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Why Are Bass Voices Heard Better at 70 MPH?

By Stephanie Ciccarelli

July 15, 2009

Comments (5)

Red sports car on the highwayI was introduced to the musings of Brian Price of Great Northern Audio Theatre by Susan Dunman (@AudioBookDJ) and would like to now introduce him to you as a guest contributor to VOX Daily.

Brian Price comes from audio drama with experience in writing, producing, directing audio theater, editing audiobooks, and reviewing for AudioFile magazine.

Please join me in welcoming Brian to the VOX Daily community by reading his article and commenting with your thoughts!

Sonorous and the Highway

By Brian Price

When I first started writing book-on-tape reviews somewhere towards the end of the last century, I must've run into the word sonorous a couple dozen times in the first six months. Sounding more like a description of coffee than vocal quality, every richly toned, full-bodied, darkly hued narrative voice was described as sonorous. These sonorous voices were serious and trustworthy, resonant, and easy on the ears. They were delightful.

But what deep, bassy voices really do is cut through the crap -- the white noise, office hum and blaring background sounds of everyday life. These days we are constantly listening in louder, noisier, lawn-mowing decibel rumbling environments with smaller and smaller little buds stuck in our ears. The program you're listening to has to be able to get above and through all that. That's why most AM and FM deejays have those good old blaring, overly reverbed low voices -- you can hear them driving 70 mph down the highway with the top down.

You can't hear subtle, theatrical, nuanced performances driving 70 mph down the highway with the top down. You can't hear children's reading voices at 70 mph. You can't hear an oboe solo at 70 mph. Deep voices and sounds get heard.

It's physics: high notes, high tones, soprano voices are very directional. In other words, when a high tone comes out of a radio or CD speaker, the tone goes in the one direction that it is pointed toward. Bass tones come out of the speaker in an all-around, omni-directional path. Just like those annoying bass thumps from a boom-box car, lower tones can be heard in all directions.

The sounds and recordings of history are so different to our ears. I was listening to the British Library: Voices of History series the other day and it is amazing how nasally, mid-range and Midwestern P.T. Barum and Charles Lindbergh sounded. Great orators like Abraham Lincoln (whose voice was never recorded), Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryant (who were recorded) had high or mid-range voices. Their voices could be heard and would resonate just fine in a good lecture hall, in a barn yard, or sitting in front of the radio, but not at 70 mph with the top down.

Recently, a Harvard study concluded that women of certain third-world tribes are more attracted to men with deeper voices and believe they are better hunters, better providers and better mates. Oh well, now I'm even more jealous of those who are sonorous than ever before.

Brian Price
Great Northern Audio Theatre

Any Comments?

If you'd like to share your thoughts and leave a comment for Brian, you are welcome to join the conversation on the VOX Daily blog.

Best wishes,

Stephanie

©iStockphoto.com/Olaru Radian-Alexandru

Related Topics: audiobook narrators, bass, Brian Price, child, Great Northern Audio Theatre, radio, voice talent, voices


Comments


    Speaking as someone who has spent a career in audio, not just voiceover, I think Brian is mistaken about what is happening, and why.

    "But what deep, bassy voices really do is cut through the crap -- the white noise, office hum and blaring background sounds of everyday life."

    The evidence is rather to the contrary. James Earl Jones' voice is so deep that it can be hard to hear on many speakers.

    "That's why most AM and FM deejays have those good old blaring, overly reverbed low voices... ."

    DJs were chosen for their low tones long before much of the noise of postmodern life.

    "You can't hear subtle, theatrical, nuanced performances driving 70 mph down the highway with the top down."

    Here I think Brian is on to something. The opposite of subtle and nuanced is a "flat" dynamic range. In other words, this has to do with the evenness of the power of the voice, loud-to-soft. A less peaky voice can be boosted to sound subjectively "louder" because the peak-to-average ratio is lower. Your ear hears volumes as the *average* volume, so a higher average = "louder" = "punches through the background noise." Taming those peaks with compression and limiting does the same thing: since electronics have a maximum peak level, but the ear is focused on average level, lowering the peaks in order to raise the average is the goal for loudness.

