Vocal Gears for Distinct, Sustainable Character Voices
Many of us have pivoted towards more VO and animation work during the pandemic. Here’s a summary of 8 vocal gear areas my students tweak to help them create new, distinct, and sustainable character voices.
This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a structured starting point to help you more systematically think through which elements of your vocal apparatus can provide the characteristic vocal traits that define your role. Though listing the various levers in this way can give the impression that these things are necessarily independent, they are not. In voice, things are often tied to each other in a complex web. For instance, how you position your tongue will influence where in your face you tend to resonate a particular sound. How you release your air can influence how you valve at your vocal folds and vice versa. Additionally, I’ve marked some gears below with an asterisk (*) to indicate where an extended application of that adjustment will require caution and know-how, in the interest of your long-term vocal health. These gears come with varying levels of vocal risk, and I am not recommending them all to you here, simply because they exist on this list. Rather, I suggest you learn to selectively implement them with inputs from your voice team, based on where you are in your vocal journey.
1) Pitch and intonation:
Is the average fundamental frequency (F0) of the character’s spoken voice higher, lower or similar to your own voice? Higher can read as more intense, having more drive, excitable; very low and slow can read as slightly dopey, depressed, thoughtful.
If modifying average speaking pitch, are you modifying it with other adjustments to the length of your vocal tract? E.g., raised larynx* may read younger (pre-pubescent children have a shorter tract before their larynx drops). Lengthening your tube with more fronted embouchure (pucker, lips rounded forward – the opposite of a spread position) can help round off your timbre for deeper voiced characters you need to play.
For those with the ability to stabilize the vertical position of your larynx across pitch changes, decide if your higher pitched character talks with a raised or neutralized larynx – you’ll find they are quite different in personality.
Are there discernable intonation patterns of pitch slides up or down across sentences? Do a lot of sentences go up in pitch (think SoCal Valley stereotype), or down? Or are sentences relatively monotone in that they don’t vary a great deal in pitch?
Does the character often emphasize certain words with pitch changes? Many pitch changes can indicate a certain intensity, drive, or excitability, while characters with natural power and stature often don’t need to assert themselves in this way and expect their under-stated, more even-keeled intonation to be well-understood by people around them.
Is your character fluent in a tonal language that might influence the way they intonate across other languages?
Average pitch changes as we age. Aside from the changes we associate with puberty, human females report a decrease in average F0 post menopause, while elderly males report an increase with age.
2) Related to pitch are the average frequency range and vocal registration of the character:
Is the character much more limited in range? E.g., a mousey, smaller creature might be largely limited to the upper registers of your voice. If your character is a lot more repressed than you are, you may choose to limit them to the lower parts of your voice.
Modern day Americans tend to speak mostly in our chest registers. This was not the case across human history. Does the period and setting of the show require that you move between registers more or that you stay in your head register more?
Can a fictional species conceivably always be in head or fry register? Or to not even experience the concept of separate registers in the voice (requires good mixing ability)?
3) Pacing and speed of words:
Speed is a useful lever in conveying age. If you’re a fast talker, slowing down slightly can reverse age you into a more innocent, younger version of you. If you’re generally even keeled and calm in your own expression, speeding up your pace can make you appear younger.
Speed can also convey psychological state: E.g., slowness associated with depression, very sped up with almost manic and bouncing off the walls.
Speed can also change your energy state: E.g., whether you’re tired/sleepy, or whether you’re at your caffeinated peak level of exuberance.
Speed can often also be perceived as a proxy for intelligence.
4) Flow and vocal fold valving:
Is your character’s phonation pressed* or flowy or neutral? Intense personalities may drive* their voices more heavily and loudly (with more vocal effort), without necessarily providing a corresponding increase in flow. Flowy-ness and airiness can convey a certain openness, even vulnerability. Ease in vocal effort can convey power, stature, calmness. (Habituated pressed phonation comes at a vocal cost.)
Health and vocal health are often conveyed through valving choices as well: E.g., a long-term smoker with COPD may have some roughness you can mimic with incomplete glottal closure. (See also the tongue section below on how it may be possible to convey some roughness more safely with the back of your tongue, rather than your vocal folds.) Likewise, a person with existing vocal pathology may have more effortful phonation where they talk harder, yet have air leaking through their folds.
In a weakened state of injury or ill health, one’s flow is often compromised – it can be far weaker than normal, and the phrase lengths can also become much shorter. There may also not be enough energy for extended periods of full glottal closure.
