For the last 10 days I’ve been essentially without a voice. As I’ve previously noted, I’ve been struck down with laryngitis. This has served to remind me of just how fragile is the thread upon which we dance. All the study, practice and effort in the world is useless when that tiny bit of flesh in our throats isn’t working right.
The 2004 International Radio Creative and Production Summit in Los Angeles was notable for a couple of things. It was the first time that Dick Orkin officially didn’t co-present the event with Dan O’Day. And it was the first time no live critiques of attendees work were done, what had been known at the Critique-A-Spot-A-Thon.
However, in spite of these elements that were missing, there were several excellent reasons to attend. Not least was the workshop on creating characters and the voices that go with them, presented by Patrick Fraley. It was excellent, and I say this even though I don’t do cartoon/animation voices. (Not professionally, anyway. However, I have been known to come up with a few goofy voices for my children while reading them stories.)
Let me put my thoughts about Pat Fraley this way: If you get a chance to take a class from him, do it. He will be presented a completely different seminar at this year’s Summit. It will be worth the price of admission. I’m sure of it. You might even want to buy one of Pat’s books or CDs.
Along with a good studio quality microphone and audio interface, you need to have a computer that’s quiet enough not to interfere with your recording. Or a way to control your computer remotely, so it can be in a different room than your microphone.
For quality, quiet computers, I recommend two options:
If you want to buy something, plug it in and start working, you’d be hard pressed to do better than a Dell. Their computers are generally very quiet, well built and well supported.
However, if you don’t mind getting more “hands-on” with your computer equipment, then you’ll find lots of interesting ideas at EndPCNoise.com.
Once you have your computer running silently in the background, plug in your audio interface. Connect your microphone. Fire up your audio editor. And you’re in business.
I’ve been silent for the last few days, not only about blogging; but also in my voice-over world. I’m currently experiencing my first case of laryngitis in 4 years. Hopefully, soon, my voice will come back and I can resume work. But, in the meantime, I have some editing and writing to keep me busy.
“Speak in the human voice.” That comment came from Nick Michaels, a great voice-over talent, as he led a seminar a couple of years ago in California. This is so right. Forget the hyped, gutteral, Super DJ sound. Or the Ultra Sexy Vamp. You might make a few bucks with that sound somewhere. But not for much longer. Speak in the human voice.
(updated) Commercial voice-over work is one of the glamour parts of the business, especially when you’re doing work under union contracts. Because, if a client produces a series of institutional ads that run and run and run, you get a check every 13 weeks for the residuals. And, often, those are the kind of ads that are fun to work on. At least that’s been my experience.
But, as much as I enjoy working on commercials; I also really enjoy non-broadcast. Training films and videos. Sales pieces. In-house video newsletters. e-Learning Web sites. That kind of thing.
For example, if you’ve worked at UPS as a pre-loader in the last 15 years, you’ve probably heard my voice on the training video. You may also have heard my voice doing the monthly in-flight marketing announcements that run on the TV screens on most domestic US Airways flights. For several years, I was the voice for Lockheed Martin‘s air show kiosks; but unless you work in the military, you probably didn’t hear one of those.
All in all, it’s great fun. And it’s amazing what you can learn from the scripts you record.
I always talk about the money before I start a voice-over session. Always. Here’s why:
It was the mid-80s. I’d been modestly successful doing voice-overs in the Chicago market. A friend of mine, (maybe it would be more accurate to say, a guy I knew because I had worked with him for a while) called me one day to ask if I could record the narration for a publicity video being done for a Christian music festival in the suburbs. The recording was being done at his church. He promises I’ll get paid, but he doesn’t know how much.
I said “sure,” got the date, time and directions. And a few days later, I show up for the recording session. The guy who called me isn’t there, it’s another guy who is involved with this music festival. We read through and record the script. He says he’s very happy with everything, but would I please record it all for him again. So, I record the whole thing (a few pages, no more than 8 as I recall) again. He pronounces himself completely satisfied. At this point, I finally bring up the matter of how much am I getting paid. He’s not sure, but promises to send along a check in a few days. I give him my address and leave.
