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How to Make a Great Living Working Mainly From Home As a Professional Voice Actor
The internet has completely changed the fortunes of professional voiceovers – for the better. These days, we can forget driving round radio stations and recording studios in the desperate hope of finding the odd suitable advert script in the production department’s “in-tray” to record; dismiss to the past a day lost travelling to the city to audition for a single line of a TV advert voiceover where you rarely hear back. Your client base can now be based in an area bigger than your region or even your country. In fact, there are clients all round the world who may feel your voice is perfect for their projects.
You don’t need to physically meet the clients, or even use their recording studios. You can record in your own “home studio” and send them broadcast quality audio files via a file transfer service such as WeTransfer.com. Sometimes clients will want to direct you over your headphones while you record the script, using Skype, ipDTL, ISDN, or one of many other systems available that are quite inexpensive and reliant on just a decent internet connection. But usually, you’re left on your own to record the script sent to you with instructions as to timing, voice style, pauses etc., then you’re expected to edit out your mistakes, optimise the levels and to then simply send the file (s) in the technical format requested. You then wait for any retakes required, then you can send in your invoice; job done.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of full time “staff” jobs in my time working for both the BBC and ITV as producer, director, and I even ran a TV channel once. (Granada Men and Motors if you’re interested, and I gave Richard Hammond his first TV job for my sins!) But for the last 10 years, I have been a full-time freelance voiceover, and apart from a handful of trips to London studios each month, I work from my little studio at home and have never earned so much money in my life, for doing such little “work”. I’m totally independent and I don’t have an agent, so regularly I have to work on the “Search Engine Optimisation ” of my websites, and email or call potential new customers and expand my client base, but if you don’t want to do that, then choose the agent route. They’ll do all this for a % of your fee. Both ways are valid. It’s just that I like to be in full control of my success, but, hey, we’re all different.
There are so many uses for voiceovers, and there is honestly plenty of work out there for voice styles of all types and ages. As well as the obvious TV and radio commercials, the easy low hanging fruit comes from recording corporate promo videos or museum narrations. They may be deadly boring to record, and you need to look up the odd Polish word or acronym, but it’s quite an art to sound enthused about a grommet manufacturing plant in Gdansk! Also, there are telephone prompts for various organisations that regularly need renewing, saying things like: “your call IS important to us… !” and so on.
Also, don’t forget awards ceremony voiceovers that are either recorded or you do them live, so you can adlib when a winner doesn’t tip up… or when a winner literally tips up on the edge of the stage. But the real fun to be had is acting in video games. My voice is now on many video games and trailers playing a wide variety of characters. The top-end games still insist on the voice actors being physically in the studio, and that’s after a rigorous auditioning process.
But for every high profile game, there are hundreds of projects lower down in the pecking order, that still pay decent money and once you record a few samples of your character(s), the games studio just ask you do 3 takes of each line and you just send them one big wav file for them to select the best takes and chop up into smaller files for the coding. It really is quite easy money, as many of the lower end games feature stereotypical character voices and accents that are not hard to manage to any actor worth their salt, and the recording can be much fun to do, especially if you have to do a barrel load of “non-vocal” takes of random mumbling or “dying” sounds and fight grunts.
You won’t just get clients from English-speaking countries. English is an international language, and every country has companies and organisations where videos would need an English soundtrack version as well as one recorded in the home language. You may just get sent a Word or PDF document and asked to record it in the style of one of your showreels. Or you may need to record the English version in the style of a video they provide to you with the original language. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the original language, you’ll be able to get the timing and mood required from watching this, and that’s all you need.
In the week of writing, I’ve recorded such sessions from Germany, Spain, Denmark, Italy and UAE. You’ll get a link to view the “foreign” language version on Vimeo or YouTube, to ascertain the timings and the style of the VO. Then you’ll get a script which should sync approximately to the non-English version. If you can offer a full syncing service as well, where you’d chop up your VO on a video timeline to exactly match the non-English paragraphs, fine, but usually they do this detailed editing at their end.
