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).
This is the A.I. voice over I created with the program. I think I managed to stay on the Friendly mode, but perhaps it got switched to Normal or Serious on one or two sentences towards the end.
The Verdict: Human vs A.I. Voices
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.
My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn about acting professionally, read my e-book about Voice Acting & Announcing.
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.
My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn about acting professionally, read my e-book about Voice Acting & Announcing.
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);
- Live announcer;
- Radio promos.
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 the types 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:
- getting experience;
- finding clients;
- 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.
My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn about acting professionally, read my e-book about Acting in Hollywood.
Source Connect (SC) is a technology that was created by a company called Source-Elements. As it concerns us VO talents, there are two versions of the technology: Source-Connect Standard (paid version) and Source-Connect Now (free).
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.
How Can You Prepare for Source-Connect?
Due to the quality of the audio that’s transmitted in a SC recording session, you’ll want to make sure your voice over studio’s room tone is very silent and that you have an analog (XLR) voice over microphone before subscribing to the service. Also, be sure you’re booking jobs before buying this as it’s expensive ($650, plus another smaller yearly support fee). That said, you can prepare for it in the event you need it. To do so:
- 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).
My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn about making a living with your voice, read my e-books about Voice Acting & Announcing.
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.
If, at this point, you’re simply curious about voice acting equipment, here are some standard voice over equipment recommendations for you.
The pandemic may feel like life just threw us a huge lemon, but there’s always a silver lining. It’s up to us to find it and in this case act on it (no pun intended).
My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn about acting professionally, read my e-book about Acting in Hollywood.
There’s no question that this pandemic has been difficult for actors. Many have lost their restaurant jobs and are wondering if working in restaurants will ever make sense again. For those who are able to stick it out, one thing is for sure: the pandemic is accelerating certain trends that were already taking hold and that includes self-taping at home. Indeed, unions are now actively encouraging producers to cast remotely, so to keep acting, you’ll need a reliable self-tape kit.
If you’re already a professional actor in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, you know what a self-tape is, but you may be struggling with your self-tape kit, and you may not be sure about what equipment is best for your space.
If you’re not a professional actor, a self-tape set up reproduces the environment found at casting offices where actors are “put on tape” (i.e. where they’re filmed) for auditions. In the old days, filming was done on actual film tape and the expression stuck even though we’re now in the digital age. A self-tape is essentially an audition that’s filmed at the actor’s home instead of at a casting office.
Here are the 4 most important elements you should consider when setting up a self-tape kit:
1. Filming your Self-Tape Audition
While you can use a fancy camera, using your smartphone is absolutely fine and it’s become the norm for self-tapes. Just make sure you’re filming horizontally and that you’re framed from the mid-chest area up to the top of your head (you can have a bit of space above your head). Your slate (when you say your name, height, city you reside in, and agency representative if you have one) can be filmed vertically to make sure your entire body is filmed (a full body shot while slating is usually required).
2. Your Self-Tape Backdrop
You should never have anything behind you as you film yourself because it can take the audience’s attention away from your performance. You want them to be glued to you. The industry standard is to use a light grey or light blue background when possible. Darker background colors can be distracting. If you don’t have a plain surface to film in front of, you can pin a sheet to the wall behind you to cover distracting wires or whatever else is on the wall. To take it up a notch, you can use a photography backdrop. If you do this, you may need to rig something on your ceiling to hang it from. If you’re not the DIY type, get a photography stand. Just keep in mind that if you place your backdrop in front of a window and plan to film during the day, light may shine through it. This would obviously defeat the backdrop’s purpose, so be mindful of where you place it.
3. Lighting your Self-Tape Audition
Since we usually connect with people through our eyes, casting directors and directors need to see them clearly and that means having great lighting. If you don’t have natural light coming into the room you want to self-tape in, or if you want to make sure you can record self-tapes any time of day or night, use a softbox lighting kit. Using two boxes in front of you (on the left and right, angled towards you) is best to avoid dealing with distracting shadows on your face or in the background. If you want a kit that includes a background photography stand, you can get something like this (umbrellas are not needed).
4. Hearing your Self-Tape Audition
You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to hear self-tape auditions. This aspect of filming is so very important. Aside from lighting, bad audio is the number one element of self-taping casting directors complain about. To get it right, make sure your reader keeps their voice low, especially since they’ll usually be standing closer to the camera than you (readers usually stand right next to the camera to give the auditioner a good eye line). It may feel odd to the reader, but keep a low voice near the camera is incredibly helpful.
During the pandemic, however, you’re more likely to rely on a fellow actor who won’t come to you in person. In this case, you reader can read the scene on the phone with you, or on Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, etc. This can work well from an acting standpoint, but your reader’s dialog may sound distorted. If your reader’s lines aren’t clear, some of your reactions to them may seem strange or out of context. This will ultimately hurt your chances of getting hired. To fix this, get your reader to record their audio on their end (their phone is fine) while you’re filming your self-tape. When you’re done filming, get them to send you the audio so you can marry it to your video. This will require more advanced video editing skills but since getting called to record an audition is a privilege, it’s definitely worth the extra trouble. Though not necessary, voice over editing skills wouldn’t hurt you either.
A Self-Tape Worth Watching
If you get these 4 elements right, your audition will look and sound professional and you’ll stand out for all the right reasons. Since self-tapes are the new norm during the pandemic and that they were becoming the norm even before, they’re likely here to stay, so they’re definitely worth getting right.
On that note, you may want to consider Voice Acting during the pandemic as going to set is a bit more complicated these days. Why not earn money with your acting talent AND be safe working from home?
My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. For more tips about acting professionally, read my e-book about Acting in Hollywood.
As my first e-book is being released, the world is slowly emerging from a blanket of stay-at-home orders due to the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. At the time of this writing, the industry is still (mostly) on hiatus and many unions, networks, and studio executives are working on solutions that will enable productions to resume. Many questions remain, the biggest being: “How do we keep actors safe?” Acting is a full contact sport, and in productions, actors are on the frontline. It now appears that testing will become a daily/weekly occurrence on set. It’s difficult to predict what the new norms will be, but here are some possibilities:
- First audition rounds may be done via self-tape. If so, having credits from renowned productions will be more important than ever since casting directors won’t be able to assess actors’ readiness to go to set via in-person auditions;
- Subsequent audition rounds may occur via apps like Skype that will allow directors/producers to work with the actor live but not in person;
- To steer away from the red tape involved in live action productions, some funding could move to the animation sector where actors can work from home studios;
- Since California is more stringent on its laws, many productions could move to other states. The reverse could also happen: actors will feel safer in California. If other states/countries mandate quarantines upon arriving, there will indeed be less filming out of state;
- Many film sets are already opting to quarantine their entire crews;
- Once a vaccine is available, being vaccinated may become mandatory to work on set.
- Sets will likely be much smaller, meaning there could be fewer roles, especially smaller roles;
- To compensate for this, there could be much more exposition in dialog, meaning more lines to learn.
I suspect that for actors to make a living in this new decade, a self-tape set up will be mandatory and a home studio to record voice overs will be a pretty good idea (read the Voice Acting series to learn about making a living with your voice).
At the moment, however, there are still many unresolved issues. For instance, when will acting schools specialized in theater and improv be able to start up again (in person)? Will working at restaurants still be feasible for actors? And where does the pandemic leave Canadians aspiring to move? It will, no doubt, be even more difficult to train, immigrate and breakthrough than it was before, at least for a while. But overtime, this may well pass.
So, in the meantime think about creating content that doesn’t involve many actors and locations. Shooting scripts with characters you’ve created and that you love may be your saving grace on a creative level. Plus, having good material online may be a great way for you to get discovered. Content distributors are scouring the internet for talent and ideas via feeds, and casting directors are seeing new actors via open calls for self-tapes. In a world where training and exposure are more limited, you can keep training with online classes. Audition training would be excellent right now. Many schools have found creative ways to teach online, including improv schools. You can also work on material at home by working on scenes with partners on FaceTime and Zoom. In other words, stick to your guns, work at your craft as best you can, stay healthy, and be ready to roll when things open up. You’ll be one long step ahead of those who weren’t able to stick it through.
So, you’re an actor (or announcer), there’s a pandemic and your agent is telling you about voice acting opportunities you’re missing out on because you don’t have a voice over booth.
You’ve got a quiet space (or you’re hoping it’s quiet enough) and you’re ready to try out this voice over thing. Now you’re wondering about voice acting kits, voice over equipment and voice acting microphones.
I’ve been at this for almost twenty five years and tried a bunch of gear. I’m here to tell you something that may surprise you: don’t overspend on gear. No voice acting microphone, audio interface, or stand alone preamp will make up for a noisy space. Instead, focus on finding a quiet space (or making it quiet), and improving acoustics.
Professional studios want to work with reliable spaces, so if your space isn’t quiet enough, you may have to build a structure to isolate yourself from sources of sound (this is called soundproofing). Either way, you’ll need to improve the acoustics (the way sound travels) in your space. To do that, get some blankets, clothes, carpet and/or acoustic panels and throw them on the walls (carpet goes on the floor, though you can try it on the walls too) if necessary.
To learn about the intricacies of working with sound, and to create a good voice over booth, check out my e-book about recording and editing voice overs. At this point, you may also have heard about a technology called Source-Connect, so I’ve written an article about that to explain what it’s for and help you think about whether you should get it.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s go over some voice over equipment I’ve recently tested that I find both professional and affordable.
The Sound Of Silence: Sound Interfaces
In order to record your voice at a professional level, you’ll not only need a good voice acting microphone, but you’ll also need an audio interface (also known as a sound interface or sound card). This is a piece of equipment that connects your voice acting microphone to your computer.
The main thing to understand is that every audio interface and voice over microphone (even stand alone preamps) will highlight certain features (the highs, mids or lows) in your voice. The idea is to find one that will complement your voice. Since we’re all different, what sounds amazing on me won’t necessarily sound as stellar on you (and vice versa).
To stay out of trouble, we want something that reproduces our voice as faithfully as possible. We also want a sound card that will have enough juice to power a good microphone in the event we ever want to upgrade it. Besides that, we want something that’s easy to use. Lucky for you, gear has gotten so much easier to use and handle than when I started recording voice overs.
Disclaimer: The devices listed here mostly connect to via XLR cables (three-pronged cables) or TRS cables (1/4-inch cables) as I’m not a fan of USB microphones (more about this later).
