Kashu-do (歌手道): The Vocal Fry: A Path To a One-Register Effect

As much as I try, I cannot avoid the word “paradox” whenever I speak about the voice.  One of the most paradoxical issues in singing is flow-phonation, a term derived from the idea of the balanced propagation of air avoiding both pressing and breathy singing.  The vocal fry has been advocated by many teachers because of its efficiency and has also been discredited by many because of the fact that a vocal fry is considered lacking in breath support.  Any vocal coordination that does not take into consideration the balance between breath, phonation and resonance will ultimately lead to dysfunction to some degree.  Rather than abandoning an element that is incomplete, I am of the mind to utilize this element and add the missing complimentary part.  It is in this manner that I have been able to make use of the central virtue of the vocal fry.

Scientists like Donald Miller of Voce Vista have used the fry to identify the five formant peaks of a given vowel through spectrography.  The approach is to reduce the subglottal pressure to such a degree that natural harmonics are too weak to be perceived in a spectrograph.  The only areas of emphasis in such a spectrogram would be the areas strengthened by the vowel formants. This would presuppose that the glottal source is efficient enough to show the strength of the peaks.  Increased glottal pressure/flow would then show the strengths of the natural harmonics and the influence of the formants on them.  

The key here is that the glottal source in a fry production is extremely efficient.  I postulate that the glottal fry achieves a midpoint between the “pressing” associated with chest voice and the falsetto pattern observed in untrained male voices and too commonly in the middle voice of professional female classical singers  (See Miller).  Indeed, neither the pressed phonation of the chest voice nor the tendency toward falsetto are desired.  They were not desired by the great teachers of the 18 and 19th century as evident in much of the literature.  The lower voice, by virtue of greater fold mass will have a richer, darker quality influenced by the presence of stronger lower partials influenced by the first vowel formant (F1). As the voice rises and fold mass (depth) decreases, the tone will become more and more dominated by partials of higher frequency and take on a more brilliant quality.  Nevertheless the basic phonation pattern should be maintained.  This is the hallmark of great singing–the illusion of one register.  Indeed the goal is to maintain a consistent phonation pattern while the acoustic events occur (i.e. First Formant (F1) dominance until c. f4, Second Formant dominance (F2) from f4# until c. f5 and basically First Formant dominance above f5 with the exception of a few notes that catch the Second Formant).  This mode of phonation is based on the vocal fry, as I demonstrate here preparing to sing the demanding multiple crossing of lower to upper register (Both a muscular event and an acoustic event, i.e. From vocalis dominance below D4 to CT dominance above it and from F1 dominance below c. F4 [vowle dependent] to F2 dominance above) in the final section of Ferrando’s Aria, “Ah lo veggio…” from Cosí fan tutte (the aria is usually cut because of its difficulty).

Ah cessate.mp3

On a personal note, I could not sing this aria until I was able to accomplish the fry voice set-up throughout the range of the aria.  The fry voice is essentially an isolation of the vocal fold edge without the sub-glottal pressure that would create a supported tone.  Nevertheless the glottal posture is ideal.  I have experimented with the vocal fry for years but I could not get consistency with it until such time as a semblance of balance was achieved relative to CT-Vocalis antagonism.  This general balance I trained with full-voiced lip trills  and other occlusives at moderate volumes (not too loudly and not too softly as the two extremes present other problems).

Reminder, full-voice is not the same as loud singing.  One may sing full-voiced softly or loudly.  Full-voiced refers to adequate fold mass and glottal closure to achieve a modal [not falsetto or hollow chest tone] tone, like the vocal fry— 

Once CT-Vocalis antagonism was balanced, it became necessary to refine the tone by addressing glottal closure.  The vocal fry is the only exercise I know that avoids both pressed voiced and breathy voice simultaneously.  I often refer to the fry voice as: “the tone that sounds like chest voice and feels like head voice.”

To summarize, the fry tone is neither chest voice nor head voice in terms of fold closure. I would venture to think that it has a high enough CQ (close quotient) that it would be called a chest tone, yet the CQ is low enough to prevent a glottal squeeze.  This midway point, which guarantees full glottal closure (no loss of air during the close phase of the vibratory cycle) and adequate flow such that sub-glottal pressure does not continue to rise, has the virtue of allowing a seamless rise from the lower register to the high register.  This yields in essence a homogeneous sound throughout the range yet does not impede natural acoustic events (i.e. acoustic registers F1 and F2).

For those who read spectrograms:

Three excerpts from the clip above, D4, F4 and Bb4 are represented below by spectrograms:

D4 (c. 300 Hz) shows two dominant peaks on the left side (F1 and F2 of the vowel [a]).  The first formant peak (F1, c. 600 Hz) dominates.  On the right sid, the 8th peak (c. 2400 Hz) represents a strong Singer’s Formant component.  The F1 dominance is what is expected for D4 in the tenor voice.

 F4 (c. 350 Hz) shows a similar pattern to the D4. It is also on the [a] vowel (second syllable of “fallaci” early in the clip).  It is also F1 dominant showing a strong peak on the second harmonic (H2, c. 700 Hz).  The Singer’s formant is on the 7th harmonic (H7, c. 2450 Hz).

Bb4 (c. 465Hz) on a modified version of the [i] vowels that resembles some version of the schwa even though the strength of the upper formants give the impression of an [i].    It is appropriately F2 dominant carrying the vowel energy on the 3rd harmonic (H3 c. 1380 Hz).  The fith, sixth and seventh harmonics split the energy of the singer’s formant.  A decent tenor high Bb but the vocal tract could be better tuned for maximum power.   I would prefer to see the energy of the Singer’s Formant carried on the sixth harmonic which would indicate a cluster effect of the 4th and fifth formants.   This is a point of refinement.

The essential point is that the expected acoustic register events take place while the approach to phonation remains constant.

–my Voce Vista is inoperative at the moment because my PC crashed.  I used Amadeus Pro for spectrography.  The display is not as singer-friendly as Voce Vista, which was created specifically for voice research– 

I intend to carry the experiment again in the future using EGG (Electro-glottograph) to determine the CQ (close quotient) across the register events.

© 01/23/2012