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Get 'Em Off: Why Your Headphones Are Ruining Your Voice Overs

by Gary Terzza

When we wear them, they make us look and feel like proper professional voice over artists, but are our headphones doing our performance more harm than good? 


A few years ago I was doing a voice over at an audio post company in Soho (the ├╝ber cool capital of the creative media world in London) when the director startled me with a radical suggestion. He advised me to take off my headphones. What? I was shocked, why on earth would a VO talent want to do that? Ever since my days in hospital radio I had worn 'cans'; they helped me connect with the words on the page and make me feel an intrinsic part of the production. If there was dialogue or music on the soundtrack, I could hear it clearly and immerse myself in the atmosphere of the piece. 

Headphones allowed me to enter a different world and to remove them was like disconnecting me from the job I was being paid to do. But unbeknown to me at the time, this was one of those rare defining moments in a career that make you question everything you know .... or thought you knew.

 Why did the director make this counterintuitive recommendation?


He explained to me that I was concentrating too much on my voice. Like many voice over folks, I assumed what we did was all about the voice. We did exactly what it said on the tin, provided a voice over a project whether that was narration, a commercial, business piece or whatever.  As he explained, clients wanted their scripts brought to life; they knew we had the voice (that is why we are booked in the first place), but it is what you do once you get behind the mic that is the critical factor. As Rose C a voice over talent from Wyoming says, acting naturally occurs in 95% of VO jobs.

Having your voice amplified and fed back directly into your ears takes you away from the words on the page and distracts you from the job in hand. There is a tendency, he said, for voice actors to become overly concerned with the sound of their voices at the expense of meaning. The listener might like a nice voice, but they don't want it to be so overwhelming that it eclipses the substance of the script.

So I cut the umbilical cord and gained a new freedom.


When I removed the 'phones I discovered something about myself: I had been using them as a prop. I felt safe cocooned in my own voice over world. I could hear my voice loud and clear and I could work on the nuances of intonation, energy and cadence, but I had fallen into the trap of putting my vocal performance first and relegating the words to second place. It dawned on me that my vocal cords were merely an instrument to be used to create an image in the listener's head.

Should you go naked?


Sometimes you have to wear headphones. If you are using ISDN or you are at a studio and the director needs to speak to you over talkback then your cans will be essential. Likewise when I am doing my live TV continuity announcing I need to be able to hear the programme sound for dipping so that my voice is not drowned out by the music. However if you are recording from home on your own then there is no requirement to wear them.

You will discover not wearing headphones will prove a very liberating experience. You won't become obsessed with the sound of your own voice; the imperfections in your voice (such as breathiness or lip smacks and dry mouth) will not be amplified in your ears allowing you to concentrate on the script reading.

Ah, but you are probably thinking you need to hear blips and mistakes on the recording. That is true, but checking these during playback is preferable so it won't throw you off track during your voice over performance. Breaths and mouth clicks, for example, have a nasty habit of distracting the mind during a read resulting in a less than convincing delivery. 

Halfway house

There is a compromise, though. If you feel you need the support and reassurance of having your ears encased in foam, why not take the middle way. Try one headphone cup on and the other off. I sometimes do this to give me the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

By all means wear headphones when you absolutely have to, but I firmly believe you will benefit from putting them to one side when doing the vast majority of voice over recordings. Trust your own ears to help give you a natural performance.


What do you think? Do you feel too naked without your cans? 









Thinking Outside The Voice-Box

by Gary Terzza

If you are feeling a little dejected by the whole voice over thing, perhaps you just can't seem to get any work or you simply don't know where to go from here, then it may be time to start thinking differently. Let me try and freshen you up.


Be a contrarian


Take Friday night for example. It is when when the nine to fivers prepare for the weekend, right? Some of those who have been slaving over a hot microphone from home all week may wish to take a well deserved break, but this gives the perfect opportunity to do something few others may be doing. Why not start applying for jobs on the P2P (pay to play) sites like Voice123 and Voices.com? 

You should find competition is less and clients (at least those seeking to book a voice quickly) are more likely to listen to you over the weekend. Crucially you will be getting your audition in early before the mob get there.

