Dear Straight Dope:
Many people (myself included) say that when they hear their recorded voice (on an answering machine, etc.), it sounds "funny/thinner/not as good" as the live voice they hear when they are speaking. So which voice is the "real" voice, the voice you hear or the one that others hear? Friends have told me that my "live" voice and recorded voice sound the same to them, so why do they sound so different to me? Is it because my ears hear my live voice both externally and internally, so it sounds "better"? This has implications for singers and mimics. If a person thinks they have a good "live" singing voice, but when recorded it sounds "thin," do they dare get up on a stage? And if someone does impersonations and the voice they hear "live" is different from what the audience hears, how do they know when they're mimicking someone accurately?
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Actually, you’ve answered your own question: the reason your voice sounds different when recorded is that when you speak you hear yourself not only through your ears, but also through the bones and tissues of your head (i.e., internally).
You’re absolutely right that this has serious implications for those who wish to perform. Before ditching the job at the car wash and moving to New York to try out for Cats, you should definitely get a few disinterested opinions on the quality of your voice. Because your voice sounds so different when it’s not being filtered through your head, listening to a recording of yourself really isn’t good enough, since you’re used to all the filtering, and therefore you will probably think that you sound "worse" on tape, even though it isn’t really worse, it’s just different.
I’ve been singing for a couple of years now, and have only recently started using a microphone. Let me tell you, having a monitor set up in front of you so that you can hear yourself as others hear you while you’re also hearing yourself as you normally do is a strange thing. But it’s necessary to get used to this so you can adjust the audio level and position the mike to produce the best sound.
Similarly, before getting up on stage to do impressions, you’ll definitely want to get some impartial opinions on your ability. Listening to recordings of your impressions would also help (since your voice is supposed to be different during an impression, the tendency to think of your voice as "good" or "bad" won’t be affected by the memory of the way you usually sound nearly as much as when you’re listening to a recording of your normal speaking voice). Otherwise, you might find audience members scratching their heads and saying, "Was that supposed to be Milton Berle or John Wayne?"
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.