Making Real People Sound Real

by Rick Allen

When does "average" equal "outstanding?" When the voice of an average person is used in a radio spot making the commercial stand out and sound anything but average. The right delivery from the "average man or woman on the street" creates a powerful sell that can attract and hold a listener's attention. A natural delivery adds believability to your message like nothing else. However, getting the "right" delivery from amateurs can end up being very involved and very frustrating. You know from the start it's going to take a lot more time and energy than it would just to track a professional voice talent in your studio.

I've never had to guard against overusing the voices of "real" people in spots and promos. I just naturally use it sparingly because it's such a major effort to pull off correctly. So, when you feel that urge to go for a natural delivery from an amateur, and you're ready to put in the extra effort, here are some suggestions and techniques to ease the pain of capturing usable and believable voice tracks from nonprofessionals.

Start with the right equipment for the job. Use a quality portable DAT, MiniDisc, or cassette recorder. Until recently, when recording in the field, I sacrificed the audio quality of digital recording and used analog cassettes. The reason was headroom. Some of the most believable comments come from the crazy guys who grab the mic from your hand and scream right into the windscreen. When the record meter pegs on the cassette machine, you might end up with a little distortion, but you still have that great moment of usable audio you really needed. With DATs and MiniDiscs, as with all digital recorders, if you hit them with too much input level, you end up with a horrifying screech they call digital distortion. Digital recorders are very unforgiving when levels peak hot. Remember, it's not tape. It's digits...and when you overmodulate, the recorder simply can't translate the signal to a numeric value, and you get garbage for playback. Thank goodness some newer portable DAT recorders come with built-in limiters that solve the level dilemma. Check to see that your DAT has one. If it does...go for the quality and use it. If not, weigh the pros and cons of using analog. Whatever you choose, don't forget to take a second to check and make sure your recorder's batteries are fully charged.

Next, grab a good microphone for location recording. If you want the background sounds along with the voice, use an omnidirectional mic. An omnidirectional mic also makes it easier to record a person who might be moving around while speaking. The voice won't drift off mike and thin out when they move around the microphone. On the other hand if you need to isolate the voice from background sounds, you might try a unidirectional mic. Either way, a windscreen is the final touch. It really cuts down on wind noise and "P" pops when you're recording outdoors.

Before you leave the station, work out a list of general questions. Begin with small talk to put your subject at ease. Plan how to move the conversation naturally toward the comments you want. Before you begin an interview, take a minute to record some ambient sound. It might come in handy later in the production process as you edit together the best takes from the session. Once you start the interview, keep it as relaxed as possible. Don't interrupt. Let the subject do the talking. You'd be surprised at how many times an off-the-cuff comment delivers impact way beyond anything you could have scripted.

If you're going out after short listener phrases instead of longer interview comments, I've found it easier to say the phrase out loud and then let the listener "parrot" it back to you. Whatever you do, don't hand an amateur a script and expect natural reads. If they still sound stiff, joke around with them. Catch them off guard. Take their mind off the microphone. Relieve the pressure. If you come across relaxed, you'll put others at ease. Make them think that having their voice recorded is no big deal. Make it fun for them. I'm always pleasantly surprised how much more natural people sound when they're smiling.

Once you're done and back at the station, it goes without saying--but I'll mention it anyway--don't edit your master. Make a copy and hack up the copy all you want. If you edit digitally, edit from a backup file. That way, if you screw up beyond repair, you can always go back to the master tape and make another copy. During all the editing of the stumbles and the stammers, that background noise you recorded earlier will come in handy. Use the background noise as a seamless filler when you need to add a pause or end a sentence abruptly. This technique lets you avoid the unnatural dropouts of natural ambiance that inserting blank tape creates.

After all the hard work, if you feel like you need a drink, that's the perfect time to record those screaming, excited listeners to use in promos. Time and time again I've found the best place to record that kind of audio is a far corner in a crowded bar or nightclub just around midnight. Medical research has demonstrated how the consumption of alcohol breaks down people's inhibitions. It must be true because after people down a few drinks, they can be convinced to shout out just about anything you ask 'em to.

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