This Pandemic is driving everyone nuts, including professional actors who can no longer work in the jobs that allowed them to continue to pursue acting (e.g., restaurants).
But the pandemic isn’t all bad news for actors: while some work has dried up, there is plenty of work to be had online. Although most of this work is non-union, some agents are opening up their rosters and taking on actors who have good voice acting booths to record from. Some of these agents have access to union breakdowns.
While having a voice over studio was optional (sort of) before the pandemic, it certainly isn’t now. From now on, it will be impossible to work as a voice actor without a good voice over booth.
I’ve written a book on the topic of voice over studios that addresses how to think about sound, basic recording and editing tips, standard file formats and specs and more.
In the meantime, here are a few basics to help you get started in the right direction.
You Need a Quiet Space for Voice Acting
First off, you’ll need a very quiet space to record in. This is unavoidable. Whenever I move, quietness is the first thing on my list of priorities. If you don’t have a quiet space, you’ll either need to build a structure or booth to isolate yourself from noise sources in your environment or pick another space. Otherwise you’ll be frustrated as a way of life and life is just too short for that.
One quick way to determine whether you can use a space is to listen carefully: what do you hear?
If you hear temporary noises (lawn mower, ambulance, airplane), you might be able to record around these (you’ll pause when you hear a noise). If you hear continuous noise however (clearly audible traffic) and it’s unmistakably present, you’ll probably need to build a structure or booth.
Acoustics vs Soundproofing
Acoustics are all about how sound travels within your space. You will (in 99% of cases) have to improve acoustics before working in any space. This means you’ll either have to eliminate echo or reverberation (this sounds like you’re in a box or tin can) that’s so typical of small spaces. Luckily, improving acoustics is usually easy and pretty cheap.
Sound proofing is all about eliminating outside noises from penetrating into your space. The best way to soundproof is to build a small structure like an iso-booth (short for isolation booth). This can be as light or heavy duty as you want. The more noises you have to deal with, the thicker the isolation will need to be. This process can get expensive, especially if you aren’t the DIY builder type. Many booths can be found online and assembled at home, but they aren’t cheap.
Microphone placement has a role to play in acoustics as well. Believe it or not, I once had an audio engineer come to my house because I felt like my space sounded “boxy”. He literally moved my microphone a few inches by switching my desk microphone stand to a boom arm type of stand. I’ve recorded TV campaigns weekly in the studio ever since.
Voice Acting Equipment (pssst…Acoustics are more important)
The one thing actors always ask me about is gear. I can assure you that focusing on improving your acoustics and sound proofing are better investments than buying an expensive microphone.
The most compliments I ever got about my voice was when I was using a hand-me-down drum microphone from my mentor. My current Neumann U-87 has never garnered as many compliments.
That said, you’ll need:
- Computer (Mac or PC);
- Audio interface (external);
- Stand alone preamp (optional);
- Condenser microphone with an XLR connection (no USB mics);
- Professional headphones (earbuds or noise cancellation won’t do);
- Pop filter (preferably metal, unless you’re on the go in which case you may forego it completely);
- Recording/Editing Software;
- Connectivity software like Skype, WhatsApp, etc.;
- Studio-to-studio connectivity software like Source Connect, IPDTL, etc. (optional).;
- Various cables like USB, XLR (these have a three-pronged end), ¼ inch cables, and RCA’s;
- Microphone stand (boom arm, desk stand, floor stand, etc.);
For a list of voice over industry approved recording gear and what to look for when considering equipment, see the blog I wrote which also contains tests I ran.
And whatever you do, make sure you can try out the gear and return it if you don’t like it. Until you try it, it’s difficult to know what will work best for you. If you’re ordering from Amazon right now, stick to vendors who will allow returns.
Recording & Editing Software for Voice Overs
My recommendation is to keep it simple and to download a trial version of the recording program you’re interested in learning.
You can use:
- Audacity (free, but doesn’t work on recently updated computers);
- TwistedWave (Mac);
- Amadeus Pro (Mac); and
- Adobe Audition (Mac or Windows).
My personal favorite is Adobe Audition. It’s comprehensive, will allow you to create your own demos and give you the ability to get rid of tiny intricate mouth noises when you need to. The next best bet is Amadeus Pro. Audacity and TwistedWave are much more limited, but if you’re on a budget, you can start with those. I would steer clear from Pro Tools or Logic (unless you’re a musician and know your way around). Garage Band won’t allow you to record at higher sample rates than 44,100kHz and 16 bit so this is less than ideal for broadcast jobs. Even if you aren’t recording broadcast jobs, virtually every producer wants their voice over files in higher quality formats (48,000 kHz and 24 bit). For more about audio specifications and files formats, read Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
If you have the technical skills to use a Word document, I assure you that you can learn to edit audio, especially in the programs I list here. It’s not nearly as complicated as it seems.
