On Recording a Voiceover

In December I was occupied by a number of things not related in any way to Christmas.

One was trying to take video footage of RAF Menwith Hill without being arrested. This was tricky.  There is a perimeter road from which it should be possible to obtain some lovely shots, but there are security cameras pointing at every inch of that road. Having driven one circuit, I didn’t really want to do another. They would be watching.

Eventually, I found a great spot about two miles away but it was very, very windy. To get decent shots without a whole load of camera shake I had to climb into a field, crouch down low and hide behind some trees. I couldn’t see the road behind me and so I just assumed that every car going past me was an RAF or MOD vehicle, or a police car, and that the longer I sat with my camera trained on an RAF base, the more likely I was to end up renditioned to the Isle of Wight or something. But I got my footage.

The other preoccupation was recording a voiceover for my “proper” short film about waiting1 .

When I made Island Going, I was very lucky. I wanted a male German voiceover. This was partly because I’d bumped into a lone German tourist several times whilst filming in the Outer Hebrides and he became as much a part of that landscape, for me, as the images I brought back with me. My friend Mark did track him down on the internet but I was unsure about contacting him. In the meantime, my wife told me she’d met a German academic called Johannes and that he had a lovely voice. She offered to email him to ask him for his help.

Such a strange thing to receive, I imagined: an email from someone you’ve met once asking if you will provide a voiceover for her husband’s short film about a Scottish island. Still, it was her sending it and not me so why not?

Johannes, it transpired, has a twin brother who is a sound engineer with access to a studio. And Johannes, it further transpired, had done this sort of thing before. He already had one short film voiceover to his credit. If I could send over the script then he and his brother could record it over Easter and email it back.

And, so, with some hasty revisions made the script disappeared to Berlin. One long conversation, two minor edits and one week later I had my voiceover.

If I was grateful for the help of Johannes and his brother at the time2  then I was even more grateful once I had embarked on the process of recording a voiceover myself for Waiting. I had no equipment, I do not have a studio, I am not a sound engineer and I do not know what I am doing.

The equipment aspect was not too tricky. You can either spend hundreds of pounds on a microphone that you need to plug into more, equally expensive, equipment which then sits between your computer and the microphone. Or you can buy a relatively cheap microphone with a USB cable. Guess what I did.

It is, I think, time to admit that I have been recording sound, as a musician, for 25 years but, with a couple of exceptions, the sound I have been recording has always been electronically produced and in recording that I have usually been trying to do exactly the opposite of what I now needed to do.

What I mean is this: In recording electronic music, the sound is electronically created (either by analogue or digital equipment). The sound is relayed from the device to the recording equipment through a wire. That sound, then, is very pure in that there is no reverberation, or, “reverb”. You get reverb whenever you record a sound through a microphone because the microphone picks up not just the sound coming directly from whatever created it (a mouth, in the case of a voiceover) but the sound that has travelled from the source in a different direction, reflected off something else and then hit the microphone3. Electronically produced sounds, then, appear “placeless” due to lack of reverb. This helps give them a non-worldly character.

I generally spend time adding reverb to electronic sounds so that my music sounds more as if it has been recorded in a live space. This is important with drum sounds if you want to make an electronic drum kit sound real. For other sounds it just makes them sound more worldly, or warmer4 . With a voiceover recording, the problem is the exact opposite. You want to eliminate almost all reverb. You don’t want it to sound as if your unseen narrator recorded their voiceover in a nightclub, a tin shack or a church. You want the narrator to sound like they are in the place being shown onscreen or, more usually, in no-place at all.

Imagine a wildlife documentary where instead of sounding as if he is outside, whispering into the ear of the cameraman quietly recording some badger or hedgehog or something, David Attenborough sounded for all the world as if he was being recorded in Westminster Abbey or down a well. The dissonance would be distracting5  and, more important, undermine the attempt to create an aura of truth that is at the heart of all documentaries. Documentaries want to convince you of their truth not merely through content but form.

Anyway, as I say, my problem was that in recording a voiceover I wanted to avoid too much reverb. One other reason for doing this is that if you have a “flat” sound it’s much easier to muck about with and manipulate than if you’ve got a sound which is full of reverberations of itself.

One way to avoid reverb is to build a recording studio with special foam walls which will absorb sound so that the only noise you record is that which is coming directly from the speaker’s mouth. Or you can cover your desk with sleeping bags, hang a tent right behind you, pack a load of massive cushions either side of you and make the recording space as small as possible.

The second option is cheaper and it works surprisingly well. It’s the solution I implemented6 when I visited my friend Sara to record the voiceover which she so generously agreed to provide for me.

