When I’m working with a vocalist, I usually need to give directions to help her/him adjust the performance to best suit the creative direction of the song. When I do this, I think of the human voice as a three-dimensional instrument. It’s actually a three-dimensional instrument in two ways: emotionally and technically.
Emotionally, the human voice is (or should be) three-dimensional in the sense of being rich and lifelike. The voice is the primary communicator of emotion in a song, and must communicate a range of emotions in order for the song to be engaging. That doesn’t mean every song has to have eight different emotions in it, though! Usually it means identifying the primary (and, sometimes, secondary) emotion in the song and then establishing an appropriate range around that emotion. For example, a song that primarily expresses anger shouldn’t just be angry all the way through – the expression of anger might range from suppressed frustration in some sections through to full-on rage in other sections. By working out an appropriate range of emotional expression, the vocal performance can be dynamic and expressive while still supporting the intent of the song. Otherwise, the vocal performance can be flat and one-dimensional.
Technically, the human voice is three-dimensional in the sense of having three main ‘parameters’ with which to craft a performance – pitch, volume and tone.
- Pitch is more than just the notes of the melody. Pitch can be used in much smaller adjustments to affect the feel of the performance. A good vocalist will be able to sing a little bit sharp to give the melody brightness and lift, or sing a little bit flat to make it deeper and darker. Of course, it takes a fair degree of skill to be able to do this in a way that supports the music and doesn’t sound out of tune. And of course, the subtleties of such performance elements are destroyed by heavy pitch correction.
- Volume is more than level. Belting sounds different to whispering. Even after heavy compression, the character of singing at different volumes carries through. For vocalists, I think of volume as a kind of tone control rather than a way to control mix balance. And again, sometimes effective use of volume doesn’t mean going from a whisper to a shout all in the one song. Be weary of undersinging – where the voice lacks body and falls short of the power and energy it needs for the song. Similarly, look out for oversinging – where the voice starts to strain and sound forced.
- Tone is more than EQ. For vocalists, it’s about the character of the voice. Good singers will be able to explore a lot of nuance here, but I usually start by thinking along the range from smooth to rough sound. Tone is very personal to a vocalist and is controlled in more subtle ways than pitch or volume. As such, I’ll often give the vocalist a starting direction (e.g. smoother or rougher) and then explore the different vocal tones from there.
Ultimately, the human voice is best used in music to communicate emotion. The better command you have of your vocalist’s musical expression, the better you’ll be able to make a recording that communicates effectively and powerfully.