Singing With and Without Compression

In our series on vocal technique, the term compression has already popped up quite a few times. In this fourth instalment, we’re going to take a closer look at compression so you can learn to sing with and without it and enhance your sound.

Note

The techniques described in this article shouldn’t be practised in isolation, but rather used as an addition to singing lessons. Even a handful of lessons can be enough to make a huge difference and keep you from hitting a wall or, worse, damaging your vocal cords.

Compression

Put simply, compression is the closing of the vocal cords. Up until this point in the series, we’ve only focussed on singing with compression, which gives you a different sound than singing without compression since it alters the overtones in your vocals. While opting to sing with or without compression is mainly an artistic decision, being able to sing without compression definitely gives you more options. That said, it’s not a fixed requirement for a successful singing career. Also, most singers naturally sing with compression, which is simply due to the fact that most of us apply compression to our natural speaking voice too. If you want to be as versatile a vocalist as possible, however, it’s a good idea to master both techniques, especially because singing with compression has its limitations: you can’t sing super loud or super softly when you’re using compression. Forcing it can actually cause damage to your vocal cords. In terms of pitch range, there’s not much difference between singing with and without compression, but singing loud and high during a live performance is certainly best done without it — more on that later.

Breath Support and Compression

The reason we’ve only focussed on singing with compression so far has to do with breath support. If you’ve read the previous articles – part two especially – you’ll know that breath support is key for proper vocal technique. Breath support and compression are naturally linked, just like your vocal cords and your diaphragm are functionally linked. When you apply compression and press your vocal cords together, you automatically turn on your breath support. It’s the same mechanism that gives you the power needed to lift something heavy and it comes in really handy when you’re singing. That is why this series on vocal technique first focused on applying breath support from your vocal cords, i.e. applying compression. It’s a natural mechanism for the body so it doesn’t take very long to master and is a great starting point for learning to use breath support without compression.

Vocal Cords

So what exactly is compression? To clarify it, we have to take a closer look at the vocal cords. Both of your vocal cords are made up of vocal folds, a vocal muscle and arytenoid cartilage. The gap between the vocal cords is called the glottis. In order to make sound, the vocal cords must be pressed together, but not with too much force or air won’t be able to pass through. Airflow causes the vocal cords to vibrate, which produces sound. The faster the airflow, the more energy goes into the vocal cords and the louder the sound will be. The vocal cords can be closed in various ways and, since they’re muscles, they can be tensed. When you sing and tense your vocal cords together with the muscles that basically pull the vocal cords shut (the adductors), you’re in what’s referred to as the active mode and singing with compression. Here, the vocal cords are actively involved (internally tensed) in producing the tone and pitch. Besides an active mode, unsurprisingly, there’s also a passive mode. This is when the vocal cords are also closed, but only because of the adductor muscles doing their thing. In passive mode, the vocal cords themselves remain relaxed. Singing in passive mode is singing without compression.

Belcanto and Registers

To explain the practical use of what I’ve just described, we have to dive into a bit of the history of singing techniques. In part one, we explored a classic technique called bel canto, which was conceived three to four centuries ago and helped singers sing loudly while carrying a tune at the same time. The technique was actually only given the name ‘bel canto’ much later, and the gist of it is creating as big a distance between the larynx and the soft palate as possible. This way, you can sound full and open no matter the pitch and across all registers: the chest voice, head voice and sometimes even the diaphragmatic voice. The register you use depends on the pitch and, physically speaking, the part of your body where it’s felt the most. In general, it’s safe to say that singing with the head voice and chest voice happens without compression, while the diaphragmatic voice generally does involve compression. With bel canto singing, the trick is to make sure that the transitions from one register to another are as inaudible as can be, which is done by holding the larynx as low as possible at all times. This is something that takes a ton of practice and roughly eight years to master.

