For those of us old enough to remember the age of the answering machine, we also remember the awkward horror of hearing our own recorded speaking voice on the outgoing message. It was a cringeworthy sonic mirror revealing the “true” nature of our “annoying” “raspy” “high-pitched” “mumbled” or “nasal” voices. “DO I REALLY SOUND LIKE THAT?!!”
Our recorded voice sounds distinctly different than our own voice that we hear when we speak or sing. This is due to the fact that we hear our own voices two different ways simultaneously. The first is the same way we hear other people’s voices: vibrating sound waves hitting the eardrum. The second, is the vibration resonating inside our own skull that is triggered by our vocal chords which adds additional vibrations that hit the eardrum. This often adds a false sense of bass, which is why on a recording, our voices sound higher-pitched.
Once we can traverse the initial discomfort of hearing back our recorded voices, we realize that documentation is an important component in our progression as vocalists. While we look to vocal teachers/coaches, producers, directors, songwriting partners, etc. to give us input and helpful critique regarding our voices, our own self-assessment is vital. It is important to have that proverbial mirror we can hold up to ourselves to discover and play with both the negative and positive attributes of our voice. How can we curb a bad habit without even realizing that it exists? It is hard to have objectivity with our own voice while we’re using it. We call upon technique, focus, and emotion in performance and practice. There is not space or time for analysis. Analysis is actually kryptonite to a connected performance! However, listening back to a performance or practice session after its completion can be a truly ear-opening experience.
While most modern phones now come equipped with a Voice Memo app, it is helpful to dig a little deeper and see if there is one better suited for your needs. I’ve found that I have so many different vocal projects I’m documenting (songs, vocal exercises, theatre pieces, songwriting co-writes, commercial songwriting, etc.) it helps to have an app that has individual folders to keep things organized and the ability to make comments or bookmark sections on the recording. I recommend the RecApp for the iPhone. Or if you want to use your phone’s default recorder, just make sure that you backup often on a computer and sort/organize there for easy reference. Have a journal or digital method to take notes upon listening back to the recordings.
PRACTICE MAKES PROGRESS
Documenting practice sessions, rehearsals, and lessons is extremely useful. Solo practice sessions give us introspection as to how our voices sound without anyone around to influence or induce nerves. Sound amazing in the shower? Record it! (Just keep your device out of water/steam range.) Or set up your phone at a slight distance when you’re noodling around with a new riff or song idea, accompanied or acapella. Listening back will not only give you insight in terms of vocals and expression, but it may help you steer the creative concept of your song.
Band rehearsals are important to document because it provides perspective into how our voices handle non-ideal set-ups (which in my experience, most rehearsals include). How do you sound when you are struggling to hear yourself or other instruments? Or when performing a new song? A harmony vocal? Does your comfort level (or lack there of) exacerbate certain habits/defaults in the voice?
If you are currently taking vocal lessons, ask your teacher/coach if they would be comfortable with you recording the lesson or portion of it. This creates an archive of tools and suggestions from your teacher that you can access without relying on memory.
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
At a gig, recital, meeting, or conference, set up a device to record your performance. Make sure you suss out the room and find the best placement for well-balanced sound. Notice how adrenaline affects your voice. Does it make you thrive or swan dive? Notice what happens when a mistake occurs. Do you call attention to it or keep going? Does your control/confidence peak at the beginning, middle, or end of the performance? Does it vary? Write down both positive and negative aspects upon listening and reflecting. Ask yourself what attributes move you in successful performances by others. Notate them and make goals to work on them solo or with your teacher.
CAN WE TALK?
The next time you’re out with a friend, ask permission to record a conversation with them. Then start doing the same with other friends and family members until you’ve assembled a collection of conversations with different subjects and environments. Notice the timbre of your voice, your pacing, your pitches/range, the dynamics in contrasting conversations. All these differing attributes will give you knowledge of how you adopt your vocality in diverse situations. And it will also showcase that certain pitches or ranges are accessible in your spoken voice, though not in your sung voice…YET!
Additionally, it is a great exercise to document the spoken voice performing text. Pick a favorite poem, speech, monologue, or article and record yourself. Notice how this performative context compares and contrasts to your every day speaking voice. It is more pronounced in diction or volume? Slower or quicker paced?
VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR
Once you have gotten comfortable with audio documentation, up the ante by adding an element of video. Using either your phone, computer, or camera, film yourself in practice, performance, or play. This will take your self-assessment/analysis to the next level by becoming aware of physical attributes that may be contributing to limitation in the vocals. When the body is tense the voice is likely to follow. How does your physicality shift from practice to performance? Make notes and date them so you can follow your progression.
I had a student ask me recently in a lesson how long it took me to like the sound of my own voice. My answer (after 25 years as a vocalist) was, “FINGERS CROSSED… ANY DAY NOW.” We may never get the point of loving the sound of our recorded (or live) voice. However, we familiarize ourself with it to the point of gaining more objectivity. Learning to love ASPECTS while continuing the journey of stability and improvement. Also, remember that perfectionism is not a useful attribute when it comes to the voice. We are humans and part of what makes a voice compelling is when it is a truthful extension of that human being. Be honest and your voice will be affecting even if it’s not technically flawless. Tell the story and let the story be received and translated. I’ve made the mistake in the past of soiling an audience member’s positive experience by countering their compliment with a self-deprecation. Don’t let your desire for perfection hinder the importance of your progression.