If you’re a voice actor or voice talent and you’re in various voice over groups on Facebook, you might have run into posts mentioning Speechelo, a company that offers text-to-speech (i.e. A.I. voices) at a low price. The idea is that you can enter the text you want voiced, and tada! You’ll have a great, human-sounding voiceover you’ll be able to use in your marketing videos, on the spot. Say goodbye to voice actors, expensive recordings, or delivery delays.
This is the company’s elevator pitch (taken from their website): “Instantly Transform Any Text Into A 100%Human-Sounding Voice Over with only 3 clicks! We GUARANTEE no one will tell your voiceover is A.I. generated.”
I was curious to hear what the fuss was all about, and honestly their supposed voice-generated Vimeo demo looked and sounded pretty good. So, I clicked on the link in the latest Facebook post that mentioned the company and bought the software on sale for $37.
Before I give you my review, I should admit that my confidence in the company sank rather quickly. In the barely-over-24-hours since I bought the product, I received seven emails beyond my subscription receipt and login emails. I’m sure there are a few others piling up as I write this blog entry.
Meet the Spammy Company
First, they were selling me upgrades (ok, acceptable). It turns out the version I bought only allows users to create voice overs with scripts of less than 700 words.
Subsequent emails seemed to be promoting completely unrelated services (something to do with making money and an “apartament” -yes, the demo video has that typo on it). Upon closer inspection, it seems the video and emails are selling the idea of creating your own online video marketing agency…presumably using A.I. voices from Speechelo. Ok, that would be somewhat related, but I think you’ll agree their marketing needs some serious (serious) work.
Another email stated that Speechelo was wildly popular because they received 400 support tickets, which, if you ask me, really isn’t a selling point. The email suggests that 400 people couldn’t make the platform work for them in some way. (Or perhaps they wanted their money back?)
Overall, the company feels spammy.
The A.I. Voices
While the site says that the base version of the software has thirty A.I. voices, that includes all the languages available. When it comes down to it, there are only four English US voices in the base software and another four if you buy the Pro version. For the US (which would include Canada), there are two male voices, one female and one male child (though the child is definitely an older female). One thing all the voices have in common is that they all sound pleasant but very fuzzy (forgive the analogy but it’s like they have peach hairs on them).
As a native French Canadian, I also wanted to hear their FR CA options, but it turns out they only have one A.I. voice available and it’s only accessible with the Pro version of the software. I was still able to hear a very short preview of the voice and it was unfortunately extremely choppy (not nearly as good as most of the US voices).
Testing the Platform
Before looking around, I looked at the tutorial video. It turns out that to get the best results you must enter each sentence of your script one at a time (time consuming to say the least). The tutorial then suggests “merging” individual voice-generated sentences together to create one long VO file.
Upon using the platform in this way, I noticed that text changes became incredibly cumbersome. That said, you could prepare your text in advance, and/or download your voice-generated sentences individually. Either way, you can’t number your voice-generated sentences, so figuring out the order (whether on the platform or after downloading) isn’t straightforward.
If you choose the “merge” option and you then want to change your script, you’ll have to create a new voice-generated sentence (which won’t be in the right order before you merge) and delete the old one. You can, however, re-order your individual voice-generated sentence before merging them to create your final VO, but since you can’t number your sentences, it’s easy to make a mistake and put them in the wrong order…So we’re building puzzles.
Previewing A.I. Voices
As I was inputting sentences into the program, I couldn’t listen to full voice-generated previews of my text. Instead, the voice would only play small portions of my sentences. This is a bit pointless, since adding punctuation is apparently instrumental in getting a voice over that sounds natural. Their system forces you to generate the VO, listen back, delete if needed, create a new one by copy/pasting the old text, fix the punctuation, generate again, listen back, and so on.
Let’s hope (for their sake) they come up with a better system.
A.I. Voice Modes
Each A.I. voice could be used in three modes
Aside from not really being able to tell the difference, they seemed impossible to change once the VO was generated, so versatility is an issue.
