'How do I sing in the mix?', 'What is my mix?', and 'How do I find my mix?' are fairly common questions asked by singers. But what exactly do they mean?
The first thing to say is that every Voice Quality is essentially a 'mix' – a combination of structures that contribute to the overall sound. Whenever we sing, we – consciously or otherwise – manipulate those structures to give us specific sounds.
But the terms 'Mix voice', 'Mixed voice' and 'singing in the mix' seem to refer to something specific, so it's worth analysing exactly what those terms mean.
Although 'Mix' is a very in-vogue term and may seem a fairly recent development, the concept of a 'middle' register dates back to the very earliest days of voice research. Although accepting that the voice had two very distinct ways of vibrating (in those days referred to as 'Chest' and 'Head' / 'Falsetto'), singers intuitively felt that there was a third way, which didn't quite feel or sound like the other two. Without the benefits of modern research, singer and teachers then started to refer to a 'Middle' register, or even a 'Mixed' voice, believing it to be a mixture of the two main registers.
In my teaching, I like to explain the concept of 'Mix' by describing the lower, stronger, Thicker register in terms of a Red colour, and the higher, (naturally) weaker, Thinner register as Yellow. The concept of Mix can then be understood as an Orange colour, which is made either by reducing the intensity of the Red or increasing the intensity of the Yellow. The aim, when singing 'in the Mix' is to have a consistent Orange colour throughout your range, but especially through the middle part of the range (the Transition) where the voice will naturally be strongly attracted to vibrate in one or other register - which may not be the one you desire.
When the voice makes an abrupt, uncontrolled switch from one register to another, we hear an audible 'gear change'. These switches are often described by singers and teachers as 'breaks' or 'cracks'. Personally, I discourage those terms as they imply damage (think about breaking your leg or cracking an egg) whereas the register shift is only likely to cause embarrassment!
Mix isn't a separate register, but, rather, a technique used in the middle of the voice to smooth the transition between registers
Understanding 'Mix' in these terms, singers very quickly come to understand that Mix isn't a separate register, but, rather, a technique used in the middle of the voice to smooth the transition between registers. In other words, Mix can be recognized as something that you do. Once singers have this understanding, they can quickly find ways to take control of the transition, adjusting various elements of the production (vocal fold vibration, breath pressure, vocal tract shapings etc) to make the change inaudible.
In the 1840s, Manuel Garcia (the 'father of modern voice science') referred to it as 'Voix Mixte' - a term still in use in Classical singing. In 2004, vocal researcher Nathalie Henrich, building on her ground-breaking work on classifying 'registers' as Laryngeal Mechanisms, set out to discover whether or not 'Voix Mixte' was a separate mechanism or actually a vocal technique. Her work (you can read the full paper here: Is Voix Mixte an Independent Mechanism?) led to the conclusive result that there is NO middle register in terms of vocal fold vibration, but that singers have a very clear perception that something is different.
As discussed in my vocal registers article, perceptual registers (aka Singing registers) are vital for singers, but for the purposes of understanding Mix, it's important to understand that the sound needs to be controlled initially at the level of the vocal folds (Scientific register), so to keep things simple(r) for now, we'll focus purely on what the vocal folds are doing in the 'Mix'.
With the concept of 'Laryngeal Mechanisms', we can very precisely define how the vocal folds are vibrating when producing any sound.
The two main mechanisms / registers are referred to as M1 and M2 (in older terminology 'Chest' and 'Head'). In general terms, M1 is the lower, heavier part of your voice, M2 the higher, lighter part. It's important to understand that the frequency ranges produced by two consecutive mechanisms partially overlap each other, sometimes by as much as an octave. Blending or 'mixing' (aka 'singing in the mix') is a vocal technique utilised in this overlap region, with the aim of disguising the transition from one mechanism to the other.
To reiterate - it's very important to recognise that from a mechanical perspective there is NO separate 'middle' voice or 'mix' register. But from a perceptual perspective, there's a very definite sensation of not being in a pure M1 or a pure M2 - hence why singers feel that a separate register exists.
Volume and tone are influenced heavily by subglottic pressure (SGP) i.e. how much pressure builds up below the vocal folds on each cycle of vibration. This can be altered by controlling the mass of the vocal fold (Laryngeal Mechanism) and the way that the folds are held together against the breath (Medial compression)
Wherever you are in your range, your vocal folds are vibrating in a specific way. Lower in the range, the full body of the vocal fold will naturally be
involved (M1). Higher, the body stops vibrating (M2) leaving just the upper layers (cover).
The thick, deep mass of M1 naturally resists more breath than the thinner mass of M2. As an awareness exercise, try clapping your hands normally with four fingers, then with just two fingers to get the effect.
