Appliance of science: Why does my voice sound so different when recorded?

Seven-year-old Cathal has noticed something that we all experience when we hear a recording of our own voice… that it sounds very different to how we normally hear it. 

To add to the mystery, other people listening to our recorded voice will report that to them it doesn’t sound very different at all.

So why is that and which one is our ‘real’ voice?

Hearing sound

In order to understand some of the reasons why our voice sounds different to us when we hear it on from a recording, we need to take a look at how sound, and hearing, work.

Sound works through vibrations, the sound of our own voice is created by the vibration of our vocal chords within our throat. 

We can generate a very wide variation of sounds through very subtle changes in the vibrations we create, so it is not surprising that more than 100 muscles are involved in this process. 

These vibrations pass out the mouth and travel through the air. 

And are then picked up by our complex sound detection equipment, the ear.

Once inside our ear the sound is carried from the ear drum, through a series of vibrating bones (the hammer, the anvil, the stirrup), to a coiled tube within our head, called the cochlea. 

The fluid inside the cochlea then starts to vibrate sending a signal to the brain where we interpret these vibrations as sound.

Two pathways

That covers the basic concept of how we hear sound and is referred to as air conduction. 

However, when we hear our own voice we actually hear it through a second pathway too, bone conduction.

When we speak we also create vibrations in our mouth, throat and jaw and these vibrations travel up to the ears through the bones and tissue of the face and head; this is the bone conduction pathway.

A little deeper

When the sound of our voice is carried through the bones of our skull the vibrations are altered slightly; the sound waves are spread out, changing their frequency and resulting in a lower sound. 

When we hear our own voice through bone conduction, we perceive a deeper sound.

However, when we hear a recording of our own voice we are only hearing it as sound that reaches our ears though the air. 

We hear it through just one pathway, rather than the two that we are used to.

Which one is your ‘real’ voice?

You think your recorded voice sounds much higher and more squeaky than your real voice, but everyone else thinks it is just as you really sound, so who is right?

Sorry to tell you but your voice is not as deep as you think it is and the higher recorded voice is a lot closer to how you really sound. 

In this case, everyone else hears your voice more accurately than you do.

Only as good as the equipment you use

Of course it also depends on the recording equipment you have used. 

There is a big difference between a voice recorded on your phone compared to a professional voice recording in a sound studio.

Even a good quality recording may give poor quality results when we hear it through a low quality device, like a basic radio or phone. 

The recording may accurately capture the correct pitch, tone and frequency of your voice, but these may be lost when you listen through a simple sound system.

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