There’s plenty of people these days who know all about the voice and the physiology of singing. I guess the obsession with vocal knowledge is the cancer that idol TV shows (east and west) have inflicted on the world by continually treating music as a competition with measureable objective standards that don’t exist in reality instead of as an entertainment art. It’s one motherfucking boring topic that I couldn’t be fucked covering, but I know a lot of people love it and do cover it which is great because it saves me the trouble. However, how many people know about what happens after the voice leaves the throat and before it gets on a recording that you listen to? If you’ve ever wanted to know any of that shit, this post is for you (and if you didn’t, you can stop reading now and go fap to Girl’s Day videos, bye bye).
I wanted to do a big post about music production as a whole, but it would be too large, there’s just so much to cover, so I’m narrowing down the topic to what k-pop fans obsess about most – vocals. I may post about backings or other instruments in a separate blog sometime in the future depending on what people are curious about, but in the meantime this blog should hopefully answer such questions as:
- What vocal technique is actually for
- Why you don’t sound like your favourite k-pop idols when you sing and record at home
- How many pictures of k-pop girls I can shoehorn into a post which isn’t specifically about any of them
Let’s get started with…
A BRIEF HISTORY OF VOCAL TECHNIQUE IN MUSIC AND WHY NOBODY CARES ANYMORE (EXCEPT YOU)
In Ye Olden Days, unlike today, vocal pedagogy was more than just personal taste, OCD and k-pop fans having a wank over who’s bias is the best – it actually did matter for practical reasons. There was no way to electronically enhance vocals, so if someone wanted a person’s voice to be heard over a distance, that person either had to have either very good vocal technique (as in opera singers, trained in vocal projection techniques so they can be heard by everyone in a 1000-seat hall without amplification and not trash their vocal cords in the process) or there had to be a LOT of vocalists all singing together (such as in a church choir). That’s why when you go into any church or opera house built before the days of modern speaker systems, the whole room is reflective and echoey as fuck – that’s to help the singers move their voices along a bit. In the old days, the performance venue’s floors, walls and furnishing was the sound system, and these rooms were designed accordingly to reinforce and spread sound. Even the trained opera singer is useless without this reinforcement – they don’t have a hope in hell of being heard by a large audience if they’re singing outdoors if there’s a bit of a wind happening, so the resonance and echo of the room is important. The opera singer’s voice as we know it is actually a combination of their raw voice and the acoustic environment.
This all changed over the last hundred years or so. Nowadays, shit like vocal projection and technique doesn’t matter at all, because of the wonderful invention of the modern sound system which is specifically designed to project your voice for you. Your singing can be complete donkey-ass and you can still be heard just fine all the way to the back of the biggest auditorium as long as the size and power of your speaker system can cut it. Lucky audience, hey? This is why singing technique changed in the 20th century and why nobody sings like opera singers anymore (except opera singers, because opera fans are obsessive purists who like things done old-school). Opera singers had to project because the resonance in their voice comprised part of the sound system – the invention of modern electronic sound systems has meant that projection is no longer important, and because singers now don’t need to worry about volume/projection/technique so much this has allowed much more subtle, varied and personalised styles of vocal delivery to emerge. Nowadays once-useful echoey rooms are a bad phenomenon – when you’ve got a loud sound system pumping, the very last thing you want is the singer’s voice bouncing around the walls of the venue and being reinforced, because sure enough it will bounce right back into the microphone and create what’s known as a feedback loop – that’s that squealing noise you sometimes hear on live stages when the sound person doesn’t know what they’re doing.
This is why modern rock concerts are never held inside 200 year old churches (unless the promoter is an idiot – which does happen). Modern venues that use sound systems will usually have less resonant rooms, with sound-absorbing materials like lots of carpet, soft furniture and big curtains, instead of shiny reflective surfaces that bounce singer’s voices around.
So now that we’ve established that traditional vocal technique is really just one component of a sound system which is now obsolete by at least a century, let’s explore what actually happens in a modern sound system like the ones that k-pop performers actually use. We’ll look at the kinds of things that happen to a person’s vocal between some idol singing it on a recording or a stage, and that sound then being heard by you, the listener.
