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voice1Remember the first time you heard your recorded voice played back to you? I’ll never forget when I first heard mine. I’d always been a little more than a bit of a ham, mugging for some invisible microphone. Thinking in my mind’s ear that I must sound pretty gol-derned clever. That first playback in a fourth grade music class took my breath away, and not in any good way.

My played-back voice sounded nothing like the beautifully-modulated murmur I’d imagined. I sounded like Jerry Lewis imitating Donald Duck.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and I’m sitting in a recording studio inside an old barn in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, recording a few tracks. I’d become a songwriter, a performer, a ‘single acoustic artist.’ I performed in coffee houses and small college concerts, had an agent, and seemed to be on my way to something BIG, whatever that might be. While I’d taken to recording myself on a ratty cassette deck, I was still, probably stemming from that first shocking fourth grade experience, ginky about hearing my recorded self played back.

But this recording studio experience was way different. The engineer performed some kind of audio magic, almost matching what I’d always imagined I sounded like in my head with what I heard bleeding out of those speakers. Maybe, I pondered, I really sounded that good.

I’ve mostly succeeded in avoiding recording equipment. With a few skillfully-engineered exceptions, my recorded voice still grates my ears.

Why is that? I suppose it’s that age-old human dilemma. None of us ever gets to see ourselves as others see us. Mirrors unavoidably mutate. Even if they didn’t, the person observing that self is a different person than anyone else observing that same self. I must bring a lot of baggage into my self-observing. Unlike everyone else who ever sees/hears/touches me, I get to feel how that observation/listening/feeling actually feels. I’m my own self-contained, full duplex feedback loop.

And my voice sounds really different in the moment than it ever does coming back at me through the playback machine. Maybe it’s because of all the others who might hear my voice, I’m the most poorly situated to actually hear it. Your ears are pointed in the right direction to absorb the straight poop—from my mouth directly into your ears—while my ears are pretty much backwards to where they’d have to be to really hear myself speak.

Now, I’ve got Garageband on my laptop, and a schmancy condenser microphone routed through a complicated USB port. And studio headphones. With these filters, I can make my voice sound like it’s coming from the bottom of a deep, dark chamber or the top of an arena stage. I can filter out the treble and amplify that bass and concoct the FM radio voice I’d always imagined myself having. Others, though, don’t seem as delighted as I do. Just when the recording seems to sound exactly like the voice I’ve always known as my true voice, everyone else complains that it sounds nothing like me at all.

And I believe them. They have no motive to lie about this. Yet I cannot seem to resolve these two experiences: my voice as I experience it and the one the recording plays back to me.

As a writer, now, voice also comes into play. I’ve tried on many voices when writing, and still nurture a healthy handful. I can be sardonic bordering on sarcastic. Lightly humorous. Deadly serious. Schmaltzy. Scholarly. Journalistic. Chatty. Which voice qualifies as mine?

I noticed this morning while listening to the early morning NPR broadcast, that the voice of modern media sounds like it was written by a twenty three year old journalism major. It’s light-ish, wonky, and clever. It’s upbeat! It doesn’t take itself very seriously. It sounds like it goes to Karaoke bars on weekends and still uses its parent’s Mastercard.

I’d noticed this literary voice when my first article was published. I’d submitted a serious piece to one of the Computerworld publications only to have something that sounded almost entirely unlike me published under my name. I visited that publication a few months later and met the staff writers, all twenty three year old journalism majors, and the editor, an old-school tie with ink running in his veins. They explained over lunch that their readers expected a certain tone, a consistent timbre, and providing that from whatever an author submitted pretty much defined their job. Pumped up and considerably dumbed down. Perky.

It all sounded to me like a voice distorted by some skillful recording engineer into something I’d never actually hear in real life. Still does. This might be the distinction between literature and journalism. Literature doesn’t insist upon that perky journalistic voice. It doesn’t need to seem smarter than you. It doesn’t need to be grammar-perfect. It might retain a regional accent or a nasal twang, and be better off for the imperfection.

I was recently invited to start using Google+ as an additional social networking medium. I signed up and started watching the how-to videos, but gave up after five minutes. The first video was hosted by ... a voice that perfectly embodied the chirpy enthusiasm of a twenty three year old journalism major, just that annoyingly little bit too excited by her important assignment. Her enthusiasm was not infectious, but toxic. I went back to Facebook.

I still sing songs and I write a lot now, but I sometimes lose my voice. This seems to happen when I get tangled up in this weird feedback loop, when some tinny internal speaker renders me self-conscious, convincing me that I really do sound like Jerry Lewis imitating Donald Duck or when I notice, for one stunning moment, that my voice sounds almost entirely unlike anything that might ever come out of a twenty three year old journalism major.

This questionable gift of self-consciousness qualifies as a very low-level form of consciousness. Curiously, though it might well accurately echo what’s really happening, it’s of damned little utility. Better, probably, to simply sing than to mug for the microphone or, worse yet, to affect that perky personna everyone’s now conditioned to expect but which insists upon being no different from any other voice.

I’m with the playwright Herb Gardner on this one: I’m convinced there must be a reason I was not born a chair, and probably an even better reason I have the voice I have. Whatever that voice might be.

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