Singing death metal is a killer talent you can learn.
If you want to learn how to sing death metal, the most important thing is to make sure you’re not killing your vocal chords in the process.
The biggest misconception when it comes to this intense style of singing is that it’s just screaming and yelling. I speak for all death metal singers and enthusiasts when I say that death metal is not just screaming. It’s a skill that, when learned correctly, can be done in a very healthy way!
Not only will it protect your vocal cords from injury or strain, your performance will sound even grittier and better than if you were to simply scream like there’s no tomorrow.
Learning to master the skill of death metal singing comes down to these key aspects:
- Building a general singing foundation
- Finding your death metal scream
But before we get into all the nitty-gritty parts of creating amazing death metal vocals, we need to do something first.
And that is: learn to sing properly.
1. Walk Before You Run, Sing Before You Scream
You might think that the foundation of singing isn’t as important for your death metal as it is for singing such as pop or classical.
And you’d be right; it’s not as important…
It’s more important.
The reason it’s more important is because this type of singing has a huge tendency to demand too much from your vocal chords. If you just try to imitate your favorite death metal band and scream the way you would as if you saw an axe murderer, your vocal career will not last very long. Those death metal vocalists you love have spent a lot of time honing this skill. It’s a much more intense and raw sound, but it is not achieved from running your voice ragged.
So, first things first: realize that death metal singing is singing first.
Often a vocalist will be singing a pitch or a note along with their scream (which is called a hybrid scream), and singing pitches is singing. If you can’t sing that pitch without the scream, there’s no way you’ll be able to sing it with a scream.
Practice singing normally, and getting to a point where you can sing up your range without feeling the need to push or strain.
That leads us to a very, very important realization about death metal singing:
There is absolutely no straining, pushing or tension involved in any death metal vocals.
2. Harsh Death Metal Vocals is RELAXED Singing
Yes, you read that right.
No matter what you’re doing with your voice in this style of singing – adding grit, growl, distortion, scream – nothing will need to be pushed or strained out.
Yes, even those crazy death metal singers growl have their voice relaxed to an extent.
Repeat it with me: death metal singing is relaxed.
If you try to push or strain it out, not only are you at a very high risk of injuring yourself, your vocals will not come out the way you want them to. It may seem like the biggest contradiction in the world, but screaming and growling in death metal is a very relaxed skill. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t take time to hone, it just means that you will be physically relaxed.
When we try too hard to push out a note in regular singing styles – but especially so in death metal – we tense up our neck and throat, and even parts in our upper body to try to shove it out. All that does is it cramps up the space your voice needs to travel through! It actually prevents airflow and it makes your voice work way too hard to try to make the sound you want to create.
If you ever feel yourself trying to force a note or a scream, stop. No matter what you do, it will not give you the sound or effect you want.
Here’s a video of death metal vocalists talking about how they began death metal singing by trying to push too hard, and blew out their voices every performance until they learned to relax. This Trained Singer Teaches Metal Bands How To Scream (HBO)
The next step in learning is learning how to breathe properly.
3. Breathing For Death Metal Vocals
Breathing is important for all singing if you want to improve your vocal cords.
However, it’s probably the most important foundation when it comes to harsh death metal vocals. To achieve the effect of growling and screaming your vocals, you really need to practice breathing.
To do that, first learn how to breathe from your diaphragm. (You can learn how by checking out this post here!)
Once you get that down, we have to learn to really control that breath.
Learning how to breathe lower – how to take in more air – is only one part of breathing when it comes to singing.
We need to control our exhale.
Don’t let all your air out the moment you start your scream or growl; if you do that, you’re going to run out of air really fast. We need to control that airflow, and slow it down.
Here’s another contradiction: this very unconventional style of singing includes a lot of restraint and control. Notice how much restraint this vocalist uses when controlling his exhale for his low growls: How to Sing Low Growls: Death Metal Vocal Tutorial
All the effects we’ll be doing to achieve growls and screams have to do with how you utilize that air you’re breathing out.
To practice slowing down and controlling that breath, try this exercise:
1. Breathing Exercise For Metal Singers: Timed Hiss
To do this exercise, breathe in as much air as you can, as low as you can. (Remember what you learned about breathing with your diaphragm!)
When you’ve taken in as much as you can, start a stopwatch (or a stopwatch app on your phone), then breathe out in a hiss. To do this hiss, put your teeth together, and either hiss on “tsss,” (how you would imitate something sizzling), or “shh” (like shushing someone). Let all that air out on that hiss, and see how long you can go.
Go ahead and try it now!
If you found you could only hold less than 15 seconds, you’re letting out too much air at once.
The best of the best singers can comfortably hold around 40 seconds or more. But just starting out, let’s aim for between 20 and 30. (Remember that getting there will most likely take practice, so don’t get discouraged if it takes you a few weeks or months!)
