When we wear them, they make us look and feel like proper professional voice over artists, but are our headphones doing our performance more harm than good?
A few years ago I was doing a voice over at an audio post company in Soho (the über cool capital of the creative media world in London) when the director startled me with a radical suggestion. He advised me to take off my headphones. What? I was shocked, why on earth would a VO talent want to do that? Ever since my days in hospital radio I had worn 'cans'; they helped me connect with the words on the page and make me feel an intrinsic part of the production. If there was dialogue or music on the soundtrack, I could hear it clearly and immerse myself in the atmosphere of the piece.
Headphones allowed me to enter a different world and to remove them was like disconnecting me from the job I was being paid to do. But unbeknown to me at the time, this was one of those rare defining moments in a career that make you question everything you know .... or thought you knew.
Why did the director make this counterintuitive recommendation?
He explained to me that I was concentrating too much on my voice. Like many voice over folks, I assumed what we did was all about the voice. We did exactly what it said on the tin, provided a voice over a project whether that was narration, a commercial, business piece or whatever. As he explained, clients wanted their scripts brought to life; they knew we had the voice (that is why we are booked in the first place), but it is what you do once you get behind the mic that is the critical factor. As Rose C a voice over talent from Wyoming says, acting naturally occurs in 95% of VO jobs.
Having your voice amplified and fed back directly into your ears takes you away from the words on the page and distracts you from the job in hand. There is a tendency, he said, for voice actors to become overly concerned with the sound of their voices at the expense of meaning. The listener might like a nice voice, but they don't want it to be so overwhelming that it eclipses the substance of the script.
So I cut the umbilical cord and gained a new freedom.
When I removed the 'phones I discovered something about myself: I had been using them as a prop. I felt safe cocooned in my own voice over world. I could hear my voice loud and clear and I could work on the nuances of intonation, energy and cadence, but I had fallen into the trap of putting my vocal performance first and relegating the words to second place. It dawned on me that my vocal cords were merely an instrument to be used to create an image in the listener's head.
Should you go naked?
Sometimes you have to wear headphones. If you are using ISDN or you are at a studio and the director needs to speak to you over talkback then your cans will be essential. Likewise when I am doing my live TV continuity announcing I need to be able to hear the programme sound for dipping so that my voice is not drowned out by the music. However if you are recording from home on your own then there is no requirement to wear them.
You will discover not wearing headphones will prove a very liberating experience. You won't become obsessed with the sound of your own voice; the imperfections in your voice (such as breathiness or lip smacks and dry mouth) will not be amplified in your ears allowing you to concentrate on the script reading.
Ah, but you are probably thinking you need to hear blips and mistakes on the recording. That is true, but checking these during playback is preferable so it won't throw you off track during your voice over performance. Breaths and mouth clicks, for example, have a nasty habit of distracting the mind during a read resulting in a less than convincing delivery.
There is a compromise, though. If you feel you need the support and reassurance of having your ears encased in foam, why not take the middle way. Try one headphone cup on and the other off. I sometimes do this to give me the best of both worlds.
By all means wear headphones when you absolutely have to, but I firmly believe you will benefit from putting them to one side when doing the vast majority of voice over recordings. Trust your own ears to help give you a natural performance.
What do you think? Do you feel too naked without your cans?