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

Vocal Strain

SURVIVING VIDEO GAME RECORDS:

Okay, let’s assume you have good acting ability. But what about vocal stress or damage? How do you manage or avoid hurting yourself?

A voice actor learns over time how to get more expression and power from their voice with less work and strain. As you become more familiar with our vocal instrument, more relaxed 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. Aside from this, you can also protect your voice while delivering the vocal goods by helping to manage a tough voice over session: 

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.

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. Limits on session duration or stress may be negotiable at this point, though this is not typical. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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. If you’re in the middle of a difficult part that’s too much vocally, ask to circle back and finish it later in the session.

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). 

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.

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.

You do not just stand there and passively perform. 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 or has the wrong intent.

The more clear the details are for you, the longer your voice will last and the less time you waste. If you need to, discuss this 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. I understand the desire to please the employer by doing whatever they ask, but you must 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 the mic level to get a good take that you won’t have to do over.

Having to re-record a blown take doubles the voice strain and cuts effective performance time. Some engineers are brilliant at anticipating this kind of thing, some not so much.

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.

In some cases 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 worked with voice actors before.

This may be a session where the 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. 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 wipes out your voice and leaves them without what they need, that is their issue. 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 protect your voice.

9 Responses »

  1. Wise words indeed. There’s a fear we have as actors that expressing when we’re uncomfortable with a certain piece of direction or concerned about vocal fatigue, will jeopardize that or future gigs. We have to learn that taking care of ourselves is paramount. And learning to express our needs diplomatically, but firmly, helps all parties in the long run. (I had to chuckle at not so distant negotiations where a $100 fine was implemented for vocally stressful sessions you’re not forewarned of: No actor is going to risk future gigs from that employer for an extra $100. And that sum won’t bring my voice back for this afternoon’s session, either)

  2. Hi dee!

    I’ve been having some problem with my voice. I used to have nodes, and they are gone now, but …I lose my voice quite often.

  3. What should a voice actor do if they are prone to losing their voice in general?

    • Seek advice from a good singing/vocal teacher. You need to find a way to perform without damaging your voice. I found this with a great singing teacher and lots of live performing experience.

  4. […] is there a special vocal warmup you do to get yourself ready a session to do a bunch of large creature stuff?

  5. You mentioned that the video game gigs last around four hours. Is that four hours and it’s completely ‘done’, “see you at the debut” or, ‘done’ as in “ok, that’s act 1. See you in a week for the 2nd half”?

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2017
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