Making Sense of Formant Tracking Charts part 2: Formant Shifts Before the Formant Threshold or Strategies For Lower Voices

Chessoperaspirit made the following commentary to the earlier post:

Very interesting stuff! A couple questions:
You make the distinction between the acoustical shift that happens at F# regardless of voice type and the muscular shift that changes. I’ve always thought of the mas very connected. How does that work for a lower voice type that has to make a muscular shift before its time for F2 dominance? Do they switch registers while still tuning to the first formant? Can you give an example of what that would sound like?
Also, is that acoustical shift different if you have to produce a different vowel? If you had to produce an /i/ on a note slightly lower than F#, would you switch to F2 dominance for the sake of intelligibility and clarity without losing resonance?

Thanks TS. I’m just trying to understand. Thanks so much for taking the time to share all this. I look forward to your response.

These commentaries go right to the point. I will first deal with the second question relative to the [i] vowel (notice I am using phonetic symbols as opposed the phonemic ones, per the point brought up by Baritonobasso). The first formant threshold for [i] is about 280 Hz, roughly C#4. When we get to this point we have the option of modifying the vowel to [I] and then [e] to raise F1 to coincide with the rising pitch. This could continue from vowel to vowel following F1 until such time as the vowel modification is too far from the original vowel and that the nearest viable vowel would require the larynx to rise. In the case of the [i] vowel this occurs just around F4 in my experience.

The last sentence addresses in part the first question. Why is it necessary to track F2 (we are talking about the male passaggio or the lower female passaggio. The second passaggio for female voices changes from F2 to F1 but the following principles apply equally). It is possible to track F1 beyond what is traditionally done. This is what the Italians refer to as “voce aperta”. The issues are different for basses, baritones and tenors. The first issue is that the listener accepts a resonance change when the voice reaches a point of muscular stress. A basso who reaches the muscular passaggio around D4 does not need to track F2 on the [a] vowel. However, this level of muscular stress on the crico-thyroid-vocalis balance combined with the size of the vocal folds has the tendency to cause excess medial pressure (pressing), which would cause a high larynx. In such cases, the bass will cover earlier than is really necessary. Again, the listener accepts this “modification” because of the perceived stress at the muscular passagio point. The great basses have the ability to sing open E4b and depending on circumstance they chose. One such moment is the beginning of the aria Le veau d’or from Gounod’s Faust. The sustained note is E4b. It is a big orchestral moment and the singer’s instinct is to sing louder and more open. See the difference between the following basses:

George London in the following studio recording executes the perfect cover favoring F2 on H3 (second formant on 3rd harmonic with a fundamental for Eb4 of cir. 325 Hz).

Le veau D'OR George London

Jerome Hines does the same.

Le veau D'OR Jerome Hines

Lawrence Tibbett sings F1 on H2 (First formant on second harmonic) in this clip that cannot be embedded:

Le veau D'OR Lawrence Tibbett

Boris Kristoff does the same as Tibbett here:

Le veau D'OR Boris Kristoff

Compare the spectrograms and listen to the third sung note of each clip!

All four singers exhibit resonant voices as indicated by strong energy in the singer’s formant area even though their resonance strategies are different. The open or covered sound among basses who have excellent phonation (as do these four) is a choice. I find the covered tone as exhibited by London and Hines more in keeping with the two notes preceding. The balance of chiaro-scuro is kept. With Kristoff and Tibbett, the Ebs have the virtue of sounding more spoken.

The choice is more restrictive for baritones a step higher. Most baritones will track F2 on F4 and higher. This is operatic tradition. But there are exceptions. High baritones who border on the facility of tenors in the high range have the ability to sing open on those notes as well. Compare the four clips of Eri tu from Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera as sung by:

Lawrence Tibbett. The note in question happens at 1:15 (Che compensi in tal guiSA). Tibbett’s clip can not be embedded:

Tibbett sings a covered F (i.e. F2 on H3 as seen on the spectrogram below):

GuiSA Tibbett

Sherrill Milnes choses the same and accomplishes it at 3:20. The passaggio was always an issue for Sherrill Milnes (My first operatic hero). It is only now that I understand why. As much as he always tried to cover on E4 and above. It was usually difficult on the [a] vowel because the slightly pressurized phonation caused a slightly high larynx that worked against the acoustic change. The vocal tract adjustments for the first formant [a] and second formant modifications of[a] around E4 to F4# are very close to one another causing a struggle between the resonators.

GuiSA Milnes

Thomas Hampson sings clearly open on the same F4 at 2:50. His lyric voice makes this possible with little stress. The voice becomes brighter, losing some of its depth, but it does not bring attention to itself because the vocal weight is light enough to not cause Hampson any stress.

GuiSA Hampson

Ettore Bastianini is interesting. On a studio recording he performs a text-book cover achieving F2 on H3 as expected at 00:45.

GuiSA Bastianini2

However on a life recording he sings the same F open although attempting the cover at 00:55.

GuiSA Bastianini1

There are many issues here. A hard and fast rule cannot be made as far as where to cover for the lower voices. Singers like Lawrence Tibbett and Bryn Terfel (not represented with a video here) have been successful in both baritone and bass roles with great facility in the high range. When they sing a bass role, their approach tends to be more like a baritone relative to acoustic registration issues. Like Tibbett and Kristoff he opens the E4b in Le veau d’or. This begs the question whether Kristoff was in fact a basso. Would it have been better to refer to him as a bass-baritone. His facility in the high range was legendary, judging by his recording of Moussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.

When dealing with high baritone voices like Hampson, Cappuccilli, Nucci, Hvorostovsky etc, one should not be surprised if occasionally they sing open Fs. They are able to do so without harm to themselves. When the highest they have to sing is a G or Ab, they can manage the acoustic problems if their phonation is in good order. However, there is a tendency by higher baritones to darken the voice to counter the argument that they might be lazy tenors, attempting to turn the voice lower than feels totally comfortable. In this situations we see that they struggle between their true nature and what the label they have taken on.

Theoretically I would say that Baritones like Hampson, Hvorostovsky (began as a tenor), Nucci, Dieskau, etc should have been trained as tenors because their natural passaggi supports this. However, the real world is about what is marketable. Is it worthwhile for Thomas Hampson to have delayed his career to find the high notes that would have made him some kind of tenor or was it a more intelligent idea to fill the void left by Dieskau in the Lieder realm with his great ability to sing softly in the high range? The question answers itself.

When we compare the past and the present, there is no doubt that today lighter voices sing heavier repertoire as a rule in almost all Fachs. Paradoxically, in the past bigger voices were also approached more lyrically. So when we compare Gigli who had a powerful voice with what we refer to as spinto tenors today, we hear a much more lyrical voice in Gigli by comparison and perhaps a sound with much less impact than his from his contemporary spinto counterparts. The argument is confusing. When hearing Gigli one suddenly thinks that lighter voices were cast in his time, but I believe this is erroneous. It is rather that bigger voices sounded more lyrical back then because of the approach.

There was a time in Italy when there were fast rules like a baritone must turn E4 or even E4b if he is to sing Verdi. The aesthetics in terms of what was considered a Verdian baritone or bass has changed. The Rossini baritone over time moves into heavy Verdian repertoire, so we do not allow the true Verdian voices to develop. It is not by accident that few true Verdian males voices are to be found on the world’s operatic stages.

I will stop here as the discussion seems to be transforming into another topic that deserves its own post.

© 11/28/2008