How Can I Get my A.I. Voice Over?
Once I created my voice-generated sentences and merged them into one longer VO file, I had to wait until a download button appeared. This took a while, during which I had no idea if I’d ever be able to get my voice over off of the platform (I really didn’t want to have to add to their support ticket count). I turned my attention to a few Facebook messages and when I eventually I looked back at the page, I noticed a download button (sigh of relief).
I don’t know about you, but the robotic and monotone A.I. voice makes it difficult to understand the information in the VO. I personally disconnect when I listen. This is precisely why announcer reads are no longer popular; repetitive musicality in speech makes it difficult to retain information. Conversational reads are not only more engaging, they’re just plain easier to understand (and retain).
While I’ll admit the voices are huge step up in the world of synthetic voices and text-to-speech, we’re not quite there yet.
Who Will Use These A.I. Voices?
I personally don’t know what kind of company would find this type of A.I. VO acceptable. Perhaps a foreign one who needs a short text translated? A conspiracy theory YouTube channel? A company that simply doesn’t care about voice quality? As for those, I can’t name that many that are based in North America. But sure, they probably exist.
All I know is that in today’s competitive climate, having a crappy voice over just isn’t the norm. If it were, a lot of people who aren’t able to sound conversational and real would be working a ton.
Artistic Limitations of A.I. Voices
Voice actors are more and more conversational and versatile and it just doesn’t make sense to hire a voice that can only do one thing: be monotone.
If you still fear for your job, the most important element to keep in mind is that these voices can’t be directed. What you hear is what you get. You can change punctuation, add pauses, breaths, etc., but you’ll never truly be able to get a completely different read.
If it’s too good to be true, it usually is. I’m not convinced their initial demo was fully generated by the technology I tested today.
So, as voice actors, I don’t think we’re about to lose our jobs yet. For those who are nervous, keep on top of your acting training as these A.I. voices definitely aren’t going to replace great actors.
When choosing voice over microphones, consider the kinds of voice overs work you’ll be recording, as well as the space you’ll be working in. Ideally, you’ll pick a microphone that’s suited to that type of work and space.
Polar Patterns of Microphones
Microphones capture sounds on different areas. The areas from which they capture sound are emphasized by their shape.
For instance, shotgun microphones (the long and thin ones) have a tiny surface on the front; they’re designed to pick up sound (mostly) from that very small surface.
More traditional looking studio microphones have larger areas to capture sounds from. They can pick up sounds on the sides and on the back as well.
The direction from which a microphone captures sound is called a polar pattern.
Here are the main polar patterns and what they’re typically used for:
Omnidirectional: This type of microphone (like the traditional one pictured directly above) picks up sound all around it. The pick up pattern looks like as a sphere. Omni’s are ideal to record orchestra’s, but less than ideal for recording in home studios where there can be all kinds of ambient noises in every direction (hello fans, refrigerators and AC!) That said, many omni mics offer other polar patterns like Figure 8 and Cardioid;
Bi-directional/Figure 8: This pattern captures sound from the front and rear of the mic (nothing on the sides). This can be used when singers must sing a duet, but only one microphone is available. They’ll face each other and sound amazing.
Unidirectional: This pattern only captures sound from one direction (the front) which is helpful in the context of a home studio where you’re trying to focus only on the voice (rather than all the ambient sounds in the space). Within this general pattern there are two shapes:
Cardioid: The point of capture here is only on the front, but the surface of capture is rather large (in microphone terms). You can typically move your head up and down the surface of the mic and it will capture everything. Commercial voice over studios typically use this pattern for voice over recordings. Most studio microphones I recommend offer this polar pattern;
Supercardioid/Hypercardioid: This is basically an extreme version of the cardioid. This is the polar pattern of shotgun microphones. The point of sound capture is mostly on the front and is small. This can be helpful in spaces where room tone is not ideal (though no microphone will really make up for a noisy space).
