Voice mimicry is the art of imitating another individual or thing in a very convincing way. The human voice is thought of as one of our most personal characteristics. Still, talented voice actors do a great job of passing for others. They also evoke the sounds we associate with specific moods and environments.
Voice mimicry involves using the human voice to simulate other sounds. In addition to copying people, mimics and imitators can produce sounds from the natural and human worlds.
Could employing a talented voice actor help you create content that differentiates your branding from the pack? Here’s an in-depth look at how it works and why it’s so captivating.
This post has been updated in September 2021.
Voice Mimicry vs. Imitation
Although these words are often used interchangeably, they’re not quite the same. A mimic simply copies the sounds that someone or something else makes. An imitator goes the full distance by trying to convey the entire essence.
Imitation may involve mimicry. For instance, an imitator trying to sound like Danielle Bregoli might also mimic her iconic phrase, “you can catch me outside, how about that.” Anyone could — and many have — done the same by repeating these words. The difference, however, ultimately lies in an actor’s ability to hit all of the other points, such as the cadence, pitch, and accent that made the phrase iconic. Guiding your actors towards this kind of performance is usually worth the extra effort.
Voice Mimicry and Imitation – How Do They Do It?
From a scientific perspective, imitation is about modulating your voice to match another person’s. For instance, imagine you were conversing with someone who had a well-known voice, such as actor Katey Sagal or James Earl Jones. Both of these individuals have characteristic speech patterns that distinguish them from other speakers. Yet, a good voice actor would go beyond the obvious examples, such as the vocabulary choices or catchphrases. Effective imitators actually adjust the essential component elements of their voices.
Imitating Human Voices
The tonal elements in a typical human voice can be divided into groups based on their pitch. For instance, the lowest pitches are known as fundamentals, and formants describe the noticeable high harmonics.
These elements help our brains distinguish between male and female speakers almost instantly. They also play a role in voice mimicry and imitation.
One study found that talented impressionists shifted their fundamental and formant pitches to match those of the people they wanted to imitate. The same research also highlighted another huge part of imitation — getting the timing down pat.
Imagine that someone was imitating Donald Trump, who’s known for speaking at a rather rapid rate. It would probably sound pretty odd if they decided to stick to Barack Obama’s slower pace but keep everything else the same. Similarly, an Obama impersonator who chose to use Donald Trump’s faster-paced New York cadence might leave listeners feeling more confused than anything. When imitating humans, it’s about the whole package, but scientists say that timing is one of the areas with the least room for error.
Keep this in mind when choosing a voice actor. Don’t just go with the one you like best or whoever tickles your funny bone. Instead, pick the option that the greatest number of people will recognize.
Mimicking Non-human Sounds
Imitating the sound of the natural world is a timeless human tradition. For instance, Chinese performers skilled in the art of Kouji combine acting, singing, and storytelling with vocal mimicry. These performers work to replicate the sounds of everyday life so closely that an audience wouldn’t know they were listening to humans if they couldn’t see them. This artform also gives some insights into how our species developed such cool cultural talents in the first place — many people believe that Kouji originated with tribal animal calls used by hunters.
Animal sounds are still a big part of vocal mimicry. As society moves further from the soundscape of the natural world towards the urban backdrop, however, a new type of mimicry has taken precedence. Today, mimics are just as likely to produce sound effects, such as musical instruments and machinery. Actor Michael Winslow, for instance, is billed as the Man of 10,000 sound effects.
For a perfect look at sound effect mimicry, look at beatboxers. These artists can create entire backing tracks — and often sing over the recordings — using nothing but their vocal cords and mouths. One of the coolest things about this talent is that beatboxers aren’t just limited to creating drum noises. They also produce the sounds of horns, strings, sirens, and everything else needed to ditch the programmatic music and go solo.
Mimicry in Nature
No discussion of voice mimicry would be complete without looking at our genetic cousins in the animal realm. Birds, butterflies, fish, ants, and plants can all mimic other things. In many cases, these forms of copying involve visual mimicry, such as when golden orb weaver spiders create colorful webs to confuse and capture bees. Pygmy owls grow feathers whose colors make them look like they have eyes on the back of their heads to scare off hungry predators.
