Natural vocal effects are one of the best ways to stand out as a singer. These five vocal effects add variety and flavor to your live and recorded performances.
Whether you’re just learning to sing, writing your next hit song, or preparing to record a full album, your vocals need to stand out. It’s time to master these five natural vocal effects.
If you’re looking to record vocals check out this guide instead.
Sounds great, you say, but what are natural vocal effects? Are we talking reverb and delay?
No… natural vocal effects are special sounds you create with your voice when you change the way your vocal cords vibrate. When you’re singing, your vocal cords vibrate evenly, opening and closing hundreds of times per second and creating the sound waves that we hear as singing.
With vocal effects, you’re changing the way the cords vibrate in some way to create a specific sound, and there are many ways you can change how your vocal cords vibrate.
For example, if you don’t close your vocal cords tight, more air will escape from your throat and you’ll get a breathy sound in your voice. That’s because your vocal cords aren’t resisting the air as much and more air will naturally pass through them.
This small change is responsible for the signature breathy vocal sounds of Elliott Smith, Iron and Wine, and Bon Iver. And that’s just one natural vocal effect!
So, now that you see how a simple change can make a huge difference in the way you sound, I have to warn you: it’s very easy to do these vocal effects wrong! That’s because most singers learn how to do vocal effects by imitating their favorite artists. But any time you’re imitating another singer, it’s very easy to pick up their bad habits or use technique that can strain or tax your voice.
The best way to learn vocal effects is to work with a coach and learn vocal exercises that give you the control to change the way you sound.
With vocal exercises, we use different scales, vowels, and consonants to make your vocal cords vibrate in a certain way. This way, you can directly control what’s going on in your vocal cords and pretty soon, you’ll be able to add these vocal effects on demand.
Practice these vocal effects daily and you’ll be amazed at how much better your voice sounds!
One note: If you’re new to singing, it’s hard to make vocal effects sound good. That’s because if you’re just learning how to sing, changing the way your vocal cords work to create vocal effects may throw you off course.
Remember, vocal effects happen when you change the way your vocal cords vibrate. If you’re just learning how to get your vocals to work, you may have a hard time finding the right sound with vocal effects. So, if you’re not doing any vocal training yet, consider taking private singing lessons, watching YouTube videos, or doing online singing lessons to improve your voice.
Then, as your voice develops, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to apply these vocal effects.
1. Breathy voice
Breath is incredibly important in singing, and in addition to mastering your breath control for regular singing, creating a breathy vocal effect is an easy way to make your singing more emotional.
Think back to the last time you heard a beautiful acoustic ballad. Was the singer screaming or projecting in a full-Broadway style voice? Of course not! The singer probably sang with a little breath in his/her voice to make the song sound more emotional and intimate.
Why is that?
When we’re sick, vulnerable, or unsure, we lower our voices to a whisper. That sound has the same effect on us in singing! When we hear someone with breath in their singing voice, we lean in closer to listen.
Elliott Smith provides tons of great examples of breathy voice. Here’s a sample of his song “Miss Misery.” Notice how he never raises his singing above a whisper for the entire song.
Or listen to “Naked As We Came” by Iron and Wine:
Breathy voice isn’t just for acoustic songs. Take a listen to the first verse of “If I Were a Boy” by Beyoncé.
What causes breathy voice? As I mentioned, breathy voice happens when the vocal cords are a bit loose and not closing all the way. Since they’re not closing completely, more air passes through the vocal cords and we hear breathiness in the vocal tone.
Now that you understand what causes breathy voice, here’s my favorite exercise to help you find it.
- Select a phrase from a song that you want to make sound more emotional.
- Say the word “Hoo” (as in “hoot) out loud at a comfortable volume.
- Now, sing the melody of the song but replace each word of the lyrics with the “Hoo” sound. As you’re singing the word, try to focus on the “H” consonant at the beginning of each exercise. You should feel a little bit of breath in the back of your throat every time you say the “h.”
- Finally, add a bit of the breathy feeling that you found with the “Hoo” sound back into the lyrics.
There’s something so beautiful in a soaring falsetto voice. From Radiohead to Daniel Caesar to Portugal. The Man, tons of great singers have used this simple vocal effect to sing their songs higher and smoother.
What is falsetto?
Falsetto is a breathy, ghostly, or hooty sound you hear on high notes in a singer’s voice. Take a listen to “Reckoner” by Radiohead for the falsetto vocal effect.
For an R&B example, listen to the chorus of Daniel Caesar’s “Get You.”
Do you hear how light and airy that “Whooooooo” at the beginning of the chorus is? That’s falsetto!
But what causes this angelic and haunting sound?
Just like the breathy voice, falsetto happens when the vocal cords are not completely closed, leading to some breath leaking through the vocal cords.
The main difference is that unlike breathy voice, falsetto happens when a singer is at the top part of his/her singing voice, also called the head voice.
Now, before we jump into the exercise, I have to warn you: Many singers will simply break into falsetto anytime they sing above their vocal break.
This is totally natural for a beginner. But remember, you want to make sure that you learn to sing well before you start doing vocal effects because falsetto is very difficult to control if you haven’t learned to sing in a full head voice.
One simple exercise to find your falsetto
- Select a phrase of a song with high notes that you want to sing in falsetto.
- Sing the melody of the phrase but replace each note of the melody with the word “wee” (as in “week”). You should feel that the “w” consonant allows a little bit of air into your voice as you sing the melody. Remember, there should be no strain or tension in your falsetto voice. It should feel very easy and breathy.
- Finally, sing the lyrics of the song again but keep some of the same feeling of the breathy falsetto that you got on the “wee” exercise.
Here’s a video that walks you through it (you can start at the 7:40 mark to get to the “wee” exercise).
