Interview with a Voiceover Guy
by Peter Drew
I was contacted by a new media publication to do an interview about voiceovers. They sent questions for me to answer via email. I sent back my responses to their questions, but realized later that I needed to make a change before I signed off on it, giving the publisher permission to quote me. Rather than make the change, the publisher decided to pull the interview from publication instead of making the change. So, I thought, instead of wasting a perfectly good interview, I’d publish it myself. Here’s that article, intact except for a few changes I decided to make, since I’m now, well, in essence, interviewing myself.
They asked: In the voice over business, is having a regional accent detrimental? Is it better to not have a regional accent?
I answered: Yes. A neutral accent plays pretty much anywhere in the US and foreign countries.
They asked: If you had a regional accent in the beginning, what steps did you take to train yourself to talk in a more conversational way?
I answered: I’m from New Jersey and I had a bit of a “Juh-sey” accent. People think we Jerseyites say “Joi-sey,” but it really is more like “Juh-sey.” Anyway, by listening carefully to people with neutral accents on the radio and TV, and to myself when I played back recordings of my reads, I was able to fairly quickly eliminate the “dozes,” “dems,” and “dats” (as in “those,” “them,” and “that”) that would pop up in my native dialect. I’m a fairly good mimic, so it came quite naturally to me.
I had a female student from Medford, Massachusetts in one of my radio performance classes back when I taught part-time at Emerson College in Boston. She had a very thick “Bah-ston” accent. She was desperate to get rid of it because she wanted to get into radio. I gave her some exercises and she diligently did them by recording them into a cassette machine. I would review her tapes and critique her work. In a matter of a month or two, she’d pretty much gotten rid of her working-class Boston accent and replaced it with a fairly neutral one. After I left Boston to work for a radio station in Hartford, I heard that she had landed a gig at a major market radio station. An interesting side note to her story: Her family was upset that she was trying to change her accent. They accused her of being ashamed of her roots and that she wanted to prove she was better than the folks in her old neighborhood. But she stuck to her guns and got where she wanted to go.
Would this young woman have gotten the major market gig if she still had the accent? She felt not having it was a big plus for her and that it was worth tolerating the backlash from her family. The social implications of her dialect change are quite fascinating. Of course, we’ve seen such a clash of classes before in literature in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” the musical based on his play.
They asked: What got you into a career in voice-overs?
I answered: It seems a natural progression for a lot of people who work in radio, especially people involved in radio production/creative services. They leave the radio business and go into voiceovers. That’s what I did. Nowadays, a lot of actors—known and unknown—are finding VO is a way to supplement their incomes.
They asked: What do you recommend? Setting up a home studio or using a commercial recording facility?
I answered: The home studio comes after you’ve worked up a business plan; put enough money in the bank to fund the business while it gets up and running; put a quality demo together; gotten together a list of production houses, agencies, TV and radio stations to which you can market your demo; stationery; business cards; etc., etc. Please see my article on setting up your voiceovers business for more details.
Whether starting out part-time, moonlighting, or jumping right in without any other employment, a voice talent will usually begin by trying to get work locally, if there are any production facilities in his/her area. To really make a living or at least enough pocket change to make it worth someone’s while—without a home studio—a talent has to live in a market large enough to support voice talent. New York and LA are the largest media markets and they have the largest pools of actors and voice talents. In LA, there are 6000 people who call themselves voice over talents. Out of those 6000, literally about 75 people get the bulk of the very top commercial and movie trailer work. Why only 75? Because they are really talented, they work quickly, take direction very well, and are known quantities to producers, casting directors, and engineers. This tight lock on the market is one of the main reasons talents have taken to installing home studios. With today’s digital technology, you can talk to the world.
They asked: Do you have a specialty in voice work or do you do several types?
I answered: I’ve built a base of monthly promo-imaging retainer work from TV and radio stations, which has me voicing promos, IDs, and the like for them. They give me a consistent bit of income each month. Another large part of my work is narrations. Across the board, around ninety percent of voiceover work is in “industrials” or long-form narration, e.g. corporate sales presentations, Flash videos on web sites, eLearning courses, video tours of factories, product demos, etc., etc. The remaining ten percent is where the glamour is in the VO business: commercials, promo work, and movie trailers. Of course, most people prefer the glam stuff, so they concentrate on that. I prefer to make a living, so I do a lot of industrials. I also do telephone VO, including messages on hold and IVR prompts, which are the usual, “If you would like the sales department, please press 2” type of things.
I get my fair share of radio and TV spots. I’ve done voice work for video games, including a small part in Madden NFL 06, which is the latest installment of the most popular game series in history, having sold about 35 million copies worldwide. So, that’s pretty cool. I’ve also played a scat singing frog, nervous singing monkey, and a singing mouse, all for the same video game for children.
They asked: What’s a typical day like in the voiceover business?
I answered: There’s really no typical day because everyone in the business is in a different place in his or her career both physically and professionally. The workday of Don LaFontaine, the biggest movie trailer and network TV promo voice, used to be getting up in the morning and hopping in his limo, so he could be chauffeured from studio to studio all day long. Now, he does most everything from his home studio. Meanwhile, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of talents in major cities who run from studio to studio for auditions. If they’re lucky, they might land 1 in 40 gigs. That’s a lot of running around. I work exclusively from my studio. I have clients across the US and in several foreign countries. My studio is not in my home for various reasons, so I actually commute to work like most people. I’m anticipating a change in that situation soon, which will save me thousands in rent when I put my studio in my home.
They asked: Any voiceover a favorite of yours?
I answered: I don’t think I have a favorite, but one that stands out was going to a recording studio and getting paid union scale for mumbling in a Texas accent for a commercial. I was paid for not speaking the English language intelligibly. That was pretty unique.
They asked: Can you recommend any online resources for aspiring voice talents?
I answered: There are voiceover coaches you can locate online who will coach you via the telephone, but be careful. Make sure you research and investigate them before you select one. Get references. Make sure they’re legitimate.
Be sure to check out the voiceovers groups on Yahoo!, Google, and elsewhere on the Web. Most of the experienced talents on these forums are very polite and helpful. Lurk and learn. Post questions. You’ll find the folks on the forums are nice people and quite pleasant with newbies.
And it’s important to remember that voiceover is a craft. You can’t master it in a two-day course and expect to land a major national spot campaign. It’s happened, but rarely. Take acting classes at a local college or learning annex. Try to find a coach locally that you can work with one-on-one. Don’t let anyone pull the “I can make you a star” routine on you. Keep a level head.
They asked: For those considering the voice over business, do you have any particular bit of advice?
I answered: Don’t quit your day job until you’re sure you’re ready. Voiceover is a business like any other. If you’re not ready to be your own boss and not ready to invest in yourself and your business, then keep your job and benefits. Oh, and that’s another thing to keep in mind—expenses. Things like health insurance. If you’re married and your spouse has insurance, you’re set. If you’re single, get ready to shell out between $5000 and $12,000 per year for coverage. Not trying to discourage anyone. You just have to be practical. It’s a business. It takes money, planning, and some semblance of discipline to operate, stay solvent, and maybe even make a living at it. But if you take the plunge, it can be a heckuva lot of fun!
© Peter Drew