Vocal Health for Extreme Voice Performance
Table of Contents
Whether you are working on a video game, animation production, audiobook or audio drama, your voice is special. It is unique. It conveys love, fear, hope, anger, sadness, passion and excitement. It is distinctively yours. Protecting your voice and your vocal folds (preferred modern term for vocal cords), your most precious assets as a voice performer, is a top priority.
Vocal Health for Extreme Voice Performance provides advice for performers, producers, agents, and casting directors who are involved in voice over projects that include vocal extremes that lead to vocal stress. Following best practices will help producers and performers complete vocally stressful sessions, minimizing risks and reducing the costs associated with vocal injuries.
This Guide has been produced for ACTRA Toronto by D’Arcy Smith*, ACTRA Member, Professor of Voice and Speech at The University of Cincinnati and a voice dialect coach and director for video game productions and Katelyn Reid, BFA, MA, CCC-SLP of the Robin Cotton and Rocco dal Vera Professional Voice, Swallowing & Airway Center at UC Health in Cincinnati. D’Arcy and Katelyn have conducted sessions on Vocal Combat techniques with ACTRA members. We are very grateful to them and members of the ACTRA Toronto Voice Committee for their help and support in putting together this Guide.
Why is this Guide needed?
ACTRA Toronto voice performers told us…
In June 2021, ACTRA Toronto surveyed voice performers about their experiences with sessions that required vocal combat and extremes.
Almost 80% of respondents reported that voice-over sessions included vocally extreme work. Close to 40% reported that the work resulted in vocal fatigue or stress. And almost 30% reported that the vocal stress compromised their ability to audition or work on another project.
While most performers reported that their vocal quality returned to “normal” in a day or so, 35% said it would take 2-3 days before their voice would recover. Despite the risks and recovery time, over 70% of respondents said they had never thought of turning down a session for fear of the impact it would have on their voice or future work.
Many of the respondents to the ACTRA Toronto survey noted that key to reducing vocal stress is proper vocal training:
“Training here is key! The desire to do a great job and the instructions given by directors to really “go for it” is disastrous if you don’t have the training and knowledge of how to protect your voice.”
“A lot of it has to do with how you prepare for the session (warm-up) and how you breathe/position your body during the session.”
“Preventative support for vocal training sessions would do a world of good to the general health and preventative maintenance of an actor’s voice.”
“Vocal stress is a serious concern for actors in gaming…. As the sector grows, we need to ensure that all developers, directors, etc. respect and protect the performer. Respect and protect.”
Voice work that simulates vocal combat or vocal extremes is inherently risky for the performer. Vocal stress occurs when challenging vocal sounds require significant force and explosive vibration. This can include barks, screaming, battle chatter, victim sounds, “ONOS”, extreme effort sounds, grunts, being stabbed, etc. and a variety of non-human, alien or monster voices. There is a chance of injury and stress to the vocal folds even if all precautions are taken.
Protecting vocal health is not just the responsibility of performers. Often the most precarious workers on a production, performers may not speak up if they feel pressured to go to vocal extremes and risk injury. Agents, Casting Directors, Producers, Directors and Vocal Coaches all have a role to play to create safe and respectful workplaces to protect vocal health and reduce vocal stress.
A respectful workplace is one that ensures informed consent. Performers need to know what is required so they can train and prepare for the work. There should be “no surprises.” Performing vocally stressful work is a skill and like any skill, it takes practice. It is also risky which means taking steps to make sure the work can be done as safely as possible. Everyone involved needs to understand the expectations, risks and the precautions to be taken. The result: better quality of work on schedule, and without injury.
Benefits of this Guide
In the survey of ACTRA voice performers, we heard that training and preparation are necessary to protect vocal health and complete a vocally stressful session without injury.
There are vocal coaches and voice directors who are experienced in helping performers reduce vocal stress. Survey respondents wrote that when a coach is present, there is a big difference in how they feel during and after a session. The tips and best practices in this guide will help to make sure precautions are in place, risks are reduced and the ability to work on other projects following a vocally stressful session isn’t compromised.
And, with the proper training and supports in place, performers may feel more confident to get involved in vocally challenging work, be able to work longer without vocal fatigue and recover more quickly after a vocally stressful session.
From a production standpoint, having better prepared and protected performers means fewer occasions when work has to be stopped, rescheduled or cancelled due to vocal fatigue. Healthier workplaces are more productive and better able to produce high quality work.
Vocal health: what we do with our bodies and care of our voice to maintain a healthy, strong voice.
Vocal hygiene: good habits and routines to maintain vocal health.
Vocal folds: Increasingly preferred term for vocal cords or voice reeds. The vocal folds are two bands of smooth muscle in the larynx (voice box) that are covered by a soft gelatinous substance and encased in mucosal tissue. This structure allows the vocal folds to vibrate as air passes through them from the lungs to produce the sound of one’s voice.
Vocal load or loading: stress on the vocal folds caused by long periods of talking or use of the vocal folds.
