Singing with Effects: Growling, Grunting, Distorting and Screaming

In this part of the series on vocal technique, we’ll be looking at effects like growling, grunting, vocal fry, distortion, screaming and more, which serve as the seasoning for your vocals. With the right technique and some professional help, you can pull off these effects without the risk of straining your vocal cords.

This blog was written by Alfons Verreijt, the developer of the VocalFeedback method and author of the book The Essentials of the Voice.


Don’t Try This At Home

This article serves as an introduction to vocal effects. If you’re already determined to learn these techniques, then please seek the help of a professional vocal coach, like a CVT or Vocal Feedback coach. Working on certain techniques without the help of a professional can result in vocal cord damage.


Some singers always apply a certain effect to their vocals, making it their hallmark. Throughout this article, we’ll look at a number of examples, where you’ll see that some effects are inextricably linked to a certain style (e.g. grunting and death metal). Vocal effects are usually dosed and applied at specific moments, so they’re largely an artistic choice. They’re basically the seasoning for your vocals and can help you underscore parts of the lyrics, enhancing the way you unfold the narrative of a song. You definitely don’t need to go all out when it comes to effects. Feel free to consider them and experiment a little. Record yourself in the process and compile your preferred collection of vocal seasonings.


We actually already looked at screaming as a vocal effect in the article on belting and twang. Belting is the go-to technique when you want to sing loud and high, and twang is an indispensable part of it. Twanging happens when your larynx, or epiglottis, is tilted backwards. The larynx forms part of the funnel that sits above the vocal cords and, by tilting it back, the vocal tract starts to act like a mini megaphone. At the same time, the 4,000 and 5,000 Hertz frequency range is amplified – so the higher pitch range. So, by belting, you’re able to reach the highest notes in your range while singing them at the highest volume. Screaming is essentially the same as belting and can be achieved by using just the edges of your vocal cords instead of their full width. For male singers, this is much harder to do than for female singers who, when they shriek, enter what’s called the whistle register: the highest register of the human voice. Brazilian singer Georgia Brown, who can span an eight-octave range, is a great example of a singer that often uses the whistle register.

Singing with Effects: Growling, Grunting, Distorting and Screaming


Two well-known ‘growlers’ are Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong. Waits actually combines growling with grunting, but more on that in a bit. Growling can be achieved by making your false vocal chords, which sit just above your real vocal chords, vibrate along with your real vocal chords. The false vocal cords are two thick folds of mucous membrane that can’t close as well as your actual vocal folds. To locate your false vocal cords, all you need to do is the Kermit the Frog exercise. In other words, trying to sing like Kermit the Frog. Since growling involves your actual vocal folds, you can actually sing a melody while you growl. Growling is performed without compression – a concept that’s dealt with in more detail in a previous article – so it’s important to know whether you’re singing with or without compression, especially when you’re singing with an effect.


Growling is very similar to grunting, which is used a lot in death metal. The only difference is that grunting doesn’t involve your actual vocal cords. This is why you can’t sing a melody when you grunt: your false vocal cords can’t be used to sing a melody. Grunting is achieved without compression and requires intense vibrating of the false vocal cords, which limits the pitch. Singers that need to go up in pitch will often transition to distortion. While grunting is typically performed by male vocalists (Kale Willets of death metal band Bolt Thrower is a great example), that’s not to say that women can’t grunt or grunt in the same deep voice as men. In practice, the difference in sound between a female grunter and a male grunter is smaller than the physical differences between their respective vocal cords. Have a listen to Angela Gossow (Arch Enemy) and hear for yourself. Vocal fry is closely related to grunting. In fact, it’s like airy grunting with a lot of noise, and lends itself to really spectacular sounds. Check out American metalcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan to get a better idea of the effect.


Distortion is another widely used vocal effect and, while it’s similar to an electric guitar distortion effect that’s caused by overdriving a valve guitar amplifier, it’s not about overdriving the vocal cords. After all, the only thing you’d get from that is damaged vocal folds. Vocal distortion happens when you apply a lot of twang, so when you tilt your epiglottis backwards and it starts bouncing up and down, and you then engage your false vocal folds. When singing with distortion, it’s also important that you produce sound a little higher up your throat than you normally would. Your larynx should also be much higher when you’re applying distortion. Singing with distortion can be done with or without compression. Late legends Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Janis Joplin sang with distortion practically all the time.