Here are some inexpensive but great sounding sound cards I’ve tried:
Focusrite Scarlett Solo USB Audio Interface (Gen 3) $110
I like this for its price point, but it won’t take you very far since it doesn’t have the juice to power a high-quality microphone or stand alone preamp. The headphone volume is also limited. Overall, I’d recommend you spend an extra $76 to get a device that won’t hold you back if you ever want to upgrade other parts of your audio chain. Lastly, this sound interface tends to highlight the highs in voices. This isn’t a problem if it complements your voice, but this may be slightly better for women than men.
PreSonus AudioBox iOne 2×2 USB/iPad Audio Interface $121
This is a tiny step up from the Scarlett, but I had similar problems with it (not enough volume in my headphones and I couldn’t make it work with my stand alone preamp). Here again, I’d rather you spend an extra $66 and get something that will enable you to upgrade your gear if you ever want to. This sound card also tends to highlight the highs in voices (though not quite as much as the Scarlett does) so it may be slightly better for women.
Audient iD4 USB 2-in/2-out High Performance Audio Interface $236
This here is a little Porsche. It sounds practically identical to the higher end Apogee Duet. It’s easy enough to use (plug and play) and sounds excellent (very faithful to voices and doesn’t add too many highs or lows). Your voice can easily shine with a great voice acting microphone and you can upgrade your audio chain as much as you want along the way. That said, I don’t think it’s as well designed as it could be, and (depending on the mic you go for) you may be able to save a few bucks without sacrificing sound.
BEHRINGER U-PHORIA UMC202HD, 2-Channel $130
I had high hopes for this–this is a great company–but I couldn’t make this work on both sides of my headphones. This makes sense: audio signals from microphones are mono (only on the left), but that means you’re either hearing yourself in one ear only or spending days online and with customer service trying to figure out how to hear yourself normally (and testing out different recording software to make the signal play in both ears). Life is too short. Spend a few more bucks to work with a device that gives you the option of hearing yourself normally from the get-go.
MOTU M2 2×2 USB-C Audio Interface $186
I have a huge soft spot for this interface. Right now I don’t even need a sound device, but I’m tempted to keep the one I ordered to run tests. It looks slick, it’s user friendly and intuitive, and most importantly it sounds fantastic (especially with certain mics: more about this below). You can easily take this sound card to the next level with a stand alone preamp and a good microphone. No one will ever know you paid less than $200 for this bad boy. Oh, and you just have to hit MON (short for mono) right on the front of the device to hear yourself and to record yourself in mono. Love it. The one drawback is that caresses the highs in voices, so it may be slightly better for women. Personally, and this depended on the microphone I tried it with–it made me sound a bit nasally (I do have a twinge of a nasal sound in my voice on some days).
The Sound Interface I use:
Apogee Duet 2 $650
This is durable, sounds great, and is 100% professional. It doesn’t add too many highs or lows so it will reproduce your voice quite faithfully. If you want something more affordable (as an entry card), the Audient is a much better deal and sounds practically the same.
Check One Two…Voice Acting Microphones
When it comes to voice acting microphones, you’re looking for the same qualities you are in a sound interface: you want it to complement your voice and, if budget permits, you want something the industry has approved of (a standard).
XLR (Analog) Microphone vs USB (Digital) Microphones
Even though USB mics are handy and plug directly into computers, and that their built-in preamps may have the exact same components as in the built-in preamps in the audio interfaces listed above, you won’t find any USB mics in this list. I’ve tried a couple (including one by a company I’m a huge fan of: Rode), but I wasn’t sold on any for recording professional voice over jobs. While I’m not arguing that they sound great (they absolutely do) I’ve personally found that they can sometimes add some measure of noise, like a distant static to my room tone. This may have to do with the fact that cables inside of them aren’t balanced but since static makes me squeamish, I like sticking to good old XLR microphones which connect via a three-pronged end.
Old Habits Die Hard
Another reason I don’t recommend them is that commercial studios don’t use USB mics, which means they’re less familiar and comfortable with them (even though some may truly rival some traditional microphones in the lower price ranges). So if it comes down to two talents, and one of them has what’s considered “standard voice over equipment” (XLR microphone + audio interface) they might hire that talent just because they know what to expect gear-wise.
Part of that is an “old habits die hard” mentality but since moving up the voice acting food chain will necessarily involve connecting your voice over booth to a commercial studio remotely via Source Connect to record jobs, you may need to switch that USB mic down the line. Why not get it right the first time? XLR microphones don’t seem to be going away anytime soon and some have similar price points to USB mics. Also, if you sing or play other musical instruments, you’ll have more flexibility with a traditional XLR mic.
Condenser Microphones vs Dynamic Microphones
Beyond this, and unless you’re a singer, you’ll probably want to stick to a condenser microphone, especially if you don’t use a stand alone preamp. Condenser mics are more sensitive, pick more subtleties and nuances, and need less of an electricity boost than dynamic microphones do, so they usually work well even if you’re only using a sound interface. Not to say that dynamic microphones are off limits, but you’ll generally have to plug them into a stand-alone preamp to get enough volume out of them, and that means spending more money. That’s because dynamic mics are designed for singing (to belt into) so they aren’t spectacular for speaking or acting (voice over work). That said, these things are very personal. For instance, one of my favorite microphones was a beat up hand-me-down from my mentor (Sennheiser 421 for $380) which was a dynamic microphone. To this day no other voice acting microphone has ever garnered me as many compliments as that one did. It’s difficult to know what microphone will flatter your voice without trying them, but given their prices, trying many of them doesn’t really make sense, which is why most people end up sticking to standards. That said, you can always rent microphones which is a great way to test them.
Polar Patterns of Microphones
Microphone capture sound in different directions called polar patterns. In essence, microphones pick up sound in specific areas, so your movements behind the microphone will impact the type of mic you’ll get. Typically, announcers who always speak straight on can work with shotgun mics. 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.
Voice Acting Microphone Recommendations
Here are some voice over microphones I’ve owned and tried. Many are industry standards:
Rode NTG 2 (Condenser, Shotgun) $269
This is a great entry point into the world of microphones (and shotgun microphones). It highlights the mids in voices, and it’s durable (often used on film sets). When I’m looking for a great quality/price ratio, especially for women, this is my pick. Note that the whole line of NTG microphones are extremely similar to the Sennheiser MKH 416, especially the NTG4, so no use spending lots of money for a great shotgun microphone.
Sennheiser MKH 416 (Condenser, Shotgun) $999
This is a high end shotgun microphone that’s widely used in the voice over industry by voice talents who record TV promos. It’s so unidirectional that TV promo talents even record promos in their car with it (it’s also widely used on set). It’s durable and sounds stellar. Do you need it? No. I would grab a Rode NTG instead. If you book a huge gig and this voice over thing works out for you, knock yourself out.
Neumann U87 (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) Between $3000 and $3500. You can find deals on eBay.
This is a perfect voice acting microphone. It’s an industry standard in advertising, and in broadcast television and radio, so many commercial studios use them. It will make you sound like a million bucks and if you’re booking commercial work on a consistent basis, this will pay for itself. Many studios feel comfortable with this microphone because it’s clean, it’s flattering on any voice, and it lasts forever.
Neumann TLM 103 (Condenser Cardioid) $1300
Here’s another industry standard for a lot less that’s its cousin, the U87. You won’t be shunned by any studio if you opt for this microphone, as most professional studios have one in a booth or two. If you’re booking work regularly and can afford it, you won’t regret this purchase. It’s a classic voice acting microphone, and you won’t ever have a reason to change it. If you’d like an entry level Neumann, try the TLM 102 for $699. I haven’t tried it, but you’re in good hands with Neumann.
AKG 414 XLS (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) $900
This is another perfect voice acting microphone and industry standard. It’s beloved by booming voices for how it caresses the lows in men’s voices. While I personally found it too harsh and surgical in the way it reproduces my voice, it does have a velvety feel that can be quite enticing.
Sterling ST155 (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) $199
As far as a good budget voice over microphone, this sounds great and it’s hard to beat price-wise. Here’s a more in depth review for you, along with some audio tests. This is a more classic voice acting microphone, so microphone technique will be more straightforward than on a shotgun mic.
Shure SM7B (Dynamic Cardioid) $400
This microphone’s claim to fame is that Michael Jackson used its predecessor on his Thriller Album. This is a great microphone, I enjoyed it when I had it, but it’s a dynamic mic, so you’ll definitely need a stand alone preamp because your audio interface card won’t be powerful enough to give you enough volume. So, think twice. If you’re a singer though, this could play double duty for you (if you use a preamp when recording voice overs).
Audio-Technica AT2020 (Condenser Cardioid) $99
I’m personally not a fan of this company for my own voice and for my ears (I don’t like listening through their headphones), but it’s hard to argue with this price, especially when listening to the audio tests at the bottom of this page. Great entry level voice acting microphone.
Listen to Yourself: Voice Over Headphones
Headphones are important, and if you’re wondering, earbuds won’t do (whether you’re recording on your own or if you’re connected to a commercial studio). They’re not designed for professional use (they don’t reproduce sound well enough) and since you’re becoming a pro, leave them plugged to your phone. When you’re voice acting, you want to be able to hear exactly what you’re recording. Noise cancellation headphones also won’t cut it since they’re designed to eliminate sounds you should know about.
For all the sound cards and microphones I’ve tried, I’ve always been very loyal to my voice acting headphones. Here are my two favorite brands:
Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphone $95
These were my go-to for years. They’re extremely bright though (they highlight the highs), so while they will help you catch all the little mouth noises in your edit, sensitive ears might find these harsh. The earmuffs tend to fall apart after many years of use.
Beyer Dynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm $149
Audio engineer George Whittam recommend these to me some years ago. These are more subdued (they’re more focused on lows) so it took me some getting used to, but they’re still clear. I like how comfortable they are (so plush) though I tend to turn up the volume on them because they aren’t as clear as the Sonys. The downside is that I’ve had to send them for repair (under warranty through the company) twice (for two pairs). For some reason, I always lose hearing on one side so there’s definitely a manufacturing problem. Otherwise, they’re great.
Pump Up The Volume: Stand-Alone Preamps
The word preamp is short for preamplifier and that’s precisely what it does: it amplifies the electrical signal it receives (in this case, the sound you make when you’re speaking into the microphone that’s connected to it) by giving it some extra power. Truth is, microphones need the extra power provided by preamplifiers, otherwise you’d have to amplify your voice digitally (in your recording program) and it could end up sounding distorted. You want a sound to be amplified enough naturally (analog, via a preamp) so that you can manipulate it in various ways (digitally) without incurring losses in quality.
