World Airshow News           

Narration Mechanics

Circa July 1998


We just returned from another show, in the middle of a six-week marathon, and as Jane and I drove up the road, late last night, the conversation turned to the mechanics of narrating. 


We had missed a few music queues, we did not get the word of a VFR “pop-up” landing as the warbirds taxied out, and the forest fire was distracting.  It was just a normal debrief from a average airshow when the subject of “custom narrators” came up. 


Now, lets get one thing straight, I love to use additional announcers at any show.  In fact, we use a three-person team at many events.  The voice change helps keep the crowd’s attention, gives each announcer a break, and offers a diversity of styles that enhances the presentation. 


But what is really bugging me is that some performers are using an announcer that only be described as unprofessional.  These “unprofessional” narrators actually detract from the performer’s ability to present his act to the spectators, and, in turn, detract from the entire airshow.


The reasons performers use “custom narrators” is beyond the scope of this article, I don’t really care why someone has decided to bring an announcer with them to the show (after all, I have to pee sometime).  Just don’t bring someone who knows “nothing” about presenting “anything!”  These people are worst than no one and are lowering the entertainment value of the whole industry.


So, presented here is a primer for those for those persons that are engaged in “custom narration” and those who “employ” them.


1.       Ensure that your chosen narrator has a voice that presents well over a PA system.  This is not a male-female issue.  It’s a matter of training and experience.  My female co-narrator adds a lot to the show, but she is also pilot (knowledge) and has radio and TV experience (voice training).  Her voice projection betrays that training and she can ‘punch” through on the sound system.  If you want to use your “significant other” fine, just understand that that breathy, baby doll voice is best kept in the bedroom not on the announcers’ stand.


2.                  Ensure that your narrator is knowledgeable about your aircraft, maneuvers and goals of your act.  Nothing blows your creditability with the spectators more than a narrator who can’t keep up with your sequence.  Good Ol’ Bob maybe a great friend and flying buddy, but can he really present your act at its best?


3.                  Chose background music carefully to match your routine.  Its as disconcerting to hear hard driving rock n’ roll during a sailplane act as it is to hear a waltz during a hard charging, high energy, all out acro routine.


4.                  Use ONLY INSTRUMENTALS as the background for the voice over by your narrator.  The public can not discern the conflict between the narrator’s voice and the singers on a “vocal cut.”  Your narrator competing with Mick Jagger as you loop and roll across the sky will leave them wondering who wants the “Satisfaction.”


5.                  Use the Sound Tech.  This person normally has a lot of experience in “running the board” and will set the sound levels for the best presentation.  Understand that you are behind the speakers, and although you may think the volume should be higher, you are deliberately placed in a “sound void” to avoid “feed back.”  Your request for “more volume” may result in the spectators having their ears pinned back by the excessive sound levels from the speakers.  After you have induced deftness in your audience, the sound level is no longer a factor.


6.                  Ensure that you and the Sound Tech are playing from the same sheet of music.  Coordinate what “queues” you will use to signal the start of any “pre-recorded cuts” you want played during the act.  The Golden Knights hands-on-the-head is a good example of an unmistakable, unambiguous signal.  Maybe a little much if you are standing beside the Tech, but then again, it’s unmistakable!


7.                  Microphone Technique: Most airshow sound systems will provide the announcer with a highly directional, or cardioid, microphone.  This type of microphone is most sensitive sounds coming in on the primary axis (top), and rejects sounds from the sides and rear of the microphone.  This pattern is useful in preventing “feed back” and rejecting ambient sounds during the airshow.  For this reason, the announcer must speak directly into the END of the microphone, in the most sensitive area, to produce the maximum “gain” from the sound system.


An announcer who speaks into the side of the microphone will not get the maximum gain from the system and will force the sound tech to use whatever “head room” the system has before going into feedback. In addition, due to the frequency “roll off” of off-axis sound, the announcer will cause “coloring” to the audio signal that may not be flattering to their voice.


Keep the microphone close to your month.  Sound decreases at the square of the distance.  If you move the microphone twice as far from your mouth, you decrease the available “sound pressure level” to 25%.  Give the Sound Tech and PA system something to work with and don’t imitate the TV person holding the microphone at their waist.  You are working in a high noise area and you need to keep the “signal to noise ratio” as high as possible.  After all, the crowd should be watching the performer, not the narrator, so “eat” that mic!


Microphones used in the airshow environment should be equipped with an On-Off switch.  This switch can be located on the mic or may be located on the microphone’s cord or one of several other locations.  In radio jargon this is called the “cough switch” and is used to prevent unwanted sound from going out over the system.  The announcer should be in the habit of “killing” the microphone when not actually narrating the act. 


This serves several purposes:


a)      It stops any ambient noise from being picked up by the sound system, amplified, and blasted back at the crowd.  A jet aircraft, on take off, is loud enough with the aid of the sound system.


b)      Either an automatic system, or the Sound Tech, will increase the “gain” on the music channel to “fill” or “bridge” in the narration gaps.  When using a human sound tech, this effect can be greatly enhanced if the announcer drops the mic away from the face when not speaking.  The tech can then “turn-up” the background music and then, as the announcer raises the microphone lower the music for the announcer’s next “voice over.” 


c)      The microphone is “cold” should anyone say something inappropriate on the announcers’ stand.  Been there, done that, very embarrassing!  A “hot mic” is a very dangerous thing on the announcer’s stand!


8.                  Be entertaining, not risqué.  Leave the lewd comments for the local FM station’s morning crew.  Remember that you are working a family audience, save the off-color stuff for the aircrew party.


9.                  Be a Narrator, not a reader.  Be enthusiast!  The average sixth grader can “read,” and sounds like it.  Work with your material until you know it by memory; then “punch” it out like it’s the first time you have ever seen the performer fly.  Remember, if you are not impressed, why should the audience be impressed?


10.              Spend time LISTENING to other announcers, airshow and otherwise.  Its great training and I have stolen a lot of material from my cohorts (works for Milton Beryl).


11.              Work to perfect your craft.  Professional announcers (airshow and otherwise) are made, not born.  The timing, the knowledge, the inflections, and the ability to entertain an audience is not developed over night.  Like the skilled pilot performers, it’s a skill developed by hours and hours of practice.  Taping yourself may not be gratifying, but it is educational.


Most performers will readily admit the narrator is a very significant part of their act’s success.  The narrator carriers the major burden of communicating to the spectator what the performer is doing, how its done, and why its so unique and stupendous.  Lets don’t sell our industry short, let’s make our stars shine!


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