[Pictured L-R: Melissa Cross and Matty Mullins (Memphis May Fire); Photo by: Melissa Cross]
Name a band you love. Any band at all. More than likely, they’ve worked with Melissa Cross. She’s the vocal coach anyone who’s anyone goes to when they need to improve their aggressive vocals. Underoath? Yup. Cradle Of Filth? You got it. Halestorm, A Day To Remember, Bullet For My Valentine, Coheed And Cambria, August Burns Red — the list never ends. And it all started when she caught a Slayer, Megadeth and Bad Brains show back when New York City’s famed Webster Hall was called The Ritz. Moved by the solidarity of the metal and hardcore communities, she decided to take a job a producer friend had offered her: coach Jesse Leach. Killswitch Engage later got signed and became the massive force they are today. So when she gives you a piece of advice, you’d better follow it.
And speaking of advice, here are nine vocal tips straight from Cross herself.
Balance your emotions
“I think the most surprising thing is you don’t have to feel road rage to make the sound,” Cross says of producing unclean vocals. “Usually the problems happen when there’s a lack of separation between the emotion that it infers and the actual, technical sound.”
A lot of novice vocalists assume just the opposite when they start to practice screaming. Since screams sound aggressive, people think that they have to push hard to produce the sound they want. But in actuality, professional-level screaming isn’t about being forceful or angry.
“When you’re highly emotional,” Cross continues, “you’re out of control and there’s a lot of tension. Vocal folds are tiny little things, they’re like one-tenth the size of your fingernail, and they can’t handle 25 days out of the month of road rage. You have to relearn how to make the sound without the tension and still be authentic and sincere and still get the message across. It doesn’t have to feel angry to sound angry.”
Don’t imitate someone else
It is said people learn by watching. However, when it comes to unclean vocals, imitating the bands you see onstage is not advantageous to your learning experience. For one, what you see and hear and what is actually going on in the body are separate things. For another, every person is different.
“When you imitate or you try to do a sound that you’ve heard before,” Cross explains, “you’re not in your body. You have to learn how to do this from within and not from imitating. You have to learn how to control the moving parts [of your vocal cords] as opposed to controlling an image that you have of what you think it’s supposed to sound like. You can’t drive from the passenger’s seat. You have to be inside of your being to make this sound.”
If you try to impersonate someone else when you practice screaming, you’ll be more concerned with acting the part than with proper technique. Yes, screaming isn’t just something you do. It requires very specific training to be done correctly.
[Pictured: Melissa Cross and Kellin Quinn (Sleeping With Sirens); Photo by: Melissa Cross]
Screaming should never hurt
So what does it mean to scream correctly? Why is doing it the so-called “right way” so important? Well, when you scream incorrectly, you’re eventually going to hurt yourself, and you also won’t be able to continue performing well. Cross puts it bluntly: “If you’re losing your voice after rehearsal, you could not possibly do 25 shows in a month.”
Untrained vocalists often think it is normal to be exhausted or for their throat to hurt after a show or a recording session. They think it’s just a natural part of the job. The truth is, if you feel any sort of pain or discomfort, you’re doing it wrong and could be in serious trouble. A lack of understanding this knowledge could possibly send you straight to surgery. “You’re doing something that is over-the-top to compensate,” she says, “and then you overuse and you get a hemorrhage or a nodule or a polyp or some kind of injury that doesn’t go away. Then you make it worse by trying to continue on through that injury.” Don’t repeat bad habits and end your career early.
Bypass your throat
It seems very counterintuitive at first, but the key to screaming is to bypass your throat entirely. When we imagine where our voice comes from, we often imagine the throat, but screaming focuses on a different muscle group. What vocalists really need to do is learn how to control your breathing and where to locate your voice.
“The exercises [I use] have to do with strengthening the breathing part, which is the withholding of air without holding your breath; basically air inside your lungs that you use instead of aggression in your throat. So you strengthen that muscle group and then you strengthen the placement of the vocal folds and you coordinate those two things together.” If you do these two things right, then screaming becomes much easier and healthier. It’s hard to read those words, though, and immediately understand how to put them into action, which is exactly why seeing a vocal coach is the best course of action for you and your band. Don’t be proud: Get yourself some guidance.
Use your imagination
Since understanding what exactly is going on with your vocal cords is difficult to picture, it is always helpful to rely on imagination exercises just as much as physical exercises. For example, if you’re singing and you’re approaching a note that’s tough for you, imagine the note right after instead. Cross often uses the image of putting a pencil between your teeth to really feel the resonance of your voice. “The voice is operated from the imagination because it’s a communicator,” she explains. “When you’re communicating something, you have to have something in your visual mind to communicate. Good technique has to be translated into the language of imagination.”