Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What Is A Voiceover And How Do You Do It? (By Bettye Zoller)

What Is A Voiceover?

Radio is the ultimate voiceover. It has often been called, "The Theatre of the Mind." A voiceover can be defined as, "anytime a voice is heard without seeing a person talking." This definition doesn't always suffice however, because voiceover talents often speak in on-camera TV commercials or TV programs. One example is the wonderful and timeless sitcom, "The Wonder Years," and another program that used voiceovers extensively was "My So-Called Life." Today, "Desperate Housewives" uses voiceovers.

Voiceover talents can also "overdub" by synchronizing their voiceover to the movements of on camera actors' mouths as the actors are viewed on-screen. Sometimes, voice actors overdub speech because on-camera actors were chosen for the way they looked but vocally (as actors) lacked some sort of quality the director sought. Other times, voiceovers are used in films and TV programs because the audio sound was not of sufficient quality and must be improved in a recording studio setting (ADR work—additional dialogue recording). On-camera actors are usually cast for the way they look, the image they project, not for their voice skills. Voiceovers are also used to overdub actors' speeches so that the film or TV show can be sold or syndicated in foreign markets.

Voiceover talents today are hired to narrate audio books, anime, cartoons, videos, films, and cable TV programs. They are the voices of toys, talking picture frames, cell phone messages, talking greeting cards, your car's GPS navigation system, and everything else that's manufactured with a computer chip inside of it on which a voice track can be stored and played. Voiceover talents greet you (and annoy you!) on thousands upon thousands of those pesky recorded telephone messages and IVR systems. They talk to you through ceiling speakers while you shop in stores. You hear voiceover talents trying to convince you to buy cosmetics at your department store on a video playing over and over (looping) next to those expensive cosmetic products! The military uses voiceovers in training projects and the educational field also uses voice actors for educational endeavors. Nearly every classroom today, kindergarten through post-graduate study in universities sports a large TV monitor in a corner on which educational videos are played. Sometimes, it seems that a teacher doesn't talk very much anymore. Rather, schools teach a majority of the time with videos.

What Should a Voiceover Talent Strive For, and Why?

The talent' should sound natural and believable (unless voicing a cartoon or character voice, and even then, being a "believable bunny or duck" is probably a worthwhile goal . . .) without revealing there is a written script. The ultimate goal is to sound as if the thoughts being expressed in the script are emanating from the voiceover talent's own thoughts. The voice talent is a communicator who should strive to convey the script's message in the most effective manner.

Stages of Performance

A voice talent should strive to understand the project, its scope, its purpose. The talent should understand what the producer/director/client needs and wants you to do as the voice of the project. This may require questioning the producer or attempting to delve deeper into the project's scope. Never be fearful of asking questions on an audition or a session.

A voiceover talent should:

  • Understand the script and its purpose.
  • Understand the director/producer/client's needs and goals.
  • Determine for whom the voiceover message is intended (audience).
  • Sound natural, believable, and real (even if you're a cartoon or toy voice!).
  • Be skilled at "the cold read," that is, reading something aloud you've not seen previously.
  • Give the script "life," by bringing it to "full bloom" with your vocal rendering.
  • Be "at home" in the recording studio and understand the recording process, never waste studio time, but rather, be quick, saving money.
  • Be a business person, a skilled professional, always prompt, dependable.

No one had all of these qualifications starting out! These are acquired with practice. I always remind my students that, "you have to play to win." I add, "one thing is certain: You'll never know if you could have succeeded if you don't try."

That brings me to the next bit of advice: Listen to voiceovers constantly—on TV, in videos and films (cable TV is a goldmine to learn how to narrate video and film). Listen for voiceovers in stores (on point-of-purchase videos or through ceiling speakers), on the telephone, in the airport, in your physician's office, —everywhere. Learn from voiceover professionals who speak to you constantly, teaching you, every day!

The Voiceover CD Demo
A performer's voiceover demo is required if you're going to get auditions or work!

Having a professional voiceover demo that is created in a recording studio with the guidance of a professional producer is "a must!" A voiceover demo's cost will be higher in NYC and LA. If saving money is important, have your demo produced and recorded outside of these areas! Also, realize that there are substantial differences between what producers deem a "proper demo" in LA and in "the hinterlands." However, it is possible to produce a demo that agents and producers respect in many diverse geographic regions, even in Europe, if you seek out the right producers who know what agents and producers are looking for today. And, of course, compare prices. But also, realize that saving money should not mean settling for an inferior product. Know your producer's credentials and ask for referrals from satisfied demo clients! And never even think of recording a voiceover demo without being well rehearsed.

If the recording studio or the producer tells you that you can "come into my studio and we'll construct the demo that same day," walk, don't run! The contents of a demo should be tailored closely to the client's voiceprint, the talent's personality and voice profile, age, and gender. The sound of a voice usually tells a producer a lot about that profile. The contents of the demo should be chosen well ahead of the recording session date and the talent should be well coached. As for "voice type," for example, a young female voice talent with a wispy rather whimsical voice would have a demo with certain types of material on it while a deep voiced older female, perhaps one with a theatrical flair, would have completely different material on her demo.

Your Mentors

Who will train you? Who will produce your demo? That's most important. You need a skilled voiceover coach / audio producer beside you, guiding you. A demo will illustrate your skills reading voiceover material in a wide variety of areas (the areas mentioned earlier here).

