Are you ready to delve once again into the spooky paranormal mysteries of k-pop vocals? Kpopalypse returns for another episode of The V Files!
PREVIOUSLY, ON THE V FILES…
The previous episode of The V Files looked at “projection”. What is vocal projection, and how much is it actually really needed in k-pop? The answered turned out to be “depends who you ask” and “not at all”, respectively. Various self-appointed “experts” in disciplines ranging from singing teaching to public speaking to life-coaching all had vastly different ideas on what constituted “projection”, but it didn’t really end up mattering anyway – with a microphone up against your lips and a backing track to sing along to, there’s no reason for the average k-pop performer to project any further than a few centimetres at most. Far from a desirable quality, strong projection was actually revealed to be a negative vocal attribute in many k-pop relevant circumstances such as with large multi-member idol groups where loud voices could cause microphone “bleed” between performers, contributing to feedback and decreasing sound isolation from a vocal mixing standpoint.
How did this go down with the k-pop fan community? Like a kitten trapped inside a sack of shit sinking to the bottom of a ravine, apparently. K-pop vocal communities are pretty much ignoring me now and that’s just fine, these posts aren’t really for them anyway, but rather for the people who are being gradually driven insane by the endlessly obsessive evaluation-for-evaluation’s-sake stupidity of these people and would like to read something sane and trufaxual about the real application of vocals in the (not so) real world of k-pop.
EPISODE 6 – STABILITY
If you’ve paid even slight attention to any discussion of any k-pop group anywhere (and I’m not sure why you would, but anyway…), you’ll notice that “stable” vocals are something that k-pop fans seem to value as a positive attribute. But why is this so important to people? And what do they mean by “stable” anyway? What is it specifically about Jennie’s voice in the below video that means she is supposedly “stable”? Or is someone just guessing that she’s “stable” because they like the sound of her voice, or just because they like her generally? I mean, she’s likeable, because she’s an idol and that’s her job, so I guess it would be easy to get these matters confused… or would it?
As usual, I started off my journey at kpopvocalanalysis.net, to see if they had a definition of this term. Not by choice, and not because I want to pick on him or anything, but only because pretty much all k-pop conversation about vocal stability on the Internet is pretty much completely monopolised by this guy, so it’s basically impossible for me to even discuss the perception of this topic in the k-pop community at all without discussing his view on it.
Sure enough, his site had an answer, on their terminology page:
So the site defines “stability” as the opposite of three other words, “wobbly”, “shaky” and “unsupported”. So now we have to define what those words mean to understand what is meant by stability. “Support” was easy enough to find:
Now “support” is also defined by three other terms, one of which is “support” itself, which makes no sense. Imagine if you didn’t know what a bicycle was, so you looked up “bicycle” in the dictionary and under “bicycle” it said “like a bicycle”… not useful, right? So let’s ignore that one and move on. The second word is “project” and we’ve already been there and know that “projection” pretty much just means “loudness” and that’s of limited value. The other term is “hold their voice together”, which means… erm… well it isn’t really defined at all actually, it could mean anything from voice cracking to pitching incorrectly to not coughing up a booger during a vocal line. The only conclusion I can draw is that “unsupported” doesn’t really have a specific meaning, or if it does, it’s not communicated clearly enough to be useful.
“Wobbly” and “shaky” are also defined as the opposite of stability, but those terms are different from “support” as they do have a fairly self-evident meaning – if something wobbles or shakes, that means that it moves around, it has variance. A good example of deliberate variance in vocals would be the variance in pitch which vocalists employ when they use vibrato. Oh but wait.
“Vibrato” is defined in the terminology section, but as a (potentially) positive quality, if produced by that other mythic quality “support”. I’m not sure why some vibrato is deemed “artificially produced” and some is deemed “natural” when both are being produced by a human singing a note, but never mind the complete lack of logic in that – the bigger logic hole is this: if stability = good, and stability = support, and natural vibrato = (potentially) good support, and support = good, but vibrato in general = wobbling or shaking a note, and wobbly/shaky = not stable = bad, then is shaking a note mean that it is more supported or less supported, and is that good or bad? Kpopvocalanalysis.net would probably answer “if supported then it is good”, but given that stability is partly support, and that a note that is moving in pitch is unstable by definition because singers who employ vibrato are destabilising their pitch, haven’t we just contradicted ourselves? Who gets to decide what “stability” really is, or is it just one of those snob terms with no truly defined meaning that people trot out when they want to prop their bias up a notch, or take down a singer that they don’t happen to like?
Clearly I wasn’t going to get any coherent answers here, so it was time to search further afield. Or at least try to. A search for vocal stability on YouTube came up with this video as the top result, and holy shit wouldn’t you know it, it’s by the same fucking dude:
And his top comment:
The word “stable” has no exact meaning according to this guy, but then he also says it’s hard to do while dancing, so it must mean something according to him? Oh that’s right, it means this:
So yeah – no exact meaning, as we just covered. It’s like he’s agreeing with me that he’s just making it up as he goes along, which would be fine if he wasn’t also the only k-pop fan talking about this with any visibility. (If you’re reading, I’m sorry and I don’t mean to give you a hard time but you do kind of bring this on yourself by spreading all these ill-defined concepts around a young and impressionable fanbase. You realise that you’re probably directly responsible for thousands of “look at my stable bias!” posts and videos, right? At least you deleted your vocal rankings that put Tiffany above IU (lol) so props for that.)
So it was clear that I needed a more diverse range of opinions and that I needed to go far away from k-pop to get them, so I started hunting for random videos on the topic of vocal stability, hoping for someone who could educate me.
