Singers: Don’t Get Burned By Different Room Acoustics

Years ago I was preparing for a two-hour concert, so I started my preparation a few months in advance. To fully develop my song performance, I usually practice my vocals with and without accompaniment. So for many weeks prior to starting band rehearsals, I practiced every day in my rehearsal room.

In my solo practice I worked through each technical and performance detail of the 22 songs I had selected. I stripped down each song to develop my understanding of the lyric and storyline. I worked on the dynamic ebb and flow of each song to support my interpretation and styling.

To develop aspects such as song interpretation, melodic improvisation and intonation, I worked on the songs a cappella (without accompaniment). To blend my mic technique with song performance and adapt my acoustic voice to the electronic sound coming through the speakers, I practiced with a PA and instrumental tracks.

I established the resonance balances of my voice, which gave me the vocal flexibility to meet the challenges of the songs and still be able to sing powerfully without strain. From many weeks of practicing each of the details, I gained complete comfort performing each song.

Since my rehearsal room was large and equipped with a PA, I rehearsed with the full band in the same room. In later rehearsals we brought in my backup singers—again in the same room.

Finally on the day of the concert, I arrived at the large venue for our sound check, which included making sure I could hear myself easily through the monitors and above the band. You can imagine how surprised I was when we began the first song and I was totally thrown off. My voice felt totally different—almost foreign in sensation. I struggled to achieve notes that just the day before had been so easy.

What was throwing me off?

After eliminating various possibilities, such as monitor mix or EQ with the sound engineer, I discovered the obstacle: I had become so accustomed to the acoustics of singing in the same practice room that when I changed to this larger venue, the FEEL of singing changed. As a result of different room acoustics, my physical approach to singing each song now had to be very different.

Why?

How we singers physically work with our voice has a lot to do with how we hear ourselves. When the sound we hear back is an alteration of the sound we’re intending and may in fact be creating, we tend to unwittingly manipulate our vocal muscles in an effort to create the sound we expect to hear. Different room acoustics are a main factor in how your voice sounds, and there are others.

Mic Mismatch

An alteration of your vocal sound can occur when the stage or studio mic is not properly matched to the tonal qualities or personality of your voice. Just as each voice has an audio persona, mics also have a “personality” by virtue of their design. Proper mic-to-voice matching avoids unwanted alteration of your voice.

PAs and Monitors

Problems can also occur if you’re singing through speakers that do not have a wide enough frequency range to properly reflect all the tonal qualities and nuances of your voice. You’ll understand this if you have ever tried to sing through a guitar or bass amp. Electronically designed to reproduce guitars—not voices—these amps will often dramatically alter the sound of your voice, causing you to subconsciously tighten your throat and push for notes.

The same can occur with monitors if they are not EQed for your particular voice or are incorrectly positioned. Even when you are singing well and sound great to the audience, if the monitors alter your perception of your voice, you may involuntarily change how you are singing and begin straining. Position and adjust monitors until there is a good balance of bass, midrange and treble and you’re comfortable with what you hear.

The Room

As my concert experience dramatically pointed out, room acoustics can influence how you sing. If you have ever sung in the bathroom, as many shower singers have enjoyed doing, you know what a nice difference favorable room acoustics can make. So from room to room your voice will interact with the acoustic environment differently. This can mean that the way you sing may change or at least the way your voice feels when you sing will be different.

Even the direction that you face in a particular room may influence how you hear your voice and consequently how you sing. This is particularly important in a recording studio, and it is something to check if you are having difficulty after you make sure that your microphone is a good match for you and the headset mix is good. If you still have trouble singing well in a vocal booth, try turning around in different directions to see if you can find a “sweet spot” for your voice.

Lesson Learned

Once I figured this out, and from that point on, I began to practice my repertoire in at least three different rooms: in my home music room (an acoustically live environment), my family room (wall-to-wall rug and lots of furniture = an acoustically dead environment) and in several rehearsal studios—each a totally different acoustic environment.

Result

I have never again had that problem. I no longer become subconsciously dependent upon how it feels to sing in a particular acoustic environment. It has restored my confidence in my vocal technique enabling me to sing passionately and without reservation. This has given me even greater versatility and control of my voice. Now, I can walk into a rehearsal room, recording studio or performance venue and I know how to assess and deal with the acoustics of the room.

JEANNIE DEVA is a celebrity voice and performance coach, originator of The Deva Method®, Complete Technique for Stage and Studio™, author of Singer’s Guide to Powerful Performances plus voice enhancement books and exercise CDs. Clients include Grammy winners and multiplatinum recording artists. As a recording studio vocal specialist Deva is endorsed by engineers and producers of the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. Contact her at sing@jeanniedeva.com. Visit http://jeanniedeva.com and her online vocal school http://devavocals.com.