by Andy Capp
Like any good Gearhead, I was excited to show off my new toy, but I thought that he would turn out to be a wanna-be. The GM had called to warn me that he was coming. An old friend of my boss, he was THE audio guy at one of the agencies in town. Nice pipes, good interp…the kind of voice/audio work that you had to admire. No Prozac Production, but also nothing too in your face.
The Harmonizer had been a tool/toy that I had been whining for, and it finally (surprisingly) had made it through the budget process uncut. The machine we stood drooling in front of represented nearly a religious icon to me, a Harmonizing Holy Grail, whose very pre-sets could make me utter, “Holy Cow,” again and again.
I began the demonstration with the standard effects: reverbs, choruses, delays, each more rich and detailed than I could hope for. With a smile and nod of approval from my guest, I moved on to more exotic fair. There was the Martian voice, the telephone filter, the underwater effect, and the ever-popular copter pilot, complete with whirling prop effect.
As the minutes and effects droned on, my guest continued to smile and nod, but the folded arms and tapping foot told me that he was either sick of my extended demonstration or was waiting for something specific. Knowing in my heart that he couldn’t be tired of my proud babble, I asked him if there was a particular effect that he wanted to hear. “Yes,” he sighed. “Can this thing make your voice deeper?”
Deeper?! Oh yeah!! Those were among my favorites and I had been saving the best for last. I dialed up the Darth Vader pre-set and had him speak into the mic, producing that deep down bassy growl.
“Ah, great,” he mumbled dismissively. “But don’t you have something less, ah, mechanical?” No sweat. I dialed up another effect, this one with less “effect.” Again he seemed less than impressed, and again he asked for something that sounded less processed. Fine. I spun the wheel and spat out a test sentence into the mic. This time the disappointment on his face was clear.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, sensing my own disappointment at his lack of enthusiasm. “It’s not that the box sounds bad, it does some cool effects. I was just hoping for something that could give my voice some balls without sounding pitched down.”
There it was. After years of successful voice-over work and reels of award winning commercials, he still hated his voice. He was on a quest of his own, searching for the voice he heard inside. It was a deep, resonant sound that he imagined was far superior to the truly fine tones that God had gifted him with. The truth was that he was a wanna-be, and what I saw as a Holy Grail was nothing but a false idol to him.
Time has passed since that disappointing afternoon. Technology has improved to the point of “Gender Bendering.” There’s even a plug-in program out that will allow a producer to steal any voice and apply it to words spoken by another voice. It’s technology that’s exciting, amazing, humbling…and a little sad.
At six, my heroes were Batman and the Beatles. At twelve, Houdini, Doug Henning, and John Denver topped the list. As a baby DJ, with one toe still dipped in college, Rick Dees, Imus, Scott Shannon, and J.R. Nelson were the voices that I looked up to. Not surprisingly, I also used to run around the neighborhood looking for crime to fight while wearing a bath towel cape. I also attempted to amaze my friends and be the life of the party with terrible magic tricks I got from saving cereal box tops. Yes, I even sent potential girlfriends screaming in the other direction with my pitiful renditions of Hey Jude and Rocky Mountain High. Probably the saddest of all were those attempts at imitating my Radio Gods, often live on the air, sacrificing what little audience I had in those early morning part-time hours.
Time, life, and/or no small amount of therapy made me come to realize that I’ll never be the Dark Knight, that magic and music are fine hobbies, not professions for me. Most importantly, I came to the conclusion that no amount of joke books, wild sound effects, or Bourbon (gotta condition those pipes) was going to make me any sort of Don Imus or Dick Orkin or (insert radio hero of the week). I could, however, be a perfectly acceptable Andy Capp.
There’s nothing wrong with imitation. It’s a great learning tool, and some people have an uncanny gift for it, helping them truly stand out from the crowd. But unless you’re one of those drop dead ringer types, it’s very hard to make a career of being someone else. The good news is that you’re the only person who is good enough at being you to make a career of it.
If I learned anything from watching Howard Stern’s movie Private Parts, it was that he didn’t come near success until he started being himself. Love him or hate him, when he began to insist on it, he became a true radio superstar.
Wanna-be somebody truly great? Look in the mirror.