The vocal folds can be held together at the midline with more or less effort. One of the natural actions of the larynx is to close completely when you swallow. Using these compression muscles in a controlled way allows you to manipulate the amount of SGP that builds up, and therefore influence the tone and volume.
The control we have over these muscles allows a high degree of adjustment, to the point where both M1 and M2 can resist the same amount of breath pressure, even though the vocal fold mass is significantly different.
The transition in the middle of the range of an untrained singer is very noticable – as explained above, it's often described as a 'crack' or 'break'. While this may be desirable in certain styles and songs, most of the time we want to disguise the transition. And it's certainly a great skill for any singer to acquire.
The aim of mixing is to simulate the sound quality of a different laryngeal mechanism (M2 when in M1, M1 when in M2) so that you can have Thick-sounding Thin folds and Thin-sounding Thick folds. For the voice geeks among you, the intensity adjustments required are approximately -10 dB to simulate M2 while in M1, and +5dB to simulate M1 while in M2.
The terms used by Henrich to describe these two phonation types are mx1 and mx2 (i.e. reduced intensity M1 and increased intensity M2).
mx1 = M1 -
mx2 = M2 +
Returning to the colour analogy at the start of this article, the easiest way to think about Mix is to imagine that your M1 sound is Red and your M2 is Yellow. Around your transition, you should be looking for shades of Orange, slightly less than Red, slightly more than Yellow.
Mix is just making different things sound the same
In other words, around the register transition, you need to reduce the intensity of your M1 and then increase intensity as you switch to M2. To do that, you decrease the medial compression / breath pressure in M1, increase them in M2.
In that way, mx1 and mx2 sound very similar:
mx1 ≈ mx2
Returning to the hand clap awareness exercise above, try alternately clapping with two fingers and four fingers, reducing the volume on four and increasing on two until the two claps sound the same. That's the essence of this technique - in simple terms Mix is just making different things sound the same.
The best exercise is - slightly ironically! - an old Classical (Bel Canto) exercise called the 'Messa di Voce' which is essentially sustaining a note and changing the dynamic, going from pp to ff and back down to pp in a very controlled way, without allowing the voice to 'snap' into a different gear in an obvious way.
The voice has what are referred to as 'Attractor States', conditions of stability that it will automatically assume to make certain tasks easier. Using the Messa di Voce in the 'Transition Zone' (the range of notes where either M1 or M2 can be used - see below) you'll very quickly become aware of these Attractor States - as you adjust the dynamic, the voice will be 'pulled' into M1 or M2, like a pin being drawn to one of two stong magnets that are placed on either side of it. Being aware of your voice's attractor states is a very important first stage of your training, as you need to know where your voice will be looking to make a potentially unwanted adjustment. Using another analogy, it's like driving or cycling around a bend with an adverse camber - your vehicle will be trying to turn one way when you may want to go in another.
Practice that exercise on low pitches in M1 and high pitches in M2 and you'll find that you have many shades of 'Orange' that you can utilise as you go through your range. Do that successfully and you'll completely disguise the fact that your voice has changed gear, giving you a technique that sounds the same from bottom to top, with a full range of tone and dynamics throughout.
Mix is an essential technique for all singers and once you've strengthened your Mix you'll find it will be your 'go to' set up for most of your vocal tasks. Of course, there will always be moments where you need the intensity of Belt or the soft sensitivity of a more breathy sound, but the vast majority of the time you'll be singing using Mix.
As I've discussed above, the first priority of singing in your Mix is to disguise the transition between your lower and higher register (M1 and M2) so I always recommend working through this area with the concept of the 'Orange' voice to really smooth out the change without any noticable switch, working both low to high AND high to low.
This image shows the approximate range of the Transition, the notes which could be sung in either M1 or M2 and where you need to make a choice in order to prevent an unwanted, abrupt change of register - in other words, your 'Mix zone'.
The centre of this range of notes is normally between B4 and F#5, though this will be slightly higher or lower for voice types and can vary a lot in an individual voice. NB these pitches are the same absolute pitches for male and female voices (e.g. mezzos and baritones will have very similar transition zones).
In the early stages of voice training, I make no apologies for encouraging singers to work a lot in this area. Although it can be emotionally uncomfortable (after all, who wants to hear their voice flip and crack like a drunken donkey?!) once you get used to it, you'll find that your voice very quickly settles into the technique, and starts to automatically make very subtle adjustments.
Concepts like 'bridge' and 'passagio' are other ways of describing this transition from M1 to M2, but they're all trying to make sense of the essential technique of making different things sound the same.
Remember - register transitions happen to all singers - the good ones just learn to disguise them!
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