Voice Over Education Blog


How backstories make artificial beings more human

In this Halloween season, let’s talk about something scary: Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). Did you realize you have much in common with people who build robots?

“AI” is similar in ways to “AC,” a term we just coined for “Artificial Character” ... in other words, any character that you’ve made up. Both can be intimidating to the people who create them and creepy to people who encounter them. But they shouldn’t be. Ultimately, AI and AC both are characters, and both become more real, more interesting – and less scary – if you take care to “humanize” them. One of the best ways to do that is to give them a backstory.

Backstories aren't news to experienced actors, including voice actors. They’re especially common in animation (and sometimes gaming) where a characterization might be especially rich. What would your favorite superhero be without their backstory? Suppose you’re called upon to ad-lib in character – do you laugh readily, or reluctantly ... and what of any other emotion?

As we noted in our article on “Newton’s Third Law of Physics as applied to Voice Acting,” an actor with no lines nevertheless reacts (and on screen or stage might even upstage the speaking actor), with “extraordinary things to say, just choosing not to say them.” Okay, in voiceover, your audience can’t see you react. But when it comes time for you to speak, where is your tone of voice coming from? Perhaps its shaded by something logical and relevant, but which only you will know. Because your character has a backstory.

To bring convoluted copy to life, merge its voice with yours.

Most people talk in short sentences or sentence fragments. Much of today's writing, whether informal advertising or a scholarly tome, is also composed of relatively short sentences, compared to the way people wrote and delivered speeches 150 years ago. Today’s structure --short, step-by-step progressive thoughts -- is much easier to follow, and people from copywriters to politicians have come to realize that. (To be fair, so did Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.)

But what if you’re handed a script that for some reason does NOT have short sentences? In fact, it may ramble on for several lines, and even include asides and other distractions. In print, a reader can go back and forth to make sense of it all. But in an audio format – which is linear and ephemeral – that is not an option (or should not be relied on). A professional narrator can probably make it sound “intelligent,” but that’s not enough. How should you – how can you – make sense of a rhetorical maze, for true communication?

Let’s get to work on this passage, which is “only” three sentences long:

In VO, it’s important to communicate, not just read

We recently came across a saying, “The art of communication is understanding what others understood.” We don’t know exactly what its originator intended (or when that was), but in a voice-over context, it has rich meaning. One meaning is literal: in voice-over work, sometimes the person listening mishears what was said, and thus could misunderstand. Other meanings are broader; the concept of “communication” means many things. It’s important for any voice talent to understand the value in all of them.

When you read a script, do you “communicate”? And do you and your listener really understand each other? Maybe yes and no. Consider how many types of communication there are.

Literal communication. What you say should be what the listener understands. Communication becomes miscommunication if the listener can’t make out every word you say, or if they think they have caught every word, but heard something incorrectly. That latter situation is arguably worse than the former because the listener might remain relatively inattentive and thus not be aware that they misheard a word or phrase until some time later, when they might be misled or hopelessly confused. Does that mean you should mumble and mispronounce words so that your listener will listen more closely? Of course not! It does mean that you should enunciate, in a natural way, and speak so that your listener catches every word correctly in the first place, on the first time, though.

Incidentally, in Advertising, there’s a principle that the truthfulness of an ad is determined not just by what it says, but also by what the reader or listener understands it to say. The same is true of personal relationships. (Ask any married couple!) So, even in the literal sense, understanding is an essential part of true communication, as our title suggests.

Understanding is enhanced by the other various forms of communication.

How to fine-tune our site’s free Words-to-Time Calculator

Have you used our Words-to-Time Calculator? It’s one of the many free resources at EdgeStudio.com. If you’ve ever been faced with a script that’s just too long or too short, you appreciate copywriters who can gauge how long their audio copy is. This can help with that.

But our Calculator is also a valuable tool for working VO pros to use every day. For example, on a big job (like a long corporate video or an audiobook), it lets you quickly gauge the finished length of the script, so you can just as quickly return an estimate. And it’s even more helpful when you know how to tweak the results.

As we all know, scripts vary greatly from genre to genre. A video documentary narration is likely to be much more deliberately paced than some radio commercials. The pace of a script can also vary according to the audience, or the nature of its content. An audience of non-native English speakers (or whatever the language), or technical matter, for example, will need a bit more time to sink in.

So our Calculator is an average. Currently, our Calculator gives three choices, representing an extremely wide range: either 1, 3 or 5 words per second. In the span of a minute that’s a huge difference ... potentially a lot of copy to fit, or a copy opportunity wasted. So the first thing is to understand the typical needs of the genre you're writing in.

1 wps: Extremely slow, representative of some narrations, telephone prompt systems, and English as a Second Language (ESL) or other scripts aimed at an audience not fluent in the language. Even at the slowest possible read, you’re unlikely to slow down to one word per second. But this estimate includes time for some moderate pauses. (As we mention below, it’s also simple to mathematical adjustments when you start with this.)

Enter and follow our Monthly Audition Contest. It’s smart!

EdgeStudio.com’s Script Recording Contest is going monthly, so now it’s easy for everyone to fit it into their schedule! Accordingly, we’ve also changed its name, to the Monthly Audition Contest.

On each month’s first Monday, we publish a short script. [This week, it starts on Tuesday, due to Labor Day. - Editor] You record it and upload your recording. The next month, we’ll announce the winners, explain why they won (including you, maybe), tell why others didn’t, and give Tips on how to improve your reads in the future.

We’ve held this friendly competition for years, and it has proven to be a valuable resource for novices and working pros alike. In fact, as David Goldberg noted in a similar, one-time contest in 2014, many of the mistakes made by newcomers are also unwittingly made by working pros. Better to learn from those mistakes here, than by losing real auditions, right?

(See current contest for up-to-date details and contest rules.)

Actually, there are lots of reasons to enter.

Voice actors are told “Be the animal.” Is that too esoteric?

Played any animals lately? How do you play one? We advise not playing an animal, but rather, being the animal. It may seem like a small distinction, of mere academic interest to only some actors. But it can be an important distinction, especially as you seek to find some quality in an animal character that helps make you unique. Not so important, maybe if your character is just drawn like an animal but meant to sound like an ordinary human. However, it can be very helpful if you’re trying to come up with an original animal character.

The New Yorker magazine recently carried an article about some artist-types who have taken this thinking to the extreme. It opens interesting lines of thought.

The article is about two men who (separately) tried to physically become animals for awhile ... in their real human lives, actually living and even trying to think like a different species. Their experiences provide lessons even for those of us who only need to be the voice of an animal.

In “The Metamorphosis; What Is it Like To Be an Animal” Joshua Rothman relates these individuals’ approaches, putting them into a literary context that goes way back. As far back as Homer, even. (If NewYorker.com archives are not available to you, check out the May 30, 2016 edition of The New Yorker magazine at the library.)

One of these individuals was Thomas Thwaite. You may have heard of him when he made news by building a toaster from scratch. (He even mined the metal and made his own plastic. It didn’t work, but did wind up in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection.)

This week’s voice-over accent is on accents. Just saying.

In the voice-over marketplace, the most widely saleable U.S. accent is the “neutral” American accent (“standard”), typified by the northern Midwest. For example, Nebraska, where Johnny Carson hailed from. But as you’ll see in this Dialect Map of American English, there are a LOT of other U.S. accents, and among the many VO genres, there are various markets and uses for them. When you’re playing a character, or evoking a sound, how do you choose accurately?

Even within this tremendous range, the map’s author (admittedly) lumps some together – including the various accents traditional to New York City. So, for example, let’s look at that...

New York City is not just one accent. But it’s fewer than it used to be.

Out-of-towners might not be aware of some distinctions, so it’s important to note the difference between a “stereotype” accent and an authentic one. The stereotype might play okay in a comedy or a commercial, but there’s the danger of offending the locale’s natives, and mostly likely won’t fool anyone in the neighborhood for a minute.

The value of observing conversational etiquette at the mic

With the U.S. Presidential Election season under full steam, maybe you’ve encountered situations where people you know are talking (or more likely posting) rather heatedly, even to other friends. It might be nice to remind them that there are common rules of etiquette for polite conversation, and even passionate discussion. But that’s not why we mention this here. We mention it because the rules of conversational etiquette can also serve you well in your reads.

We don’t mean “booth etiquette,” such as “don’t adjust the mic” and “take direction.” That’s important, but here we’re talking about the etiquette between you and your listener. The fact that you never actually hear them makes it even more important.

Listen, don’t just talk. This may be Rule #1 for having a rewarding conversation. Obviously, it’s a hard rule to follow when your listener can’t respond. But you can follow it in spirit. Before you begin your read, imagine your listener’s situation. Where are they? What were they doing before you started? Are they still doing it, or have the stopped to pay attention? Do they agree with you, or disagree, or are you just irrelevant noise in the background of their day? Do they know the subject your script is about, or are you bringing them up to speed? Knowing more about your listener will give you clues as to your best choice of tone and use of emotion.

(Note also that, although your “listener” is often a wide array of people in a great many situations, most reads should be person-to-person, not like a PA announcement; that’s why we use the singular, and why you should try to identify whatever qualities your audience may have in common.)

What does your voice say, about what you say with it?

Has the demise of the “goldenthroat” been premature? For decades now, clients in the voice-over industry have trended away from seeking “great voices,” instead favoring “real” voices from people who know how speak conversationally. In short, casting pros want actors, not announcers. Where the VO world once relied on a deep male voice to convey authority (a form of credibility), now the industry wants talent with the acting chops to produce credibility of a different, more personal sort.

But research has shown that, even today, in everyday situations a deep voice is more credible than a higher voice. How does that square with “reality”?

The simple answer is this: Some people have naturally have a deep voice, and so, for them, a deep voice is natural. If you happen to be one of them, lucky you. But you still need to be able to use it well.

And for those tenors and sopranos among us, we should look at this more meaningfully.

First, let’s look at some findings. (And we remind our reader that these are general findings; there are many exceptions.)

How to read VO copy inhumanly fast on purpose. Part 2 of 2

NOTE: This is the second post in a 2-part article. Click here to read part 1!

Last week we discussed ways to speed up or slow down a read while still making it sound natural. But there are times when copy has to be squeezed into a timeframe that would not be humanly possible to fit without some technical manipulation.

When you know your read is going to be sped up – a lot – are there things you can do to make the end result more intelligible and at least more natural?

Yes, there are. Edge Studio’s David Goldberg discusses them in his classes, which includes feedback from other voice professionals who have been in such situations. Here’s a sneak peek at his advice ...

Did you miss last week's article? Click here to read last week's article — 6 Ways to read VO copy faster or slower, still naturally.

However, first some background. Contrary to what you might think, many tags and disclaimers are not presented unusually quickly. Actually, many sound natural. Because they blend in, they tend to go unnoticed, which is often a good thing as far as the advertiser is concerned, considering that disclaimers are by nature “negative.” People typically only notice unnatural things.

But, as we’ve all heard, there are times when a natural read just won’t fit. “Fast talk” is required. And, although the words may go by the listener so quickly that they won’t all be caught, let alone remembered, it is nevertheless important that they be understandable.

6 Ways to read VO copy faster or slower, still naturally. Part 1 of 2

NOTE: This is the first post in a 2-part article. Click here to read part 2!

When a producer hands you the script, they may specify how long your recording should be. This is especially the case in the Commercial and Promo genres, not so much in Narration (such as telephone messaging systems, training films, audiobooks, educational material, and long programs.) When timing is specified, your “internal clock” should automatically turn on. It’s up to you to bring in the finished recording at the desired length. In a recent article (“Put time on your side...”), we discussed the importance of being able to do this, and ways to tune your sense of elapsed time. One of those ways is to practice reading faster and slower.

Now let’s discuss how to actually do that – to read faster or slower.

Note: Digital recording enables you or the engineer to adjust speed up or slow down a recording by as much as 10%. However, sometimes the sound quality is degraded, particularly when pushed past 6 or 7%.

How to alter your timing

Method 1: Speed up or slow down the entire read.

When the script is a poem, how should your read roam?

A while back, EdgeStudio.com’s Weekly Script Recording Contest involved a radio commercial script that was in limerick form. Although “Poetry” as such is not a distinct voice-over genre, there may be times when you’re asked to read a bit of verse. In Commercials, for example, copywriters sometimes resort to rhyming, often in silliness. You might also encounter poetry in Audiobooks, where authors sometimes use poetry or song lyrics to convey a character’s personality. So let’s revisit this subject in a bit more detail than we were able to include in our contest comments.

First, let us hasten to mention the obvious case – an audiobook version of a poetry collection. If you’re hired to read a long poem or a collection of serious poetry, or are seriously interested in pursuing such a project, you probably know a bit more about poetry than we’ll deal with here. (And you should also check our past article, “ How To Read Poetic Copy Poetically.”)

Here, we’re dealing strictly with drivel (no offense intended; it means “silly” or “nonsense”) – poetry that should be read poetically, but not necessarily as serious poetry. In fact, if it’s in a commercial, the writer may have taken significant liberty with the poetic form, since the product name and message are generally paramount.

Our contest (a simulated audition for a hypothetical client) was such a situation. Here is the script: (Incidentally, “Llawn” is not a typo; it’s a hypothetical table manufacturer.)

5 reasons many people read voice-over scripts too fast

Do you read copy too quickly? Many beginners do. Even experienced entertainers do. It’s a natural phenomenon when under pressure in a new situation. As Jay Leno has advised comics, "If you think you're going too slow, slow down."

But maybe that advice is too easy. It needs to be part of your psyche when you’re on the job. So let’s think a bit more about why people read too quickly – why you might be reading too quickly, particularly in the case of narration. Maybe understanding the reasons will help counter that urge to speed up.

Reason 1: The job is exciting. To a voice actor, that’s good. A VO job – every acting job -- should feel exciting. Translate that feeling into the energy that helps you engage your listener. Energy also maintains their interest – and yours.

Reason 2: The text is exciting. Whether it’s about otter moms, a murder mystery, or new technology, exciting subject matter may seem to merit extra enthusiasm in the form of speed. But speed is not the only way to express enthusiasm. More important is the expression of “thought.” Emotion. In fact, if it’s a narration, it generally requires a bit slower approach than some other genres, because the listener needs time to observe visuals, share in the emotion, and let the thoughts sink in.

Confidence in your VO performance. Build it up, not down.

You can tell when a performer lacks confidence. It shows in many ways, all of them detracting from the read, and perhaps hiding the voice actor’s actual capabilities. The read might be halting. Or the voice constricted. Or safest options were chosen. Uptalk. Lack of energy. Unnecessary apologies. Whatever ways insecurity manifests itself, it can be overcome. Be confident of that.

There are three “C”s in voice-over: Control your voice, be Comfortable, and be Confident. The last of these even affects the others.

It’s natural to score low on your confidence meter when in any situation you’re not used to. Especially when the pressure is on. Especially in an artificial situation like acting (and all-by-yourself at the mic, yet). But don’t run yourself down. If you’ve trained for this, be confident in your ability.

Lack of confidence causes you to judge yourself before you’ve even done what you’re judging! Whatever you’re called upon to do, go for it. Often the director (or writer or client) will be very happy with a certain read when the talent doesn’t realize how good it was.

But unwarranted, “false” confidence can be just as harmful. It stands in the way of accepting direction. It leads to the formation of bad habits. And it can cause you to represent yourself as something you’re not. Don’t confuse “confidence” with a lack of self-evaluation, even self-criticism. Those are important capabilities, especially when self-directing and producing in a home studio. The key difference is in knowing when and how to evaluate your work. And to build with your observations, not let them limit you.

Put time on your side -- calibrate your internal VO clock

How long does a minute take? We mean, in your head, not looking at a clock or stopwatch? Various research suggests that someone 60 years old will take longer to estimate when a minute is up than a 25-year-old will. There are explanations for that, but we don't know if anyone has an absolutely rock-solid answer, and in fact, we've seen research that observed just the opposite. Studies also suggest that the discrepancy is greater in the morning than in the evening and that how you’re doing on time depends on what you’re doing. Time sense may also be affected by hormones and all sorts of other medical, biological and chemical stuff. (We love clinical terminology.)

But the key observation, from our vantage, is that the ability to estimate time depends very much on experience. The more you practice, the better you get at it. And if you stop practicing, your ability to know when 10, 20, 30, or even 60 seconds are up begins to fade away.

Why is this even important anymore? After all, with digital editing, it’s pretty easy to cleanly remove a split-second here and there, adding up to several seconds' leeway when recording a 30-second spot. (In the tape-days of yore, splicing tape was a laborious, imprecise process, making a well-timed read very important.) Digital editing also makes it easy to combine parts of two takes, so the overall length of the takes may be irrelevant. And as we all know, it’s also possible to digitally speed up and slow down a recording overall.

Well, the ability to “feel” time remains important for various reasons.

How to laugh on cue. The secret? Don’t wait for a cue.

How do you laugh? There are all kinds of laughs, and each of them varies, because there are all kinds of people. Some people laugh loudly. Some stifle every laugh with a glottal stop, barely letting it get out fully. What’s more, there are super-subtleties. Did you know that people the world over can discern whether laughter they hear is among friends or strangers? One thing, though, is for sure. All cultures laugh. When a script calls for one, how should you? Laugh, that is.

The best way to sound real when you laugh is – to laugh for real. But, although people in all cultures laugh, that doesn’t mean all people do. Nor that everyone laughs the same. So the first thing is to note how you laugh (or don’t), and when, and remember those moments.

Caveat: However you laugh, don’t lose it! Don’t be embarrassed. It’s uniquely yours, so not only is it professionally valuable, it’s part of your personality. Embrace happiness in yourself and others. Our point here is just to expand your natural range, at least when you’re at the mic.

Not only do people laugh different ways, but we also laugh at different things. In fact, we laugh different ways at different things! So when a script calls for laughter, in rehearsal think about what your character is laughing at. Is it outright surprise? It is embarrassment? Is it frustration? Is it in sympathy with someone else? What?

As you watch funny videos or TV cartoons, record yourself laughing. Really laughing, we mean ... not just laughing because you’ve been told to. To quote that wry master of slapstick, Bugs Bunny, “unlax.”

As you wend your way through life, notice what things make you laugh.

Newton’s Third Law of Physics as applied to Voice Acting

Newton said that for every action, there is a reaction. That’s also true of every statement in a conversation. A statement elicits a reaction, even if the reaction is unstated.

So acting is at least as much about listening and observing as it is about speaking. This isn’t news to even budding stage and film actors, let alone veterans. But it’s sometimes news to voice actors, often working alone in a booth, that listening should be part of their performance, too. We’ve mentioned this many times before, but ... just how do you go about listening when the only voice in the room is yours?

For perspective, let’s review. Voice acting is about emotions -- your emotions, and the emotions you seek to instill in your listener. The first tends to induce the second. (Or if you prefer chemical metaphors to physics, consider it a rapid form of osmosis.)

Where do your emotions come from? Simple. Listen to yourself. We don’t mean listen to your voice as you’re speaking – that’s a common pitfall that voice artists-in-training need to get past. Listening to your own voice (maybe marveling at how expertly you’ve used it in the sentence just past), is merely a distraction, likely to trip you up or get you out of character in the next sentence. Listening to yourself in that way interferes with performance.

On the other hand, listening to your inner self enhances performance.

That’s important even when you’re NOT speaking. In a wonderful introductory lesson about film acting, Michael Caine tells of his experience, as a young actor in repertory, when a producer asked him ...

Proofreading principles for voice talent to use at the mic - Part 2 of 2

NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part article. Click here to read part one!

Last week we talked about the importance of proofreading whatever you produce in the way of self-promotion ... your website, pitch letters, thank-you notes, emails, etc. We also remarked that voice talent are lucky in that we don’t have to proofread text that is only heard, not seen. But let’s not rejoice too much in that. Although a voice-over script doesn’t necessarily need to be spelled correctly, it needs to be understood correctly.

You can even benefit from observing proofreading principles as you perform.

The following tips will not only make you a better proofreader, they’ll make you a better voice actor.

1. Focus. When you’re proofing print, turn off the radio, don’t answer the phone, make it just you and the text. Likewise, when you receive a script, give it your full attention. If you’re at a live audition, draw away to a secluded spot where you can practice it without distraction. If you’re in your own studio, allow time for script review and analysis before recording.

2. Read it aloud. When proofreading printed text, this slows you down, forcing your mind to see individual words, rather than approaching the text as phrases. In voicing a script, generally your perspective should be just the opposite – you should view the script as phrases because seeing it as a series of thoughts and emotions helps you give a more fluid and natural reading. But when you’re practicing, reading it aloud is still important. How can you rehearse – how can you create muscle memory – if you “rehearse” by muttering, or if you can’t hear yourself at all?

What can VO talent learn from a print-media proofreader? Part 1 of 2

NOTE: This is the first post in a two-part article. Click here to read part two!

An acquaintance of ours used to write advertising for a financial institution. His boss told him: “If people find typographical errors in our advertising, they might think we’re just as sloppy when handling their money.” Here at Edge Studio, we don’t handle investments, but we do value attention to detail. So we read and re-read what we publish on our website, and here in our blog and other places, to catch whatever mistakes we can. (If you see one that slipped through, let us know!)

But you, as voice talent, don’t have to worry about spelling and such, right? After all, “if it sounds right, it is right” isn’t just for technical issues. Well, no. You promote yourself in print, don’t you? And observing proofreading principles can even help your VO performance.

As talent, you DO need to be careful about detail in any printed matter you produce – whether it’s email, your website, a post card, your blog or a letter. Not only does a typo or awkward phrase suggest that you are not as meticulous as your prospective client would like, but it could also suggest that you don't know right from wrong when it comes to vocabulary. Casting people want voice actors who can adapt and understand whatever copy they’re given. The more well -rounded and versatile you seem – let’s say it: the better “educated” you appear – the better prospect you’ll be.

How to work with a VO director, including when it’s you

With so much work being self-produced these days, the idea of working with a Director might seem foreign to some of the industry’s newer talent. Although a lot of work is still produced in commercial studios (that is, studios that serve multiple clients and/or record more than one particular person), and most of that work involves a Director of some sort, it’s conceivable that you have not worked with a director since your last coaching session. How should you work with one? And how should you direct yourself?

First, recognize that there are all sorts of Directors. Some, like Edge Studio coaches (and many other coaches), are highly experienced at working with talent. They may or may not be working voice actors themselves, but they are definitely experienced and proven as teachers. Not every voice-over professional is. The world is full of people who are great at their art, sport, or whatever but are not so good at coaching or teaching. It’s a matter of aptitude, interest and training as much as skill.

But sometimes a person designated as “Director” is not trained or experienced in directing. In fact, in Commercials and some other genres, the director is likely to be the scriptwriter, or an advertising Creative Director – a title that means they can direct copywriters and art directors but not necessarily voice talent.

So, sometimes the Director knows more than you and is skilled at drawing a better performance out of you – often better than you realized you could give. But sometimes the Director is less experienced at voice performance than you are. If they’re the copywriter, they know what they hear in their head, but may or may not be able to convey that concept to you.

How do inspired voice actors acquire creative inspiration?

We’ve written about inspiration before. About the importance of having a wide view of the world. Of observing and listening to the people and events all around you. Of letting an initial thought gestate and develop into a full-blown creative idea, if you have that opportunity. But why does this work? And how can you help it along?

Did you know that the brain’s creative processes weren’t seriously researched until only half a century ago? For starting the ball rolling, you can thank J.P. Guildford, a noted psychologist more generally known for his work in measuring a wide array of factors that represent intelligence. He proposed a new way of identifying which individuals have creative personalities.

His focus in that regard was children. And, yes, perhaps a battery of tests might be helpful in determining which children are more likely to be “creative,” than ... than ... whatever the other options are. But when it comes to adults, with a track record behind them, it’s a bit easier to tell. Simply observe which people have created stuff.

At least, that’s the way it works in the voice-over business. Nobody much cares what you might be able to do. Clients and casting people want to know can do. The exceptions to this viewpoint are you and your coaches. You should care about your potential. Work to develop it. By making yourself open to inspiration, you enhance your creative capabilities. And you give a voice-over coach much more raw material to work with.

That said, beware of spurious research. For example, we’ve seen an article claiming clinical support for various claims regarding creativity. It said that people are more creative when they’re tired ... that is, during the time of day that they’re otherwise not optimally productive. (The time of day varies from person to person.)

How many of these words do you mispronounce?

Did you know that the English word "bird" was once pronounced (in England) as "brid"? Language evolves, and far be it from us to complain about that. As someone has put it, “English is ‘open-source.’”

But when you're in the booth, your director or client might feel different when it comes to words that are not yet fully evolved. Just because a lot of people -- even most people -- might mispronounce or misuse a word or phrase, doesn't mean you will impress your client by joining the errant throng. A VO pro should at least know the options. We've collected a bunch of them for your perusal.

First though, some ground rules.

We’ll omit words and phrases that are incorrect but not your fault. For example, “I could care less” (commonly heard that way) is technically all wrong. If you could care less, then you actually do care at least a bit, right? The correct phrase is “I couldn’t care less” – in other words, you care so little that it would be impossible to care less. But a professional writer should understand this. If you encounter the “wrong” version, you should probably read it as written.

To give a more subtle example, a writer should also know that it’s “repository of information,” not “suppository.” So should you, and by tactfully asking, you might save the client embarrassment later. But there are a lot of words and phrases like this, and they would be a list in itself. For now, just one more ... a writer might confuse “cornet” with “coronet.” The first is a trumpet, the second is headgear. The need to catch such distinctions is yet another reason we at Edge Studio remind everyone, “Learning never ends.”

Can smart VO talent learn from an intelligent computer?

A recent New York Times article reported that IBM linguists, engineers and marketers began in 2009 to determine how they should best design the synthesized voice of Watson, their state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence computer. What sort of voice would be most pleasing? What should be its “personality”? Stuff like that.

Since then, there has been remarkable progress in the field of voice synthesis, but we doubt the voiceover community at large need to be worried about job security anytime soon. On the other hand, there are things that a live, human talent can learn from the IBM team’s findings.

Where does voice synthesis stand as of 2016?

Although you might be fooled for a bit – say in a weather forecast or driving instructions, even the narration of some nature videos found on YouTube – before long, you’ll realize that you’re listening to a computerized voice. (Bear in mind, we’re talking about purely synthesized voicing, not concatenation of words and phrases spoken by a real person.)

As researchers near their ultimate goal, new difficulties emerge. In the 1960’s, a robotics researcher predicted that as animations closely approached being humanlike, they would be seen as kind of creepy. And, in fact, now that animation technology has reached that benchmark, you’ve probably noted that the prediction was correct– if you’re not expecting animation, or aren’t used to the effect, watching a near-perfect animated human being can be unsettling.

Near-perfect synthetic speech has the same effect. It’s sometimes unnerving
But when speech is from an actual human, what’s not to like? By definition, it is “perfect,” right? Well, yes. And no – at least when the human is reading a script but pretending to speak from the heart. It can come across as unnatural, even if the listener is not quite aware of what the unnatural qualities are.

Attention span: The millennium’s most critical 8 seconds

Last spring, Microsoft released a study purporting to show that Canadians’ attention span has shortened to a mere 8 seconds. It was all of 12 seconds when this millennium began. While Canada is not the same as any other country, this has to do with cerebral wiring, and that knows no nationality. So we presume that the average digital-world human now loses focus faster than a goldfish (which, if anybody asks, is 9 seconds).

This finding has implications for the voiceover community. So, if you’re still reading, please read on ...

Sometimes, eight seconds can seem like a pretty long time. For example, you can fit a surprising amount of information into a mere 10-second commercial. That’s even more true now, since digital recording and computerized broadcasting systems let you take audio right to the limit. (In analog, pushbutton days, the rule of thumb was to make the audio a second or so shorter, as a kind of “pad.”)

But eight seconds is also alarmingly small, especially when it comes to longer commercials and websites. Grabbing your audience’s attention and drawing them in becomes ever more important.

In both situations, it’s important to remember that, as you begin speaking, the audience is not committed to paying attention. With commercials, that’s always been obvious. The classic scenario is that your viewer/listener waits for that moment to go get a beer. These days, maybe it’s a kale smoothie, but regardless, they’re not hanging on your words. Even if they’re hearing them, they’re not listening to them. So you have just seconds to capture the listener’s – sorry, the hearer’s – attention. If you rush, mumble or swallow the first word, you may have lost or confused them. (A confused listener is virtually as bad as lost.) And now, when you do grab them, you may have just 8 seconds to draw them in.

Alan Rickman: It’s not all about his voice

With the recent passing of the actor Alan Rickman, much has been made of his voice. Which is more than the vocal department at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art said he would make of it. Many years later, he told an interviewer that his voice had been “heavily criticized.” In fact, Rickman described one teacher as saying, “Alan, you sound as if your voice is coming out of the back end of a drain pipe.” So it would be tempting to make this article about pursuing your dream, never giving up, and not heeding the opinion of even a prestigious drama school.

But would that be wise?

Yes, and no.

No, in that if three people tell you you’re drunk, you should at least consider switching to soda, and if qualified professionals suggest you should consider a different line of work, maybe you should at least reconsider your game plan.

But we note that Rickman did not say his teachers discouraged him from acting. And his voice has been described more lately as seeming like a cello.

So there’s the “yes.” In fact, many a "yes." Rickman’s acting career provides a wealth of examples to inspire the growing voiceover artist.

To begin with, Rickman started relatively late for an actor. Although he had been interested in acting as a youth, professionally he first tried his hand at graphic design, figuring it would provide a more dependable income. It didn’t, so in his mid-twenties, he got himself accepted by the Royal Academy. Then he spent a dozen years on the boards and British TV repertory.

It was soon apparent that Rickman had more going for him than his voice. It wasn’t just the voice, it was how he used it. That’s another valuable lesson to heed.

Your “signature voice,” and other TalkTime! pointers

Do you listen to Edge Studio’s weekly TalkTime! call-in each Sunday? It’s an open phone forum, each week dealing with a different voice-over topic. Recently the topic was the Commercials genre, and participants discussed quite a bit.

You can listen to the entire hour discussion at EdgeStudio.com, but in particular we’d like to expound a bit on some of the points that were made about prospecting for clients, how to stand out from the crowd. As so often is the case during TalkTime!, these pointers apply to many voice-over genres, not just the topic of the evening.

Clients like to hire people they enjoy working with. The not-so-fine line between being anonymous and becoming a pest is found by simply being friendly and making the first move. Then you are not just another line in the Inbox. Rather than send a generic cold-call email or letter, learn something about your prospect first. What audio product or ad campaign of theirs do you particularly like, and why? It might be that you can make a succinct, valid case as to why you would be a good match for that sort of recording. Or you might offer a brief compliment – short and sweet – from your perspective. But it’s also flattering simply that you took the time to learn about them – because most people don’t. As TalkTime! moderator (and Edge Studio Managing Director) Graeme Spicer noted, “There’s a pretty close correlation between the work you put into it and the amount of jobs that are going to come from it.”

Acting builds character. And voice versa.

In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, [http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/12/the-greatest-actor-alive/413167/] about Max von Sydow’s long history of building rich, stand-out characters, the author muses, “How does von Sydow know so much?” and answers, “It’s just the sort of imagination that some actors, a very few, are blessed with.“

Actually there’s also another answer. Stephen Sondheim, when asked "How do you know so much?" replied, "I listen."

Do you keep your eyes and ears open? There are characters all around you. We’ve mentioned this before, but here are yet more examples, and ways to absorb and use what you will.

Another observation from that article about von Sydow:

What von Sydow brings to The Exorcist is more than the skimpily written part demands, maybe more than it deserves, but this is what he does in even the smallest, poorest roles. Like a novelist, he finds the human details that vivify the character.

Details. That’s the key. And, as with doing accents in audiobooks and many other VO situations, sometimes all you need is one connotative detail at a time. That one distinctive (and not necessarily unusual) characteristic may make all the difference in bringing the character to life. Integrated into your performance, it blossoms to transform your own personality.

Not everybody sees these things. It takes training, remembering, and even a certain outlook on life.

Consider the experience described by Richard Gere during the filming of his recent movie “Time Out of Mind,” in which he plays a homeless person. It was shot on the streets with hidden cameras, so that passers-by would not see a film shoot in progress. Nobody recognized him ... almost.

“Mailing in” your VO performance. Is it always a bad thing?

Are you familiar with the term “mailing it in”? We’re not talking about emailing a file to your client. Sometimes people will say “phoning it in,” but we’re not talking about transmission over a phone or Internet connection, either. We’re talking about it in the acting sense.

It’s when an actor delivers a performance that’s routine, competent but nothing special, no different than other performances the actor has delivered over his or her career. Taken literally, it’s when the performance arrives, but the actor’s mind hasn’t come along with it. Mailing it in is generally thought to be less than exemplary, and thus a bad thing to say of someone.

But is it?

We looked up some discussions of the subject, and got interesting results. The term doesn’t mean quite the same thing in all cases.

Sometimes it can even be said with pride, especially with the job requires a cold read. On a cold read – where there has been no time for even a brief rehearsal, or even pre-reading the script (as with a ton of routine retail sale copy, or the day’s news) – sometimes something’s gotta give. Like it or not, the talent might have to fall into a set pattern, as he or she focuses on being mistake-free. Being good at a cold read also requires experience at “seeing ahead,” pacing, subject knowledge, expert pronunciation and enunciation skills, and more. Such a capability, when required, can be a matter of pride. In that case, the talent might even say, “That sale copy is no problem. I can mail it in.”

However, although we can imagine one talent saying this to another talent, we can’t imagine someone saying it innocuously to a client. It’s not flattering to hear that a narrator has given the copy no attention at all -- that it required no effort, and was deserving of none.

In most situations, the interpretation is not so kind. Here are some we found:

Do you make these annoying vocal “mistakes” in voice-over?

In everyday conversation, some people do certain things that many other people perceive as wrong. In fact, most people do some of these things, so you – and most other people -- might not consider them to be wrong at all. That’s why we put the word “mistakes” in quotation marks.

But when you’re reading for a client or director, or need to adopt a certain vocal persona, that’s a different situation. A voice-over recording has special needs and limitations. And casting pros listen for a living. So casting pros and clients may listen with different standards, a different sensibility. When a voice-over professional is listening to you, it helps to know what they might hear as annoying.

(If you do these things to fit into a group, or convey a character, that’s a different matter. Congratulations on your insight! But you might be surprised how many people aren’t even aware they have these habits.)

How many types of humor can be conveyed by voice?

How many types of humor are there? We came across this neat list of “humor techniques,” that itemized no less than 41 types. No wonder dissecting humor can be such a mystery. There are many lists of humor types floating around, but this one was in a scholarly research paper, building on decades of other research. How, we wondered, can this information be put to use in a voice-over performance?

To start, let’s see that list of 41 types of humor ...

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