An Interview with 'The Voice Guy' - Torb Pedersen
James Bullock | On 26, Mar 2015
There’s a fairly strong opinion that listening to a recording of your own voice is a painful one; the dubious trailing off of sentences and all too present ‘um’s’ and ‘ah’s’ all doing little to ease the growing sense of sympathy you have for anyone you’ve spoken to in the last several years.
However combine this experience and a recorded interview with the author of ‘1200 Sounds that Prove You’re a Liar’ – an internationally sought after vocal coach and neurological expert in vocal sciences, and you have a resulting sound byte that tests to the limits the restraint required to not repeatedly hit your head on the desk in front of you.
Torb Pedersen was leaving a meeting as I called, struggling to find a corner of the building that wasn’t subject to the clamour of Melbourne’s CBD.
I’d acquainted myself with the assertive figure on stage for a recorded TedX conference in the city last December – navigating the stage whilst explaining how to single handedly pull apart a rival negotiation through deductive lie detection. I hastily reach for a glass of water as I ask about the background of the man known universally as ‘The Voice Guy.’
It isnâ€™t an empty title. Over the last 20 years Torb has worked with just about every major music label, starting with Capitol Records, before almost immediately moving to Sony, followed by a string of Hollywood based titles. He’s currently working with Gloria Estefan on her upcoming concert with Miami Sound Machine in New York, and overseeing vocals for the upcoming musical based on her life: ‘Get On Your Feet,’ and has a track record that includes advising over 100 Grammy Award Winners.
Beginning his musical life as an opera singer and student in Los Angeles, his lessons were paid for by none other than Michael Jackson, before his skill at diagnosing vocal aberrations in fellow singers led him to work as the â€˜Emergency Guy,â€™ flying in to pre-concert debacles to undertake rapid patch jobs with any performer unlucky enough to face going on stage with little to no voice.
The mid 1990â€™s to 2000â€™s was seen as a busy period for umbrella figure EMI, pushing out MC Hammer, OK Go, Interpol and Ice Cube among the other hundreds of artists that now reside partly in the ether of the Youtube sidebar, before the steady decline of sales following 2000.
Torb however, kept busy.
â€œIf a singer lost their voice or they blew out their voice before the concert they’d fly me inâ€¦ They’d say ‘bring him out here, do this there, do this, do that.’ They weren’t really sure what was happening but I was able to get to the concert. And that was sort of my main focus while all the record labels were in full swing, but then as that system started being dismantled I stayed on as an independent consultant to the entire industry.â€
From there, coaching singers back to a performing standard became working with professional speakers from all backgrounds, politicians, CEOâ€™s and presidents, although the exact details of which remain tightly bound under a careerâ€™s worth of disclosure agreements.
â€œI started out with presentational style but from then my research has been in neurology, I started with eventually lie detection, I just gave a TED talk in Melbourne on lie detection. It branched out into neuropathology, as well as corporate training, that sort of thing.â€
The compatible nature of vocal diagnosis is one that resonates throughout most, if not all performance based roles- Torbâ€™s skill at summing up how long a voice would last based on the anatomy of the vocal structure soon leading him to a professional relationship with surgeons in LA and Boston.
â€œBefore I sent a client to surgery, in my pre-ap notes I would sketch out the chords- where the nodule was, where the damage was, how hard it was, what the tissue looked like, how raised it was, how much of the chord was stiffâ€¦so eventually one of them contacted me and asked ‘what equipment are you using to do this?’ and I said I’m not! So I came in, I had drinks with him and I explained what I was doing and I started doing rehab for the surgery.â€
A few months ago Torb secured a deal with a top Australian surgeon, wanting to collaborate on some of his toughest rehabilitation cases.
â€œIt’s a very good partnership between looking at the physical mechanicsâ€¦and how this will actually work when you get it up and on it’s feet. Because doctors only understand the mechanics, they don’t really understand the working application of the voice, so that’s what they rely on me for.â€
The more scientific side of vocal performance and diagnosis is something that Torb has expanded on over a number of years, yet not something for which he was trained. His father was a graduate in physics and scholar at MIT, but Torbâ€™s gradual move into the neuroscience around the voice was built on case study, with every recent client of his â€“high profile or otherwise- taking part in a heavily private research program.
However far from the image of the stroppy offstage divas, this program has been one that musical artists have embraced, in an industry that in Torbâ€™s opinion needed work.
â€œIt’s something that the industry was lacking, scientific consistency and some real hard research, so there was a lot of room for me to get in there and start working with the artists. And surprisingly, I thought the artists would be reluctant but over the last 20 years everyone’s been willing to participate and really happy to learn.â€
Whilst tongue-tie, and stutters can cause hell for meetings and interviews, the same traits that bring an actor or singer to their knees can also be an interesting insight on psychological make up.
