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C.C. Hogan

The Joy of the Wonderful Breath

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From time to time, the subject of breaths in recording comes up - should they stay or should they go?

The answer is, of course, quite simple - they should stay. But let me breathe a little life into this debate and explain why.

We breathe as part of speech for some pretty obvious reasons - oxygen being probably the main one. But breathing goes a lot further than that. How we breathe and when is part of language. We take short breaths when we are excited and long, slow breaths when we are tired. These breaths are not standalone items, however, they affect what happens next, the next word.

Our ears and brain are pretty clever things, but they can be surprisingly inaccurate at times, and we cannot always hear when a breath ends and when the word starts. Indeed, the breath can change the sound of the word even though they don’t actually overlap. This is very important, and how we breathe has affected the development of our languages and we use them to communicate,

This is all very well and fascinating, but when we are in a pub having a conversation, we don’t even think about how people are using breath unless they are panting with exhaustion. The breaths are not just part of a person's speech, but all wrapped up with their expressions, tone, and mood.

When we record a conversation, however, and we do not have the visual link with the person speaking, the breaths suddenly become more prominent. This is made worse because when recording professionally, we add what is called compression to the recording which has the effect of making the breaths louder.

So what do we do?

The temptation is to simply cut them out, but this is wrong for various reasons.

On the technical side, it is actually not always possible. Breaths, particularly at the end of a word are often part of the last decaying sound of the word itself. If you remove the breaths you will probably cut at least some of the words short.

Also, removing breaths, even when replacing with room tone (the background sound of the room) can sometimes leave holes that makes it feel like the sound has dropped away for no reason.

But most importantly, removing all the breaths is removing much of the emotion and expression of the piece. It becomes unnatural and incomplete, reducing the listener's ability to connect with the reader and therefore the story or message.

Having said that, it would be rare that an editor left all breaths untouched and with modern digital recording techniques allowing for more fine-grained editing than we had easily years ago on tape, there are things that can be done to make the read work better.

Probably the most common technique is to lower the levels of some of the louder breaths so that they are still doing their job as part of the language but are less prominent.

Removing breaths at the beginning of major sentences or paragraphs can sometimes be nice, but should not be overdone. 

Modern digital systems allow for breaths to be shortened or lengthened, and that can be useful where the reader took a longer breath than was needed. (In the old days, we would tell the voice to re-record but make the breath shorter - not needed now.)

Sometimes a breath can be ugly, so we might replace it with a nicer breath stolen from elsewhere. 

Notice that we are not losing the breaths here, just making sure they do their job in the same way as we check the words are doing theirs.

Is there ever a time to remove all?

No, is the simple answer. 

A recording without breaths would be bland, cold and unnatural to listen to. When that happens, the listener simply stops listening.

They are no longer enjoying your story, learning about your product or absorbing the lessons being taught.

Human beings are designed to react best to other human beings and the way they use language, if your take the breaths away, you remove part of the language and you lose your audience.

A note on breathing techniques

Hearing breaths is normal, natural and needed, but for a professional voice, they also need to be right. So here are a handful of tips.

  • Try not to add a breath hard onto the end of a word unless it is intentional for an emotional reason. It can make the character or narrator sound upset or passionate unintentionally and can be almost impossible to remove without harming the word too.
  • Watch the lengths of your breaths. Too short and they can sound like a gasp which can get irritating after a while. Too long and they can make the read sound tired.
  • If you find you are running out of breath or are breathing too frequently, it is usually because you are taking very short breaths in the wrong places. Slow down your breath-taking and think about where you are stopping to breathe.
  • Mark up complicated or unfamiliar text with WHERE to breathe. Mostly, it will be at commas and full stops, but not always.
  • Never take sharp breaths - they can really tire your voice out.
  • Sometimes a breath will be needed during the performance that you know will be edited out later. Make sure it is clean so that the edit does not affect words.

Finally, how does a voice cope with an incredibly long phrase where breathing will destroy the rhythm? 

This is something singers have to cope with all the time. The trick is taking a very long, very deep breath and then holding it for a second before embarking on the mini-marathon. However, HOW you hold it is important. This is not like diving where you are shutting your mouth, you want to hold it in your lungs, not your mouth.

Take a long breath then imagine you have a nice round potato in your throat and you are gripping it with your neck muscles. Keep your mouth open. Really all you are doing is filling your lungs and then freezing them just as you would be about to push the air back out. Now, try releasing this breath very, very slowly, controlling how fast with your chest. A little bit of practice and you will get this nice and smooth. Now, using the same technique, have a go at the long line. You will be amazed how far you can go on that one breath! By the way, this is not how to read all the time, just in those very odd occasions you need to do something daft!

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