Here, again, I was lucky. Sara is an actor and has recently recorded a voice reel because she wants to do some voiceover work. I’d asked her if she’d help out months ago before I knew she wanted to do this and before I’d finished my script. So she knew what she was doing and it only took a couple of hours.

Now I haven’t actually finished putting together the footage for the film which I now have a completed7  voiceover for. This might seem like a case of putting one’s vocal cart before one’s visual horse but it makes perfect sense, as I shall briefly explain.

I’ve been working on this film for nearly 6 months8 . I wrote the script then went in search of the footage. When I got it I rewrote bits of the script and looked for more footage. Then I did that again. I realised that unless I fixed the script somehow then I would do this forever.

This is entirely normal and the reasons for it are not complex. Jean Paul-Sartre describes the situation well in What is Literature when he says “even if it appears finished to others, the created object always seems to us in a state of suspension. We can always change this line, that shade, that word”. And so we will, unless something forces us. As Sartre says, the created object “never forces itself”. So recording the voiceover meant fixing the form of the film. Once the mask-lady has finished making my Greek Chorus mask9  I can obtain the final footage I need and finish the thing.

One other reason I wanted to record a voiceover before finishing the film is less practical and has more to do with other, more existential, aspects of creativity which Sartre also discusses. The creator of an artistic object can never themselves regard the creation as an object. As Sartre puts it:

“…if our creative drive comes from the very depths of our heart, then we never find anything but ourselves in our work… It is our history, our love, our gaiety that we recognise in it. Even if we should look at it without touching it any further, we never receive from it that gaiety or love. We put them into it. The results which we have obtained on canvas or paper never seem to us objective. We are too familiar with the processes of which they are effects. These processes remain a subjective discovery; they are ourselves, our inspiration, our trick.”10

Filmmaking is, for me anywhow, an attempt to objectify aspects of one’s subjectivity. Sartre knew this of creativity and knew that you don’t create for yourself but for others. It is the gaze of others which gives your creation the object status you strive for it. It is, though, possible to distance oneself from the created object. Sartre was talking about writing, not speech. Anyone who listens to a recording of themselves knows that they sound ridiculous. If you listen to a recording of yourself reading your own script, it’s doubly ridiculous. In recording another person reading the same script, the first part of what makes it ridiculous for the writer is removed. Also, the second element of the ridiculous, the extent to which the script is a realisation of the subjectivity of the writer, is also diminished. Hearing one’s words spoken by another person give them an objectivity that they never have on paper or when spoken by oneself. Another person’s voice is an object in the way that one’s own voice never can be, even recorded and played back. In any case, another person always reads a script differently. Tone, emphasis, speed, colour, and so on; all these are different. They enable the script to become more itself and less you.

Recording a voiceover, therefore, has enabled me to create some distance between myself and the film, to give it partial object status. This, in turn, has enabled me to reflect more critically on the film and reassure me that things are heading in the right direction11 . Whilst I could have left it until the end, reassurance is a comforting thing to have now.

Now I just need mask-lady to get me that mask.


1 I say “proper” because I’ve made several very, very short films about waiting already. These are not “proper” films in that they are intended only to be experiments in style, technique and form. There is, I am sure, an extremely interesting blog to be written about this cavalier and offhand distinction between what is proper and what is experimentation but this, alas, is not that blog and, so, let us just accept the distinction and move on.

2 And I was. Very.

3 Anyone who ever saw a band play at the Hacienda club in Manchester will be aware of what happens when sound bounces off too many different things in too many different directions. The band sound awful. But, then, that’s what you get if you try to build a nightclub out of a yacht showroom. And, in any case, nobody ever went to see a band at the Hacienda because of the acoustics. The tin foil outfits maybe, but not the acoustics.

4 If you want to hear electronic music without reverb, listen to early Kraftwerk or E.M.A.K. Tangerine Dream tracks from the same era, by contrast, are invariably swamped in reverb and, therefore, as murky as hell.

5 I now feel I need to make a film with a whole series of inappropriately “placed” voiceovers. But it won’t be this film. This one needs to sound like the truth because I want to use the form of the documentary to peddle some untruths.

6 Slightly modified, I admit. The Christmas tree behind her worked better than a hung tent.

7 And excellently read.

8 Off and on. Perhaps more off.

9 Don’t ask.

10 Reading an interview with the director George A Romero, in this month’s Sight and Sound, earlier today I came across a complementary point: “When I see Night of the Living Dead”, he says, “all I can see still are the mistakes!”

11 This could be a delusion.

One thought on “On Recording a Voiceover

  1. First thing I’ve read this morning and will probably be the most interesting … Will describing the application of Satre as ‘nice’ get me into trouble, I wonder.

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