The basic functions you’ll use are:
- Record audio from a microphone feed;
- Playback the recorded audio;
- Save files in .mp3 and .wav audio formats;
- Convert files in sample rates from 8000 kHz to 48,000 kHz and 8 to 24-bit rates.
- Copy and paste sections of a recording;
- Undo and redo functions;
- Heal/Repair small mouth noises;
- Normalize sound;
- Equalize sound;
- Use visual markers to find an area of a recording at a glance;
- Save and label audio files.
For audio editing tips, read Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
Voice Over Recording Levels
One the most important things you’ll do in audio is set the recording level on your audio interface or stand alone preamp correctly. I go over this in detail in my book, but there is a speaking level you want to stick to, and then you can move it slightly down (for when you speak louder) and up (when you are speaking more intimately). If you use a stand alone preamp and aren’t sure how to get the most out of it, be sure to read my blog about recording equipment.
One way to figure out if you’ve got it right is to use a dB meter. All recording programs have one, so set your levels somewhere between -18dB and -6dB. If you go higher than this, you’ll peak and sound distorted (making the files unusable). If your level is set too low, you’ll have to amplify your recording digitally, and your files may also end up sounding distorted.
The key here will be to make sure you can tell the difference between the volume level for your headphones and the level for the audio interface. Your device level is usually called “gain”.
My Voice Over Studio
People often ask about my own set up, so here it is: I use an iso-booth I’ve built (5 feet by 5, and 6 feet high). I’ve installed an exterior grade door and a double pane window (I was tired of being enclosed with no natural light for hours on end every day). My computer and screen sit outside the studio on a desk in front of my window (I’ve drilled hole in the bottom to put wires through so they can be powered) to avoid introducing any noises in the booth.
Apogee Duet sound card;
Grace Design 101 stand alone preamp;
Neumann u87 microphone;
Beyer Dynamics Headphones;
Phone patch or Skype;
Adobe Audition (software).
If you want to learn more, read my voice over books and other blogs about recording voice overs from home (featured below).
My name is Lili Wexu, I am a Canadian-American actress. I moved to Los Angeles some years ago and I’ve written a few e-books about acting in Los Angeles to help other actors who are considering relocating here (or have recently relocated).
People often ask me how I got into voice acting, and I always joke and say “it was an accident!” Truth is, I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and I held on because it was my ticket out of trouble. I also happened to be a trained actress who was scared of my own shadow, so a voice over studio was a perfect place to hide.
The story takes place in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, a bilingual city made up of a French speaking majority (65%) and an English speaking minority (15%). We call them the Francos and the Anglos. It’s not uncommon for these two cultures to clash. A small minority of people (like me) are 100% bilingual, with no accent in either language.
The story goes something like this:
Howard Stern begins airing his show on an English radio station in Montreal (Quebec, Canada); he insults French Canadians at a press conference (the one launching his show); as a gesture of goodwill, a competing English radio station plans to record French radio liners to appeal to all the French speakers in the region; I work at a bar where the deejays from that station hang out; the deejays ask me to translate and record some radio liners for their goodwill campaign; I agree and officially become initiated to the voice over sector.
What’s interesting to me now, as I look back, is that aside from continually performing as a child, I had a strong connection to my voice. At seven years old, I noticed my voice was significantly lower than my friends’s voices, and after watching Adventures in Babysitting, I was downright convinced I should be a blues singer and that someone should please discover me and train me now! Unfortunately, the nuns who ran the school choir railroaded that dream in an instant (that’s a whole other story), so I put my voice aside up until I was 19 years old.
That’s the year Howard Stern had his kerfuffle with his French Canadian audience. The French radio liners I was asked to record (by deejay Rob Wreford) were variations on the theme: “You’re listening to Mix 96FM”. After I got to the station and translated the liners to French, I put headphones on, stood in front of the microphone (I probably did a million takes before I got it right), and it was LOVE.
I’ll always remember the exact moment I heard the liners on the radio for the first time. I was at a grocery store, and suddenly whatever was playing on the loudspeakers irritated me. So I stopped and listened to what was bothering me, and it was….me! Life is ironic that way.
The rest is pretty much history. Thanks to voice acting, I’ve stayed out of trouble, I’ve always been able to pay the bills (knock on wood), I’ve been able to move to Los Angeles, and to continue growing as an actress. Today, I still record voice overs weekly. I went from recording radio liners, to announcing at the Olympics in 2010, to acting in video games, to regularly voicing commercials, and everything in between. Amen.
The Voice Acting Playground
If you read my first e-book series about Acting In Los Angeles, you know that Los Angeles is the most competitive market in the world for actors. The most beautiful and talented people from all over the U.S. (and all over the world) are here. The same is true for the most beautiful, enticing, funny and talented voices in the world. They’re here, they’re online and you’ll have to get pretty serious about voice acting and announcing if you want to get in on the action. That said, for some determined individuals, it’s not an impossible task.
