Let’s talk about microphone technique! As voice actors we can do so many wonderful things just by playing around with our body position in relation to the microphone. In real life, we don’t always speak at the same level or the same position in space.
When I see my cat rolling around in the dirt outside before he comes into the house, I might whisper underneath my breath, “Oh my God, you dirty cat…” And if I lose my keys, I might get loud and high pitched and turn my head towards the ceiling, “Oh my God, where are my keys!” When we’re recording our voice-overs, we have the opportunity to replicate the various ways we use our voice in real-life.
Before we get into the techniques themselves, I need to point out that it’s much easier to perform mic techniques with a cardioid microphone. Shotgun microphones are not as versatile or forgiving when it comes to body positioning around the mic. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, or you want to learn more about the best microphones for voice actors, check out this series of articles that explain everything you need to know about VO mics.
First things first, let’s talk about typical body positioning in relation to the mic. Many sources say you should be about 12 inches away from the microphone. That may be true for larger spaces, but most of us work in smaller spaces. In small spaces, you’ll typically end up being closer to your mic—about a hand-width away. You’ll change this distance when using some of the microphone techniques below, but in general you’ll be pretty close up if you’re in a small recording space.
While we’re thinking about our distance from the mic, I should mention pop screens (or pop filters). When I record, I use two pop screens in front of my mic. The one closest to me is made of a metal mesh, and it’s really good at preventing popping P’s. (Stay tuned for another blog on that topic soon.)
The second screen is made of nylon. Nylon by itself isn’t great at preventing popping P’s, but it’s good at keeping moisture from hitting the microphone—much better than a metal filter. This will prevent residue accumulating on your mic’s sensitive diaphragm and help preserve its recording quality for years to come. So, that’s why I use two pop filters.
Projection and Volume
When we talk about different volumes of speech, we often use the term projection. Projection comes from theater—when you’re on stage, you need to project your voice all the way to the back of the theater so everyone can hear. In the voice acting industry, a director or engineer will say “project more” or “project less.” It just means speak louder or speak quieter.
When using different mic techniques, keep the recording level in mind. This is the level on the audio device you’re using to record. For instance, I use a preamp. At my normal speaking level, its knob is set to 12 o’clock. The more I project, the more I need to turn the level down. The less I project, the more I turn the level up.
However, when we’re performing, we might mix it up. We’ll project more, then project less, and that means we can’t always adjust the knob while we’re performing. Just make sure you’re not peaking in areas where you’re projecting more. You might also have to go back during post-production and bring up the volume in areas where you projected less (using the amplify function in your editing software).
Let’s move on to today’s 3 tips! Remember, what we’re trying to do is accurately replicate natural speech. Keep that in mind as you play around with these techniques.
Technique #1 — The Lean-In
The lean-in, or intimate read, is really simple—you just lean into your microphone and get as close as you possibly can. Lower your voice to a point just above a whisper. Don’t actually whisper, because whispering doesn’t read very well in voice acting—you always need a little bit of voice. So, try to speak as low as you possibly can, while still emitting sound.
You can use the lean-in for many different kinds of scripts—not just in video games and animation, but in narrations and all kinds of other situations too. Use it to emphasize something, to make a joke or an aside, or as a sort of vocal “wink.” I find this technique so much fun to play with!
Let’s look at a little script where we can use the lean-in technique: a radio commercial with a character in it. These are great opportunities to find places to lean in. I’ll use italics to show you a spot to try the lean-in.
“Hi! It’s me again. The stain on your favorite jeans. You know, the really stinky greasy one from three washes ago? Cheese fries ring a bell? I’m still around. I’m not going anywhere for a while. Maybe forever. So, if you wanted to just, you know, accept that. Because we belong.”
As you can see, I chose a few places to lean in. Get creative and have fun trying different variations when you record additional takes!
Technique #2 — Speaking Off Mic
This is a powerful technique you can use to indicate your position in the room, or to show that you’re speaking with a character who is at a certain distance from you (say, in another room).
In the script we’ve been looking at, the scriptwriter has put the word “background” in parentheses before the next line:
“(Background) Am I still here?”
This tells us it’s a good moment to go off mic. The speaker is in the background wondering if she’s been taken away. Since she’s a stain on a pair of jeans, maybe she’s been thrown in the washing machine! In this case, you could go completely off mic—you know, literally get under your desk. Or you could go way off, as far as you can. Try it: elongate your words as if you’re under a heavy pile of clothes trying to be heard.
If you use this technique (or any technique that dramatically changes your position) for an audition, keep in mind that at some point, the listener is going to need to hear your normal voice straight on to the mic in your normal speaking position. Just make sure you do that at some point, and have fun with the rest!
Here’s another script where I could be starting outside the room, then coming in and trying to get my partner’s attention.
“[Off mic] Honey, have you seen the Clorox? [Normal] I really need the Clorox. [Leaning in] Do you know where it is?”
Here we’re mixing up the techniques of being off mic, and then doing the lean in. We’ve made it very dynamic and a lot more fun.
Life noises is bringing all the things that we do in real life into the recording. Breathing sounds, grunts, squeals, etc. When done right, these things make your recording really dynamic and engaging.
For example, we could have a character who’s out of breath and asking for a glass of water. We could start off mic, then get out of breath, and then continue breathing fast. The original lines might simply be: Can I have a glass of water? But if we add the real-life element of being out of breath, a few more things might pop up, like stuttering and the little noises we make when we’re out of breath and thirsty:
“Oh, woo! Oh, wow. Can, can I have a glass of water?”
Adding those dynamic life noises makes it so much more interesting than just reading the line “Can I have a glass of water?” The more you can bring these real-life elements into your recordings—especially when you’re recording characters—the more your reads will stand out. Even in a straight narration, you can sometimes throw bit of real life into it.
Any time you’re doing life noises, play around with your position around the microphone. It might sound better when you’re a bit farther from the mic or a bit closer.
As with other techniques, just make sure you come back to normal at some point so the listener can hear what you actually sound like.
Lastly, Have Fun!
These are a few of my tips for playing around with your microphone technique. They can add the extra dynamic and realism that makes your voice acting stand out. And don’t forget the fun factor—we should enjoy our work! Take a risk, have fun!
If you have any questions or comments, share them in the comments section. I love interacting with you and getting to know you. I’ll see you next time!