Edits by Mixdown staff
From The King, to T Pain (the king of autotune) and Billie Eilish, we're exploring the vocal effects that define the sound of 10 iconic vocalists.
People often attribute a singer’s ascension to musical icon status to their vocal chops, however fewer contemplate the vocal effects and processing that can really elevate an excellent performance. Vocal effects have allowed many a vocalist to create a rendering of their God-given instrument that is truly unique and definitive of their sound. As they say, it takes two to tango, and nowhere is that truer than in the vocal recording booth. Today, we’re exploring some of the most iconic pairings of singers and vocal effects across the stylistic spectrum, from the hotly debated warble of autotune, to the subtle stacking that makes Billie Eilish’s fluttery vocals sound positively mesmerising.
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1. Elvis Presley: Slapback Echo
As cool as The King himself, Slapback Echo is as important to the rockabilly tradition as pompadours and sideburns. An echo with a short delay time and very little feedback, the single repeat of a Slapback is known for its midrange emphasis and thickening effect as vocal effects.
In 1954, Sam Phillips produced Elvis’s first record at Sun, an event that would change music forever. For that record and the four that followed it, Phillips created the effect that he coined ‘Slapback’ by re-feeding the output signal from the playback head of his tape recorder to its record head, resulting in the iconic 50s sound we all know and love.
2. John Lennon: Automatic Double Tracking
Lennon is known for many things, his songwriting, his nasal voice and as it turns out, his laziness in the studio. ADT was invented by engineer Ken Townsend at the request of Lennon, who despised the monotony of double tracking his parts and was desperately seeking an alternative.
Doubling has long been used for its chorusing effect, layering two different takes of the same part gives an impression of fullness that does not occur when layering two copies of the same performance in sync.
Townsend however, realised that layering two copies of the same performance slightly out of sync produced similar vocal effects to manually double tracking, and with some trickery involving the use of two tape machines, ADT was born.
3. Dusty Springfield: Chamber Reverb
Before reverb was a dial on your amp or a plugin on your DAW, it was achieved by the use of an actual physical space called an echo chamber. Amplifying vocals in this special room created a reverberant vocal effect that was then mixed back in with the dry recording.
Whilst first invented by Bill Putnam in 1947, it was not until the 1960s that reverb chambers were used to their full ‘wall of sound’ potential by producers such as Phil Spector.
The breathy quality and gentle vocal delivery of Dusty Springfield made her a prime candidate to elicit the best from this effect, famously utilising a heavily reverberated vocal sound throughout her career.
4. Peter Frampton: The Talk Box
Talented guitarists are often praised for their ability to make a guitar ‘talk’. Players like Peter Frampton gave new meaning to this phrase when they began to employ the use of the ‘talk box’ effect in the 1970s.
Whilst the first attempts at reproducing the sound of the human voice with instruments date back to 1939, the modern talk box was invented by Pedal Steel player Pete Drake in 1964.
Drake found that after attaching a tube to a funnel connected to his speaker, he could place the tube in his mouth and form words orally that would shape the output of his Pedal Steel, giving the impression that the instrument was speaking.
This talk box was used to great effect on ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, forever linking Frampton to this unique vocal effect.
5. Julian Casablancas: Distortion
The gravely croon of Julian Casablancas is synonymous with his signature use of distortion.
While many older recordings feature distorted vocals, this was an often unintentional byproduct of pushing tape machines and mixing consoles past their capacity for clean recording and into overdrive.
Whilst the lack of headroom of early recording technology was often considered a nuisance, it produced a pleasant effect that is now often intentionally replicated.
No singer is more famous for that replication than Casablancas, who achieved it on the Strokes’ debut album ‘Is This It’ by singing his parts through a Peavey practice amp.
6. Daft Punk: Vocoder
Perhaps not known for their vocal prowess, French electronic duo Daft Punk are, however, intrinsically linked to their creative use of the Vocoder vocal effect.
Developed in 1928, the intended use of the vocoder was to reduce the bandwidth of the human voice, allowing it to be transferred across great distances. This was achieved via a process involving bandpass filters, resulting in a robotic sounding voice that was never used for civilian communication but had very promising creative uses in later years.
Using a synthesiser, artists such as Kraftwerk utilised this effect throughout the 70s, but it wasn’t until Daft Punk later tied the vocoder into their robotic aesthetic that it found its most iconic musical usage.
7. T-Pain: Autotune
Autotune gets a bad rap. Often associated with lacklustre industry plants who utilise the technology to obscure their absence of vocal ability, Autotune has become a widely used and lambasted vocal effect.
It has, however, always carried an intrinsic artistic merit when used blatantly as an effect rather than merely to smooth out the wobbly vocal efforts of boy bands.
Introduced in 1997 and first famously utilised by Cher on her undeniable banger ‘Believe’ in 1999, Autotune initially became known as ‘the Cher effect’ before T-Pain dethroned her as the effect’s most famously creative user.
8. Kevin Parker: Long Delay
Where would psychedelia be without Delay? Since the 60s, singers have employed various forms of delay to fill out their sound, using long delay times and high levels of feedback to create rhythmic vocal effects, hippie-dippie drones and floating cascades of never ending repeats.
In 2010, Kevin Parker brought neo-psychedelia to the forefront of Australian music with Tame Impala’s debut ‘Innerspeaker’. Parker’s soft heady voice, dripping with multitudes of trippy oscillating delays, inspired a generation of young singers to get spacey with their vocal sounds, much to the disappointment of grumpy old sound guys across the country.
9. Grimes – Digital Reverb
Much time has passed since Putnam’s reverb chambers first added the dimension of depth to recorded music. Since then, our options when it comes to reverb have become virtually limitless with the advent of digital technology.
One singer who has used these limitless possibilities to her full advantage is Grimes, who utilises enormous sounding virtual reverbs to create her distinctively cavernous sound. By busing her reverb plugins and side-chaining the bus to her vocal tracks, Grimes is able to maintain the clarity of the voice despite her heavy use of the vocal effect.
10. Billie Eilish: Vocal Comping and Stacking
Since there’s been singing, there’ve been harmonies. The oldest vocal effect of all is the combination of multiple voices and the harmonic possibilities they create.
Throughout time, production methods have allowed more and more vocal layers to be stacked upon each other in recorded music, and now with the use of DAWs, singers are able to stack an infinite amount of vocal tracks and vocal effects to create unnaturally extensive harmonies – enter Billie Eilish.
With her brother Finneas, Billie Eilish has become famous for her use of vocal comping and stacking. The pair add layer upon layer of Eilish’s whispery voice to her tracks, creating a broad yet crystalline stack of voices that defines her distinctly modern sound.
Looking to record your vocals at home, Billie Eilish style? Check out our feature on recording with a USB mic here.