Controlling your voice is a critical aspect of the voice over industry. Many voice actors enter the industry with little to no vocal training or even awareness. They are instinctive about how they approach voice acting and how they control their voice. Sometimes this is fine. Other times, it can result in a voice actor with minimal voice control.
Pretend you are a client seeking a voice actor to record your voice over.
Would you want somebody with a limited skill set and repertoire? Someone whose intonation is narrow, whose breathing is inconsistent? Would you want somebody who doesn’t quite hit the pacing required for your script, or speaks too loudly or softly?
Or would you rather have a voice actor that can control their voice to suit the exact requirements of your script? Someone whose tonal range is broad and varied? Who can use volume to bring emphasis to key words and phrases? Whose breathing is matched to the pacing and volume required?
I know which I would choose.
In this guide, we are going to explore the basics of voice production, some of the things that can go wrong with voice control, and different strategies and techniques that can improve voice control.
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What is voice?
Voice is often referred to as the human instrument. It can be used for both singing and speaking. Many industries require the controlled use of voice including:
- Voice over
- Call centers
- Customer service
In fact, it can be argued, that any industry in which people have to speak to one another requires voice control. For the purposes of this guide, we will focus on the voice over industry. However, all the information can be applied across industries. To determine if voice control might be something you need to improve, check out this article here on what makes an amazing radio voice.
The mechanics – how voice is controlled
The production of voice results from a complex series of interactions between breathing, the vocal folds, and the muscles of the neck, head, mouth, and tongue.
Voice requires breathing and the vocal folds to be produced. And without the muscles of the neck, head, mouth, and tongue, control of voice can be very restricted.
The larynx, commonly referred to as the voice box, is situated in your neck. It’s part of your respiratory, or breathing, system. Air must flow in and out of your larynx to reach your lungs, and it is this airflow that is the driving force of voice. Breathing controls the volume of your voice.
Within the larynx are your vocal folds. These are thin muscular membranes that undergo finite control to interrupt the air flow coming out of your lungs. They are set into vibration when air pushes past. Depending on the thickness, tightness, and shape of these folds, the sound of the voice will change. The vocal folds control the pitch and strength of your voice.
The vibrations of the vocal folds create sound waves, or voice, that are then resonated within the cavities of your throat, mouth, and nose. The shape of these cavities are controlled by the muscles in your neck, head, mouth, and tongue. The resonance cavities determine the tone of your voice.
If your larynx was a guitar, the vocal folds would be the strings, the surrounding muscles would be the shape of the guitar, and your breathing would be the pick plucking at the strings.
What can go wrong with voice control?
Let’s look at the three parts of voice control that can go wrong: the breathing, the vocal folds, and all the other muscles of the neck, head, mouth, and tongue.
As mentioned earlier, the flow of air that comes out of your lungs, past the vocal folds, is the driver of voice.
If you don’t take in enough air before beginning to speak, one of two things can happen. You will not be able to finish the phrase or sentence with the required power or volume. Or, you will need to take a breath at an unnatural pause (that is, not at a punctuation point). Both of these possibilities will lead to low-impact, staggered or disjointed speech.
There are two ways that vocal folds can perform in less than ideal conditions. There may be a structural pathology that compromises the integrity of the vocal folds. Conversely, it may be a muscular strength and programming issue.
Compromised structural integrity of the vocal folds will mean they won’t be able to vibrate efficiently or effectively to create the required sound and pitch. Examples of this are vocal nodules, inflammation, or paralysis of the vocal folds to name a few. Your voice may be husky, hoarse, whispery, weak or rough, and using your voice may cause pain. In these situations, professional assessment and intervention is often required to address the underlying issue.
Difficulty around how much range you can achieve with your voice, and how smoothly each pitch can be held, is an issue of muscle strength and programming. You may be able to create a great variance in pitch at the high end of the scale, but struggle to do the same in lower registers. Or perhaps you find your pitch “breaking” as your vocal folds struggle to maintain the required shape and tension throughout the word, phrase or sentence.
Resonance – all the other muscles
Resonance is a tricky one to pin down, but it’s all about how the sound waves bounce around inside your head before they come out of your mouth (or nose).
People with sinus issues or blocked nose will often experience a nasal tone in their voice. It’s interesting that it is described in this way, as it is the lack of resonance in the nasal cavity that causes this tone. This can also happen when people block off their nasal cavity without realizing – muscle tightness in the neck, throat, and tongue can cause this.
Another problem that can happen with resonance is when people “speak from their throat.” Obviously, we all speak from our throat as this is where the vocal folds are located and where voice comes from. A better description of what is going on would be that people “speak without letting the sound resonate in their mouth.” The more open a person’s jaw and mouth are when speaking, the more opportunity for voice to resonate. Again, muscle tightness and constriction in the neck, throat, mouth, and tongue are responsible for this.
Fixing things – how to control your voice
So, what does it really mean to control your voice? Well, as Matt Ramsey from Ramsey Voice Studio says, controlling your voice means different things to different people.