Three weeks later, a check arrives for $25.00. Yup, twenty-five dollars. Which is why I always talk about the money, before we record.
I’ve written before about the great experience Darren Eliker and I had attending the 1997 International Radio Creative and Production Summit in Los Angeles with Dick Orkin and Dan O’Day.
But, Darren’s influence on my voice-over career is much greater than that shared experience. In 1996, Darren had talked with me a few times about helping him put together a demo tape. At that point, I’d been doing voice-overs with some modest amount of success for about 13 years. He was just getting started.
On a Wednesday afternoon in May of that year, he asked me if he could borrow my demo tape. I thought he just wanted to listen to it for ideas. But, no. That was not his plan. What he was actually doing was taking my pretty crummy old demo tape to the talent agency he had just signed with. The Talent Group.
About an hour later, Stephen Black, one of the co-owners of the agency called me. He said, “Bob, I’d like to meet with you as soon as possible. I think we could get you a lot of work.” Wow! I couldn’t believe my ears. A lot of work?
So, less than 48 hours later, I meet Stephen. He gives me a contract to read through over the weekend. I do. It looks good. I stop down there after work on Monday and sign the contract. Less than a week later, he’s calling me with my first voice-over job in Pittsburgh. And 2 weeks after that, he’s booked me as the new voice for the 84 Lumber company. A gig that lasted for many months.
Ever since then, the auditions and the work keep coming. Even though I don’t live in Pittsburgh anymore. One of the very smartest things I ever did was sign with The Talent Group. I’ve had a lot of help from friends over the years, but Darren’s decision to take my tape along to play for Stephen was one of the very nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
Thank you, Stephen, Richard, Becky, and the whole team at The Talent Group. Very much. And, thank you, Darren Eliker!
A few of my friends have asked me why I don’t have a pic of me posted somewhere on this blog or on my main business site. There’s a very simple answer for that. I have a great face for…radio.
This is also why I have steadfastly refused to do or even audition for any on-camera work. On the other hand, my friend Mark LaRoi, a fine voice-over guy in Pittsburgh, does stuff on-camera now and then, as he notes in this post on his blog. Good on you, Mark. I’m glad to see you get the work. But, it’s not for me.
I’ve written before about the connection between music and voice-over. The key point of connection is the phrase.
A musical phrase is a portion of a musical piece. Each phrase has a distinct shape and character. The more complex the music, the greater the variety and kinds of phrases. So, a folk tune has a very limited number of phrases. A classical symphony or concerto, many more. An opera, more still. Hundreds, even thousands. The form of the musical piece (song, concerto, opera) both influences the number and variety of phrases, and is in turn shaped and informed by the phrases themselves, in a fashion that can probably only be explained by chaos theory.
To do justice to a piece of music, to truly interpret it as a performer, one must shape and connect the phrases in a manner that illuminates the entire line or arc of the piece as a whole. When you’re listening to music and the performance seems kind of mechanical or routine; most likely what you’re hearing is someone who is dealing with each phrase or set of phrases in isolation of the piece as a whole. This can be as true of a simple pop tune as of a large, complex classical number.
Don Volz, one of my vocal coaches back when I was studying to be an opera singer, would give this illustration: The music is already there, in motion, like a stream or river. When you begin singing, you’re stepping into the stream and following its course. When you stop singing, you’re stepping back out of the river.
So, in music, we’re always going somewhere. And while we’re singing or playing or conducting, we’re always in motion.
Just so with voice-over. We’re always going somewhere with the story we’re telling, with the role we’re playing. Unlike music, we don’t have notes on a staff to guide us where to go higher or lower. Where to get louder or softer. And so forth. But, we do have the text itself, and at least some of the time, access to the writer or producer or director.
When we know where we’re going, when we know what the point is, then we can perform in a way that illuminates the whole.
