Come with Kpopalypse on a new series that will investigate the paranormal, the unexplainable, the deepest mysteries of K-pop vocals! Yes, that’s right, it’s … THE V FILES!
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE V FILES
Few aspects of the K-pop fan culture are more technically and ideologically incoherent than the cancerous scourge that is “K-pop vocal analysis”. Comparing voices in K-pop music and assessing them on vocal quality aspects is on a similar level of idiocy to comparing mobility scooters for their racetrack performance — while both can definitely be compared like this, the results don’t matter, because nobody is using them for that purpose. The reality is that K-pop as a genre is not concerned with actual vocal quality. (Synthetic vocal quality? Yes. Actual raw acoustic vocal quality? Definitely not!) When challenged with this obvious truth, K-pop’s vocal analysts will deliberately miss the point, retreating into technical terms which are inscrutable to the layperson — “Look, I’m right, look at these measures and criteria!” — willfully ignoring the fact that fussing over torque and horsepower isn’t very meaningful when you’re cruising to your local lawn-bowls club at ten kilometres per hour.
Of course, you can’t tell the K-pop vocal analysis horde that they’re wasting their life applying technical singing criteria to a genre of music where singing “correctly” is strictly optional and everybody uses Autotune and sings over backing tracks with their own highly-processed vocal still on them. Much like you can’t tell an insane person who wants to ride their gopher on a Formula One track that maybe they’ll never get that opportunity and isn’t their vehicle just fine for going down to the local shops. Therefore, this series doesn’t seek to change anyone’s mind, because delusional K-pop stans will always use vocal pedagogy as a way to “explain” why their bias is better than the pack, attempting to justify subjective preferences with “data”, when those preferences actually don’t require justification and just need the self-confidence to say “I just like the way it sounds” or even “I don’t care how it sounds but that guy/girl is hot”.
What this series does seek to do is let everybody else know exactly how full of shit those types of analysis is. So let’s take a look at some of vocal analysts’ favourite terms! What do vocal analysts think they mean, what do they really mean in the actual real world, and how relevant are they to the world of K-pop singing? Welcome to this new series that aims to debunk one esoteric bullshit term at a time!
What do k-pop vocal analysts think resonance is?
I’ve used three different sources for vocal analyst opinion here, because people who believe in the Tooth Fairy often disagree about the colour of her dress. These sources are: Kpopvocalanalysis.net, the vocals thread on OneHallyu, and Akisame’s introductory guide to vocals parts one and two.
Let’s take a look at what each of these three sources believe resonance to be.
Kpopvocalanalysis.net: Resonance is the optimum sound a vocalist should focus on when singing. It is a full, clean and round sound that won’t sound thin, constricted or small. A vocalist who’s resonant will use different types of placements, i.e. their voice will be placed either in their chest, head or mask (cheekbones area, not nose) to project their voice, in each individual register. A vocalist may be able to be resonant in their mixed voice by normally placing their voice in their mask with chest resonance, or as they go higher, with head resonance. A resonant sound is always going to be a projected sound, now resonance doesn’t mean loud, because a loud sound may still be pushed and strained. You may project but still have tension, but in true resonance tension should not be present.
This description isn’t technically incorrect, but that’s only because it’s in such non-specific airy-fairy language which is so vastly open to interpretation that it could mean almost fucking anything. Words like “clean” and “round” mean literally nothing at all when applied to sound in this context. The folks over at Kpopvocalanalysis.net sound less like music fans and more like wine snobs discussing their favourite bottle of red. You could be forgiven for reading the above paragraph and still having no fucking idea whatsoever what resonance really means.
OneHallyu Vocals Thread: Resonance is the amplification, enlargement, enhancement, improvement, intensification of sound. In other words, during vocal resonance, the vibrations of vocal cords are amplified with the help of the vocal resonators, in which the air are filled, before the air passes on its way outside. Vocal resonance equates to good voice projection and vocal power. Please do not confuse resonance with loudness. Resonance = power, BUT resonance =/= loudness =/= power. Just because a note is loud does not mean it is powerful or resonant. Plus, resonance can completely drown out loudness and every other sounds. The easiest way to put it, resonance consists of producing the maximum amount of sound using the minimum amount of effort. Resonance is achieved through the ideal shaping and manipulation of the vocal tract (see definition below) ALONG with using complete proper breath support. Another way to define the ideal shaping or manipulation of the vocal tract is to keep an open-throat. Open-throat refers to the ideal increase of pharyngeal space in order to maximize the use of resonated chambers and space. Open-throat involves a lifted soft-palate, which means no nasality, a neutral larynx, a well-positioned and shaped tongue, mouth, lips, jaw and facial muscles. A person MUST open their throat in order to resonate or belt powerfully.
