As an editor of voice overs and a voice over talent, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to voices, and not just the ones in my head. Each and every one has their own unique tonal quality, interpretation style, phrasing patterns, and emotional palettes. But the one thing they all have in common is that they all have to come up for air once in awhile. Shocking, I know – voice talent actually breathe!
But, if you listen closely to the finished product once it hits the TV, radio, IVR system, or whatever medium you are producing for, you find that many voice talent have become ‘breathless’ – as if they took one big breath at the beginning of the script and read straight through to the end. Herein lies the fine art of de-breathing.
If you’re new to producing voice overs, de-breathing involves editing out the short sips of air everyone takes when talking. If you’re an experienced voice over producer this is nothing new to you, and you may have strong opinions about how, when or even if you should remove those breaths between sentences and phrases. The point of this article is to explain why, when and to some extent how you should go about de-breathing a voice over.
De-breathing didn’t really become commonplace until the advent of non-linear editing. Before that, trying to chop out breaths with a razor blade was darn near impossible. Now it’s a fairly easy process to go through a finished read and eliminate all traces of breathing. However, it does take some fine tuning to sound good.
Many times this editing becomes a safety net for the lengthy script. When a read needs to be :59 for a radio commercial, but the favorite take is timing out at :61, removing the breaths and tightening up the read helps get the voice over in time.
It also comes in handy when a voice talent has particularly loud or distracting breathing patterns. Not everyone breaths the same. Some take large gasps (often the case when the style of the read is very taxing, such as hard sell car spots), others are barely audible at all. You’ll find many seasoned voice over professionals are conscious of this and have learned to minimize the sound of their breathing. For those who haven’t mastered this ability, a seasoned editor can be the voice talent’s best friend.
It is not always appropriate to remove breaths from a voice over. Some old school editors and producers have the opinion that you should never de-breath voice over reads. The argument is similar to the old debate over records versus CDs. Purists think you lose the natural pacing and feel of the read when the breaths are removed.
I agree, that if done haphazardly, removing breaths can sometimes cause the read to lose its rhythm or sound stilted. But when done properly, you should end up with a read that is paced correctly and feels just as natural as the original. In fact this type of editing often allows you to enhance the timing of the original read.
The other argument against de-breathing is more technical in nature. When a recording environment has a high noise floor, cutting out sections of audio without adding back room tone can sound very unprofessional and distracting. However, most professional recording studios are constructed to keep room tone to a minimum, thus allowing the editor greater flexibility when cutting between lines of a voice over.
Personally, I feel most voice overs that have been recorded properly can benefit from being cleaned up by a professional editor. The one exception is when the read is meant to be very conversational, such as a testimonial voice over or an ‘everyday person’ type of read. For these reads, it’s sometimes best to leave them alone.
There is a definite skill to de-breathing voice overs. Simply cutting out each breath without adjusting the timing between words will leave you with a read that doesn’t feel like the original. It can sound ‘stilted’ and you can lose the emotion the read was intended to convey.
Likewise, if the process is purely for the sake of saving time in a read, you run the risk of eliminating too much air, giving a very produced feel to the read. This can sometimes be used for effect, particularly in car spots, but is not usually desirable.
After removing the breath and editing as closely to each word as possible without clipping, you should tighten the spacing by a couple frames, to start with. This will give you a rough edit that can be massaged after listening back and getting a feel for the pacing.
The most important thing you need to do is listen. This includes hearing playback on each edit as well as taking in the entire piece as a whole. If you can hear the edits or the spacing sounds unnatural, it needs some more work.
De-breathing can be a handy technique to improve the quality of your final product. Edit carefully and take the time to listen, and you’ll end up with polished, professional sounding voice overs.