Speak Easy

Artwork provided by  Mike Andrews.

Artwork provided by Mike Andrews.

This episode was written and produced by Fil Corbitt.

We rarely think about the way we speak. For most of us, it just happens. In this episode, we catch up with two professional voice artists and chat about their rituals and techniques that help them communicate. Featuring voice actor Harry Shearer and NPR vocal coach Jessica Hansen.


Fantasy (Instrumental) by De Joie
Trembling Care (Instrumental) by How Great Were the Robins
Wishing Well Wheel by Sound of Picture
Do Better by Sound of Picture
Por Supuesto by Sound of Picture
Peas Corps by Sound of Picture
Bright White by Sound of Picture
Platformer by Sound of Picture

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[SFX: voice clearing/Dallas’ Vocal prep]

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor… uh, hold on. Let’s do that one more time. You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor. There we go.

[music in]

Since I’ve been making this very podcast, I’ve had to start thinking about something I never thought about in my entire life: my OWN voice.

Every episode tells stories of people who study and design the way our world sounds. But - getting meta here - It’s MY voice communicating these stories, and it’s super weird and I hate my voice just as much as you do. And it’s not like I ever considered myself a vocalis, of any sort.

But there was this one time last Winter where I completely lost my voice but I had to record an episode, I had no idea what to do. So, as you do, I posed the question to twitter asking for advice and was completely blown away when one of my childhood heroes responded.

[music out]

Harry Shearer: And we’re recording.

This is Harry Shearer. You might not know his name, but you’ve definitely heard him.

He was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, he was Derek Smalls in the movie Spinal Tap....And of course, he’s the voice of many characters on The Simpsons.

[SFX: montage of Ned Flanders Clip, Seymour Skinner Clip and Burns & Smithers].

[music in]

In addition to acting and voice acting, he also has been on the radio for decades.

Harry: Well, that's where I started. That's where I've had a foothold for coming on 35 years now as a so called grown up. So I probably have been more of a regular presence or more of a presence on radio than in any other medium.

So this is someone who knows how to use his voice. And after he responded to my tweet, with a recipe for a throat-soothing drink, I figured why not take this moment and set up an interview and see what else I could learn from a voice master.

Harry: There's a world of effects you can create with the voice and with these tools that we have, and that can both spellbind a listener and take a listener into a world of imagination that visual kind of overwhelms and wipes out, and you can spend literally millions of dollars of CGI work trying to create an effect that the listener's imagination can create very easily just with a sound and a few words.

All we need is our voice to tell a story and sound can elevate that to another level. But there are so many nuances that make our voice engaging. This can take years to master. And our voice is very fragile. So it’s incredibly important to find ways to protect it.

[music out]

Harry: My wife is a singer and her dad was an opera singer, and she taught me his warm ups. The most tired my voice gets is doing what we're doing right now, talking in some version of my actual voice. So, I always warm up before that and certainly if I'm going to do Simpsons or stuff for my radio show, she just taught me that's the essential thing is to warm up and it's about a 10 minute routine and then she also taught me, I think what I suggested to you, which is apple cider vinegar, honey and hot water and then someone else added and I sometimes will do this as well, some garlic and lemon juice to the preceding ingredients.

Are there certain voices that are more difficult or strenuous?

Harry: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. The decision as to how a character sounded, they call it a decision is to dignify it unsuitably because it was basically just a sort of a stab, an intuitive leap I'll call it if I want to dignify it at all, in the beginning of the show, I don't know about anybody else in the cast but I know I didn't see any drawings.

Oh really?

Harry: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I only saw was script and like a one sentence description of the character, so it's really just I think it sounds like this and if you had told me then you're going to be doing this voice for 30 years, there are several voices I would have changed how they were done, Otto [SFX: Otto] and even more particularly a character that they mercifully finally killed off, Dr. Marvin Monroe, who sometimes reappears magically from the dead on a Halloween show.

[SFX: Dr. Marvin Monroe]

Harry: Marvin Monroe was designed to be as grating as humanly possible. He was a family counselor who was supposed to, you know, have a benevolent kind of reassuring bedside manner but I think it was written into the description that he had just this horrible voice that was grading and totally went against the grain of the effect he was supposed to have on people, so that's what I did but I mean it was not good on the cords and Otto, I will say this, we do that at the end of every session.


[music in]

Establishing a warm-up routine and having a concoction to clean out your pipes are great first steps to Vocal Health. But wading into this world of using my voice professionally, I’ve realized there is so much more than just voice health. There’s breathing, there’s phrasing and of course there’s the pronunciation of words, or what’s better known as, diction.

