Last weekend’s football coverage in BBC’s MOTD2 programme ended with a story that, in reponse to the Australian bushfires crisis in his home country, Brighton’s goalkeeper Matt Ryan would pledge A$500 to Wires Wildlife Rescue for every save made in the Premier League. He went on to make 5 saves himself and with a total of 56 saves in the weekend’s matches, he will donate A$28,000 to the cause with others from the world of sport adding to the amount.
As background music to the piece, the BBC team had chosen a rousing, Australian power ballad that seemed familiar and took me back to the mid-1980s even if it is not music that I might typically listen to. I did not recognise the song and could not find it in the programme’s credits but with it remaining in my head as an earworm, I searched for it in YouTube. As someone has pointed out in the YouTube comments, it is not easy finding a song when the remembered lyric consists of “woah-oh-oh-oh”. Even so, I discovered that the original version, as used by the BBC, is the blandly titled “You’re the Voice” by Australian John Farnham which was released in 1986.
The song was written for John Farnham by Andy Qunta, Keith Reid, Maggie Ryder and Chris Thompson. From listening to instrumental versions, it is evident that it is the powerful vocal that makes the track and this has encouraged many cover versions together with the use of the song in TV and movie soundtracks. Listening to Farnham’s original recording more than 3 decades on, the inclusion of bagpipes seems particularly cheesy (i.e. hackneyed and obviously sentimental) today.
A more modern rendition that retains the vocal quality and includes some very powerful drumming can be found in a 2011 cover by ‘Forever Never’, a heavy metal band from my home county of Essex –
When I listen to good, modern vocal techique, I am usually mindful of the contribution made by technology. Most traditional acoustic instruments consist of a tone generator (string, reed, bar, lips etc.) that produces notes as simple waveforms. The body of the instrument may act as a resonator to amplify some components of the waveform and may also limit or emphasise some natural harmonics. But the timbre (‘sound’) of the instrument is usually fairly fixed and determined by the instrument itself.
The human voice differs from these instruments because, in addition to the tone generator (the vocal folds or cords in the larynx), the vocal tract and the mouth in particular are used to alter the timbre of the resultant sound (i.e. voice). By moving and controlling the various parts of the mouth, a person can change the waveform by modulating it. Modulation in voice and musical applications involves the addition of other (modulating) waveforms to produce a new, composite waveform whilst retaining the fundamental frequency (pitch) of the original, ‘carrier waveform’.
This can be easily demonstrated by singing a certain note (middle C, say) with an ‘Aaaah’ sound and then singing the same note with an ‘Eeeee’ sound. Both notes are at the same frequency but a different vowel sound is produced. This is achieved by adding distinctive frequency components called ‘formants’ to the original waveform. Different formants produce different vowel sounds and you can feel the change in the mouth needed to do this. Sometimes, it can be difficult to discern the different vowels when a female soprano sings very high notes because the formant frequencies are then so high that the fall outside the human audible range.
Before the advent of commercial radio in the early 20th century, singers had to be able to sing loudly and clearly to be heard by the audience. This involved the development of breathing technique in order to project the voice using a combination of abdominal and intercostal muscles to force air through relaxed vocal cords. It was usually necessary to stand erect when singing to achieve this. Many popular singers would bellow songs through acoustic megaphones. Forcing the voice in this way limited the ability to modulate the voice and resulted in a very plain (if loud) vocal technique in which words or syllables were often simply called out in tune.
Radio had been used in the 19th century for telegraph messages and transmission of voice had also been successful over very short distances. But is was Lee De Forest’s invention of the triode vacuum tube in 1906 that lead to the first practical amplifiers in 1912. In the same year, Marconi opened the first purpose-built radio factory in Chelmsford, England and commercial broadcasting began (in the USA) in 1920.
Given access to microphones and amplification, singers began to explore what could be done with the new technology. They found that changing or controlling their position relative to the microphone could affect the sound and that microphone technique could be used to enhance dynamic range. They could either project their voice or sing naturally when even a sigh, gasp or intake of breath could be heard if desired. The ability to modulate the sound using the mouth was improved and nuances could be added that carried the emotion in the voice in addition to the emotional content of the music itself.
From that time, vocal techniques have continued to develop and modern styles usually incorporate some form of what has been called ‘vocal gymnastics’. Modern singers provide countless, excellent examples but this solo version of “You’re the Voice” by Vivica provides a close-up demonstration of modern technique –
Waveforms can also be modulated electronically and modulated signals are used in radio AM (amplitude modulation) and FM (frequency modulation) transmissions . Subtractive synthesisers create sounds by using a tone generator to produce a carrier waveform and applying a modulating waveform electronically. A keyboard (or other MIDI source) can be used to determine the pitch of the tone generator. In fact, the “Subtractive synthesis” Wikipedia page begins by using the human voice as an example to explain modulation.
There are many other examples of modulation in music. Pete Townshend used an ARP synthesiser to modulate the analogue signal from his guitar for his solo in “Going Mobile” from the 1971 “Who’s Next” album. Peter Frampton used a guitar ‘talk box’ on his 1976 “Comes Alive” tour and resultant live album. A talk box uses a plastic tube that is usually attached next to a microphone. The sound from the performer’s instrument is directed via the tube to the musician’s mouth. Mouth movements then modulate the sound and the modulated sound is picked up by the microphone. In Frampton’s case, the guitar sound was vocalised to the point where words could be understood in the resultant sound. The music vocoder is another device where voice (from a microphone) is used to modulate the carrier sound from an instrument.
In this a cappella version by Naturally 7 (2015), vocal and electronic modulation are used to mimic musical instrument sounds –
“You’re the Voice” is for many, an inspirational song that has produced many varied cover versions since its original release in 1986.
Use the link below to enjoy the four versions as a single playlist –
References and Further Reading:
1. Matt Ryan’s pledge at BBC Sport
2. Australian Bushfire Emergency donations at the WWF
3. “You’re the Voice” at Wikipedia
4. Voice projection at Wikipedia
5. Subtractive synthesis at Wikipedia
6. The Vocoder at Wikipedia
7. “Going Mobile” (The Who) at Wikipedia
8. “Going Mobile” (The Who) at YouTube
9. “Do You Feel Like We Do” (Frampton) at Wikipedia
10. “Do You Feel Like We Do” (Frampton) at YouTube
11. John Farnham at Wikipedia
12. Vivica Official YouTube
13. Naturally 7 at Wikipedia