You probably shouldn’t ask your voice actors to start putting on disguises or dressing up for studio sessions. Still, you can learn a good lesson from these natural examples: Mimicry only needs to be believable enough to get the audience to suspend its disbelief and start paying attention. With the pygmy owls, for instance, the point isn’t to keep the wolves away for good — just long enough for the bird to escape. Golden orb weaver spiders only want to confuse their prey momentarily — they still have to make strong webs.
Marketers who employ voice mimicry should take these concepts to heart. Even if listeners eventually tire of an impression, it’s worth starting off strong and getting your foot in the door. As talented as they may be, their mimicry or imitation can’t be the whole event. Instead, you need a content game plan that capitalizes on these skills to communicate a broader message.
Choosing Your Artistic Style of Expression
Does the difference between mimicry and imitation matter? It all depends on how believable you want to sound and why you’re trying to copy someone.
A commercial that wanted to capitalize on a famous catchphrase might get away with merely going for mimicry. For instance, we don’t really know what US president Abraham Lincoln sounded like since he died before the invention of recording technology. In fact, some historians claim that he was a great lover of doing accents and imitations. Still, many actors have tried to produce their unique takes on some of Lincoln’s more iconic speeches. The majority get the point across easily enough by gluing on a beard and wearing a tall hat, so remember the importance of context. A good script should also set the stage for your imitations.
Now take a more modern figure, like the late Carrie Fisher. Most people would instantly recognize her line, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Again, plenty of people have mimicked this iconic phrase and remixed it in various ways. The big distinction is that yours might not sound good unless you also copied the cadence, tone, and depth of feeling that Fisher brought to bear. With a modern meme-aware audience, you’d probably want to play the part as faithfully as possible, particularly if your listeners included a lot of Star Wars fans.
Guidelines for Using Voice Mimicry and Imitation in Marketing
Imitation and mimicry are most effective when they build up to something, and it’s best to be positive. Here are a few ways to accomplish that:
Steer Clear of Bad-intentioned Imitations
If you wanted to sell a mattress, you might create a commercial imitating a famous person known for looking tired all the time. The only problem is that this strategy could lead to a significant backlash from that individual’s fanbase.
Remember that you don’t know someone else’s circumstances. With the previous example, your sleepyheaded target might suddenly reveal that they have an illness that makes them appear that way. All of a sudden, your radio commercial or podcast voiceover might turn into a huge brand liability. This rule seems pretty simple, but it bears repeating — don’t make fun of people to get a cheap laugh unless you’re ready to become a target.
When writing a marketing script that imitates or mimics someone famous, try not to do so right after they die or experience a personal tragedy. Even if you think the notoriety seems worth it, such decisions usually come back to bite you.
Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh at Yourself
Voice mimicry can make ad content a bit more lively, and it doesn’t always have to be 100-percent passable. A commercial that depicts someone beatboxing poorly might help you establish a rapport where audiences laugh along at the ill-fated character.
Bad imitations can sometimes be humorous, but hitting this mark takes no small amount of self-awareness. Try to work with creative partners who can help you maintain the proper perspective.
Use Voice Actors Liberally
Humans are a lot more manageable than other forms of talent. For instance, you can’t always get a dog to bark on cue. Adding sound effects after the fact might not work in some situations where it’s vital to have a natural flow.
Vocal mimics who produce these sounds can integrate them into your voiceovers and ads with ease and fluidity. Even better, they can do so without making a huge mess in the studio or requiring your creative team to hire a handler.
Don’t Just Mimic the Art of Voice Mimicry — Imitate Like a True Expert
Voice mimicry and imitation are impressive skills. They add depth to marketing, movies, and podcasts, ultimately producing more engaging work. Voice actors who also specialize in these areas can help your ads become incredibly memorable. A good mimic or imitator might just take your content in bold new directions.
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