The human voice may be the most powerful tool of communication in existence. Even very ancient orators have been lauded throughout history. Until nearly the end of the 19th century it was impossible to preserve human speech. One had to be there to listen in person. With the invention of the phonograph (first cylinder then platter) and later tape, digital storage, etc. it is now possible for an engaging speaker to connect with people in different places at different times.
In our electronic media age, the power of the voice cannot be underestimated. With everyone walking about wearing earbuds or headphones the potential for speech based entertainment, education, or advertising is magnified. But, oddly enough, I have heard people, over the years, express ideas about voice production that I find, from my own experience as a producer and tonmeister, misleading. These are strictly the opinions of The Audio Penguin so some people may disagree. But they are the guiding principles in my own work as a voice producer.
MYTH #1. It is important to use a “polished” trained voice. Nearly everyone loves the announcer with the “pipe organ” voice. Think James Earl Jones or the late Peter Thomas (voice of Nova and many other programs and commercials). In some situations that kind of voice seems called for, but only in a small number of situations.
People without fantastic voices have made it big in radio. Advertisers flocked to get their commercials spoken by Arthur Godfrey on his own radio show. If Godfrey said to buy a product, people did. Yet his voice was quite nasal and certainly not “commanding’ in the “pipe organ voice” sense. Ditto the the news commentator (who produced his own quirky show), Paul Harvey. He talked in short staccato phrases that were anything but “relaxed.” Yet everyone believed him and advertisers sought him out.
On a more local level I used to live in the Midwest where local ads were voices by a woman I shall just call “J.” (She has passed on but maybe her relatives and friends are still around.) She was middle aged and a bit overweight. But when she gave a pitch on radio, or even television, she was successful. She was like your mother or grandmother reminding you to wear galoshes. I never heard her do character voices (like some audiobook narrators do). Her natural voice was just that, natural and believable.
Off camera or mic J was said to be hard to work with, as was Arthur Godfrey. But they were successful in what they did.
Commercials and audio dramas use all kinds of voices from that of a shy 15 year old girl to a spunky old grandmother or grandfather. It is a matter of choosing one that fits the part, not finding someone with “pipe organ” delivery.
Finally, I want to note that when I was in advertising I rarely had spots voiced by Disc Jockeys or other local radio “personalities.” I found that they often developed their own personal, and sometimes phony or punchy, manner. A spot read by them seemed to shift the focus of the listener to them rather than a story about the user of the product or service. I usually tried to write spots that told a story and the voice relating the story needed to sound convincing, not artificial.
To me, stories are what sells, and a voice artist has to seem very engaged in a story as if they are relating it from their own experience. Some radio “announcers” just don’t to that.
MYTH #2. If recording voice only, don’t bother with high end equipment. One of the things I most remember from my early college days was people telling me that voice does not require the use of high end recording equipment. After all, the story went, people use the telephone all the time and the quality of that is low.
In terms of basic intelligibility, a voice connection can be quite limited. Telephones, especially early ones with carbon button microphones, are good examples. But voice communication is much more effective if the listener feels like the speaker is taking nearby in a natural voice. For that, high end gear works better than low cost gear, though the lost cost gear available today is good enough that it can provide a good start to a budding podcaster or internet radio station. In other posts in this series I will go into more depth on the kinds of microphones, microphone pre-amplifiers, mixers, speakers, headphones I favor.
I find, too, that I generally dislike radio “call in” programs if the callers are speaking for any length of time. Telephone quality grates on me. One loses so much naturalness.
Probably the first US President to use radio effectively was Franklin Roosevelt with his Fireside Chats. Other candidates had been on radio before then, but often it was broadcasts from large events where the candidate virtually shouted to be heard. Roosevelt talked quietly to people as if he was in the room with them and the nation paid attention. I think Bernie Sanders could have taken that advice a bit more in his recent campaign. It was impressive to see him speak to the huge crowds that supported him, but sometimes I wished for a calmer, more personal, Bernie. If only he had come to my studio to record radio spots I think I could have produced some warmer, more engaging, spots that would have helped him reach some of the people who were not his “natural” supporters.
The takeaway is that voice is more engaging if it sounds like there is no “gear” between the speaker and listener on radio or podcasts. This kind of transparency is more easily achieved with high end gear, and a treated environment, than with lower cost stuff. Stay tuned for longer posts on this.
MYTH #3. Voice is easier to record than picture. I have worked with many videographers, students especially, and professionals. I have often seen the attitude that one needs to work hard to get a good picture, adjusting lighting, lenses, etc, as necessary for a simple interview. But when it comes to the audio there tends to be an attitude that “if you can hear the sound it is OK.” I have seen so many student video “dramas” where the shots are interesting but the voice audio is a mic on top of a camera, or worse. And even if a good microphone is used often the levels are off, it is placed too far away, or there is a lip synchronization problem after editing.
