The picture is a familiar one. The voice talent leans forward in their leather chair, poised to do the customer’s bidding to the best of their ability.
Yet seemingly contradictory client instructions make life an unnecessary challenge for even the most patient of performers.
Similarly, the voice talent may not have described their own voice entirely accurately, turning up a little like a Tinder date who doesn’t look like their profile pic.
Deciding how a character should sound, should start with defining their key vocal characteristics and the answer lies in thorough preparation and clear communication.
Voice talent can make the process smooth in the way that they portray their own voices in their written profiles. At Voquent, we make this easy for talent by writing an automatic bio based on the keywords and data entered at profile sign-up. This makes the profile bio more useful for customers e.g. Emma Love’s profile reads:
Expert, multi-lingual voice actor with over 14+ years of experience, native to Canada and speaking English as her primary language. Noted for her animated, intelligent & warm personas. Offers consistent performances with a distinct vocal style. Records from her home studio or on location in Vancouver and other connected cities throughout Canada.
Whilst many will understandably take a pride in their dexterity, each will demonstrate certain characteristics differently from others. The use of accurate descriptors can help a client quickly find the best voice for their purpose. It’s arguably more important than investing time and money in an arty portrait pic.
Useful descriptors will also help clients command the lexicon to communicate the voice they hear in their heads. Which vocal characteristics act together to deliver exactly the sound desired for the content, or lend the character its distinct personality?
Some of the key voice characteristics are detailed below. The list is not exhaustive; and definitions can differ, even amongst academics, but the list is designed as a thought starter. How the work is best delivered and what emotions you want to arouse in the audience will instruct the distinctive ‘fingerprint’ of vocal characteristics that best serves the purpose.
— Voquent (@Voquent) September 28, 2019
What pitch is appropriate for the task in hand? On a scale, what level of perceived ‘highness’ or ‘lowness’ of a voice?
In singing, we are familiar with the range from Soprano: the highest female voice, down through Mezzo-Soprano, Contralto, Tenor and Baritone – on to Bass, the lowest male voice. With the spoken word, whilst the definitions may not be so well known, the range is similarly evident.
Are you looking for a vocal range which delivers a higher pitch – something in the middle – or something lower?
The age of the voice artist may be relevant. The throat anatomy and physiology of the talent will dictate the pitch that a talent can command, dependent on the number of vibrations per second produced by the vocal cords.
Whilst a person speaking in their natural pitch will speak most naturally, modulation of pitch is, of course, possible, just as famously in the case of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lowering her voice in office.
A lower voice might be perfect for authority, trust, sadness, disappointment, seriousness or threatening topics or characters; a higher voice for cheery, brighter, excited, energetic or younger approach. Psychologists suggest that a person’s voice pitch affects how others perceive them. Similarly, it will affect perceptions of content and character from a voice artist.
What rate of delivery would suit the purpose? How slowly or quickly might the voice be expected to speak?
Listen to how quickly your friends speak. There may be the entertaining storyteller who takes twice as long to get to the end of a sentence as you do, yet has the pace that delivers the tale perfectly – or the fast-talking person at work who gabbles a seemingly endless stream of consciousness.
Think of your own natural voice pace. Given how challenging it is to change that, the importance of selecting the right pace of voice for the job can be of importance. There is certainly much more useful variance between speech rates than between ‘normal’ and the pace at which terms and conditions are rattled off in finance ads.
In his famous 1940 speech, Winston Churchill pledged to fight the enemy ‘on the beaches’ – at 128 words per minute. The power of his chosen pace was immediately apparent to an anxious generation. In a recent documentary, BBC Radio 4 edited that speech to tighten the gaps between phrases, increasing the speed of his delivery dramatically, with an astonishing effect on its perceived effectiveness. At a slower speed, listeners have time to consider, to imagine and to process.
The National Center for Voice and Speech suggests the average conversation rate for English speakers in the United States is about 150 words per minute. It generally falls between 120 wpm at the slow end of the spectrum, up to 160/200 wpm in the fast end.
Research around the world appears to debunk the assertion that women speak more quickly than men.
Speech rate differences impact on the mood engendered in the listener. Complex, sadder or formal content may benefit from a slower, calmer pace – urgent, animated, excited material a faster one. Think of the great horse racing commentators to illustrate how varying pace effects energy and excitement .
Whilst voice talent will always adjust to suit the purpose, some are naturally slower, and others are gifted in delivering material rapidly whilst still losing enviably little on clarity. For a job which necessarily is word-rich, a faster talker whose articulation remains clear will prove an asset.
What speech rate likely delivers the best rhythm, pace, efficiency, trust, mood and general feel for your content or character?
Everyone has a tone of voice – a pattern of speaking – which is as individual as their fingerprint. Which tone suits your purposes?
Does the identity of the intended audience suggest the best tone for the purpose? Does a particular regional accent help convey the message?
