The Art of the Scream in Voiceover

August 6, 2021 by Kathy Grable

One of the questions I’m often asked in voiceover is, “If I have to ‘yell’ or ‘scream’ or project loudly, do I step back from the mic?” Even though that might intuitively feel like what you should do, it actually is not how you achieve the best sound. The danger in stepping back from the mic is that you will sound ‘off-mic’, or the sound will sound boxy and not have the clarity of sound that is desired.

Let’s start from the beginning, including vocal preparation, because if you’re going to have a session where you will do a fair amount of screaming or yelling, or even a lot of over-projecting, you’ll want to do it properly to avoid vocal stress as well as give a more dynamic performance. Remember you do not want to yell from your throat or even create a husky sound or any sound coming from your throat. Instead, you want to support that sound with your diaphragm.

Preparation: Start to think of yourself as an athlete. Think about it: If you were a runner, you would stretch and warm up before going out and doing a full run or workout. As a voice performer, you are using muscles, cartilage, your diaphragm, breath support. You want to warm up those muscles, your diaphragm, your instrument, before you perform.

The night before: Start by getting a good night’s sleep, and hydrating — water, water, water. We want to keep those chords well lubricated before and during the session, but we also need to be hydrated the night before. You want those muscles plumped up with water.

Day of session or audition: Start with some easy vocalizing and voice exercises. I will cover this in more detail in next month’s article, but start out with your resting pitch. A good way to figure out what your resting pitch is if someone asked you a question and you answered with a humming version of ‘mmm hmmm.’  This will probably be your resting pitch. Vocal strain occurs when you pitch up or pitch down, so the character you develop or work from should move from your resting pitch. Start nice and easy and build from there into more vocal acrobatics. I will cover more specific exercises next time.

Drink water before you start this process and continue throughout. You can also try something called the ‘Entertainer’s Secret,’ or warm water and honey. I always encourage actors to try these things before you need them to see how it works for your throat. Many swear by a green apple beforehand. Note: There are many green apple varieties out there now, and some may have the opposite effect if they are too sour.

Position yourself: ‘Hang ten from the mic’ the distance that is always encouraged as the best distance from the mic. See this Greenhouse ARTICLE for more on what that looks like.

Ways to create your environment: Think of your audience as your microphone. The closer you get to the microphone, the more intimate the quality of your voice you will achieve, so when creating a ‘big environment,’ I often will position myself by talking or screaming off-access — tilting my head/mouth slightly up and off mic at a different angle to the left or the right. Not enough for a step, just a tilt of the head.  This is also particularly helpful if you need to voice a plosive pop, like a series of p’s.  A pop filter helps this too, but you still need to do your work.

Now, how can I do all this without peaking — that is, driving the sound past the maximum allowed limit of the audio system, which creates audio clipping or distortion? This works best with a mixer.

On a mixer, there are equalizer (EQ) settings: compression, gain and levels. Without being there to see your system, only you and your ears or your engineer’s ears can really tell what works, but here is a baseline, an approximation.

Turn everything down. Have the EQ levels flat. The gain is the more overall volume, (the general volume, if you will), and levels are the more detailed, more focused, more fine tuned volume. Put the gain down to about 10 o’clock on the dial, the levels at about 4 or 5 o’clock, and compression at 9 or 10’o’clock.

Get close to the mic and speak directly into it, or like I mentioned, slightly to the left or right of the mic off-access. I often use this approach, especially if I want to create a sound as if I’m yelling from the other room. You don’t want it to clip, or what some call “red line.” And, if you feel like you are going to cough, give yourself a break. It’s your voice hinting that you need a vocal break, so take a sip of water and breathe. If you are in a home studio and can take a break, warm steam can help re-lubricate those vocal cords while resting your voice.

When I graduated from college and was under contract with my first professional theatre company, I couldn’t believe that the other actors weren’t warming up their voice, stretching before they went out on stage. It’s easy to forget when you are doing it every day. And yes, I have to remind myself. Start to know how your voice works, and take care of your instrument, especially when doing demanding vocal work such as ‘yelling,’ ‘screaming,’ or ‘efforts.’

Kathy Grable

Kathy Grable

Kathy Grable is an L.A. voice-over prototype with a warmth and sincerity that reminds listeners of a close friend. You’ve heard her in animated shows like Tom & Jerry, Rocket Power, and Futurama and commercials for Pepsi, Disney, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and as the Baskin-Robbins “Talking Spoon.” Kathy was also the voice double for Nicole Kidman in the hit film Batman Forever. On-camera, she’s been seen in Mike & Molly, Harry’s Law, Last Man Standing, and The Wedding Band on TBS. She’s a sought-after V/O coach, director, and demo producer. When not performing, Kathy co-owns and operates a company that distributes e-books, comics, audio dramas, and her own podcast, In My Voice, with guests from all aspects of the voiceover world. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify, or go to https://anchor.fm/kathy-grable0 for all the episodes.

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