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VO and Narration: Creating Different Vocal Characters

Voice over training can open up a wide range of acting opportunities. Commercial and theatrical voice over, dubbing, audiobook narration, radio plays, podcasting–the list goes on. Some actors center their entire careers around voice work. But whether it’s your primary focus or a portion of your career, the skills needed for good voice work are essential tools for any actor. One of the first and most complex of those skills is being able to create consistent and nuanced vocal characters. Most actors can manage a few differing vocal choices off the bat. But certain projects, such as audiobooks, will require many different distinct vocal characters and the ability to quickly switch between them. But how to create a host of characters to pull from? Here are some foundational concepts to build from.

Vocal health. The first thing you’ll want to be mindful of is keeping your tool strong. Vocal work can take an incredible amount of stamina and athleticism. Moreover, mics will pick up everything. Any congestion, fatigue, mouth noises, will betray you immediately. Hydration is key to maintaining vocal health, as well as clarity in the recording booth. Before your gig, avoid dairy, coffee, sugary drinks, anything that will dry out or gum up the works. Water and non-caffeinated tea are your friends. For long sessions, bringing a green apple is a handy hack. An occasional bite can help as a quick fix to clear your mouth and boost clarity.

Proper vocal warmups before every gig are essential. Not only will they make sure your range and diction are ready to go, they will help prevent vocal fatigue and injury. Be mindful of vocal choices that push from your throat as opposed to being supported by your breath. They may sound interesting, but they will wear out your voice and become unsustainable for longer projects.

Pitch. Pitch is one of the first building blocks of vocal character. Especially if you’re creating characters that talk to each other or soon after one another, varying the base pitch of their voices will help instantly differentiate them in the listener’s mind. Being able to access a range of sustainable vocal pitches is also vastly dependent on the kind of consistent vocal warmups and exercises you engage in. Pitch comes with many societal connotations. Think about what kinds of character traits come to mind when you think of very low voices versus very high voices. Leaning into that audience shorthand can help quickly sketch a character. On the other hand, subverting those expectations can be used to disquiet, delight, endear or alienate. Having command of a wide range of pitch will go a long way toward expanding your go-to vocal characters.

Pace. Pitch is great, but everyone only has so many levels they can access consistently. Pace is another fundamental layer you can add to differentiate characters, or give one character nuance. The pace at which your character speaks can tell an audience a lot about how they move through the world, how they are used to being treated, their age, the authority they hold, etc.

Texture. Once you have your character’s basic pitch and pace down, it’s time to add texture. How breathy is your character? Do they favor chest or head voice? What habits might influence the texture of their voice? For example, a hint of gravel can be used to indicate age, a history of smoking, a life spent outdoors, or any other number of character traits.

Age. Aging your character up or down is another quick way to differentiate and build a more well rounded world of characters. It is also a good way to subvert expectations or establish an emotional connection with the audience, depending on how you use it.

Vocal Placement. Where you place your vocal choices in your mouth is a subtle change you can make that can have a great effect on your character. Speaking from the back of your throat, the side of your mouth, up in your nasal cavity, will have a huge effect on the personality of your voice, and is a choice you can make without straining your vocal chords. Specificity and consistency are key. Practice building your awareness of where peoples’ voices live. Experiment with keeping all other components of a character’s voice the same and just altering where you place it. It can be surprising how much it changes the character!

Body Posture. Don’t forget the rest of your body! It may sound weird, but changing your physical attitude will read over the mic. Your body is a huge factor in informing your vocal choices, and just because it isn’t seen doesn’t mean it’s not still at play. Don’t act from the neck up!

Dialect. Depending on your character’s history or location, dialect work can be a beautiful storytelling tool. However, it definitely requires research, practice, and specificity. If you are creating a lot of characters for one project and are running out of vocal choices, throwing in a dialect (as long as it makes sense for the world of the story), is a great way to add interest and range to the auditory landscape.

Quick Character Types. When you’re asked to create many distinct characters on the fly, it can be hugely helpful to have a cast of character cues to draw from. Find characters and actors whose vocal characteristics you quickly and easily mimic and riff off. If you panic, it can help get the gears grinding to pull up your best Katherine Hepburn, James Earl Jones, Billy Crystal, etc. and go from there.

There are infinite nuances to consider when developing your vocal characters. As with any other acting, doing your research and actor homework are essential. Specificity, consistency and a willingness to play will set you on the right path.

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