We've likely all heard ourselves in a recording before and thought, “do I really sound like that?” How we hear ourselves speak is often vastly different from the way our voice actually sounds.
Does a microphone change your voice? Microphones, like all audio equipment, will alter the sound of your voice. Some microphones capture voice more accurately than others, but all mics alter sound in one way or another. On top of that, how you hear your own voice is different from how your voice actually sounds.
So the disparity is twofold: the way your voice actually sounds is not the same as the way you hear it naturally, and on top of that, microphones will slightly alter the sound of your voice. Let's dive into these two factors in more detail and help answer why hearing your voice in playback sounds so strange.
Hearing Your Voice In Audio Playback
In my career as an audio engineer, I've worked with many novice speakers that are fairly new to using microphones. The most common comment has to do with how their voice sounds different in recording and playback.
When hearing your recorded voice for the first time, it will undoubtedly sound strange. This is totally normal. Don't worry; you'll get used to it!
As mentioned, there are two main reasons for this.
How Microphones Alter Your Voice
Even the most accurate microphones will alter the sound of your voice. With accurate microphones, this change is negligible but still exists. Several factors cause this alteration:
- Microphone polar pattern, placement, and proximity effect
- Microphone frequency response
- Microphone sensitivity
Many seemingly small changes will affect the way a microphone captures your voice. Let's talk about each of the above-listed factors in more detail.
Microphone Polar Pattern, Placement, And Proximity Effect
A microphone's polar pattern represents the 3-dimensional sensitivity of that microphone. Although each mic has its own polar pattern based on its unique design, there are three common polar pattern types:
- Omnidirectional: Omnidirectional mics pick up sounds from all directions equally. These mics exhibit no proximity effect (we'll talk about that in a minute) and do not have any off-axis colouration (the alteration of a mic's voice capture as someone moves around the mic). The downside of omnidirectional microphones is that they are sensitive in all directions and so the mic will pick up the voice and other environmental sounds equally. This alters the voice by adding more extraneous noise to the mic signal.
- Bidirectional: Bidirectional mics (aka figure-8 mics) pick up sound equally from the front and back and reject sound from the sides. This means that there is off-axis colouration. Not only will your voice get quieter as you move off-axis from the front of back of a bidirectional mic, it will also be captured with a changing frequency response. These microphones exhibit the most proximity effect (a bass boost in the mic signal as you move closer to the microphone). As we can see, there are many ways to change the sound of your voice capture with a bidirectional mic.
- Cardioid: Cardioid mics are most sensitive to the front (on-axis), slightly sensitive to the side, and reject sound from the rear. These mics exhibit proximity effect and off-axis colouration. Both of which will vary the sound of your voice.
Mic placement plays a big role in how a microphone will capture your voice. Microphone movement and/or head movement around a microphone will vary the mic's capture of your voice, ultimately changing how your voice sounds. Microphone placement will affect the way your voice sounds in the following ways:
- Voice volume: the further from the mic you are, the less voice volume the mic will capture.
- Off-axis colouration: as the speaker moves off-axis (not speaking directly into the mic or speaking into the mic at an angle), the mic will be less efficient at capturing the voice. The voice will not only be captured more quietly, but with a different frequency response. Note that omnidirectional mics do not exhibit off-axis colouration but are often too noisy for recording voice.
- Proximity effect: as the speaker moves closer to a directional microphone, there is an increase in the bass responsiveness of the microphone. Note that, again, omnidirectional mics do not exhibit off-axis colouration but are often too noisy for recording voice.
When recording voice, cardioid mics are nearly always the best choice. These unidirectional mics will capture their intended speaker while rejecting most other extraneous sounds. That being said, the above factors should be considered since they affect the way a microphone captures (and alters) the sound of your voice.
Microphone Frequency Response
Microphone frequency response represents a mic's frequency-dependent sensitivity.
Frequency response ranges are generally within the range of human hearing (20-20,000 Hz) and tell us how a microphone will pick up these frequencies. Frequency responses are often considered either flat or coloured.
A flat frequency response means that each frequency is equally represented in a microphone's output. The flatter a microphone's frequency response, the more accurately it will capture your voice, and the less it will change the sound of your voice.
Coloured microphones are more sensitive to some frequencies than others. These microphones are designed to accentuate some frequencies over others, which is great for some applications, but will change the sound of your voice.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article What Is Microphone Frequency Response?
The sensitivity of a microphone affects how it picks up your voice.
When I say sensitivity here, I am not referring to the sensitivity rating of a microphone. Rather, I'm talking about the way a microphone capsule reacts to sound waves around it.
In terms of sensitivity/reactivity, the three main types of microphone transducer types have the following generalities:
- Moving-coil dynamic microphones: Moving-coil mics have relatively heavy diaphragms that generally move slower than condensers and ribbons. This slows the transient response of the mic and may cause the mic signal to sound slightly compressed.
- Condenser microphones: Condenser mics have relatively light diaphragms that may even overshoot when reacting to sound waves. This can yield an overly bright and crisp mic signal.
- Ribbon dynamic microphones: Ribbon dynamic mics have very sensitive diaphragms and, in general, sound the most natural on human voice.
For more information on microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.
How You Hear Your Own Voice Vs. How Others Hear Your Voice
On top of how microphones alter your voice, there are physiological factors that make your voice sound different to you than it does to others. Assuming a microphone captures your voice accurately, this physiological difference is a much bigger factor in the difference you hear between your natural voice and your voice during audio playback.
Let's start by quickly going over a list of the mechanics that produce the human voice.
- The lungs pump air, producing adequate air flow and pressure in order to vibrate the vocal chords.
- Vibrating vocal chords create a sound source that is then shaped by the muscles of the larynx.
- The larynx muscles adjust the length and tension of the vocal chords, altering pitch and tone.
- The articulators (tongue, palate, cheek, lips, etc.) further articulate and filter the sound in order to produce the intricate sounds in our languages.
Next, let's explore the fact that sound travels through gases, liquids, and solids.
As your voice leaves your mouth (and emanates from your vibrating throat), it [typically] travels through air before reaching a microphone or another person's ears.
Conversely, when you hear yourself speak, you hear it in multiple ways. You hear it through the air, similar to how others hear. You also hear the sound vibrations through the solids, liquids, and gases between your ears and vocal cords, larynx, and articulators.
Sound travels differently through the three mediums, which explains why we physically hear ourselves differently than how others hear us. The way our voice reaches and is picked up by our ears is also different from how it reaches and is picked up by a microphone.
The natural differences between how you hear yourself versus how you “actually” sound play a big role in the contract between how you hear yourself and how you hear yourself through a microphone.
Can microphones make my voice sound better? The correct microphone with proper mic placement can certainly make your voice sound better. Look for microphones with fairly flat frequency responses and slight presence boosts. Choose a mic with a polar pattern and sensitivity rating that suits the voice and recording environment.
How can I make my voice sound better in recordings? There are many strategies to improve the quality of a recorded voice:
- Record it correctly: room selection, mic selection and placement, proper gain staging
- Processing: equalization, compression
Choosing the right microphone(s) for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Microphone Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next microphone purchase.