Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Making a recording voice

Developing a Creative Process, part 7

This is part of a series of posts on the nature of art, how I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, and how I'm trying to be better. For the rest, see the tag Developing a Creative Process.


A lot has happened with me creatively since I last posted here. In the few weeks before my big European trip, I stopped sleeping to instead record an EP. It's kind of a big deal to me. It'll only be three tracks: a moody acoustic song with guitar performed by the hubz Nathan Eliot, a more rockin' track about science/love, and something that I hope is going to be so awesome I don't even know how to describe it I wrote with Joseph of the band Bella Ruse. He also recorded it and is producing the tracks, which means they're going to sound really good.

Recording was a nerve-wracking, voice-fraying experience even though I had spent time prepping with Kay, the other half of Bella Ruse (@BellaRuse). She studied opera and is a voice and piano teacher, so I was really grateful when she was generous enough to sit with me a couple of hours and work with me vocally. Joseph set up so we could record, then Kay had me try all sorts of different things with my voice: focusing on just vowels or just consonants, keeping different shapes in my mouth and different physical postures, acting different emotions. Then we listened to them and talked about them. 

Oh, um, I have those same glasses.
I was a little conflicted about the idea of consciously changing my voice to sound different. Kay has a very distinct sound when she sings, her "Bella Ruse voice." It fits their music so well; it's intimate, retro, cute and girly, but harsh when she needs emphasis or emotion. (This is an old article, but here's Kay talking about how intentional she is with her voice. A lot of Kay's words from this vocabulary post are about her BR voice.) It's probably a combination of only being trained as a vocalist in a choral setting and watching too much American Idol in high school, but the truth is that I had a prejudice against stylized voices. Most people don't think about how they sound when they talk; why should you think about how you sound when you sing? 

Of course this is ridiculous. Maybe when I'm humming about the house I actually sing the way I talk, but those long, open choral vowels I think of as the "right" way to sing aren't how people talk. It's the right way to sing in a choral setting because you have specific goals: you need to sound like the people around you, and you need the sound to carry without being amplified. Kay is a professional in a different setting with different goals: stand out from other female vocalists, be remembered, effectively communicate the intimacy that most Bella Ruse lyrics evoke. (Kay said The Bella Ruse Voice was first struck upon by recording immediately after waking up -- pretty intimate.) Kay also likes to point out one other thing: it's still her making those sounds, therefore it's her voice. Those are her sounds.

These are some of the observations that Kay and I made while listening to the different versions of my voice:
  • Vowel consistency matters to me. I think the same word should have the same vowel in different contexts. 
  • Clear articulation is what gives a recording character. This is what Kay said from the beginning: Make mistakes and do it differently every time because that's where the real character will shine through.
  • Front vowels are important. The tracks where I intentionally squashed my oral space into a wide, flat space (as opposed to the choral tall & narrow space) stand out as both closer to how I talk and more interesting. (Of course, I speak English, and English has a whole lot of front vowels and diphthongs to distinguish. This chart is cool.)
  • Thinking about how you sound makes a difference. It felt almost like I was communicating the pure phoneme, the vowel sound I hear in my head instead of the allophonic variations of it.
  • It is really, really hard to hold the ideas of how you want to sound in your head and how to do it while actually singing until you've had a lot of practice. Like picking up an accent, you'll eventually develop a new set of phonological rules and muscle memory so you can use the stylized voice even on new words and songs.
I'm not sure how well I stuck to these ideas while recording. It was a struggle to balance thinking about how I wanted it to sound with trying to give something more raw and emotive. I'm trying not to dwell on the possibility that my first recording could very well suck, but the other giant lesson from recording is something I've been trying to accept for a while now: it will capture a moment, some songs, some specific sounds -- and in the meantime, I'll move forward, making new and hopefully better things.

I guess now's a good time to direct you to MollyAndTheDreamers.com

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