviour, solve vocal issues and fine-tune the exact nuances you want. However nothing of this can ever replace listening, feeling and doing. Those are mandatory whether or not you work with a teacher or on your own.
Finally, there are anatomical differences that can influence what one singer has to do compared to another in order to achieve a similar sound. But though the thought is attractive, people aren’t born rock stars. There are skillsets to learn for that, just like for anything else.
Are vocal effects damaging to the voice?
Vocal health when it comes to rough vocal effects is a somewhat controversial topic with conflicting opinions. After using and teaching effects regularly for more than a decade, I have also formed my own. My current stance is that it can be done safely as long as it’s done correctly.
The science available so far is sparse but does also point in this direction. As well do the testimonies from numerous singers I’ve worked with, who use rough vocal effects daily. Not to mention our history of legendary rock singers who’ve obviously lived perfectly through whole careers of screaming. And let’s not forget logic. Why would humans start their lives screaming if that would destroy the only voice they have? There is indeed a need for more research, but meanwhile we have to work with what we have. The thing is that singers will keep using effects whether or not someone teaches them how. So if you are one of those, I want to give you some general, crucial keys to maintaining your vocal health.
Why is this so important? Well it goes without saying, you have just one voice and there is no supermarket selling new ones (at least not yet) if you mess it up. Some might be attracted to living like the myth of a rock star, and think that the sound of suffering also means you really should suffer, but that couldn’t be more untrue. Being a rock star requires excellent vocal health if you plan to keep singing.
Knowing what is healthy and not
When it comes to rough vocal effects, they may not necessarily sound healthy. But it should always feel good. Beware of any feelings of discomfort in your throat, such as:
- – dryness and/or a urges to get relief by drinking something
- – tickles, itches, pain or soreness
- – the feeling of strain or uncomfortable tension
- – increased mucus production
- – urges to clear your throat
- – coughing and/or tears in your eyes
- – hoarseness!
When these symptoms arise during or in connection to vocalising, they are warning signs that something is wrong. This is very valuable information and the only one who can feel it is YOU. Therefore it is very important that you are attentive to your sensations. If you however have gotten used to pain and strain while vocalising, you might not instinctively react when this happens. Maybe you’ve grown to think this is a normal part of singing? People can often be heard excusing their hoarse voices with that they have rehearsed or performed the previous day. But you should never get hoarse from any style of singing if you do it correctly.
These principals are universal for all types of vocalising. Using rough effects does not necessarily mean you are taking bigger risks. However, the energy required is sometimes higher. This means that IF you hit the wrong place, you hit it hard. So just be attentive – especially if you are practicing without the supervision of an experienced teacher. Please also be attentive to even slight discomfort – even just a general ”hunch” that something is wrong. Trust you sensations – if it feels wrong – it IS wrong. The GOOD news is that this truth goes both ways: when you are certain it feels gooood – it IS good!
What to do if it hurts?
Okay great, you have now begun to notice your sensations. But it hurts! What to do? First of all, don’t panic. Hitting one or two bad notes will unlikely destroy your voice forever. But the third one is the point when you should stop and change something. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, right? More importantly, repeating strenuous sounds can both cause real vocal damage, as well as train your muscles to learn this unfortunate behaviour by heart. Let’s not be fools!
Even if you are working alone and have no idea what to change, you can still use the rule of changing something. Be inventive! Try a different vowel, another pitch, or adjust the energy level or the amount of air used. Give the new setting max three tries, and if it’s not working, change something again. And if nothing works at all, keep sessions very short until you get hold of a teacher that can help. Okay, we’ve covered the crucial safety stuff and buckled up with extra seat belts. Now let’s get rockin’!
Questions so far? If yes, shoot me a message via my contact page. If not….
Before you go!!!
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