Who doesn’t love the sound of a great vocalist belting their face off? But what is belting and how do you find it?
Belting means singing the highest notes in your voice with a ton of vocal power. There are lots of great examples of belting in modern music.
Listen to Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters sing “Best of You.” Hear how Grohl is basically yelling the entire song? That’s belting.
For an R&B example, listen to the soul singer Charles Bradley belt out the chorus of his cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes.”
So what causes this amazing belting sound?
Belting happens when you sing notes in your head voice range with the power of your chest voice.
Wait, chest voice? Head voice? What does all that mean?
Don’t worry, you don’t need a translator, it’s all pretty straightforward. Your voice has 4 main vocal registers: vocal fry, chest voice, head voice and whistle register. Each register comes from a different way the vocal cords vibrate together.
For example, to hit low notes, your vocal cords become thicker, and just like the strings on a bass guitar, thick vocal cords vibrate more slowly. These thick vocal cords create the chest voice register.
When we sing high notes, the vocal cords stretch out and get thinner, and like the highest strings on a guitar, the thin vocal cords vibrate faster. These thin vocal cords create the head voice register.
So now that you understand the chest voice and head voice, let’s look at the definition of belting again: Belting is singing notes in your head voice range with the power of your chest voice.
Beware! When you’re first learning how to belt high notes, it can be very tiring for your voice. If you feel any strain or tension when you do this exercise, stop, reset and try again.
Here’s an easy exercise to belt your singing voice
- Pick a phrase from a song that you want to learn to belt. Make sure to pick one that’s within your vocal range.
- Say the word “nah” (as in “nasty”) out loud in a bratty way. Finding the bratty sound is pretty key here so make sure that it’s a very ugly, nasal or brassy sound.
- Sing the melody of the phrase but replace each word of the lyrics with the bratty “nah.” You should feel that each note is very bright and ugly sounding, and still powerful.
- Finally, go back to the lyrics of the song and sing the lyrics with a little bit of the bratty sound that you found in the “nah” exercise.
Here’s a video to walk you through how to do the exercise.
What’s the best way to feel like an amazing singer AND make your notes sound great? Sing with vibrato!
What is vibrato?
Vibrato is the slight wavering or wiggling of notes in a singer’s voice. Vibrato is used by singers who want to add punctuation or call attention to different notes in their voice — especially when they hold them for a period of time.
You can find examples of vibrato in nearly every pop song out there, but a couple of fantastic vibrato singers are Lady Gaga and Sam Smith.
Take a listen to Lady Gaga’s vibrato:
Do you hear how beautiful and exciting that vibrato sounds? Also listen to Sam Smith’s vibrato in this great episode of Carpool Karaoke:
Smith uses this amazing vocal effect on nearly every note that he holds.
Vibrato happens when the muscles of your singing voice pull against each other, creating a natural and harmless tremor. This tremoring of the muscles actually makes the wavering sound we hear as vibrato! But rather than a wobbly or unsteady sound, a well-trained vibrato sounds amazing!
One easy trick to find vibrato fast
- Select a word or note that you want to make more exciting. Make sure to pick a note that you’re going to hold for a few beats.
- Next, make a fist with one hand and cover the fist with your other hand. Then place both hands an inch above your belly button on your solar plexus.
- Now sing and hold the word that you want to add vibrato to while you push your hands on your abs in and out rapidly like you’re giving yourself CPR.
If you’re not sure how to create the vibrato sound, here’s a video where I walk you through it.
5. Vocal fry
Want to know the easiest way to add more emotion to your singing? Sing with vocal fry!
Vocal fry is the creaky, froggy, or even lazy sound that comes from the lowest vocal register.
It’s the sound of Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry’s speaking voice. But vocal fry doesn’t just happen in people’s speaking voices. Vocal fry is a very useful singing vocal effect. And luckily, vocal fry is a super easy way to add a ton of emotion to your singing.
Listen to the opening line of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” for a great example of vocal fry.
Do you hear the little growl or rasp that she gets on the word “Oh” in “Oh baby baby?” That’s vocal fry!
Or for another example, listen to Lorde sing the word “poison” in the first verse of her song “Liability.”
It’s almost like these singers are so intimate or vulnerable that they don’t even sing the note. So what causes this signature vocal fry sound?
Vocal fry happens when the cords are very loose and vibrating slowly. And since the cords are so loose and vibrating slowly, you can almost hear the air “bubbling” up through the vocal cords. This “bubbling” of air through the cords creates that froggy, raspy sound that we hear as vocal fry.
And since most of us naturally speak in vocal fry when we first wake up or have had a long night, vocal fry is an easy way to make the listener feel that the singer is vulnerable or confessing something.
Find your vocal fry with this simple trick
- Pick a phrase or word from a song that you want to make sound more emotional.
- Pretend you’re just waking up in the morning and say an “uh” vowel (as in “other”). When you say the “uh” sound, make sure you don’t allow any vocal tone or pitch into your voice. You want to keep everything very relaxed and croaky sounding.
- Finally, sing the words of the song with some of the deep “croaky” sound you found into the note.
If you’re not sure how to find vocal fry, try this simple exercise:
In my next post, we’ll explore how to use these effects in your songs.
Check out this list for other vocal tips and tricks!
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Read the follow-up to this post, “Add natural vocal effects to your songs.”
Matt Ramsey founded Ramsey Voice Studio in Austin, TX in 2012. Matt is an Institute for Vocal Advancement-certified voice teacher, a songwriter, and a blogger. Matt has helped develop singers in nearly every genre of music, from rock to pop, jazz to musical theater, and offers lots of great videos on his Ramsey Voice Studio YouTube channel.
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