It is perfectly possible to create a good business over about 6- 12 months from scratch. Life is very flexible, and you’d look to your email “in-box” for your daily income. You’d build up your client base to an extent that statistically you KNOW that each morning there’ll be a good day’s work in the offing, even if you have closed off all jobs the night before. The best thing about being a VO is the variety. Doing silly voices, characters for video games, audio books and training video scripts where you learn so much, plus commercials where every split-second counts, means no two days or indeed jobs are the same.
So are you already an actor or actress? Do you already “do” voices? That’s fine. Recording voiceovers is very similar in that you get into a character voice and stay in character. That character may be of a certain age from a certain part of the world with a certain social status, etc. etc. It’s your job to look at the script and think of the character in your head, even down to what they look like and what they would be wearing.
Many of the scripts may not really be characters as such, but “narrator” voices, but even here, you still need to create a type of person that you are playing. If you are given a script for, say, the tourist board of Romania aimed at future visitors, you imagine you are a professor at the University of Bucharest, proud of your country and its history. You have written many books about Romania and enjoy walking and cycling in the forests at weekends. There… have you a picture in your head?
You may have an industrial safety video to provide the voiceover for. So you imagine that you are the head of health and safety who has just taken to hospital a person seriously injured after ignoring the safety rules at the factory. You want to stop others having to go through the same trauma. You now have the passion and the fire in your belly and this will come across in the words that you read.
Yes – you are giving performances. A different one for every script that you are given, but they are still performances, and you need to be able to snap into one of many characters very quickly and sustain the feeling, the voice, the stance, the reason why you are speaking.
Of course, you could attend acting classes to understand all this much more fully, but you need to crack this technique yourself first. If you playback your recordings and it sounds like you are merely reading a script, then you must tackle this problem as soon as possible. Often I am asked to record TV or radio commercials where I need to sound enthusiastic. In real life, I may not care at all about the silly product that is being featured, but I would SOUND like I really genuinely cared!
So how do you learn this technique? Well, it’s all down to the melody of the “song” in the voice, the timing of the words, the words that are emphasised, the little gaps, the breathing, the slight imperfections that make speech sounds natural and not merely read off a script. The best way to “get” this performance technique is to find a recording of a professional experienced voiceover which you admire, ideally with a voice style similar to your own. Then transcribe the voiceover or find the script. Play a few words and pause. Now you read the script yourself – repeat the way the words are said, find the “tune” of the words, the way they go up and down, the pauses, the words that are emphasized – every little nuance. Now play the next section and repeat till the end. Go back to the start and do this again, mimicking the voiceover as closely as you can.
Now forget the recording and YOU read the script again and record yourself. Are you now communicating the energy, passion, the feeling, the character of the original voiceover? If not, try to picture the original voiceover – what would they be dressed in? Would they be holding the product they are enthusing about delivering to a TV camera, or musing out of an open window on a summer’s day? Get the picture.
The idea is that you “get inside the head” of the original voiceover; after all they got the lucrative gig to voice that national commercial and you didn’t. So, you’d copy them as best you can, do this for other voiceovers and actors that you admire and then with the knowledge in your head, and the ability to use “mental pre-sets” to snap into various characters, you then develop a personal style of your own and you’ll get to know your strengths and weaknesses in vocal acting.
1) STUDIO & SET UP
Buy the best microphone you can afford – but it needs to be right for your voice. You need to go to a well stocked audio or music shop in a city, try some out in your price range and record your voice using a top of the range “pop” filter hoop on each… essential for every voice artist. Ask for playback through decent HiFi speakers in a quiet room. Don’t just listen through headphones live, that won’t give you any useful feedback to the quality of the microphones you are testing.
So what are you listening for on playback? Well, you need a microphone that picks out all the “nice” harmonics in your voice and diminishes the “bad” elements. I personally use a Neumann U87 and Neumann TLM 103, as they seem to suit my deep bass voice. It gives my voice resonance and authority while keeping top end (treble) clarity. Years ago, when testing microphones, I found Electovoice microphones made my voice muffled for some reason, and AKG ones were thin and lifeless when recording my voice. Yet I know VO people who love these and other microphones, so you have to see what is right for your own voice and the way you use the microphone.