All audio interfaces now have built-in preamps, but you’ll generally use a stand-alone preamp (in addition to an audio interface) with more expensive microphones (like a Neumann or an AKG) because they’ll sound the best with the extra power boost. These mics are also more sensitive and will pick up noises that come from audio interfaces that have built-in preamps. But stand-alone preamps are like microphones and audio interfaces: they can highlight some of your vocal attributes, so again, you won’t really know how a device sounds until you try it with your audio chain (mic, audio interface, wires, etc.)
If you use a high-end voice acting microphone with a stand-alone preamplifier, you might notice that lower frequencies, like background noises, are a bit dimmer. This is a side effect from using a device that’s adding very little noise to your mix. It’s not like you can cover up a noisy room by using a stand-alone preamp, but it can drown out a room tone that’s just slightly too present while still giving your voice a beautiful boost.
In the old days, audio interfaces offered no amplification at all, so having a stand-alone preamp to use a microphone was a necessity. That just isn’t the case anymore as audio interfaces now all have pretty decent built-in preamps. In the same blog I’ve already pointed to, I discuss a series of tests I did to help you compare:
- A microphone connected to a sound card (with its built-in preamp);
- A microphone connected to a sound card (with its built-in preamp), plus, a stand-alone preamp.
In my test, I used the stand-alone preamp I own, which is the Grace Model 101. If you can’t really tell the difference or aren’t madly in love with the difference you do hear, then you’ll know that you don’t need one. If you love how a stand-alone preamp sounds on a certain mic and can afford one, give it a try.
The important thing to understand when using a preamp is that you’ll want to bypass the sound card’s amplification process. To do so, plug your microphone into the preamp (MIC in), and plug the preamp into the sound interface (MIC in). But be sure to turn the gain (volume/level of the Mic input) on your sound card all the way down, and to turn up (or adjust) the gain on the preamp.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of preamps and how devices add their own noise to a mix, read this article about preamps and listen to some sound tests. It might read like a lot of gibberish, but why not start getting familiar with this kind of language? You’ll have to become somewhat of a technician if you want to be able to make money with your voice, especially in the new world the pandemic has landed us (all VO actors must have a studio).
The Preamp I Use:
Grace Design MODEL 101 Microphone Preamp $550-$765
Keep in mind that most preamps were designed for use with multiple channels (instruments or microphones) so many of them are exceedingly complex to use (and overkill) for a voice trying to make a buck from home. One the best alternatives on the market is this portable single channel device. I wouldn’t shy away from buying this used as these are quite expensive new, and rarely moved around (while they’re portable, they’re not the kind of thing you’d move around a lot). Another reason to buy it used: it’s quite durable (I’ve had mine well over 12 years and never had any issues).
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo (APLTWDII) $799
This device is gaining traction from gearheads on the market, but I think it’s overkill for home use. Also, it’s not a stand-alone preamp, so you’ll be dealing with a built-in preamp. I’d say save your hard-earned dollars and go for the Audient or the MOTU and if you ever hear a commercial studio complaining about your home studio (they probably won’t), you can think about upgrading or adding a Grace 101 to your chain.
You can also look for tube channel strips by Avalon, API and Manley, but again, these high end preamps are overkill for a beginner. Since built-in preamps in portable audio interfaces all sound great these days, these channel strips just aren’t not necessary.
The Brands I Hate Vs The Brands I Love
People often ask me for recommendations, and although there are many great companies out there, you’ll never see me using Audio-Technica. I find they make everything sound like a tin can; whether you speak in a mic or listen to audio with headphones. But as I’ve mentioned before, these things are highly personal (A-T are probably just too heavy on the highs or mids for my voice and ears).
Listening to Voice Over Audio Equipment Tests
Here are some audio tests for you to listen to. Note that the Rode sounds muffled (bad mic placement and technique on my end, which is why mic technique is so important). To hear them in all their glory, download them on your computer, and listen with professional headphones (as I’ve said earbuds just don’t reproduce sound well enough).
Pairings: Voice Acting Kits
Entry level pairing
- Pair the Sterling ST155 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary. You could do plenty of narration, commercials, animation and video games.
- Pair the Audio-Technica AT2020 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary. You could do plenty of narration, commercials, animation and video games.
If you promise not to move your head too much and speak straight on, you could do narrations and commercials with this pairing:
- Pair the RodeNTG2 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary.
Mid to high-end pairing
The Sennheiser is a piece of high quality gear, but I love that you really don’t need a preamp with it, which is why I’m calling this pairing a midway level pairing. But again, you’ll have to promise not to move your head too much, so you’ll still be limited to recording narrations and commercials (TV and radio promos included):
- Pair the Sennheiser 416 with the MOTU M2, Audient, or the Apogee Duet. You can also use those two sound cards with the Grace preamp, but it’s not necessary, they all sound great without it. You could do plenty of TV promo work and commercials with this.
High end pairing
Some top-of-the line voice acting pairings would be:
- Pair the AKG 414 with the Apogee Duet, the Audient, or the MOTU M2. You could also pair it with the Grace Preamp and the Apogee Duet or the Audient. You could do plenty of animation, video game work, commercials and narrations.
- Pair the Neumann U-87 or TLM 103 with the Apogee Duet or the Audient. If you use the Grace preamp, you could also the Apogee Duet, the Audient and even the MOTU M2. You could do plenty of animation, video game work, commercials and narrations.
Now that we’ve gone over voice over equipment, I’ll write an article about the best recording/editing software for voice overs next. In the meantime, I hope this sets you on your path to becoming more comfortable recording from home.
If you need help with your studio or your recording gear, I encourage you to read this e-book. If this doesn’t fix your issue, consider sending your audio to your peers and getting their advice. You’ll make connections while learning new things. You can also book a tech consult with an audio engineer like George Whittam or the Booth Junkie so you can get to the bottom of it.
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).
I’ll go right out and say it: I’m not where I want to be in my career. I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be when I started watching Homeland, the TV show with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Claire Danes gives riveting performances in every single scene, in every single show, for seasons on end (and has the Emmy’s to show for it). I almost quit acting when I realized I didn’t feel like I could do what she does. Her incredible performances became a problem. My problem.
What I haven’t mentioned yet, is that I watched Homeland four years ago.
What did I do to address this problem in the last four years? I tried getting a new manager; I got many new headshots (I kept changing my hair); I took audition technique classes, worried about not booking enough when I did get auditions, or complained about not having enough auditions when I didn’t.
Addressing The Real Issues Holding You Back In Your Acting Career
And here’s my point: instead of fixing my real problem (strengthening my acting abilities so that I can believe in myself and stand behind my work with pride), I spent the last four years doing a bunch of things that “seem” important for an acting career. I think you’ll agree that in this context, these activities were a waste of time and energy.
When I finally decided it was time to stop avoiding the real issue (the number of new headshots I was shooting was getting ridiculous), in October of 2019, I enrolled in a serious scene study class. This is when things started to change. I gave myself what I needed:
- I needed to be challenged;
- I needed to work on material that had meat on it;
- I need to fall in love with acting again, for acting’s sake. Not to count the number of gigs I didn’t book.
Since then, I’ve performed nine challenging scenes in class and strengthened my acting to a level I never even thought possible. This has given me such confidence that I made a commitment to stay in class until I performed 200 scenes. The simple math tells me that if my acting can improve so much up after merely 9 scenes, my acting will be the stuff of legend after 200. And I decided that this is the level of confidence with which I need to run my acting business.
What Is Holding You Back From Soaring in Your Acting Business?
Now I’ll ask you: what is the one thing that will change your career? Do you need:
- A great agent?
- A guest star role?
- A new demo reel that can really showcase your talent (instead of showing your casting type)?
- More training?
- Fixing anxiety issues?
- To attend casting director workshops to help you with your nerves?
- Get a part time job that will help you invest in your career more?
I hope this blog entry can help you quit all the useless things you are doing to “stay in business as an actor” and put energy into that one thing you really need to do to get to the next level, and don’t stop until you get it.
Be Honest With Yourself
Be honest with yourself, you know what the one thing is. Do yourself a favor and answer that call. Remember: Great things are never easy.
You’ve got this.
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). Feel free to check them out.
When people ask me if my husband is an actor, I always joke and say “No, I can’t be the stable one in the relationship,” but it’s true! I do believe there are a lot of advantages to dating people I call “civilians” (people with 9-to-5 jobs and careers).
Working as an actor can make for a rocky ride: the endless auditions (or lack thereof); the excitement that comes with booking a job; the depression that comes from losing one (you were perfect for); constantly changing (and canceling) plans at a moment’s notice; the physical and emotional demands; the agents that drop you; the new ones you sign with; the negotiation of contracts; the years of training; the breakthroughs; the regressions; dealing with unrewarding side jobs; the dry spells; the financial instability…
The ups and downs can be difficult for an actor’s significant other to keep up with.
Dating & Relationships Between Actors & Civilians
While some aspects of a relationship would seem easier for a couple with two actors in it, for the most part, there is a lot more potential for turmoil (like having two unstable incomes, the potential for significant time away from each other, career-envy, to name a few). Not that it’s all roses the other way.
If you are a civilian, especially one who doesn’t work in the film or TV industry, the prospect of dating an actor can be exciting. Acting is mysterious to most people which makes it intriguing. “How do they do it?” “Is it real or not?” “What is real, and what is not?” The world of acting is fascinating and generally fun to imagine. Initially, you may take pride: My better half is on TV, in the movies! That’s pretty sexy, right?
Until (here’s the record scratch) you realize your actor/actress partner may have to kiss other people on the job. They may have to embrace and pretend they are making love or having sex. They may even have to get naked in front of many people on set and be seen in these private ways by countless viewers on television and film. Before you can even make up your mind on what that means for you, you may think of your parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, roommates…What will they think?
Here I’d like to butt in (no pun intended) and say that there is no right or wrong way to think or feel about it. Some civilians will mind more than others and that doesn’t make any of them any better or worse than the next person.
These things are so very personal. For instance, my husband doesn’t like the idea of me getting undressed on set or having to kiss a pretend-husband. Other civilians may be more open to it. One partner is not better than the other; I certainly wouldn’t trade my husband for anyone in the world. For the record, I have dated people who were more open to it than he is and I still didn’t marry them.