That learning started with a bang, to say the least. It was August 1997. At the time I was Production Manager of WORD-FM in Pittsburgh, PA. My assistant was Darren Eliker, one of the most gifted actors and voice-over talents I’ve had the privilege to know and work with over the years. (Darren replaced me as Production Manager when I was promoted to Program Director in 1998 and he’s been winning awards, and more importantly, helping businesses grow ever since with his brilliant campaigns, voice-overs and directing.)
Back then I was a member of CompuServe, and hung out a fair amount in the Radio forum. In the late summer of 1996 one of the other members posted a note about what an excellent experience he had at the International Radio Creative and Production Summit. Back then Dan O’Day and Dick Orkin jointly presented the Summit.
Based on what I read, I determined that if I possibly could, I would attend the next one. Which leads us back to where we started, August of 1997. Our boss gave his blessing for both Darren and I to attend the Summit, so there we were in Los Angeles, CA.
On the first day, among the various presentations, was a group class on voice-over by Dick Orkin. But with 80 people there, Dick decided to limit his “hands on” work to just 8 of us.
In spite of my lesson from a few years previous, I was still paralyzed with fear about volunteering. Providentially, Dick didn’t ask for volunteers. He asked for those who do voice-overs to raise their hands. So, I did. And he picked me to be one of the 8. Which is where the three questions come from.
After giving us some dialog copy to read with one another, Dick offered these 3 questions as a way to quickly get to the point of our copy:
1. Where am I?
2. Who am I talking to?
3. What do I want from them?
Answer those three questions and you know the Setting, the Audience, and your Motivation.
You may be surprised that “Who am I?” isn’t one of the three questions. I was too. But, the answer to that question is either explicit or implicit in the copy.
When I remember to ask these three questions, I nearly always do a better job of auditioning. Which gets me more work. Because, as you already know, the key to getting work in voice-over is doing lots of auditions, and winning at least a few of them.
It was, I think, April of 1993. In the span of an hour and a half one afternoon, I learned a great deal about the voice-over craft and yet missed a wonderful opportunity at the same time. I was at the Gospel Music Association convention in Nashville, TN. Marice Tobias taught a seminar class that year. I mentioned this experience in passing previously, but in that post, I didn’t deal with the real heart of the matter.
You see the single most important thing I learned that day was the single thing. Huh?
Marice taught us that every good piece of broadcast ad copy has a single point at its heart. If we’re going to do an excellent job of reading a given piece of copy, we have to be able to understand what the heart of the spot is, and build our read around that. To put it another way, to tell the story, we have to know what the point of the story is.
When I’m reading over a piece of copy for an audition, I’ll ask myself, “What’s the point?” Even sarcastically sometimes. Because, the copy has to make one point, and only one point, if it’s going to work well.
So, what do I do if the copy isn’t written well? Maybe makes two or three points? Even more?
A couple of things. Try to synthesize the multiple points into a single “heart-of-the-dog” message, if at all possible. And, commit myself to do the most excellent job possible, no matter what.
Several years ago I heard an interview with the Concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on WFMT in Chicago. The discussion turned to the matter of guest conductors, and how some of them were not quite a good as others. Which led to a question about whether a bad conductor could make the orchestra play poorly. The answer? “No, there’s a level below which we will not play. We’re the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!”
I may not be the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but I know that I have to have that attitude about my work.
So, what was the missed opportunity? Marice asked for 5 volunteers from the audience to read copy. My heart burned within me to raise my hand, but I didn’t. I chickened out. Because I felt too shy, too fearful that I would make a fool of myself in front of everyone. The only good thing that came out of that experience was the internal commitment that when I’m part of such a learning opportunity in the future, I would never allow my fears to keep me from getting into the thick of things again. A commitment I’ve kept. And that has made such a difference.
In 1980, my first full year working at a radio station, there were two announcers doing commercials that I especially admired and wanted to emulate.
One was Jim Kelly, who had worked for a while at that same suburban Chicago radio station where I got my start. He then went on to work at the old FM 100, (4th bullet point) a Beautiful Music station. And to do a lot of radio commercials.
The other was John Doremus. One memory of John Doremus that is especially precious to me, was a series of announcements he voiced for the Union 76 service stations during the Bicentennial in 1976. Wonderful patriotic messages, delivered in that classic Doremus style.
