I’ve been running one to one voice over sessions at the Actors Centre, in London, for over ten years. I must say many of those who come to see me, including trained actors, have a very confused idea of what voice over is about. Old myths about “doing accents” or mastering perfect RP are still rife; some mix voice over and radio drama, and end up with demos featuring long monologues.
Many are enamoured with audiobooks, without realising it’s incredibly demanding and often underpaid work. What’s surprising is that the proliferation of courses, workshops, showreel services, online forums, Facebook pages etc., far from providing reassurance often confuse even further those who venture into this field for the first time, with contradicting information on pretty much everything from demo formats to average fees.
What I tend to do is to simplify things. So first, let’s get rid of some old myths:
Myth #1: There is no such thing as a “suitable voice for voice overs”. VO isn’t about reading long sentences in perfectly mellifluous RP. It’s about lifting a script off the page to interest audiences in the product/subject you’re talking about. Now more than ever producers and brands want voices people can identify with. Moreover, VO is a global market, and every accent can be useful. Therefore, noticeable speech impediments aside, all voices are potentially suitable. The question is, what’s your voice’s unique selling point and where in market does it belong?
Myth #2: Describing your voice doesn’t mean giving a list of generic adjectives. Every time I ask an actor to define their voice, the first answer is “I’m not sure”, followed by something like “clear”, or “professional”. I blame Spotlight. The casting directory has a section in which members are asked to tick a couple of words from a long list in order to describe their vocal qualities. There’s nothing wrong with those words per se, but they are of little help when trying to work out your USP .
So, let’s go back to basics: Age. How old do you sound? Give yourself a range, most people have a 10 years range and sometimes it has nothing to do with real age. “Timbre”. Is your voice deep, bright, husky? Timbre is a natural feature and therefore important to define. Third parameter: natural accent.
And this is time to destroy another myth:
Myth #3: Ability to do a million accents isn’t a prerequisite. Increasingly, people are cast for their natural sound. A natural accent can be a sum of many different influences. Sometimes it’s more of a “delivery pattern”, like in some very young, slightly Estuary voices, that are fairly neutral but have a quintessential “millennial” flare to them. Of course versatility is expected, but what you want to show is versatility within range. Your natural qualities give you so much to play with! So instead of recording six adverts in six accents, record six adverts in your accent but playing with styles, vocal age range, pitch, volume. If you are good at accents, consider doing an animation/character/game reel to showcase those skills.
Having got rid of misconceptions, how to go about putting together a demo?
Are you in control of your voice? Do you know how to support it, play with its different aspects, resonances, elements? Can you sight-read flawlessly? Can you come up with creative ways to lift even the dullest script off the page? Because these are the real requirements to be a voice over talent, not a “beautiful voice”. If you’ve never had vocal training or struggle with sight reading, don’t waste money in a demo. You’re not ready. Train first.
Be prepared to invest some money.
We all have recording apps on our phones, but a demo must sound professional. And even if you have audio equipment at home, book a professional company to record your first reel, don’t do it yourself. You’ll need the feedback and expertise of people who know this market.
Some demos are very well produced but there’s no marketing strategy behind it. Creatives spend weeks devising a campaign. They do market research to establish which type of voice suits their products best. You must think like them in order to select scripts you could realistically be cast to read. “Generic” is your greatest enemy.
Mariah Carey stopped being cool twenty years ago, a documentary on her fantastic voice will sound dated. Hard sell DJ style hasn’t been popular since 1987. Nobody really buys iPods either.
What’s the biggest job you could book based on your voice type? Make your demo a collection of the best stuff you could potentially book. You can use real brands. You can’t recreate a commercial exactly as it was aired (same music etc.) but you can rip scripts, maybe reword them a bit.
Pick scripts that will let you be more than an abstract voice. Many radio adverts are written as little monologues. I find they work really well as demos as they immediately create a character. Conversely, “Come to XYZ this saturday, 20% off all leather sofas”, doesn’t provide much to play with.
Be aware, listen to what’s been broadcast, to what’s around you. We’re surrounded by recordings, from voicemails, to tutorials about how to descale your coffee machine, to TV promos, to adverts, yes adverts, those things we skip… start listening to them.
Can you recognise voices similar to yours? When you hear something you like, tape it, record it, write it down. Finding scripts is easy. Several demo companies still offer scripts as part of their package, but my advice is bring your own. It takes time to come up with perfect material. Of course discuss them with the company you’re recording with, ask their opinion. But don’t just rely on them to do the work for you.
It’s your career, invest time in understanding it. And always, always, have fun!
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