Changing style with onsets – start at the very beginning

Changing style with different vocal tone onsets. Glottal onset, glide onset, creak, fry? You decide

Changing style using different voice onsets

By Jeremy Fisher

Style is “everything” in the recording industry (actually it isn’t, but that’s what they’d like us to think…)

So what is vocal style?

Style in singing is about the way you use your voice, rather than the actual sound you may. So it might be the musical shapes you make with the words and notes (single notes, long phrases, fast flurries of notes on one word). Or even the type of accent or dialect you use when you sing (American, South London “reggae”, Motown, ‘Britpop’, operatic, Italian English etc).

For this article I’m going to focus on one aspect of vocal style – the way you can start and finish a note. I work with number of singers who are competing in karaoke competitions or working in tribute bands who want to have more choices about the songs they sing or the singers they cover. Here’s an exercise I use in my studio to help my singers discover how to change their vocal style.

Each artist usually has a few favourite ways of starting and finishing, so let’s explore.

Starting a note is called Making the Tone Onset, and it happens right at the beginning of a note, word or phrase.

There are actually many different ways of onsetting a sound – it even depends on what type of singing you do how many different ways you are “allowed” to use.

Classical or operatic singers usually use three standard onsets, so let’s begin with those. Let’s assume that you want to say the word “Ah”:

  1. You can stop the breath before you begin by putting a glottal stop in front of the word or holding your breath “closed” before you say the word ( ‘ah! or ‘uh-‘oh). This is the word of surprise or warning. If you do this correctly, you actually start with a silence!
  2. You can have breath flowing already, by putting an h at the beginning of the word (ha). If you do this correctly, your breath will already be moving before you make the note itself.
  3. You can glide into the note without either breath or a stop by holding your breath “open” or “hovering” before you make the sound – (<ah). If you do this correctly, the sound and the breath happen together, and you get a very smooth start to the note – there’s no sound of breath flowing already, and there’s no sudden attack. This is in fact the one that classical singers use the most, because it’s a smooth, gliding onset.

Now let’s move to the pop and rock recording artists (and of course blues, soul, gospel, death metal, grunge  – you get the picture…). Contemporary commercial music uses these three onsets, but they have much more fun using all sorts of new ones. Here’s a few for you to play with:

  • Creak like an old door opening. You can sometimes find this if you talk like you are really tired. It’s a really gentle sound and can mean you are being very tired or deliberately sexy. If you do this correctly, your breath flow will be very small and slow, and the sound will “creak” into the note.
  • Flip onto the note. This means that you usually start the note higher and flip down onto the “real” note. The most extreme cases sound like Tarzan, but it depends how much higher you start. This is a favourite with Country and Western singers. If you do this correctly, it’ll sound like a yodel or a “catch in the voice”.
  • Squeeze the note. This is a more dangerous one (after all, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like). You start by aiming for the note in your head and squeezing it out of a tighter throat. The best version of this is to begin the note with the squeeze then open your throat quickly to get a clearer sound. If you do this correctly, you’ll stay on the same note but start it with a more muffled, “strained” sound and open onto a clearer note straight away.

Here’s a tip: onsets work best when the word starts with a vowel, but you can do them on words beginning with other letters. So start by using words such as “ah”, “yeah”, “oh”, and “uh”

And anything you can do to start a note, you can do to finish it. So experiment with these ideas:

  • Sing a word and practise ending it with a creak.
  • Do the same thing, ending with a flip.
  • Now sing the same word and end with a squeeze.
  • Have fun mixing and matching – start a note with a squeeze and end with a flip
  • Now start and stop with a creak
  • Start with breath flowing and end with a creak.

Now that you’re getting the feel of these onsets and offsets, go back and listen to your favorite artist again. Remember that these onsets only happen at the very beginning of the note or phrase, and the offsets happen at the very end. Notice which onsets and offsets your singer uses.

In fact, they’ll use some of the sounds you’ve just learned and not others. That’s because their style includes certain things and excludes others, and they wouldn’t want to change their style too much, or they might lose you as a fan.

Once you’ve found these onsets in your own voice, sing a few lines of your favourite artist’s songs and experiment with using different onsets at the beginning of the phrases. When you copy the onsets and offsets they use, you start to sound much more like them.