Last time we talked about getting away from the male/female binary in voiceover. But the conversation didn’t end there. The blog generated some great comment and discussion which I’d like to address and expand on here.
I’d like to start with one of my favourite comments which came from voice actor Mike Tobin.
“…many clients are potentially missing out on great voices by eliminating half the field before they even get started.”
Let’s illustrate this with an extreme example: the Monster Truck Ad! You don’t hear these too often, but they’re a lot of fun to produce. All the rules of good audio advertising go right out the window. Suddenly conversational tones are traded for loud hard-sells. Storytelling is subverted by a stream of clichés. Lots of fun. But let’s look at how we might cast such a voice. Most would immediately feel it should be a male voice, and depending on your talent pool, that might be the best option. But to blindly cast a voice by sex as opposed to aptitude might be a mistake. Some men can pull off loud aggressive voices, but many are very soft-spoken. If you got Kevin Costner to do your monster truck ad, you might be disappointed by the result. Whereas if you were able to get someone like Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy, you’d probably end up with a pretty kick-ass ad.
Friend and colleague Chris Morris asked why all voice assistants, chatbots, talkbots, virtual assistants (they have so many names!) use female voices. I’ve seen a lot of conflicting research on the subject. Some say women prefer female voices. Some say there’s no difference. I’ve also heard that people respond better to female voices for information and male voices for direction. Regardless of the rationale, I don’t think there’s any denying that all chatbots sound pretty much the same. As an audio branding professional, I’d very much like to hear some chatbots that are more unique. And of course there’s a big push in the VO industry these days for more diverse voice talent. Either way, I think we’re doing everyone a disservice by having all white, female chatbots.
But let’s take this a step further. Why does it need to be male or female? A couple of years ago a group developed the first genderless voice assistant.
I really like it, but it takes a moment to get your head around it on the first listen.
There’s a musician here in Kingston named James Mulvale. He goes by the alias FASTFAST. He introduced me to the concept of microtonal music. This is the craft of creating music using finer divisions of the octave range. Basically you’re using the notes between the notes. It’s hard to explain. Probably easier to just listen to it.
Odd, isn’t it? It feels a bit dissonant. Maybe even jarring. When I first heard it, I thought it was super cool, as it opens up so many musical possibilities, but it took me a while to get my head around it. Most of our brains have been trained to accept twelve-tone music. This is not a trait we’re born with. It’s learned. It’s cultural. As a musician, the opportunity to double your available notes (or more) was very exciting. But I still felt that dissonance. I listened to more microtonal artists of different genres ranging from pop to black metal. Over time, an interesting thing happened. It didn’t sound weird anymore.
The reason I bring this up is because I believe a similar thing needs to happen with voiceovers. When you first hear a voice, your brain wants to determine whether it’s male or female. But why would it need to? In most cases, the gender has no bearing on the validity of the information being provided.
In an interesting coincidence, just a few days after I published the last blog, I was talking to my good friend and colleague Mel Roy. Mel is a non-binary voiceover artist. I’ve used their voice in many projects over the years. But in recent months, Mel has undergone hormone therapy, and their voice is now slightly lower. I must admit, hearing this new voice was a bit odd at first. This is someone I’ve known for over fifteen years. It doesn’t matter who you are, over time, your voice becomes part of your identity. People build a relationship with your voice the same way they do with your personality and appearance. But after a while, just like with the microtonal music, there was a moment where it just clicked. And fortunately this took only a few minutes instead of a few weeks.
In a few years, I think statements like “androgynous voices are distracting” will sound a lot like how statements like “seatbelts cause breathing difficulties” sound now.
Mel and I chatted about how they might market their voice. I suggested they might simply market themselves as a non-binary voice. Everything is hyper-specialized these days. People aren’t looking for these man-of-a-thousand-voices types anymore. People want authenticity. You need to have a very clear perception on where your natural strengths are, and market yourself accordingly. If you’re a non-binary person with a non-binary sound, there’s little point in presenting yourself as a male or female voice.
This would also be a great step in normalizing non-binary voice talent, and I strongly believe this is something that needs to happen. By describing and casting voices as male and female, we’re limiting ourselves to extremes only. We need to get over this, and the only way to do that is to embrace the full spectrum of the human voice.
Some advertisers may argue that the ambiguity may be distracting from the message. In the short term that may be so. In the long term, it’s an extremely regressive mentality that is only going to set us all back. In a few years, I think statements like androgynous voices are distracting will sound a lot like how statements like seatbelts cause breathing difficulties sound now. If we want to create memorable and distinctive sonic identities, while still being open to the full spectrum of humanity, embracing non-binary voices makes sense both financially and ethically.
Unless it’s a specific character, it’s in all our best interests to get over this need to know the sex of the voice, and instead embrace the feelings and values they convey. As I said in the previous blog, most commercial voiceovers take the role of narration. You wouldn’t be wondering what the voice performer is wearing, or what colour hair they might have. Why do you need to know their gender? As long as they’re expressing and communicating what we need, what’s the difference?