Both of these men were examples of the archetypical big-voice announcer guy. And back then, that’s what I wanted to be too. To some extent I guess I succeeded. Or at least, I’ve made a fair amount of money doing the big-voice announcer guy for lots of different people since 1979.
However, since 1997, I’ve been working very hard to get as far away from that style as I can. Because, more and more, the only people who want that kind of sound are people who are stuck in the past. And the advertising that’s using that kind of voice on television or radio is losing effectiveness. Every day, a little at a time. But, it’s happening. And the pace is starting to accelerate.
The natural human voice is the sound. Authentic. Raw and unpolished. That’s the sound that’s coming. That’s already here. And I’m working hard to stay as close to my natural voice as I can. To unpolish what I worked so hard for so many years to polish. Because, I want to keep working. And not just on little jobs. And not just on things that are losing ground and losing effectiveness.
As strange as it may seem, my greatest weakness as a voice-over talent today, is the very thing that has been my bread and butter for the last 20 years. My “announcer” voice.
Every year since 1997, I’ve spent a weekend in Los Angeles, getting better at voice-overs and at writing. The event is called The Interional Radio Creative and Production Summit. It’s two long days, filled with good, indeed often great, information.
Last year, for example, one of the seminars was led by Cindy Akers. I was very grateful that I got to be one of her volunteers. From her time coaching me, and from watching and listening to her coach a number of other talented voice performers in the room, I learned enough about auditioning that a few weeks after I returned home, I auditioned for and was cast as the narrator for a national Canadian History Channel program. All because I started to put into practice what I learned in one 2 hour seminar on the second day of last year’s Summit.
By the way, Dan O’Day (the host of the Summit) sells complete recordings of the last several years of the Summit in his on-line catalog. (Search on Summit in the catalog for a complete list of recordings available.)
They are well worth the investment. (And, no, I don’t get a commission from Dan.) If you buy one of the packages, you’ll probably hear me a few times, because I learned at my first Summit, how valuable it is to volunteer.
As much as possible, I avoid wearing headphones. The main reason is because wearing headphones gives me (and you, no matter what you think) an unnatural perspective on my voice. The more I think about my voice and what it sounds like, the less effective I am at delivering the message of the piece I’m reading. This is just as true for a long, highly technical training narration as it is for intimate dialog copy.
In order to concentrate fully on the story I’ve been hired to tell, I have to be able to ignore how my voice sounds and attend only to what I’m reading. And the same is true for you, even if you don’t think it is. And no matter how long you’ve been wearing headphones.
If I have to wear headphones during a session (e.g.: a phone patch or ISDN job), I wear the phones over only one ear. Again, so I can hear my voice the way it sounds in real life; and concentrate on telling the story.
The secondary reason I don’t wear headphones is because at a voice-over training session with Dick Orkin in 1997, he said, “Take off your headphones and leave them off.” And I’ve learned more about doing excellent voice-over work from Dick Orkin, than from anyone else on the planet.
This life doing voice work, whether as a talent on the air, or doing voice-overs; this life is, for most of us, not filled stability or predictability. So, I’m very grateful to my family for being so patient with me. Even though I certainly haven’t always deserved their patience.
What follows are the thoughts of my daughter, as she remembers them, from back when she was quite young. I think she was 6 or 7 at the time this took place. (She is 22 now.)
“I was in a recording studio with my father. This was long enough ago that soundproofing was still done with egg crate foam on the walls, which I enjoyed running my hands over. My dad was talking with and doing an interview with another man, I don’t remember who it was. The table was dark wood, and I remember looking down at it and seeing my bag of skittles, bright against the table. I remember thinking how good the skittles would taste, but that I was concerned that the crinkling bag would make too much noise, because my dad was recording an interview with this man. I had had it impressed on me very thouroughly that I had to be very very quiet when daddy was working, and I did not want him to be unhappy with the noise I was making. When they came to a stopping point, I very quietly asked my dad if I could eat my skittles, and was allowed to do so. I just find this story funny, because even at that very young age, I had a sense of what I was or wasn’t allowed to do in the sound studio.”
