Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shifting gears

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges any voice over talent faces who works alone from a home project studio is being able to make the necessary adjustments throughout the day to give a particular piece of copy the read it needs. My day starts very early, 4-5 AM PST, as I have East Coast clients who come to me on an almost daily basis (Hello Comcast New York/New Jersey!). I tag a fair amount of TV spots and on air promos for them. So, they might come to me needing a very uptempo tag  for a  Monday Night Football sponsorship. Then I'll have something else hit my email that calls for a very deliberate read, such as e learning where the copy needs to be voiced rather slowly, so the learner can digest what's being said. After that, an audition comes in that requires a whole different pace and feel. So, it's important to take a breath between jobs and really try to refocus. It's part of effective self directing. All day long you're shifting vocal gears if you voice a wide variety of scripts. Sometimes just opening up the door and walking outside in between jobs for a moment helps to clear your head for the right read. When you're super busy, it's easy to forget to do this.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Thanks for calling!"

When I lived in North Carolina a number of years ago, I use to drive over the border three times a week to Muzak headquarters in Ft. Mill, South Carolina and voice countless on hold messages. (Yes, Muzak does a lot more than just produce elevator music.) I was one of many voice talents who would drop in throughout the week to voice from a VO booth. We had an audio engineer down the hallway who would roll scripts on a monitor in front of us and capture the on hold messages for editing and formatting later. As voice talents, our role was to come in and voice as many two-three paragraph scripts as we could in an hour. This required very good "cold reading" ability. That is to say, we didn't have a chance to see the scripts before the session, so you had to be good at voicing on the fly. If you made a mistake, you'd simply revoice the line and move on;the fix would be done in editing. There was a HUGE premium put on voice talents who could whiz through the scripts and voice say, 35-45 separate messages in an hour.  We were paid a decent hourly rate and the work was relatively stress free with nominal direction. 

Phrases like, "You're call  is important to us," "Thanks for holding...we'll be with you in a minute," and "While you're waiting, did you know...?" have been the norm for many years with little change. Of course, many folks hate to be put on hold or get caught up in an on hold hell of sorts as they feverishly push buttons to be connected to a live, breathing, human being.

I've had a few funny experiences over the years when calling businesses. Recently, here in California, I called an online auto parts supplier to follow up on an order I had placed through their website. It was very early morning and I received an hours of operation, on hold message. ("We're currently closed, but our hours of operation are from..."). I heard the voice and thought, "Boy, that guy sounds a lot like me," when it dawned on me it WAS me! Having voiced many on hold messages it's easy to lose track and some can run for quite a while before needing to be updated.

Another time, a producer/client friend of mine emailed to tell me he was with friends in the middle of a California desert getting some gas when he heard my voice overhead at the gas pump beckoning customers to come in the convenience store to get a Slurpy or cup of freshly brewed coffee. He said it kind of freaked him out as my voice came out of nowhere and he told his friends, "Hey, that's John Miles. I hired him to voice for me." This type of messaging is what is known as "overhead." You hear these messages in stores all the time.

  Many voice talents stay away from on hold work. I still enjoy it. Part of the challenge is to combine a conversational read with some enthusiasm without sounding cheesy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"The voice of Bart"

The voice of Bart Simpson-Nancy Cartwright
 
In the San Francisco Bay Area, if you were to ask someone who does the voice of Bart, he or she might ask you for clarification. Here, B.A.R.T. stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. And as you wait on the platform for the train to come, you'll hear several voices announcing departure and arrival times. They're actually synthesized voices called, "George and Gracie." The history behind them is kind of fascinating. Read about them and hear a sample of their voices here.

Another suitable answer would be Nancy Cartwright. She's the voice of Bart Simpson. When the series first became a hit, many were surprised that Bart's voice was being done by a woman.

