I’m planning to do a few articles this summer about formant tuning techniques for men. I don’t want to write a full explanation in each article though, so I’ll refer back to this one.
My Formant Tuning Bullet Points
Here’s a brief-ish rundown from me:
- A pitch has a fundamental frequency (here referred to as H1), and then the overtones (which we’ll call “harmonics”) are multiples of that frequency (Hx, ie. H1 H2 H3 H4 etc.).
- Formants are resonance zones, and for singers they’re based on the shape and size of the throat, which includes your tongue, lips, soft palette, jaw position, and relative depth of your larynx. Those zones allow the full resonance of the harmonics that reside within them, while harmonics that don’t fall in the range of a formant are weakened.
- The first two formants (F1 and F2) and the relationship between them make up vowels. Brush your teeth and move your mouth and tongue around, and you’ll hear the formants changing frequencies based on the shapes you make.
- We naturally match harmonics to formants when speaking. When singing we need to do it deliberately. Why?
- By prioritizing specific harmonics, opera singers can be more easily heard through an orchestra without requiring unhealthy levels of breath pressure. I personally also find the results more beautiful sounding.
- As we sing higher, it becomes harder to match any overtones (Hx) to formants (Fx). This is because the frequency distance between harmonics increases, but the formants affect the same frequency ranges as before.1 See the video below:
- Did you notice how the harmonics (the pointy peaks) got more distant from one another as my voice went higher? For practice, pick a harmonic and follow it. How far did it move relative to the fundamental (H1 and the left-most pointy peak). Did you also notice that there were spots along the x axis where all the harmonics appeared louder (taller on the y axis) as they moved through it? Those are where the various formants are.
- The passaggi are where we have to change our formant/harmonic-matching strategy, or we risk distorting our vocal tracts and the resulting sound to try and track a harmonic higher.
- These strategies are sometimes called “vowel modification” or “formant tuning”.
- The more difficult and higher passaggio – the secondo passaggio – requires men to emphasize the second formant, which is an alien feeling since most of our speech strategies rely on the first formant.
- So we have to practice.
Here’s a breakdown of the strategies at different parts of the voice:
- In the lower voice, F1 and F2 match easily with harmonics. There’s no need to focus on formant tuning.
- Immediately below the primo passaggio, F1 tends to match up with H3 for most vowels. Again, it’s not a difficult pairing to do.
- Above the primo passaggio, open vowels (“ah”, “eh”) tend to pair F1 with H2. This has a call-like quality, and it’s very powerful. Beginning male singers often struggle here by raising their larynx.
- At the primo passaggio closed vowels like “ee” and “ooo” switch to second formant tuning.
- Above the secondo passaggio, the second formant (F2) is paired to the third or fourth harmonic depending on the vowel. This is not the only strategy, but it’s one that has been used by many great singers. It’s also surprisingly tricky.
- Computer software is useful to visualizing these strategies, but with practice, it is possible to hear the primary harmonics distinctly without a computer.
Women have their own set of issues (the middle voice is where F2 tuning happens), but I probably won’t write much about it because I don’t have much personal experience in my own singing (duh) or working with students on it. That may change in the future, but for now, I’ll have to focus on men.
Regardless of your sex, if you find this interesting, the absolute best resource is the book Resonance in Singing by Donald Miller. It’s full of examples for men and women, alongside discussions for how to achieve solid formant tuning. Here’s his first chapter to whet your appetite:
“Be Careful, Wotan, Be Careful”
A few warnings are in order. None of this is a replacement for good singing technique. Everything having to do with breath and posture and good body use are still necessary when practicing formant tuning. This is an additional thing to practice on top of all of that. In fact, second formant tuning has an annoying way of not working at all without the rest of your technique lined up.
The singer’s formant is still important even if you follow this. The prominence of the singer’s formant will depend on your voice and what kind of rep you sing, but in general some singer’s formant throughout one’s range communicates “opera singing” and always helps with audibility. Technically, the singer’s formant is a type of formant tuning, but it’s not through the vowel producing first and second formants, so I think of it having its own technique.
This stuff is dense. If you don’t understand a concept, then come back to it later. I know we bloggers are supposed to write stuff that is easily digestible through a first read-through, but this subject won’t work like that. I have been thinking about these issues for years and practicing them, and there’s still more to learn.
Also, don’t think that you’re suddenly going to have a much larger voice by doing this. This can help make you louder, yes, but it’s not going to fundamentally transform your voice into Mario del Monaco’s or George London’s. It will however give you a strategy that emphasizes both beauty and vocal safety at difficult parts of the voice.