Hearing Voices 
The inside scoop on recording voiceover for the FSX expansion pack 
by Mike Singer 
         

One of the great things about my job here on the Flight Simulator team is that I get to do things like go to Hollywood. The place itself is far less glamorous than you'd imagine, but going gives me license to say things like, "I'm going to Hollywood," "I'm in Hollywood," and "I just got back from Hollywood." That's always fun.

So...I recently got back from Hollywood. I flew down there with David Henry, our Audio Director, to record voiceover for the missions in our upcoming expansion pack for Flight Simulator X.

The last time we went (for the FSX missions) I was totally against the idea. I didn't understand why we couldn't just do all the voices ourselves, or use local talent. After all, a lot of us on the team are pilots.

After a few hours in the studio with professional Hollywood-caliber voice actors though, I had to admit I was wrong. These people are pros. You can say things to them like, "Um...can you do that again, but make him sound about ten years older, and like he's from a little further north on the east coast? Oh, and like he's angry, but sorta secretly happy too?" And they do it. And then they maintain that voice for the next hour. It's amazing.

The other thing David explained to me is that no matter how good a real pilot sounds on the radio, once you put him in a studio in front of a big microphone and have him read, it sounds like he's doing just that--reading. Professional actors, on the other hand, sound like they're speaking.

So, we use Hollywood talent. The results are worth it, too. As any film director will tell you, good audio can actually make a movie look better. Same with games.

We were down there this time for a total of five days, and spent about eight hours a day in the studio, completely oblivious to the nice LA weather outside. Each session with an actor was a few hours long. The actor sat in front of a mic in a soundproof booth behind a glass window. The engineer and the director sat at a desk up front, and David and I sat behind them.

David, the engineer, and the director all had big notebooks that contained printouts of all the actors' lines, organized by actor. I had my laptop, and during each session I looked at the original scripts, which showed the lines in the context of each entire mission.

As the actors made their way through their lines, David, the director, and I would offer suggestions. Sometimes it was regarding the way something was being said, sometimes it was due to my re-writing on the fly. Any changes we made in the studio got noted in the scripts.

A lot of our comments seemed pretty nit-picky at times, but as pilots, we're very aware of how even a slight change in intonation can make something sound completely realistic, or completely fake. For example, most pilots know that "Turn right heading forty" just doesn't sound right. "Turn right heading zero four zero" is the way it's said. The actors (not being pilots) don't know this. We do.

All in all, this year's trip was a lot of fun. I love working with such talented people. Closing my eyes from time to time, it was easy to forget that I was sitting in a recording studio. They sounded just like pilots. Then again, when one guy started impersonating Christopher Walken during a break, he sounded exactly like Christopher Walken...being the most frazzled air traffic controller you've ever heard.

That's the magic of Hollywood. Well, that and seeing Jennifer Aniston in a restaurant on Sunset....

 
My vantage point. That's the engineer on the left, the director on the right, and the actor through the glass. In the foreground is my laptop with the script on it.
 
David and I try to make some sense out of what we're hearing.