Advertise creatively

If you put 'voice over' into Twitter (which I do on a regular basis) you may notice one or two enterprising individuals selling their wares. On more than one occasion I have noticed Darren Altman and Julie Donaldson being quite brazen with a cheery "good morning my studio is now open; can I voice anything for you?" type greeting. 

I know social media is not supposed to be about promoting yourself, but these posts are so friendly and welcoming that I think potential clients will be attracted by their honesty. Does this work? I don't know (perhaps Julie, Darren and anyone else doing similar stuff can let me know in the comments section), but I regard this as an inventive way to advertise your voice over services. Why not give it a go? It's effectively a free commercial.


Talking of freebies

If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know I am not a big fan of giving away your voice  for free, or next to nothing. The price we charge reflects our true value; if you are offering a  dirt cheap VO, the client perception is that you are, well without being rude, dirt cheap. But every once in a while you may wish to surprise a client. Just say 'this one is on me'. 

Shock horror, has Terzza taken leave of his senses? Nope, not a bit of it. Enticing a prospect with a complimentary voice over job may just prompt her to come back for more ..... only this time you charge your normal (or perhaps slightly above your usual) rate. It could usher in a coveted long term relationship.


Do something outrageous

Now when I say outrageous, I don't mean anything that is likely to offend public morals, but something really out of the ordinary (in a voice over context) i.e. radical for you

Say you normally do corporates or straight-down-the-line narration,  then grab the mic by the horns (sorry about the half-cocked metaphor) and do a script that is totally out of your comfort zone. In this case it could a be a video game or animation character, or perhaps a bonkers character out of an audiobook. 

Don't hold back, be bold and go for it. If you make a fool of yourself so what, it will be good fun and if nothing else should reinvigorate those tired old vocal folds. I reckon you might enjoy it too.


Have you got any tips for breaking the voice over mould? Please let me know.


 

Stop Pretending and Start Creating Real Characters







by Gary Terzza

Performing character roles can be great fun, but they require a dramatically different approach to mainstream voice overs. Here are some pointers that may help you become a better voice actor.


In voice overs characterisations are mostly associated with video games and animation, but this is not always the case. Other areas where you may be asked to 'put on a voice' include some commercials and dialogue in audiobooks. So let's look at the qualities and talents you need to develop. 


Inhabit Your Characters

With standard voice overs we often speak of acting naturally, so of course if you are asked to be the voice of an alien (or any other character) you can't do that. Or can you? In a funny kind of way, yes you can only this time you need to become the character first and do what the alien would do in its own natural way.

Like a stage or screen actor, you should adopt an immersion principle; in other words don't just 'play' the alien, but actually become this thing from Planet Thwark. Spend some time getting to know your extraterrestrial alter-ego inside out; what does it look like? What kind of personality has it got? What does it like for breakfast? Is it just a tough warrior or does it have a soft, compassionate side? Is it married with kids, divorced, gay or looking for love?

Flesh out your characters so they become three dimensional, living breathing beings with hopes, desires likes and dislikes. Understanding their inner workings will help you give a more rounded and convincing vocal performance. 

The important point to note here is that it does not matter whether you have one line or hundreds of pages of script to deliver, your characterisations have to be believable.

Be Original

Animators and video game producers often complain that talents frequently adopt predictable voices. Lana Carson owner of Canada's VoiceBox Productions once remarked that if you show people a picture of a witch at an audition and ask them to produce a voice they usually come out with a Wicked Witch of the West voice cliche*.  

This is not what studios want; they are looking for something that is unique and different so work on a range of voices and play around with styles and accents. A witch does not have to cackle, she can have a Liverpool accent and speak with a slight lisp. 

Whatever you do, do not succumb to the easy option of being a stereotype and don't copy what other voice over artists do. By all means listen and learn from established artists, but use this as a guide to create your own distinctive personas rather than a template to be followed rigidly.

Variety is Key

No matter how good your best characterisation is, no one wants a one trick pony. The ability to slide with ease from one voice to another is essential. Producers like to hire talented people who can do several diverse voices, not actors who can only do that single, signature piece. 