The Proximity Effect on your Voice Over Microphone
As you speak closer on cardioids microphones, the bass may get louder. This is why intimate reads in studios have more bass in them. This effect is most pronounced on bi-directional (figure 8) microphones. Omni’s don’t have this effect.
What Kind of Voice Overs Will You Record?
Since microphones pick up sound in specific directions, your movements in front of the microphone should impact the type of mic you’ll get. Typically, announcers who always speak straight on can work with a shotgun mic. Voice actors who record animation and video games, along with those who record many different types of voice overs (most people) or beginners who move around more will need a larger surface to work from. Otherwise part of their performances could end up off mic. This would make their recordings unusable.
Where Will your Voice Over Microphone Be?
As we’ve seen, shotgun mics pick up less sound, so we could say that noisier spaces are more suited to shotgun mics. In truth, they’re no solution for a noisy space, so if you choose a shotgun mic to deal with noise issues, be prepared for the trade off: you won’t be able to move around as much (in exchange for a teensy tiny bit less noise capture).
If you want to be on the safe side, go for an omni that has a cardioid pattern, or a cardioid. Working on making your space quieter is always a good investment anyway.
Learn about starting a Voice Acting career from scratch.
Do your family and friends say you have a great voice? Do you dream of voicing characters in your favorite Anime shows? Do you love creating characters when you read to your children or talk to your pets? Perhaps you’re a singer and have a very intimate connection with your voice and want to cross over into voice acting?
If you’re interested in making a living with your voice and you just don’t know where to start, I’m here to help you turn down the volume on what you don’t need to worry about (it’s a jungle out there), and shine a light on what your next steps should be.
The Voice Acting Trifecta
To keep it simple, I’d like to tell you about the Artist – Technician – Entrepreneur trifecta of voice acting. Think of this like a triangle.
In this triangle, the Artist is the foundation and the Technician and Entrepreneur rest upon it to create the walls. I also call this trifecta the three pillars of voice acting. Once you understand how the pillars work in relation to one another, you’ll be able to go out in the world and start investing in your voice acting passion in a methodical way (and I believe being pragmatic is the most effective to making dreams a reality).
Let’s go over the first pillar, which is also the foundation of voice acting.
Voice acting is ultimately an art and unless you become an actor first, and a voice talent second, your experience in the industry will be incredibly limited. Why? Because the trend these days is to use actors. This is why you hear well known film and TV actors voice commercials, act in video games and animation movies.
These professional actors make voice over scripts sound natural and “conversational”. Their voice overs sound real, like they’re really talking to you.
How do they do it? With acting training. And since these actors are your competition, you better train the way they have if you want to get a piece of the voice acting pie.
This is not to say that you can’t do well if you just become a “professional reader” like an announcer. But unless you’re incredibly fortunate and can get work in the TV promo sector, you’ll be relegated to these few voice over sectors:
Voicemail (and yes, this can be very lucrative if you’re bilingual and work in a territory that requires bilingual messaging);
You may also be able to record some commercials now and then, and some audio books in the non-fiction category, but it may not be often.
While these voice over sectors can provide steady work, you’ll likely be on your own trying to find that work because you’ll have difficultly getting an agent. As a result, you’ll have a hard time moving up the voice over food chain.
Be a Trained Actor
If you’re a trained actor, you’ll likely be able to work in more sectors of the industry, and have access to higher paying gigs, especially in the commercial sector. As an actor, you’ll also be in a position to get an agent so you can book animation, and video game job. You’ll also be able to work in the audio book sector in the fiction category.
To become an actor, you’ll need pure acting training first, then VO centric training. For the best training strategy, read my book Becoming An Artist. In it, you’ll learn and about being an artist on a personal and professional level.
Get a Detailed Overview of the Acting Industry
Whether you’re a trained actor or not, getting this ebook will be valuable because you’ll also get a detailed overview of the entire voice acting industry as it operates today. It even breaks down thetypes of VO jobs you can book, and what you need to book them.
If you don’t have VO centric training, you’ll want to know all this before training.
