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It's Not Just about Notes, but about Emotion


by Craig Anderton


Vocals are the emotional focus of most popular music, yet many self-produced songs don't pay enough attention to the voice's crucial importance. Part of this is due to the difficulty in being objective enough to produce your own vocals; luckily, I've been fortunate to work with some great producers over the years, and have picked up some points to remember when producing myself. So, let's look at a way to step back and put more EDR (Emotional Dynamic Range) into your vocals.



Dynamics isn't just about level variations, but also emotional variations. No matter how well you know the words to a song, begin by printing out or writing a copy of the lyrics. This will become a road map that guides your delivery through the piece. Reviewing a song and showing where to add emphasis can help guide a vocal performance.

Grab two different colored pens, and analyze the lyrics. Underline words or phrases that should be emphasized in one color (e.g., blue), and words that are crucial to the point of the song in the other color (e.g., red). For example, here are notes on the second verse for a song I recorded a couple years ago.

EDR\_ForVocalsArt.pngIn the first line, "hot" is an attention-getting word and rhymes with "got," so it receives emphasis. As the song concerns a relationship that revs up because of dancing and music, "music" is crucial to the point of the song and gets added emphasis.

In line 2, "feel" and "heat" get emphasis, especially because "heat" refers back to "hot," and is foreshadowing to "Miami" in the fourth line.

Line 3 doesn't get a huge emphasis, as it provides the "breather" before hitting the payoff line, which includes the title of the song ("The Miami Beat"). "Dancing" has major emphasis, "Miami beat" gets less because it re-appears several times in the tune . . . no point in wearing out its welcome.

By going through a song line by line, you'll have a better idea of where/how to make the song tell a story, create a flow from beginning to end, and emphasize the most important elements. Also, going over the lyrics with a fine-tooth comb is good quality control to make sure every word counts.



Emphasis is not just about singing louder. Other ways to emphasize a word or phrase are:

  • Bend pitch. Words with bent pitch will stand out compared to notes sung "straight." For example, in line 4 above, "dancing" slides around the pitch to add more emphasis.
  • Clipped vs. sustained. Following a clipped series of notes with sustained sounds tends to raise the emotional level. Think of Sam and Dave's song "Soul Man": The verses are pretty clipped, but when they go into "I'm a soul man," they really draw out "soul man." The contrast with the more percussive singing in the verses is dramatic.

  • Throat vs. lungs. Pushing air from the throat sounds very different compared to drawing air from the lungs. The breathier throat sound is good for setting up a fuller, louder, lung-driven sound. Abba's "Dancing Queen" highlights some of these techniques: the section of the song starting with "Friday night and the lights are low" is breathier and more clipped (although the ends of lines tend to be more sustained). As the song moves toward the "Dancing Queen" and "You can dance" climax, the notes are more sustained and less breathy.

  • Timbre changes. Changing your voice's timbre draws attention to it (David Bowie uses this technique a lot). Doubling a vocal line can make a voice seem stronger, but I suggest placing the doubled vocal back in the mix compared to the main vocal—enough to support, not compete.
  • Vibrato. Vibrato is often overused to add emphasis. You don't need to add much; think of Miles Davis, who almost never used vibrato, electing instead to use well-placed pitch-bending. (Okay, so he wasn't a singer...but he used his trumpet in a very vocal manner.) Generally, vibrato "fades out" just before the note ends, like pulling back the mod wheel on a synthesizer. This adds a sense of closure that completes a phrase.
  • "Better" is not always better. Paradoxically, really good vocalists can find it difficult to hit a wide emotional dynamic range because they have the chops to sing at full steam all the time. This is particularly true with singers who come from a stage background, where they're used to singing for the back row. Lesser vocalists often make up for a lack of technical skill by craftier performances, and fully exploiting the tools they have. If you have a great voice, fine—but don't end up like the guitarist who can play a zillion notes a second, but ultimately has nothing to say. Pull back and let your performance "breathe."

As vocals are the primary human-to-human connection in a great deal of popular music, reflect on every word, because every word is important. If some words simply don't work, it's better to rewrite the song than rely on vocal technique or artifice to carry you through.


CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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givenn  |  September 10, 2014 at 11:25 pm

I could not agree more. Thank you for pointing this out. Many vocalist forget that it's through(but not limited to) emotion that people connect with a song. 

Toning down the vocals to a song is sometimes harder than going all colorful on a song. I can attest to what you said about this topic. With some songs, as you put it so well, less is more and more is less. 

One trick that I use, that I find helps, is seeing the vocals in wavelength in my mind as I sing them.

The enunciation of words also helps.  For example, "Alone"  has a more darker and heavier feel to it when sung phonetically "uh-lone" then the bright sounding "eh-lone" .

Anyway, I though I could add to your masterpiece of a post.

This post was a great find. Thank you once again.



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