Pop versus rock, vocal-style

So iTunes just threw out “Raw Power.” And while listening in bliss, something popped into my head, a fragment of a conversation with a producer a while back about my voice.

He who shall remain unnamed is a electro pop guy. So, overprocessed, auto-tuned to Hell and back, all smooth and, in my opinion, inhuman. (Not specifically his stuff, I mean the whole genre).

Whereas I come from rock/punk/metal (in the 80s sense of the word, which we would now consider rather more like hard rock).

Anyway, it went a little like this:

Him: yeah, I dig your voice but, well… There’s something about it, I can’t put my finger on it. It’s either completely insane, tone deaf, or genius. I’ve never heard anything like it.

While I would like to flatter myself and say the answer is clearly “genius,” naw. I just have a punk/hard rock voice. I sound a bit like Lita Ford some times, other times more growling, a la lower range Axl Rose (think “It’s So Easy”) and maybe a bit of Taime Downe and Phil Lewis. I probably based my sound off billy g. bang of Kill City Dragons and Shooting Gallery more than I realized (but without the wailing head range screams). And in the last year I’m hearing more and more inflections in it a la early Steven Tyler—again, no screams, my throat hurts when I try it so I keep things mid- and low- range because that’s more comfortable (read: lazy).

But then, I grew up hearing voices like that. I still listen mostly to voices like that. I was a little baffled, but anyway, it doesn’t matter as that partnership was not meant to be, if for no other reason than I’m not making new electro, even non-pop electro. The synths are gathering dust these days.

And to be fair to him, there are some bad vocal takes in the first few maQLu releases, and some good vocal takes that have weird spots where they clash with the music. And it was always a hassle in mixing: I would sing the take and on its own it sounds perfect. Add the drums: still perfect. Add the bass: still good. Add the synths: holy fuckballs, why is this out of tune? And I would run things into Autotune and see my vocal in certain spots exactly midway between two notes and it sounds best there because moving up or down the quarter-tone to either of the adjacent notes sounds like shit. Usually I’d leave the vocal in the original place and figure out which synth was causing the bad rub and mute it or change the notes around those bad spots, or just live with it because that’s rock n roll.

But it always annoyed me.

Months later, while listening to Aerosmith’s “Darkness,” an answer came to me as to why: I naturally sing in a pentatonic scale, a la, rock music, which includes some “blue notes” in between scale notes. Quarter tones and slides and the like. Whereas synths don’t do that (or rather, it’s a royal pain in the ass when programming to make them do it).

Funny how that problem has vanished now that I play guitars instead. Probably because I can slide around and bend and vibrato and it all gels with my voice.

Moral of the story: if it sounds right, it is right. And if it sounds right until you add your synths into the mix, fix your synths or ditch them.

But anyway, back to Iggy…

Think of all of the really iconic voices in rock: Iggy Pop. Johnny Rotten. Joey Ramone. Steven Tyler. Axl Rose. Mick Jagger. Alice Cooper. Etc.

And all the not quite as famous ones: Izzy Stradlin. Johnny Thunders. Michael Monroe. Stiv Bators… Just the first few to pop into my head.

None of those guys have a smooth pop voice that would always sit nicely on the Autotune line. (Someone somewhere has probably posted Axl’s isolated vocal from “Welcome to the Jungle,” I should find it and see how much it confuses Autotune… Actually, someone else has probably already beaten me to it.)

But they’re in tune with the music and their voices are exactly right for the music they make.

And I’m not saying I’m in their league—far from it—but I’d say my voice has a lot in common with their voices. Distinctive, and just right for the music I play.

As for that producer, if I run into him and he brings up that potential collaboration again (I’m betting not, I think we each decided it ain’t happening but as Canadians we’re too polite to say so, so we just ignore it), I’m gonna have to ask him about that “never heard anything like it before.” And maybe tell him to go listen to “Raw Power” and get back to me as to which of those three options he thinks Iggy might be.

(Seriously, how do you get past the age of 25 in the music business and not know what a punk rock vocal sounds like or how it differs from a pop vocal?)

PS: I don’t mean to rag on the guy, it’s simply one of those cultural chasms, kinda a musical version of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” And since it popped into my head just now, I figured I’d write a little blurb about it.