Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Vocal Strain


Okay, let’s assume you have good acting ability. But what about vocal stress or damage? How do you manage or avoid hurting yourself when asked to do vocally punishing or stressful work?

A voice actor learns from training and experience how to get more expression and power from their voice with less work and strain. As you become more familiar with our vocal instrument, you deliver your work with greater relaxation and you learn how to avoid vocal choices that damage your voice or that are unsustainable for any amount of time. 

Good singing instruction or other vocal training can be of help in strengthening your voice and helping you find optimal placement of your vocal workload. You cultivate an awareness of fatigue that allows you to back off before things get bad, rather than pushing through to vocal injury. You also learn how to wind down a tired voice. For me, my singing training was invaluable in many ways.

In addition to this, you can also protect your voice while delivering the vocal goods by stepping up and helping to manage a tough voice over session in many ways: 

Video game voice acting can be rough!

Video game VO can be great fun but it is typically the most vocally stressful form of voice acting. It often involves repeated screaming, roaring, being killed, taking damage sounds and battle efforts, in non-stop solo sessions that usually last four hours.

“Throat ripper” is a term often applied to some gaming gigs. It’s the kind of work that could damage your voice and leave you unable to audition or work for days or even weeks.

Some performers might fear that if they express concern for their vocal safety in a session they could “blow the gig” or come off as a “whiney actor.” But it turns out that protecting your voice is as important to you as it is to the producers on the other side of the glass. It is in fact your responsibility. 

With a video game gig, you should have an idea of what you’re in for.

Before you get to the session, your agent should have had a discussion with casting director/producers about what is in store for you vocally. If not have your agent get specifics on what’s in store at the session. Limits on session duration or stress may be negotiable at this point, though not always. In any case, you should have some idea of what kind of vocal strain you can expect. If you aren’t up for the punishment ahead, politefully decline the gig.

Realize it is in everyone’s interest– especially the producer’s–that you speak up and protect your voice.

Here’s a metaphor: Think of your voice as a high performance race car and you are the driver/owner. Your employer is the race sponsor/racetrack designer. The gig is the race.

The sponsor relies on your expertise to finish this race and finish it well– that is the common goal. This can’t be done with a damaged car or disabled driver. You have the responsibility as the car’s driver to work with the sponsor and pit crew (sound engineer) to keep the car safe and running through the race’s end. You are doing the sponsor a favor by speaking up with safety concerns as the race unfolds. This is how you deliver the needed performance.

When you speak up to address vocal strain concerns, you are not only protecting your livelihood, you are helping the producers protect their investment in hiring you. It’s not an adversarial or “whiney” stance. You are being professional and helpful to the process.

Start the session by mapping out the arc of your voice session with producers.

Right up front, plot out with producers want they want you to do and where to place the “heavy lifting” voice work in the time you are recording. They are typically flexible on the sequence of what is recorded. Make sure you get the overall story and tone of the character(s) you will be voicing. Ask to see any drawings or animations beforehand as well. What are the archetypes (movies, actors, characters, comics) that help define the tone of this project and your role? Is there screaming, dying, fighting or anything else that can be vocally stressful?

The clearer you are about all these specifics, the easier it is to map out your session’s work load and the fewer retakes you will have to do, saving your voice unnecessary strain.

Request to record the punishing stuff at the end of the session. If it’s a rough session, maybe try scheduling it on a Friday.

Your voice is comprised of muscles that can be blown out or damaged from overuse just like a leg or elbow. Protect it!

Request that the more strenuous vocal work (screams, dying, roaring, etc) be at the end of the session, otherwise you won’t be able to deliver what they want of the rest of the session. It’s also an option to space it out over time, sandwiching it between less punishing vocal work.

If possible, keep all-out screams confined to a single take and make sure the engineers levels are set before you begin blasting away. If you’re in the middle of a difficult part that’s too stressful, ask to circle back and finish it later in the session. None of this makes you look weak or whiny. To the contrary- your awareness shows you are a pro, as it shows you have the session’s interest at heart!

This isn’t just protecting your voice but making it more possible for you to finish the work in a single session. If you blow out your voice early, producers may have to bring you in for another session (and pay for it). No one wants that. 