You’ll find USB microphones at really good prices, (like the Rode NT or the Audio Technica AT2020) but I suggest you avoid these. For the best quality, you really need a traditional large condenser microphone with an XLR audio socket, not a USB digital socket. There are boring technical reasons why this is the case, feel free to Google if you really need to know! As a rule of thumb, you’d be looking to spend at least £500 / $650 on a microphone, and you may be lucky and find a cared for used one on the net for a big discount on the new price. In the microphone shop, you’d also buy a good quality pop filter (double filter ones are usually the best) and a quality anglepoise type mike stand so you can position the microphone exactly right, plus a cage or sprung mount for the microphone so it doesn’t pick up vibrations from the desk.
The microphone needs to plug in using a thick quality screened XLR cable into very good quality preamp such as a Focusrite Scarlett or Steinberg UR22 that then plugs into a USB port of a computer. (Note this is not the same as a “USB” microphone plugged in direct; this route just described gives better quality) Aim for total silence in both the microphone and recording chain and also the room or voice booth you are recording in. Unless you want to just record “shouty” hard-sell scripts, there will be occasions where the slightest small bit of interference or hum will ruin what is called the “noise floor” of your recording. Once you have found a quiet room, the walls and ceiling need to be treated with foam acoustic tiles. This has to done to create a “dead” recording zone with no acoustic reflections. Until you can afford professional acoustic tiles, it’s amazing how old duvets on the walls and ceiling plus thick carpet do the trick.
You may not want to record your audio directly on your computer. I don’t, apart from quick demos. I prefer to plug my microphone into a stand-alone solid-state recorder, one of my trusty old Marantz PMD 661 machines. It gives me more flexibility to pop the SD card out to edit the audio on train journeys, and I like the confidence that the stand-alone recorder with its whisper quiet and high-quality pre-amp is doing its job 100% of the time and that no computer programs are interfering.
So, what about the location where you are going to record your voiceovers? At home, ideally, you’d have a big room or even a garage with a professional voice booth built in, but they are very expensive, at least £3,000 / $4,000. These booths are very heavy, and they get delivered in a huge box in a kit form. They are basically a big box that you step inside via a door and there is usually a triple glazed window. Inside will be a desk and chair plus your screen microphone, keyboard and mouse.
If you can’t afford or have the space for a voice booth, you’d probably start with a small room that you’d adapt. Remember you want the nasty noisy computer with its fans OUTSIDE the room you are in, next door with wires and appropriate USB amplifiers leading to your keyboard, mouse and screen in front of your microphone set up. Or if you have a soundproofed cupboard that offers ventilation for the computer, that could work as well. If you can afford it, buy a “Silent PC” or one with SSD memory rather than spinning hard disks that make a pesky whirring noise. The audio output leads also need to come to your amp and loudspeakers and audio meters (ideally sensitive professional PPM meters) in your studio that will have a headphone socket for directed sessions by phone or Skype, or any of the systems like ipDTL that are very high quality “record at their end” set ups.
On the computer, you’ll need audio editing software, (I use Adobe Audition) Skype, Word, PDF reader and that’s about it, apart from the email system that you’ll use to receive jobs.
Then you’ll need a superb website with very good SEO built in. If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire a pro who does. It needs to look clean, professional and with lots of voice samples that can be downloaded as mp3 files. As well as a main “greatest hits” showreel, you’ll need showreels for subjects and voice styles, such as “Corporate”, “Training”, “Hard sell”, “Soft sell” etc. Look at my own site if you like for examples of the very many styles you’ll need. ( http://www.theenglishvoiceover.com ) Variety is very important. If you are a client looking to record a medical script and you have showreels from two great quality voices, one is reading a medical script with complex medical terms and one a furniture store commercial, who would you choose? So, yes, do a “Medical showreel”. Good at a “forlorn, arty” sound? Record a showreel. Great at a Santa voice? Go for it.