Don't forget that non-vocal-fold constriction choices on the inhale can convey quite a bit of information as well. Does your character wheeze when they inhale because of chronic respiratory disease? How deep and audible is this wheeze? How loud is your character inhaling as a result of sustained exertion? How fit or unfit are they? Or are they trying to conceal their need to gasp for air? Where in your vocal tract can you constrict on the inhale to approximate such wheezing or breathlessness (bearing in mind the physical size of the character you're playing)? It often shocks my students how many places they can rattle above the vocal folds if they let themselves explore while breathing in. There are some awesome sounds to be made on the inhale -- try to work systematically from the nose down.
As mentioned in the pitch section, you can make choices relating to the vertical position of your larynx*. Lowering your larynx can be associated with dullness, or being cartoonishly depressed (think Eeyore). Raising the larynx* shortens the vocal tract, creating brighter, more piercing sounds, often conveying youthful energy, exuberance, excitement, though it can also inadvertently encourage you (and habituate you) into pressing your vocal folds together with more effort.
Some characters see intermittent flow, creating a bleat-like tremolo effect. Continuity and smoothness of flow may also be impacted under various circumstances, such as when the character is extremely nervous, or breathless.
Although this drives some people and voice teachers crazy, some characters may have a tendency to end many of their sentences with severely attenuated breath energy, to the point of ending their sentences in vocal fry.
Pay attention to the onsets of your sentences, in particular beginnings of phrases that begin with a vowel sound. Real-life people (and characters) tend to begin certain sounds with some degree of consistency, unless they've been conditioned otherwise. Onsets are determined by how you close your vocal folds together at the first moment when phonation begins relative to the airflow passing through them. If you are a trained singer, you might know the differences between a hard/glottal onset*, an aspirate onset, and a balanced onset. You may have even worked very hard to get rid of an overly hard onset, or an overly aspirate one. Yet, not every character can believably have a balanced onset at all times. You'll have to decide what applies for your character and balance that need with whether you can put in the effort to work particular onsets into (and then out of) your voice, and whether you're in a place vocally to add more glottal effort during the course of your show (if yours is a longer-term performance).
It's important to make a distinction between what you're able to execute in a limited number performances vs. what can carry over from your character to become habituated in your own voice. It's also helpful to have an understanding of and honesty (with yourself) about what feels good on your voice, and what doesn't, so that you spend your vocal dollars wisely and with restraint. For long-term vocal health, it's vital that you take steps for recovery and exercise outside the recording booth using recommendations from your voice team to maintain a balanced instrument.
Understand that some humans we may seek to portray do experience roughness in their voice because of the ways they've been habituated to close their vocal folds* (and often, due to the presence of pathology), but consider using other techniques other than vocal fold valving to achieve an approximation of roughness – see items (7) and (8) on this list, for example, if you want to make a more sustainable sound at lower vocal cost. The vocal folds need not be the only source of vibrations. Beat box artists have a great deal to show us in this arena.
5) Physical manifestations of character’s attitude and personality. Though some VO projects involve only audio recordings, know that the way sound emits from you is tied to the postures and positions worn by parts of your body. That is, your sound will change as you physically inhabit the life experiences and the attitudes of the characters you play; a full-body performance is usually more believable:
Continue to let your face tell the story. Is your character open, warm, what-you-see-is-what-you-get? Do they smile easily? Sound may come out more readily in those instances than someone who is guarded or whose face is constantly convulsed or scrunched up, or whose mouths barely open (think Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). Your facial expressions can often impact the acoustic signature of the sound you are making.
Allow the intentions, effort, physical posture and even stature of your character to inform the way you hold your body and face (to a point). Trust that this will read through your audio.
Take cues from the script for your posture, and be conscious of how it should change as actions play out.
Take cues from character descriptions and audition breakdowns: E.g., does the character have a chip on the front tooth? Are they hunched over? Are they in pain? Where is the pain and how might that affect the way you operate your voice?
6) Where in your head are you resonating?
Is there largely oral only resonance? Mostly nasal? Or a blend? If aiming for more nasalance, are you achieving this through flow alone, or is your vocal tract shorter because your larynx is raised?
Is the sound energy focused around the front of the face (how high in the face?) vs. back of mouth? If the sound is pivoted forward, is it more direct (straight out of the mouth), or does it take a slightly longer path (E.g., up and over)?
If as a singer, you understand the concepts of squillo, singing in the masque, or the singer’s formant from pharyngeal space, you can choose to selectively apply those filter choices cin speech under lower breath pressure, allowing you to vary the strength of your overtones.
Modify the above through the control of your soft palette, velo-pharyngeal opening (VPO), pharyngeal width, height of the back of your tongue, even height of your larynx.
7) Tongue and articulation: Because the tongue is fundamental to the way we articulate, it can often be a go-to lever in building character voices. Fairly simple adjustments can help you find a ‘characteristic trait’:
Chronic touching of the tip of tongue to an unusual part of your mouth – E.g., to the side of one cheek, or up against the hard palette, can create interesting lisp-type effects.
