Controlling Loud Screams and Yells

Question:

In many cartoons, a character screams very loud.  How do the voice actors get the proper recording without distortion from yelling across the mic?

Answer:  You're absolutely correct that loud screams are common in animation and video game VO work!

There are two parts to answer your question - plus an additional consideration: The first has to do with recording process. Most animation and video game voice work will be recorded at a recording studio equipped to handle all aspects of recording. For extremely loud vocalizations, a distortion-free recording will be the result of a combination of performance technique, and proper engineering. The recording engineer will generally route the audio signal from the microphone through a device known as a compressor/limiter. In the case of loud sounds, the limiter function is what will be used. A limiter is a device that "limits" the maximum loudness of the incoming audio signal to a pre-set maximum volume level. In other words, the limiter acts like a very fast audio engineer by reducing the volume of the incoming signal as it gets loud. The loud audio is reduced in volume so it will not "clip" or distort when being recorded.

The second part of your answer has to do with microphone technique on the part of the voice actor. For screams, the actor needs to create the reality of the moment, but still needs to be mindful of not damaging his voice. This is a skill that is learned over time by working in animation and video games. The technique used by voice talent is simply to move away from the mic as the sound gets louder. If the room acoustics are good, the loud scream will sound real. If the room acoustics are poor, it is possible that the move away from the mic may result in some considerable room echo being picked up by the mic in addition to the voice. The use of a limiter will reduce the distance the talent will need to move away from the mic for loud screams.

There is also, however, a third aspect to your question that is worth consideration. And that is the affect that continued yelling or screaming has on the voice. The vocal cords are muscles, and like any other muscle in your body, if overexerted they will become stressed and possibly injured. Loud yelling or screaming during a long session will take its toll on the voice by stretching the vocal cords beyond their natural state. Under normal conditions the vocal cords are flexible and elastic, and can move efficiently to produce a wide range of sound. Under stressed conditions, like loud yelling, the vocal cords become stretched and lose their flexibility and elasticity. The result is a hoarse, gravely sound often accompanied by some pain and irritation. If taken too far, you can actually lose your voice completely. Its much like stretching a rubber band beyond its normal range and holding it there. After a while, the rubber band loses its ability to function as it should.

If you are in a situation in which you must overexert your voice to create a believable moment, then that's what you need to do. However, you should try to limit the duration of screaming to only what is absolutely necessary. And if your voice begins to feel stressed take a break if at all possible. Prepare for a session of this sort by drinking lots of water before and during the session, starting as far in advance as possible. If you "blow out" you voice, you have probably created some serious injury to your vocal cords which can only be treated by allowing them to heal with an extended period of inactivity. Drink plenty of water and DO NOT speak during this healing process - which may take up to a few days. Whispering can actually create more damage, so if you must speak, keep it short and vocalized.

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