Years ago, Nancy took a big chance, packed up her beat up car in Dayton, Ohio, and headed to California. She was lucky enough to study under the legendary Daws Butler, a master of animation voices. He originated the voices of many famous cartoon characters, including Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound. What an education she got from Mr. Butler. Not to mention landing  the gig of a lifetime. Her book, "My Life as a Ten Year Old Boy" is a fun and informative read.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's indeed a small world

Yesterday I was hired to do a voice over for a fledgling company's website. I had auditioned for the job earlier in the day and that afternoon received an email from them that I had won the audition- they wanted to hire me to voice for them. It was a relatively short script that called for a certain amount of enthusiasm, but not too over the top. Job finished, I emailed them a link to download the audio file. Within fifteen minutes or so, I received an email from "Eran" that they liked what I did and he requested an invoice. I emailed a Pay Pal invoice, which I usually do for first time customers. The payment came through within minutes and was from Haifa, Israel. It got me to thinking once again about how the Internet has really made it a very small world. I also voice for clients in Germany, India and Japan when they need an English/American voice over. Count me in as one of those folks very grateful for the Internet and what it allows me to do every day.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A new member of the family

I just added this preamp to my audio chain in my studio, and absolutely love it. A good preamp teamed with a good microphone is a must. I have to say that after reading many of the glowing, online reviews of the Grace M101, it certainly lives up to all the positive buzz. Some even saying it could sell for two to three times as much. I like that it doesn't "color" the microphone sound, in my case, a Neumann TLM 103. And the simplicity and ease of use is a winner.  The Grace Design company is based in Colorado. By the way, there was nothing wrong with my other preamp, I just like what this preamp brings to the studio. Money well spent.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Natural" and "Believable"

I wish I had a nickel for every time I saw one of the two words above in an audition spec. If you go to You Tube and click on any of the TV commercials of yesterday, say back in the 50's and 60's, you're more than likely going to hear an announcer type delivery that sounds over projected with volume, and a lot of "sell and hype" in the voice. Not to say that those don't still exist in today's advertising world ( i.e.-Hard sell auto commercials or infomercials). Now more than ever however, casting directors are looking for voice talents who can sound natural (non-hyped/ conversational), and believable, while standing or sitting in front of a microphone. That takes good old fashioned experience.

I have found  newbie voice talents tend to often make the mistake of speaking too loudly into the microphone. This results in an affected and over projected voice quality that is far from sounding natural. The key is to let the microphone do the work of amplifying your voice, and "get small" with your voice-less volume. Imagine that your best friend is standing right next to you and you're speaking to him or her. You certainly wouldn't get overly loud in their ear when speaking, so why do it when recording a voice over? Another analogy would be people who feel the need to yell into their cell phones, as if the listening party cannot hear them.

Quick tip:  Recording with headphones off (or maybe just one ear outside the phones), can help you to achieve a more natural sound. What happens is many folks get too caught up listening to themselves through the headphones, which can result in an unnatural sounding voice over. I realize that in studio settings where producers/directors are giving you direction from outside the booth, you'll need to have them on to hear. But if you're voicing from a home studio and self directing, try taking the headphones off sometimes. I think you'll find that  helps to make your reads more natural. Still, there are many  experienced voice talents who can sound natural with headphones on while recording. My advice so far is mainly intended for those just beginning their voice over endeavors and struggling with this issue.

Another part of making the voice over sound natural and believable is not overly enunciating the words. If you're voicing a "real person" type script , you'll want to aim for  more conversational diction. Pronouncing  with over emphasis will make you sound very stilted, unnatural and amateurish. On the other hand, you're not aiming for sloppy either. You have to kind of split the difference. Grab those audition scripts and practice! Sounding natural while in front of a microphone is an acquired skill.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Where's the beef?"

