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Voice-over

How Do I Get into The World Of Voice-Over Recording?

I am often asked for advice on “getting into” the voice-over recording industry. It isn’t surprising as it’s an interesting profession, producing and performing. When I record really good voice-artists it still gives me a thrill and I have a lot of fun voicing works myself. My response is very much tempered to the circumstances of my interrogator, quite often people see it as a glamorous industry and simply visualise themselves in it for no other reason than vanity. Others have a genuine chance of working in the field and just need a little guidance.

Voice-over timeline

I have 20 years experience in providing voice-over services – both as a facility and an artist – for TV shows, TV ads, Films, online videos and most other visual content. In this article I’d like to share with you my experiences, how I started in this industry, how it has changed over the years and how you too might find a foothold in what is still regarded as a pretty cool way to make a living.

Microphone and Headphones

I recently did a voice-over recording session for a large multinational organisation; a global ad campaign. In the session, the client had supplied a guide video. At the end of the video was an added guide voice delivering the strapline, which was five words.  The budget for that task was $10,000. At the risk of appearing a bit of a show-off with my mathematical skills, that’s $2,000 per word. I don’t know what proportion of this fee the studio received, but there was clearly no suggestion of belt tightening.

I can do that, give us a job.

The part I recorded was much longer, all of 20 words. The artist in the session received the same fee and my studio received a reasonable percentage of the artist’s fee. I mention this because it demonstrates that, today, voice-over is still regarded by some as an important, if not equal, part of the audio-visual creative industry.

The History Of Voice-Over Recording

Voice-over production used to be the preserve of fairly large corporations. Recording studios were very expensive to build and charged a small fortune to those who could afford it for an hour or so of their time. Making, for instance, television ads was an expensive business, so when it came to costing out each section, the voice-over budget was usually proportionately healthy. Advertising agencies went to established voice agents who proffered a selection of artists, known or unknown, and the fees were more often than not equal to the average month’s salary.

Where does that leave voice-over recording now?

The £10k lead example above is a much rarer occurrence these days, although by no means completely unheard of. The going rate for voice-over work has certainly come down and the main reason for this is technology.  Digital workstations, affordable microphones and equipment have all contributed to the democratisation of the industry much in the same way as music production. And, as with all creative endeavours, this has resulted in a huge increase in the employment of voice-over and the qualitative polarisation of the end products; sometimes an incredibly complimentary narration from an unexpected ameteur source, and on other occasions a truly dreadful offering from a presumed professional.

Quality vs Quantity

Generally, though, quality, and the expectation thereof, has gone south.  This is where a young challenger can possibly clean up, particularly if you already have some audio production experience. I’ve stated this in many article but it’s worth repeating:  As a professional, good quality work is a given necessity, but it won’t get you to where you want to be on its own. The ability to sell yourself is more essential today than in any other part of sound production history. 

A true story about voice-over

I once provided a voice-over for a client in the United States. The agency sent the client my voice file clean, without mixing it into the video and with no backing music. The client complained that the voice-over sounded “breathless” and they didn’t like it.  It is good practice to take out all of the breaths when editing a voice over unless otherwise requested. In this case, it transpired that the client had never heard a voice-over file that had been correctly cleaned up because they only ever budgeted for the artist alone, so the artist had to use their own equipment and voice artists are not usually known for their audio engineering skills. I had to call and explain to the client that what they found strange was in fact good practice and resulting in broadcast quality audio. I was able to do it because I was confident enough in my own work and soI was willing to engage an unhappy client and give them the benefit of my experience. It  was my unique selling point. And it can be yours too.

That’s All Very Well, But How Do I Get Into Voiceover?

Voice-over waveform

Well, half of this question has been answered above, inasmuch as the tools of the trade are no longer prohibitively expensive. You may like to take a look at my article on Vocal Recording 101 for a brush up. The other half is really the holy grail of the industry.

My studio was based at a well-known television studio complex called Teddington Studios, I was able to build a booth that isolated the artist adequately by converting a turret in the building – for more help in this field, take a look at What Is A Vocal Booth and How To Create One.

Tools of the trade

I received the occasional enquiry from the studios’ clients; mainly TV productions, but this would not have kept me very busy on its own. So I set about marketing my facility. There were always voice-over artists, presenters, actors in the vicinity who needed a cheap or free studio for a demo and it was relatively easy to search them out – all social media channels and online publications and directories to start with. This is where I honed my skills, not only as a recording engineer but also as a voice-over director.

Practice makes perfect

When you start to work in the field of voice-over, it won’t be long before you are required to provide a little more than just the recording. You will be asked for feedback and this can vary quite a lot.  “How did that sound” will be a very common question. I judged each situation on its own merits and responded accordingly. Did the artist really want to know that they have a screachy, painful voice? Is it my place to instruct an actor on their intonation? 

