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When I play guitar and sing, it isn’t very loud because I mix my head voice with falsetto. It’s impossible for me to know what this sounds like without recording my voice- but the only way to record is with a microphone, and it sounds exactly like I want it to. However, I’m nervous to sing around people because I don’t feel like the recording is a true representation of what someone would actually hear.

For example, usually in a pop or rock chorus the singer will sound like they’re yelling or shouting, and when I record with my mouth closer to the mic and the guitar farther away, I can replicate that sound and it’s as powerful as the original. But I know that I’m manipulating my falsetto and pretending that I’m yelling, when it’s actually no louder than speech level singing.

I did find this article about microphones, but I’ve never heard this information from any YouTube videos or singing websites. It says:

When you listen to the vocal in a sound recording, you don’t actually hear the singer. Usually what you hear is a loudspeaker illusion of the vocal, one so compelling that you think you know the voice of your favorite singers. But it’s likely that they would sound very different singing to you in your living room or in your car. In fact, they might sound wrong. The discipline of pop music production includes the creation of sounds that are better than those in real life— exaggerated, unmistakable, and often unforgettable. And although that’s true for all the members of a band, the vocalists get special attention.

I understand that pop and rock singers must use microphones to be heard, and that effects are added to live shows. I also understand that a microphone automatically makes our voices much louder and fuller. What I’m having trouble understanding is what a few friends in a singer’s living room would hear if they sing without a microphone- using the same techniques they use to practice and record.

Would it sound weak and would their “shouts” sound artificial?

Would their voices project towards their audience better than in their own ears, so that the audience hears the same sounds that a recording in a smartphone would provide?

Or should singers sacrifice range and “emotion” for volume if they don’t have access to a microphone.

Or maybe I have it all wrong and don’t make any sense lol.

Here is an example of Bruno Mars singing Count on Me in front of an audience without a microphone. He doesn’t sing the bridge, and I think the reason why is because he traded range for volume. Not that he couldn’t hit that C5 (you’ll always have my shoulder when you cryyyyy) with volume, but that it would come out like a heavy metal scream instead of a controlled, soft rasp. Hopefully that makes sense.

By microphone, I basically mean a recording device that would be used for practice. Does the conversion of natural(?) sound to electronical allow for unconventional singing techniques that would sound “wrong” if sung in a completely acoustic setting?

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5 Answers 5

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The proximity of a mic to a singer will have a profound difference in the sound captured. Good vocalists use this phenomenon a lot - you'll see someone holding a mic at various distances from the mouth - to vary volume and to an extent tone. Add that to the almost infinite variation of tone and volume naturally, and there's a heck of a range.

On a personal note, I like my mic's volume to be fairly high. This is because I'm usually playing an instrument at the same time, and the mic's on a stand, so I have to move to and from the mic to get effects I want. And, yes, it's switched off when I'm not singing!

Listening to one's own voice singing in a room will sound 'nothing like you'. One of the reasons is that we partially hear our own voice through sympathetic vibrations of the bones in our head. That's one of the reasons most of us are surprised (pleasantly or not...) when we first hear our own recorded voice.

One way to alleviate the problem is to use a mic away from the singer, so he's not singing directly into it, or anywhere near. That eliminates the proximity effect. But at the same time, it includes any coloration the room may give - soft furnishings, curtains will make it sound quite different from no carpet, stark walls and a couple of wooden chairs.

Another factor is that during recording in a studio, a myriad of effects is available to improve and/or change the singer's voice. Hope this answers at least part of your question.

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    I think it's fair to say a microphone is an instrument too - you need to learn how to play it to best effect. I like my mic on stage loud too - gives the greatest potential for intentional variation.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 22, 2018 at 8:19
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    @Tetsujin - what really gets me is when some 'expert' sorts all the mics out on stage before the gig. He has one voice, and all the mics are adjusted to that. He hasn't realised that each mic will be used by someone who has a voice probably very different from his!
    – Tim
    Aug 22, 2018 at 8:24
  • All walks of life are densely populated with 'egg-spurts'. I don't think there's anything we can [legally] do about them ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 22, 2018 at 9:33
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    In a word, yes!
    – Tim
    Aug 24, 2018 at 6:29
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    @gidds - Having done thousands of sound checks - both for a band I was playing with at the time, and as sound man, I'm amazed at the differences used. A four piece band taking 45 mins to 'get the sound right' (when the place is empty?!) to big bands which merely check each mic is working, and subtly balance through the first number. And generally the better sounding ones were those who didn't spend (waste?) much time. Many's the time when there's no opportunity to sound check, and professionalism has to do the job. Experience usually wins through. Still stand by answer and comments.
    – Tim
    Feb 5, 2019 at 17:48
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For a historical perspective:

Before the use of vocal microphones, singers needed to be heard , unaided, at the back of the hall.  In classical music, for example, the development of opera-singing technique was partly due to the need to be heard over progressively larger and louder orchestras and choirs!  In popular music, too, singers needed a very loud style to be heard over a band.

When sound started to be broadcast over radio and recorded, microphones allowed singers to be heard even when singing quietly, and crooning developed, as popularised by singers like Bing Crosby.  This allowed singers to use a much more personal, intimate style that suited more sentimental music, even when backed by a full orchestra or band.

Of course, a microphone doesn't require such a style; by adjusting placement and amplification, it can still be used with louder, more forceful singing too.  So we now have a wide range of singing styles and levels, all suitable for concerts and broadcasting and recording.