But if we assume that the difficulty lies within one of the three areas already mentioned – breathing, vocal cord control, and resonance – there are different techniques and strategies you can try for each that should improve overall voice control.
The key for voice control in the area of breathing is to breathe deep. There is contention about belly breathing versus diaphragmatic breathing versus diaphragmatic-upper-rib breathing. What they all have in common is the concept of deep breathing over shallow breathing. That is, maximizing the capacity of your lungs to hold air. Once you achieve good lung capacity, you need to focus on control of exhalation. Maintaining adequate posture (back straight, shoulders back and not hunched) will also help.
Here are some techniques to try:
- Exhale all air from your lungs. When you can’t push out any more air, you will inhale automatically. Inhale deeply. Observe how the air rushes in. Repeat often, with no more than four breaths each time.
- Exhale comfortably. Then take a normal breath in, not aiming to fill to capacity. Hold it for 15 seconds, then exhale quietly. Repeat often for several days. Gradually extend your holding time to 20 seconds, 30 seconds, and 45 seconds. Eventually, you will be able to hold your breath for a full minute.
- Laugh heartily with a big ‘Ha Ha Ha’ until fully exhaled. Then, inhale deeply and quickly.
- Place your hands on your hips, lean your head back and yawn. Your waist will expand as your diaphragm flattens and draws in air. As you exhale, say ‘ah’, holding it as long as you comfortably can.
Vocal fold control
Vocal fold control equates to pitch control. And before you look at extending your pitch range or control, you need to determine where your current range is. Using a piano, guitar or sound app on your phone, say ‘ah’ in a comfortable pitch and match it using your sound source. Now head down the scale, one note at a time, and get your voice to match the note. Once this becomes difficult, strained or crackly, you’ve hit the bottom of your register.
Now, do the same thing heading up the scale. Again, once it becomes difficult, strained or crackly, you’ve hit the top of your register. Everything between the top and bottom notes is your pitch range.
Vocal folds act like any other muscle in your body – the more you use them in a specific way, the better they will become at that task. Here are some exercises to extend your pitch range and control. It’s important to note the pitch control and breathing go hand in hand – the more control you have of your vocal folds and breathing, the better control of your voice overall. Only perform these exercises for a few minutes at a time and stop if you feel any strain. Intersperse with breathing and muscle relaxation techniques.
- Say ‘ah’ at your normal volume. Increase volume until it becomes uncomfortable or crackly. Repeat several times.
- Say ‘ah as before, but this time at various higher and lower pitch
- Repeat the two preceding exercises, but this time recite letters of the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, or months of the year. Try to keep muscles relaxed as possible.
Resonance control is all about creating an open cavity within your head for sound waves to bounce around in. Further to this, having a wide and relaxed opening for sound to escape also allows for maximum projection. The key with resonance control and projection is to relax the muscles and tension in your neck, throat, mouth, tongue and jaw. When muscles contract and tighten, they constrict the resonance cavity and make it harder for sound to escape your mouth.
Here are some techniques to help promote resonance and projection. Again, these techniques will also allow greater breathing and pitch control as a nice little side effect.
- Lying on a firm base, breathe deeply and exhale slowly through your mouth. Next, concentrate on relaxing your lips and jaw by allowing them to hang open and also relax your throat. The airflow should feel smooth and unhindered through your throat and mouth.
- In the same position, exhale with a breathy sigh and say ah. Repeat and open your mouth wide as if you’re yawning. Next, keep sighing, but this time count slowly up to five. Repeat until you can say each word without strain.
- Move to a sitting position and repeat the above exercises. Then count to five using your full voice. If you feel constriction, move back to lying down.
- Repeat the above exercises in a standing position. Eventually, you should be able to produce open phonation while counting to 100. Take a new breath after every five numbers
These exercises, along with a number of others targeted at articulation, pitch variance, and pacing can be found at Toastmasters.
A final few points
On top of specific exercises you can do to encourage control of your voice, there are a number of vocal hygiene pointers to consider as well. These are:
- Keeping well hydrated and avoiding alcohol, drugs, smoking and decongestant medications
- Avoid foods that may cause acid reflux (these foods are different for each person)
- Avoid menthol based lozenges or inhalants as these dry the throat
- Take regular voice rest breaks, especially if you are experiencing discomfort
- Avoid smoky or dusty environments
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle and manage stress levels (as stress creates muscle tension)
- Avoid yelling and habitual throat clearing
- Avoid whispering and speaking with a breathy voice for long periods of time
More information on these can be found via the voice fact sheet from Speech Pathology Australia here.
It is also worth engaging in vocal warm up exercises prior to prolonged voice use.
Controlling your voice – the sound of success
If you want to get the best out of your voice, vocal control is critical. Control of breathing, volume, pitch range and resonance allows a voice actor to create nuanced, specific and high-quality recordings. And they can do this without damaging their instrument or fatiguing their voice.
And, if you’re serious about voice control, working with a certified and experienced vocal coach is probably worth considering.
Hopefully, in the meantime, this article has been a starting point in how to control your voice.