This guy puts wavering, shakiness and instability down to anxiousness, bad posture, tone, and poor diction. Actually I’m not sure why diction (vocal intelligibility – being able to clearly understand the words of the singer) is supposed to have anything to do with stability because it’s possible to sing just fine with no words at all, I think he threw diction in there just a bonus extra. He also says that good tone involves feeling a “vibration” but doesn’t really make it very clear how these supposedly good vibrations are different from the “wavering” or “shakiness” that is the bad vibration of “instability”.
I don’t understand this guy’s language, but I can read English captions real good, and at one point he says “Riyaz of holding notes will help you to improve stability in singing”. I don’t know who Riyaz is but that sounds like good advice from Riyaz and suggests that being able to keep a note going for a while might be part of “stability”. Gosh, it’s a worry when the guy who doesn’t even speak my language makes more sense to me than most of the English speakers in this post.
Here’s a “vocal stability test” broken down (with diagrams only, not a physical demonstration, unfortunately). Instability is broken down into two categories:
- shimmer = amplitude variance (consistency of volume)
- jitter = frequency variance (consistency of pitch)
So that’s nice, at least we’re getting into some concrete definitions here that actually mean something. It doesn’t answer the question of why someone would do something like deliberately add vibrato to their voice however, which is something that singers do all the time. Using the above measures, vibrato would definitely count towards “jitter” and probably to “shimmer” too because it’s actually quite hard to give your voice pitch variation in a vibrato style without also subconsciously oscillating the volume slightly as well. So I’m no closer to any answers, but at least now we have a slightly better defined question.
This “butt kickin’ vocal workout” is supposed to add strength and stability. He doesn’t really talk about what stability actually is, just that if you have stronger muscles driving your throat, you’ll have more of it. Probably.
This woman has a video what can help you controll yuor vibrato, but again she doesn’t really talk about what “stability” is, what controlling yuor vibrato actually means, how much vibrato is too much, or not enough… in fact she doesn’t really talk about much at all. Oh well.
Here’s a woman who also doesn’t really explain much, but says that the type of shoe you wear can make a big difference to your vocal stability, because (stay with me on this) apparently with crappy shoes you’re putting energy into physical balance that you should be putting into your voice. This idea seems a little drastically unhinged at first but actually made some degree of sense to me the more she explained it. New respect for all those k-pop girls who perform in heels, right?
Well, maybe not. I mean, CLC are good and all, but we’re not exactly finding out anything real here, are we. If nothing else, it’s somehow clear that while stability means that the note doesn’t move, not all types of “note not moving” are bad. Vibrato is meant to be a good movement, so maybe I should be searching that instead.
Okay, so while searching for “stability” brought up a bunch of people talking in hazy non-specifics, searching for “vibrato” brought up this guy, who explains vibrato vs non-vibrato singing perfectly. Furthermore, he also debunks this:
…by explaining that “natural vibrato” is a bullshit concept, because nobody “naturally” sings that way, vibrato is a trained inflection that vocalists learn to add to their natural singing voice. So now we have a definition that is real and not complete fucking bullshit, we can conclude: vibrato (when done right) is “instability” which is (hopefully, in an ideal world) controlled and added deliberately, which makes it distinct from other types of accidental instability such as random shakiness due to performance nerves. Great, we’re sort of getting somewhere sensible with these definitions now.
So, given all of the above, what does all of this mean to k-pop? How stable is your bias, and does it matter?
Take a listen to the above video. She sounds great, right? I mean, sure, you might not like the song (I sure don’t) but there’s no denying that she sounds like she has a great voice. Pity that it’s all electronically generated, both the stability and the vibrato sections. This is an advertising demonstration of “Wavestune“, a pitch-correction software plug-in similar to Autotune. However she certainly doesn’t sound “Autotuned” at all… but she is. So is your bias.
Don’t believe that your faves can be transformed so wildly by pitch correction? Then take a listen to this.
This guy objectively can’t sing – or maybe he can but is pretending that he can’t for the purpose of this video. However a bit of tweaking, electronic pitch correction plus some cut and paste, and he sounds just fine. What did they do to make him sound so good?
- lots of compression
- a little reverb
- cut and pasted part of the second chorus phrase over the first phrase to overwrite the part where his voice cracks
- pitch-corrected the fuck out of all of it, including manually moving the wrong notes to their correct neighbour
And this level of fixing isn’t even considered all that extreme for modern commercial pop and rock music.
This girl required a lot more fixing. She was pretty bad and they made her sound great by the end.
- stitched together the highlights of five separate vocal tracks
- massive amounts of pitch correction with both Autotune and Melodyne (yes, both)
- double tracked the main vocal to thicken up the part
- created two extra harmony vocals using a pitch-shifted version of her original vocal
So you can easily “stabilise” a vocal with all of this and make everyone sound like your “stable faves”. You can also add vibrato too.
In the above video (which I’ve used before) the guy talks about a “natural vibrato button” (yes, that “natural” vibrato again lol) and demonstrates being able to adjust not only the pitch stability but the amount of vibrato precisely. Everything can be adjusted if it has to be, and in 2018 it’s not even difficult or even all that expensive anymore.
Now combine all of the above with Korea’s obsession with “perfection” in pretty much every facet of music, and do you really think that any of the people in k-pop are actually singing with unassisted voices most of the time? Why does everybody mysteriously sound great and always in-tune on Sketchbook? Why do all sorts of random idols blow people the fuck away on King Of Masked Singer? The answer should now be obvious.
So the answer to all of this is:
- your fave is exactly as stable (or unstable) as their producer and audio engineer want them to be
- your vocal stability obsession looks like a fucking joke to people who actually work in this industry and “engineer” stability into vocals for a living
- love your favourite singers if you want to, because why not, but don’t kid yourselves folks
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this episode of The V Files! The series shall return!