The most significant hurdles will be the cost to learn, the cost to be competitive in the marketplace, the time it takes to become competent, and the resilience to pull through it all.
American Voices vs Canadian Voices
All cultures have their sensitivities and tastes. The same is true of Americans. Some foreigners, including Canadians, can cross that cultural bridge successfully. And if you have local success somewhere, that can cross borders, but it’s rarely easy and usually involves quite a bit of work. In the case of voice overs for instance, working on your standard American accent is important.
Union and Non-Union Voice Acting Gigs
The rules that apply to film and television actors also apply to voice actors: the market is incredibly competitive. In order to get hired, one must be a fantastic actor, have a dash of “je ne sais quoi” and a good agent.
That said, in the case of voice acting, there is plenty of work to be had online on Pay to Play sites like Voice123. Note that most of this work is non-union (though some few union gigs do appear form time to time). Still, these sites are excellent places to cut one’s teeth.
For us union actors, these sites are frustrating: the work exists, but we cannot do it. Be that as it may, it is common for lesser known union actors (i.e. not celebrities) to lend their voice to non-union projects, especially in the commercial sector where it’s difficult to be identified, and where rates still pay somewhat decently.
The American Union (SAG-AFTRA) in Commercial Voice Overs
On that note, be aware that besides the animation and looping sectors, the commercial sector is the last voice acting sector in which the union still exerts some power. But that power is waning fast. The last few sectors who pay union rates are in the financial, automotive, healthcare, and pharmaceutical sectors.
As there are less commercial breakdowns that pay union fees, the competition to book those fewer jobs intensifies. This is exacerbated by an ever-increasing population of voice actors who, thanks to advances in technology, can easily record from home. As I update this article, the Coronavirus Pandemic is forcing the last few actors who weren’t equipped with home studios to get to it.
For more about setting up home studios, read my book Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
To make matters even more competitive, higher paying campaigns often seek famous actors to voice them, reducing the chances for the average Joe (who might be a great actor) to book them. (Note that the few industries that still allocate “union” budgets to advertising campaigns can afford to pay for “name talent” in their campaigns.)
What You Need to Succeed in Voice Acting
In light of all this, to make headway in the union sector in Los Angeles, you will need:
If you are a union actor, you’ll definitely need excellent representation.
Voice Over Demos for Union Actors
To get a great agent, you’ll need a great voice acting demo that showcases your acting chops and your style. A demo showcasing a beautiful voice or a unique voice won’t do much for your bottom line unless it’s accompanied by great acting skills. If you have a young ethnically ambiguous voice and you can act, this is most definitely your time.
As far as what sells, watch and listen to commercials: young women with a strong attitude and nerdy sounding guys do well. In voice overs, being funny is also a huge asset. In 2020, announcers are way out the door (unless you work in live shows, events and games) and women with deeper voices may also struggle since higher pitched voices are in style at the moment.
Lastly, you shouldn’t produce your commercial demo on your own. If you want representation, use a professional commercial producer (someone who produces commercials for a living). You can generally find this person by referral from a voice acting coach or even from an agent. Think about it: agents listen to voices and commercials for a living. They can tell when you’re trying to sound like a commercial and when you’re actually in a commercial. Why risk it?
Voice Acting Training
If you’re a trained actor, you’ve done most of the heavy lifting. If not, take beginner theater classes and stick with it. Voice acting is an art and you never “arrive.” Acting training should be your single biggest investment. For more about this, read my Voice Acting book. The great thing about training to be an actor is that it may lead you to act on stage or on camera. Do it wholeheartedly and see where it leads.
Regardless of your level of acting, everyone would benefit from a good voice acting class. For instance, working a microphone requires some technique. Also, a commercial job shouldn’t be tackled like an animation job (or like a narration, or like a video game). There are nuances to be aware of in every sector. If you take classes with industry professionals (casting directors for instance) and you impress them, they may send you auditions.
Like in any business, you must be resilient, patient and persistent if you’re going to reap the benefit of your voice acting investments. Here, there are no shortcuts. It can take a long time to be a full-time voice actor. How long? No one knows, but unless you do something for five years steady, I say you haven’t really tried.
When the going gets tough, having creative outlets that don’t directly depend on the opinion of others can be healing (like writing, painting, playing music, etc.). Hobbies that have nothing to do with the business can also keep you grounded. The important thing is to find ways to stay sane and stick with it. Within five years you’ll know whether your investments will pay off. If they don’t, think about this: when one door closes, another opens.
PS If you would like a one-on-one voice acting consultation during which we will discuss what you can do to take your career to the next level, you can book one here.