Vocal range: Typically used to describe the span between the lowest and highest notes on which a person can vocalize.
Vocal abuse: often now called phonotrauma. Any activity that can strain or harm or overload the vocal folds.
Vocal extremes: projected voice use and or, distorting or using the voice to make noises like growls, grunts, screams, shrieks, etc.
Vocal combat: performance that requires vocal aggressive sounds like grunting, growling, yelling, shouting, screaming.
Vocal fatigue: when the muscles in the larynx are stressed/overworked and start to feel tired or hurt. It may become difficult or painful to speak and/or project your voice. The voice may also begin to sound hoarse the longer you speak.
Vocal stress: occurs when challenging voice sounds requiring significant force and explosive vibration are required. Examples include death screams, battle cries, shrieks or screeches.
Onos: often called “efforts,” verbal sounds and noises that do not require words.
Barks: Sometimes called “battle chatter,” loud projected lines often in combat situations.
Best Practices for Producers
In the audition process:
- In casting breakdowns: provide as much detail as possible about the role including specific expectations about the amount of time or number of lines that require vocal combat or extremes.
- If you are going to require performers to demonstrate vocal extremes in an audition, provide the space for them to audition in-person. Many people do not have sound proofed home studios. Notifying family members and neighbours to ignore loud sounds and screams is not reasonable or practical.
- If you are casting a performer who does not have experience doing vocally stressful work, play or demonstrate an audio sample for the actor of the desired sound or effects. For example, playback a sample of a character being set on fire.
Before the recording day:
- Provide preparatory voice group or individual training with voice professional for actors who have limited experience in simulating vocal combat or vocal extremes.
- If sessions will include vocal combat or extremes and the actor has not performed this work before, consider having a qualified vocal coach or director present. A voice coach present at the session can help protect their vocal health as well as helping the performer to better deliver the goals of the session.
- Provide the voice director and actor with as much lead-time with the script as possible: at least 48 hours in advance if the session or multiple sessions will involve vocal combat or vocal extremes. Advance notice allows time to organize the script by vocal demand, and to prepare vocally.
- When scheduling sessions, take into account the amount of work that can lead to vocal stress needed in the session. Vocally stressful work should be recorded towards the end of a session. If possible, spread out more difficult sounds over multiple sessions. Where sessions have vocal combat, try to give the actor at least one rest day between sessions, rather than scheduling back-to-back sessions.
“More extreme use of voice should be scheduled towards the end of the session.”
On the recording day:
- Make sure that the recording studio provides water, herbal tea, throat coat, lozenges (without menthol) and straws for the actor at the session.
- Provide a place to warm up before the session for at least 10 minutes. Actors may not be able to make loud and/or aggressive sounds at home to prepare for sessions.
“If you do proper vocal warm-ups and gentle throat work before you start and during breaks, it works pretty well. Tea and soft liquids (water) help.”
- Assign someone, for example a voice coach or voice director, to be the voice consultant who will specifically listen for signs of vocal distress or fatigue and be the point person to check in with the actor during the session.
- Know how many takes of a particular sound/line they require and how many variations of that sound. Once the actor has recorded them, the session should move on.
- Actors should have a 10-minute break at least every hour. During the break they should be considered on vocal rest and should not be expected to talk. Vocal rest = no talking, not even whispering.
Best Practices for Casting Directors
- In some instances, what is expected for a first audition will be different from a callback audition, be sure to let performers know.
“Most auditions and callbacks are quite vocally demanding as they want screaming which does not feel healthy for the voice.”
- Actors should be advised of the potential risk of injury of engaging in these sessions and what precautions are being taken to protect them. A coach present at an audition can help to assess the performer’s skill and ability to protect their vocal health as well as helping the performer to better understand the expectations and the risks. An audition should assess the ability and range of the performer’s vocal skills without putting their vocal health at risk.
Best Practices for Voice Directors
- Education is key. Voice Directors should be knowledgeable in vocal health so they can provide performers with tips to help sustain their voices. These courses should help to identify what signs to listen for and see to help reduce vocal stress.
- Request to have the script well in advance to help prepare the session. Organize the session according to what will best help to sustain and protect the vocal health of performers.
- Help measure production’s expectations of the actor’s ability to deliver a set number of lines or sounds in a session. For example, 400 barks in a 2 hour session: Let production know that the vocal load is too high and that more sessions will be required.
- Be prepared to replicate the sound production is looking for or have a voice bank of sounds to play for the actor. For example, play a recording of a character being set on fire before an actor attempts to vocalize.
- Help advocate for performers. Offer breaks and propose scheduling an additional session if you know limits are being reached.
- If you’ve been asking the actor to do three takes of every line “for choices” and their voice is wearing out, record two or one take instead of the typical three for every line. The performer may deliver a useable line in fewer takes and reduce their vocal fatigue.
- Stop and redirect the actor immediately if you are getting the same effort sound when you require a variation.