A relationship has many aspects; the sum of its parts is more important that any one single aspect. And let’s face it, most civilians never even have to consider such issues. So for the civilians who are reading: cut yourself some slack if this topic makes you uneasy (actors should cut their civilian-significant-others some slack too).
For actors, there are a few important things to address:
- Being clear on where you stand;
- Helping your partner find out where he/she stands;
- Creating guidelines that will be respected from both parties in the relationship.
Here I will point out that the more prominent the role, the more likely the actor will have a love interest or a partner in a movie or show. In this case, it will be difficult to rule out the things real people do within the confines of relationships (kissing, hugging and having basic conjugal interactions).
Consider the Hard Questions – Before They Come Up
Also note that roles (especially in television) often evolve, and writers can’t necessarily predict where your character will end up. For instance, Aaron Paul was meant to guest star in three episodes of Breaking Bad, so was Damian Lewis in Homeland. These actors had great chemistry with their co-stars (Bryan Cranston and Claire Danes) and so the writers changed entire story lines around them.
On the flip side, if as an actor you’re more likely to play small roles (“actor” and “small principal” roles in Canada or “costars” in the US), or you work primarily in the commercial sector, you are less likely to be asked to have physical contact with other actors. Still, nothing is impossible; you may be asked to play a couple, to be in bed with someone, and so on.
So, as an actor, you must answer some hard questions:
- Will you accept jobs that require physical contact with others? If so, what about same sex contact
- Will you accept jobs that require you to get undressed? If so, are there any limits as to when you will or will not do so?
- How will your choices be communicated to your agent, manager, etc.?
Whatever your answers, I believe it is important, as an actor, to know why your choices are important to you. For example, I do not want to be restricted in my choices of roles because I view myself as both a piano and a piano player: I want to play all the notes on the piano.
It’s important for me to be able to play all types of roles, regardless of whether there is intimate physical interaction with other actors or not. That said, I am not comfortable with getting fully undressed and I would only do so for a director, screenplay and production company I absolutely love, respect, and trust.
I would have to believe in the project and feel that it was essential to the story. This is easy to communicate to my agent. When she asks me if I’m ok with nudity, my reply is a resounding No, BUT, that under certain very special circumstances, I might consider it. Since she’s represented me for years, she knows what that means, and she’ll only ever approach me with nudity if she feels the project meets my criteria.
Navigating Your Decisions with your Partner
Once you are clear about where you stand (as an actor), and you realize that you don’t want restrictions one the roles you’ll play, you should ask your civilian partner how they feel about your decision:
- Can they accept your decision to work on roles that require physical contact with others?
- Can they accept your decision to work on roles that require you to get undressed?
As you have these discussions, you and your partner may need some time to digest this information and answer these questions. If so, both partners should be patient and not force the issue. Here, remember that Time has a marvelous way of helping thoughts distill, so sometimes a talk that occurs over several days or weeks can yield more positive results than a one-time sit-down can.
If, as an actor you want freedom to accept all types of roles, but you feel some resistance from your partner, perhaps you can to ask them what they need to feel safe in the relationship:
- If they need control: Would your partner like to see you work in real time (in class perhaps?) so they can get a better sense of what it is you are doing exactly, and to get an idea of what physical contact looks like in real life?
- If they prefer letting go: Would they prefer not to know any details about what goes on set and/or in class? If so, should they be warned before a production airs that you have some scenes they won’t like?
- How will you discuss this topic going forward?
A good rule of thumb is to explain:
- A little bit about your process as an actor (what is real, what is not);
- Why accepting certain types of jobs is important to you, or not;
- How you plan on communicating in the future when certain jobs come up.
Whatever the situation, you are not wrong for wanting, or not wanting physical contact with other actors, or for being comfortable or uncomfortable getting undressed on set. No one should judge you for your decisions, and neither should you. You are an artist, so whatever your decisions are, own them.
As the civilian partner, you are not wrong either for not wanting your partner to have physical contact with other actors, or for not being comfortable with them getting undressed on set. No one should judge you for how you feel, and neither should you. You feel how you feel, so own it.
Lastly if you both cannot reconcile your preferences in your relationship, you will both have to decide if your partner’s views and choices are a deal breaker, and why. Again, there is no right or wrong answer here, just the one you can both live with without resentment for each other.
Conclusion: Finding a Peaceful Resolution
As I mentioned earlier, my husband doesn’t like the idea of me having intimate physical contact with other actors (or of getting undressed) but it’s not a deal breaker for him. He knows how hard I work at my craft and how I feel about it and accepts my decisions as a part of who I am. In essence he supports my decisions.
That said, he prefers not knowing any details until a production airs or a show goes live. As a rule, I do not let him know what goes on in rehearsal or on set.
As far as knowing when to discuss this, there is no wrong time. If you became an actor before you met, you can certainly discuss this topic as you begin dating. It is not a fun topic, but it will start the relationship on the right foot, since you will both have to be honest about your thoughts and feelings.
If you start acting after being in the relationship, then discuss it when this topic comes up for you or even before, if it’s something that you’ve been thinking about.
Either way, this conversation has the potential to strengthen your relationship, so go for it!
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). Feel free to check them out.
In Los Angeles and beyond, all productions, on-camera auditions and in-person classes have ceased. Yes – this predicament we are in royally sucks.
That said, this makes for a great time to stay connected to our passion. What better way to do that than by curling up and reading a great acting book? It’s certainly better than reading anxiety-inducing news.
Either way, every once in a while it’s refreshing to read a great book about acting. Like any good book, we can read them at different times in our lives, at different ages, and glean different things from them.
Classic Books About Acting
Some of these books made me want to act, others have been memorable workbooks and yet others are great history books. These acting books all inspired me in one way or another and have taught me about my own acting process.
- The Fervent Years, by Harold Clurman
- An Actor Prepares, by Konstantin Stanislavski
- Respect for Acting, by Uta Hagen
- The Art of Acting, by Stella Adler
- A Dream of Passion, by Lee Strasberg
- On the Technique of Acting, by Michael Chekhov
- Sanford Meisner on Acting, by Sanford Meisner
- True & False, by David Mamet
- Improvisation for the Theater, by Viola Spolin
- Towards a Poor Theater, Jerzy Grotowski
The New Acting Books
I love modern books as well, because acting and teaching have evolved so much.
My personal favorite is written by my teacher at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Allen Barton. Not only is it a great history book (the school’s founder, Milton Katselas ran legendary classes and is a colorful character to say the least), but the writer is also a grounded, no-nonsense person whose approach to studying and working in Los Angeles is simple, clean, pragmatic and healthy.
Even beyond the Coronavirus, as actors we sometimes forget that we had a fire burning underneath us when we started. This fire may have gone out, or it might only burn embers. Why not read a great book about acting to reignite the flame? Perhaps it will inspire you to write and shoot a great part for yourself, push you towards more challenging material in class, or even get you enrolled in a class (once life resumes).
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).
Life as an actor is hard enough – you don’t need an incompetent or mean acting teacher to make it worse.
As someone who didn’t attend formal acting training, I’ve always had to be on the lookout for a great acting school/teacher. Even though I work full time (primarily in the voice over sector these days) I’m also always training.
Why I’m Always Training
- Like any artist I need to practice often (professional musicians practice for 4-8 hours a day);
- Acting can’t be done alone;
- I must make sure I’m ready for whatever comes my way (Los Angeles can turn on a dime);
- I want to keep growing.
Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of painful experiences in classes taught by temperamental/guru-type teachers, but I’ve also found some wholesome ones who helped me surpass myself in ways I never thought possible. By continuing to pursue training as an actor, I’ve had to find teachers who are competent, kind, and can help me grow by challenging me in effective ways.
Since there is no shortage of acting schools (and since quantity doesn’t mean quality), my aim is to help you sort through local schools and teachers so you can find the one that is best for you. (If you’re more interested in comedy training, read my blog about the comedy scene and schools in Los Angeles as I’ve taken classes at most improv schools in Los Angeles).
Beware of Great Marketing
Los Angeles is a mecca for actors, which means there are many, many acting schools. Each and every one of these schools is fighting for a piece of the market. The aim of course is to turn as many actors as possible into loyal clients and students.
To lure prospective students, many schools are primarily adept at marketing. For instance, you’ll often hear that schools and teachers have taught “famous person X” often insinuating that this school’s special brand of teaching-magic will rub off on you too, or that you’ll make better contacts in that class than in another.
To make matters worse, there are a zillion classes, intensives and workshops that teach a zillion aspects of the industry. While you may (or may not) need these types of training, the key is to find a competent teacher who teaches constructively (as opposed to destructively).
To find out the classes you should really consider taking in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles, Part I
Old School vs New School Training
If you study acting autonomously (outside of a college or university program) you’ll inevitably encounter Old School teaching methods. These are great techniques to start building the skills necessary to perform in a consistent and reliable way.
Old School curriculums generally include some aspect of “The Method” aggregated by Stanislavsky. These components of the method were disseminated by American teachers of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s who were either taught by him or influenced by him. These teachers include:
Most of these teachers had their own schools and their techniques are still referred to in most acting classes today.
Some of the students of these schools, particularly the Meisner and Strasberg ones, who might be in their 60s+ today have become teachers in their own right. Many of them (not all) have an almost religious view to the way acting should be taught, practiced and even experienced (the Old School way of their own teachers).
That doesn’t mean actors can’t develop excellent skills by learning with these teachers (I certainly have), but it does mean some aspects of studying with those teachers can feel a bit, shall we say, limited to certain beliefs or styles.
The New School is really just the unencumbered permission of mixing aspects of The Method altogether and using whatever other tools exist. Here David Mamet and William H Macy’s school (Atlantic Theater School) comes to mind as well as many schools in Los Angeles that focus on certain specific elements like cold reading (Meindl), psychology-based acting (Warner Loughlin), or even improvisation-based training which stems from the work of Viola Spolin and include the improv schools we know of today (UCB, Groundlings, Second City). For more about Improv training in Los Angeles, read my Comedy training blog.
Some classes in Los Angeles don’t really even teach technique. For instance, where I study, in the Advanced Scene Study class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, our main purpose is to present finished theater scenes to the best of our ability and to see what works and what doesn’t. As students, we have either learned techniques elsewhere or are creating our own special brew. The school’s primary focus is: “Are we (as actors, directors, and writers) telling the story in a way that is engaging to the audience?”
