12 October, 2011

I'm Conflicted About Sibilant Voice Talent

When you hear somone speak the words of an ad (radio or or TV), or give you the options for an IVR, or perform for an animated program, the people who do that are called "voice talent" or "voice actors."  I myself have recorded some voice talent, and have been a minor one, having produced a few PBX recordings for Sitel.  (I also recorded some of the autoattendant announcements, such as at +1(716)871-6400, if it still happens to be there.)  But what I don't quite understand is, why do media producers think sibilant people are good?

If you don't know what sibilance is, it's kind of difficult to explain concisely.  All I can tell you is, when sibilant people pronounce words with the letter "s" in them, you'll definitely know it.  Sometimes, but not always, President Obama speaks with sibiliance.  If a dog is lying down and trying to get to sleep for a nap within a kilometer, a sibiliant person should make them raise their head and point their ears in the sibilant person's general direction.  (Well, maybe not, but I was trying to think of an analogy to illustrate higher than normal high frequency content.)

The problem is, for some people, like myself and a friend of mine named "PJ," hearing a sibilant person talk evokes a reaction like most people have to the scratching of fingernails on a chalkboard.  This is so much so that we have to, as politely as possible, leave the vicinity of sibilant speakers.  One such example I can recall vividly is the birthday party for a mutual friend of ours.  His wife just nails each "s" so hard, we had to sort of try our best to steer clear of her.  Thankfully such high audio frequencies have similar characteristics to high radio frequencies: they're mostly "line-of-sight," so ducking around a corner (such as into a different room) alleviates that feeling of anxiety...so that's all we generally had to do.

Now, I realize that PJ and I may be in the minority, maybe even in the vast minority, but still...don't you think ad producers in particular would want to irritate as few people as possible?  After all, aren't you trying to establish the widest possible audience for the product you're pitching?  I daresay, choosing sibilant voice talent is one way to cut down on your audience size.

The saddest thing about it is, I know there's virtually nothing these people can do about it; that's the vocal tract their genetics have made.  The best we audio engineers can do is add a sibilance controller to the processing chain1.  But this only helps so much.  It's more-or-less only a Band-Aid on the problem.

So, in short, I don't know.  I'm very conflicted.  Sibilant voice talents are usually quite superb in every other respect.  In one sense, I'd rather not see them be fired or not selected for a given voiceover job (because it's something they are rather than something they choose to be), but on the other hand, I want to cringe less.  But just like I am innately unsuited for many jobs, such as being a Buffalo Sabre or a member of a construction crew (either of which requires quite a lot of strength which I don't have, and probably never will), so too these people really could do rather better in some other endeavor...please.  And I do say/write that with a certain amount of regret, please believe me.

1 A sibilance controller is a circuit or (DSP) software which applies an automatic gain control to high frequencies.  It's as if a person were constantly monitoring the audio, and cranking down the treble whenever sibilance is heard (and cranking it back up to normal when there isn't so much sibilance).

English is a difficult enough language to interpret correctly when its rules are followed, let alone when the speaker or writer chooses not to follow those rules.

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