Spend time creating malleable voices. By that I mean having a fluid repertoire so you can adapt your voice with ease to any situation. You may have been attracted by the audition for an old colonel, but the   client may also require a peasant and a confused time traveller from the future. Although you may never have vocalised a peasant or time traveller before, you should develop the ability to pluck tones and accents from your back catalogue to create new interesting voices.

Practicing this kind of scenario is an absolute must so you can produce fresh, exciting sounds to bring just about any character to life 


Go forth and let the universe hear your voices!


Notes
* From Animation World Magazine Sept 1999

Gary Terzza teaches at his Voice Over MasterClass in London, England.

Help - I've Got My First Voice Over Job!



What scares voice over beginners the most do you think? Listening to their own voices? Making a showreel? Learning to record from home perhaps? Nope, none of the above - it is getting that first job. Excitement soon leads to panic when confronted with the bald reality of actually having to perform for a client, a client who is paying good money and wants the work done on time and within budget. Scary stuff.


Here's how to prepare yourself for that first paid gig.


I was just settling down to my second Americano of the morning and the steamed skinny milk was still piping hot, when the email flashed up on my computer screen. It was written in capitals and looked urgent. It was a plea for help from one of my students, so I put my tempting beverage on hold and proceeded to see how I could help.

Steve (not his real name) had been offered the top and tail (beginning and end in layman's language) of a documentary. They only needed him for an hour and the recording was to take place in central London, indeed in the very heart of  'voice over land', Wardour Street in deepest trendiest Soho. I could tell from the tone of the email that he was panicking, so I suggested we had a chat.

The producers wanted him the next day at 2pm and said they had not got a script as yet and would be unlikely to have one prior to the recording session because the client was making last minute changes. The lack of information made the job seem even scarier. How could they not know what they wanted him to say with less than twenty four hours to go? I explained that last minute re-writes are very common. Steve did not seem reassured. 

"How can I prepare when I don't know what the words are going to be?" he asked breathlessly. "I always thought my first voice over job would mean recording from home, but I'm having to go to a  studio. What will they think when they find out I've never done this kind of thing before?"

This is the advice I gave to Steve.

Don't Panic

Some situations are within our control, but others aren't. This was a case of the latter. Short of turning down the job (which quite rightly he didn't want to do), he had to roll with it. At this stage there was no script so his preparatory work was severely limited. There were however some positive steps he could take, and the first was to just accept the situation for what it was. 

The Night Before

Although Steve knew very little about the job, he could help himself prepare in other ways. I suggested an early night preceded by a comforting hot bath and some not-so-taxing TV. I knew he was a gaming fan, but suggested he left this out so his mind was uncluttered. I also advised against alcohol and caffeine. 

Morning Routine

I suggested setting the alarm for a decent hour - not too early and not too late; we wanted to avoid any sluggishness. Camomile tea is known for its calming properties, but this suggestion didn't go down too well with Steve as he liked his morning cuppa. I conceded he could still go ahead with his favourite brew, but not to have a heavy breakfast. A light lunch was to be the order of the day for later. 

Plan The Journey

Anyone familiar with London's transport system will know that it can work like clockwork, or be a frustrating nightmare. I asked Steve to plan his journey well (he was journeying from north London, but the Northern Line is notoriously capricious) and arrive at the studio with at least half an hour or more beforehand. Wardour St. and its environs are bristling with audio edit suites and it is easy to get the wrong one. 

At The Studio

Once Steve had arrived I advised introducing himself to reception as the voice over artist for the 2pm session. I told him he would be made welcome, but to decline the biscuits .... those crumbs can play havoc with your larynx. If the magic hour comes and goes, he should not be tempted to question what was going on; it is not like waiting at the dentist's - although to Steve it probably would feel very similar!

Recording

One of the real advantages of attending an audio session as opposed to recording at home is you can just concentrate on your performance - there is no checking of levels or editing to be done. That is somebody else's job, so relax. Just do what the sound engineer asks you to do and be honest about the monitoring; if you can't hear your voice very well in the headphones, say so.

