“In a World…called Voiceover…”

Voiceover is one facet of acting, and voiceover itself has many facets.  The most notable voiceover style is the film trailer, made famous by the late, great Don “In a World…” LaFontaine, but also includes film and television narration, audiobooks, commercial announcers, animations (film, television and games), television and radio “station identification,” promotions, PSA’s, interactive phone menus, and (what I have become familiar with recently) talking toys.

I have worked with a number of actors who have been successful in the voiceover business for a long time, and I have considered pursuing similar work, but have never committed to getting the training and the equipment, and actually practicing delivering copy, critically listening to my reads, and editing and finalizing audio for delivery until this year.

I started learning as much as I could about the industry, and sat in on several webconferences with established professionals to make sure this was a fit for me.  I purchased some inexpensive equipment and downloaded Audacity, a free audio editing program, and I began working with some scripts I already had from previous auditions and shoots.

I really hadn’t shared my decision with anyone, which goes against most success coaches’ advice, who often are heard saying, “Designate an accountability partner — once you share your goals with someone, you are more likely to achieve them.”  I took the alternate approach:  If I decided after “getting my feet wet” that voiceover was not for me, I wanted to quickly sweep it under the rug, without an announced goal nagging me forever.

Call it karma, luck or God’s will, but just as soon as I started getting comfortable with the thought that, with sufficient resources and training, I really could be successful at this voiceover thing, I received an email from an actor friend of mine whom I haven’t heard from in years, asking me if I would be interested in a 200-page e-Learning voiceover project for a major global client.  How did he know?

I jumped at the opportunity, pouring over the chapters upon chapters of technical jargon, “marking the copy” to help with the actual delivery, and becoming acclimated to presenting all this information to a microphone just inches away.  I learned a lot about my performance technique from that first job, including:

  • Rehearse at various speeds.  Since I wasn’t given a target duration, I practiced reading at a rate slower than the client desired.  Oftentimes, changing the pace is a simple adjustment; however, with long sections laden heavily with technical jargon, I found myself getting a little tongue-tied, which required a few re-takes.
  • Simple diction is key.  After listening to some of my practice reads, I was amazed at the number of times I said “an-” instead of “and,” “-z” for “as,” and “thn” for either “then” or “than.”  After that eye-opener, I pulled out some old articulation exercises to practice before any future voiceover work.
  • There were also words and phrases that just tripped me up.  They wouldn’t necessarily be tongue twisters, but certain combinations of sounds would, for some unexplained reason, get all muddled during my read.  It’s good to know this before going into a studio…the client’s or yours…and wasting time.  On that same note, I noticed that after some time, the amount of mistakes increased.  I need to work on extending my endurance, and also know to take breaks and schedule recording sessions accordingly.
  • When reading copy, it is natural to let the energy, volume and/or pace to trail off.  In voiceover, much like performances on stage and camera, one must be cognizant of keeping the energy, volume and pace levels consistent.
  • I am being paid to sound like, well, “I know what I’m saying.”  Although I was familiar with the concepts in this e-Learning series, I wasn’t initially familiar enough with the text, and I sounded more like I was “just reading it off of the page.”  The quick pace of the reads, when not completely comfortable with the text, makes the delivery sound very cold and impersonal.
  • Something I have often heard, but didn’t truly take to heart until I did several test recordings myself:  SMILE when reading.  When in a studio, with just a music stand, lamp and microphone, it’s easy to discount something like “smiling”…who’s going to see it, anyway?  It CAN be heard.
  • It is also very important to remember lessons learned in stage acting, including breath control.  Even though I might have marked my script to eliminate any long phrases, I have to be careful not to run out of breath, nor “gasp” for air with that sensitive microphone just inches away.
  • Finally, I have had to remind myself to relax.  Just like smiling, tension in the body can be perceived in the delivery.  Preparation, stretches, comfortable clothing and posture, deep breaths and focus all help to alleviate the tension that can just destroy a good read.

I also became much more aware of noises when listening to my recordings.  These microphones are sensitive.  Even in well-insulated interior rooms, cars and planes can still be heard outside, then there’s the air conditioner, fan, squeaky floor (funny, I never noticed it before), the headphone cord hitting the stand, rustly clothes, and on one occasion, my gurgling stomach!  No wonder professional studios are engineered to strict tolerances to eliminate as much sound as possible…though I don’t think they have an engineering solution to my hunger pangs.  As one pro told me, “Eat before your session.”  I swear…I did!

After completing the first project, there were some re-writes, but my friend was out of the country on a business trip.  I recorded the new copy at home with my simple setup and emailed him some samples, which he shared with his client.  Everyone was pleased with the files I produced, which saved us all time, and kept the project on schedule.  In fact, they needed a recording of someone else for another project during the same time frame, and my “studio” was recommended.  Since then, I was hired for a second job, which I recorded completely at home.  It allows for flexibility of scheduling, rather than having to coordinate multiple people and resource calendars.

Although I am proud of the work I have done so far, I know I have plenty to learn.  I have joined several online groups to keep up on “best practices” within the industry, and I have also contacted a couple local coaches to fine-tune my technique.  Voiceover is highly competitive, and even though I can expand my reach to many more markets through “the miracle of the Internet,” so can everybody else.

VO Samples:
Audiobook Demo (00:43)
Character Demo (00:23)
Commercial Demo (00:16)
eLearning Demo (01:03)
Film Demo (00:15)
IVR Demo (00:10)
Presentation Demo (00:09)
Radio Image Demo (00:10)

Scott J. Smith

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