Basics of Singing 7: Singing in Different Environments

Learning to sing in different styles is only part of the equation. A singer who sounds and looks a certain way in one place will sound and look quite different in another place. Here’s a quick example: sing a song in your room and record it. Now try singing the same song the same way in the bathroom and record it. You will notice the sound changes, in some cases dramatically. Now go outside and repeat the process. There are three major factors involved in singing in different environments: 1. Acoustics, 2. Amplification, and 3. Size of the environment.

Acoustics is the science of sound. There is a process your body undertakes for every sound you hear. Sound begins as vibrations. The faster sound vibrates (frequency), the higher the pitch of the sound.  This is typically measured in Hertz (not the car rental place), or Hz for short. When a person is born, he or she typically can hear between 20 and 20,000 Hz. To give some perspective, a piano’s lowest note is 27.5 Hz, and the highest note is 4186 Hz. As one gets older, the ranges narrows, and in many cases people lose ranges within the full range. Older people sometimes comment on hearing male voices better than female voices, and that is due to loss of the frequency range of the typical female voice. If you are curious about your hearing, there are apps available to test your current hearing range.

Hearing sound is not isolated to your outer ear. The vibrations pass through your outer ear, into your ear canal, and passes through to the inner ear. Little hair like structures called cilia transfer the vibrations into a chemical response, which is passed on to the brain, and finally interpreted as sound. The vocal cords are also only part of the singing mechanism. The vocal cords cause the vibrations; however, the passing of those vibrations through the rest of the body affects the sound. This is one reason why your voice sounds different to other people and on a recording than inside your head. When you hear your voice while singing, the vibrations travel to the inner ear both internally and externally. Hearing your voice from a recording only gives the external information.

The intensity of the sound is called amplitude, and is measured in decibels; the greater the decibel, the louder the sound. When any sound passes a certain threshold of amplitude, it can cause damage to the inner ear. If you ever attended a live concert and stood close to the large speakers, and then afterward notice all sound was dull for a bit, that is an example of crossing the threshold. Although there are fail safes built into the human body to shield it from certain levels of sound, it cannot cope with sound above the threshold for extended periods of time. This is why listening to music that is “too loud” for long periods causes hearing loss. The cilia can be damaged beyond repair if exposed to strong vibrations. If cilia are damaged at certain frequencies, the hearing loss is centered on those frequencies. Hearing aides by definition amplify sound, or make everything louder. This only assists if the cilia can still interpret those frequencies.

A singer should be familiar with the acoustics of the performance space. If the space has more hard structures than soft, the acoustics will be more “live,” increasing the amplitude of the voice. An extreme example is either a stairwell or cathedral. All surfaces are solid, with nothing to dampen the sound, such as carpet or fabric. Examples of acoustically “dead” rooms are a conference room, carpeted bedrooms, or a recording studio. A simple acoustical test is clapping, and subsequently listening to the sound as it dissipates. If the sound disappears quickly, the space is more “dead” than if there is an echo of the sound over a period of time. If a singer performs in an acoustically “live” room, it is important to clearly sing the text. The echo effect of the acoustics creates difficulty in hearing consonants, and therefore words are lost. If a singer performs in an acoustically “dead” space, it is important to not over sing with tension to be heard. The singer who is not accustomed to singing in dead spaces cannot hear himself or herself as easily, and therefore compensates with more volume. This leads into the subject of amplification.

There are two ways to amplify the voice: naturally or mechanically through electronic sound systems. The natural way to amplify the voice has been used for centuries, and essentially utilizes the natural acoustics of the space and the singer’s own body to create a clear sound. Concert halls are created with these acoustical scenarios in mind, and the best halls are both live and built to project sound from the stage to the audience clearly. Curved hard surfaces are utilized to focus the sound from the stage to all parts of the audience. Singers utilize breath control, articulators, and open space to create a loud sound free of tension. Most modern singers rely on electronic amplification, and for good reason. Concert halls were not built to be flexible spaces. Performances occur in coffee shops, bars, street corners, and stadiums. All of these spaces are typically acoustically dead, and sometimes too large for most singers to fill naturally. The use of microphones and amplifiers assist in bringing the singer’s voice to the audience in the best way possible. There are drawbacks. First, the amplification system’s basic function is to make the sound louder. The singer must first sing well, and articulate the text well, for the audience to hear and understand every detail. Modern technology has allowed singers to sound better amplified than their natural voices by altering the natural sound. This is one of the reasons famous singers sound different live than on an album recording.

