K-Pop Vocal Analysis: Judging Idols, Most Underrated/Overrated Singers, and More

We all have our own opinions as to which idols are the best and worst singers in K-Pop. On first glance, these opinions might appear to be totally subjective — one person’s pick for best K-Pop singer can seem light-years away from the next person’s. However, most of us tend to agree that certain vocalists are clearly better than the rest, and of course there are a few unfortunate idols whose singing “ability” can only be defended by the staunchest of fans. 

Enter the K-Pop Vocal Analysis Blog! These nine young fans, many of whom possess singing backgrounds, got to know each other while sharing their love of K-Pop online. In the process, they began to field questions regarding the technical and critical aspects of K-Pop vocals. Although their home base is the OneHallyu forums, they eventually set up a separate site to discuss and review various singers. It’s here that you can find thorough explanations on the technique of singing, as well as information and critiques on various K-Pop idols. For this article, we spoke primarily with KVAB founder Matheus Dias, a Brazil native who studies vocals in Los Angeles and sings professionally on the side. Matheus credits his high school friends for getting him hooked on K-Pop, and currently enjoys listening to Ailee, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, ChoColat, Lena Park, and EXO.

Being a K-Pop fan, is it ever hard for you to be objective when doing your reviews?

Personally for me, not at all. If anything, it just makes me more eager for the idols to improve! Although it disappoints me when a singer doesn’t deliver, I won’t lie to myself about it. Plus, it’s actually much easier to analyze somebody’s vocal ability when you like them, since you actually want to assess them in detail. You can listen carefully without feeling like it’s a duty.

Do you get any negative feedback when you end up delivering a critical review of certain K-Pop idols?

Of course! When you tell a person that their bias isn’t as good at singing as they thought, they’ll often get completely mad at you and say you’re butt-hurt or a hater. I think it’s important to say it with polite words and with objectivity and detail, so instead of “They suck” and that’s it, you have clear reasons where you can explain in detail what they’re doing wrong.

KVAB underrated pick: Super Junior K.R.Y.

Is there anything that you tend to hear about K-Pop idols’ voices that seems like misinformation?

I’ve heard things like if the veins pop out, it’s good, or if their neck is thick, they’re good at singing, haha. People tend to think that the main vocalists are automatically good, or that someone who can sing high is good.

They also tend to misunderstand the concept of tone in judging vocals. Tone is subjective and the audience chooses who they want to listen to at the end of the day. Not liking someone’s tone doesn’t mean someone isn’t a good vocalist, though. Likewise, you can’t think that having a good voice automatically makes someone a good vocalist. Most people tend to think you’re born with the singing talent and that’s it, when even people who have it should work to further develop their instrument, and someone who doesn’t have it, although it may take them more time, can learn how to sing very well even if their voice might not be as pretty as other people’s. 

Some people assume that idols are automatically bad singers if they see them lip-syncing, but that’s not really true. Girls’ Generation’s vocal line is actually a bit underrated because people call them out for lip-syncing during performances, but that has nothing to do with vocal technique. It doesn’t mean they’re bad or good, it just means they can’t dance and sing well at the same time.

Park Hyo Shin

What makes a K-Pop vocalist great?

For any vocalist to be considered good or great, they need control of their voice. They need to have good pitch/intonation, good sense of musicality for dynamics, good placement of voice for resonance, developed vocal registers and control of them, being able to transition through them effortlessly. For an example, a singer might sound cool when they have that rough scratchy “rock” sound sometimes, right? It’s good to have control to add effects, but if that’s the only way they know how to sing or the only way they hit high notes, which causes a strained sound, then that shows more of a lack of skill than anything else. 

How do the best K-Pop vocalists compare to iconic pop singers such as Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston? 

You can find vocalists that have very well-developed registers, but even the greatest K-Pop vocalists fall short on full developed ranges, compared to Beyoncé, Mariah, Aretha, or Whitney, who have or had nearly perfect technique, a supported range from bottom to top with flawless musical delivery. Some of the older vocalists in K-Pop are still great, such as Ock Joo HyunSohyangThe OneNaul, and Park Hyo Shin, but they still have a few areas they could work on. For instance, Sohyang has a relatively underdeveloped chest lower register, or others like Park Hyo Shin still show some strain on notes above their best range. It’s not 100% impeccable but very close. 

