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If you’ve ever found yourself in a recording session with a vocalist, you won’t need me to tell you how laborious the experience can be; especially with male vocalists. The most common difficulty in male vocals is finding that easy change from a man’s "head voice" to his "falsetto" This can come as quite irritating and distressing for some vocalists. In this article I will be proposing a few methods to make this technique as even as possible.
Head Voice and Falsetto
So what is a "head voice" or a "falsetto voice" you may be asking? Well, it is the initial break in a man's voice from his low to high range.
When you are using your head voice you can feel the vibrations in your chest, this is because when using the head voice the vocal cords come together and vibrate along their entire length as the air flows between them. The sound that is made is broad and sounds natural to the singer's range.
As you move up to falsetto the resonance moves on up to your head. Falsetto simply means 'false voice' and is produced by small folds in the vocal chords which come close enough to one another to cause the edges to vibrate as the air flows between them, but they are not making contact with one another. Get it now?
A smooth change from head voice to falsetto revolves around the strength of the vocalist’s diaphragm muscles and the amount of control they have over their voice. Diaphragm muscles can over time strengthen with regular exercises and warm-ups.
This article covers a few do's and don'ts regarding vocal changes and tonality these include:
- Warming up / strengthening diaphragm
- Positioning of head and body
Warming Up / Strengthening Diaphragm
Some vocalists may choose not to warm up before a studio session but let me tell you, this is a huge mistake. Warming up your voice can not only improve your tonality inside and out of the studio, but also gradually increases your vocal range in some cases.
For these exercises it would be very useful to use a piano.
The first warm up I am going to introduce is called a vocal slide. This can be done by using a note on a piano and sliding up to the next octave using a glissando technique with your voice, each note should be repeated three times, then each a semitone higher. You will notice your voice slowly starts to slide over the break in your voice.
This is a great technique as you start to learn exactly where your head voice ends and your falsetto starts. This should be done as the initial first warm up as it mainly focuses on the range of notes in your vocals.
Arpeggiated Chord Patterns
For this exercise using a piano, pick a three-chord pattern, play each chord in an arpeggiated sequence (low to high) and sing each note as a short vowel. Do this in a way where your diaphragm is under a high amount of tension and use short blasts of voice as if you were laughing.
This exercise is particularly important if you want to build up resistance for longer more sustained high notes as over time your diaphragm will get stronger. Repeat the three-chord pattern thrice then gradually move the pitch up a semitone. This will also help to build a larger range.
Talking to Singing
This exercise is an excellent warm up for tonality of a voice; not very well known either. Pick a vocal section snippet from a song and sing it through a couple times. Once you are confident with the section begin speaking the line and gradually change from your talking voice into singing.
This may sound fairly easy but is actually a very difficult technique which requires practice behind it. You should always know the difference between the tone of your voice when talking and singing. A good vocalist knows every crack and bump in their vocals!
When practicing your vocals you should always integrate a few pieces you enjoy singing. When doing this you should get into the habit of singing the same song in different octaves.
This is great practice for a growing vocal range which can also be used practically in and out of the studio (eg. changing key in pieces).
The problem that hits most vocalists is how different their head voice and falsetto sound from one another. Generally a male's head voice will have a broad, deep sounding tone, whereas their falsetto will have breathy, airy tone.
The trick to a solid, smooth change from both of them is to make the falsetto voice sound as solid as possible. Unfortunately there is no quick-fix for this technique and can even take years of practice.
But there are some exercises which can speed up the process of accessing a more even tone.
Out of Range
When brushing up on your usual practice regime, try singing scalic formations that are out of your vocal range. At first this will sound very breathy and uneven but over time you will notice your voice will get more acquainted to the high notes, and soon enough they will be easier to sustain.
In musical notation, grace notes or acciaccatura are a musical ornament placed before a note. Using grace notes before long sustained high notes can help execute pitch perfection in higher ranges which will come as a great help in the studio.
Practice this with a piano. Pick a note, and have the grace note an octave lower than this note, go on to sustain the lasting note. This may be quite difficult at first, but will start to show improvement almost immediately.
Accents and Vocal Styles
A lot of vocalists, upon listening to their favourite track or piece, try to use or inherit the accent or technique that is used in the singer voice. In some cases this may improve the style of a singer’s vocals. But in most cases the vocalist will solely concentrate on mimicking the track’s sound instead of working on their own voice.
This is a no; if you are listening to a track or making a cover in the studio try to make it your own instead of trying to mimic what the track does. I have seen this countless time and it is really not worth the time.
When using your lower range of falsetto, it may become more difficult to sustain broader notes at the correct pitch, improvement on this can also be done through practicing the “vocal slide” and “octave” exercises shown above.
Positioning of the Head and Body
I cannot tell you how important this is. It could be the single flaw between the aspect of a smooth change or a sketchy break.
The positioning of the head and body have a lot to do with this, especially jaw movement. A lot of vocalists when singing in falsetto seem to raise their head more and point their chin upwards I have seen this countless times with budding vocalists.
This is WRONG. Do not get into a habit of doing this - it will work as a mute on your vocal chords as the muscles on the front of your throat will constrict onto your vocal chords, tightening them and creating a duller more uneven sound.
The Mirror Technique
A way to counteract this is by sitting on a stool next to a wall directly in front of a mirror. Press your back and head firmly against the wall, look straight forward and as you’re singing look into the mirror and make sure you are not moving any part of your body, especially not your jaw.
Jaw movement can influence tonality a lot more than you think. If you position your jaw as if you were yawning (an 'o' shape with your mouth) you get a much broader tone, whereas if your jaw is hardly open this constricts the sound and gives a much more artificial feel. This is crucial, especially when singing in falsetto.
For vocalists/guitarists another habit which seems to let down their tone is the fact that when singing into a microphone, some people seem to lean forward right over their guitar, which constricts their diaphragm and gives a more muted voice, not to mention that higher ranges will be harder to attain.
If you find yourself doing this, just remember: Bring the microphone to you, don't move your head to reach it.
And last but not least, remember when moving up to the change from head voice to falsetto in a piece, don't massively change the amount of tension you are putting on the diaphragm. Vocalists might do this by crouching slightly or seizing their bodies up.
Doing this can actually cause damage to the diaphragm and may stress the voice permanently. Even if your falsetto is quieter than your head voice (which in most cases it is) just move closer to the microphone. Putting too much strain on your vocals can permanently damage your voice.