Think of the difference between a colleague chatting in the office about their weekend and that same individual rising to their feet, clapping their hands together and delivering an organisational plan to the team for the day ahead. Compare that with how that person might speak when talking to a member of staff who has lost a relative.
Some voices, of course, lend themselves more naturally to particular purposes. For example, the difference between someone who sounds like a leader and someone who does not. The second person will not inspire the same level of confidence.
Think of a polite tone, a corporate tone, a pompous tone, a sultry tone, a helpful tone, an instructive tone, a confident tone, an angry tone – or a friendly or reassuring tone. Paralinguistic ‘noises’ such as crying or laughter can also be part of the tone of a piece. At Voquent we identify 12 primary tones for voice-over use:
View this post on Instagram
Brands often define the ‘tone-of-voice’ in general terms when determining their overall marketing strategy – the attitude with which they portray themselves at all times in all places. This definition stretches way beyond the verbal material it might use in media communications – logo design, typeface, the choice of brand ambassadors, writing style, social media communications, premises design and more. Sometimes, ironically, they fail to devote the same attention to the actual voice that consumers will hear. It is critically important – whatever the words being said are – that the voice sounds how your brand or character looks and behaves.
What does the voice feel like overall?
Christina Aguilera talks of her ‘paintbox’ of voices from a “gritty growl to haunting sadness”; the different textures adopted by the vocalist as she delivers the anthem on an album, or the ballad. In music, texture can be used to describe the overall mix of music when all the instruments blend together.
In voice artistry, putting to one side the words and how they are delivered, what is the texture of the core traits of the voice?
We’ve all heard of a ‘velvet’ voice. But if it’s not velvet, what is it? Sometimes that single word can help to sum up the desired texture. I’m unsure who first coined the phrase ‘chocolate voice’, but it’s a great term and, like ‘fruity’ and ‘honeyed’, shows that figurative words, un-related to voice can best crystalise what makes a vocal sound distinctive and fitting.
Words in sentences rise and fall. How should the words be delivered to best portray the meaning – and not mislead?
Think of that famous line: ‘Here’s Johnny’ in The Shining movie – how would that have sounded if delivered in a different way? Think too of the trend of high rising end words in sentences, and how that alone can change the way a sentence is perceived.
A sentence can be enunciated perfectly and yet without the relevant intonation, deliver the wrong meaning completely.
Intonation is the variation in spoken pitch in the journey of a sentence. It helps to indicate attitude or emotion. Falling and rising intonation serves to emphasise a point and to differentiate between questions and statements. Whilst a meaningless ‘sing-song’ achieves little, a consistent tone without variation can be soporific.
The pattern, rhythm or “prosody” of speech offers cues to what a speaker really means.
Where the pattern and words appear at conflict, it is suggested that listeners attach more value to the pattern. When a friend assures you they are OK. You know instinctively if their words are hollow.
In the absence of non-verbal clues, the whole meaning is vested purely in the way things sound.
How loud do you want a voice to be perceived? Are they in hushed, intimate tones or shouting?
Thankfully, you don’t have to rush to find the remote control to turn up the TV as an intimate bedroom scene begins, nor turn it down in the middle of some dramatic showdown in a soap opera.
Audio processing ensures that voices are experienced by the listener at roughly the same level. Despite that technical adjustment, there remains a perceived difference in loudness, owing to the way voices are performed.
From the stage whisper, called upon by actors in quiet scenes. The booming voice of a ‘hurry, hurry, buy now, offer ends on Saturday’ commercial. Or a typical conversational level. The volume at which a voice artist is asked to deliver their words impacts on how they are understood.
The ‘size’ and drama of a louder delivery can indicate urgency, importance, confidence, power, resolve or anger. A softer voice can convey a secret, an intimate word, a warmth, a discretion, or indeed indiscretion.
Using the characteristics
A female or male voice-over artist is unlikely to define every piece of work using all of the above characteristics. Some will adopt two or three favourite variables to rely on when getting a job clear in their own mind. For recurrent jobs, however, they will take care to lock those characteristics down in notes or audio files to ensure that the next time they are called upon to deliver fresh work in the same vein, they dial up the right intensity of each of the relevant characteristics.
That securing of characteristics is particularly important when content might be used randomly (such as in a video game) in an order other than the chronological recording date.
Similarly, a client is unlikely to stipulate or consider every characteristic for every job; some may be irrelevant or wholly neutral. But each piece of work will likely have key characteristics which define the sound of the voice. Those criteria will help identify the most appropriate voice artist and help to direct them.
The above list, however, does illustrate some of the variables and working through it may help you interrogate your thoughts and firm up a project in your own mind.
Sometimes defining by absence can help too: you may not quite know how to express what you want, but you may know what you don’t want.
About the author
David Lloyd is a radio consultant and broadcaster, former radio executive and local TV chairman. His latest book ‘Radio Secrets’: An insider’s guide into presenting and producing powerful content for broadcast and podcast has just been published.