Shaping Vocal Style:
Onsets & Articulation

Molly Webb March 31, 2019

When it comes to singing–vocal onsets, offsets, and articulation are the unsung heroes of stylization. You may not be able to point out exactly what the issue is, but you’ll probably be able to tell that there’s a stylistic disconnect when you hear someone enunciating Ruth B’s “Lost Boy” the way Julie Andrews would articulate a Rogers and Hammerstein number.

You’ll also probably notice something isn’t quite right if you hear “The Sound of Music” sung with Alanis Morissette offsets.

In both of these examples, I changed very little besides the articulations, onsets, and offsets. Manipulating these three things can be a very powerful way to shape your vocal style.

Defining the Terms

What is an Onset

An onset, simply put, is the way you initiate a tone. Do you start with a lot of air? Is it crisp? Is it smooth? All of these are ways to describe an onset. Check out my earlier post for a more detailed explanation of types of onsets.

And What’s an Offset?

You’ve probably guessed by now that if an onset is the way you initiate a tone, an offset is the way you get off the tone. Do you push a bunch of air out? Is it very clean sounding? Is it abrupt?

What is Articulation?

Articulation is the way we create speech sounds. Are the consonants crisp? Does it sound muddy and slurred? These are elements of articulation. Articulation can also influence onsets and offsets. A very crisp consonant, for example, is less likely to result in a breathy onset (although it can).

How Can We Use Vocal Onsets, Offsets, and Articulation to Transform Style?

Classic Broadway vs. the Indie Cover

Musical theatre is a fairly broad stylistic category, ranging from rock, to rap, to something fairly akin to opera. In general, musical theatre tends to be fairly well articulated, since its whole job to is to tell a story. But in particular, classic Broadway, whether sung by the starry-eyed soprano or the flirtatious belter, tends to be extremely enunciated. Onsets and offsets can either be glottal or smooth, but are rarely aspirated. Listen to Barbara Streisand singing the iconic “Don’t Rain on my Parade” number from Funny Girl. Every consonant (except the r’s) is perfectly crisp.

And here’s Julie Andrews enunciating like crazy on “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Everything is clear. No obvious airflow precedes the articulation of the vowels or seeps out after the vowel ends. Even if you had never heard this song before, you’d probably listen and be able to identify that it’s musical theatre.

If you want to completely change styles, you can kill the enunciation and let air seep through your vowels, like you’re whispering the beginning of them. Listen to Sarah Joy sing the exact same song, loosening up on the diction and adding a lot of aspirate onsets. Sarah’s offsets aren’t aspirated, resulting in a slightly clearer, more “trained” sound than you’d hear in a lot of Indie artists, but in general, this cover would not sound at all out of place on the breathy pop airwaves.

Disney Princess vs. Pop Princess

If you listen to kids sing the famous Moana song, “How Far I’ll Go,” it’s usually easy to identify whether they gravitated more toward the Auli’i Cravalho version or the Alessia Cara version. Why? There are lots of things that the two do differently, but a huge difference, again, is articulation. Consonants are much clearer in the Cravalho version, unsurprisingly so, since animated movies share much in common with musical theatre in the way they tell stories. Another giant stylistic difference is that Alessia Cara, especially on the quieter parts, uses a lot of aspirated offsets. In other words, instead of letting her airflow cut off at the same time as her vowel, she allows her vowel to gradually break into air. Changing very little else, you can make your style closer to the crystal clear Disney princess sound or closer to the radio-friendly pop sound.

90’s Alt Rock

By definition, there’s no one way to sound “alternative,” but you certainly see similarities by the era. While the gold standard for today’s “Indie pop” might be gradual aspirate onsets and offsets (i.e. breath comes early followed by a slow introduction of tone on the onset, and tone gradually dissipates into air on the offset), in 90’s alt rock you heard a lot of abrupt aspirate offsets. In other word, the tone ended abruptly, and then the artist blew out all the air, so you’d hear lots of dramatic exhalations following the tone. It’s all over Alanis’s music, but for a quick example, listen to the way she sings the word squirm at around 1:12.

Or listen to the famous Zombie chorus at around 1:42. Hear that exhalation after the word zombie?

So How Should You Transform Your Style?

Well that depends! What aesthetic are you looking for? Do you want that modern Indie pop sound? If so, play around with lots of aspirate onsets and offsets (try one, then the other, then both) and don’t over-enunciate. Want to sound convincing on musical theatre? Articulate more, and don’t leak a bunch of air at the end. None of this is to say that there are no other stylistic alterations you can make besides onsets, offsets, and articulation, and you certainly don’t have to follow any hard and fast set of rules. If everyone did that, music would be stagnant.

Just make sure you’re in control of what you’re doing. Make informed aesthetic choices, and don’t let previous habits and training dictate your style. Just because you were trained to sing Broadway music doesn’t mean you have to sing 90’s rock like you’re Barbara Streisand. Not that we don’t love you, Babs!

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