Pop Music is Different

Bel canto lends itself really well to that classical, opera-style sound. While it depends on taste, it’s a style that doesn’t really work for pop music, especially since it can make the lyrics more difficult to understand. After all, In bel canto singing, the larynx is kept in a low position, which makes everything sound very similar and can impede the listener’s ability to distinguish between words. When it comes to pop music, transitioning between singing with and without compression generally isn’t a problem. There’ll simply be a catch in your voice as a result of a release in muscle tension, which is something that can be clearly heard when you listen to someone yodel. Pop-based singers have the pick of various vocal techniques, the two most popular ones being the Estill Voice Training System (EVTS) and the Complete Vocal Technique (CVT). Just like bel canto, these techniques distinguish between a number of registers: six ‘voice qualities’ for EVTS and four ‘vocal modes’ for CVT. These can be considered the core set of ‘vocal presets’.. Alfons Verreijt’s Vocal Feedback Method – the method that inspired this series of articles about vocal techniques – distinguishes between just two basic singing techniques: with and without compression. So which method is right? “All methods are right,” Alfons says. “The various methods use different terms for what’s ultimately the same thing. To understand the technique behind singing, however, it’s a good idea to start out by taking the ‘with and without compression’ approach because it posits two clearly opposite singing techniques that can’t be mixed up in terms of functionality either. This approach doesn’t limit your options either since varying the way you sound isn’t about using compression or not, but has to do with the position of your larynx (high versus low), the position of your epiglottis for twang or no twang, the position of your soft palate (raised or not), and so on. Learning to distinguish between the things you can do to vary your sound is an important part of the Vocal Feedback Method.”

Singing With and Without Compression

Dynamic Range

The table above shows the differences between singing with and without compression. What’s important to note is that there’s no grey area here. You sing either with or without compression. There’s no in-between mode, which is why changing from singing with to singing without compression is an audible transition. Bel canto-style singers will always try to make the transition as quietly as possible, and it’s said that they can actually feel it like a kind of internal switch that’s flipped. Back to the table above. As you can see, there’s a difference in your dynamic range when singing with or without compression. Without, you have access to the full range. With compression, you won’t be able to sing extremely softly or extremely loudly. If you sing softer than ‘volume setting 3’ with compression, you will just start groaning since the tension in your vocal cords simply create too much resistance for the gently flowing air. If you were to sing louder than ‘volume setting 7’ using compression, the air is pushed past the tense vocal cords with too much force, which may sound cool but is actually harmful to your vocal cords. This is also the reason why you might sound hoarse after a night on the town. Speaking loud enough so you can still be understood while there’s loud music in the background requires compression and max volume.

Pitch Range

While you can access the highest and the lowest notes whether you’re singing with or without compression, there’s one little caveat. Sometimes, you’re in a situation where you have to or feel like you have to sing really loudly, like when you’re singing live. But, as you just learned, you can’t sing at maximum volume when you’re using compression. Most singers can hit the highest notes in the studio because that’s where the volume doesn’t play as much of a role, but things can be different when you’re on stage. This is why you sometimes see singers point their microphone at the crowd: it’s to leave the high note for the audience. In any case, loud and high-pitched at the same time can’t be done with compression, and pulling it off without compression requires quite a bit of effort. See the ‘edges only – entire width’ bit? That refers to your vocal cords. In the case of ‘edges only’, it’s only the sides of your vocal chords that vibrate, resulting in soft and thin sound. In the case of ‘entire width’, your vocal cords vibrate across their entire width, resulting in loud and beefy sound. When and how you make use of each style is mainly an artistic choice, although singing loud and high without compression won’t actually work when only the edges of your vocal cords vibrate, and making the vocal cords vibrate across their entire width comes at the expense of four or five or your highest notes. So how do you actually sing high and loud then? The answer is belting. Belting is essentially singing without compression combined with twanging, with your vocal cords vibrating in full. We’ll be taking a closer look at belting and twanging in the next episode.

Vocal Attack Without Compression

So far, I’ve only talked about the theory behind singing with and without compression. So how does it work in practice? As far as singing with compression goes: it’s done by actively closing your vocal folds, as described in the previous episode. When you sing without compression, it can feel like your throat is open during the onset — kind of like your vocal folds aren’t closed, which isn’t true. The fact is that your vocal cords are closed, it’s just that they’re also relaxed. The trick to closing your vocal cords while keeping the muscles that are involved relaxed comes down to the inhale. When you take a breath, you’ll want to inhale with an open throat and maintain that ‘open’ feel to sing without compression.

Artistic Choice

I said it before and I’ll say it again: singing with or without compression is mostly a personal artistic choice. You’re free to decide to go with either style, or maybe even alternate between them like Maria Carey. Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin likes to sing the low and mid-range notes with compression, and the high notes without. In any case, it’s essential to master both techniques. They’ll not only enrich your sound, but give you more options and do away with a number of technical limitations. That wraps up the topic of compression. Next time, we’re going to break down belting and twanging – two terms I briefly touched upon earlier – so you can learn to go all-out.

See also

» Dynamic Breath Support & Blending = Flowing Vocals
» Auto-Tune, Melodyne… Is Using Pitch-Correction Cheating?
» How to Record a Full Choir
» Mixing Flawless Vocals in 5 Steps
» Recording and amplifying vocals for beginners

» Microphones & Accessories
» Vocal Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

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