This description is slightly better and has more layperson terms, but once again we’re in very subjective territory with hazy words like “improvement” and “intensification”. One could argue that screaming at the top of your lungs is also both an “improvement” and an “intensification” over actual singing, if you were a person who happened to like and prefer screaming. However, I learned a new word from the above paragraph which is “pharyngeal”, I’ll be sure to use that in a sentence myself one day.
Akisame: During vocal resonance the vibrations of the vocal cords are amplified with the help of the vocal resonating cavities. The air fills these cavities to produce a rich reverberating sound, before the air leaves the body. Vocal resonance is good voice projection and vocal power. However, it is not loudness. Resonance equals power, but loudness does not equal power! Just because a note is loud, it does not meant it is powerful or resonant. This evidence, since resonant sound drowns out loudness and can even be heard above full orchestra. To put it more basic terms, resonance is the production of the maximum amount of sound with the minimum amount of effort – whilst loudness is the opposite. Resonance is achieved through the ideal shaping and manipulation of the vocal tract, along with using complete and proper breath support. The ideal shaping of the vocal tract is to keep an open-throat. Open-throat refers to the ideal increase of pharyngeal space in order to maximise the use of the resonating chambers. Open-throat involves a lifted soft-palate (no nasality), a neutral larynx, a well positioned-and shaped tongue, mouth lips, jaw and facial muscles. A person MUST open their throat in order to resonate or belt powerfully/with proper projection. An open sound is also referred to as an “covered” sound because of the covering effect it has on the listener.
Akisame’s version is the closest to the truth out of the three, but all three explanations are very wishy-washy, non-specific and somewhat derived from each other. That funky word “pharyngeal” is in there again, so these descriptions no doubt share the same authors, at least in part. However, there are still problems with this version too. For instance, loudness and resonance aren’t opposites — loudness is just another word for volume, and the point of resonance is partly to increase volume, not decrease it. Resonance, objectively, IS a form of increasing loudness.
Okay, so what is resonance, really?
If you look up “resonance”, Google actually gives you two definitions, because like many words in the English language, “resonance” tends to get abused and misused. The first definition is the nonsense one full of stupid vocal analyst terms that don’t really mean anything (sounds don’t have to be “deep” to resonate, for instance). The second one is the real-world physics definition that actually makes some degree of sense.
Wikipedia gets it wrong too, but at least acknowledges that people who actually know what resonance is agree that they are full of shit (see highlight).
A “strictly scientific perspective” is just another way to say “the conclusions of people who don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy but instead actually know what they are talking about”. So let’s read on for the sciencey (i.e. trufaxual) perspective that everybody appears to be so scared of.
Resonance is the reinforcement of a certain frequency. All sound travels in waves, and every sound wave has a wavelength, which is the physical distance that the wave takes to do a full cycle of “wave motion”.
You can calculate the wavelength of any sound, as long as you know what the frequency (pitch) of that sound is in Hertz (Hz). Just use the following formula:
Divide the speed of sound (v for velocity, in seconds) by the frequency of the wave (f for frequency in Hertz, which is the number of waves per second) to arrive at λ — the wavelength.
Once you have your wavelength, any space which is exactly the same length as your wavelength, or an exact multiple of your wavelength, can generate resonance. As the wave bounces back and forth in the space, it folds back over onto itself, increasing its own volume without you the singer having to put in all that much extra effort, because each new pass of the wave continues to push the molecules in sympathy with ways in which they’re already being pushed. The below is a waveform resonating between two walls in a confined space, such as a cellblock in Cube Entertainment’s dungeon or the ‘Bad Thoughts’ room in MBK Entertainment’s headquarters, with arrows showing the direction of travel as the waveform bounces.
These waveforms move in an orderly fashion and reinforce each other, due to the wavelength and room length being an equal distance. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon yourself, like if you’ve ever sung in the shower and noticed that one particular note sounds really good in the shower and just that little bit effortlessly louder, then you’ve sung a frequency that matches two adjacent surfaces of the room — a “resonating frequency”. These frequencies can also pass into other objects, making these other objects vibrate in sympathy, which is what happens when a glass window cracks during a singer’s high note — the singer found (by accident) the resonating frequency of the glass and made it vibrate in sympathy (resonate) too hard.
Now let’s say that the walls were a slightly different distance apart, then the waveform would not be as resonant, and you might get something more like this:
As you can see, the waveform is now bouncing all over the fucking place. This is not a very resonant sound being produced because the molecules are being tugged every which way like Se7en receiving a massage during military service, so the sound isn’t being reinforced in any particular direction. However, if you were to adjust the frequency of the note so it matched this new room frequency, then the waveform would tidy up and you would have more resonance again.