Correct microphone technique is also imperative for the singer to sound his or her best. Many singers use microphones regularly in performances, but may not follow certain techniques to maximize sound quality. First, the singer should hold the microphone about 4-6 inches from the mouth, with the microphone head facing the mouth. Although it looks cool to “eat” the microphone (aka putting the mouth directly on the microphone), the sound becomes muffled. It is not uncommon for the singer to move the microphone around while singing, which causes the sound to vary. If the singer is holding the microphone and standing still, at times the microphone head turns away from the mouth because of tired arms. Holding the microphone steady also allows any sound technician to adjust the quality and amplitude to best fit the song and singer.

A sound check prior to the performance is critical to resolve technology issues, such as bad audio cords, sound levels, new people unfamiliar with the system, or the singer unaware of the location of the “on” button on the microphone. It is in the singer’s best interest to be familiar with any audio technology he or she utilizes on a regular basis. Every soundboard, although similar in function, can appear quite different. Technology, when working properly, can be great; however, frustration ensues when either the system won’t work or that annoying feedback screech appears in the performance. The more the singer knows about the system, the easier he or she can trouble shoot in case no one else knows the answer. The primary issue for audio system failure is one button/slider/knob is turned the wrong direction, causing silence. The secondary issue is manipulating the wrong channel (ex. Microphone is plugged into channel 2, but the audio person thinks it is in channel 3 and can’t understand why nothing is working). A third less likely problem involves any wireless microphone. There are many factors that can inhibit the signal from the microphone to the sound system. Depending on the frequency programmed into the wireless microphone and receiver, cell phones in the room can disrupt the signal. Most wireless systems can modulate the frequency if one does not suit a venue. Unfortunately, in sound check the problem may not surface, because the audience is not typically there, using their cell phones. Another disruption of wireless systems is other wireless systems. If the performance is in a venue where other wireless systems are on, the systems may have competing frequencies. It is wise to always have a backup microphone that is wired and ready at a moment’s notice in case of these issues in performance.

Feedback is the other major issue in a performance. Feedback, that horrible, loud, high pitched sound, is caused when a microphone is pointed in some fashion at a speaker. In essence, microphones send signals to the sound system, which project the signal through the speakers. If a microphone is pointed at the speaker, the signal continuously increases (microphone-speaker-microphone-speaker, etc), causing an accelerated feedback loop of sound. The same sound is created when the soundboard volume/power is increased beyond its threshold. Depending on the sensitivity of the audio system, this problem is easily remedied by moving the microphone away from the speakers and/or turning the sound down at the board. Although feedback cannot always be avoided, testing the power levels in sound check (bringing the microphone levels up to just below feedback levels) will eliminate one of the two factors.

The size of the performance space is another factor for the singer to consider when preparing to perform. Typically amplification is needed in large outdoor spaces, or in smaller spaces where either the acoustic is dead, or there is competing sound (picture a coffee house or banquet performance). In the large outdoor performances, amplification causes a new problem for the singer: sound delay. In large arenas, the audience may or may not notice a time delay between when the singer/announcer opens his or her mouth, and sound is heard. The speakers are such a distance from the audience that it takes time for the vibrations to reach their ears. The singer, also usually a fair distance from the speakers, hears the sound seconds after it was just produced, causing a delay. The same would be true if someone sang at the end of a large room and someone at the other end was listening. In a large room with live acoustics, the sound is heard as an echo. An echo essentially is the sound traveling around the room and returning. An echo in a large room can take seconds to dissipate. Some of the largest cathedrals in the world have 6-7 seconds of echo before the sound disappears. Sound delay can disorient the singer who relies on hearing him or herself to sing correctly. In situations with sound delay, the singer must “turn off” what he or she hears. To practice for this scenario, cup your hands over your ears, facing your hand backwards away from your mouth. When you sing, it takes a little time for the sound to travel to your ears, bouncing off of the walls of the room first. Also, practice singing in different spaces to acclimate your mind to hearing your voice in different ways. Without awareness of the change in sound in different environments, the singer tends to fall back on bad habits, such as tension in the throat or anything previously used to inhibit the sound, to compensate for the sound difference. If you have ever performed and felt like you had no voice after the performance, tension dominated. Always return to the basics of singing when disrupted by new environments.

Supplemental Videos

Assignment on Videos

After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.

Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.

1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?

2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?

3. Think of a singer you have seen and heard. Who are they, and what do they demonstrate in terms of this concept?

4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.

5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?