- Motion Capture Directors: When rehearsing, the actor doesn’t need to go to vocal extremes 100% of the time. It is better for them to “mark” it vocally, perhaps only “going there” for the final rehearsal. If the sound recordist needs them to be at the level they will perform at in order to capture levels and set the gain – the actor can be loud but they don’t need to perform to the full extreme.
Best Practices for Talent Agents
- Talk with performers about whether they want to do vocally stressful work. If they do, make sure they have had appropriate vocal training in the past and they practice good vocal hygiene.
- Look for detailed information in casting breakdowns. Breakdowns should provide information about the character and specific expectations about the amount of time or number of lines that require vocal combat or extremes. The more information the better to help the performer make an informed decision about whether they are interested in auditioning for the role.
- Be mindful when scheduling performers for auditions about the need for the voice to have rest after a session that requires vocal extremes.
- Remind performers that while casting directors may want them to demonstrate their ability to do vocal extremes, an audition should not require that a performer go to the full extent of their range or repeat aggressive sounds to the point where they may be risking injury or vocal stress.
Best Practices for Voice Performers
Know your limits
- Your voice is your number one asset. If you have a history of issues with your voice e.g. hoarseness, voice loss, pain when speaking, vocal fatigue, you should speak with your physician or an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist before undertaking vocally stressful work. If you have an underlying vocal condition, vocally stressful work may not be for you.
- Seek out voice training in vocal combat and vocal extremes that may be required in video game and animation voice over work.
- Talk with your agent about what you are comfortable doing, and for how long.
- Discuss with your agent what is going to be required at an audition. Make sure there is not an expectation to perform extended aggressive sounds or vocal extremes at an audition. Demonstrating the skill may be required but repetition and production day level of performance should not be necessary.
Exercising good vocal hygiene:
- Ask for the help of a Voice Director or Coach. They can help to organize the vocal work required for the production and help to make sure you have breaks and exercise good vocal hygiene to sustain your voice through one or more sessions.
“Protect and support the instrument, strengthen it regularly, indulge in vocal health, rest after intense sessions, heal and stay quiet! Lubricate and breathe.”
- Stay hydrated. While it varies, it can take anywhere from 1-4 hours to hydrate your vocal folds so make sure you are hydrated before and during the session. The folds are covered by a membrane (the mucosa) that protects them. This covering must be wet and slippery to vibrate well which reduces the risk of injury. Avoid alcohol or anything that will dehydrate you the evening before and the day of your session. Hydrate before, during, and after your session. Use of a Voice Nebulizer before, during and after sessions may help with immediate hydration of vocal folds.
- If you wake up with a rough/raspy/deep voice in the morning, you may have silent reflux which is a kind of acid reflux that affects the throat. To eliminate the risk of this affecting your voice, do not eat within 3-4 hours of going to bed the night before a session. Some symptoms of silent reflux are: hoarseness, dry cough, feeling of a lump in your throat, frequent throat clearing, and difficulty swallowing.
- If you have seasonal allergies that cause a lot of post-nasal drainage, this can also affect your voice. Be certain to stay on top of allergy medications before your audition or session to protect your voice from becoming irritated. It is best to avoid using decongestants if possible as these can cause increased dryness of the throat.
Before the recording day:
- Prepare for the session by doing your homework. Watch animation productions with vocal combat. If you are a video game player you will have an idea of what it sounds like when you get shot, if you don’t play video games, that’s fine, but listen to some game play.
- Make sure you vocally warm up before the session – do lip trills, sirens, or pitch glides up on “whoop” and down on “boom” to stretch your voice through your entire vocal range. Then take time to cool down after. Cool downs are about re-settling into your speaking voice after doing vocal acrobatics, so do some hums around your speaking pitch and make sure your throat feels as relaxed as possible.
On the recording day:
- Guide the session. You can ask to have more extreme lines come later, especially if they don’t involve words.
“Onos are the most difficult part of any recording and as a rule, I ask they be done at the end of a session.”
- When preparing for a take to be performed at high volume, give the engineer a heads up so they can lower your mic level to get a good take that you won’t have to do over. Some engineers need more pro-active heads up than others.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a break. Most directors would rather you take a short break to rest than have you keep pushing through and have to leave a session early.
- Schedule vocal rest after your session. You will want to rest your voice totally – no whispering or talking at all for several hours after your session. The only vocalizing you should do is a few minutes of humming every half hour. The humming will help your voice recover more quickly.
- Be aware that if you undertake a session while hoarse or ill, your risk of vocal injury will be greater. Work with your Agent and the Voice Director or Coach to reschedule.
- Any hoarseness or change in voice that lasts longer than two weeks should be brought to the attention of your health care provider. It is important to see a voice specialist or Ear Nose and Throat Specialist for a full examination of the vocal folds if symptoms do not resolve within four weeks.
*D’Arcy Smith receives compensation for his voice and speech work through public and private venues teaching the Vocal Combat Technique. D’Arcy Smith works as a voice and dialect coach and director for video game productions in the US, Canada, and the UK.