You’ve probably figured out by now that resonating frequencies don’t necessarily have to be produced by vocals. In fact any type of frequency can be resonant given the right environment and geometry, it doesn’t even have to be a musical frequency. So what does any of this have to do with vocals?
NOTHING. Because as far as the human voice goes, everything that I just told you, and everything that the vocal analysts say, is all completely non-applicable. Humans actually can’t produce any resonance whatsoever with their vocal cavity alone.
Of course, people spoonfed bullshit by reality television, singing teachers, and vocal sites won’t believe me, so allow me to prove it.
The lowest bass note that any the bassiest of low-voiced humans can reasonably sing is around E2, which is 82.41Hz and has a wavelength of 4.19 metres. The highest treble note that any ultra-sopranos can reasonably sing is about a C6, which is 1046.5 Hz and has a wavelength of 32.97 centimetres (for reference). All the other notes that people can sing are somewhere between those two frequencies, mostly very very much in between. Now, knowing what you now have just learned (or already knew, gosh you smarty, why are you reading this condescending tripe?) about how resonance works, have a think about those frequency lengths. Do you actually have a cavity anywhere inside your body that roughly correlates to any of those wavelengths that can reinforce anything at all in the range between these two extreme frequencies? No, of course you don’t, not even if you’re Shrek. Humans cannot actually produce resonance in real terms with their voices because they simply don’t have chambers in their vocal tract of a length which is capable of storing and resonating a frequency anywhere in the range of the musical notes that they produce with their vocal cords.
This doesn’t mean that singers can’t learn to reinforce their voice in other ways. The vocal system is muscular, and the more you exercise muscles, the better they become at performing their functions, but “resonance” just isn’t one of those functions. Singing teachers like to call it “resonance,” but physically it actually isn’t anything of the sort, it’s actually more about muscular control and pushing air around efficiently through practicing that control. This also doesn’t mean that resonance can’t be produced outside the vocal tract by a singer’s note, such as in the glass-breakage example earlier, or by you singing in the bathroom, but in the latter case it’s the room where the resonance lives, not your voice. That’s why even people who can’t sing for shit still sometimes sound good when they’re taking a shower (even if that means that they don’t sound very hip-hop).
Does anyone in the world of K-pop actually care?
No, and here’s why not:
- Most K-pop singers are not massively vocally trained and couldn’t give two fucks, as they have enough problems just staying in tune.
- Most K-pop singers are miming, most of the time.
- When K-pop singers are not miming, they’re singing along to backing tracks with their own Autotuned voice on them.
- When K-pop singers are actually singing legit live (rare), any resonances are being deliberately removed by audio equipment.
Meet the 30-band graphic equaliser. The main job of this piece of equipment in a live stage environment is to change resonant frequencies, i.e. to fucking get rid of them. Resonating frequencies in large rooms such as TV and concert stages are extremely unwelcome because they tend to dominate over the actual music people are there to listen to.
Aside from performances, the equaliser can also be used in a studio recording environment for other uses. For instance, you can make someone sound like they’re talking through a telephone line by amplifying the frequencies that only a shitty phone speaker can reproduce and cut out all the rest. However, as a general rule, apart from very experimental styles of music (i.e. not K-pop), resonances are a pain in the ass to work with in the recording studio. That’s why most studio recording rooms are acoustically treated so they are “dead”, which means that the surfaces of the room don’t reflect much sound since audio engineers actually don’t want frequencies bouncing gleefully around all over the place like Hyoyoung at a knife convention.
Check out the picture below of a T-ara member doing some stuff in the recording studio:
If you can manage (and I’ll understand if you can’t), peel your eyes away from Eunjung and check out the other objects in this heavily acoustically treated recording studio room. The strange rectangular structures in the background are movable acoustic baffles that are designed to block sound reflection. The patterns on the left and rear walls are not supposed to be modern art, they’re sections of wall with deliberately uneven surfaces pasted onto them, designed to make it more difficult for waveforms to directly reflect off them and resonate. The projection screen is also probably down for similar reasons, as you can see nothing is actually projecting off of it so it’s probably being used to cordon off sound. All of these aspects are there to control resonance, because far from being a desirable quality, resonance is almost always the enemy of a good sound when recording vocals.
So “resonance” as it’s used today by K-pop vocal analysts is just a fabricated term used to force subjective opinions into what they want to push as objective analysis. It’s basically being used much like the word “literally” in the sense that they just kept misusing the word until the definition changed, because that’s how language works. Unfortunately, unlike “literally”, they can’t even agree on simple things like what “resonance” means, so it’s still just a means to give an authoritative air to vocal analysis that it clearly doesn’t deserve.