Zingen met effecten: growlen, grunten, distortion, krijsen, kraken, ruisen...

Creaky Voice and Adding Noise

Singing with a creaky voice is actually really simple since it happens automatically when you sing with compression at low volume. Singing with compression limits your internal volume dial to settings 3 through 7, where going beyond 7 means risking damage to your vocal cords and dropping below 3 results in creaking. A creaky voice is typically used by young American actresses and can’t hurt. What can hurt, however, is singing with noise as a result of adding air to your voice. None other than Sting has suffered from serious vocal issues caused by adding noise. While it’s technically possible as long as you sing without compression, use a lot of breath support and keep the volume down, it’s always a risk. Norah Jones and George Michael frequently add noise but they also know what they’re doing and make sure to switch things up all the time. James Morrison is another singer with ‘noisy’ vocals. Also, singing with noise is much easier in the studio than it is on stage, where higher volume levels are demanded. This is why Morrison sounds different when you compare his live vocals to his studio recordings. “I really can’t recommend singing with noise whilst using compression,” says vocal coach Alfons Verreijt “The risks are just too big. The same goes for applying vocal fry, which is asking for trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you insist on learning these effects regardless, make sure to get yourself a vocal coach who knows their stuff and can help you go about it in a responsible manner.” The last vocal effect we want to name-drop here is yodelling, which is done by quickly alternating between singing with and without compression. Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries) and Shakira are both particularly good at this.

Unintentional Effects

The effects we’ve looked at today are effects that are used intentionally. Unintentional effects are a thing as well, and some of them are dangerous for your vocals. One of these harmful unintentional effects is the distortion you get when you try to sing certain vowels in a high pitch whilst using compression. As explained previously, some vowels can’t be pushed beyond a certain pitch. Forcing things will result in unintended distortion, which also happens when you sing too loud using compression and push your internal volume dial beyond 7. While the sound can be pretty interesting, the harmful effect that unintended vocal effects can have on your vocal folds is just too risky.

The Right Conditions

Using vocal effects responsibly hinges on a number of important conditions. Proper breath support, for starters. Breathe in as little air as possible and activate your breath support prior to the phrase you need to sing. You also want to make sure that you’ve mastered singing with as well as without compression, and remember not to push the volume too much because applying a vocal effect always limits your maximum volume level to a certain degree. It’s like cycling with a piece of cardboard stuck between spokes: it creates a lot of noise but the increased resistance also slows you down. Just accept the loss in volume and don’t force anything. Lastly, with effects like distortion and grunting, it’s important that you build up a lot of energy before you ‘unleash’ your vocals. This not only helps preserve your voice, but it also certainly doesn’t hurt to have energy pent up in your system (just not in your throat) and brace yourself before you make any sound.

That wraps up this article on widely used vocal effects. Besides more rarely used effects like overtone singing, you may have noticed that we skipped one very popular vocal effect: vibrato. Vibrato will actually be the main focus of the next episode, so see you there!

Good to Know

Keeping Out of the Danger Zone

You may get a dry mouth or the urge to swallow when you’re grunting, growling or distorting your voice. This isn’t necessarily harmful. You’re involving your false vocal folds and these may not be used to coming in contact with one another, resulting in a dry feel. However, it can also be an indication that your real vocal folds are tensed too, which shouldn’t be happening. At this point, you should take a few sips of water and call it a day. The next time you’re back to honing techniques like growling, grunting and distortion, remember to keep your real vocal folds relaxed. Keep getting the urge to cough or a tickly throat? That means you’re entering the danger zone and should stop immediately. It means you’re doing something wrong, which could be related to breath support, building up muscle tension in the wrong place, singing with compression while you should be singing without, or one of many other reasons. One of the most common mistakes made when grunting or singing with distortion is not adding enough energy. This can be solved with more breath support and more pent-up energy.

Vocal Effects: An Overview

The table below shows the most important features of every vocal effect we’ve looked at. Here, compression or no compression is a big deal, so always pay attention to that. Also make sure that when you’re applying compression, you don’t try to press your vocal cords together as tightly as possible. When singing with an effect and with compression, the compression should feel just as relaxed as when you’re singing without any effect.

Singing with Effects: Growling, Grunting, Distorting and Screaming

See Also

» Singing with Vibrato
» Vowel Pronunciation for Singers
» 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

Comments closed...