Do you like the sound of your own voice? Perhaps you are a hidden voice “Talent.” An exploration of the voice-over industry in two parts. BY INGEBORG WEINMANN WHITE

I was hired for my first voice-over job 17 years ago—about the same time I started working as a freelance translator. With my background in theater, voice-over seemed a natural and enjoyable way to increase my income.
That first script consisted of a few dry paragraphs about laser printers. I met the client at a San Francisco recording studio and spoke the text into a microphone in my best stage German. The client and the recording engineer told me that my voice was very well suited for voice-over work. I was surprised and flattered .Up to that point I had always cringed whenever I heard a recording of my speaking voice. But this is normal; the more you hear your recorded voice the more you get used to it.
Over the years I have worked on many German voice-over projects both as voice talent and director, including narration for corporate and industrial videos, ad campaigns, audio tours and video games.

Foreign language talents in this area get hired most often for narration voice-overs. When people speak on camera (instructing or talking about a product in a casual interview style), the original narration can be heard softly in the background while the narrator’s voice in the foreign language is the primary voice one hears. If the narrator is off-camera and speaks to pictures or graphics we simply hear the foreign language narration instead of the original (English) one.
Occasionally dubbing is required. This is more time consuming and requires more skill from the talent, who has to synchronize his/her voice with the lips of the actor speaking in the original language. For this type of voice-over the script translation is tailored to the dubbing so that the written words have the same length as the original words spoken on the video.
The most fun kind of voice-over (to my mind) consists of playing one or more characters in an animated film or video game. This is definitely the most challenging in terms of acting and some people, who have a natural “radio voice,” prefer to do narration. I always enjoy when different characters are involved and I can use my acting skills.

Is an acting background necessary for voice-over work? In general, yes, but with narration it is most important that one have a pleasant recording voice and be able to enunciate in a neutral accent in the required language. Yet even the most straightforward and routine narration still demands that you act. You might need to sound excited, pleasant, nonchalant, friendly, warm, hopeful or dreamy while reading a script about scanners, printers, heart pumps or the new dollar bill. You also need to know your own voice and how to give it the right inflection, the appropriate emotion and an overall pleasing tone.
The most successful voice talents I know have a background in acting or broadcasting. But I also know a few who are naturally talented without ever having studied acting. They have a good voice and an innate sense of how to read a script well.

To prepare for a recording I do some speech or warm-up exercises before arriving at the studio. I want my voice to be strong and limber, not to sound hoarse, “sticky” or thin. In fact, what applies to acting applies here: if you know how to breathe into your diaphragm and use your full vocal resonance and range your voice will sound fuller and smoother. It is important to be as relaxed as possible. Stress causes you to breathe more shallowly and in turn makes your voice thinner and higher.
If you don’t know any warm-up exercises, sing along with a favorite album or read through the script out loud. In fact, I highly recommend practicing the script; you will read more fluently in front of the microphone if you are familiar with the text. Sometimes clients will not release the script until the time of the recording, in which case I arrive early and make sure I look at my part before I step into the recording booth. If a talent is unprepared and cannot get through a sentence without mistakes the recording can be torturous for everyone involved.

Directing can be fun, creative and a lot less stressful than being in front of the microphone, but voice-over directors don’t get paid as well as the talents. Sometimes directors are hired as “language supervisors” (another way of saying, “We don’t want to pay a director’s fee”) to make sure the talent pronounces everything correctly and clearly. After all, the recording engineer usually doesn’t speak the foreign language being recorded.
But directing is much more than that. As a director, I always try to be cheerful and encouraging. Most recordings are on a tight schedule. A good voice talent can quickly hear and put into practice what the director asks of them. Typical directions include: “More conversational,” “Keep your energy up,” “Sound more excited about the product,” “Watch those endings,” “Don’t go down with your voice in the middle of a sentence.” Sometimes voice talents are asked to direct themselves, which involves listening to your own recording as objectively as possible and re-doing readings that need improvement.
Regardless of the talent’s performance, the director’s feedback should always be supportive, friendly and constructive. Many people don’t realize that standing in front of a microphone and reading a text well is hard work. You are under a lot of pressure to perform, to concentrate, and to give a flawless reading. The director should not add to the stress but make the talent comfortable while encouraging the best possible performance.

If you are interested in pursuing voice-over work, here are a few tips on getting get started:

  • Make a demo recording to send out to potential clients and agencies. Have copies of your demo on CD or in mp3 format so that you have it ready to send.
  • It is essential to have a demo that sounds professional. It can be worthwhile to get help from a recording engineer and even use a professional recording studio. Some people are technically versed enough that they can record at home on a computer with an external microphone and an audio application such as ProTools or Logic.
  • When you start getting jobs it is helpful to ask the recording engineer for a copy of your recording; you can use excerpts for your demo. For my own demo I used some texts of my own and some I had recorded for jobs. A typical demo is about one minute long and contains three to four different voices: a narrative voice and two or three characters to show your range. Demos should be kept current.
  • Once you have your demo, research and contact agencies in your area that do multilingual voice-over projects on a regular basis. Besides sending out CDs and mp3s it is a good idea to let potential clients know there is a downloadable demo on your website. In fact, a great addition to the NCTA website could be a directory of voice-over talents and their demos.

Good luck, and stay tuned for Part Two of this article, a look at the Bay Area voice-over industry. IWW