Another thing that really sets them apart is their musicality and musicianship, which is something that can be learned through experience and exposure to music, but not necessarily through lessons. A good example would be SHINee’s Jonghyun versus Taemin. Taemin is overall better in his mixed register with very good consistency and resonance, but his interpretation of songs is dull and lacks character, with no real musicality or understanding of music, whereas Jonghyun has less impressive technique, but is able to deliver the song musically better.

On your site, you tend to classify most idols as light lyric sopranos or light lyric tenors. Why is that and what does that mean?

Well, for females, soprano is the most common voice type. For males, the most common voice type is baritone, but when they pick singers, they would rather get guys who can handle the higher ranges in their songs, so they favor tenors for the most part. Now as for why they’re light lyric mostly, instead of perhaps a more mature full soprano or a dramatic soprano, is because of their young age. Voice types aren’t something to be determined at such a young age; it takes time for the voice to fully mature. Usually when people reach their thirties, their voice is fully matured. The most notable exceptions would be CJSH’s Lina and Stephanie who are a full lyric soprano and lyric mezzo soprano respectively, John Park who’s a baritone, Busker Busker’s main vocalist who’s also possibly a baritone, Park Hyo Shin and Hwanhee who are low tenors or baritenors. Those who are of different voice types are either singers with unique voices, solo artists, or artists who are discovered through TV talent music shows.

KVAB underrated pick: Spica

Which singers have improved the most?

The first one that comes to mind is Sistar’s Hyorin. She used to be considered a fairly competent vocalist when she debuted, but she gradually improved to the point where suddenly she was hitting notes in ways she never could have before. She’s a good vocalist now. Taemin of SHINee used to be considered a weak to average vocalist, but through his hard work his mixed register just improved so immensely and he’s actually a lead vocalist now. Other two considerably improved vocalists are 2NE1’s Minzy and Tiffany of Girls’ Generation who recently showed some improvement from their earlier vocal deliveries, though not as drastic as Hyorin or Taemin.

Which singers would you consider to be the most underrated for their ability?

Actually, recently I found out just how underrated f(x)’s Luna is as a vocalist. Most people just find her voice boring or something and declare she’s not capable, but she’s much better than she gets credit for. There are other singers who are better than the rest of their group, but don’t get credit for it because people see that the group overall isn’t good. An example of that would be Wonder Girls’ Sunye who, while not good, is much better than Wonder Girls are normally perceived to be. CSJH as a whole are underrated, and Younha and Seeya’s Yeonji, but that’s more due to lack of popularity than people thinking that they’re bad singers. Also, Girls’ Generation’s Jessica is at times deemed as a very bad vocalist, just because people don’t like her voice, which is completely subjective. 

Groups that don’t get as much credit include 2AM, 4Men, Davichi, Super Junior K.R.Y., and Spica. Some of these groups aren’t necessarily full of good vocalists, but their average is pretty high overall. 

How about the most overrated?

In some cases, people think singing super high means the singers are good even if they’re clearly straining, which is the case for TVXQ’s Changmin and JYJ’s Jaejoong. Also there’s JYJ’s Junsu, SHINee’s Jonghyun, Brown Eyed Girls’ JeA, and Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon. They’re not bad vocalists at all, but they have more things to improve than people think. JeA, for example, was much better at one point, but over time, her skill has actually regressed.

Do you have idols where you just can’t sign off on their singing, but love them anyway?

For me, I still love ChoColat’s Melanie, Tiffany, Super Junior’s Donghae, and SHINee’s Onew. They’re not that bad, but none of them really classify as “good” either. However, I can’t resist their voices because they’re so pretty to me. I do sometimes cringe at some of their performances at times, mainly Tiffany and Donghae, haha. 

K-Pop Vocal Analysis is comprised of OneHallyu members Chungzhx/Andrew, Pedro, Jiyul/Alyson The Vocalist Supreme, Akisama/Layla, Ahmin/Matheus, NikiJosias, and HappinessOfStab/Denise. This article took an introductory look at K-Pop vocal critique, as well as some light assessments of various idols. In later articles, we will take a closer look at some of the best and worst vocalists in K-Pop! However, for full analyses of many idols, you should definitely check out the KVAB site.