How Microphone Technology Throws Vocalists for a (Auditory Feedback) Loop and What to Do About It // Laura Donohue

One significant difference between classical and commercial, or popular, music involves the use of sound amplification.  Commercial vocalists will almost always perform on mic, which means interacting with not only the microphone, but also any number of additional technological components.  For people unfamiliar with audio technology, the microphone might be understood to amplify the voice only, yet the ways in which the microphone and the rest of audio technology (together called the signal chain) interact with the human voice are far more complicated.

I give you Exhibit A:

(To purchase a poster of this diagram, click here.)

When I was researching this subject for my masters thesis I created this diagram, in the spirit of “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and in hopes of conveying how radically the commercial vocalist’s auditory feedback loop is affected by technology. Model 1 represents the auditory feedback loop for the unamplified singer (yellow and white arrows). Model 2 depicts a couple of ways in which the auditory feedback loop might function for a commercial vocalist on any given day (solid white arrows), although this image is by no means exhaustive, and there are many variations on this theme!  For both types of singers, the sound is filtered through the vocal tract, but we can see that once it leaves the mouth the similarity ends.  The unamplified singer’s sound is filtered again by the room in which he sings, but the commercial vocalist encounters a number of additional filters (beginning with the microphone) in the form of the components of technology, all of which change the sound as he perceives it. It is important to understand is that these components of the signal chain, from the type used to the order in which they occur, can vary greatly.  In addition, the room, concert hall, coffee shop, club, or recording studio space is yet another filter.  As a result, the way in which the vocalist perceives his sound will change, sometimes dramatically.  As the physical act of singing is an extremely rapid, practiced response to sensory feedback, one could say that the commercial vocalist’s instrument is constantly changing every time he interacts with audio technology.  A helpful parallel would be the concert pianist, who must adapt to different instruments wherever she goes.  If we imagine that a few of the keys are missing and the piano isn’t quite in tune, we can begin to understand the challenge a vocalist faces when he arrives at a club to discover he has to set up the PA himself, the monitors are in poor condition, and the room is acoustically unforgiving! Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario for the commercial singer.

How do we then, as teachers of commercial vocalists, assist them in navigating this complex world?  What can we do in our lessons to prepare them for the challenges they will undoubtedly encounter? Since the student’s external auditory feedback will be constantly changing, it is important that we teach our students how to rely primarily on the way singing feels.  Aside from injury or illness, the feel of the voice in the body is a constant that our students can memorize, learn to trust, and rely upon with great confidence.  Whether or not we conduct voice lessons on mic, partially on mic, or unamplified, it is important to have conversations with our students about the challenging aspects of working with audio technology.  If they are inexperienced in this area, we can help them understand that this is a very important part of their instrument and we can introduce some of the more difficult aspects to them. For students already working with technology, we can dialog about the challenges they encounter, support them, and learn a great deal from them in the process.  While I believe it can be very helpful to teach some parts of a lesson on mic, it is important to keep in mind that if we conduct our voice lessons entirely on mic, we are in effect teaching our students to interact with one specific set of filters.  In order for them to be able to adapt to ever-changing sonic landscapes they will need to first internalize a sense of their voices in their bodies, and this is best done off-mic.  Here are two of my favorite tools to assist with that:

1. Objective Listening

I first encountered the term objective listening in Lynn Helding’s writings on how our students perceive their voices, and it is an extremely important practice for commercial vocalists. We should encourage our students to not only record their voice lessons but also to regularly record their practice sessions and any rehearsals with other musicians in a variety of settings.  By listening back to these recordings they will begin to get comfortable with how the sound of their voice changes in the different environments (and they will also notice how their singing changes in response to those different environments).  They will begin to listen more objectively, which will assist them enormously when they are confronted with a situation in which their perception of their voice is drastically altered.  In addition, this helps them to become accustomed to how other people experience their voices.  Listening more objectively with their ears enables them to distance themselves a bit from that type of sensory feedback and focus more on listening with their bodies, which leads me to the second tool.

2.  Ten Degrees

Our students are vocal athletes, and they need to develop the same finely-tuned awareness of their bodies that an elite athlete learns.  My go-to tool for helping vocalists become more aware of sensation in their bodies when they are singing is to ask them to imagine one of several 10-Degree Scales.  Together, we use these scales to measure and talk about Effort, Energy, and Dynamics/Volume.  I find that the significance of making a distinction between these three aspects of singing cannot be overstated.  When a vocalist starts to understand that the energy that he brings to singing is not at all the same as the effort he might employ —for instance, belting an uptempo pop song with a high tessitura ideally takes a lot of energy but little effort— then bodily awareness becomes much more finely-tuned.  Of course, we all have far more than 10 “speeds” in all three of these categories, but I find that the 10-degree scale feels manageable, and I teach it by simply asking the student, after a phrase has been sung, “What number was that on the Effort Scale?”  Of course, there is no wrong answer:  whatever the student feels is what is important to identify and then memorize, and this also gives me valuable information about how that particular student describes sensation at any given moment in their singing.  I do find that many of my students say “3-4” when they are singing easily, powerfully, and freely.  The “3-4 Zone” has become a common mantra in my studio!  Once the feel of the ideal zone, or number, has been learned and memorized, that vocalist can know to stay in that feel instead of pushing to hear himself when he is faced with a challenging sonic environment.  The Volume Scale is particularly important for commercial vocalists, as many of them listen to music at high volumes in earbuds, and they perceive the vocal, which has been mixed to stand out from the rest of the music, as much louder than it actually is.  Through a greater awareness of their own volume when they sing, these vocalists can be taught to rely more on the microphone for support. Obviously, the benefits of this kind of bodily awareness extend to not just consistent excellence in singing, but also healthy, sustainable singing.  I often tell my students that if they can stay in the 3-4 Effort Zone (or whatever the appropriate number is for that vocalist), as well as practice good vocal hygiene and self-care, they will be able to sustain the rigors of touring, days of recording, and other demanding vocal loads without injury.

I support and supplement the 10-Degree Scale conversations with stretching and mindful breathing exercises throughout my lessons.  There are so many wonderful ways to increase one’s attention to sensation, and I also encourage my students to find their own regular practices that support this kind of awareness, such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation.

One final note of encouragement:  If you are new to teaching commercial vocalists and/or you don’t have a lot of experience yourself working with audio technology, it is entirely normal to feel overwhelmed!  This is a truly enormous aspect of popular music, which is why there are entire degree programs dedicated to audio engineering.  We do not need to be audio engineers to empower our students in this area, but it does help tremendously to know the basic components of the signal chain and how they work. Two online resources that I find helpful are the online audio magazine Sound on Soundand the Sound Girls blog.

Part 2 of this post will delve into how we can teach our vocalists to collaborate successfully with engineers; in the meantime, have fun exploring this fascinating (and fun) part of being a commercial vocalist!

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