Neural misfires lead to muscular misfires affecting the chords of the larynx, which then lead to the fated â€˜umâ€™ or â€˜ahâ€™ that weâ€™re so desperate to avoid.
Coming from a background of rehabilitation, it was an easy step for Torb to define the root causes of the stammer or croak, and put his work to use on the negotiation table, his TEDx speech detailing one particular incident:
â€œRecently, while facilitating a negotiation, the lead for the opposing council was exceedingly confident. He knew exactly how to manipulate his body language. He wore the right suit, held the appropriate posture, and made the most intimidating facial expressions. As he spoke however, I noticed him clearing his dry throat for the fourth time. And then he made an apology for his nagging allergies.
I signalled that our team needed a moment in private, and then we retired to an adjoining room. I said, â€˜This guy doesnâ€™t have allergies, thereâ€™s no vocal oedema, thereâ€™s no swelling, the real problem is that heâ€™s stressed out of his mind.â€
The unlucky man in question began every word with a dry hiss, an indicator of stress. But the true betrayal was from the lie that aimed to cover the fact.
Torb announced that his team had gained ground, to the appreciative titters of his audience.
Whilst not entirely mind reading, these skills were certainly valued- Torb cycling through an array of professions, from overseeing interrogations and testimonials with the FBI, to the sides of big money poker players, eventually founding his own institute, TPI.
Only recently, he was contacted in Boston by a patient of Spasmodic Dysphonia, whose twice annually injection of botox into the muscular chords of the throat remained the only procedure that allowed him to speak with normal tone.
â€œI deal with a lot of neurological aberrations, but I’ve never dealt with neuropathology before. So I said I’d be willing to look at him but I wasn’t promising anything.â€
After five sessions, the man was speaking better than he had been at the height of his treatment, by rerouting his neural pathways to a route that wasn’t triggering the pathology.
While not often to the same degree as SD, vocal damage still remains a very common affliction to many within a performance environment, an estimated 98% of singers suffering it at some point in their career.
â€œIt was very common in the height of the record label system, for it to be easy to get your first record deal, but very hard to keep your second because all sorts of things start to happen to you, you start to lose your voice on tour and couldn’t hold up, you wouldn’t sound as good on the second album… It was very hard to keep your job.â€
His current concern is with the current artists struggling with a loss of voice, with no mother-hen label structure of the 90â€™ s-2000 to help them recover.
â€œI think when people start out as an emerging artist, they don’t realise that the track record for most artists is vocal damage along the way. And it’s very hard for a 25 year old who’s starting their career to go ‘Oh yeah, vocal damage,’ until it starts happening.â€
The affliction isnâ€™t even uncommon among more high profile performers, certain unnamed titles maintaining a preponderance of vocal damage cases despite having â€œâ€¦all the money, all the ability to hire whomever they want, whenever they want.â€
But all is apparently not lost; the right amount of vocal rehabilitation and coaching doing for the pipes what a Saturday morning on an exercise ball does for the lower back and thighs.
â€œPeople go to pilates or yoga to stretch the ligaments; the chords are ligaments that are operated by muscular processes, ones that need to remain pliable as well. There’s a certain amount of training to keep them supple and useable for anyone who uses their voice.â€
I saved the real curveball question for the end of the interview, but The Voice Guy took it well in his stride.
â€œI love Australia, I’ve got two vegemite eating kids on the Sunshine Coast, so I’m in Australia all the time. The reason I decided to do this is when my wife was having her first baby, I knew that I’d be in the Brisbane area for a while so I wanted to give back into the local community.â€
Torb has approached Tall Poppy Productions to arrange a series of group workshops, having already worked with a number of Brisbane artists including progressive rock act Cause In Affect.
The workshops aim to provide something a little different to the idea of a conventional music school, delving into the ways in which an international market sees an individual artist or band, Torb commenting that the most difficult aspect for local artists is marketing themselves to a much wider audience.
There’s a lot of talent in Australia, but the biggest problem they have is they’re not getting heard.â€
â€œThis Destiny by Design workshop…every single session that people walk into they should walk out completely different. Physically, neurologically, mentally; the changes are drastic.â€
Torb will be taking workshops for a month before diving back into his schedule, and good lord do we recommend you take one.
Apply for one his masterclasses here:
Dates:Â Session 1: Monday 27th April 2015
Session 2: Wednesday 29th April 2015
Session 3: Monday 4th May 2015
Session 4: Wednesday 6th May 2015
Session 5: Monday 11th May 2015
Session 6: Wednesday 13th May 2015
Session 7: Monday 18th May 2015
Session 8 Wednesday 20th May 2015
Session 9: Monday 25th May 2015
Session 10: Wednesday 27th May 2015
*Sessions are 6pm â€“ 8pm