What does a Demo Contain and What Should Be Its Length?

A demo contains short passages edited into a montage about two minutes to two and one-half minutes long. This version, however, will be combined with short edits. I prefer 90 and 60 second versions of the long demo. The short versions are used on websites and as attachments to emails. In this way, the talent and his or her agents have a long version and two short versions to work with for various reasons. I do not favor ONLY the short demo length based on my ongoing discussions with agents in many U.S. regions. The short version is, however, favored by Los Angeles producers with whom I consult. Here, in Dallas and all of the U.S. outside of the East and West coasts, my agent advisors tell me they prefer getting one longer demo and the short edits.

As I explain to all of my students and clients: When I state "my opinion" on an issue, it is not solely, "my opinion." Rather, it is my "take" on an issue that has resulted from my talking with, consulting with, my sources in many locations in the U.S. and Europe. I belong to many professional groups including VASTA (Voice and Speech Trainers Association), AFTRA national committees, SAG national committees, and many voiceover talent agents and producers. I also regularly consult with other voiceover professionals in many diverse locations.

Distribution and Self-Promotion

The next step involves duplicating your CD demo and obtaining a professional CD label. Some talents package a demo with a label plus a front and back cover and CD spine. Others use only a professional looking CD label. Remember: Producers and agents are interested primarily in what's ON the demo, not in its packaging. If the package is fabulous and its contents terrible, you've accomplished naught. You may choose to duplicate and package the CD demo yourself. You may have others do it for you. Either way, it must sound the best. That's most important.

Be prepared to produce quantities of your CD over the first year and on a continual basis throughout your career. Self-promotion should be on-going, year after year. However, don't do large duplication quantities until you're sure you don't want to change the demo. Add some recent voice work to an old demo and rearrange the cuts and it's "all new" (or so it seems . . .). Most coaches and producers agree that a voiceover CD demo should be updated about every eighteen months to two years.

Don't print vast label quantities. Do not have a label printed in large quantities on the CD itself. You may change agents! Your phone or e-mail may change. It happens all the time! I suggest starting with 100 copies of your demo. Then, duplicate more copies as you need them to get signed by broadcast agents in various cities and to start your promotional machine in high gear. After that, plan on distributing about 50 demos per month or more if you can.

And finally, you are ready to distribute your CD demo to your broadcast agents, to business owners, to producers/directors, to people you meet at networking events, and to put your demo on websites (your own and commercial sites that send work to voice talents on the internet). Self-promotion never ends! You are a small business owner and your business is YOU.

Every Business Has a Start-Up Process (Voiceovers Do Too!)

Compared to opening a storefront, starting a new restaurant, becoming a dentist or lawyer, starting your musical or film acting career, the start-up costs to enter the voiceover field are relatively modest. However, you must prepare for routine, expected expenses involved with studying, attending workshops, consulting with teachers and demo producers, creating your CD voiceover demo, and distributing that demo (self-promotion).

The self-promotion never ends, as I said above! And that will cost money – for postcard mailers, business cards, CD mailers, mailing labels, promotional give-away items to get noticed, all of the costs connected with large batch duplication of your CD and packaging, printed brochures, postal charges, networking costs, anything and everything that gets you noticed by those who hire voiceover talents.

Don't overlook free opportunities for publicity: Newspaper and magazine articles, trade publications, newsletters. Join organizations in your area where your visibility can be increased. Make new contacts that can potentially help you. Remember: It's not necessarily "who you know!" It is "who they know!"


You must (like every other business on the planet) create and maintain an internet presence. While your website does not have to be a major investment, it should look professional. I use website building templates provided by my website host sites. If you need help, solicit it from a student or friend rather than spending major sums of money on design that could be spent in other ways. Get started building your website or make sure your site can accept audio files so you can post your demo (s) on it. That's a must!

Be Optimistic and Realistic

I have produced demos for a few of my students who made money from voicing substantial projects immediately. Many have voiced major national commercials that paid residuals for many years to come within the first year after I produced their demo CD. Some have become the favorite voices of producers who use them over and over, creating a steady income stream. Still others decide to start their own businesses, selling their own voiceover jobs (telephone messaging, audio books, commercials). Others for whom I've produced a demo have a slower start, preferring to maintain their "learning curve" and "promotion curve" (not unlike some business owners who want to "build the business" over time). Sometimes, that "slow build." Is a good one. One talent recently told me that he is "building his start in his own way and finding his 'sea legs." Everyone moves at their own "career speed."Bottom line: The amount of time spent on one's endeavors usually is reflected, in direct proportion to the degree of success that one achieves. Part-time effort usually results in part-time work (if any). Perhaps a "day job" or family life means severely limited time is available for promoting your new voiceover endeavors. That's o.k. everyone has their own time schedule.

Start building and keep building!
One thing is certain: If you don't try, you're sure to fail! Good luck!! Everyone was a beginner at one time! Go for it!

Bettye Zoller Seitz
All rights reserved 2007
Ask for permission to use or reprint
Voiceover Talent/Educator Audio Engineer Recording Studio Owner/Demo Producer
Simon and Schuster Voice Talent-Producer/ Dialect and Voice Speech Coach
214-638-TALK (8255)

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