Harry: I haven't heard the word diction used in public in so many years, ‘cause people seem to have forgotten about it. Yeah, I mean, listen to the way people talk.

Harry: I never thought of myself as a dialectician, and if you listen to some of my accents on The Simpsons, you'd agree with me… but it's just my observation of what I've seen, tend to emphasize pronunciation as a key to an accent or a dialect.

When doing an accent, Harry says it’s actually inflection that can make it believable, instead of the diction.

Harry: You've learned the inflection of the way your parents talk before you knew what they meant. You don't make a mistake with that, and so a musical ear will clue you into the music that each accent encodes and you can make dozens of mistakes with pronunciation and still sound like you're doing the accent.

[music out]

I’m going to be totally honest -- it’s hard to use your voice to its full potential. And it’s something we’re all born with, but it’s also something we rarely think about. And zooming out a little, that’s true about sound in general.

[music in]

Sound often takes a backseat to the other senses, even though it can really shape our experiences.

Harry: If you're doing a film, sound is the guy at the bottom of the food chain. The actors have been called to the set, lights have been set and you hear this all the time, oh waiting on sound. It's the last guy who has to sort of finally get his two cents in and it’s “oh this isn't right, I got to fix something”, sigh, waiting on sound…

Harry says he made a low-budget film about 20 years ago, and his understanding of sound is what made it possible.

Harry: When you're working low budget, you really have to be inventive with everything but I learned you can almost trick people into thinking they saw something if you use sound correctly and combine it with a couple other things, so effects that you just can't afford to do, you can almost be sure that people will think they've seen that effect in your film if you use sound properly with as I say a couple other treatments.

[music out]

Through sound, you can trick the mind into thinking it saw something, and Harry says that makes sound a subversive effect.

Harry: It's so powerful in all sorts of ways. In mood, coloring how you perceive something and this is a golden age as far as I'm concerned in terms of what is now being made available in terms of tools to play with sound.

[music in]

Sound is powerful, and were all born with this little built in sound box. This whole podcasting experience got me thinking that I need to learn how to use this tool better. So I went searching for somebody who could help.

That -- and some pretty embarrassing sounds coming from my voice -- after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

One really fast way to learn how to use your voice professionally is to start a podcast and figure it out as you go. That’s what I did, but last year I started thinking, maybe I should ask a professional to teach me some tricks. So I emailed Jessica Hansen.

[music out]

Jessica: I am the in house voice coach at NPR. I'm also the voice of NPR funding credits.

In case you’re not familiar with NPR funding credits, here’s some of Jessica’s work.

[SFX: Jessica Hansen reading funding credits]

Jessica works specifically with NPR Journalists to help them find a voice for radio.

Jessica: The primary reason for NPR needing a voice coach is because we are an audio product and most people don't have training in using their voices as storytellers. They have training in how to write, how to find sources, how to cultivate the sources, how to put together the story, how to ask the right questions, how to be in the right place at the right time, but they just don't get voice training.

And all of that hard work to write a story, can fall flat if your voice can’t engage the audience.

If you don’t sound excited, people will pick up on that. And if you sound too authoritative, people might not identify with you.

Jessica: Most people say, you know, "Oh, well sound more conversational", but then the person doesn't know how to sound more conversational, because you are reading and it is hard to lift words up off a page. It is the trick in this business.

[music in]

So how do you start?

Jessica: Breathe. Uh, gosh, breathing solves almost every problem. Breathing solves nerves, breathing solves phrasing, breathing solves decisiveness, and breathing helps you to open your voice.

It’s so easy to run out of breath without even realizing it’s happening. Just learning to think about your breathing is huge.

Jessica: I'm also often being asked to solve the problem of a voice being placed wrong. You know? She sounds too nasal, he's talking out of his throat, he has vocal fry, she sounds like she's whispering. And so I solve a lot of resonance problems. Helping people to put their voices forward in their faces so that they're resonating and they're not speaking out of the backs of their throats, and that they feel like they're using their whole voices and sounding like a whole person that's present and not just part of a voice.

[music out]

We often think of our voice as a natural part of our self, but like any muscle, we have to train it to unlock its full potential. Without thinking about it, we limit our ability to communicate.

For instance, you can work to expand vocal range. That’s the variation between high notes and low notes.

Jessica: I think increasing vocal range is one of my favorite things to work on. A lot of people use only a few notes in their range. We speak on maybe two or three or four notes because, you know, we're grownups and we're trying to sound like we're adults.

This sort of adult tone can get really monotonous.

Jessica: I love to work with people on increasing the range of their voices, and helping people to find that higher notes don't necessarily sound shrill, and lower notes aren't the only thing that you can do to sound authoritative. And so really playing with vocal range, and giving people a broader spectrum to choose from is not only fun, but I think it's really important.

