Hi, Annika Holmberg here. Hopefully you’ve already read Part 1 of this article about how vocal effects like distortion and growls are produced and the crucial rules you have to know before you start. If you haven’t, you absolutely MUST read it! Click here to go straight there.
Once you’ve worked through that, let’s march on here into some tips to help you create the sounds and effects you want.
Get in charge over your sound
We can divide all effects in two main categories:
Intentional effects – which you willingly can add or remove. The ability to choose indicates that you are in control of the sound and thus, over your artistic expression. The effect may not necessarily be healthy, but the ability to remove it by will, at least indicates that it is not a result of a physical condition.
Unintentional effects – which you cannot willingly remove from the sound. This may not necessarily be a problem health-wise, even if that is possible. But it can at the least be a problem artistically.
In conclusion, the desirable situation is obviously to be in charge of when and not a vocal effect is produced.
The on-and-off exercise
You can try this out right away by intentionally speaking with a creaking sound (sometimes referred to as vocal fry), and then making your voice sound clear.
For a sound reference, here one of my favorite singers, Jewel adds creaking to both her speech (beginning of song) and singing (hear the “weh-ohs” in the end!)
To start out, pick a pitch and stay on it. Alternate between the creaking and the clear sound and see if you are able to control when and not the creak comes in.
Did it work? If so, you were producing the effect intentionally. Use this exercise for whatever type of effect you make. The ability to willingly remove the roughness is crucial for both your artistry and vocal health.
! If you experience an inability to remove a roughness in your voice, seek professional advice. For voice technical issues, find a well-informed voice teacher or speech therapist. For medical advice, please consult a physician specialized on voice disorders. You are also welcome to contact me for guidance if you are uncertain if your problem requires attention. For more information about vocal health, see Part 1 of this article.
The best strategy to find the sound – emotions!
Vocal effects reflect a singer’s state of mind, energy level and emotion, and that is also how effects are created to begin with. Using emotion is both the most meaningful, and often most effective way of producing vocal effects. And let’s be frank, no one wants to listen to a grunt for the sake of it. (Unless of course you are performing for scientists or having a nerdy hangout with geeks like me.)
People want to be moved by singing. They want your voice and words to take them to places in their memories and fantasies. Adding an effect just cause you think it’s cool can in many cases be just weird and cast the audience out of their dreamy state of pleasure. However if the effect comes as a result of something you’re expressing, it’s a whole other story. Interestingly, it’s also the safer way to do it. If you attempt to create a rough vocal effect for the first time, without the intentions and emotions that normally would evoke such a sound, you are much more likely to hurt yourself!
The best strategy too – copy someone!
Since you are already interested in making some sort of effect (cause you are reading this), you’ve probably heard someone else sounding like that. Great! We then have a model to learn from. The great thing about you choosing your own model is that you then don’t just randomly work on various effects, but specifically on sounds that you actually want to make. The short story on how to do it is simply to copy the sound that you like. Just remember to listen carefully and don’t just copy the sound – copy the emotions and energy of it too! Maybe you have a friend who already knows how to do it and if not, Youtube/Google is your friend. If this worked (and it actually often does as a first step), congratulations! If it didn’t, you can try going a bit deeper into the process. When you have someone to copy, you can simply find out what they are doing and then reverse the process.
Here is how you do it:
Exercise: find a model and decipher
1. Pick a song – Pick a song you like, with vocal effects you like and would like to make. Preferably start out with a singer who doesn’t feel all too different from yourself. Try to find a sample where you can also see the singer performing live. I’m picking Freddie Mercury singing Somebody to Love. You can choose any song of any style, but it’s good to start out with one containing a fairly short effect, like a sudden outburst, rather than a longer phrase with continuous effects on.
2. Pick a sound – Pick your specific place to geek out on. I’m picking the distorted “crazy” at 2:19 (if you want to use this song, but another effect, there are also some growls following at 2:22 and 2:24).
