Dark haired woman holding a magnifying glass up to her left eyeWhat do you do when you need to voice a historical figure but there are no known recordings of their voice to reference?

1877 marked the first audio recording, therefore persons of note at or before that time were likely not captured on phonograph cylinders, on wax records in the 1890s or even through electronic recording in the 1920s.
So, how do you create a voice using clues from the past?
Learn how to start thinking like a vocal detective in today’s VOX Daily.

How Do You Cast Roles Without Audio References?

One of my friends is in the midst of a quandary. She needs to cast someone to voice a role where there is no recorded sample of the subject’s voice. While some suggestions have come along regarding geography, ethnicity and character traits, ultimately this one appears to be an “I’ll know it when I hear it,” casting call based upon more than just what the voice might sound like but also how the role and lines are interpreted.
The role she is casting for happens to be Jesus Christ which presents its own unique set of challenges. It’s not easy to take on a role that calls for being both fully God and fully man but many actors have risen to the occasion and given the role their best effort as we’ve seen in film, television, stage and audio drama.
That being said, regardless of who the individual you’re casting for is, trying to put a voice to someone who lived long ago is difficult, especially if there are no recordings of their voice, video footage, or photographs to base an interpretation upon. Even so, casting for roles like this happens all the time when epic films are made or documentaries are produced featuring people who lived in a time before multimedia.
Here are some tools that you can use along the way when building a character sketch and a case for how someone might sound.

6 Tools For Discernment and Character Development

๏ Study personal accounts and follow patterns in their transcribed speech / writing style
๏ Go back to the text for clues regarding their age, demeanor, physicality and vocal timbre
๏ Observe their physical appearance as depicted in photographs or paintings for details that might be telling of their speech (missing teeth, clenched jaw, broken nose, foreign object in their mouth such as a cigar, etc.)
๏ Identify where they came from and consider known speech characteristics / accents
๏ Read accounts made by people who knew or interacted with the person in question
๏ Collect adjectives that have been used to describe their personality and temperament
You might find that the tools above can also be applied when creating voices for character roles in cartoons, audiobooks and more.

How Do You Design Voices From The Past?

When you find yourself in a situation where you need to design the voice of a person who lived centuries ago, perhaps even thousands of years ago, what do you do?
Looking forward to hearing your answer!
Best wishes,
Stephanie
©iStockphoto.com/Amanda Rohde

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Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com. Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her blog serves an audience what wants to grow in their careers as professional voice users, and more specifically, voice actors. Stephanie was recently listed on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. One thing that has to come into play (in addition to your spot-on suggestions) is imagination. There has to be an inner listening or scene played mentally where you can put all those elements into the character and have it blend into a believable personality, not just an historically accurate characterization. When the actual performance is heard, the audience can connect to a portrayal that doesn’t bring to mind others attempts to do the same–but a fresh meeting with a new (albeit extremely familiar) persona. NOW we are voice ACTING, folks…

  2. Yes, acting it surely is and there are options. Working with the benefit of archive audio – BBC wartime heroes – my finding is that a voice performer can mimic to achieve phrase by phrase accuracy, or choose instead to get immersed in the character as Stephanie and Herb suggest, and then PERFORM.
    That might turn out less clinically accurate in terms of accent and intonation, but brings far more drama and believability.
    As to working without an audio reference… well for now I leave that to others longer in the art!

  3. Good topic.
    I run into this quite a bit actually.
    First and foremost, understand what the specs for the role entail.
    (then add in the research and acting 😉
    For example, most people think they know what Abe Lincoln sounded like based on the Disney films and animatronics… Way off!
    Historically, Lincoln’s voice was described as “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant”
    (more info here: http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/speaker.htm )
    That’s a far cry from the baritone statesman we’re probably expecting…
    Just a thought,
    Joe

  4. Thank you, Stephanie, this was very interesting. And thank you, too, for your reverent description of our Lord.
    Sincerely,
    John Sipple

  5. Hi Drew, Herb, Howard, Joe and John,
    Thank you very much for commenting! I appreciate hearing your thoughts and am pleased that this topic was of interest to you.
    @Drew Thank you for letting me know how timely this was for you. When inspiration strikes, you’ve got to go for it 🙂 I’m glad that I wrote about what I did at a time when it was immediately useful for you.
    @Herb Imagination does play a big role in making the character realistic AND engaging. Thank you!
    @Howard Thank you for sharing about the WWII war-time voices you have been doing. I think a lot of what goes on can be translated to putting the pieces together for historical figures that have no reference audio wise to go from. Historical texts and personal accounts will tell you a lot and provide much to work with 🙂
    @Joe That’s really interesting! I’ve seen the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Walt Disney World in The Hall of Presidents and wouldn’t have thought that his voice was quite different than what was portrayed. Funny how sometimes the culture tries to change how something, even the depth or commanding tone of a voice, is perceived to fit the mainstream ideal in the here and now. You’ve just shone light on some revisionist voice history!
    @John You’re welcome 🙂 It was interesting to see all of the suggestions my friend received for who should be cast. Some were saying Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones type voices, but perhaps they were thinking more of the Father rather than the Son. If I ever had to cast for the role of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, much prayer on my part, and likely prayer from others, would be required! Thank you again for taking part in the conversation.
    Best wishes,
    Stephanie

  6. Research any written accounts of the character to see if their are any references to the sound and hopefully, meter of the person’s voice like in Lincoln’s voice description.

  7. It would depend of the time and era that the character would be required to sound like they came from, and what age would they have to be. (Time+Place+Age= Quality of the Character).

  8. I try to know at least the general area the person comes from, and the age I’m supposed to be going for. It gives a good base if nothing else is available (VERY short notice)

  9. Research, research research and get to know so much about the person that you can become them, behind the mic. Just like becoming a character in any acting role.

  10. Considering their country of origin … the part of the country they settled in … and their social status … pays to be well read!

  11. Mark Twain = Foghorn Leghorn w/out stutter.
    Ben Franklin = Parker Fennelly or Earl Hindman
    Fredrick Douglass = Morgan Freeman (who else?)

  12. Colloquialisms. (thank you spell check) If anyone has seen Deadwood you know what I’m talking about. Go back a little further…Shakespeare…fast forward…Brittany Spears (AAAAH!) You get the point. Accent is one thing but the MANNER of speech of the day is a HUGE help. Colloquialisms.

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