Once you have a basic understanding of the industry and you’re able to create amazing performances, you’ll then have to focus on recording those performances.This is where the second pillar of the trifecta comes in…
Once you’re creating great performances, you’ll have to become a savvy audio technician because you’ll have to be able to record and edit professional voice over jobs at home. This is true in every sector of the industry, especially during the pandemic. Some jobs, like animation and video games may require you to go to a professional studio, but as we’re seeing in the pandemic, being able to record from home puts actors who have professional recording abilities at a huge advantage (those who were equipped when the pandemic hit were able to keep getting hired).
If you’re a live event announcer, you may not think you need a home voice over studio, but having one to record certain types of announcements that can be pre-recorded (Take your seats, etc) will provide added value to clients. And who knows, you could get work online as well.
Be a Reliable Voice Actor
You’ll also have to become knowledgable about recording and editing voice overs from home because clients will expect you to be in control of your audio space. In other words, you should know how to record and edit your voice overs, and how your equipment works, so that if something isn’t working, you can troubleshoot issues. That’s not to say that you won’t be clueless sometimes. Audio is tricky: we all get confused by it and need help to fix issues once in a while (and especially at the beginning), but you should understand the basics. If not, continuous problems will prevent you from getting hired often enough to make a living.
To learn more about working with sound and about from home read my book Recording and Editing Voice Overs. This explains absolutely everything from creating a space, to recording, to delivering audio to clients in the format and specs they need.
Once you can create great performances, and record them, you’ll have to wrap them in a beautiful package so that you can make money with them.That’s brings me to the third pillar of the trifecta….
In this part of your career, you’ll be preoccupied with doing things that keep you in business, like:
having a good reputation so you can inspire clients to trust you (and hire you); and
sharing your wonderful talent and artistic offerings to the world.
Get Voice Acting Experience
To gain experience, you’ll have to audition regularly (probably on pay to play sites). The goal at this point is to test your instrument, see what kind of jobs are on the market, get hired, and see how the market reacts to you. In time, this process will tell you where to put your energy so that you can get a better return on your investment.
Have a Good Reputation
To have a good reputation, you’ll want to have an effective workflow and be professional on voice acting jobs. That means running your recording sessions efficiently so that clients feel like they’re in capable hands once they’ve hired you. If you’re non-union, this also means having a good rate sheet.
Market your Voice Acting Services
As far sharing your talents with the world, you’ll want to have effective marketing strategies. To get a good voice acting agent you’ll need excellent demos (produced by audio producers) and solid auditions skills (and for this you’ll need practice). To find clients, you may need to be on pay to play sites, be on top of your social media, create good outbound strategies, and learn everything you can about the internet so you can make it work for you.
To learn about all this, read my book Running Your Voice Acting Business. Together, my three books are really a super affordable modern-day voice acting bible that will give you a solid understanding of the voice acting industry as a whole, tell you how to navigate it, and how to find your place in it.
Voice Acting Training Never Stops
In today’s VO world, even top talents who are represented by the best over agents need to continuously strengthen these three pillars of the voice acting trifecta. Most working voice actors:
continuously brush up on their acting skills;
make sure their audio space is professional and make upgrades when they can;
find new ways to market themselves so they can get more clients.
These strategies all contribute to strengthening their brand which makes them more appealing to clients.
Put Chances on your Side
If you want to make a living with your voice, focus on the three pillars of the voice acting trifecta. Each must be as strong as the other.
Being a great technician or entrepreneur will do nothing for you unless you’re a great actor.
Being a great actor but not being able to record and edit your work will make you difficult to hire.
If you’re a great actor who can record and edit great work but no one knows you exist, you won’t get very far.
So, unless the three pillars are strong, the house falls down. How do you know the house has fallen or needs some strengthening? Your voice acting income is either not coming in, or stagnating.
That said, like in any career, there are no guarantees that you’ll succeed, even if you follow this recipe to the T. But you if you look at your career through the Artist/Technician/Entrepreneur lens, you’ll be putting all the chances on your side and that’s the most effective way of making your dreams a reality. You’ll also be able to say that you really tried.
If you’re recording voice acting auditions these days, whether through agents or pay to play sites, you’ve heard the term. The technology allows the transmission, in real time, of very high-quality audio from one location to another via a high-speed internet connection. As such, it allows a commercial studio to receive and record the microphone feed of another studio in a different location. This is typically used when a voice actor can’t come to the commercial studio in person.
Before so many voice talents had professional home studios, if you booked a job that was meant to record in New York, but you were in Houston, the client might have gotten you to go to a studio in Houston so that the studio in New York could connect to it (via the SC app that both studios had). This way, the client in New York could record you as if you were in their studio, in person. The technology is quite amazing: you talk into a microphone in Houston, the high-quality audio signal gets transmitted via the internet, and the New York studio receives and records the performance as if you were talking into one of their microphones. The studio in New York has full control of your microphone feed. In the voice over industry, we call this “recording remotely”.
When was Source-Connect created?
SC was created in 2005 as an alternative to its predecessor, ISDN. This technology was created in 1986 (initially for the army, then for broadcast TV and radio). ISDN still exists today and works via phone lines (land lines). Though it transmits excellent audio, it’s extremely expensive and difficult to set up. In fact, phone companies are phasing this technology out. Source-Connect is much more affordable and much more flexible. To use it, two parties can simply connect via a wired internet connection (and the SC app of course).
To make SC work, you’ll need high-speed internet (at least 3MB upload speed) and to connect a traditional RJ 45 internet wire between your modem and your computer (wireless connections don’t work). Note that if you aren’t paying for high speed internet, you probably won’t have enough bandwidth. Unless you have exceptionally good Internet in your neighborhood, paying for higher speed internet is often required for studio-to-studio sessions.
Why Clients Use Source-Connect
If you have your own home voice acting studio, you may be thinking: “I have a voice over booth I record from, why is there another studio in the mix? I can record the audio and send it to the client.” Or: “Clients can just call me while I record, and I’ll send them the audio file right after.”
While you may have a great voice over studio space and great voice over recording equipment, when clients hire a commercial studio to connect to yours it’s generally because that studio is in charge of all the audio on the production (whether it’s a commercial, narration, animation, video game, etc.) For instance:
The audio engineers at the commercial studio may be composing music or sound effects for the client;
Engineers may want to put effects (via high end preamps and compressors) on your voice to make you sound as amazing as humanely (or technologically) possible;
Clients may also want to hear you as if you were right there in the studio with them when you’re performing. Since the audio from an SC connection is high-quality, clients get a better idea of what you’ll actually sound like in the finished product.
A commercial studio will also be able to mix your audio with the client’s video (if available) in real time, allowing the client to make last minute changes to your script or performance.
All of this gives clients full control of the production. The higher end the production, the nit-pickier clients are, and that’s often when a technology like SC comes in (others exist, like iPDTL, which works equally well, but is more common in Europe where it was created).
What About Skype or a Cell Phone?
Keep in mind that when clients call into your studio with Skype or a cell phone, they miss many nuances in your performance because some of the audio is not being transmitted (listen to the audio quality of a voicemail; it’s sub-par). Also, when clients aren’t using SC, they have to wait until you email them the audio files and until someone mixes it into the production to really get a sense of how it all works together. This process may not suit a client who is hired to make a production sound flawless in one session. In fact, poor sound quality and an inability to mix audio and video in real-time is the reason sessions conducted over the phone can trigger so many revisions (text and performance). Clients aren’t spending the time or money to get it right the first time.
Look into getting a high-speed internet connection (how long does it take to get the service if you needed it right away?);
Get the RJ 45 internet wire out of your old wire bin (or order it) and make sure you can plug it into your computer (if not, get an adaptor);
If the computer you’re using to record audio has a fan that can turn on intermittently, be sure it sits outside of your recording space);
Look into Source Connect Now (free version).
If you have everything ready, you’ll be in a position to pull the trigger when you book a job. Keep in mind that you’ll most definitely need help from customer service before being able to use SC and their department may be backed up, so plan for that.
What Kind of Client likes Source-Connect?
As far as which clients use it most and what connection they prefer, during the pandemic, some union clients have been working with actors who have the free version (SC Now), but the paid version (SC Standard) is always preferred. Either way, SC sessions are much more common in the union sector than in the non-union sector, though the technology is also used there (the free version doesn’t seem popular).
If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting to find out when the film and TV industry is going to start again and how they’ll go about it. The SAG-AFTRA guidelines for filming have finally been decided and put in place by unions, producers, studios and networks in the US. In Canada, BC is resuming filming, but ACTRA Toronto and the Quebec union (UDA) are still discussing safety protocols for actors.
What Will Acting in Film and TV Be Like?
The short answer is that it will be complicated and that it will take some getting used to. While the prospect of working again is exciting, it’s also a bit terrifying. As actors we’re on the frontlines and being on set will no doubt be more stressful than it already was. Everywhere in North America, social distancing, access to handwashing stations and sanitizer, along with the use of PPE equipment in all filming locations aside from the actual set, are policy. Be prepared to be reminded often of where you can go, what you should do, and when.
Keeping Actors Safe
In the US, the main strategy to keep actors safe is testing for Covid-19 (the fun nasopharyngeal kind) multiple times a week (thrice). In Quebec, you may be requested to do your own make-up and to use your own wardrobe. In Canada, travelling from other countries requires a 14-day quarantine before being able to work, effectively eliminating the possibility of being a local hire on short notice. The Canadian government isn’t allowing productions to shoot abroad either. In the US, aggressive testing negates the need for quarantining when coming from outside of California, but some states are requiring travelers to quarantine upon arrival on their grounds, so again, being a local hire in other states won’t necessarily be straightforward. In BC, testing will depend on the production company, and producers are asked outright to minimize the number of day players and background performers. Because more people means more danger, we can expect sets everywhere to be smaller. As you can imagine, incomes will dry up for many, even as sets resume activities.
Lastly, in all locations, unions are encouraging productions to conduct remote auditions, so to keep acting, you’ll need a reliable self-tape set up.
Voice Acting to Make Ends Meet
In this Return to Work pandemic environment, actors are being put to the test and for those without a “name” getting acting jobs may be more challenging than ever. This is where voice acting comes in. Note that in Quebec, recording Wallas (sound atmospheres for film and TV), which requires groups of voice actors to record and improvise together (loop groups) aren’t permitted. While this isn’t good for loop group actors, producers may decide to follow other part of the voice acting industry and resort to recording wallas from actor’s home studios. Nothing is impossible at this point.
The Pandemic: Bad for Most, Great for Voice Actors
Most parts of the voice acting industry have been quite busy during the pandemic and producers have been hiring voice actors with their own home VO studios. And it doesn’t look to slow down. Unions, especially in Canada, are encouraging producers to continue hiring voice actors from their home studios. In Quebec, if that’s impossible, ACTRA encourages voice actors to use their own headphones. But smartphone earbuds won’t do the trick. Since VO headphones should be professional-grade, why not equip yourself to record voice overs from home altogether?
While the Return To Work protocols may differ on different coasts and countries, once thing is for sure: making a living with your voice is one way to keep acting and earning a living safely, in the comfort of your own home. For one, the industry is still mostly working remotely, and since it was heading that way for some years, it’s quite likely that recording from home will simply be the norm for hereon.
How Can I Become a Voice Actor?
If you’d like what it takes to become a voice actor and stay in business, read my series of books about Voice Acting & Announcing. You’ll learn everything you need to know like what training you need, what kind of budget you should have, the important decisions you may need to make, recording and editing voice overs, building a VO studio, audio file formats and specifications, creating an effective recording workflow, best voice over business practices, and VO marketing.