3) ONCE SET UP… HOW TO BE SUCCESFUL
No, you don’t really need an agent, unless you have a guaranteed excellent hard-working one who wants you and believes in you. For the last couple of years I have earned a healthy full-time income without one, unless you count freelance sites like Voices.com, Voice123.com, Envato, etc. who take a cut; no, you just need to network. Email production companies, studios, ad agencies, make some calls, audition for everything that’s suitable and soon one great job leads to another and your empire will grow. For me, it was about a year to build up slowly a great client base which is at a size so I know it is statistically realistic to get some good jobs sent each and every day, 7 days a week. You’d create a “rate card” – usually longer scripts are charged more.
Broadcast use is charged more than non-broadcast. In an day, you may be sent a variety of small scripts, and they may be low budget projects, but still add up to $300 / $400 for the day. Other days, as well some small scripts will come some more lucrative projects with broadcast use. Last month I recorded a set of TV commercials for a $250 “session” or recording fee. Then I was contacted to be told they were to be used on air in Australia and was offered a further $2000 for the usage there. Yes, extra money for absolutely no extra work on my part, and I wouldn’t have known if they had been used elsewhere! Such is the crazy world of the voiceover.
4) YOU NEED TO BE PROFESSIONAL AND RESPOND FAST
The world of media is a fast moving one. Most of the people who will hire you will be production companies who have their own clients they want to look efficient to. So, you need to respond fast to any communication and ideally record speedily too. This is so very, very important. I know for a fact that many of my regular clients use me, not because I am the absolute best voice for the job or even the cheapest, but they KNOW that they will get a fast turnaround so they can add the voiceover to their video and impress their client.
You have got be absolutely dedicated in this. I personally make myself available 06:30 – 22:00 UK time, 7 days a week. No, that’s not working all the time, (in total, we’re talking 6 hours max of actual work) but that’s to catch all the countries working hours, that when you should be checking emails and texts. Ideally you’d be near or in your studio so as soon as an urgent job comes in, you’d fly in front of the microphone, scan the script and instructions and hit record. You’d get it recorded and uploaded right away. If you’re not near your studio, respond right away and give a realistic time when you CAN deliver. Make it sound that you’re in the middle of a big TV commercial session or something, not that you’re collecting the laundry… you get the picture! UNDER promise and OVER deliver, every time. Clients always love voiceovers going the extra mile. For short scripts I often give 3 takes in different styles so they can choose the best, unless they give strict instructions to the contrary.
5) A TYPICAL JOB
You’ll get an email from a client who has found your website and likes your samples. If they haven’t given this detail with the script you need to ask them the following:
1) STYLE What voice style do you want… is there a showreel you like?
2) PACE What speed? Does it need to fit into 2m25s for example?
3) CHALLENGING WORDS How do you pronounce certain words or acronyms? Ideally they’d send you an audio file saying challenging words very slowly and also at normal speed. Don’t just rely on forvo.com, or howjsay.com. For non-English words, Google Translate gives you a good idea sometimes if you click the right language, but don’t rely on it! For unusual non-English company names, you may find a video on YouTube that mentioned how to say the word you are looking for.
4) FILE TYPE What file type do they need? WAV? AIF? mp3? What data and bit rate? For example, even though most modern digital recorders capture at 32bit 48KHz, San Francisco’s Voice Bunny insists on files that are WAV but 16 bit and 44.1KHz. ACX or Audible audio books need files that are mp3 files, 192Kb/sec and normalised to -3dB, plus with 0.5 second mute at the head (start).
After you have all the information, you’d record, peaking between “4” and “6” on your calibrated PPM meters or equivalent if you are using VU meters.
5) FILE EDITING & PROCESSING
You can’t send the raw audio to the client, although some studios insist as they want to deal with waveforms without any processing. At the very least you need to delete your mistakes, after all you’re a professional that doesn’t make mistakes, aren’t you?! Here’s the order I personally process files. I can do this very quickly as I have keyboard presets on Adobe Audition, which saves so much time. (Use ALT + K if you have Audition!)
– Open the waveform
– Chop off the rubbish at the start and end
– Cut out mistakes. A good technique during recording is to leave a 5 second or so gap when you mess up. You won’t be wasting this time, you’d be re-reading the script to ensure you don’t flub, or you can sip some water. When you see the waveform later, you’ll instantly see the gaps that need attention. Don’t listen to people who say you need to play back up to the mistake and “punch in record”, this technique takes too long and is unreliable if you get the timing slightly wrong.
