Arranger’s Toolbox 4: Vocal Percussion

Wikka wikka.

Wikka wikka.

“Doof te que”

“Dubida dubida”

“Pfft tikka tikka chshh”

It’s a fallacy that drums noises are reserved to just drums, just as vocal percussion is limited to the vocal percussionist. If you can speak, you can do VP, and if you’re writing arrangements for people who can speak…well, everyone can be a drum sometime or other! All it takes is a little ingenuity and riskiness to write some drum parts for your whole ensemble, as well as some singers who are willing to have some fun.

  • Mouth regions

Before you start to write some crazy syllables, first a quick 101 about your mouth in relation to vocal percussion. For almost all of these, you don’t engage your vocal cords. Imagine you just had tonsillitis- just use your breath and mouth. The only times you probably want to engage your vocal chords are for bass hits, especially if you’re a guy (guys can easily get a nice deep tone, though if you’re a contralto girl, you could make a good reverb too).

  1. Lips/Teeth
  2. Think cymbals and snare drums. Try sounding out “Tss, tst tst tss,” “Pfft,” and “Pooh.” These sounds take more air than any of the other parts of the mouth, and make higher-pitched noises than the others. Be careful if you put your singers on mics, because the expellation of air can be picked up pretty well by standard vocal mics.

  3. Hard Palate
  4. The hard palate is the hard part of your mouth just beyond your teeth. If you want to savor a Milk Dud or enjoy peanut butter, you’re well acquainted with your hard palate. This is where you can find tom-toms, bass drums, and hi-hats. “Tit tit tit,” “Dooh dooh,” and paired with the lips/teeth, “dibbedeh debbedeh.” The hard palate usually part of more complicated sounds, since it’s the rest stop in-between your soft palate and teeth. It’s also a component of really fast sounds, since the tip of your tongue can move pretty fast.

  5. Soft Palate
  6. Located in the back of the mouth, the soft palate is (surprisingly) the soft bit that the back of your tongue can manipulate. Rim shots, the hard attack for a cymbal, or Darth Vader’s respirator tones are usually done with the soft palate. Sound out “Keh keh,” “kooh,” and breathing in, “ki.” The soft palate works very well with the hard palate to make quick grooves (“tikka tikka tikka”), or with the teeth to make bright cymbal hits (“kshhh…”).

    Give your mouth a reward after that hard work.

    Give your mouth a reward after that hard work.

  • How to integrate
  • So you sit down to arrange a tune and want to spice up the arrangement by putting in some vocal percussion beyond the vocal percussionist. Okeydokey! If you take a peek at the Quick and Dirty 10-Step Guide, phase one should be research and stealing. Here is where you scrounge around and find out other versions of the tune that may give you ideas of what to put into your arrangement. If you do this step, you’ll probably come across some version of the tune that you’re working on with an instrumental break or drum solo that would be appropriate to put in a snatch of vocal percussion.

    Guster is great for this: all that bongo action just screams for vocal percussion. Barrel of a Gun, as sung by Brandeis University’s Rather Be Giraffes (and arranged by myself) provides a lot of opportunity for vocal percussion. Here’s the original track intro:

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    Here’s one way of interpreting that drum intro:

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    If I were to break down that drum break, it would look phonetically a little like this:

    “Doo doo doo dupida dupida dupida”

    Another excerpt from that same track is a way you can complicate that basic form by layering two percussive lines that are subdivided differently. Original take:

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    Rather Be Giraffes interpretation:

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    Layered here is half the ensemble on the intro drum break (described above, with a little extension) and half the ensemble on a different subdivision, phonetically like this:

    “Da Da duppa Da Da duppa Da Da duppa Da”

    The subdivision changes from groupings of three (“Doo doo doo” and “dupida”) to groupings of two (“Da Da” and “duppa”) to make a 3-against-2 feel. Sorta neat, huh? It spices up the arrangement and will give the audience a little surprise when what-was-voices is now sweet-drum-sounds.

    • Some sundry tips

    Alongside making the entire ensemble hop onto a drum set, trading vocal percussionists can be an interesting change-up mid-song. When making good arrangements, keeping the sound and performance fresh and exciting is what keeps audience members awake and breathing, so switching the VP can help keep vital signs in your listeners. Also, it makes your singers more well-rounded if they can do more than sing tenor-land Bs or bass Fs for an entire show.

    If you try this route, be sure to work with the people who are trading vocal percussion to achieve some continuity in style, projection, and texture. It’s jarring enough to switch from one vocal percussionist to another, but it is a little too much if one is spitting out incredible subdivisions and the next just does downbeats. It could work, depending on the tune, but having a little continuity between the two will lubricate the transition. However, it could provide a nice dramatic arc if you have two different VPers that mesh together in the end of a song…ideas ideas…

    Don’t forget that the soloist can do some vocal percussion too. Having the soloist step out of the spotlight and take up VP while the ensemble has their time to shine can spice things up too. Here’s an example of Rather Be Giraffes doing that during Losing Lisa, by Ben Folds (skip to 2:48 to see what I mean):

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    Here the vocal percussionist, the gold-black dress girl, gives up VP and joins the ensemble while the soloist takes up cymbal hits on the side. The scat section has no place for the soloist, so getting him out of the way by throwing him on VP is an effective way of making him fade into the background.

  • The opportunities are endless!
  • Endless.

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