Balancing Music and Voice

Best Practice Series

Pairing music with the human voice.

Choosing the right music for your brand - and ensuring it matches up to the voices and spoken-word content you expect to use in any project - can make all the difference in crafting successful audio-based messages. Everything must work together to create the soundtrack of your company.

When selecting music for your project, a number of factors come into play that will determine how effective your production will be. Key considerations include:

  • Your brand sound
  • What you’re trying to express through the music
  • How the music supports the message you are conveying

Remember, while music plays a critical role in the production, the music is meant to set the stage for the words meant to move your audience to action.

Before you commit to music, a particular style or voice type, be sure to answer the following questions to shape a framework for you to work from:

  • What does my brand sound like?
  • How does the music reflect my goals?
  • What type of voice should I use?

1. Brand Sound

You’ve probably given some thought to brand sound without even realizing you were doing so. Knowing what your brand sounds like means first knowing about your brand. What’s your company like? How do people perceive you?

Generally speaking, the mission, vision and values of an organization are baked into their brand. By writing those attributes down, you can begin to form a clearer picture of your brand. Your brand lives in words, pictures and yes, even sound.

Take a step back and think about the words and what they represent. How might they come across when put to music? If you’re an innovative, exciting and youthful brand, music choices might be more upbeat, bright and dynamic. If you’re better known as being trustworthy, authoritative and reliable, the music you choose might reflect more of a corporate sound paced at a moderate speed featuring more traditional orchestration.

2. Music and Your Goals

Every project is different. That said, the music you choose should always represent your brand while matching up with the sort of presentation you are creating. Music choices will vary depending on application.

If you’re producing a radio commercial, the music should align with what the audience of that particular station expects to hear. If you’re airing a spot on a country music station, the opening music from an opera by Mozart may not do the trick.

The goal is to meet the audience where they are. The more closely you can align your music choices with the tastes or sentiments of the people meant to hear them, the better. When working on a production that is meant to teach someone, you may use less music or more subdued music throughout to better maintain focus on the instruction. Make sure that the music you choose ultimately supports the message and plays to its strengths.

3. Choosing a Voice

The human voice is an instrument. As we know, voices come in all shapes and sizes with no one voiceprint being alike. The four primary classifications of voice are Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. Think of a choir. Within these sections, voices will have different types of tone color and characteristics. Some voices have a larger presence while others are less pronounced. Some voices will have more vibrato whereas others produce a purer tone. Where one voice may have a lightness to it, another could sound the trumpet for battle. Recognizing the uniqueness of a voice is important, but more so, you’ll want to know if that voice, and the way the talent is interpreting your script, goes well together.

Balancing the voice with the music is also important. Remembering that the voice is another instrument in the mix, you need to find a way for the voice to act as a soloist in your production, allowing for the voice, which is the vehicle for the words, to stand out and do the job it has been tasked with.

Some microphones like the Electro-Voice RE20 (the stereotypical radio microphone) are large diaphragm microphones designed to pick up lower frequencies such as a deep male voice, a bass drum or even a bass guitar.

The small diaphragm or small capsule microphone, such as AKG's C1000 S, is designed to pick up higher frequencies such as the female voice, the brightness of an acoustic guitar or shimmering cymbals. You may have seen these as the overhead microphones on a drum kit or above an orchestra.

You may have heard of Hertz in relation to sound measurement. Hertz, named for the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, measures the number of cycles per second. Where the human voice is concerned, this means the number of times the vocal folds vibrate per second.

  • A healthy male voice usually falls between 110-120 hertz
  • A healthy female voice usually falls between 200-210 hertz
  • Children's voices usually fall between 300-400 hertz

The higher the vibrations per second, the brighter the sound. For example, you might be familiar with A440, also known as Concert Pitch. As an orchestra prepares to tune, the principal violinist will play this pitch to help others in the ensemble tune their instruments.

If you are working with a voice artist who has a lighter voice, perhaps in the treble range of a soprano or alto, you’ll want to make sure that the instrumentation used doesn’t drown out the voice. Having too much treble in this case might result in the treble voice getting lost in the chorus of other voices such as the treble of the piano or violin.

Choose your music first and then find a voice talent whose instrument and interpretation of your script fit well. You could start with the voice and then find appropriate music, but usually people know what music they want to work with before hiring a voice talent.

The more you know about what you are aiming to do, the better equipped you are to bring the right people (and their instruments!) together to get the job done.

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