The NAB Blog

Voice Recognition

By Genevieve Helsby

16 June 2008

This NAB blog is about voice recognition. I don’t mean the sophisticated software that allows you to bellow hopelessly into your mobile while remaining technically in control of the car. I’m referring to the listener’s identification of particular voices and exactly what this means.

‘Oh, it’s that one from The Archers – you know – don’t know her real name’: so how does an actor get past this? On TV or on stage, they have the tools of costume and make-up to spark the immediate mental gear-shift of anyone watching. Being ‘in character’ involves a whole lot more than a dressing-up box, but without it our generally spoon-fed imagination would be struggling. Besides, for any stragglers in the audience, there are the physical movements and gestures of a character to sever any remnants of a connection to a previous role.

But on the radio or in an audiobook the voice alone must do the work. There are actors remarkable for ‘doing’ voices (just take Teresa Gallagher narrating an entire novel as a 12-year-old boy and giving us five other distinct children’s voices in Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers) but this is different.

How does Juliet Stevenson, for example, stop us thinking ‘that’s Juliet Stevenson’ – if she does at all? Does the quality of the literature play a significant part or could she do it with the blurb on a cereal packet?

In fact, if you watch an actor record an audiobook – whether a novel or a play – it is an oddly visual experience. There will be particular physical gestures and movements, and these translate into all kinds of vocal nuances.

Generally, we like recognising a voice. The default voice on your sat-nav may sound like the disembodied woman at Luton airport… but you can pay money to have John Cleese telling you to turn around as soon as possible. In fact, John Cleese is a case in point: he has struggled to divorce himself from Basil Fawlty, or more generally an element of the ridiculous – but does this mean that the employment of his voice alone is less successful, or just that it carries certain connotations? The casting of it in the film Valiant for a terribly British pigeon – a squadron leader – who babbles nonsensically when captured was surely an intentional nourishment of the image.

In the narration of stories this element of recognition is often just as appealing. It’s the comfort of familiarity. Fireside family story-telling involves people you know and love – it contributes positively to the experience if you feel you’ve made some sort of connection with the reader, however superficial it is in reality. From then on, it is a mixture of the story itself and the reader that transports you elsewhere…

Yet in a play, perhaps the recognition is undesirable. In order to ‘be’ someone else, you don’t want to be recognised either for yourself or for the last or most well-known role you took on. And this is where the skill of an actor is so remarkable. If you listen to Anton Lesser playing Hamlet you simply don’t think about Mr Pickwick, Thomas Gradgrind or all the other characters he has depicted so beautifully on Naxos AudioBooks. He is Hamlet now. And the fact that you can’t see him – that you have to simply close your eyes and let your imagination do the work – makes this all the more astonishing.

Conversely, the problem of a voice not being recognised can also be a challenge in producing an audio version of a stage play. No doubt you’ve experienced at some point that comprehension blur near the beginning, where too many voices are speaking and you’ve not had time to attune your ear to individual characters… in such cases, the off-switch is usually waving a welcome hello.

It is quite a staggering thought that every single person’s voice is recognisably different. But it also hints at the sheer scope of vocal production. Actors can play the voice like an instrument; that it is the only instrument when it comes to audiobooks merely refines the listener’s experience of a very special art form.

Genevieve Helsby

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