Always high back of the tongue – raising back of the tongue to graze the backmost molars of your top teeth can often brighten up your sound.
Imagining that your tongue is swollen in some way and can’t quite get out of the way can consistently modify your articulation for a character. Or help you achieve the sounds associated with talking with your mouth full.
How much space you give your tongue: try talking while barely opening your mouth, and then try talking while keeping your lower jaw more dropped than normal. Find a choice in-between or at these extremes for your character. The degree of jaw opening is one gear people often forget they can tweak.
Tongue tension* is what singers spend a lot of time working out of their voices, but if used carefully and sprinkled into your work very occasionally, can help add additional story layers to your character – E.g., if the front half of the tongue is clenched or drawn slightly back from the front teeth, and never at rest, even in-between consonant articulation, the tension and strain will be subtextually conveyed to the listener. Whereas the absence of tongue tension can convey ease, confidence, and calm. And visiting the opposite end from tongue tension -- where you let your tongue do too little and be under-reactive (as though someone had botoxed it) -- can create effects of slurring, intoxication, sedation (i.e., when your brain is under the influence of a depressant), as in the case of the 'tongue is swollen' example above.
Articulation choices: does the character tend to over or under articulate in general? Or are only certain words over-articulated or slurred? Are there particular patterns you can create to distinguish a character – for instance, always proceeding to the second vowel of the diphthong and lingering there, or barely pronouncing the second part of the diphthong? Are certain consonants more emphasized for this character? E.g., guttural sounds, or plosives? Often, it’s easier to find articulation choices from the intent of the character, and what they are trying to achieve at a given moment.
Imperfect articulations: remember that real people don't always talk smoothly. They stumble, they repeat things, they have false starts. And they might do more of these things under pressure.
Roughness with high back of tongue + fronting of the tongue: this brings your sound forward, with some roughness in timbre, if the tongue is positioned so that there’s a constricted space between the top of the tongue and the roof of your mouth. This can be helpful for characters with a bit of an ‘edge.’ This may be one of the safer ways to create roughness for when the direction requires some ‘noise’ or texture in the sound.
8) Turbulence from constrictions elsewhere in the tract to achieve roughness, noise and additional timbre effects. Some of these can be harder to pull off because they’re less easy for you to perceive than the tongue constriction method above, and they involve parts of the apparatus not ordinarily visible to us. Some types of constriction can also encourage more vocal fold adduction, which can lead to more wear and tear on your voice and/or muscular tension in your larynx if habituated, so proceed with caution, and with guidance from your voice team:
Velum / soft palette rattle: reversed snorts while phonating
Vibrations involving pharyngeal constriction*, base of tongue*, or even epiglottis*
False Vocal Folds*
Your teacher can help you access these noise effects first through inhalation, when you’re not phonating.
Hopefully the above can inspire you to make bold and varied choices in your auditions and work, while balancing your long-term vocal health.
p/s: Ask Bern about warm-ups, exercises you can use in-between recording sessions, and tips on how to approach a busy recording day, to help your voice keep functioning optimally. There are also fatigue tests you can use to determine if a particular character voice is costing you more vocal dollars than you may be able to sustain over an extended period.
Students report a few useful applications of the above list:
A. Make a template (see download link at the end of the post) with which you log interesting real-life or character voices you come across. Use the template to help you pinpoint what makes that voice unique and interesting to your ear. Once you’ve built up a library, you will have a reference you can turn to the next time you’re searching for a new character voice.
B. When developing a voice for an audition / show, use the list to determine which are the main levers you’d like to employ, using cues from the script and breakdown. Pay attention to what can be done sustainably, if the role might be an extended one. Also, bear in mind that the best VO actors find their niche – what comes more naturally to them. E.g., do they generally play younger or adorable characters? Or are low-voiced villains and deep announcer-type voices their bread and butter? Most of us tend to specialize. The adage about knowing (and therefore leveraging) your 'type' in the acting world applies in this world as well (and face a certain degree of pushback as well from people who feel pigeonholed). Identify the vocal gears that you find yourself tweaking more easily and safely and leverage those.
C. In breaking down your script while playing multiple characters in a single show, keep your characters distinct from each other by maintaining a voice profile (on paper/electronically) for each character, using the template of vocal gears/descriptors. Write down the few keywords that define vocal characteristics of that role, so that they come to you easily mid-performance. (E.g., airy flow, hard-palette lisp, intonation goes up.) Seasoned VO artists often advise color-coding or marking up their scripts well, so that it’s very apparent which voice you’re supposed to be in, if the transitions happen quickly.
Download an editable character voice template here: