Way back in 1976 I was on the air in Montreal radio. I got a call out of the blue from a man who wanted to meet regarding using my voice for his project. The project was for a new Canadian men’s magazine like Hustler. He was a photographer of…those…shots in Penthouse.
The idea was to make a classy men’s magazine which would have the same content inside but with different covers for the different cities where it would be published. The voiceover job would be to record updates of things happening in each city on each representative phone number, which would be promoted in the magazines.
I wasn’t ever sure why I was hired. Yes, I did get to see some never-published pictures. For each photograph printed, there were many others that weren’t.
I would simply record my voiceovers on answering machines, which would just play my recorded material when people called. Each recording was about two to three minutes long and if I stumbled, had to be redone from the beginning. Good training to get it right the first time!
After that I was hired to be the English announcer for a TV spot which was originally done in French. In those years, the population of Montreal was about 65 percent mother-tongue French. They played me the other announcer. I didn’t remotely come close. They politely asked me to leave.
Rejection is a constant theme in the wonderful world of voiceovers. Getting the gig is the job. Doing the gig is relatively easy in comparison.
I had about six years of personality radio under my belt, so I wasn’t a novice. One day while I was working at CJFM another of the on-air personalities told me I was doing commercials all wrong, using too much emphasis on too many words. He was a sought-after voice talent, so I took his advice to heart. It helped, going forward. We had also hired a well-regarded newsman from our AM sister station to introduce a special we were producing and would eventually air in whole or part in 30 countries. Watching him work, he first sat in the chair before the microphone, visibly slumped, and took several deep breaths before starting. Fully relaxed himself. Then, magic.
Voice work is about control of your voice, your mind, your ego, your body. It’s both physical and mental.
Shortly after that I moved to become program director of WBEN-AM/FM in Buffalo. The AM station was very much full service, the FM station automated Top 40. Both stations were big and successful, and I had three production people working for me full time as there were that many commercials to do. I recorded overnight PSAs (public service announcements) for the FM station, I imaged the AM (“Imaging” means building the image of something through the script and delivery), doing all the promos, and ad agencies also regularly called to hire me to do spots for them.
The TV station in our building, which at one time was owned by the same company that owned the radio station but had gone off on its own, hired me to be its voice too. I even recorded a promo for a theater chain that ran before the movies were shown.
My voice was everywhere. It was surreal. This amount of work was also a great training ground. I did thousands of commercials – sometimes as an announcer, sometimes as an actor. Our two copywriters at the station wrote some very creative and funny material and those multi-character spots were fun to do. I learned timing and acting. I also learned how to use subtlety in delivering the performance of a script.
One of the best directors I’ve run across in years of voice acting knew how to best handle talent to coax the best “read” out of them. After every take, he’d exclaim, “GREAT, Doc!“ (He called me “Doc” – he may have called everybody “Doc.” ) “Now let’s get another one. This time…” Every take got a seemingly sincere response which always started, “GREAT!” His secret was in lowering stress, increasing confidence of the voice actor – in this case, me. Performers seek praise. Be effusive when you hire one. You’ll get a better read.
Onward to San Diego
I was doing a multi-voice spot. Mother, daughter, announcer (me). Mother played by a woman from LA circles.
She had been a network voice for ABC I think. This was to be an interesting gig as the “daughter” wasn’t a professional…but the ad agency thought she’d be great. She choked.
(Can’t say I blame her – there were three people in the voice over booth with her, another group from the ad agency on the other side of the glass, and the producer in the room as well.) The session devolved to “say it like this” line-by-line readings. But the woman from LA – wow! She nailed her part. Then the director asked if she could do it but sound five years older! And she did and honestly, you could hear her aging. I can’t explain it. Then he asked if she could go five more years, and she did!
The Flying Burrito, Brothers!
I had done my read for whatever the product was. Usually you read and go, but I was friends with the studio owner and stayed behind. The script called for the sound of a thrown burrito splatting its target. That’s not in any sound effect libraries. I suggested twirling a microphone cable above the microphone for the throw, then, believe it or not, the sound of a half open magazine flopping closed for the splatter. IT WORKED.
Many years later, in a session in LA that was done for a bank, we did take one, then got some directions, then take two. The client darn near shouted to me, “How did you do that?” I said, “That’s what you said you wanted.” He was really happy. So was I. If you hire someone for voice work, don’t be shy – if you can be clear, I bet he or she can do what you want.
Doing a voiceover tag (the information at the end of a commercial). It’s not as simple as it may seem. The reason being, the context prior to the tag will determine which approach works best. For example, if the commercial has a sensitive tone, you wouldn’t want the tag to sound “announcerish.” Isn‘t the tag a call to action usually? It can be a very important part of the commercial.
The Eight-Syllable “No!”
His name was Leonard. I would often try to hang around after my part was done if they were recording voices separately, to hear how my reads would work together with the other actors. Once, Leonard spoke and, in character, delivered a nuanced eight-syllable “No” that spanned a range of emotions. It wasn’t long after that I saw him play the judge in a network law drama. Wow. TALENT. Nice man, too.
I was hired to be an imaging voice of a radio station in Ottawa. They flew me up and we went right to the studio to begin what turned out to be three says worth of script. The engineer turned on the microphone. Behind the glass with him stood the manager, the manager’s manager and the consultant. As I warmed up, I was just speaking normally. The manager (who hired me) told me to go for it, and I did. Those guys were all dancing around with joy. Honest. I’ve only caused people to dance once that I know of.
Before He Even Spoke He Got the Gig
I’m sure of it.
We had the same agent. The spot was a two-voicer, and this was a cattle call audition. While waiting my turn, I heard many actors do the lines. I was the announcer. The other role was a man who was upset. When Brian inhaled, it sounded like he was upset before he even spoke. And yes, he did get the gig.
The Docs Argued
I was called in to do a narration for some fab new medical device. On the phone, listening to the session, were the doctors who invented it. And while the clock ran, on this union voice gig, and the studio charges increased, they were arguing about the script.
What Do I Have in Common with Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty?
I was lucky enough to be recorded in the same room (which looked untouched) as the musicians who played on that soundtrack. Very cool.
I Got Paid to Count to 50
On the video, hands were counting out dollar bills. It was for a bank or credit union. After the agency finished the spot, they decided it might sound better if a voice in the background started and ended the count. I was well paid. They never used the count.
The job was for narrating infomercials about health plans. Two voices, a man and woman. I did a whole series of these, and the producer cast soap opera actresses as the women. Since I don’t watch those shows, I have no idea who they were. I enjoy the variety of situations that come with being a voice actor.
I’ve done voiceovers for jeans in Norway, an airport in South Africa, candy in the Middle East. How does it happen? Voices tell and sell.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/SAMHSA.