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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
Tribeca Audio
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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:
Don’t worry, it’s only the reporter of feeling speaking. I’m not telling you a story, merely telling you about it. Actually, I’m announcing it.
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


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Comments (13)
Karl Jenkinson
1/3/2011 at 9:29 AM
Hi Paul,

Thanks for this really interesting and enlightening article.

Having been principally a Narrator in most of my professional voice over career, it's refreshing to 'hear' you spell it out like it is.

To my mind, the art of the Narrator, is the closest thing there is to the essence of real Acting. After all,long before there were Performers and Actors, there were the Storytellers. All of us have an innate ability to recognise the fakery and emptiness of a mechanical performance.

If you are modulating your voice to simply add variety and not 'bore' the audience then I venture, they're bored, already.

Thanks again,

Karl Jenkinson
Vanessa Hart
10/20/2010 at 5:21 PM
Excellent Paul!! Right to the heart of it!
dc goode
10/1/2010 at 7:12 PM
Great article Paul!
What a privilege to hear you speak on the subject.
I stole from Fred and Scott Brick to do God's Debris for Scott Adams. Made a world of difference for a former "Modulator" like myself.
Thanks for sharing your insights on this very specialized genre of VO.
Besides being a huge fan of your work, I would cut off a digit to read for you. '-)
All the best,
dc goode
Bruce Seymoure
9/30/2010 at 6:13 PM
Charlie Pellett audio sample:

Voice-Over Acting is to Voice Overacting as an IP-Address is to an "iPad-Dress" (gingham, anyone?) ;?>
Maxine Dunn
9/30/2010 at 12:42 PM
Dear Paul,

Thank you so much for this brilliant article. Not only the message you’re conveying, but the way you write is marvelous.

I had the pleasure of meeting you and attending your class at Susan Berkley’s Bootcamp in NYC a number of years ago, so I was thrilled to see you’d written an article here at VoiceOverXtra.

I would love to enter the world of audiobooks but I can see I have a lot to learn. Perhaps I can make my entry in the non-fiction realm and then work my way up. Even though I’ve been making a living from voice-overs for many years I have yet to apply myself and master the art of true story-telling. Thank you again for such an inspiring and informative article.

I hope all is wonderfully well with you!

Maxine Dunn
Marcus Weems
9/30/2010 at 11:46 AM
Wow! Out of all my years, I've never heard it put this way. But it is completely logical and makes perfect sense. Now I have to go back and re-listen to what I've already recorded. Thank the gods, I'm only one chapter into the next one.
Bob Jordan
9/30/2010 at 10:35 AM
Interesting article. Any chance you could post an MP3 audio file so we could hear the difference ?
Paul Strikwerda
9/30/2010 at 10:30 AM
Paul Ruben's article was a refreshing reminder that it is so hard to generalize in our line of work.

As voice-over professionals, it is our task to breathe life into dead letters and convey meaning to listeners and viewers. Meaning is always context dependent. When we change the context, we're changing the meaning.

The voice of a subway announcer might use some of the same words an audiobook narrator does, but the context couldn't be more different. This leads me to my first rule of thumb:

* Interpretation is context dependent.

Paul Ruben's article is mainly about the role of a narrator. Often, a narrator is only one of the parts a voice actor will play, while recording an audiobook.

In some cases, the narrator is a neutral observer and it makes perfect sense to 'flatten out the tone.' In other cases, the narrator is just another character in the story, with particular quirks and a traits.

In some books, the narrator starts off as a young man, and by the time the book is finished, he's in his nineties.

It's also useful to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. I've listened to novels that were read as if they were a scientific dissertation on the origin of subatomic particles. Although the story was very moving, the narration had no heart.

At the same time, one wouldn't read a paper on recent discoveries in molecular biology as if it were a short story by Woody Allen. On second thought, I'd love to hear that version!

Narration for documentaries, news stories, movies etcetera, requires a very different approach. In this case, the main message is conveyed through pictures. Pictures always overpower the spoken word. That brings me to my second rule of thumb:

* The more dramatic the images, the more neutral the voice-over should be.

I agree with Paul that effective narration is a matter of moderation. Too often, I hear aspiring talent read the first lines of a book, and I feel like I'm back in Kindergarten:

"Listen children, today we will read the story of how Joseph Stalin dealt with his opponents ... He was not a nice man."

There's a big difference between voice-over acting and voice-overacting.
Steven Voice123
9/30/2010 at 8:58 AM
Great article!

By the way, I have been wondering for years who did the voice of the NYC Subway, because it sounds nothing like a person from NYC. :)
Donna Coney Island
9/30/2010 at 8:38 AM
Hear, hear! No pun intended!
Just tell the story.
Alan Sklar
9/30/2010 at 8:24 AM
Brilliant! So instructive.
Let's have more articles like this and fewer of the ads for seminars for wannabees
Joel Richards
9/30/2010 at 7:53 AM
Thanks, Mr. Ruben. You've provided insight into an issue I think I've struggled with over the last year as I've gotten audiobook work but never been fully able to articulate. I think this clears up that "thing" that gets in the way when I switch from doing voice overs to audiobook narration.
Paul J. Warwick
9/30/2010 at 7:43 AM
Thank you for the clarification! You've put into words my feelings. No pun intended.
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