3. Focus and listen – Be at a place where you can focus and feel relaxed. Turn off anything that can distract your attention. Close your eyes and listen repeatedly to the sample (be inventive on how to do this with closed eyes! ).
4. Analyze the sound – Listen especially to the sound of the voice. How loud is the sound? Is the pitch high or low? What vowel(s) do you hear?
5. Analyze the sound character – Notice the sound character and everything about it. Put your own words to what you hear. Is it fragile, stable, bright, dark? Does it sound open or closed, muffled or clear? Is it a small or a big sound? Does it sound heavy or light? Held back or straightforward? How does the effect sound? Is it raspy, rolling, crackling, roaring?
6. Imagine the physical sensations of the sound – can you identify where and how the sound would feel to make?
7. Identify the thoughts and emotions – Notice the emotions in the voice and how it makes you feel. Is the singer angry, afraid, happy? What is the singer’s intention? Are they begging, encouraging, teasing, telling someone off? Also notice the level of emotions and energy the singer puts into the sound. If the singer is sounding angry – how angry? Maximum anger? Moderate? Just a bit annoyed?
8. Notice the body language – Notice how the singer is positioned. Are they tense, relaxed, moving or still? Are they clenching their fist or making faces?
9. Imagine this state of being – What would YOU be thinking and feeling in order to be sounding like that? Imagine how it would feel to be that singer in the very moment they make that sound.
10. Imagine sounding this way – Imagine how it would feel to express yourself like that. Does it remind you of another situation when you felt that way? What situation and feelings would make YOU express yourself that way?
Keep listening to the sample repeatedly and give each point at least a few listens. Remember to put your own words to what you hear, the above are just examples. When you’ve detected everything you possibly can from listening, it’s time to start making noise.
Exercise: reverse the process, and do it!
1. Position yourself in the same way as the singer. In my example Freddie Mercury is pacing around, looking pretty hyped up, maybe restless. At the moment he exclaims “crazy!” his whole body bends backwards in frustration and stiffens like if he really does go crazy. He even punches the air with his fist when he makes the sound. If you don’t have access to the footage, you will have to do this part as you imagine it. Do not skip this point, really do what the singer is doing!
2. Put yourself in the mindset you detected. Think of the situation that got you just that angry/happy or whatever emotion you are going for. What do you believe in this moment? What do you want? Imagine it all with as much detail as possible, even the smells if you can!
3. Feel the emotions, at the exact intensity you detected. Build it up to just the right level and get ready.
4. Play the sound again and listen closely. Imagine the physical sensations of the sound.
5. Now go for it! Make the sound as similar to what you felt and heard, with the body language, intent and emotion you detected.
How did it go? If it didn’t turn out as intended. Pause a moment and go back to step 1 again. Check that you aren’t missing any details that might be important. If you almost made it but just need some small tweaks, you can start from step 4 instead. Listen again and copy the sound. Remember the rule of max 3 tries (see Part 1 of this article here), and to stop and change something if you experience any discomfort. If you find it hard to copy the exact sound, you can also try going for the gist of it. For example you could try a similar sound but at another pitch or on another vowel/word.
Do I really need to do all this?
Probably not, but before you try, you cannot really know what points will be determinant. When you have succeeded in making the sound, you can try leaving out some parts until you are left with only the ones that are crucial for you. (Taking help from an experienced teacher can shorten this process.) When you get to a stage where the sound is automatized, you will be able to do it even without building up the emotions first. It’s also possible that you would be able to create the effect, without the emotional side of it. For example, many people can produce the rolling sound of a growl by clearing their throat with the back of their tongue in a far back position. Hearing yourself being able to produce the sound is fun and encouraging. However if you plan to make music out of the sound, I still root for including emotions already from the start, as they are such an integral part of performing.
Summary and practical steps
We can organize the process of working with rough vocal effects into the following steps:
STEP 1 – The communicational and/or artistic intent; decide what it is that you want to convey and achieve through the effects you wish to make.
STEP 2 – Find a way to make the sound with an approach that works for you (emotion, copying, reading nerdy articles, working with a vocal coach specialized on effects etc.). This article has offered a few strategies you can try as well as links to more resources at the end.