What is a Good School?
Whatever school you attend, it will come down to:
- How you like what is being taught (and this can include the schools’ acting technique, approach or philosophy about acting);
- How it is being taught (by empowering students, or denigrating them); and
- How you connect with the teacher.
Some good questions to ask yourself initially are:
- Do you trust the teacher?
- Do you respect them?
- Are you simply impressed with them because you know they have worked with someone famous?
- Or are you simply there because someone famous referred them to you?
What is a Good Teacher?
A good teacher is someone who will challenge you professionally. It is also someone you can be open with about what you feel are obstacles to the kind of work you want to be doing. Ideally, this person can point you in the right direction either with acting material (good scenes to work on) or advice.
That said, the bulk of your exchanges should be related to the betterment of your acting skills. While this can be personal (i.e. I have trouble allowing myself to be emotional in my life so I’m finding it difficult on stage) a good teacher is not your shrink, and neither should they try to be. Nor are they someone you would be inclined to attempt to fool.
You should have enough respect for them (and for yourself) to avoid excuses like: “I was distracted during the scene or exercise because I got bad news today” or “I was late because there was traffic and I couldn’t find parking.” You should be as professional with a teacher (and your classmates for that matter) as you would with your peers outside of school. In Los Angeles you never know who is watching you. A classmate, teacher, technician, may be writing or casting a part that is perfect for you, but if your demeanor isn’t professional, they may think twice about getting you involved.
The right teacher is as professional as you are, if not more. They act in ways that are of service to their students. To be clear, they should never be:
- In need of an invisible pedestal to stand on;
The point of going to class is to learn and hopefully grow, not to accommodate poorly adjusted individuals who may, or may not, name drop at every occasion. You aren’t an actor so that you can have a full-time job acting like the perfect disciple of a megalomaniac (you aren’t permanently cast in a production of Stalin or Saddam).
You also aren’t an actor so that you can support someone who has no business teaching (some casting directors fit this bill). And yes, there are plenty of such individuals who teach and/or run schools in Los Angeles.
Audit an Acting Class
The best thing you can do before joining a school in Los Angeles is to audit a class. When auditing, pay attention to the teacher. Are they:
- On time?
- Giving constructive comments to every student?
- Talking about an event that did not happen in class for more than five minutes?
- Talking about a celebrity for more than five minutes?
- Getting overly personal with the students?
- Would you invite your friends and family to listen to this teacher?
If your answer is no to most of these questions, then you would do well to move on, no matter how hot you think this class is. Furthermore, if you notice destructive behavior from the teacher, don’t walk out, run out of that class. You will simply learn more and grow more (and in a healthier way) elsewhere.
There are thousands of psychology books that can explain why that is. Also, remember that people move in like-minded circles. For instance, my favorite (and most professional teachers) had the best students I could imagine working with. Most of my actor friends come from those classes. Here’s another observation: I never really made friends with the students from the classes I attended that were taught by guru-type teachers.
On the flip side, beware of schools that don’t permit auditing. What are they hiding? A school should be proud of their work and of their students’ work, and they should want to share their beautiful work with the world and especially with prospective students. Period.
Acting School List
To help you in your search, here is a small list of recognized schools that appear on many Los Angeles actors resumes:
Do your due diligence and take your time when selecting a school, as you will likely make a sizable investment there for a few years. Considering that classes range from $250 to $600/month, it is best to choose judiciously.
I encourage you to seek teachers who will challenge you in a supportive way. Ultimately, you should want to go to class. Participating and attending should be a demanding yet fulfilling experience.
It is better to audit for a couple of months and find the right fit than go somewhere because [insert name of cool person, friend person, famous person] goes there. The wrong school can hurt both your soul and your wallet.
For more about Acting in Los Angeles, go to my website and browse my e-book collection.
If you’re like me, you love acting and you couldn’t imagine doing any other job, but you aren’t where you feel you could be. In other words, we aren’t getting hired enough.
Let’s break down the main aspects that have an impact on our bottom line.
For some of us, not being where we could be revolves around the talent department. Speaking for myself, there are some actors I look up to, and I’m not quite at their level yet. I know I will get there, but I do need more time in class.
For others (again like me), we just can’t seem to hack the business aspect. Its mushy, annoying, and we’d rather focus on our craft because we feel we have more control there. Unfortunately, getting good at business is crucial in Los Angeles, especially for those of us who moved here beyond the age of sixteen because there is so much competition here.
It is so daunting here that I wrote an e-book titled: Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business Of Acting in which I go over every aspect of the business and how to handle them the L.A. way.
Interestingly, this business part took care of itself in the small city I am from (Montreal, Quebec, Canada). I started acting young, was professional, and people knew me (and what I could do), so maintaining relationships sort of happened on its own there. In Los Angeles, it’s a whole other ballgame.
For others yet (hello again), we have a tendency to quit too early. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit acting….
Since I have ample experience in all three of these sectors, let’s take a deeper dive into what I call the Acting Triangle. The essential ingredients are at the angled tips and connect to one another.
ACTING CAREER TRIANGLE
Many people in the industry have similar thoughts by the way, so this is nothing new, but it is all about the way information hits you. My goal is always to convey information in a way that will propel you (and me) to take action.
In the voice over sector, getting hired is usually the culmination of training, marketing and patience. But I much prefer Talent, Relationships and Perseverance for tackling acting.
Let’s address each element on the triangle.
What is Acting Talent Anyway?
The dictionary defines talent as: Natural aptitude or skill.
We haven’t even started yet and there’s already a trap waiting for us!
Strictly abiding by this definition is problematic because, taken literally, talent can seem static and innate. This definition is even more problematic because, as humans, we love sensational stories. Such tales inspire and amaze us, and we are drawn to them. For instance, when we refer to talent, we usually think of those who seem to have an extraordinary amount of natural aptitude (say, Michael Jackson). We often ignore the years of training required to develop talent and the skills we need to ride that talent. For more about our skewed tendency towards artists, athletes and geniuses with natural abilities, read Freakonomics.
The point I am trying to make here, is that talent is by no means static or limited. Like intelligence (and any ability really), we can stretch it, grow it, and develop more of it (read Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book Mindset for more about this important topic). Her book explains that to develop any ability, hard work and persistence are required. Luckily for aspiring actors, acting training is hard work but it can be a lot of fun.
For actors, the equation to grow talent looks like this:
Serious theater training (preferably continuous).
Exposure to auditions (or audition training) on a regular basis.
Performing in front of a live audience on a regular basis.
Here, I would add that having a Growth Mindset is important as well (again, Carol Dweck’s book will help you). If, instead, you strongly believe you have a limited amount of talent (you have a Fixed Mindset), the road ahead will be tough. I should know because I had this mindset until a few years ago, and it really did prevent me from doing the kind of acting I can do so seamlessly today.
With a Fixed Mindset, we are focused on proving our “limited” abilities (to ourselves and others) instead of stretching our talent and acquiring new skills. We are looking for approval. We essentially stop any growth from happening because we aren’t taking any real risks. Why? For the same reason prodigies don’t become masters: taking risks could reveal we don’t have as much talent as we thought. Result? We often quit before we even start getting our hands dirty.
When we work on the equation to grow talent (and combine it to a Growth Mindset) for a many, many years on end, we inevitably come out stronger and more talented at the other end. It is simply inevitable.
Pick a Great School
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I quickly made phone calls to some working actors I knew to find out what schools and teachers they recommended. While I was lucky the referrals I received were good, an even better way to go about it is to audit several classes before making a choice. Read my blog post about finding a good teacher in Los Angeles.
Whatever you do, take your training seriously. You can’t do acting alone and you have to say on top of it. Your competition is staying on top of it. Why give them an edge over you?
Get That Audition Practice
If you need more exposure to auditions, you can:
- Take audition classes;
- Practice with your friends (make it a weekly exercise for better results);
- Participate in casting director workshops;
- Audition for jobs that are open to the general public on:
I personally had to work on this because I can get debilitatingly nervous at auditions. My legs can shake uncontrollably and it’s just no fun knowing I’m not relaxed enough to give as good a performance I know I can give. As a by-product of seeing a therapist, I eventually came to understand that I had developed generalized anxiety(common for actors) and a that I have a tendency for social anxiety. This type of anxiety specifically manifests when performing in front of others. Many people who fear public speaking have social anxiety.
The only cure for this ailment? Exposure. In other words, you’ll need to get yourself in front of an audience, over and over again to get rid of it. The tricky part is that you can’t stop; if you stop exposing yourself the anxiety will likely creep up again.
Here are ways to expose yourself:
- Joining a theater group or class;
- Joining an improv group (train in improv);
- If you like doing stand-up comedy you could go to open mics (or study it);
- Join a Toastmasters group (this is almost free and it’s what I did for a long time).
Whether you pay for these activities or not is irrelevant, so long as you can do them regularly.
Do You Know Who I Am? -Relationships
“If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, take a friend.” African proverb.
Your Contacts Have The Goods
Before thinking you don’t have any, I’d like to point out that whether we realize it or not, when we are out in the world working on shows, auditioning, filming material, and taking classes, we are developing professional relationships with teachers, directors, classmates, peers, casting directors, writers, directors, agents and managers. Many people in this network have the potential to help us get hired.
From now on, keep a list of those people and watch it grow. The next step is to find reasons to reach out to them from time to time.
When To Reach Out To Your Network
Here are a few things you can reach out to your peers about:
- After you book a job through a casting director;
- After you audition for a casting director;
- A show you are in that’s airing or hitting the stage somewhere;
- New footage or project you are working on;
- An industry event you will be attending (if you are attending a premiere, perhaps you’d like to invite someone from your list?);
- An event or video or audio materials relating to a special skill of yours that is complementary to acting (say you do martial arts, are a dancer or a musician);
- An update about your career training (say you are working on a unique skill);
If you manage to reach out regularly, you will stay fresh in the minds of those who can open doors for you (directly or indirectly) for all the right reasons.
Time is a Great Friend
If you start acting professionally in your youth, you will likely find that in a few years’ time, the same people who supported you then, will support you later. This is because we tend to build significant relationships early on in life. This is not exclusive to acting. Some of my biggest clients in the voice over sector have known me since my early twenties and still hire me today. I myself still hire other voice actors I’ve known since then.
If, like me, you get to Los Angeles beyond your teens, you will have to work a little harder to create and maintain a new network. You will have to expose yourself consistently and for long periods. Why? Because in the end, we always go back to what we know, and if you are a part of someone’s circle, you will be what they know. It’s really as simple as that.
Staying Busy Gives You a Reason To Stay Connected
Beyond this, your agent, manager and the few casting directors you meet when you first arrive should always be under the impression that you are perfecting your craft. This doesn’t mean that you need to continually book professional TV or film work, especially if you don’t get that many auditions. You should however be busy performing consistently and let them know you are doing so. When you perform in shows that are open to the public, invite them. When you film new material, send it to them. If you are not doing these things, get busy doing them. This is the best excuse for staying in touch with those who can support you.
Your contacts may not always turn up to your shows and look at your links, but if they see that you are continually active, they will be much more inclined to invest in you long-term. This is especially true if they can witness a growth in you over time.
A Passion for Acting
Keep in mind that casting directors, agents and managers are not that different from you; they’re passionate about acting. They love actors and working with artists who continually push themselves. This not only reassures them that you will be worth calling in for auditions (and that you can do the job if you get it), it makes you worth fighting for. This is why they want to be surrounded with actors who are as excited about acting as they are about finding them and supporting them. They thrive off actors’ successes. Believe it or not, this what gives them a sense of purpose and makes them excited about their jobs.
An Actor Perseveres
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit acting and swore I was over it. Not only was I lying to myself, I slowed my own growth to a snail’s pace!
Let’s go back to the dictionary for the definition of perseverance: Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Canadian comedian Mike Myers once confided to James Lipton (during an Actors Studio episode) that if he based career decisions on the number of rejections he’d gotten, he would have quit a long time ago.
To make sure you give the Los Angeles market a fair shot, having a five-year plan is what I would call fair. If you are continually focused on the Talent aspect and on the Relationships aspect but don’t stick it out long enough, you will not have persevered, and the triangle will crumble.
If you are hitting a wall, get back to that Mindset book I spoke of earlier and read this blog entry about getting back to Acting basics. Are you sure you are really giving yourself a chance? Or are you just giving up developing an important skill?
Take a Chill Pill
When the going gets tough (if you are human, it will) and you need a break from it all, remember that one of the most effective ways out of mental or emotional slumber is to take action (the root of which is the word act).
For me, that has meant creating a workout routine I can sustain (check), trying to do a handstand without leaning on a wall (I have to get back on that), swinging in the park from time to time (check), beating my husband at Chess (not working out, but I’m not done trying), snowboarding (check), writing (check), directing (check) and producing my own content (check).
To recap, here are some things you can do:
- Start a new hobby;
- Create content;
- Re-connect with loved ones;
- Spend more time outdoors;
- Take a different type of training;
- Go to SAG events and classes;
- Join a support group;
- Get a therapist.
Damn, This Isn’t Working Out
Yes, there is always the possibility that making a living with acting doesn’t work out. Sometimes, even if we do all the right things, things don’t work out. This is not just true of acting. This is true of any field. Name me one profession that guarantees reward. It doesn’t exist. You can be an unemployed electrician just as much as you can be an unemployed actor. Just because we can play music, doesn’t mean we will be a rock star. Why some people appeal to an entire era or culture can’t be entirely dissected and understood. It’s part of the mystery of life.
Just remember that when one door closes, another one opens. But please, don’t close it before at least five years. I would even encourage you to give it ten. That’s what I’m doing.
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 re-locating here (or have recently re-located). Feel free to check them out on my website.
What’s not to love about laughing, being funny or about learning how to be funnier? I always say that one of my favorite sports is laughing, which is why I’ve taken many Improv classes (more about that later) and gone out to see loads of stand-up comedy. It takes the edge off and it’s one of the best remedies for the soul. And while Los Angeles is tough on actors, and on comedians for that matter, it sure has plenty of laughs to offer.
If you are a newly landed Canadian, British or Australian actor with a knack for comedy, or if you are curious about tapping into your own comedic talents, you’ll be happy to know that your new home (Los Angeles) is one of the best markets in which to explore comedy.
Los Angeles comedy clubs are bursting with activity and it’s surprisingly affordable to see a great show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to a comedy club and laughed my butt off for $20 for an entire night! You’ll have to buy water instead of drinks to stick to a budget, but I promise you’ll be plenty entertained.
What’s also pretty cool is that well-known comedians will stop by random venues to practice new material on a regular basis: I’ve seen Ali Wong, Dave Chapelle, Arsenio Hall, John Mulvaney, and many more pop up and perform an impromptu set in the tiniest of venues and on any random night. How cool is that?
Check Out Improv Shows & Training
All Improv schools in Los Angeles (see examples below) offer excellent and affordable comedy shows that can be seen on any night of the week.
As far as training goes, most schools have classes that are open to the public, as well as classes that can only be attended by auditioning (what schools refer to as their “core” programs). Most core programs consist of four or five levels, and their terms (levels) consist of eight classes spread over four or eight weeks. Most schools offer multi-day intensives as well. Since core programs involve auditioning to get in, as well as “passing” levels before moving up to other levels, Improv can be a pretty competitive sport. Also, the core programs in all schools lead to a sketch writing program. Here are the most renowned improv schools:
The Groundlings is considered the “Harvard” of Improv comedy. I’ve enrolled there myself and even Level I was a serious challenge. They are heavily focused on character creation and it did feel competitive from the get-go since you can only make it to the next level (Level II) if you show proficiency with their curriculum in Level I. I didn’t make it to Level II, but it sure was a hoot watching people in class. There are some incredibly talented individuals trying Improv at the Groundlings.
Unfortunately, there are only a couple classes you can attend without auditioning. They are fun but they provide very limited exposure to Improv and to their school. If you are serious about taking classes there, you’ll have to audition.
Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) has more of a “street-kid” vibe but offers a well structured program nonetheless. I did notice that, overall, the students were slightly younger than at Groundlings (though there were still a couple oldies like me). No auditions are required to take the first level of classes, but students must be invited to move on to two more advanced levels. This school grew out of an Improv group in which Amy Poehler was a member.
I really enjoyed Level I there, probably because it felt more relaxed than Groundlings since we all knew we were moving on to Level II regardless of our individual proficiency levels. I also like that they trust their students enough to throw them in the ring right away; we had to do a live show at the end of our first term. Sure, it was nerve racking (I didn’t think I had the skills to pull it off) but it was a healthy kind of scary, and our group did well. I personally got a lot of confidence out of the experience.
Second City is my personal favorite. The school has a small branch in Los Angeles and students tend to be of all ages. What I love about this school is that they have many, many classes available to the public. In other words, there are many classes you can attend without auditioning and without needing to “pass” the levels before moving up (you still have to do classes in a certain order). I’m a slow learner, so I even took one of their levels twice without even worrying about it, so that was a big bonus for me (and I still got to participate in shows). That said, those public classes seem a little less structured than Groundlings and UCB classes. Having taken a few classes at SC, I would say that the quality of classes really depend on the teacher.
Still, there are many excellent classes including Musical Improv, which is a riot if you are musically inclined (and you don’t even need to play an instrument).
One musical show produced by Second City alumni that is worthy of note for Canadians is Canuck as Fuck. Just brilliant. Aside from being thoroughly entertained, Canadians will feel more at home knowing plenty of other Candians roam the streets of Los Angeles and produce great shows.
Beyond these schools, there are many smaller schools that run comedy sports and that are open to the public.
If you are new to Los Angeles, Improv classes are great places to make new friends. I found it common for students of classes that really gelled together to stay in touch after the terms were over. Some groups even manage to get together to practice their skills. So, if you are serious, you can certainly find a comedy gang to practice with. And if you are into creating comedic content, Improv is a pretty great way to find inspiration.
As far as how much acting work you can get once you have solid Improv training, I am of the opinion that to be a working actor in Los Angeles, you should study acting pretty seriously (theater training is ideal). Improv is great, but you may be limited in your overall skills if that’s all you can do.
That said, it is common practice these days to call upon Improv school alumni to attend commercial auditions, and it’s hard to deny the benefit of strong comedic skills in that kind of environment. If you are trained in Improv, and once you are doing more advanced Improv shows, you can certainly invite commercial agents to see your shows. Why not?
To learn more about Acting in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting.
Enjoy Great Stand Up Comedy
The Improv, The Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory are the stand-up comedy staples, but you can see excellent shows at all the Improv schools theaters as well.
Note that The Laugh Factory is quite a bit more expensive than other venues and given that the same comedians perform at all the venues, this jump in price rarely feels warranted.
If you don’t mind driving a few extra miles, the Comedy & Magic Club, Virgil, Dynasty Typewriter, Flappers, Ice House, Comedy Union, Tao Comedy Studio, and West Side Comedy Theater all have excellent lineups as well, and most have been a comedy home to celebrities at some point, and may even still be.
While many venues enforce a two drink minimum (beyond the entrance fee), bottled water counts for a drink, so you don’t have to spend a ton of money to familiarize yourself with the scene, have a good laugh, and find inspiration for your own material.
Try Stand Up Comedy
If you want to perform stand-up in a club, get ready to fill some seats (unless you are very well known). Unfortunately, for beginners, the scene is less about the quality of your act than it is about the number of people you can bring to your show, every single time you perform. If you bring many people, you will also get a better time slot on the nights you perform. If you don’t fill many seats during your shows, you’ll have difficulty getting on a bill anywhere.
Note that most comedy shows are produced by other comedians who are trying to expose their own material to your audience (and vice versa), this can make it extremely competitive. I’ve followed a few of my friend’s careers and stand-up in Los Angeles is a very tough business. It takes a steely determination and an army of friends to continually support you.
Test Your Skills at Open Mics (If You Dare!)
If you wanted to test your stand-up skills and materials, there is an Open Mic somewhere in Los Angeles every night of the week for you. To find them, take a look at this map.
Keep in mind that on Open Mic night, rooms are usually populated with other comics. While you won’t be building an audience there (not directly anyway), you could meet other comics who run their own comedy nights elsewhere. As we’ve discussed, most comedians who run their own nights are primarily interested in recruiting comedians who can bring in a crowd. In the end, comedy hosts and producers need to fill the seats of the venues they host their shows at. This is the only way these venues will allow them to return and host more comedy nights.
You can certainly go to Open Mics by yourself, but having friends support you on the nights you are performing may help you get on good comedy shows.
Find a Comedy Coach
As far as stand up comedy training, there are many coaches in Los Angeles who can help you home in on your material and style. Here are a few names to get your started:
As with any acting school, ask if you can audit. If you can’t, make sure you feel a connection to the coach you are working with. Comedy is subjective, so you’ll want someone who gets you and supports you.
Regardless of whether you are mildly interested or fully determined to make comedy part of your career, you won’t regret trying any or all of these suggestions. You can:
- See Improv shows produced by Improv schools;
- Enjoy affordable and excellent stand up comedy;
- Find an open mic that appeals to you; and if you’re game,
- Find a comedy coach
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).
I think all of us can agree that one of the small pleasures of going through the grind of auditioning is hearing back from casting. I love going to an audition and getting a phone call from my agent telling me I’ve been pinned. It always makes me feel like I did something right, even when I might not have been so sure when I was in the room.
So perhaps you went to the audition, rocked it and now your agent has let you know you are pinned. What does it mean, exactly, to be “pinned”? Can you go to other auditions? What if other productions end up wanting to book you?
The first thing to know is that you might get the part (cheers to that!) Someone in casting saw your potential. So give yourself a hug, it’s well deserved! After all, it’s these little moments that help keep our momentum.
As far as actually going from being pinned to booking the job, everyone is different. To date, around fifty percent of my own pins have turned into bookings. I’d still take a pin over not a pin, because pins mean we are top of mind with casting. They are also an opportunity to send a thank you note to casting for seeing you and trusting you.
For more about the business of Acting in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting.
Also, actors who deserve a pin are usually worth seeing again, so you may get to visit that office again soon. That’s another win.
That said, there is no contract (yet). You have not been booked – and hence, you must act accordingly. In fact, there is usually more than one actor pinned to a role (probably two, maybe three).
The bottom line is this: until they actually book you, you should not withhold business activities. Instead, you should remain available to other productions who might hire you.
To answer your questions in more depth, here is an excerpt of a SAG-AFTRA theatrical and television memorandum (page 26) that was sent out in 2017 and is currently in effect:
“During the 2017 negotiations, the parties discussed the casting practice commonly known as ‘pinning’ by which a Producer expresses interest in a performer for a certain date or dates, but does not actually engage the performer.
“This is a reminder that ‘pinning,’ or any other similar term that refers to an expression of interest without actually engaging the performer, does not create a binding commitment between the performer and the Producer. A performer who has been ‘pinned’ for certain dates is free to accept other employment for those dates.
“The Producer may request that the performer notify the Producer that he or she is no longer available in the event that performer accepts other employment for dates for which he or she is ‘pinned.’ The Producer may also contact a performer from time to time to discuss his or her availability for dates for which he or she is ‘pinned.’ Nothing herein shall give the Producer the ability to preempt other employment opportunities for a performer that has been ‘pinned,’ but not engaged.
“Retaliating or threatening to retaliate against a performer by refusing to consider the performer for future roles because he or she becomes unavailable for dates for which he or she was ‘pinned’ -but not engaged- is expressly prohibited.
“To comply with the parties’ agreement, please ensure that a copy of this bulletin is distributed to your company’s Casting Executives and Casting Directors as soon as practicable, and is included in any casting policies issued to Casting Directors.”
Obviously, there is no real way to find out if a casting office or producer will retaliate if you become unavailable while pinned, but reputable ones simply wouldn’t.
In summary: great – you’ve been pinned: live your life, and let the pieces fall where they may.
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).
When I applied for my own visa, I had some decisions to make. Which visa was I going for? Which one could I go for?
You have a dream to move from Canada, England, Australia, or France (or elsewhere) and work as an actor in Los Angeles as well. But do you have what it takes to get the visa you want? Which visa do you want?
Before moving on, I think we can all agree that it takes lemons to make lemonade. We’ll get back to that in a bit.
In the meantime, I’d like to say that unless an actual acting job or talent agency is bringing you into the United States by becoming your sponsor, it is crucial to think critically about immigrating to Los Angeles before plunging ahead.
As actors, we are using our imaginations on a daily basis. We imagine working on shows we love, in places we dream of…and often we wonder what would happen if we made the things we imagine real…
However, to make dreams real, we must start with what we have. If it takes lemons to make lemonade, then it takes certain kinds of achievements, and certain kinds of job offers to acquire certain visas.
If you fight this concept, you can make yourself vulnerable to predatory practices and unnecessary (but costly) hardship.
Start by Taking Stock
Start by assessing your financial situation and taking stock of your career achievements. Notice here that I am not referring to your talent. I know many extremely talented and hard working actors who don’t have notable career achievements on their resumes. The same is true of some musicians I know. It’s important to keep things straight here: talent and recognition aren’t mutually exclusive.
Watch Out for Vultures
In the case of moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting, know that actors’ passions for “making it big” has created a lucrative market for immigration practitioners who capitalize on actors’ eagerness to overlook hard data.
Regardless of whether immigration attorneys always have actors’ best interests at heart (I know quite a few who do and some others who clearly don’t), actors must be responsible for the actions they’ll take to make their dreams happen. Today’s dream can turn into tomorrow’s investment, and not all $5,000 or $10,000 investments are worthwhile (and some can end up costing way, way more).
I take no pleasure in writing that actors are often willing to skim over important aspects of reality in their excitement to pursue their lifelong passion.
I have been guilty of this too, especially early on in my career. In my voice over career I remember reaching out to studios and producers way before I really knew what I was doing. I burned some bridges because I exposed the fact that I wasn’t really ready to hit the market yet. Throwing the cart before the horse always backfires either financially, psychologically, or both, especially if the cart is massive and the horse just isn’t ready.
With experience, and having watched more than a few Canadian actors struggle financially because they had a visa that wasn’t suited to their circumstances, I have found that however unappealing it may seem, actually taking responsibility for our investments puts more chances on our side.
Look at it this way: lawyers, consultants, and online immigration services will all gladly take your money without presenting a realistic picture of what life will actually be like with the visa you seek.
To find out what life will be like with the visa you seek, I invite you to read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part II: American Work Visas.
Some Shady Practices to Avoid
If you don’t actually have legitimate employment offers (acting jobs) in the U.S, and you don’t have what it takes to get a green card, tread carefully.
If you hire an immigration lawyer who is charging you for providing a “fake” sponsor so that you can apply for an O-1B visa, there is a very (very) high probability that you will have a difficult time making headway in your career in the United States.
First of all, be aware that lawyers who take money in order to provide sponsors could easily be disbarred for such practices. Furthermore, most actors who participate in such practices are typically so fueled by their dreams that they willfully ignore the fact that they simply don’t have what it takes to get the visa they actually need. Again, I am not referring to your talent. I am referring to your resume. Those are two very different topics.
I would also like to point out that, so far, I haven’t met anyone who acquired their O-1 visa by paying for a sponsor that was able to support themselves with American acting work upon arrival. The ones I know who have survived an O-1 financially had a steady source of revenue back in their home country (from real estate, or other businesses), and to avoid having to re-apply for an O visa after it expired, some eventually married an American (with mixed results).
Theatrical Representation in Los Angeles
The biggest challenge you will run into if you acquire an O visa through paid sponsorship is finding reputable theatrical representation (film and television work). In Los Angeles, this is everything.
Agents typically stay away from actors with O-1’s, unless it is a blanket O-1 visa, or the O-1 comes with employment contracts from which they can immediately profit.
To learn more about blanket O-1 visa’s read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part II: American Work Visas.
While you may find your own auditions in Los Angeles, reputable networks and studios do not make their breakdowns available to the general public. This will make career advancement difficult since having certain types of television and film credits is often the only way for decision makers in the industry to determine whether an actor is capable or not.
To learn more about the business of Acting in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting.
These circumstances will make it challenging to find well-paying acting jobs, and you are likely to struggle financially, unless you have some sort of a financial net to support you.
Your Support Network
On the bright side, if you do have the means to live in Los Angeles independently, you will be able to stay in the United States and pursue acting in different ways.
For instance, you could work on student productions (there are promising writers and directors here) try stand-up comedy, and/or produce your own content (which is a brilliant idea. In fact, all actors, visa or not, who don’t work as much as they want should be creating content). And yes, it is absolutely possible to end up working that way, but it takes a special kind of someone. It takes moving mountains and loads of patience. Is that you? Pursuing traditional acting is already very challenging and this road is an even more difficult one to travel on.
Whatever you do, also keep in mind that your O-1B visa will expire and unless you are marrying an American, you will have to come up with new career achievements to put forward in your application. This process is incredibly taxing psychologically, no matter how solvent you are financially.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: if your career achievements do not warrant the right visa for your situation, making headway in the United States is not impossible, but you will be working counter current. In this case, you must be willing to tackle your dream like you would Mount Everest: with truck loads of focus and discipline, monumental determination, the right gear (psychological and otherwise) and ample resources (money).
So, ask yourself the following: just because you can get a visa, should you get one? Is it the right one for you? Here I urge you to make sure your lawyer isn’t the only one invested in you. In other words, their bottom line is not the only thing that should be going up in this equation…
While being challenged by a market as colossal as Los Angeles is inevitable, I believe there is a way to make the landing smoother and to pave the way for a sustainable experience.
Part of that is having a visa that will enable you to acquire great representation upon arrival.
My advice: do it right the first time. If you can’t get the right visa, it doesn’t mean you never will. It just means you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and get to work creating better circumstances for a stronger visa petition in the future.
To learn more about the various American work visas actors use to work in the United States, including broad O-1 visas and EB-1 visas read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part II: American Work Visas.
Dear Canadian Actor,
Working as an actor on two sides of the border is no cakewalk. I’ve gone through several accountants, spent countless hours online, have had many sleepless nights, and I’ve also had to make some pretty tough decisions about turning down work, and about how and when to exchange currencies.
You may also be working in Los Angeles, or you may be intending to do so. One topic you’ll find very few actors discussing is the impact an American work visa can have on Canadian finances, particularly if you work (or intend to) on both sides of the border.
This is a topic I go over in Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part III: Cross-Border Taxes.
In this short letter, I won’t discuss finances per say (though it’s a riveting topic), but rather how important your contribution to the American economy could be in your visa renewal process.
Working as an Actor in the U.S.
While there are various visas that performers can use to work legally in the United States, the most common ones actors use are the green card (EB-1) visa and the O-1B visa.
The EB-1 Visa
The employment-based green card, which is called an EB-1 visa, is an immigrant visa. This means that if you keep it long enough and don’t break the rules, you can eventually become an American citizen.
A green card isn’t simply a permit to work in the United States however. It is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. How so?
When you receive an EB-1 visa, you automatically become a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the United States. As such, you are expected to contribute to the American economy. How?
By getting hired in the United States, filing taxes there and creating economic ties with the United States. Note that this is not a written rule, but it is implied. In fact, if you leave the U.S. for more than six months, your LPR may be revoked. In other words, the green card isn’t just a get-in-free card, it has some strings attached.
One way to think about this is to reflect on the process of legal immigration as a whole: Why do countries do it? The single major benefit of bringing people in is to have them boost the country’s economy.
The O-1 Visa
The O-1B visa, commonly referred to as the O-1, does not provide a path to citizenship, nor does it grant permanent residency in the United States. Instead, it’s a non-immigrant visa which grants its beneficiary (the actor) the status of a temporary worker.
Even if this visa severely limits employment opportunities in the United States, the American Government is still looking for a return on their investment. Again, this is not a written rule, but like for legal residents, the government hopes you will do your part in contributing to the American economy.
So, when the time comes to apply for a new O-1B visa, the question of whether you’ve filed taxes in the United States could be taken into account. Note that since taxes and immigration are separate functions of government, numbers aren’t the priority. Have you filed, or have you not filed, is the question…
This isn’t necessarily the case for everyone with an O visa, you may be a visa holder to whom this doesn’t apply, but I have seen quite a few friends who lived in the U.S. full time on an O visa being advised to file taxes before applying for a new O-1.
This is definitely something you should discuss with your immigration lawyer and your accountant.
Whatever you do, always keep taxes in the back of your mind. And if you work on both sides of the border regularly, consult a cross-border certified public accountant (CPA) or a cross-border enrolled agent to get a clear understanding of your filing options every year, and especially as your visa gets closer to expiring.
For a more in-depth look at cross-border taxes, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part III: Cross-Border Taxes.
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.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I wanted to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. Now that I look back, I don’t think there was ever any doubt in my mind that it would happen. I’m not saying it was easy, or even straightforward; but I always had a plan in my back pocket – convincing me that it was only a matter of when (and not if).
Making that dream happen took me much longer than I anticipated (I was in my mid thirties when I finally moved to Los Angeles). I worked at it, and I was lucky enough for it to work out in a way I could sustain myself for a long time without worrying about how long it would take for me to “make it.”
Since I was always writing and performing monologues for my family from a young age, my mother had convinced me I would be an actress. I always imagined I would be doing that same thing in Los Angeles, the capital of acting.
If, like me, you are a professional actor from Canada, England, Australia or elsewhere with big dreams, a strong drive and an appetite for new experiences, you may catch yourself wondering about acting in Los Angeles (or New York) from time to time. Or perhaps acting in the U.S. is something you always knew you would pursue.
If you’d like to know more about working as an actor in Los Angeles, I’ve created a four part e-book series that outlines some things to consider about the business of acting in Los Angeles, about American Work Visas for Canadian actors, about the ins and outs of working in two countries from a financial perspective, and I’ve also written a book to help you with the actually relocating to Los Angeles (importing cars, deciding on a neighborhood to live, exchanging currencies, etc.).
These e-books will give you a sense of what it takes to make the transition, things to keep in mind in order to survive in Los Angeles, and a few tools to help you get by. To give you a taste, here is a glimpse of the topics discussed in the e-books. In this article we will discuss:
- Your career;
- The entertainment industry in Los Angeles;
- Moving, and staying.
Your Career: How’s Business?
To eventually move to Los Angeles, you must be in the right position. First, take stock of your achievements so far, as objectively as possible. If you have many recognizable film, television, or video game credits to your name, you may be in a good position.
In addition to this, if you have won awards, been an expert on an industry panel or a jury for an award organization, you have potential. If your face is on billboards, or there’s been significant press about you, you’re in a great position.
Before making a move to Los Angeles, you have to be clear about where you stand in your own career, in your home country. I’m not saying you have to be ultra famous, but there should be some buzz about you, in some way. That’s the stuff that can cross borders. Although taste can be a regional thing, if you have local success at home, there is greater potential for you to succeed elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. You’ll only find out about the power of your own desirability in your new market once you make the move. At this point, what you’re looking for is some evidence that you have traction in your field, at least on a national level (international is even better of course).
For instance, you may be an unknown video game actor, or a working actor whose been in many television shows and movies. If your professional peers always call you in, and you book jobs often, you may have what it takes to get a visa (whether or not you’ve been the lead in any project).
If you don’t meet this criteria, it’s not impossible to get a visa, but the probabilities are much higher that the visa will be very difficult to work with on the ground, making this a bad investment.
In this case, don’t despair. You probably need to strategize a little. Here are some questions to consider which could lead you towards the right visa for your situation.
- Can you create content that will give you an edge in your current market, or that can give you exposure to a large audience?
- Do you have hidden gifts you’ve always tossed to the side, but that deserve your attention?
- Where is your genius? Are you an amazing producer? Dancer? Singer?
Dig deep, and invest in what you find. Don’t worry about how long this takes. Your journey to becoming the artist or person you want to be is timeless.
This brings me to your finances.
How’s your bank account?
The next set of questions to answer are:
- Has acting (whether in video games, voice overs, television, film or theater) been lucrative for you?
- Do you have significant savings?
- Do you have a stream of revenue that is available to you, like a business or property income?
If you’re struggling to make ends meet in your home country, it will be difficult for you to support yourself in the United States long enough to make a dent in the industry. Paying for a petition (application) will also be challenging. Filing fees alone can cost a couple of thousand (American) dollars. This doesn’t include attorney fees which are between $5,000 and $10,000. If the attorney you hire is in the U.S. their fees will also be in American dollars.
And make no mistake about it, living in Los Angeles is expensive:
- One bedroom apartment in Los Angeles: $2500 USD (end of 2019)
- Cocktail in West Hollywood: $15 USD
- Beer in Hollywood: $8 USD
- One month of car insurance: $200+ USD
- One month of classes: $300+ USD
(As a side note, things may be cheaper Post Coronavirus!)
Then there’s the issue of working in two countries…
It turns out that many Canadians who move to Los Angeles need to go back to Canada often to keep money coming in (I certainly did in the early years). For others, getting a few decent gigs in Los Angeles can suddenly make them more appealing in their home country. One actress I met who was working on both sides of the border (as I was) said it best: “I have to live in Los Angeles to get good jobs in Canada.”
Regardless of the reasons you work in two countries, you’ll eventually have to deal with the concept of dual taxation. If you want to learn more about finances, read Acting In Los Angeles Part III: Cross-Border Taxes. Working in two countries is tricky. Also, having a visa has financial implications.
What’s Acting In Los Angeles Like?
If you’ve ever competed in a sport professionally, you’ll intuitively understand the following analogy. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics and rooted for an athlete, you’ll also get it:
Imagine you’re Canadian figure-skating team Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. You’re talented, disciplined, experienced and confident. But you haven’t won gold in a while and now there is a younger, more original, equally talented couple around the block: Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. You’ve practiced your choreography for an entire year. You can beat the competition in nationals in your sleep. But on the Olympic stage it’s a different story. A single hesitation, mis-step or scratch in the ice can make or break you. You don’t get to perform again if you flub a step, you can’t improvise if you lose your balance, and you certainly can’t save face after a wardrobe malfunction. And even though you’ve been at this since you were a child, you still have to go out, every Olympics and get the gold (not silver or bronze). This is the only way for you to stay relevant and bring home the bacon.
You do win gold (this time). But not because you’re necessarily the best (is there even such a thing?), but because someone else lost (they had a wardrobe malfunction).
This is life in Los Angeles, every, single, day. In one word, it’s Olympian. You’re either fighting Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir or Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron. In other words, your competition has either been around for a long time and can do no wrong, or they’re the most talented new darling that can whisk it all away in a heartbeat because you’re having a bad day.
For more about local industry practices, read Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting. To stay in top shape, you may want to take your acting training further.
Finding an Agent: Who do you Know?
Finding good representation in Hollywood is one of the most important aspects of transitioning. This is why knowing industry peers on the ground in Los Angeles before moving here can be so valuable. It’s like having your own personal success accelerator. If you’re young (or are a parent of a child actor who is ready for professional representation), search for theatrical representation agencies that have professional networks in the U.S in your own country.
In Canada, some Toronto and Vancouver agencies have relationships with peers in New York and Los Angeles. This is less likely in Montreal (though some connected managers do exist). Cities like London, Paris and Sidney will also have agencies with contacts or branches in Los Angeles.
The bottom line is this: If and when the time comes to make a jump, an agency with tentacles in the United States will make it much easier to succeed here. It will also feel less disorienting to work with people who are in the family, so to speak.
Moving to Los Angeles, and Staying.
Once you’ve got your visa and your ducks in a row, it’s time to find a new home. Importing belongings, building credit, exchanging currency, and knowing where to live are just some of the physical hurdles you’ll have to overcome. To relieve some of the stress associated with moving, read Acting In Los Angeles Part IV: Establishing A New Home. It will certainly give you a head start.
An even bigger aspect of moving is the emotional toll it can take, especially in the first year. Life beyond the initial excitement of re-locating can be taxing. Los Angeles can feel like a continuous test of “am I good enough, unique enough, funny enough, good looking enough, skinny enough, confident enough…?” I certainly suffered all of the above. There’s an important adjustment period, but once you figure out what you need to do to feel good in your new home, you’ll be happy you moved.
To top it all off, working in Los Angeles is incredibly demanding. There is no phoning it in, ever. As Gary Oldman said, “The phone call is often the best part of it. Your agent says, “They want you to play Hamlet at the Old Vic.” And you go, “Holy shit! Hamlet at the Old Vic! Wow! God! Fantastic!” Then you hang up and it’s “Fuck, I’m playing Hamlet.”
Some things that help to stay the course are:
- Some sort of emotional support network in the form of meaningful friendships, life partners and family members;
- Meditation practice (or some breathing techniques, I am a fan of Heart Coherence breathing techniques);
- Staying physically healthy;
- Taking part in activities that have nothing to do with acting;
- Having a creative outlet (other than acting).
Whatever you decide to do, you can prepare by reading about acting in Los Angeles. It’s a small investment into your big dream, and since that dream can quickly turn into a large investment, it’s a small price to pay to make the most of it.