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Van Lawrence Prize 2008


The effect of different acoustic environments on singing voice performance – (abstract)

Jude S Brereton and David M Howard (Audio Lab, Department of Electronics, University of York)


"one sings in one way in churches and public chapels and another way in private rooms. In [church] one sings in a full voice … and in private rooms one sings with a lower and gentler voice, without any shouting" - Zarlino, "Le istitutioni harmoniche", 1558.

Although already identified at the end of the sixteenth century, the effect of the acoustic environment on the singing voice has not yet been systematically investigated. The acoustics of the space are one of the most important singing performance factors. Professional singers, asked to perform in a variety of venues, have to constantly adapt many aspects of their performance. Although some of these aspects are under their direct control, such as tempo, vibrato, dynamics, and articulation of the text, they may have less direct control over other aspects of voice production, such as vocal fold function and the resulting spectral balance of the sound.

This paper describes a recent investigation of singing performance quantifying voice source and spectral characteristics in two very different acoustic environments: the Chapter House of York Minster (reverberation time over 3 seconds) and an acoustically treated hemi-anechoic chamber at the University of York (reverberation time = 0). The participants, one mezzo-soprano and one tenor, were both experienced professional singers. They were asked to read a short passage, to perform various singing warm-up exercises, and to sing a short extract of a piece they had chosen and prepared. Acoustic pressure recordings (microphone) of this material were made in the two acoustic environments along with the output waveform from an electrolaryngograph to enable analysis of larynx closed quotient and fundamental frequency.

Both participants reported that they felt that singing in the anechoic environment was “harder work” resulting in difficulty maintaining good intonation and pleasing voice quality, especially in the higher and lower extremes of the voice range. In addition, in the anechoic environment, the mezzo-soprano was more aware of the rate and extent of her vibrato, which she felt she ought to reduce leading to her overall performance being compromised.

Analysis of the recorded data supports the singers' perception that they "worked harder" in the anechoic environment, since they produced much higher peak sound pressure levels here (107.1 dB SPL), than in the Chapter House (95.2 dB).


Jude Brereton completed her first degree in German and Linguistic Science at the University of York. For a number of years she taught German and Music before undertaking an MPhil in Speech and Language Processing at Trinity College, Dublin. In 2000 she returned to York as Co-ordinator of the Millennium Mystery Plays and worked as a freelance event manager and music agent. In 2003 she took up her post as Research Assistant in the Audio Lab working in the areas of voice, singing and technology. She is currently the co-ordinator of SpACE-Net: the Spatial Audio Creative Engineering Network funded by EPSRC. In April 2008 she became co-ordinator and researcher on the EPSRC-funded research cluster "...towards Real Virtuality", whose aim is to produce a blue print for a "virtual cocoon", a virtual reality expereince that will stimulate all the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell).


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