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I've been wondering how hard rock/metal singers (e.g. Layne Staley, James Hetfield, Dave Grohl) manage to achieve such a 'gritty' sound with their vocals. Do professional rock singers ever use distortion effects to enhance the 'grit', either in concert or when recording? Or would that sound too 'artificial' or 'fake' (or be considered 'cheating')?

If they do use electronic distortion, what sort of equipment would typically be used to achieve the effect? Would they use similar distortion to an electric guitar, or something more specialized?

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    It's a singing technique, not a recording technique. See also music.stackexchange.com/questions/11111/… Distortion would sound like you're singing through a megaphone. – Your Uncle Bob Feb 4 at 22:59
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    Compare Greg Lake's vocals on "21st Century Schizoid Man" (Distortion) with "In the Court of the Crimson King" (Normal) – mcottle Feb 5 at 3:55
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    when I was 13 years old and my voice became broken I tried to sing like Louis Armstrong. I did quite well, but I spoiled my voice. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 5 at 9:03
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    They use it all the time. I'd always add some distortion. Techically even compression is a form of distortion but I mean grunge and grime. Just run it through something to make it sound nasty and then feed a little nastiness back into the main vocal. Adjust to taste. Standard stuff. – PeterJ Feb 5 at 9:46
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    (don't do that) – AJFaraday Feb 5 at 12:40
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There are many aspects to hard rock singing, and each singer (hell, each song) has a different approach. I know that even death metal vocalists can do their scary vocals without doctoring them in the studio, and I know some really "clean"-sounding singers have to fix uo the tone in the studio. So it depends a lot.

In hard rock, a lot of the "aggresiveness" of the tone does in fact come from the singer. Particularly, volume and punchiness are all by the singer, along with simply each singer's own vocal differences. Often, microphones themselves lend to the effort by changing the sound a little (even unintentionally). In the studio, they can doctor vocals to sound unintelligible or whatever, but I've never heard of any hard rock singer that didn't sound "hard rock" without using any effects.

Frank Sinatra considered his instrument to be not his voice, but his microphone.

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    I used to think Kurt Cobain used a lot of tube warmth until I saw the Nirvana MTV Live show. He just sang like that, no tricks. – Tetsujin Feb 5 at 7:36
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    @Tetsujin That Nirvana performance was on the show MTV Unplugged, which, as its name suggests, had bands perform their music using primarily acoustic instruments with minimal distortion and effects (they weren't literally completely unplugged though, they were able to use microphones and other similar devices to record the instruments and vocals). That performance was very different from what Nirvana sounded like at a normal concert performance. Despite all that, you're correct that Kurt didn't use any fancy vocal effects during live performances. – peaceoutside Feb 6 at 19:10
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It depends, is the answer. And it also depends on what you call "distortion" - do you mean it in the sense that a guitarist would, or just that the sound is changed?

Microphones are the first potential source of distortion. Sometimes you want a "smooth" mic, but sometimes you want one which puts a bit more "grit" inio the sound. Mics are fairly consistent as they come from the manufacturer, but mics from different manufacturers and of different construction will produce a noticeably different sound.

After that, you have the mic preamp. On solid-state electronics, turning the gain up so that the signal clips (reaches the maximum voltage possible) causes hard edged distortion which can sound pretty nasty. I've used it as an impromptu effect in the past though for someone jacking an electric guitar in directly, but it's not normal.

On valve-based electronics though, for starters they distort everything. Your basic distortion level is higher than on solid-state. However that distortion is initially mostly in even harmonics. As you push the gain up, a valve preamp doesn't go straight into saturation but instead just progressively distorts more, adding more odd harmonics as it gets crunchier. This is more commonly referred to as "overdrive". It's still distortion, but it's under a degree of control, and subjectively it sounds appealing to us.

Mostly a sound engineer would try to keep mic preamps out of this region, and stay within the most linear range of the preamp. The Rolling Stones though famously pushed all their mic inputs into overdrive, because they wanted that sound. Some other recordings used it more by accident, or couldn't get away from it because their gear was inherently not that good (for example, "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen).

Muse use distortion on vocals as an effect - check their cover of "Feeling Good", amongst others. It's an effect though, not a key part of Matt Bellamy's normal vocal sound.

You certainly can add some in, and if you think it sounds good then fine. But ultimately though it all does have to start with a good voice.