It can be kind of painful to realize that we get so obsessed with our work that we ignore our children and spouses. But, painful or not, it’s worth remembering…and worth leaning from.
In my last post, I mentioned how important a good microphone is. There are so many good studio-quality microphones available today that it boggles the imagination. My main mike is this one, the Audio Technica AT4033. It’s not the cheapest studio-quality mike you can buy anymore, though when I got mine it was very near the bottom of the price curve. However, it remains a very good sounding mike for voice work, and at a very good price point.
The other mike I record on a lot is the AKG 414 B-ULS. The AKG runs about twice the price of the Audio Technica, and certainly sounds good, but not twice as good.
Search through the product catalogs of Pro Audio sites like Full Compass, Broadcast Supply Worldwide, or American Pro Audio to see lots of other qaulity mikes, with prices from less than $200 to the several thousands.
Back when Chuck Wagner and I were setting up our studio to record and produce the old Countdown show, the cost of setting up a professional quality home audio studio started at several hunderd to a few thousand 1980s dollars! And went up from there, quickly.
Fast forward to today, and you can add studio quality audio to any decent home computer, Windows or Mac, with this sweet little device: the M-AUDIO MobilePre USB Preamp and Audio Interface. Retail it’s not hard to find for around $150 at any decent sized music story like Sam Ash Music, Guitar Center, etc.
What I especially like about this little baby is that it takes its power from the USB bus, so you don’t have to have an extra outlet for it; and it has switchable 48v phantom power, so you can use it with your studio’s good large-diaphragm condenser mike. (You do have a good studio mike, right?) If not, that will set you back between $200 and $1500, depending on the brand you buy.
The audio quality of the M-Audio MobilePre USB is amazingly clean. With decent low-cost audio software like Sound Forge Audio Studio, or even free audio software like Audacity, you can record your voice tracks, with or without a phone patch from your client, and then save the edited audio to a format you can email or upload to your client.
I love this little box. Probably 60 to 65 percent of my sessions are now recorded using it. The rest are done in someone’s professional studio.
It was a pity party. There’s really no other term for it. I was working at a radio station in the west suburbs of Chicago and I was feeling sorry for myself, big-time. You see, the boss had taken the entire staff of the station out to lunch. But, because I was “on the air,” I had to stay behind. And when I say the entire staff, I mean the entire staff, even the receptionist. So along with being on the air live, and watching the transmitter, I had to answer the phone. I was feeling mighty sorry for myself. Yes, indeed.
But, then things took a turn. (Interesting, isn’t it, how the tiniest thing can have a life-changing effect?) Because while I was sitting there in the studio, indulging in my little pity party, the phone rang. Just another little phone call, out of several I had to answer that day, but one that would make all the difference.
The man said, “My name is Mark. My brother Mike and I have a small video production company we’ve just started. We listen to your station sometimes and we’re wondering if anyone there might be interested in auditioning for a voice-over job.” My reply was a sterling example of my quick wit and incisive grasp of the obvious: “What about me?” That’s right. “What about me?” As I think back on it, I’m surprised Mark didn’t just hang up in disgust. But he didn’t.
Instead, he asked if I had a demo. I didn’t, but I didn’t want to say so. Instead, I asked if he could stop by the station around 3 that afternoon to pick it up. He said, “Sure.” Thanked me and we hung up.
A few minutes later, the station manger and the staff returned from lunch. I immediately button-holed my buddy Todd, who was the station’s Production Manager (and who remains one of my very best friends to this day) in something just less than a full-blown panic. “Todd, you gotta help me get a voice-over demo together! There’s a guy coming at 3, who needs it. He called while you guys were all out at lunch. And I think this might be good!”
Now, let me fill in the back-ground a little bit. At the time, 1981, I had been working in radio for a grand total of 19 months; the first 4 of which were part time. Prior to that, the sum total of my professional voice work was a single session recorded 7 years prior. (That story is detailed here.) In other words, I knew essentially nothing. But, Mark had said they were a new company, so I thought that maybe the would be willing to give me a break.