Visual capture can be more intuitive than audio. Give some inexperienced person a cell phone camera or small video camera and he/she may get some nice images. But if there is speech in the scene often it will be recorded with some tiny on-camera or built-in mic way too far away from the subject. Even a shotgun mic is not the audio equivalent to a telephoto lens (more about that in another post). So someone can stand 8 feet from a person talking, zoom in and get a good shot but the audio quality will be poor. You cannot record good warm audio with any mic, even a shotgun, that is not where the person speaking could reach out (or up or down) and touch it. But this is not intuitive. The person handed a cell phone and asked to shoot video will usually have no clue about how audio works but will have some innate sense of imagery. Audio is, in many ways, much harder to deal with than video. In radio or podcasts the audio is 100% of the production, but even in video it is 50% if talking is involved. In fact, in a workshop I have given in NYC on film sound I use the title “The Other Half of the Film.”
The lesson here is that one needs to learn how to record the voice and it is neither intuitive nor easy.
MYTH #4. I can record voice in my living room. When people think about recorded sound quality often they focus on the quality of microphones used, though other electronic gear, such as pre-amplifiers, digital-to-analog converters etc. are often equally important. But often people ignore the most important ingredient of all, the quality of the acoustic space where the recording will be done.
This space can vary according to the type of sound being recorded. Usually the spoken voice needs a fairly “dry” space, meaning few reflections to create reverberation or phase cancellations. Classical music, by contrast, likes a slightly more “live” space.
If one wants a special environment, say a bowling alley for a scene or commercial set in one, then it is possible to take a stereo microphone, or individual mics, to the space and record the dialogue or narrative there. But that limits editing. If someone fluffs a line, requiring an edit, then the whole scene will have to be re-recorded as the edit would be obvious in the background sounds. Often the solution is to go a make a recording of a bowling alley, then record the voices in a studio suitable for voice and mix the voice into the background sound.
Which brings us back to the original question: Can I just record in my living room? Some living rooms that have dry acoustics and don’t have sounds entering from the outside or from appliances (such as air conditioners) could be used, but most people don’t live in those kinds of surroundings. Some people who record music in their basement place a mic 2-3 inches from each instrument, vocal artist, or sound effect to reduce indirect sound from imperfectly treated walls, outside noise, etc. But to the ears of The Audio Penguin mixes from these kind of techniques often sound “in your face” and boxy.
We can discuss more details of acoustic treatments for the spoken voice in future posts, but the bottom line is an untreated living room usually will not have the kind of acoustics needed for a professional voice sound. Treatment is needed and can range from adding diffusers, bass traps and absorbers to a living room to installing an expensive professionally designed vocal booth intended for professional speech.
Are there other rooms that can work? Some voice artists have been able to record in a walk-in closet full of clothes (though there may be issues of ventilation and a feeling of claustrophobia if recording for a long time).
The takeaway here is think about the acoustic space you will use to record voice. The best solution to all of this (using good equipment, having a good space, etc.) is renting time in a professional studio. But be careful! Make sure they are designed for high end voice recording. There are lots of people who record pop music in studios they have built who don’t do a good job of voice recording because the think “voice is easy,” “does not require high end gear,” etc.
Engineers that don’t record much voice sometimes even buy into the “myths” of this post.
MYTH #5. Women’s voices are less commanding than men’s voices. When I was in college in the early 1960s I had teachers constantly remind our class that “women will never be hired to read the news.” “It is not that we have anything against women, it is just that nobody will listen because women’s voices are not commanding.” Women were told they could only report “women’s news” or voice commercials for “women’s products” such as dish detergents, bathroom products, etc.
Even as a young student I was outraged. I listed to a lot of shortwave radio in those days and noticed that many foreign stations heavily used women for more than reading “women’s news.” As a teacher of communications in the late 1960s I had a student who said she wanted to be a news anchor. Others in the department, including her uncle who was also the Department Head, said “forget it and be sure to learn to type.”
I encouraged her knowing that the world was changing, thanks in part to the women’s movement. I am glad I did. She became a reporter and anchor at CNN and NBC networks and was even a Vice President of CNN for a while. TV Guide once wrote that she was “the most powerful newswoman in America” because she not only read and reported news, but could hire and fire people for CNN.
I hope nobody today thinks that a woman cannot be “commanding” but I worry when I see internet comments about Hillary Clinton. Whether one agrees with her politics or not she is a leader for many people, men and women. If she is elected she will not just be “a women’s President.” She deserves to be heard.