– Deal with “spikes” – these are nasty sounds that show up as high lines on the waveform. They can be treated with an electronic pop filter or if too bad, it may need a retake.
– Add 0.5 second of silence at the start of the file. Add 2 seconds at the end of the file.
– Deal with breaths. A natural sounding read will usually be fine with breaths left in, but for a fast reading commercial, you may need to spend time carefully cutting out breaths in a desperate attempt to save milliseconds!
– I normalise the waveform to 100%, then add light limiting – 9Db – to give the waveform a “haircut”, then “Normalise” the file to -3Db, before saving.
Never ever attach files to emails, even small ones add up to clog your send box. It’s far more professional to email a link from a file transfer service. If your client does not ask for specific file types, send a 32 bit wav and a small email copy which is useful in case the production company need to email it to their clients. If you use WeTransfer, for a small fee the “splash page” where the download link is can be an advert for your services!
I recommend that you offer “unlimited” retakes, like I do. In other words, if the client wants any changes, you don’t penalise them in any way. For no extra charge, you will re-record the sections required or even the whole lot if they want it. In my experience, unless you really haven’t understood the brief you’d been given, most people will be fully happy first time or just want a few retakes in the style and speed of the original that they can “patch” over the original recording.
It’s rude and desperate to send invoices right away; it’s usually good form to wait a few days at least! Unless you are happy with your own accounts system, I recommend Xero, the system that I use. It’s great because it’s a cloud-based system, no installation, so you can reconcile your accounts on your phone, tablet or any computer anywhere. You can set up multiple currencies in PayPal, a must for an international voiceover. My Xero is set up with GB Pounds, US Dollars, Canadian Dollars, Australian Dollars and Euros. It works out currency conversions as well. But the killer application is that the system securely “sniffs” your bank and PayPal accounts once a day so you don’t have to enter anything. You just need to match your invoices with the payments that Xero has sniffed out and everything is fine. As Xero is cloud based, your accountant can log in as well, so you don’t need to waste time doing the yearly account submission with a carrier bag of invoices or receipts as you’ve already done it all!
9) GROWING THE BUSINESS
Update your website once a month at least, keeping in mind SEO. Pepper your site with varieties of of words that are similar to “voiceover” or “voice actor”, such as commentator, audio recordings, audio studio, audio talent, etc. Don’t forget featuring keywords of your specialties such as “medical voiceovers, medical narration, pharmaceutical narration, etc. Ensure the “id” and “Alt tag” of your photos and illustrations isn’t some random number but something that search engines can read.
Each day do at least 20 minutes of marketing, even if you are busy. Find new production companies and look up their websites then email them with a short, professional message offering your services. Target a country per week if you like. Mandy.com have a superb international directory of production companies that is free to access. LinkedIn is great too if you use it properly. Ask these sorts of people to join your network: Production managers, Creative Directors, Producers, any video production company, audio production companies, etc. Don’t forget that when they accept your invite, you will be sent an email. Don’t ignore this as you’ll get a link (in small blue writing – don’t miss it!) saying “Send a message”. This is gold-dust as you can send a direct message including your contact details without buying any “in-mails” from LinkedIn.
Consider signing up to voiceover websites where clients post auditions and you send in your best shot. These so called “pay to play” sites have had loads of criticism, but usually from voiceovers who don’t use the sites properly, and therefore don’t get much work from them. Some sites you pay a subscription and then they also take a % of the fee, but they offer a voiceover access to some very high profile clients. The most professional and active sites are in my opinion: voices.com; voice123.com, the voicerealm.com then voicebunny.com, and bodalgo.com. Don’t forget the general freelance sites where you can post your voiceover services… People Per Hour, UpWork etc. Fiverr is also a great money spinner, but don’t sell VO’s for just one $5 gig, that’s crazy… use the Fiverr package options to include loads of perceived “extras” that people will generally need anyway, such as fast delivery, wav file and so on. Using this technique my actual minimum fee on Fiverr is $50 which is worth reading something for!
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