There’s nothing like doing it to know if you can

You are in a unique position to offer guidance even if you didn’t know it.  For example, every line delivered by a voice-over artist in a session should resonate in your mind as if you’ve heard it many times before. A particular nuance that an artist thinks of a nice touch, could well become irritating after a few listens. The trick is to imagine that irritation and, if it presents itself to you as a problem, say so.  And all the while I would scrutinise the quality of the voice-over recording, looking for that perfect take and remembering each minute detail of the set-up.

What Makes A Good Voice-Over Recording

After a year or so, I felt I’d reached a pretty good standard in terms of the quality of the service I provided. By then, I had recorded quite a few artists from various backgrounds and levels (some of them even paid me) and I looked to expand my clientele. Compare everything, it is amazing how you start to spot artifacts in a recording you previously thought was good.  It’s also a good idea to find an example voice-over that you admire and refer back to it from time to time.

The intricacies of voice over recording

There are several factors that go to make up a good voice-over recording. The artist and the equipment are the two obvious constants. But the engineer who sits in the session can make the difference between a good and a bad product.  I once recorded an emotive voiceover for a training company. The artist was chosen for his deep, resonant voice based on a previous “inspirational” video he had voiced. The session went well and I was ready to wrap. Just a an afterthought, I dropped some dramatic orchestral music under the voice to give the client an idea of how it would sound. The voice-artist heard it and insisted on having another, even more emotional, attempt.

Know when you’ve achieved your goal

The client was caught up in the moment and neither he or the artists would listen to my reasoning.  We did another pass with the music played to the artist. Unsurprisingly, he went OTT, shouting in parts and generally hamming the whole script up. The client asked me to deliver THAT TAKE. However, the client had a client, the end user, who thought it was ridiculous and demanded another version by another artist. The moral of this tale is this: I had it within my jurisdiction to talk them out of what was clearly an act of over-exuberance, and I should have. The artist didn’t get to hear his voice in a major campaign and my client had to hire an artist and studio once more for the retake, at extra cost to him. Admittedly, I was paid for a second session. Nevertheless, I let a voice-over session deteriorate to the point of it being rejected and when things go wrong, the person at the bottom of the food chain is where the buck stops.

How To Pitch Your Voice-Over Facility

Marketing is probably the toughest part of voice-over.  There are hundreds of production companies out there. The trick is to find them and contact them. Production companies have a reputation for having quite a high turnover of staff and, therefore, a habit of not retaining a full and up-to-date database of suppliers. Couple this with fairly tight time management and you can see the advantage of giving them a call regularly. These days, voice-over is often the last item on the agenda when a production company swings into action on a project. You can use this to your advantage by being there just as a production team realise they haven’t covered the voice-over requirements.

Keep in touch

So, build your own database and trawl through it on a regular basis, emailing or calling just to keep your name at the front of their minds and your email nearer to the top of their inbox. When you have sat many sessions, dealt with many “difficult” clients, taken feedback on your work and experienced criticisms you didn’t think were justified, you can talk about your work with the confidence required to secure more bookings through direct conversation. Voice-over recording is a peculiarly personable industry and potential clients tend to be people who have little time for research and who make many decisions based on a conversation. My experience is that if the client feels confident that you know what you’re talking about, you’re more than half way to persuading them to hire you. However, one awkward question that you struggle to answer and you’re likely to lose the bid.

Do your homework, it pays in the end

I am obsessive about audio recording quality and I often mention this to my clients. I tend to apologise for my obsessiveness and the client almost always tells me they’d prefer it that way rather than someone who pays less attention to detail.

One of my favourite aspects of voice-over recording is ADR, or Automatic Dialogue Replacement, sometimes known as “dubbing”. This is where the artist is mimicking the speech of another artist on-screen in order to pass it off as theirs. I recently did extensive ADR in the new feature film, 7 Hours on Earth.  You can read more details of this in the interview I did with Heather Froude. This requires adding a reasonably sized video monitor to your shopping list but little more is needed as most DAWs facilitate video in the timeline these days. I often find that clients are impressed by a video monitor regardless of whether they intend to use it or not. On a practical level, however, you might find, as I have quite often, that upon spotting a visual monitor, the client will ask to use it even though it wasn’t in their original remit.  If you’re ok with this, fine, but it might add unnecessary prep-work and may slow the session down.

Share your knowledge.

I have been known, of occasion, to tell a client to edit their video to the voice-over recording rather than the other way round. This seldom goes down well, but to my mind it offers a solution to several editing headaches and the results actually look and feel better.  So, if you are party to a project early on, try to get the voice-over booked sooner rather than when the client has called picture lock.

If I had to highlight one aspect of this article, it’d be the emphasis on quality. In a world where it is seemingly easy to produce breathtaking video, awe inspiring visual effects and liver shaking music beds, it’s easy to go with the flow and just provide adequate voice-over. It’s true that you have to sell yourself out there, better have something good to sell.

Here’s an example of a voice-over I did for Moonpig, the card people.

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