There’s lots of different types of microphones, but only three different types matter for the average k-pop idol group. The first is the studio condensor mic as shown by designated Kpopalypse microphone model Lizzy.
This type of microphone is the optimal choice for studio recording. These give the most accurate reproduction of the human voice possible (which isn’t a 100% perfect recreation but is reasonably close) – and have a price tag to match. They are also extremely sensitive, pick up lots of sound and thus are almost never used on live stages (because of the feedback problem shown earlier). Lizzy is very obviously miming into this particular microphone as you would never sing this close to a condensor unless you were doing a whisper-vocal or something, and you would also normally use a “pop shield” between your mouth and the microphone:
Here’s Jiyeon in an actual recording situation as opposed to miming to show us how it’s done properly – note the black disc just to the left of the microphone, that’s the pop shield, it takes the harsh wind noise when people pronounce the letter “p” out of the vocal. It’s made of very light material. (If you are recording vocals at home and find that your “p” is excessively loud, and you don’t have the money to buy a pop shield you can make your own by bending a wire coat hangar into a circle and stretching an old stocking over it, then sticking it upside down hook-end first into a microphone stand. A lot uglier, but the same effect.) Also note that Jiyeon’s mic is upside down, this doesn’t matter as the thing picks up sound from the sides, they probably suspended it that way so it’s not so much in the way of her music stand. Just telling you this because if I don’t, I know someone will fucking ask me. Also, she’s kind of far away from the microphone – that’s okay. They work best if you don’t get too close to them, a foot distance is about ideal.
Because you can’t take a big condensor microphone onto a live stage in most situations, because it’s big, cumbersome and will howl the shit out of itself with feedback from picking up every single sound in the room, most vocalists will use one of these, instead:
This is a wireless “dynamic” microphone and it’s your optimal choice for vocals on a live stage. Dynamic microphones are less sensitive than condensors, easy to hold, and they’re also directional – they only tend to pick up the sounds that they’re pointed at, so if you point it at your face, it’ll pick up your singing, but not so much of the sound of the sound system (therefore less chance of a feedback loop). However, dynamic microphones tend to give less accurate response – they don’t pick up your voice exactly as-is, they tend to “colour” the result a little. Better microphones will colour your voice less, but all of them do this to some extent. It’s “get the job done” tech that is designed to be versatile and durable rather than perfect.
Here’s a comparison of frequency response between a condensor microphone (red) and a dynamic microphone (blue), so you can get a feel for the difference.
From left to right is from bass to treble, and the vertical axis is volume. These are both frequency response readings from professional industry-standard microphones. Note that the dynamic microphone doesn’t perform at all well in the bass register (below 150Hz) and also has a lump of around +8dB at 5KHz. The condensor microphone while also not perfect has a much “flatter” response curve overall.
Finally, there’s headset microphones, as worn again by designated Kpopalypse microphone model Lizzy in the following picture:
These are favoured by any artists with complex dance routines to perform (that means k-poppers) due to the obvious advantage of having both hands free and maximum mobility, however the sound from these is usually not ideal – always “less flat” than the dynamic microphone. There’s one other massive problem with headset microphones – because it’s attached to your head, you can’t change the distance between your mouth and the microphone while you sing. Professional singers will use “microphone technique” which means that they “gain-ride” their microphones – they’ll bring their lips closer to the microphone for quiet singing and draw them further away from each other when doing extremely loud notes, this has the effect of evening out the natural volume changes in a singer’s voice (and you thought Ailee was doing all that head-swinging bullshit on stage because the choreographer told her that Johnny Noh would get a boner and write nicer things if she waved her hair around a bit – no, there’s actually a legit musical reason for why she’s doing that). This is not possible with a headset microphone, unfortunately – however, almost all k-pop singers use headset mics at one point or another. So, how to get around this problem? For the answer to that, we need to talk about…
VOCAL SIGNAL PROCESSING
Once the vocal gets into the microphone and gets converted into electrical signal, then it’s motherfucking open season, bitches. Think what you hear on a recording or on a live stage is the pure sound of your favourite star’s vocal, think again – this is never the case in k-pop, ever. Here’s the most common effects used in k-pop, in rough order of how frequently they appear on recordings and live stages.
