By Buzz Calhoun
We’ve all read the countless articles, watched the videos, and studied the books about microphone technique, breath control, and choosing the right equipment. We’ve fought tooth and nail with clients who insist on writing a newspaper ad for the Radio and done our best to convince them it will not break through the clutter. And we’ve even worked so hard with several voices to put together what we knew was an award winning campaign only to have the client back out at the last minute, not pay, or decide they wanted something completely different than what we had produced.
Despite all the complications, frustrations, low pay, and now disappearing employment opportunities, those of us still fortunate enough to be employed in creative continue to press forward, trying to make the most of each and every day. Deadlines, difficult personalities, egos, equipment malfunctions, billing discrepancies, and miscommunication. Challenges all, but I wanted to not only write my first offering for the publication about one particular headache, but to also encourage. Regardless of which medium or company we work for, the end goal is relatively identical. Create or compose something that when heard will cause the conscious mind to align with the subconscious, comprehend what it has heard, and then develop a conviction to the listener for the desired response.
While everything I have attempted to list is by no means an exhaustive detail of what we encounter day in and day out, there is one facet we seem to see most often than not. It’s a touchy subject because it applies to each and every person you put in front of the microphone, and for some of us who also voice collateral, that means a long hard look in the mirror is necessary. Pride is a very slippery slope to deal with in others, and most of the time one can only provide this type of input if one has a high enough degree of either social value or fundamental experience which would qualify the offering of information as expert to the receiver. Bottom line, no one likes to be critiqued, but when it comes from someone we respect, it tends to sting less, but still stings.
With that in mind let me preface my comments with no reference to myself as an expert, and there are no accolades acquired from my peers or professionals in the field who felt my work was so above the standard that it had the merit to be recognized. My efforts are among the many who work in the trenches of the smaller communities, which are in greater number than the larger or major markets I might add, who don’t seek to be placed on panels and interviewed. My goal each day is to keep my job and go above and beyond for our clients. I’m just a straight forward kind of guy who has made his share of mistakes, continues to learn, and loves this business.
Now that we have determined I am no expert, you can do with this advice and input what you choose and feel free to disregard if you feel it doesn’t apply to you. The point of observation I would like to expound upon is what I call the “Authentic Voice”. What exactly does that mean? In the simplest expression, an authentic voice sounds real, grabs your attention, and communicates clearly and intimately. It is not a resemblance of the late great Don Lafontaine, however it could be. It’s not so much the deepness or even the annunciation of a delivery, but rather the presentation as sounding like it is not staged or written, but rather simple conversation. This can be a screaming Monster Truck commercial, or a soft elegant tone of voice, but the authenticity is what I wish to address.
More times than not I have a voice talent in front of me and we are discussing the copy. While I know in my heart of hearts the talent understands what the copy is trying to accomplish, most of the time what the talent creates is very different. I suddenly see this person sometimes screaming into the microphone with an over exaggerated facial expression and the voice that is coming out of their mouths does not in any way resemble what I just heard as we were speaking to each other about the copy. The one true thing that I truly feel sets reads apart is whether the voice I hear in the ad matches the voice I would hear if I saw the talent on the street. Think Flo on Progressive commercials, the two guys in a car for Sonic, even Jonathan Pryce telling you about the new Infinity automobile. It’s not that the voice is clear, deep, or has a breathy feel, it’s the voice is authentic; the read on the copy is the same as that person would sound in normal conversation. This is one of the reasons why so many actors are seeing an upshot in commercial narration and voiceovers. Like it or not, the days of trying to “puke” your way through a read have long since vanished and anyone still trying to masquerade themselves as something they don’t normally sound like will find a very short career. If you talk to Bill Moffett on the telephone, when you get the finished Monster Truck ad in your Inbox, the voice you hear will be in Moffett’s natural range, his authentic voice, just speaking a bit more enthusiastically for the sake of the commercial, but not yelling. He uses his voice range, his authentic voice to his advantage because his voice is ideal for those types of commercials. Thus, in order to make the most of your talent, use their authentic voice for any read, which means do your homework before you cast. This applies also to character voices and I will use myself as an example.
One of the companies I do a small amount of reads for sent me a script one day for a car dealership and told me that this could turn into several reads, which I interpreted as a somewhat constant supply of steady income. The catch was they needed a gruff sounding school coach type character. For over six months I did a very unauthentic voice that was not in my normal vocal range and eventually I paid the price. It hurt my voice, cost me some revenue, and I am sure soured my character ability with the company, but the authentic voice lesson became crystal clear. My encouragement is simply this; we all have different variations of what we can do with our voice, but what seems to be the most powerful, the most effective, and the most financially marketable, are the voices that are authentic to you and within the typical range of your normal every day speech. That should be our aspiration each and every time.