As for what a singer would sound like without amplification, it depends.  If they kept the amplified backing, but still sang in an intimate style, then they probably wouldn't be heard over it.  However, in a relatively small space, if the backing was quieter and ‘unplugged’ to suit the song, it could still work very well.  Alternatively, the singer could sing louder to be heard over the backing — how this sounded would depend upon how much their singing changed as a result (which would in turn depend upon how much louder they needed to be, the style of music, their ability and technique, &c), so it's hard to generalise.  Certainly few singers could maintain an intimate, gentle style while singing very loudly — though some could approximate it better than others.

And if you want to find out what you sound like, I'd suggest getting a ‘distant’ mic (capacitor/condenser, or even just a smartphone), setting it up across the room, recording yourself singing and playing, and then listening to the results.  (Yes, it's always painful listening to yourself, but it's the only way!)

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  • :-) That's from personal experience, of course… I studied singing for several years, and was advised to tape-record the lessons. After a few years, I could just about bear listening to myself — that's when I knew I'd got good!
    – gidds
    Feb 5, 2019 at 18:35
  • I've been practicing singing for a few months and I always record myself. It's a bit painful, but it seems like the only way to actually know what you sound like and get 'honest' feedback.
    – Time4Tea
    Feb 5, 2019 at 19:01
  • Great point about quiet singing, crooning, being reproduced at higher than natural volume through electronic amplification. It's hugely important in modern pop recording, but probably unnoticed by the average listener, where you can hear whisper level vocals balanced over overdriven guitars and strong drumming. Feb 14 at 16:54
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Yes. Current popular singers are called popular because they usually have large audiences, which requires microphones for recording and amplification, either for remote playback (mp3, etc.) or large concert venues. A sound, audio or recording engineer usually designs microphone placement(s) and audio processing to create a sound representing an artistic (or marketing) intent, which may or may not be "realistic". The final result can be quite different from the far field sound into the ear of a listener at some distance from a voice in a strictly acoustic venue. To hear what one sounds like acoustically, the industry makes special microphones (look up binaural head microphones) that can record more closely what a listener might hear at a given distance in a room. You would have to record your voice in the actual venue, as each room can transmit a different sound to a listener's ears due to room acoustics.

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Yes, 'popular' singers generally use a microphone, if we define 'popular' as pop, rock, jazz etc. And they use it close, as part of their performance, which is rather different to placing a mic further away to capture a recording of an acoustic performance.

(Opera singers don't close-mic, and might still be popular of course.)

But this is really the 'I don't like the sound of my own voice when amplified' question, isn't it! Don't worry so much about the sound of your voice, concentrate on communicating the song. Don't be frightened of hearing it coming back at you through a speaker LOUD!

Perhaps your voice is 'big' enough to perform unamplified in a smaller room. Try. It's not that long since that was the only way to do it!

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  • Thanks for the answer. My question is actually a little different. I’m satisfied with the sound of my voice loud through a microphone, or at any volume from a recorded device. My concern is what I sound like to other people without a mic. Basically I’m wondering if I play my guitar very quietly in a very quiet room, using the technique I use when I record (singing no louder than falsetto), will my voice project to my listener just as powerfully as the recording sounds, or will it sound weak and strange?
    – Cannabijoy
    Aug 22, 2018 at 14:03
  • @anonymouswho - 'falsetto' isn't really a volume for the voice, although it's often quieter than head voice, which again can be 'turned down'. The difference is more of quality of sound.
    – Tim
    Aug 22, 2018 at 16:09
  • @Tim I think “speech level singing” is what I’m referring to. Your answer is correct and provides a lot of great information, but I’m trying to figure out if I should sing this way around friends, or if I should sacrifice some range and “emotion” for more volume and power. I feel like if I sing this way in front of people, they will think it’s weak and strange sounding. It seems if my technique is correct, then popular artist would also experience this if they sang without a mic. That’s why I think Bruno Mars is singing with more “chest voice” and ends the song very early in the link above.
    – Cannabijoy
    Aug 22, 2018 at 23:54
  • @anonymouswho - Every song is different, and must be sung in a different way. It would be folly to try to sing every song using the same volume, power and tone. The point of recognising the different facets one's voice is capable of is that one can vary the way one sings. Keep it varied, according to the song and type of song.
    – Tim
    Aug 23, 2018 at 6:18
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An amplified voice is a product that includes capture, processing, equalization and projection, just like the sound of an electric (and even amplified acoustics and half-acoustics) guitar. The amount of processing and equalization done is variable and depends on the voice you start with.

For a classically trained voice (see this example from Nina Hagen in 1978), you will find that a living room performance will end up less consistent in volume and tone but essentially quite similar.

For singer where the amplification has been an essential part of their "instrument" for a long time, the amount of processing is a lot harder to guess and the likelihood of an unamplified performance being hard to recognize higher.

This goes particularly for techniques like growling, vocal fry, rasping and so on which tend to rely on amplification for useful volume and processing for tonal signature.

There are also processors like "autotune" that create a boost in overall quality for singers with a less than perfect grasp on pitch.

However, while there is a lot you can do with processing, competition is heavy and so signature acts rather than fly-by-nights tend to have pretty solid basics after all, since with lot of competition, getting close may not be enough. Or you need to stand out differently like Bob Dylan who competes on the quality of his songwriting skills. He won't sound all that much different than when singing in his living room but then he doesn't need to.

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