COMPRESSION – a compressor is basically a “volume-ducker” that evens out volume discrepancies. You set a threshold of volume and any input signal above the threshold gets reduced in volume by a selected ratio.
Infinity-to-1 compression is also called “LIMITING“, because you’re setting a strict limit that volume cannot go above, however this sounds ugly when used on vocals. A 2:1 or 4:1 ratio is much more common when dealing with vocals. Compression is a very subtle effect to the untrained ear, it’s the kind of effect where if it’s applied correctly you’re not actually supposed to hear it working at all.
Compression is the solution to the live sound headset-problem noted earlier, but it’s not just used for that. Compression smooths out volume levels, giving a much more consistent sound to a vocal and is used for all studio-recorded pop music vocals everywhere at all times. To find commercial pop music recordings without compression on the vocals, you would need to go back to the 1970s, if not further.
PITCH CORRECTION (aka AUTOTUNE) – pitch quantization for vocals, moves a sung note to the nearest correct note. Can be an obvious effect (that “snapping” electronic robot sound) but usually is not used this way, and I’ve discussed the little-known subtleties of pitch-correction in much more detail here. It’s almost as common as compression. Occasionally pitch correction isn’t used in very specific situations (it’s only occasionally used on a rap part, for example), but you can safely assume that a “mild” form of pitch correction is in use on at least 98% of k-pop recordings that you own or have heard and which were created in the last five years.
REVERB – artifically-added room reflections. Common studio practice is to record in a “dry” (non-reflective) room, and then add the room reflections later. Whenever you see a singer in a studio cooped up inside a small soundproofed recording booth cutting a vocal track, such as Bom in this picture, it’s pretty much guaranteed that artificial reflections will be added later. The small booth is designed to be as non-reflective as possible, giving the engineer a “clean slate” to work with when adding reflections.
Reflections can be added mechanically via SPRING REVERB or PLATE REVERB (the audio signal is passed through a resonant metal spring or large plate and then re-routed back into the mixing desk) or more commonly by a DIGITAL REVERB unit which samples and replays the original signal at lower volumes to simulate a room reflection. Modern digital reverb units can make a vocalist sound like they are singing in a concert hall, in a lounge room, in a shower, or just about anywhere else. In a recording studio it’s also possible to record NATURAL REVERB by sticking a microphone in a far corner of the room while someone sings and taking a separate feed from this microphone into the mixing desk. In a live music environment, if reverb is required the only type used is digital reverb because the other options are a true pain in the ass on live stages and not exactly practical.
How common is reverb? Very, very common. Vocals recorded without any reflections at all tend to sound unnatural to most people’s ears like there’s “something missing but I don’t know what” and only artists on smaller labels or not working in the field of pop music are willing to reside in such an uncanny valley.
EQUALISATION – adjustment of bass, midrange and treble frequencies, just like on your home stereo. However while your home stereo has maybe three or five or seven parameters you can adjust if you’re lucky, a professional equaliser unit usually has 30. Here’s a picture of a typical unit, note that there are 60 faders because it’s in stereo and processes the left and right channels independently.
Digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as ProTools give even finer control over equalisation than this. Vocals have an annoying nasal quality? Find the nasal frequency that’s annoying you and get rid of it. Vocalist has poor resonant notes? Use the equaliser unit in conjunction with reverb to boost the resonating frequency of the singer’s note and create a resonance. Microphone feeding back on a live stage? Instead of turning down the volume of the entire sound system, just find the frequency that’s feeding back on this thing and turn it down a notch while keeping everything else the same. Want to make a singer sound like they’re singing over a telephone line? Find all the frequencies that a telephone speaker is unable to reproduce and cut them out of the mix. Etc etc. Equalisation can be used to create incredibly artificial effects, or incredibly natural effects, and it’s rare to find a vocal track that isn’t equalised in some way.