So the copy has been written, the studio is filled with the energy of creativity, and your voice talent looms over the microphone as the hum of the hard drive fills the atmosphere recording every sound. They open their mouth and your ears hear an overstressed, uninteresting, “radio DJ” delivery. “Stop,” you command as they gaze at you like a puppy that has been kicked in the stomach. Suddenly you say to yourself, “now what?” Happens all the time, don’t panic. There are some simple techniques that myself and others have observed that when utilized have given your hopes and dreams tremendous assistance to help find the authentic voice. The first of these simple solutions is no headphones. How many times have you stood in a studio while someone was doing a Radio show, the mics went on, the studio monitors went dead, and yet the sounds from the headphones worn by the participants enabled you to hear exactly what was happening because the volume in the headphones was deafening? It’s a holdover to the days before voice tracking in the ancient times of live on the fly radio when Program Directors encouraged their talent to crank those headphones so that they could engulf themselves in the moment. After all they were performers on stage.
When you’re in a Production Studio, removing the headphones forces the talent to realize the volume and presence of their voice within the confines of the studio. This is a powerful feeling considering most talents love to hear their voice amplified. While there are many voice talents who can’t do anything without wearing headphones, this technique is simply a tool to help someone realize their vocal presence in regards to what all of us naturally hear in a normal situation. Think of it as being at a cocktail party and just as they begin to speak, all music, discussion, and ambient noise stops as all eyes immediately fixate on your voice talent. Now the voice talent subconsciously will account for anyone in the studio when they read their copy since they can now hear the ambient noises in the room and no longer have the luxury of just their voice amplified isolated within their brain. Here is where you can help your talent relax, sound natural, and in the midst of these considerations of sound create a voice much more similar to their natural speaking voice in everyday conversation. Exaggeration and inflection aside, this is helpful for talents who seem to always have the same read. It’s hard to pick up distinctiveness and subtle differences especially if the talent is new to voiceovers. Removing the headphones can provide a great tool to help the talent hear their voice in a more realistic environment that would closely match the listener’s experience.
Another technique is freedom of body movement. Have you ever seen Joe Cipriano do a read? Joe is the voice of Fox and his hands are moving constantly. For a long time I thought this was odd, but when I began to observe other talents doing the same thing it made sense, but it made powerful sense to those talents who use their hands instinctively when they have a normal conversation. So the freedom to move the body and hands just as one might do in normal conversation puts the brain in a routine, and enables the mental powers to focus more on the voice rather than trying to find an outlet for that energy lurking inside. I’m no Psychologist, but everything I have read about how we think seems to support that if we place ourselves in a comfortable environment, we are able to perform with greater concentration. One wouldn’t study for a final while the marching band practiced in the same room. So giving the body something to do when it normally does those things in everyday conversation tells your brain, this is a normal conversation. In this simple way, you will find that what you hear when you try to speak will more closely resemble your authentic voice rather than trying to imitate some stereotypical Gary Marshal ideal in your mind. By the way, if you heard Gary Marshal speak normally, he sounds like he is doing a read. Is it starting to sink in yet?
One final technique is an odd one but works magic and wonders. I saved it for last because it is truly the most powerful. How many times have you been listening to some commercials and you can instantly tell which ones are local and which ones are national? Now, I am going to give you the golden egg of truth that will help you unleash your authentic voice. You’ve read through this article and here is your payoff. Are you ready? It’s simply this. Read books out loud to kids. When I say kids, start with children between the ages of toddler to pre-teen. Believe it or not, kids have no desire to be tactful or carry with them the same morbid sense of social awkwardness we do, they learn that in Junior High just like we did, but kids who are younger than twelve years of age are a fantastic barometer of whether you have found your authentic voice or not. I’m not going to go into great detail here but trust me, you go read out loud to children and when you can hold their attention, draw them in, and get an emotional response from them by reading them a story, several things will happen. You will learn how to make eye contact with not just your eyes but with your words, you will be able to create emotion, and even if you do funny character voices, you will discover your ability to speak to someone and move them emotionally and mentally to your desired goal with very little effort. How do you know when you’ve gone from being Luke Skywalker to Yoda? Read for audiences in a slightly older age group. The further up the age range you go, the more masterful you will become. When you can read to kids and you see their parents just as mesmerized as their children are and they never look down at their kids to see their reaction, but simply are captivated by what you are doping, you have then become a Jedi Master and found your authentic voice. Try you must, fail often you will, but effort’s reward you shall reap! May the force be with you.