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    Good answer, though the details about overdrive aren't quite correct. In fact valve circuits were originally intended to be linear too, and indeed they are pretty linear at sufficiently low gain. Yes, they start distorting a bit already at ≈ -10 dB, but transistor class-A actually do that too. Only modern circuits cancel this with negative-feedback OP amps, which wouldn't be feasible with valves. – leftaroundabout Feb 5 at 10:51
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    And, it's not true that valve overdrive is “all in even harmonics”. Rather, transistor overdrive is all in odd harmonics, whereas tubes at medium gain add also even harmonics. But this isn't really the reason why valve distortion sounds less harsh than transistor clipping – that's more due to the softer edges (transients) in the signal, which means they add fewer high overtones. About the even overtones I'd rather say they make the overdrive sound more interesting and dynamic. – leftaroundabout Feb 5 at 10:54
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    @leftaroundabout Sure, all those old electronics were intended to be linear - they would have killed for a good op-amp! But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see where the non-linear bits are good, and where those non-linear bits contribute to a characteristic sound we recognise. A good example of that is the Motown sound - the backing was laid down first and the singer overdubbed. The tape technology back then inherently compressed the backing, which is why it sounds like it does. And stupidly, the Motown musical makes no effort to reproduce that sound. (It was a lousy show too.) – Graham Feb 5 at 12:30
  • @leftaroundabout Fair point about it not being entirely even harmonics - I'll clarify that. – Graham Feb 5 at 12:33
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The "gritty" sound in rock singer's voices is their natural voice, albeit a technique that gives the sense of screaming or growling. Something else that should be considered is that there are many hard-rock style singers who are smokers, which can significantly affect a singer's voice.

Note: Increasing your risk for lung cancer is not worth it to achieve a specific sound in your music.

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    A nice bottle of whiskey helps, too. I've been in a couple of hard rock/metal bands and smokes and drinks were definitely on the menu to help the "grittiness" of the vocals. – Doc Hoss Feb 6 at 17:17
  • @DocHoss I've heard from multiple separate sources that some vocalists that normally do not smoke cigarettes will smoke quite a bit before a show to give their voice a different quality (usually more raspy/harsh/gritty). – peaceoutside Feb 6 at 19:15
  • @peaceoutside Yep, the singer in my metal band didn't smoke except right before shows. Worked out quite nicely, I thought. – Doc Hoss Feb 6 at 19:46
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The Beatles' distinctive vocal sound was shaped largely by double-tracking, in which the singer would record himself twice, attempting to repeat the performance exactly as before.

Later recordings used the equipment to accomplish a similar audio effect on only one recorded track: automatic double tracking.

A similar, but scarier, effect is obtained in newer songs like Metallica's Enter Sandman when the vocalist records the song twice, attempting to repeat his performance exactly, but at an interval of one octave. The effect also appears on Blue October's "Into the Ocean" and various other modern recordings.

  • This is very interesting, thanks. I'll have to go listen to Enter Sandman again ;-) . I guess that effect must be a bit tricky to replicate live though. – Time4Tea Feb 5 at 20:51
  • @Time4Tea, it was an emphasis in the bridge, starting with "it's just the"... not the entire song. – elliot svensson Feb 5 at 20:57
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    You reminded me of the later era of punk, where they would bounce many vocal tracks like this so it sounded like a crowd was singing. – user57266 Feb 5 at 22:25
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    IDK about distortion, but everybody over dubs, +1 – Mazura Feb 6 at 20:08
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It's generally singing technique. Some schools even call it exactly that, "Distortion".

Techy singing-geek description here: https://cvtresearch.com/effects/distortion/

Personally, for FX I add a tad of reverb and a short slapback delay, but actual audio distortion is generally unwanted (I only get that when I am too loud for the pre-amp....). Some individuals may use it for effect though!

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As sxmrxzxr said, sometimes it's a technique that could be achieved setting your vocal chords in the same way used when you try to "growl". Increasing air emission, effect is similar to an aggressive, gritty tone. If you try, you'll notice it hurts. This is why many teachers told me to never sing that way.

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Distortion on the track is possible, like in Big Black's "The Power of Independent Trucking" and a lot of the Butthole Surfers' catalog, but the effects I normally hear are reverb and delay. The aggressiveness of hard-rock singing is in the voice.

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There is no known example of an hard rock singer using distorsion effects all the time on his voice, excepted for adding a specific embellishment on a specific song as an artistic choice: hear for example, Ted Nugent on his "Scream Dream" and "Flesh and blood" songs, excerpted from his "Scream dream" album. Moreover, gritty voices exist also outside of Hard Rock!

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Most of the times rock singers don't use distortions effects, many of them just have a very low voice, but of course there are some songs where they use effects, but I think they tend to use a kind of echo, reverb or vocover, not distortion.

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