Todd and I went into the production studio (in between my breaks on the air) and listened through some of the commercials I had recorded at the station. Todd picked out a few that he thought I had done well. We dubbed them back-to-back on a cassette tape we pulled from the discard pile. To it we affixed a highly professional typewritten file folder label, proudly proclaiming this tape was “Bob Souer’s Voice-over Demo.”
At 3 PM, the receptionist alerted me that there was man here to see me. As soon as I was done with the news break, I dashed up the stairs (the station’s studio were in the basement) and handed Mark my tape. He thanked me. Said it would probably be quite a while before I heard back from him, but that he would call me back.
Fast forward 9 months. I’m now working for a different radio station, an actual licensed-to-Chicago, union station, called AM820, WAIT. (Long since off the air.) I’ve been working there just a couple of months, when our Operations Manager, Ken, calls me to come to the phone. I have a call.
On the other end of the line, the guy says, “Hi, Bob. I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but my name is Mark and about 9 months ago you gave me a demo tape for a job.” Of course, I remembered him. Mark then told me that they had won the contact for this government job and that they had decided to go with me as the voice talent.
The client was the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The project was called Video News and it was (and still is) an in-house video newsletter, that is updated from time to time. Not as often in recent years, but it continues. The first sessions were in late 1982 or early 1983, I can’t remember anymore. And all these years later, I’m still working with Fred and Jim and their team in Visual Media Services at Fermilab.
And that was the start of my real voice-over career.
From February 1986 to February 1996, I had the remarkable privilege of hosting a national contemporary Christian music radio program called Christian Countdown USA for most of those years, and The CCM Countdown with Bob Souer at the end.
The founder and owner of the program for the first several years was Chuck Wagner. Chuck, who worked for Moody in Chicago for 20 years, was the guy who taught me the value of good direction.
You see, at the time he hired me as his new host for Christian Countdown USA, I had been doing voice over work in the Chicago market for about 3 years. All of it at suburban production houses. But, I thought I knew quite a bit about how to use my voice in a profession manner.
Of course, the truth was, I didn’t know jack. But, I guess Chuck must have heard some promise in my audition, because he picked me out of the pool of about 5 candidates who applied. And we started working together. For a few weeks we recorded at Domain. Then, after it became obvious we couldn’t afford to keep working there, we scrounged studio time when and when we could, relying on the kindness of strangers and fellow broadcasters. Not a recomended way to meet a weekly production deadline!
Eventually, Chuck bought a home in Wheaton, not too far from where I lived at the time in Warrenville. We pooled our equipment. I bought a couple of new pieces of gear, including a custom “plate reverb” unit, a multi-track (4-track) Tascam reel-to-reel recorder and so forth. Eventually we were able to combine all of these random pieces into a pretty fair home production studio. Most of the equipment was mine, but I had no room in my little townhouse for a studio; so we set it up in Chuck’s house.
During the preceding several months, Chuck had been listening, guiding and directing; but because of all of the uncertainty of where and when we would record, and so forth, he was always at least a bit distracted. Now two things converged. First, we had the studio built, so we had a consistent place to work. And, second, Chuck had learned pretty well what my strengths and weaknesses were.
So it was in Chuck’s house in Wheaton where my education really began, into how valuable a good director really is. Chuck understood that the best direction never tells “how to say the line.” But, always, what are we trying to accomplish with this line. Now, there are times (especially when working under tight deadlines) when a line reading is the most effecient way to get something done. But, most of the really satisfying and excellent work stems from the synergy of the director’s guidance and the voice-over artist’s talent for reading and acting.
An authentic performace can’t be faked. (Once you learn to fake sincerity, everything else is easy!) It must come from the honest emotions and thoughts of the performer. Line readings, no matter how well given, are inherently fake; because they can’t come from the guts of the person actually doing the read. And, as is probably more and more obvious to anyone paying attention to the winds blowing through our culture, authenticity is critically important.