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I'm sorry that I'm approaching this as a novice so I can't describe it in correct terminology. However; every time I hear this song, from the point heard in the below video ...


(YouTube: Walk Off the Earth's cover of John Bellion's "All Time Low")

... the singer in the middle is clearly, and deliberately, breaking their voice, and does so to varying degrees until the end of the song. It adds an emotional aspect to the words (it's a distressed sound; almost like he could start crying) and I've heard it used in other songs, but not quite as pronounced. Is there a name for this technique?

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    I know you’ve tried already, but can you clarify more about what you mean by “break”? I feel instinctively like you’re noticing a combination of falsetto, as Aaron mentioned, forceful distortion (especially in falsetto), as user45266 mentioned, and I wonder whether you’re also noticing the contrast when switching from chest voice to falsetto (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passaggio) Sep 4 at 14:02
  • I mean the cracking quality of the voice, as though they're about to cry (I'm giving a terrible explanation, sorry). I'm not a singer myself but I had a very different idea about what falsetto means.
    – roganjosh
    Sep 4 at 14:19
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    @AndyBonner if you listen to any of their other songs, he doesn't sing like that. It's definitely some effect that sounds like he's straining his voice. I (perhaps incorrectly) believed that it had a classification outside of just the pitch/range
    – roganjosh
    Sep 4 at 14:26
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    BTW, the singer in the middle is Gianni Luminati, a talented multi-instrumentalist (just one example, among others: youtube.com/watch?v=ksecJLVw8yc). Also, RIP Mike Taylor, aka "Beard Guy". Sep 5 at 12:08
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    @EricDuminil oh, I know "all" their songs (and RIP Beard Guy :( ). I just found this to be an exemplar of an effect for my own curiosity
    – roganjosh
    Sep 5 at 12:10
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Keep in mind: I am not a vocal coach. Although I believe strongly that what I have written is true, I don't have references for this. This may not all be technically, historically, or anatomically accurate, so take what I say with a grain of salt - especially if you're trying to learn this. Get an instructor or risk permanently damaging your voice.

After listening to it, the guy in the middle seems to be singing "dirty" the whole time. The general term for the opposite of a clean-sounding vocal is singing with distortion. Distortion can be introduced intentionally by the singer in a lot of different ways (some of which are more healthy than others). Most types of distortion involve obscuring the fundamental frequency to some degree.

This example sounds very intentional, thus it is being used for effect. In particular, right after the key change, the middle singer's distortion sounds very similar to certain types of rock/metal distortions: "I tried to hide but now you know it" sounds extra-aggressive. At other points in the song, the distortion sounds a bit more stylistically pop. I would guess that since that section involves singing with way more power and energy than the rest of the song, the singer chose to tap into even more extreme distortion.


The basic principle behind most types of distortion is that some extra noise must be introduced to interrupt or combine with the normal vibration of the vocal folds. Sometimes this is done with the false folds (I would wager that's what the man on the right is doing with that growl), sometimes it is the vocal cords themselves being allowed to drift out of sync (like vocal fry while also singing regularly). There may be other ways to do this.

Certain types of vocal distortion tend to happen naturally in a person's voice when they scream, shout, or yell at intense volumes - with so much power being forced through the vocal mechanism, a bit of a growl or a roar may come out. Other types happen when they attempt to speak while crying. Usually that involves some kind of discoordination of the vocal muscles producing the rasps and crackles of a broken-sounding voice. There are also some types that can be heard as a result of actual damage to the vocal cords; for example, smoking or drug habits can sometimes introduce a rougher quality to a person's normal voice.

One of the reasons that distortion is used in singing is to draw upon the conditioned human empathetic response. The rock/metal distortion types attempt to convey anger by using distortions that can be heard in a person experiencing rage in real life. The pop distortion often plays at imitating the breaking sound of a person in grief or loss. The blues, rock 'n roll, and R&B styles of distortions may be suggestive of the roughening effects of lifelong demanding labour on the voices of slaves in the United States. Of course, each singer has their own voice, and there is much overlap between all the different ways one can alter it.

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    Awesome answer, thanks. "Sometimes this is done with the false folds (I would wager that's what the man on the right is doing with that growl)" raises more questions for me but I'll consider it in my own time. I never would have contrasted them
    – roganjosh
    Sep 4 at 14:43
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The lead singer is using falsetto, a vocal technique particularly associated with male voices, that allows the singer a higher vocal range than the singer's natural voice.

Frankie Valli is a popular musician famous for his falsetto. For example, his song "Walk Like a Man":

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    I'm still not entirely convinced that the singer is using falsetto! To me, it mostly sounds like the kind of high rock tenor singing that uses the mixed voice register to get really high frequencies with a lot of power. If this is all pure falsetto on the last choruses, it's very well disguised (or very well produced).
    – user45266
    Sep 5 at 7:48
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    *(I meant the Walk Off the Earth singer, not Valli.)
    – user45266
    Sep 5 at 8:55
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    @user45266: Indeed, I don't think it's falsetto in the WOTE cover either. I'm pretty sure I've already heard Gianni Luminati (the middle singer) sing higher than this, with a clean voice. The effect is just used for adding emotions to the "All Time Low" cover. Sep 5 at 12:14

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