OK, so you’re at that point as a performer where you are in love with your own voice. It’s OK. If you are going to use it in performances, you should probably enjoy the sound. You’ve no doubt blown past the “That’s what my voice sounds like?” phase and anxiously await the precious moments you can project your vocals through amplification. But art needs to evolve, and now you’re wondering what the next step is. In fact, you may even be thinking that the only way to push yourself as a signer is to start taking vocal lessons from that tall androgynous fellow that lives down the hall from your friend. It’s perfectly normal to think that vocal lessons will be the end-all save-all that will help you hone your craft, but it’s time you stop thinking like a singer and start thinking like the other members of your band (an unthinkable thought for most vocalists, I know).
Sure, there is a benefit to reciting recycled arias or singing hours’ worth of show tunes, in the same sense that playing arpeggios over and over again may make you a good lead guitar player. But do you want to be an opera singer or just open your style up? I’m not saying it couldn’t hurt, but if you weren’t already a good singer, odds are you wouldn’t be singing.
There is a growing trend amongst vocalists to start treating their voice like every other instrument. Guitar players know that there is just as much of an art in perfecting tone with pedals as there is in actually playing the instrument, so why can’t the same hold true for vocalists? It’s time to stop thinking about changing what’s coming out and time to start thinking about how to change it once it leaves your body. Singers and vocalists have used varying styles of microphones since the days of early recording and the delta blues, so it is time you took some liberties with your sound. Here are a few ways to do so:
Looping: Vocal looping is starting to really catch on in music, especially in live performances. What started long ago in the years of William Burroughs has evolved dramatically. Emotional robots Daft Punk pushed the envelope in the 90s but in the past few years, it has started taking on a new form. We have moved past the years of being limited to the use pre-recorded digital samples during live shows, and pushed forward into a realm of seamless integration of vocal loops. TC Helicon VoiceLive 2 Floor Processor
Vocal performers have started to take some initiative and have been investing in loop pedals, such as the Boss RC-50 Loop Station, which allow singers stack and build layers to near choral depths. Singers that aren’t as comfortable playing with their own looping, or have an extra set of hands on stage, may not necessarily want to go this route. Luckily, as performance software / programming devices evolve, and latency becomes less of an issue, live vocal looping through MIDI controllers is now a viable option. I remember seeing Chelsea Wolfe a little over a year ago, and was thoroughly impressed at her band’s ability to record her vocals live and instantly turn them into patches for her keyboard player’s MIDI (playing an AKAI midi plugged into his laptop, and another synth). The keyboardist was making chords and doing things with her voice that she would never be able to do without cloning herself. Tools like the Ableton’s Push are only making this integration easier. Push is much more than just a live vocal sampler, but it can be used for that just the same.
Effects: Vocal effects and modulation have already been a part of most singers’ performances, whether they want to admit it or not. As a vocalist, the mics used and EQ-ing of a PA is going to affect the sound you project in the same way an amplifier will affect a guitar. Different amps yield different sounds, and such is the case of every vocal set up. It is time you, like your guitarist, take advantage of the electric idiosyncrasies of your instrument and the ways it is amplified. Buddy up with the sound guys (or gals) at shows, and have someone you trust listen during sound check.
There are vocal effects pedals on the market and if you are going to go this route, the TC Helicon VoiceLive 2 Floor Processor is pretty much the Cadillac of on-stage vocal processors. But bear in mind, this is a vocal processor. There’s a lot you can do with the VoiceLive 2, but everything is geared toward a more natural approach of altering vocal performance. If you really want to push envelope, you might be wise to follow the lead of Aussie-born vocal artist Dub F/X and play through a digital bass processor. Bass processors allow singers a wealth of effects patches to work with, but don’t have some of the high gain effects that may lead to blown out speakers (ask me how I know).
TC Helicon VoiceLive 2 Floor Processor
For a little more insight into the potential of digitally altering your voice, check out this video of Dub F/X explaining the gear he uses (which includes the RC-50 loop station mentioned earlier), and this other video of him actually using it. In the second video, not only does he go wild building his tracks, but also records and alters a saxophone through his vocal mic (all live and on the street).
These are only a few ideas of way to synthetically expand your vocal range. Guitar players are perpetually searching for tone, and there’s no reason that vocalists can’t join them on their infinite quest for knowledge. Besides, if singing arias were the only way to make it as a singer, the world wouldn’t have artists like Henry Rollins.
Sean McGill is on Twitter, honing his instrument - @seanMCthrill