Great tribute singers are like method actors. They study their chosen artist and perfect their own performance. It’s not difficult to imitate other singers as long as you ground your performance in good technique.
As singers, we should always find our own style, but there may be times when you want to sound like someone else. When session singing, studios can have particular vocal styles and tones in mind, and if you can change your voice at will, it means for more work from the studio.
You might also want to work a season in production shows at hotel resorts or on cruise liners, and when there are a plethora of singers performing the same tribute act as the one you are creating, you have to make sure you stand out.
As usual, I must stress the importance of being guided by an experienced vocal coach if you want a sustainable career in singing. Before you try to become a soundalike of another singer, you need to develop excellent technique. This is the foundation for vocal health, which is paramount to be a durable performer with many years left in your voice. It is also how you find your signature sound, which is essential if you want to be a memorable performer.
MEMORABLE TRIBUTE SINGERS
In order to pull off a great impression of a well-known singer, you need to listen first. Start with their big hits and listen to them many times. Break each session down into the following areas of study:
If you’re planning on spending a whole season singing an artist’s repertoire that is out of your range, forget it. Unless you transpose the music into a comfortable key, it is inadvisable to sing out of your range for more than a few gigs. If you are using backing tracks most websites offer the option to order your track in any key (if you change the pitch too far, it will distort the quality and tone of the track, so choose wisely). You will spend less time perfecting your performance if you choose an artist who has a similar voice to you
VOCAL TONE AND CLARITY
If you have any sound production experience and know your way round a mixing desk, you will be familiar with the equalizer. The EQ section allows you to add and cut certain frequencies in the sound passing through the channel, changing the tone of the signal.
Some singers have bright-sounding voices, others have warmer, lower frequencies prominent in their voices. You can learn to modify these frequencies in your own voice without touching the desk at all, but choosing the right microphone and speaking to your sound engineer, or learning how to modify the EQ section will help greatly.
What accent does your chosen artist sing with? Most contemporary Western singers employ an Americanized sound, but there are some who sing with a more English-sounding voice. One feature of their sound is their vowels are narrower. Adele and David Bowie are very English sounding singers, as is Sting. Practice singing different vowel sounds with your voice coach
ATTACK AND PHRASING
Does your chosen singer hit the beat when he or she sings the lyrics to a song or do they have a lazier placement? Do they attack the notes from a closed cord position, or employ slides and fry into the beginning of a lyric? Do they use unusual phrasing? How and when do they breathe?
Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette use interesting phrasing styles. Have a listen to them singing and you will notice how they divide their lyrics in non-typical ways. Tori tends to use less definite attack in her melodies, while Alanis’ attack is more immediate.
How loud does your artist sing? Are they a ballsy diva, or do they have a more intimate, delicate quality to their voice? Do they modify their dynamics during a song, with quieter verses and louder refrains, or do they stick to the same volume throughout?
Does your chosen artist use a lot of vibrato or sing with a straight sound? Sade sings with very little, if any, vibrato. Excessive vibrato can be irritating to listen to, and messes with your pitch control, but vibrato is something to pay attention to. It can take work to be able to switch between vibrato and non-vibrato singing, especially when you have your own natural rate of vibrato, but it is manageable. Your voice coach will give you exercises to practice.
What makes the singer’s voice distinctive? What is the main standout feature of his or her voice?
Elvis had a notable slur to his singing. Amy Winehouse used wide phonation and a jazzy style. Christina Aguilera employs a lot of melisma during her performances. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith uses lots of blues licks, ascends to falsetto, and has a raspy quality to his voice. He also changes phonation during words and phrases, as does Tori Amos. Maroon 5’s Adam Levine stays connected and attacks the notes without sliding.
Listen and define what your chosen singer does most and then practice it. Over-use it until you get it down pat, and then tone it down a little.
The key to pulling a great impression off is not just the voice, but the body language. Find the prominent features and movements of the celebrity singer you are imitating and emphasise them. Do they move around a lot when they sing, or stay relatively still? How do they hold their microphone? Do they use a mic stand? Do they play with it, or use other props during their performances? Do they sit during certain songs? Watch live videos of their shows and see how they interact with the crowd. Perhaps you may want to interact more, and that’s okay
Educating yourself in the different aspects of what makes your chosen singer’s performance can help you do a great job imitating them.
Last of all, convey emotion. This is how you best sell a performance; the audience want and need to be pulled into your experience.
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