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  • Writer's pictureTobi

Struggling to be Heard: The Voiceless Artist - How can I Find my Voice, if I can not Sing?

“If an artist says something, but they don’t say it in their own voice, do they really say it at all?”

Introduction:  Fake Singer

When I was a teenager, I sang in a series of awesome/awful bands. Okay, technically, I fake-sang.  But it was a simpler time back then, when Bands like Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Faith No More taught us we didn’t need to sing to be able to sing.

Nu Metal Singer

As I approached my mid-thirties, my vocal chords tightened up.  Apparently, this is the case with anyone who has not had formal voice/vocal training.  And something that I loved to do, became something I now genuinely hate doing.  I don’t even sing along to songs anymore.  I simply can not stand the sound of my own voice.  As an artist, this presents me with a problem - How can I find my voice, if I can not sing?         

Chapter One: Spoken-Word

Fortunately, there are a lot of alternatives to singing on tracks, but each comes with their own limitations and disadvantages.


I can opt for a spoken-word track.  My latest single, 'Quintessence of Dust' is only the second track to feature my voice throughout. I'm not confident enough, as yet, to build entire track around my spoken-words and performance. Even with Shakespeare's words, ‘Quintessence of Dust’ demonstrates, a lot of playlist curators will not feature spoken-word.  And the ones that do, tend to prefer spoken-word tracks set against organic instruments, rather than electronic productions.  This leaves me a sort of limbo, falling between genres. 

Chapter Two: Public Domain Recordings

I can opt for archived speeches, poems and extracts from old B-Movies.  This option allows me to express themes and ideas in broad terms, by re-contextualizing the words of others.  ‘Military Industrial Complex’ remains the earliest of my works that I consider to be broadly successful.  

I am, of course, limited to using recordings that are in the public domain.  Searching out recordings on particular topics is time-consuming, and often frustrating.  And, like spoken-word, curators are rarely interested.  In fairness, the listening public is seldom interested either.

Nevertheless, I enjoy re-vitalizing old recordings with my sonic oddities.  It is greatly rewarding to introduce the thoughts and ideas of others to a new audience.

Chapter Three: Vocal Samples and Vocoders

Another option is royalty-free vocal samples, edited and re-arranged, mixed with vocoder effects and similar.  This vocal collage expresses ideas and themes in an odd, dissociative manner, allowing me to ‘hide in plain sight’.  ‘Panic’ is an example of this, and is probably my most well realized of tracks.    

Vocal Samples

The listening public tends to perceive these tracks as energizing, but not emotional.  They are, thankfully, a little easier to promote than spoken-word or public domain recordings.  But I doubt they will ever engage the listener’s emotions in the way a simple ‘one voice/one instrument’ recording will.  The quiet, understated grace and inherent intimacy of voice and guitar/piano will always resonate within the heart and soul of the listener more than that of vocal hook and vocoder.

Chapter Four: Featured Artists and Session Vocalists

Given the listening public’s affinity for the human voice, the obvious solution would be to work with a featured artist or session singer.  This could be done by first composing lyric and melody, whereupon the featured artist or session singer renders word and note in their own voice.

Session Singer

One of the issues with this approach is listeners are inclined to assume the artist singing is the artist who wrote the lyrics and melody.  And I, in turn, are relegated to the role of supporting producer.  A hired gun, no more.  Moreover, though, I dislike micromanaging creative people.  If I collaborate with a fellow artist, I prefer to set a particular theme or idea, and let them run with it.  I have no interest in ‘puppeteering creative people’.  My collaboration with Wee Scots Poet, ‘All The Little Things’ is perhaps the closest I have to a ‘crowd-pleaser’. 

Chapter Five:  Vocal Synthesis

Vocal synthesis is, in effect, a virtual instrument for the human voice.  I play it as I would any virtual instrument..  The difference is, underneath each midi note, I type words.  I can control the amount of velocity/energy and shape vocal expressions with phonetics.  This approach allows me to write a song on the guitar and/or keyboard, then render it with the vocal synthesis instrument. The vocals on '90 Seconds to Midnight" are all generated this way, as I wanted them to evoke a synthetic, almost 'speaking clock' feeling.

Vocal Synthesis

Unfortunately, AI inspires a great deal of negativity, particularly on the grassroots music scene.  And while this negativity is understandable, like all things on social media, it is expressed in broad, unforgiving terms.  The entirely credible reasons for concern and complaint relating to AI are often lost in an all too often superficial, actively contradictory, ‘one size fits all’ rush of anger and condemnation.  The fact that, for example, AI mastering services are in common use on the grassroots music scene is almost entirely ignored, in favor of a tirade of abuse and click-bait statements.

There is, I’m afraid, the ever-present risk in using vocal synthesis instruments, of being lumped together with tracks generated in totality by AI.  The fact that music, lyric and melody is all my own work [not to mention, I mix/master my own tracks without the aid of AI], will be entirely lost in the din of reactionary malice.  

Conclusion: Unheard

I will admit to a nagging frustration with the grassroots music scene.  For years now, I have spent a good amount of my own time supporting grassroots music.  And while I have a great affection for the scene, it can be very conservative.  The overwhelming majority of it is preoccupied with guitar bands and singer-songwriters, both of which I enjoy immensely, indeed, many of my favorite artists fall into this category of music.

Studio Microphone

I am, nevertheless, disappointed at the degree to which much of the grassroots scene remains indifferent or, on occasion, actively hostile towards artists who make music differently.  Much of this ignores the fact that all manner of music is made in all manner of ways.

It remains a real shame that artists who have found their voices in new ways, may yet go unheard, simply because few are disposed to hear them.

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