AURAL EXCITATION is a specific type of equalisation that delves into the realm of psychoacoustics which is a bit much to cover in a k-pop blog, but it’s also used commonly on pop vocal tracks. Aural excitation boosts certain upper frequencies that are associated with audio clarity, sunshine, fluffy bunnies, lollipops, kittens and walks in the park holding the hand of your one true love, so it’s natural that k-pop would want to use it and I’m not going to go into detail about how it works because it gets really up-the-ass technical and shit. Just know that aural excitation units are something that exists and you don’t really need to understand the inner workings of them to be able to use one, you just turn up the knob that says “bunnies” until you like what you hear.
CHORUS – similar to reverb but a “closer” type of effect, it’s like a reflection so close to the original signal that instead of sounding like a reflection, it just sounds like the original signal is thicker. A great effect for giving a bit of body to a singer with a weedy voice, it’s often used to beef up below-average singers who have trouble getting a good tone. It has a similar net result to DOUBLE TRACKING (which is just the vocalist recording the same part twice and the engineer combining the two parts) but it’s a little less obvious.
Those are the main effects that are used on vocal tracks these days. There’s a lot more such as DELAY, FLANGER, PHASER, etc but the ones listed are what’s used on almost every single vocal track (with the exception of chorus/double tracking).
Just to cap it all off, once your favourite k-pop star’s vocal sound has been recorded with a microphone with an unbalanced frequency response, into a mixing board, then compressed, pitch corrected, reverbed, excited, equalised, etc etc then it has to come out of a speaker somewhere. Just like microphones, speakers do not have an even frequency response, and in fact your average music listener dislikes hearing even-response speakers anyway, preferring to boost both the bass and the treble somewhat. So your vocal signal after going through all of that shit is then finally coloured again by whatever you’re listening to it through.
THE WHOLE PACKAGE
The point I’m making is that nobody hears “natural” vocal anymore. All pop music vocal is unnatural by definition and this has been the case ever since the rising popularity of multi-track recording in the late 1960s. If you’re an aspiring singer and you’ve ever wondered why you don’t sound like your favourite idols, take heart in the fact that they don’t even sound like that. Even without Autotune, the modern pop singer’s voice is still largely an electronic creation. The sound that a singer makes on a recording, there is no way you can hear that same type of sound naturally, with your ears, if you were standing in a room with them. The artificial electroacoustic creation of an unrealistically super-smooth singer has become the standard practice, and it’s been this way in the pop music business for at least four decades.
Just like the real sound of an opera singer is:
Operatic voice —> room ambience colouration —> your ear
The real sound of a pop singer is:
Pop voice —> microphone technique —> microhpone colouration —> effects colouration —> more effects colouration —> speaker colouration —> your ear
To cap it off, take a quick look at the Nine Muses documentary “Nine Muses From Star Empire”. It’s a great documentary that every k-pop fan should watch all the way through, but the relevant section for the purpose of this blog starts at 6:10.
In the studio one of the singers tells the composer/producer that she just can’t sing that high. His response: “just yell it out”. He then proceeds to smoke his cigarette and chill out. The composer knows that he can fix her poor vocals in the mix with his small arsenal of electronic toys. She sings again, and then stops because she’s unsure of herself, not because he asked her to. She felt self-conscious about her poor singing, but he didn’t care that she wasn’t singing the notes right, he only wanted her to sound confident – vocals can be smoothed out, pitch-corrected and tarted up to sound good but personality and confidence can’t be electronically generated (yet). That’s why instead of telling the girls to “sing in key” and “use resonance”, he instead tells them to “take it seriously” and “use power”. He’s trying to capture some confidence and personality on the take, not necessarily a “good” vocal performance – he knows he won’t get that out of her anyway. There’s eight other members in the group to bury each girl’s vocals under, so if she really just can’t do it at all he doesn’t exactly have to use the parts. Ever wonder why your favourite groups always have uneven line distribution?
Anyway I hope this post has demystified a few things for some of you out there. And if it hasn’t, because you already knew all this stuff, then hopefully this post has been a nice ego-boost for you instead and you can go and stroke yourself off on some forum about how you already knew all this stuff because you’re so clever and what’s with Kpopalypse’s lame condescending posts etc. Consider this my gift to you.