The trick to controlling that breath is by consciously trying to slow it down. Try making the opening between your teeth as tiny as possible. As you get better with this control, allow there to be more space between your teeth, but keep your exhale at the same speed! Eventually you’ll have a master level of control while singing or screaming.
Keep practicing this, noticing how different it is to be so conscious of the air you’re letting out. The more you do this exercise, the longer you’ll be able to hold your screams and the better they’ll sound!
4. Growling (False Cord Technique)
One of the absolute staples of death metal vocals is growling.
For as intense as growling sounds, it is actually a very relaxed skill!
If you want to learn how to growl, here’s the good news: you already have the foundation for it.
The very basis of growling is something we do every single day. Most often you’ll do it the moment you get home from work and collapse on a bed or a couch.
That sound is a heavy sigh.
1. The Heavy Sigh
The heavy sigh is the basis for growling because when we sigh like that, we’re not utilizing our vocal cords to make the sound; we’re utilizing our false cords.
False cords are located near our vocal cords, but instead of making pitch and sound, they’re pretty much the door that opens and closes when you either decide to eat or breathe air, therefore making sure the right pathway is open so you don’t choke.
The essence of growling is that heavy sigh. However, growling is just a much more practiced, longer version of it, and it often involves pitch.
Try it now: either think about the chores you have to do later that you don’t want to do or let off some steam from a stressful event of your day, and sigh.
Notice how you’re relaxed when you do it.
Remember: don’t try to growl, and don’t force anything out. Just sigh like you’d normally sigh.
Now, do so again, holding it a little longer. Play with how it sounds as it comes out by moving your tongue or changing the shape of your throat. Just remember to stay relaxed and never force yourself. This will start off lighter, but will gain intensity on its own after much practice. Don’t try to take a shortcut to make the harsh sound you want by pushing. That sound will come, just give it time and plenty of practice.
For an example of this, check out this video below: ‘How To Growl’ Basics: 3 Safe Ways To Learn False Cord Technique
5. Finding your Death Metal Scream
Ah, the part you’ve been waiting for!
The death metal scream.
One last reminder: there will be no strain, tension or pushing of any kind involved for your vocal chords!
The reason I word this as finding your death metal scream is because no two vocalists will have the same scream. Don’t try to emulate another vocalist’s scream — find your own!
And again, this isn’t something we’re trying to force, it’s something you’re already capable of; you just have to find it in your voice.
In order to find your death metal scream, let’s first learn how to do vocal fry.
1. Vocal Fry
Everyone has already done this, singer or not, many times in their life.
The vocal fry is sans pitch, and it’s the exact noise you make when your alarm goes off way too early.
It’s that gravelly uhh sound – that’s your vocal fry.
When people speak in a very low voice, this vocal fry can even happen naturally without you thinking about it.
You can also find it by singing “ah” in a low note, then going lower and lower and lower until you no longer make an actual pitch with your voice, and it dissolves into that broken up, radio-static sound.
Once you find your vocal fry, hold onto it, then without stopping, speak or sing a note. When you add that vocal fry over a pitch, you’re giving what would be a very pure note a very guttural sound.
See where I’m going with this?
With death metal singing, we’re taking pretty, clean vocals and mucking them up. Distorting them, but again — naturally. Not with strain. Vocal fry requires no push or strain, and is actually a very healthy thing for your voice. You can do it all day long with no problem.
2. Combine the Vocal Fry with Your Speaking and Singing Voice
Now, start adding that vocal fry to higher pitches. If you speak with vocal fry over higher pitches, you can imagine yourself trying to imitate a crow, or a crotchety elderly person, perhaps yelling about darn meddling kids.
Once you get more comfortable with that, try adding that sound to a sung note that’s in mid-range or your higher range. Start small – aim to add a little fry over the course of the note you sing. Then as you get used to it, add more and more.
Remember: we’re not pushing or forcing. Imagine keeping your throat very open, giving all that air enough space to work. Gradually combine that fry into your singing until you find that scream you want! (This will definitely take time, so let it take the time it needs for the sound to mature).
For an example of what this sounds like to add fry to your voice, as well as how to turn it into a scream, check out this video! Voice Lessons: Vocal Fry Scream
We really want to focus on embracing all the cracks and the breaks your voice offers. Let the fry distort your voice in different and creative ways by playing with how much or how fast your air comes out.
Learning to sing death metal comes with a lot of work for your vocal chords. There is a lot of control and restraint in order to create that out of control, intense vocal you hear on the best records. Remember, it’s a vocal effect, and it’s within everyone’s capability to perform.
It’s just a matter of finding your own authentic sound.
And always remember: kill the song, not your vocal cords!