Audiobooks: Kick The Modulation
Habit To Become A Better Narrator
Note: The author teaches acclaimed Narrator's Workshops in New York City. For details about the next class - Monday nights from Oct. 18 to Nov. 22, please click here.
By Paul Ruben
Producer, Director, Casting Professional & Teacher
If you ride the subway in my town, you’ve more than likely been instructed or otherwise informed over the loudspeaker by the "official” voice of the New York City subway system, a/k/a Charlie Pellett.
Mr. Pellett’s real job is anchor/announcer for Bloomberg radio. He has enjoyed a distinguished career as a newscaster and disc jockey, as well.
Despite his experience and formidable vocal instrument, I can say, as an audiobook producer/director, I could not hire Charlie Pellett to narrate an audiobook, ever.
If you want to experience the mother of all modulation, and thus receive a vocal lesson in how not to narrate audiobooks, take the F train.
Whether it’s Mr. Pellett’s signature, "Stand clear of the closing doors,” or one of the various pre-recorded helpful hints that shuffle mellifluously from his lips to my ears, every time that modulated sound courses through my head, I’m reminded that that particular voice over technique is anathema to audiobook narration, or to put it aesthetically, storytelling.
My intent isn’t to malign Mr. Pellett or voice over technique. It’s merely to argue that voice over and audiobook narration are, in effect, apples and oranges.
Each requires a particular set of skills. While vocal modulation may work for voice over, it works in opposition to audiobook narration.
The best advice I can offer a beginning narrator - or Mr. Pellett, if he’s thinking of expanding his career opportunities - is to leave this modulation technique outside the booth.
WHAT TO AVOID
I hope Mr. Pellett will forgive me for attempting to demonstrate that his vocal modulation – more extreme than most voice over talent, but representative of so many actors I’ve worked with - is categorically inappropriate for audiobook narration.
I should stress that even a more subtle iteration of this modulation technique is in opposition to what’s required for a desirable, and employable, audio book narrator.
Like many voice over artists, Mr. Pellett doesn’t speak his words; he modulates them (I call it singing).
"If you see a suspicious package, do not keep it to yourself” sings Charlie, in a series of mini vocal tsunamis: surges of rolling pitch and cadence.
Like a cue ball with too much English, his inflection bounces willy-nilly.
NOT FOR AUDIOBOOKS
So, what’s the problem?
His sound is velvety. It’s pleasant. His diction is impeccable. And emphasis? Every word. No, make that every syllable.
The problem is that what works on the subway doesn’t work for the narrator.
WHERE'S THE EMOTION?
Let me first put it this way: When Charlie alerts us to "Stay alert and have a safe day,” do we feel frightened?
No. We’re merely informed.
That’s because Charlie is using his vocal technique to "report” information, rather than as a conduit to help us experience emotion.
Charlie modulates his voice to keep us interested in his message, rather than "feel it.”
FOR EXAMPLE ...
When a newscaster modulates her voice to interest her audience in a catastrophic event, perhaps including death and destruction, her larger purpose is to inform us about horror, not to make us feel it.
When the gravelly, three-pack-a-day voice over tells us about the world’s scariest movie, or the cutsie soprano manically chirps about the best tasting, gooiest chocolate bar ever, does the client (the film producer or candy manufacturer) want the listener to empathize with the voice over talent or go out and spend money on the product?
Bottom-line: Modulating the voice and creating interest by emphasizing the right word with the right lilt disconnects the listener emotionally.
We may be intellectually interested, but not emotionally.
Why? Because modulating the voice does not emanate from the actor’s organic connection to the text. Literature’s outcome (even bad literature) is emotional connection with the reader.
Of course, that’s the audiobook narrator’s outcome.
OPPOSITE OF MODULATION
Vocal modulation for its own sake is, at best, vocal schtick.
Ironically, interest in a character, and more importantly, suspending your disbelief and emotionally connecting to characters and their story, cannot be achieved by modulating the voice.
In fact, the opposite occurs.
As soon as listeners hear arbitrary vocal modulation, emphasis for its own sake, they emotionally disconnect. They may be interested, but guaranteed, they aren’t feeling anything.
I often say to beginning narrators, "don’t sing,” or "flatten out your tone.”
You’re narrating a book whose characters are generally real people. As the storyteller, you’re trying to capture and recreate their feelings.
You as narrator want me to be moved by the story, to feel as the characters feel.
Why then, would you modulate your voice? Is that how people speak?
Sometimes, understandably frustrated voice over talent - especially those participating in my narration workshops - have repeatedly tried to help me see the light.
"C’mon, Paul, there has to be vocal variety, otherwise, boredom."
They are right. But vocal modulation must occur organically.
Change in pitch or volume must emanate from the text, rather than a bag of vocal techniques whose purpose is a facsimile of emotion.
Last year, Fred Berman, a talented and award-winning storyteller, received Audiofile’s Earphone Award for his narration of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinsky.
In a flat, virtually non-modulated tone, Fred recalled a series of gruesome horrors from the point of view of an eastern European young boy during World War II.
"Fred Berman spins this tale with a storyteller’s intimacy,” praised Audiofile. "The production poignantly and beautifully captures Kosinski's dark, melancholy landscape.”
Sound like a disinterested listener?
TEXT IS KEY
To be sure, not all drama finds its voice through a nearly flat-line delivery.
But equally, there is no drama (or comedy for that matter) when the text is subsumed by vocal technique.
Vocal modulation not only indicates feeling, it disconnects us from it.
When modulation preempts the text we are told, in effect:
ABOUT PAUL ...
Paul Ruben has produced and directed numerous award-winning audiobooks for every major publisher since 1987. His many Audie Awards include work for It’s Not About the Bike, Raymond and Hannah, The World is Flat, A Slight Trick of the Mind. He also received the 2003 Grammy (Best Spoken Word Album) for Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and the 2009 Grammy for Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox. He has directed regional and summer theatre productions, contributed features on audiobook narration to Audiofile magazine, and was elected to the Audio Publishers Association Board of Directors in 2005. Based in New York City and casting and directing many first time narrators - some of whom have become outstanding and award-winning working narrators - he also teaches audiobook narrator workshops through his company, Tribeca Audio.
Narrator's Workshops: www.tribecaaudio.com/narrators_workshop.html
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