    "It's physics: high notes, high tones, soprano voices are very directional. In other words, when a high tone comes out of a radio or CD speaker, the tone goes in the one direction that it is pointed toward. Bass tones come out of the speaker in an all-around, omni-directional path. Just like those annoying bass thumps from a boom-box car, lower tones can be heard in all directions."

    Brian is not the first to fall victim to this over-simplification about the directionality of sound, but he has certainly applied it in a unique way. Leaving aside the more technical question of how you can hear both cymbals and bass drum in your car when high frequencies are "more directional," that principle cannot be applied to sopranos, since their speech energy (like everyone's) is mostly in the midrange.

    "it is amazing how nasally, mid-range and Midwestern P.T. Barum and Charles Lindbergh sounded. Great orators like Abraham Lincoln (whose voice was never recorded), Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryant (who were recorded) had high or mid-range voices. Their voices could be heard and would resonate just fine in a good lecture hall, in a barn yard, or sitting in front of the radio, but not at 70 mph with the top down."

    Noise is noise. The loud orators of pre-amplification days were intentionally putting their voices into the part of the spectrum to which our ears are most sensitive - the upper midrange. By flattening out their dynamics with a delivery that mimics singing, they were also making themselves easier to hear.

    Bass voices can be more audible if most of the noise is higher in frequency. But they will be less audible if low-frequency rumble masks them. Generally speaking, in terms of frequencies, a voice tilted toward the upper midrange will be more audible than others. You can experiment with this simply by EQ-ing your recorded voice to see whether a bass-heavy or a mid-heavy voice sounds louder.

    But I think the key here is not the frequency, but the dynamics. Voices with a higher average level sound louder. That's why the loudest commercial on TV is the one in which the actress is speaking barely above a whisper.

    Posted by:

      Hi Dan,

      Thank you for adding your thoughts to the conversation. I appreciate how you went point by point and also highlighted how unique this application of thought was.

      Does anyone have more they would like to add?

      Best wishes,

      Stephanie

      Posted by:

        "...women of certain third-world tribes are more attracted to men with deeper voices and believe they are better hunters, better providers and better mates."

        All this time, I thought it was my long hair not my voice that attracted the gals.

        Seriously, I think Dan has touched on the physics of sound. Lower frequencies travel slower than higher frequencies? I'm no physics major (I'm still trying to find that F of X), but I've had a few years experience installing hi end car audio for competition. Yes, higher freqs from tweeters have to be pointed to the sweet spot while the bass from subwoofers can go anywhere in the car.

        Posted by:

          I will also add this to the collection of information here regarding High versus low freqs. Bass waves SEEM more omnidirctional because they are large (some up to 10 feet for one oscillation of the wave) and move a lot of air around as it comes from your speaker..so that regardless of where your set of ears is located, it will experience the feel/sound of that wave. They ALSO are much less subject to the confines of reflecting and absorbing surfaces..like the shell of a car..so these waves easily pierce through and continue to travel outward from the vehicle..while vocals , hi-hat cymbals violins and synth high-notes are easily reflected and dissipated as they hit reflective surfaces.
          This is what I've been told by sound engineers as the reason we can hear our teen-agers in the neighborhood coming blocks away, by the subwoofers they have in their cars.

          Posted by:

            Hi All,
            I believe that in general, deep voices can sometimes be difficult to discern above/beyond background and environmental noise however like many other things in our business and in life in general, it is what we do and how we use our deep voices that can make a real difference. As one with a deep voice I have to push harder to make sure my voice comes through either socially or through a microphone and also pay much attention to my breathing both exhaling and inhaling such that it does not "get in the way" so to speak. So I believe we deep voiced speakers have to be careful and are sometimes at a disadvantage but there is a lot we can do through technique to ensure we overcome this and do great while addressing the physics that Dan pointed-out in his post.

            On Brian's article....Hi Brian and thanks for the info and I enjoyed your article very much. Audio theatre is something I would very much like to participate in; so please count me in!

            Posted by:

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