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Try not to breathe

Time to write a blog that’s about actual sound production methinks…

I need you to listen to this audio clip before you read further.

Over the course of this year I’ve been reading quite a few blogs written by people involved in the VO industry. Some have been written by voiceovers, and some by producers or agents. There is one topic that comes up quite frequently is the subject of de-breathing.

For those who are unaware of what that means it is simply taking the sounds of inhaling out of a read. Breathing is obviously a part of speech and when we’re in normal conversation with people we don’t notice it, but when we have a pre-recorded piece of speech and we have added EQ and compression to it loud breaths can become obtrusive and taking them out can ‘tidy up’ the sound and give it that extra bit of polish – not to mention make a clip shorter and therefore reduce the file size (if that’s a consideration). Digital technology has made de-breathing audio massively easier and so the debate rages – how much de-breathing do you do? Just breaths at the beginning of sentences or more than that?

And it is at this point where I am now putting forward my two-penneth. Some of the blogs I’ve read claim that fully de-breathing a read is impossible, most of the others say that breathing forms a natural part of speech and creates pauses and punctuates the spoken word in the same way that commas and full stops punctuate the written word. I agree that that punctuation is needed, but here I will disagree that you need to leave the breaths in place to do that. The blogs I’ve read say that to take out every single breath regardless of its size and volume ruins the rhythm of the read and you need to leave some breaths in place to maintain the integrity of the performance. If the reading in question is a piece of drama I get the point – although I would still say that it is possible to totally de-breath and not lose anything – but if it’s terms and conditions of an insurance policy or a script written by engineers demonstrating the latest innovation in pipe welding then that argument is somewhat lessened.

The audio at the top of the page is a totally de-breathed reading. Did you miss the breaths? Below is the same reading almost unedited (I’ve taken out the fluffs to make you you all think I can read). Compare the two, I think the rhythm of the read is improved in the first one as I didn’t read it very well and the ‘lumpiness’ can be taken out (to an extent) in the edit. And here’s another consideration – the edited read is 8” shorter than the unedited. If you work in comprod (commercial production) or other broadcast areas you will know very well the pressures of making sure the audio you supply fits into whatever time slot is allowed. De-breathing can make all the difference for you. Your 32” read can squeeze much easier into the allowed 30” if you remove every breath, half breath and imperfection and it will sound so much tighter if you’ve done it properly. A shorter file means a smaller file size and for some web or telecoms applications that is also a consideration.

Some of the blogs I’ve read recommend using the automation on the DAW you’re using for editing to simply reduce the volume of the breaths rather than remove them; but I say if you’re going to that much effort why not just get rid of them altogether? What really jars me is just one or two small breaths left in a long piece of audio, so after about a minute and a half you suddenly get the VO taking a breath. That sounds unnatural as there is no way that anyone can speak for that long with inhaling, so be consistent; either leave the small breaths in or take them all out.

So do you de-breath or not? It depends. It depends on the type of read, and it depends on what your client asks you to do. It also depends on their budget as the more editing you need to do the longer the job takes and the more it will cost. As a producer you need to balance these considerations and decide how much editing and de-breathing you will do. Just don’t tell me it’s impossible to totally de-breath a read.

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