STEP 3 – Fine tune: learn to intentionally produce the sound (do the on-and-off exercise) and make necessary adjustments to increase efficiency and avoid harm. You can get far by using the tips and tricks for practicing and avoiding harm described in this article. This is also the stage where it is important to take help from an experienced teacher if you get stuck.
STEP 4 – Expand the effect to different pitches and/or vowels, and words if you like.
STEP 5 – Put it into the song and make music! (If you haven’t already)
Most important, remember why you are doing this. It’s enjoyable right? Always keep that in mind when designing your learning and practicing, so that you stay motivated and on track with your personal goals and values.
Did you find something in this article especially helpful? I’d love to know what it was in the comments below!
If you have questions about voice development or concerns regarding vocal health, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email via my contact page to ask. I’m happy to help you or your group explore these sounds safely and effectively!
Swedish website: www.vocalsoul.se
English website: www.vocalsoul.com
For any singers who want to swat up on more resources and information, please see below for a list of helpful webpages and super-nerdy references.
Learning resources, sounds and demonstrations
(Note that terms used here sometimes differ from those used in this article)
- Introduction to vocal effects: https://cvtresearch.com/effects/introduction-to-effects/
- The app Complete Vocal Technique offers theory, sound examples, research footage and techniques for learning vocal effects https://completevocal.institute/app/
- Melissa Cross is perhaps most known because of her DVD The Zen of Screaming, and has profiled as a vocal coach for rock and metal vocalists http://www.melissacross.com/
- Mal Webb calls himself a vocal adventurer and proves his name true. He offers tutorials of extended vocal techniques here http://malwebb.com/cds.html. Also check out his sound samples from inside throat view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faAtOul8euQ
- Jared Dines – demonstrating different types of metal effects: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCFBrQWYe3o
- Angela Gossow Growl Workshop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCMcu18sigc
- Kaare Thøgersen – An analysis of rough vocal effects & how to teach them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvIEpmgC4SU
- Common Vocal Effects and Partial Glottal Vibration in Professional Nonclassical Singers, Journal of Voice. (Caffier et al): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0892199717300711
- Laryngostroboscopic exploration of rough vocal effects in singing and their statistical recognisability – An anatomical and physiological description and visual recognisability study of Distortion, Growl, Rattle, and Grunt using laryngostroboscopic imaging and panel assessment, Journal of Voice In Press, 2018.
- Ventricular-Fold Dynamics in Human Phonation, Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing. (Bailly et al) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24687091
- Voice source characteristics in Mongolian “throat singing” studied with high-speed imaging technique, acoustic spectra, and inverse filtering, Journal of Voice. (Lindestad et al): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12269637
- Growl voice in ethnic and pop styles. In Proceedings of the International Symposium on Musical Acoustics. Nara, Japan. (Sakakibara et al)
- Vocal effects in singing: a study of intentional distortion using laryngostroboscopy and electrolaryngography, Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Advances in Quantitative Laryngology, Voice and Speech Research 2013, USA (McGlashan et al): https://cvtresearch.com/papers-2/aql-vocal-effects-in-singing-2013/
- Laryngoscopic, acoustic, perceptual, and functional assessment of voice in rock singers.
- Folia Phoniatr Logop. (Guzman et al): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24663012
- Complete Vocal Institute is performing ongoing extensive studies on vocal techniques including extreme effects since many years. They share some of their research data on vocal effects at http://cvtresearch.com
Passionate about the human voice and psyche, she’s constantly studying to broaden her knowledge and refine her work, including engaging in voice research. She has lectured at international voice conferences and is a published author in the scientific Journal of Voice. Annika is also a certified NLP Master and an Authorized Teacher of Complete Vocal Technique. In 2002 she encountered CVT and became a pioneer of the method in Sweden. Nowadays she applies strategies from that and other methods and sciences in her teaching, as well as her experience as a touring and recording singer, musician and songwriter.