Vocal fry is a confusing term for most people. What is it, after all? A sort of Kardashian-ing, valley girl affectation that is just put-on? Or is it a skill that would turn you into a vocal god for singing and voice-acting? Well, it’s all of these things, or it can be neither. Today, we’ll learn all about vocal fry as a vocal quality, and what it can do for you if you do it in a healthy way.
And yes, don’t worry, I’m aware of the prejudices about this type of speech. Your eyes are probably rolling into the back of your head just by imagining some wealthy socialite rasping their way through platitudes on some red carpet event.
But, regardless of these preconceptions, vocal fry can be much more. If harnessed correctly, it can rocket-power your singing, speaking, and open up many new avenues of expression. If think you’ve got an “uninteresting”, or plain voice, it can turn the tables and give you an experienced, lived-in sound with grit and “oomph.”
First, though, we need to go over what vocal fry is and isn’t, the common myths around it, and, more importantly, how to do it in a healthy manner. Also, we will go over celebs and famous people who’ve made a career of ramping up the rasp.
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Let’s take a deeper look, shall we?
Vocal Fry: The Basics
Ah, the rasp. For ages, it’s befuddled critics and fans alike. How does he/she get that sound? Is it by downing bottles of whisky and a two-pack-a-day habit? Where they just “born with it”? Did they learn it through some arcane method? Think of your favorite blues, rock, or soul singer, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a raspy “je ne sais quoi”.
Or, on the other end of the spectrum, think about the affectations of high-income celebrities. Yes, I see the image, lodged deep within your mind’s eye; that pompous, self-styled jet-setter who can’t seem to get a word out without sounding like they just got out of bed. Love ’em, or love to hate ’em, they’re also turning on the rasp and indulging in vocal fry, probably without even knowing.
So, is vocal fry both of these things, or something else entirely? In our article about it, we go into detail:
Vocal fry is actually no more than a vocal register. It has more colloquial names that you can throw a tomato at. Here, check out some of the ones that Wikipedia offers: pulse register, laryngealization, pulse phonation, creak, croak, popcorning, glottal fry, glottal rattle, glottal scrape, or strohbass. Whew! That made me tired just from reading it!
Know what the glottis is? It’s the opening between the vocal folds! When vocal fry occurs, less air than normal passes through a loose glottis. Think of it as a tarp that hasn’t been well fastened. The resulting gentle flapping leads to the telltale croaky or bubbly sound. The vocal fry sound is also characterized by being of a very low frequency. In fact, it’s been recognized as the lowest vocal register.
Vocal Fry as a Vocal Register
Now, it definitely took a while for vocal fry to gain a foothold in its classification a vocal register. It was in the 70s when Margaret Greene, a vocal pedagogists, recorded the glottis doing its thing, and the rest is history.
But, what exactly does a particular style of speech need in order to become a vocal register? To wit, these qualities are:
- A unique way in which the vocal folds vibrate and produce sound.
- Its own set of pitches.
- It has to be different sounding from other registers.
Without a doubt, we can argue that vocal fry fits all of these criteria. And thus, it’s not just “a sound”, but an addition to a good vocal artist’s toolbelt. But, forearmed is forewarned; if you want to increase the raspiness of your sound, you need to learn how to do it in a healthy manner, or you’ll end up hurting yourself. This is especially prevalent in singers, who try to brute-force their way to a grittier sound.
Now, while at first it may be tempting to utter a few screams and let it fly, it’s not the best long-term strategy. I couldn’t tell you how many singers have wrecked their voice from having incorrect technique — just look at the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and tell me how many of the greats still sing like it’s their heyday.
Regardless of risk, someone well-trained in vocal fry can reach notes that are well below modal ranges. If done correctly and with proper training, it can be the bee’s knees, is all I’m sayin’. Yes, I really said “bee’s knees”. I’m not exactly a spring chicken anymore.
So, Is it Good, Bad, Ugly’
It depends on who you ask, really. Vocal fry as part of a gritty speaking voice or a singer’s arsenal is, in my opinion, awesome. But it’s also undeniable that it’s now tightly woven with “Valley Girl” culture and holier-than-thou-celebs.
