A recording is not the same as a live performance. Specifically, the sound you hear on a recording is not the sound you would hear if you were in the same room with the singer as they recorded. When we listen to a recording, the singer’s performance is changed a lot or a little by the electronics used to make the recording. When the vocal track has had effects added to it, we can sometimes recognize the effects themselves, but sometimes they can go by unnoticed. Even when an attempt is made to capture an “acoustic performance” without any added effects, there are still unintentional changes made to the signal.
A recording engineer I know told me that most of the great singers from the Metropolitan Opera in the mid-twentieth century who were recorded with orchestra on a famous label all used the same microphone – one which was kind to singers by boosting frequencies that made their voices stand out more on the recording than would otherwise have been the case. From even older recordings (c. 1900-1925), we have voices that sound rather delicate and heady that are perfectly audible and stand out from the orchestra. If you see photos from those old recording sessions, you see that the orchestras were usually very small and the singer was standing very close to the “horn” that funneled the music into the recording machine. Did they sing the same way for recordings as in the opera house?
Listeners may not care too much about these issues, but for singers they are crucial. If a young man tries to sound like a recording of a famous opera or rock singer, there can be perils. He is hearing a technologically altered sound, and then there is the issue of singers not hearing themselves as others hear them live. Trying to make that perceived sound, especially without the guidance of a teacher, can be dangerous to the singer’s vocal health.
So what can a singer learn from recordings? The singer needs to listen to what the singer was able to do, apart from making a particular timbre. How did they phrase? Were there dynamic changes? How did vowels sound throughout the range? How about the singer’s timing, diction, and style? I have noticed in my own students singing Adele’s songs, that they are doing the same over-closed vowels that Adele does, for example. They are hearing it and doing it, but for what reason?
It is important for singers to hear other singers live, both close-up and far away, in different rooms. Many young people trying to emulate Adele, Mirella Freni, Adam Levine, Sherill Milnes, or Michael Jackson might be very surprised to hear the live, real-time sounds that these artists made. They might discover that what they were trying to emulate was a made-up thing that the singers themselves did not do!
The work of voice training is to make YOUR voice able to express itself freely. Imitating the sound of someone else can seem interesting for a while, but it fails as a long-term strategy. The world needs YOUR voice, the one that emerges when you free yourself. Lucky for us, no two people can ever have exactly the same voice. As you move toward vocal freedom, you will find your true voice, which is essential to your own success as a singer.