Remember, training and vocal work is not about changing the voice, but expanding it.

Jessica: People are scared they're going to be talking way up here like Minnie Mouse, but that's not the result either. If you work on talking like Minnie Mouse, and like the Wicked Witch of the West, and like some Dark Lord villain character, and then you marry all three of those together we get various places in the voice that blend and merge, and all three of those qualities together create the whole voice.

I actually took vocal lessons with Jessica for about 3 months. And they were totally different from what I had expected. Instead of singing scales, or trying to hit certain notes, She had me do all kinds of weird stuff.

Like lay totally flat on my back at NPR making cat noises and weird grunts. I would also do things like singing twists where I spin my whole body and just sing… Just go (uuhuuuhuuuh). Things like lip trills (brrrrrr). Barrel shimmies, these are things where I’m shaking my whole body and just gonna (ugh ugh ugh ugh). Lazy tongue where I just let my tongue sit in my mouth and not use it. Toddler (ME! ME! ME!) I can’t do it, it’s just so ridiculous. Anyway there's a ton of laughing and just ridiculousness. But its all to just stretch your entire comfort level, to find out where your voice can go, really.

Anyway, we tend to think of our voices as pretty fixed. But they really aren’t -- even without training, they can change quite a bit over time. If you go back and listen to the earliest episodes of your favorite podcasts, you’ll probably be surprised a how different the host sounds. I’m not gonna play anyone else’s show, but I can play mine.

The first episodes of this show really weren’t that long ago -- it was late 2016 -- and still, I can hear a clear difference in my voice. It is horribly cringey for me.

Anyway, very reluctantly, here’s me from the first episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz:

[SFX: #1 Siri]

It’s always weird to hear your own voice recorded, but hearing an old version is even weirder. I sound weird and unhappy. And it really sounds like I got pulled out of bed at four o’clock in the morning and someone put a microphone in front of my face.

[music in]

It’s weird that you have to work so hard just to sound natural. And this goes beyond podcasting and voice acting. If you give a speech or just want to communicate with your boss, a lot of the times the feelings in your head just doesn’t really translate much to the voice. I think everyone could benefit in some way by just practicing their voice.

Jessica: I think that the voice is a really good expression of who we are. You know the expression, 'the eyes are the window to the soul'? I think it's true of the voice as well. Every voice is unique. Every person has his or her own unique sound. And no matter how much training you give it, it's still an expression of that person's inner self.

Jessica says, when you train your voice, you gain a wider range of expression.

Jessica: So people who work on expanding their vocal range, they have more options for expressing themselves or what they're trying to communicate, whether it's storytelling or a presentation in a boardroom, or giving an inspirational speech. Whatever it is, even if it's just your Thanksgiving toast around the family dinner table. Just having more options for color, and tone, and lyric and being able to express yourself more fully.

And being able to express yourself more fully, and more accurately, is a pretty cool skill to learn.

Jessica: I think it's important for professional voice users to remember that the most important thing is to make a connection with your listener.

Jessica: The more free and open, and the more possibilities for expression, the better we feel. The better we individually feel physically, emotionally and mentally. And just know that everything that you have to offer is exactly enough, and just to open that up and give yourself the range and the freedom to express what you have to say, because everyone has a different perspective, everyone has a different story, everyone has a different point of view, and everyone has a different voice, so we want to hear them.

[music out]

[music in]

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound a sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound.com.

This episode was produced by Fil Corbitt and me, Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound edited by Soren Begin, it was mixed by Jai Berger. The writer of this episode Fil Corbitt is the host of Van Sounds, a podcast about movement. It’s a unique blend of music journalism, travel writing and experimental radio. You can find Van Sounds on apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

A huge thanks to Harry Shearer and Jessica Hansen. You can find more of his work, links and news at Harry Shearer Dot Com and Jessica’s work at jessicahansen DOT net.

Thanks to Stephen Indrisano for naming this episode.

Finally, if you have a friend or loved one thats an actor or somebody who has a podcast or anyone who uses their voice professionally where it be in a meeting or just in work. Be sure to take a moment to share this episode. We are 100% independent so the only way people will know about us is if you tell them. So whether its this episode or any of your other favorite episodes be sure to tell your friends. And remember this is a totally clean podcast, its politics free and it will always be those two things.

You can find us in any podcast player and you can connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, or by writing hi at 20k dot org.

Thanks for listening. One more time. Thanks for listening, thanks for listening…

[music out]

No lets do this again, thanks for listening. No, thanks for listening, thanks for listening, thanks for listening.

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