This Mental Floss article has a pretty damning opening statement; “You may have heard of the linguistic fad that’s creeping into U.S. speech and undermining your job chances. Or maybe you know it as the ‘debilitating speaking disorder afflicting North American women’ or the ‘verbal tic of doom.’”
These negative associations with vocal fry are really widespread. Furthermore, they seem to affect women disproportionately to men — unfortunately, an all-too-common ill in society. Still, while women are worse-off, vocal fry can damage job prospects of both sexes to a significant degree.
What does science have to say about the topic, though? I quote our previous article on the topic for some insights from a scientific study:
And nobody seems to know with much certainty why vocal fry is being decried. A study conducted by journal PLOS One conducted with 800 participants tried assessing qualities on a scale. They were asked about their impressions on which were more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive, and appealing as a job candidate. People with vocal fry did outstandingly poorly; with men, participants preferred normal voices by 83%, with women it was 86%.
Why This Disparity?
No one can say for sure, and — as always when there is scientific debate — there’s little agreement between experts. What we can say for sure is that it seems employers like deep, “masculine” voices, and don’t much like educated, upward-oriented, urbane women. Sexism, as always, continues to run deep in people’s perceptions of the world, and the upper echelons of power and money are no different.
Even more so, it seems that vocal fry is associated with a certain type of vain, superficial culture. Or at least, so we like to think. I’m not going to knock about celebrities anymore, trust me. But, what I am going to say is that it’s true that vocal fry has become this sort of ingrained, class-based tendency. Love it or hate it, it seems it’s got some staying power.
Vocal Fry and Singing
Vocal fry, when done in a healthy way, can be a force to be reckoned with. And, regardless of how it may sound to the untrained ear, it can be taught and used without ill-effect.
Before, I was discussing old-school rockers who have lost their voice. Those examples are dime-a-dozen, and they also show just how many rock prodigies never really had any formal voice training. But, some lucked out into the correct technique, developed it, or learned it in the intervening years between starting their careers and the present day.
Just look at vocal powerhouses like Steven Tyler and Dave Grohl; while you may not associate Aerosmith and the Foo Fighters with “healthy” screaming, the longevity of both of these titans’ voices speaks — or rather screams — to the contrary.
And it’s not just limited to them, of course. Many singers can belt out raspy hits with the best of ’em:
- Chris Cornell, the leviathan of the rock scream.
- Lady Gaga and her soul-infused voice.
- Mick Jagger continues to strut n’ squawk with the best of ’em.
- Bruce Springsteen, practically the very incarnation of the raspy voice.
And, of course, there are many, many others. Greats like Billy Joel continue to use rasp well into their 70s — just check out the “up” part of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — without any signs of slowing down.
For Speaking and Reading
Now, if you’re an up-and-coming vocal talent, or looking for a voice pro, this is also good news. You can leverage vocal fry in a multitude of ways, be it for its positive or perceived negative effects.
Just think about a noir-ish detective narrating his latest case. Would it be the same if your chosen vocal talent couldn’t convey a world-weary, been-there-done-that? The vocal equivalent of a fresh face just wouldn’t cut the mustard there, and you know it. And you can use this example for any type of variation you could think of, whether it’s a Valley Girl, villain, antihero, anything!
What you want, in the end, is to be (or hire) a pro who can produce a variety of sounds in a healthy way, consistently. Anyone can sound like Tom Waits for 10 minutes, but doing it day-in-day-out, that’s another thing entirely.
Vocal fry, love it or hate it, is here to stay. It’s also a useful, healthy weapon in any avowed voice pro’s arsenal. You’d do well to pay attention to it, and to what it can do for your projects.
But, remember, vocal fry isn’t something to deploy willy-nilly either; you’ve got to know when it’s expected, and when it detracts from the overall experience. You don’t need a rasp-meister to read out the Q4 profits for your company, for instance, so I advise discretion.
As always, if you want pros who really know their stuff and can elevate your projects with vocal fry or other techniques, just give us a holler at Bunny Studio!
And this goes to you as well if you’re one of ’em rasp gods and you’re looking for high-quality work!