Understanding the effect of Amplification

(NOTE: DUE TO THE NUMEROUS VIDEOS INCLUDED IN THIS POST, YOU MAY EXPERIENCE LONGER THAN USUAL LOAD TIME)

Every Broadway musical uses amplification in today’s world.  The days of singing over the orchestra are gone.  Modern audiences expect the singers to sound like the cast recording and without a microphone there is no possible way to give the audience what they expect.  The same holds true for pop, rock, country, and R&B singers.  You will rarely hear them unamplified.  So what does this mean for you as a singer?  It means that you are not expected to sound like the cast recording or studio recording unless you are being amplified.  Too many singers walk into my studio and attempt to sing with a voice that sounds like its amplified but without amplification.  This is one of the easiest ways to sing yourself into nodules.  Rock bands and even some musicals nowadays are adding live digital processing to their audio system.  Compression, Reverb, and Enhancers are commonplace in modern music and singers need to understand how they work.

Compression sets a maximum volume level that the singers is permitted to reach before the amplifier stops amplifying them.  This not only ensures that the sound never gets too loud, but it also allows the sound engineer to turn up the volume for the lows and not worry about overblowing the speakers on the top.  This gives the audience a false perception of the dynamic range of the performer.

Reverb adds echo to the sound. If you’ve ever sung on a mic with no reverb, you’ll notice that it sounds dead and often just plain bad.  In a concert hall with natural reverb, electronic reverb often isn’t necessary.  However in a “dry” environment, it really helps smooth out the sound and hide slight imperfections.

“Enhancers” can affect the sound in numerous ways.  Some make the sound appear to come out of the speakers in 3-D.  Some make airy voices sound full by doubling them much like producers do in the recording studio.  Others boost the volume of the entire system and push it right to the edge of blowing the speakers without distortion in the sound.  Regardless of what specific change “enhancers” make, they alter the sound of the acoustic voice in a way that most young singers don’t understand and thus try to replicate with their acoustic voice which isn’t natural.

If you’ve never been exposed to this equipment before, visit your local music store and ask if they have any demonstration units that you can test (stores like Guitar Center and Sam Ash usually have displays or entire rooms of equipment).  Experiment and listen to what you hear coming through the system.  If you have access to equipment on a regular basis, play with different types of vocal sounds, especially with singing at lower volume levels, and pay attention to what comes through they system and what doesn’t.  Also play with the settings on the amplifier and notice what happens and how that changes the way you can produce your voice and still sound good.  You will more than likely discover that you can sing softer and sound better than without the mic.  The reverse can also be true – the louder you sing, the worse you’ll sound.

Check out these videos of singers signing acoustically (or at least lightly processed) and then fully processed and see if you can notice what changes.

This video has reverb and what sounds like some compression:

Fully Processed: (Compression, Reverb, and Auto-Tune)

Broadway Star Celia Keenan-Bolger: No Mic

In Les Miserables on mic:

Sutton Foster:  Compare :53-1:05 of this video to 0:00-0:10 of the next

Lea Michele Live:

On the cast recording:

On Glee: Lea comes in at 0:30

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