Hey, technically-trained music people...

I have what may be a stupid question.

I have been trying to puzzle out vocal technique for the past week or so, because banging a new thing into my head is what I do when I need to distract myself from personal chaos. Having gotten bored of imitating generic Auto-Tune quantization (reasonable success, given I am not a robot) and trying to get myself to sound less American when singing J-pop (less of a triumph), I've moved on to trying to figure out what the fuck Brian Molko is doing to sound like that on tape. Fans call his style 'distinctive'; detractors call it 'nasal'. I call it evidence the man has never had a formal voice lesson in his life, because any vocal coach worth their salt would tell him to stop doing just about everything he does, retroactively if possible.

That's not the stupid question. I figured that part out. The tl;dr is that their debut album was super high and pointy and Molko realized that was going to get real old, real quick, so he dropped everything down closer to his natural speaking range from then on out. When you sing, you lower pitches by sort of pulling the center of resonance down into your throat/chest, which he does, but normally you also reshape and partially close off the resonating space behind your nose, which he doesn't. This is considered terrible form because, I don't know, superstition? Harder to hear over an orchestra? Formal music instructors can be ossified into some very strange traditions sometimes. It's like they think Mozart will forever be lurking over their shoulders, checking to see they're not teaching his arias wrong.

Anyway. It gives him a lot of higher overtones and mask resonance, which is the thing that makes him sound nasal, and also, for inscrutable linguistics reasons, the thing that makes his delivery seem to lean forward like he's somehow singing in italics all the time. It sounds like vocal fry at the low end, but isn't. It's weird as hell at first but I don't actually wreck my throat doing it. I don't know how close I sound, but I figured I had the mechanics right when suddenly all the sustains on "Every You Every Me" started going straight through my head via bone conduction. It's very satisfying. I figure that's probably why he likes that one so much -- they get bored quickly and are notorious for not wanting to play their commercial hits in concert, but "Every You Every Me" has been pretty consistently on their live setlist since its release.

This brings me to the actual stupid question, which is about the live vocals for that song. Molko tends to be a bit Lennon-esque, in that if you want him to sing the same phrase with the same intonation twice in a row, you are generally going to be disappointed. The song is not usually so mutated that it's unidentifiable, but this is only partially the case for "Every You Every Me". He hasn't sung the album vocal live in years -- what he does in concert is pretty consistently this, which should be unrecognizable, but isn't.

I think that what he's singing there is (roughly) what the second vocal line would be, if the song were performed as a duet. If so, it's a naïve and untutored counterpoint; I know this, because I'm naïve and untutored in this respect, and that's pretty much the sort of thing I do when I am noodling around and elaborating on something I'm singing.

I've been trying to figure out just what, precisely, is going on there, but I am hampered by the fact that music theory is one of the very few things that absolutely will not stick to my brain. Although I technically know how written music works, I am functionally illiterate, and do all of my musicking by ear. (I'm decently good. The photographic memory is also phonographic. It gives me guff when I try to compare dissimilar waveforms, but I can match my own voice to the playback inside my head.) Wikipedia is no help; I have no initial understanding of any of the concepts or jargon to use as a foothold. I know the standard Western musical scale, and I'm reasonably okay when they talk about time signatures and flats and sharps, but then they start going into majors and minors and intervals and at that point it's just purple monkey dishwasher flargle boof. As far as my brain is concerned, a "fifth" is the appropriate size of liquor bottle to bring to the party.

The only thing I am sure of is that the vocal line he sings live only makes sense because it is somehow derived from the original, probably via some kind of common algorithm that I have absorbed just enough of to know it sounds 'right' and not like utter tunelessness. (n.b. -- This implies he has playback running in his head for context, and that he assumes the audience does as well, which may or may not be true.) If anyone can explain this algorithm to me, or at least give me the correct term to Google so I can be confused while staring at the right Wikipedia page, I'd be ever so grateful.


  1. I think just "harmonizing." https://www.quora.com/How-does-someone-learn-how-to-sing-harmony looks as though it might be useful.

    1. Well, yes; harmonizing is how you construct the second (and subsequent) vocal lines in a duet. I have the nagging feeling that that specific kind of close harmony is a particular style with particular rules and a particular name, though. I recognize it as that specific thing when I hear it, and also recognize when I'm hearing someone do a kind of harmony that isn't that, which makes me suspect that it is an entity of its own, if that makes any sense. I just don't know what it might be called, and I don't know enough about how to technically describe what is happening to get at it via Google Fu.


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