Well, there have been a few speed bumps on ‘The Rocky Road To…’ the new record. Nothing too dreadful but two (not five) things to report. Here’s the first. All the breathing stuff has created a musical problem I never anticipated. But as Morpheus might say while watching TV, ‘Life is not without a sense of irony.’
When you record vocals they’re usually done last. OK, that’s what I do. You lay down a ‘guide vocal’ for the other guys to play against. And after all that racket is recorded, one spends a day (or nine) recording take after take to achieve vocal magic. Now sometimes the guide that is the keeper because everyone knows the first take of any idea is often the best. And this has always been easy for me because one thing I could always count on was the consistency of my voice. You may like it, you may hate it but it’s always the same. I recorded some takes of songs that were on Positive and compared them with the original song ideas (one of which went back to 1985) and was fairly well astonished to realize that they were indistinguishable except for the background noise of magnetic tape. The pitching? Identical. Phrasing? Identical. Volume? Still competitive with Swedish Death Metal. No change after 20 years. My vocal cords were like a Holiday Inn: Predictable if not always first class.
Well not anymore. Now, depending on the day and how my lungs are doing, the tone and pitch and volume (of primary importance) vary quite a lot. I can’t say that one day is better or that one is worse but they are noticeably different. Comparing takes from day to the next is like trying to book match pieces of wood from different trees. And this is maddening to me or perhaps it’s karmic payback.
I harken back to the first time I was in a music class. I don’t recall the people but I do recall the teacher asked one female student, who was a vocal major, to sing some bit of some art song. The only thing I remember about that day is that the teacher apologized profusely for asking the girl to sing at 10:00 AM. He said he realized it was quite early and she was being a real trooper. And she was apparently being gracious by saying,
“Yes my voice doesn’t usually arrive until at least eleven.”
And the only thing I remember after that was trying to stifle an almost overwhelming desire to laugh out loud. I recognized that I had no right to laugh out loud, but some part of me wanted to stand up and say, “Well why don’t we all go have a cigarette until her voice arrives!”
I have always had extremely little patience with any such fol der ol. Your voice doesn’t arrive until eleven? Please. You’ve lost your lip? It’s probably in your other pair of slacks. You’re having trouble hearing yourself? Lucky you. Anything that smacked of ‘diva’ always struck me as just lame. Rock the house with what you have or get the fuck out. (And I want to say to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned.) Now this attitude is fine up to a point, but I acknowledge that I would probably have played (and sung) a lot better over time if I had been more particular about gear and warming up over the years. It’s important to not be a diva, but for some pieces, having the right guitar setup or the proper vocal warm up routine can be the difference between executing properly and getting fired.)
Well as they say, payback is a bitch. And now my voice seems to arrive by FedEx, some days by slow boat to China. Some days it’s on the back lawn and the paper boy misses the porch entirely.
Why Does Sarah Sing Lower Than I Do?
I always wondered what happened to people’s voices over time. I recognize that the quality of one’s voice can change; most men lose some of their high notes, etc. But I usually thought that when I heard a change in vocal timbre it was something more intentional, ie. the artist was trying to make a different statement. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t necessarily optional. I now realize that I may have been entirely too harsh on some of my favourite artists. For example, it may be that all my rants against Joni Mitchell or Sarah Vaughan for lowering their voices about an octave may not have been a questionable artistic choice but rather like how some women go gray at the age of 20. Who knew? (OTOH, if the above mentioned really did drop an octave to be cool, I retract this entire apology. 😀 )
In any case it simply means that I have to pick days when I’m breathing especially well and I can match takes so that there is a consistent sound from one track to another. I don’t know if you will necessarily notice the difference but I certainly do. (The irony being that I may be acting all ‘diva’ about this. 😀 )
I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That Dave
There is another fascinating thing in terms of the perception of sound that I could easily spend a lot of time studying if I could find a way to get paid a lot for studying such things; namely that one’s voice can change quite a bit and yet you and I still recognize that it’s Uncle Frank and not Bob who is speaking. This was something I worked on in grad school and back then it was a bi-atch to program a computer to tell the difference between even one sentence of speech by the same human on different days of the week. It’s a complete amazement to me that computers can now convert speech from pretty much anyone into text.
But converting speech to text is not the same thing as ‘understanding’ the words, let alone the notion of recognition; the idea that Hal9000 says ‘Hello, Dave’ and really knows that he’s talking to ‘Dave’ as opposed to good ol’ Uncle Frank. To recognise someone’s voice is really a hell of a thing.
It’s got me thinking about what it means to have my voice versus your voice, because it’s not necessarily about pitch or timbre or any one ‘thing’. One’s voice can change so much over time and yet no one would have any difficulty recognizing that voice as Joni Mitchell (or Uncle Frank) through the years.
Hopefully when the Solid State Siren comes out (soon) you’ll still recognize that it’s Uncle Frank. Which is to say, me.