I see they've come out with the top 10 advertising icons of all time and Clara Peller, the "Where's the Beef?" Wendy's spokesperson made the list. No surprise there. I had a moment of reflection, as back in the 80's, in my "former life" as a radio broadcaster, I had a chance to interview her. I was on the air in West Palm Beach on a Saturday morning when a call came in from a photographer friend of mine who had a knack for taking pics of celebrities. He happened to be visiting with Clara and her son, who were staying at a Palm Beach Gardens hotel. Sam asked me if I would be interested in doing a short interview with her on the air as she was in town for the Senior Olympics. At that time, everyone was running around saying "Where's the beef?". Folks were wearing t-shirts with that slogan on it. If you were around then you no doubt remember. It was insane! So, I told him that I'd be happy to put her on, figuring it might be somewhat comical. There was one small problem though. Her son informed me that she was extremely hard of hearing and doing the interview over the phone might be difficult, to say the least. I told him that I had an in studio reel to reel tape recorder patched into the phone line and I could roll tape, and then do an edit before putting the interview on the air. That in mind, he put her on the phone and I opened by asking her what brought her to the Palm Beaches, so she could talk about the Olympics. From the beginning, I knew I was in deep trouble when my questions were answered with absolute silence and she would occasionally bark, "Where's the beef?,"as if on command. (Think of one of those play dolls with the string you pull to hear a mechanical sounding voice). Her son grabbed the phone extension and said perhaps if I asked him the questions, he could ask her and I'd have enough stuff on tape I could use. So that's what we did.  I  edited out the pauses and gaffes and eventually put the very brief interview on the air, my listeners none the wiser. I later learned that Clara was in fact so hard of hearing that when they filmed the Wendy's commercials, someone hidden from sight would tap her on the leg from behind the counter to cue her to say her famous line, "Where's the beef?"


Thursday, July 29, 2010

"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur."

No doubt, the headline above applies to many businesses, but since I'm in the voice over world, I'll touch a bit on what I know. As a politician has said more than a time or two, "Let me be brief."

"El Cheapo" voice overs are aplenty. With the explosion of affordable, digital audio equipment, many are hanging up the "I'm a professional voice over talent" shingle. Problem is, when it comes time to deliver the goods, they fall short. And not just in their abilities, but in the actual sound quality of the audio.

Getting good, clean audio in a home studio set up is not quite as easy as it may seem. For one, each recording space has a unique room tone. That is to say, XYZ microphone will sound differently if it's used in this room versus that one.  Some record from voice over booths. Others create an isolated space with proper acoustical treatment. I use products from this company. Then there's the additional challenge of blocking outside noise if you're recording in a busy neighborhood. When I moved into my new studio location several years ago, my main goal was to find a very quiet location, so buffering outside noise would be minimal. I was very fortunate to find a cool spot that literally sits near a quiet creek. Love it!

If you're planning on hiring a voice talent and having them record a paragraph or two of your script as an audition, listen to the audio with headphones on. This will highlight any audio deficiencies that may not be audible through your speakers. Things like computer fan noise, excessive echo flutter bouncing off walls, or let's hope not, but even barking dogs in the background, will be readily noticeable.

I'll wrap this post up by saying that I have made more than a few dollars from producers who have phoned me in a mild panic because they hired a low priced talent and needed a quick fix on a voice over.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"9,223,372,036,854,775,808"

So I'm voicing some technical e learning scripts having to do with Java 8 that contain numbers references foreign to almost everybody. Today, this number, 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, came up in the script several times.

So glad this company is great at providing pronunciation keys, as upon first seeing this number on the script, my mind knotted up and went into a deep freeze. Whah?!!!!

Here's how the above should be said- Nine quintillion, two hundred twenty three quadrillion, three hundred seventy two trillion, thirty six billion, eight hundred fifty four million, seven hundred seventy five thousand, eight hundred and eight.

And yes, it took me a number of takes to say it (several times) and make it roll off the tongue. While you're at it, why not give it a try.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The San Francisco Treat

I enjoy walking in San Francisco, especially on weekends when the streets are extra busy with tourists and locals. I live in East Bay, so I hop on BART (our rapid transit service), right near my studio, and zip on up to the city in about 30 minutes or so. Couldn't be more convenient. I like to get off at the Powell and Market cable car turnaround to start my walk. Such interesting characters! Street performers are always there, and the ever present line of tourists waiting patiently to take a cable car ride up Powell Street and down to Fisherman's Wharf. (The going rate is $5). If you're looking for exercise, there's no better place to walk than the hills of San Francisco. And they're not for the faint of heart. It's just a whole lot of fun to walk and people watch at the same time, plus the health benefits are obvious. After a good long walk up and down the streets, your legs will be screaming for relief.

If you ever plan to visit our great city, by all means, email or call in advance. I'd be happy to take you on a "leisurely stroll." (And I also know some terrific restaurants where we can take a momentary rest.).

UPDATE: Here's a link to a story just published in our San Francisco Chronicle about a man who walked every street, alley, cul-de-sac (you name it), in the city. It took him 500 hours over the course of seven years!