Listen

Working with a director means following what they say. Listen very carefully and act upon each direction - if you are told to slow down, do so. Remember when you are asked to record a line many times over it does not mean you are performing badly, but that the director wants to explore different ways of saying the same words. Voice overs are all about trial and error. 


Have Fun

Above all you should try and enjoy the session. Everyone from the sound engineer to the client (who will be putting pressure on the director) is anxious to get the job done. But at the end of the day this is a creative industry - you are not managing a hedge fund or operating on a poorly patient, you are in the media and making your artistic contribution to a production. Savour every moment.

And Steve? He called me later that afternoon to say he had a ball; everyone was so kind and he really felt he was part of the team. What's more, they loved his delivery. 

He started to thank me for my advice, but I stopped him in his tracks - he had performed the voice over, not me. Steve could now proudly and quite rightly call himself a professional voice over artist.


  
If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please join me on You Tube for my voice over training videos.








Are You Too Old To Do Voice Overs?


by Gary Terzza

Voice overs are for youngsters aren't they? All those videogames, animations and upbeat commercials requiring youthful, vigorous performances - surely the older generation are a little too, well er past it? No not at all and I would like to give you a timely response to an age old question.


First let's set the record straight: age is very important in voice overs, but not in the way you might think. Every voice over client has a set of criteria in their head: gender, style, accent and of course age. This does not mean the client is being discriminatory when choosing a voiceover, they are just trying to match the voice to the sound they have in their head. It is very much voices for courses when it comes to choosing a VO.

Beware Stereotypes

To the casual observer it might appear that if you have a product to sell aimed at the youth market then you choose a voice that customers can relate to, so in this case a young voice.  Sometimes this is true, but creative agencies are encouraged to experiment and even subvert genres. 

When Channel 4 wanted to promote its irreverent youth TV station E4 it chose a voice actor in his seventies. The late Patrick Allen became a fixture on our screens with his mature deep tones applied to a thoroughly modern broadcaster. His traditional voice is used in stark contrast to the youthful programming as demonstrated on this promo trailer.

The keen-eared amongst you will notice how Patrick's style set a template for a younger voice, Peter Dickson, known here in the UK for his over the top announcements on X-Factor.

It's Not All About Stairlifts

You might now be thinking, well o.k. but television is different. Voice overs consist of many other categories and anyway Patrick Allen was a famous actor, what chance has the ordinary woman or man of senior years got of getting voice work at their time of life?

It is a fair point, but is not born out by reality. Certain products lend themselves to senior voices and the most obvious examples are insurance, holidays for the over sixties, walk in baths and of course the ubiquitous stairlift. This, though, is by no means an exhaustive list and we have to remember that voice overs cover many different markets from audiobooks to corporates. Mature female voices make excellent witches for videogames and the older guys often find themselves playing ancient mystical characters in animation.

Have a listen to pensioners Sebastian Bartlett and Elaine Winch Furness who bring their seasoned vocal styles to the promotion of wine and cosmetic surgery respectively. Younger voices just do not carry the same weight or authority and, in the ears of the client, would have been wrong for these projects. It is worth bearing in mind that neither Elaine or Sebastian are professional actors.

Other Considerations

Having established that an older voice can be just as marketable as a younger one we should also explore what else is involved in doing voice overs and the age implications.

You may be aware that the industry has changed dramatically over the last few years; many voice over artists now record at home and this requires some rudimentary technical know-how. Not everyone slows down as they get older of course, some folks are reinvigorated and get a 'second wind', but others do and if you are finding it difficult to learn new skills then you need to give careful consideration to embarking on a path that costs both time and money.

Long form reads also require stamina and you will need this in bucketfuls if you are doing an audiobook. A novel might be 100,000 words and this could easily take you a couple of weeks of solid work to record, edit and review. Not for the faint hearted. 

That said our senior years provide a golden opportunity to strike out and do something bold, new and daring. Are you up for doing voice overs? Then give it a go, there is no time like the present and as Bette Davis said "old age is no place for sissies."


Gary Terzza is a rapidly ageing voice over coach based in London, England.