Sure, distorted electric guitars can sound nice, at least in the right musical context. Even a nice, “hairy” bass sound, or keyboards like a Minimoog, a Fender Rhodes or a Hammond B3 can sell the song if they have the right amount of grit dialed in. But what about the human voice? The good news is, distortion on vocals can work for the track just as perfectly as it does on the above mentioned instruments.
To distort the human voice – older than you would think
You would actually be surprised in this day and age of digital simulations, emulations, all kinds of saturation plug-ins or even dedicated outboard saturation units, that how old the practice of distorting vocals really is. Of course you might say that back in the old days of music recording, some of it was surely not intentional, and maybe I would agree with you on that… maybe not. It was definitely easier to overdrive a fully analog system and still get a usable or even great sound. But most of those audio guys knew their limits pretty well, and they also knew how to stretch those limits or how to simply ignore them.
Why is it easy with analog
In an analog system, virtually everything can introduce some subtle or not so subtle level of distortion; the preamps, the EQs, the compressors/limiters, the mixing consoles with all of their panels and transformers, and the magnetic tapes as well. Today we have the digital technology available that if we want to, or need to mix ITB (“in the box”, on the computer), we can still use some pretty good emulation of the old gear and get the same or at least very similar saturation effect happen on every single track. Including vocals, if that’s what we want.
But let’s take a listen to some of the tunes that have some exciting grit going on on the vocals. Hehe.
This one might be on the subtle side of things, up to a point at least – about 2:39 in – then as the level jumps, so does the amount of distortion. The effect on Robert Plant‘s lead vocals was probably achieved with driving one or two 1176 compressors into the zone of sweet shrillness.
Led Zeppelin – “When The Levee Breaks”
Saturating the magnetic tape
On this old Stones tune, the nice sizzle that appears on Mick Jagger’s lead vocals, and in the high end of pretty much every other element as well is a classic example of tape saturation. Everyone who mattered in pop music did that back then, from Motown to the Beatles, and let’s admit it, hitting the tape hard works pretty darn good for creating loads of sonic excitement – at least when a good performance is given.
The Rolling Stones – “It’s All Over Now”
This next one is a very obvious distortion put on the lead vocal track, and is well audible all the way through the song. Was it a hard driven mic preamp or something even crazier? It’s not far from sounding like singing into a blues harp mic that’s amplified by a guitar amp. Except maybe this one doesn’t have quite as much low and high passing.
Iggy Pop – “The Passenger”
You can do it in the box
And finally something more modern: mixing engineer Tchad Blake is now famous for his subtly unusual and artistic style. One of his “tricks” is parallel (additional) distortion; this way he can distort the heck out of a copy of the original, clean track, and then set the balance of the two to taste, to get just the right amount of effect (the SoundToys Decapitator plug-in he likes to use has a wet/dry knob so you don’t even need to duplicate the track). You can hear that Tchad dialed in a good amount of grit on the lead vocals here too:
The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy”