The Vocal Martial Art: Help for Extreme VO Performers

Everyone knows that video gaming is big business, and a sizeable proportion of games are categorized as “fighting,” “shooter,” or “action.” As the gaming industry grows—it’s already larger than movies and music and expanding faster than both—more and more actors are getting hired to voice characters who are engaged in some kind of combat or danger.

Just as real fighting, torture, and other traumas can damage the throat, so too can the sound effects of their recreation. The NY Times recently published a feature on the vocal challenges involved in this growing slice of the acting profession. The prestigious Journal of Voice is about to publish my editorial pleading for more occupational research on violent VO, and I’ve heard that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may finally take an interest. But physical stunt performers struggled for a long time to get safety protection from the worst risks to life and limb, and it will probably take awhile longer for gaming producers to accept that vocal cords are neither made of steel nor as replaceable as pixels.

In the meantime, here are some tips that can help actors survive this Xtreme end of the VO biz.

  • Seek humidity wherever you can. The quickest culprit in vocal fatigue is typically dryness, and this is especially true for heavy breathing (running/fighting EFX/REAX), talking on inhalation, and any other distortions that use extra airflow. Dry vocal surfaces don’t vibrate well, cause sudden dropouts, and make you want to cough (which doesn’t help). Hydration­—the water that you drink—absolutely helps the cords stay healthy, but not as quickly as moisture in the air.
    • At every possible break, breathe through your nose (it’s nature’s humidifier).
    • Keep a steaming thermos near you and don’t just sip the beverage: inhale the vapor. Don’t bother with fancy recipes; plain hot water is fine.funnel hat mug
    • My favorite hack: grab a plastic kitchen funnel, turn it upside down like the Tin Woodsman’s hat on top of your thermos or mug, and suck the steam between takes.
    • Take a long shower ASAP after your session, and humidify your non-studio living spaces.
  • Decrease muscle strain by reverse-engineering your characters: pay attention to what areas you are tightening or squeezing to create a particular voice, and use the opposite position for respite. Examples:
    • After doing a semi-strangled voice, stick your tongue forward, then release it and yawn. Do this a few times to  stretch what just got cinched.
    • If your script stays pressed into a low pitch/low larynx posture, use silent moments to balance this with a high pitch/high-tongue position (like a half-swallow). Similarly, If the character is high-pitched or squeezed high in your throat, mime an extreme low-pitch with “throaty” position whenever you have a chance.
    • If voicing a robotic monotone, siren through your full pitch range during breaks, quietly or even just mentally (silently), to relieve the single pitch posture and keep your cords limber.
  • Pamper and protect your voice every other hour of the day—so much that non-voice-folks will consider you a “Diva.”
    • Avoid loud social events especially if you work the next day.
    • Stay off the phone in your car except for quick “I’m-on-my-way”s and real emergencies.
    • Build regular hours or days of vocal rest into your week, as prevention and protection.
    • Also build-in a regular vocal warmup/workout. If you don’t know how to access whole-body support for your breath and voice, train with a professional voice coach (these are different skills than what’s typically offered in VO classes). Many of the best folks are listed at VASTA.org .
    • See my book, Everyday Voice Care, for more lifestyle tips.
  • Just as you invest in your mics, classes, and professional networks, invest in regular throat exams (with a fellowship-trained laryngology specialist, not just a generalist ENT). Don’t wait till there’s a problem to find good care; it’s best to get a wellness-checkup first, so that if trouble strikes you know where to go, and the office knows you.

If these sound like the code of a warrior-athlete, they are—and your warrior’s mission is to protect the most-excellent, centimeter-small, tools of your trade.  You can voice death and dying, and still make a long and happy living—but only if you approach it with respect, like any other martial art.

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2 Responses to The Vocal Martial Art: Help for Extreme VO Performers

  1. Joanna Cazden August 14, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

    Hi Hugh-
    Thanks for your feedback . Convincing artists to take care of themselves is my Constant advocacy.

    I’ve even lectured on historical/ cultural roots of the meme that performing arts “require” self-destruction and pain. In that sense it is psychologically different from business job where one knows to complain to HR about injury or bad ergonomics.

    But I’m still learning about VO industry, and will keep your suggestion in mind, for sure.

    Glad to know that the rest makes sense from your perspective!

    Cheers, Joanna

  2. Hugh Edwards March 9, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    Hello Joanna.

    Nice and thoughtful article, which I think will help VO’s. I’m in a rather unique position as I’m a gaming voice & casting director with my company http://www.high-score.co.uk (see also the post listed as our website) and also a trainer of voices, as you can see at https://:www.gravyforthebrain.com.

    I think you’ve covered most things bar one. That is that there are good and bad voice directors out there. If you get a bad one who isn’t helping you look after your voice during extreme reads, or call-outs as the industry term goes, then you need to protect yourself.

    A lot of voice artists feel lucky to be on a game, as they should be, but aim solely to please, and sometimes at the expense of their own comfort and voice fatigue. Do remember that in the same way you would stop if you were in a physical job and started to hurt, or ask for ergonomic help if you were in an office job and getting RSI, that it’s your responsibility as a voice artist to look after yourself ultimately, and ask for adequate warm-up time, ask for regular breaks, ask for all the call-outs to be grouped together at the end of a session, and speak up if you’re starting to feel pain or it’s becoming uncomfortable.

    The voice director can’t feel your throat, they can only hear your voice – so if you’re starting to struggle – speak up…before you can’t! We can’t help otherwise….

    Hugh.

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