Keep the session efficient and safe for you by moving on after they have what they need.

Endlessly repeated multiple takes after they actually have what they need also wastes time and voice. It’s up to you to helpfully suggest that they let you know when they have it so everyone can move on. Sometimes they need just one “select,” sometimes they need a menu of choices, but why waste time and voice giving more than they need? 

If they’ve been having you do three takes of every line “for choices” and your voice is wearing out, suggest two or one take instead of the typical three for every line. Often the performer can deliver a useable line in fewer takes than three takes.

To be clear, games often need multiple useable takes of a single line or utterance to add variety to the repetition of gameplay, but just repeating lines after they actually have enough is counter productive (or, to use our metaphor, it’s wasting precious fuel).

Be an active partner in steering and breaking this drag race.

Don’t be shy! You must step up and work with the producers and engineer to minimize vocal damage and maximize session efficiency. You do this by checking in constantly with the show producers so you know exactly what they want as well as with the engineers so they know to adjust for your performance level.

A pro does not just stand there and passively perform and take orders. An actor must actively help navigate the session.

Make sure they are specific on what they want. 

Be clear on the duration and specific details needed from you for each take so that you don’t waste your voice giving them three takes of a yell that has too much presence (too loud) or is too long or short in duration or has the wrong intent. Let’s get the clear direction up front first (this may require you stopping the record to ask, which is perfectly fine). It’s actually saving everyone time!

The more clear the details are for you, the quicker you can deliver what’s needed and longer your voice will last and the more efficient your session will be.

If you need to, discuss details in tone, action, subtext, etc. with the producer before each new section. Don’t waste the “gas in the tank.”

Let them know if you need a break or it’s too hard on the voice.

Give a heads up if you are feeling too much strain or are losing your voice so you can take a break, have some herbal tea perhaps, try a section a bit less strenuous. You will find they are almost always sympathetic and glad to accommodate.

I understand the desire to please the employer by doing whatever they ask, but as I say elsewhere, you are here to create and deliver a professional session. You should not hesitate to give a little push back if the session is going wrong or they are asking too much or too soon. 

Again, it is up to you as the artist to help regulate the pace of the session in a helpful way so that you can get them what they need.

Give the engineer a heads up on volume.

If you are about to do something particularly loud, give the engineer a heads up so s/he can crank crank up the compression or lower your mic level to get a good take that you won’t have to do over. Some engineers need more pro active heads up than others.

Don’t assume because it’s all in caps with three exclamation points that the engineer will get this and automatically lower the sound levels!  Some engineers are brilliant at anticipating this kind of thing, some not so much.

Having to re-record a blown take doubles the voice strain and cuts effective performance time.

Often for the most vocally challenging sections in games, you are not working with specific lines in a script, so they can’t know what you’re going to do! Let them know!

Protect yourself so they can get what they need.

It’s the worst:

In some rare cases (at least rare in on a union gig) what they think they want may be just too much to deliver. You have a producer who just wants you to scream and yell constantly and nothing else and they have no understanding or appreciation of your situation or the limits of the human voice. These are typically inexperienced people who probably haven’t worked with voice actors before. 

This may be a session where they think they are going to save money by not having a voice director, who should be managing the workload and protecting you.

Be helpful, be polite, but don’t let them make you feel you need to shred your voice. That is counter productive for everyone. If you are approaching your limit, say so. If you’ve reached your limit, say so. If they want to pay you your session fee for a half hour session that had to be cut short that wipes out your voice and leaves them without what they need, that is their issue. But don’t allow it to go so far that it damages your voice.

You alone have the power to deliver the goods and the responsibility to proactively protect your voice as the session unfolds.

11 Responses »

  1. Hey you answered up here that you dont really warm up.
    As a singer with experience, I can get that, because the muscles are just warm from doing it over and over. But let me ask, do you not do any stretch/exercise to open up the “chambers” or the “air columns” inside your throat so its easier to create the tonal sounds you do?[…]

‹ Older Comments

Leave a Reply

© Dee Bradley Baker 2023

%d bloggers like this: