The three ingredients of a great modern voice over artist
Since becoming a voice over artist, my conversations have changed. People seem to be worried about me sitting in a padded room all day...
Some wonder why I’m not in a Pixar movie yet. But more than anything else, people compliment me by saying I have a nice voice when I say what I do. I get it, this is partly grabbing onto something to say, but it also offers some insight into the what voice over means in the collective consciousness.
I love performing. Funny voices are nice, native-like accents are better, and bringing real characters to life is an absolute pleasure. I’ve always liked reading aloud, and I love helping things click for people by communicating well.
Isn’t that what voice over is? Sounding nice and being able to read well? It certainly helps, but that’s just one part of it. Maybe once upon a time you could have incredible pipes and parade your vocal cords onto the microphone and get work, but the rules of are different now.
In a world where everyone works from home and clients want to hear you in their spot within hours, a functioning home studio and knowledge of how to use it, is essential.
If you want to find and cultivate said clients, you need some mechanism for that, whether it’s social marketing, auditioning on casting sites, or another channel.
It seems clear then, that versatility is the name of the game, and I put much of my success in voice over down to this ability to straddle different skillsets.
To be simultaneously a performer, a technician, and an entrepreneur.
It’s hard to imagine voice over artists not starting from a desire to perform. Either you get told you have a nice voice, you loved being the narrator growing up, or you spend half your day in different accents for no particular reason.
The truth is: you want to express yourself creatively, and voice is your weapon of choice.
Whether you go down the formal coaching route, use a lot of self-serve resources, or consistently engage in deliberate practice, the concept of honing your craft is paramount. The phrasing is regrettably pretentious, but it’s simply about getting good.
Getting good means:
- Reading aloud articulately and having excellent pronunciation skills (diction).
- Reading aloud for long periods with minimal mistakes or loss of energy.
- Reading copy in a way that effectively achieves an objective, not just saying the words in any old way with any old emphasis.
- Reading words that aren’t yours and owning them.
- Adjusting your read to a completely different style on a whim.
- Doing all the above without having seen the script before.
To outside observers, voice over looks just like reading, particularly the less acting heavy, more informational genres. The reality though, is that even if you’re not embodying another character, very few people can do the above bullet points consistently and confidently.
Of course, other genres like video games and animation require far more straight up acting chops. You are deep inside a secondary reality representing something other than yourself, even sometimes at the expense of clear diction. You’re trying to make the listener feel something, not learn the answers for a quiz. What isn’t obvious, is that this also applies for corporate work.
If you’re doing an e-learning course where you’re supposed to be at a colleague-colleague level and you sound like you’re reading, it’s game over. Good voice over is more than just pronouncing words right and saying them in order. It needs to be believable. It needs to hit the script’s intention.
It’s about performing well.
With the way studio gear has come down in price and connectivity tech allowing for fast, global transfer of audio, it is now possible (and expected), to have a working home studio in nearly every case. This is a huge value add for clients, who get a VO talent, a fully equipped studio and a sound engineer for one session fee.
However, this takes a significant time and money investment. You need to understand software. You need to fork out money for hardware. You need to build a home studio space and a workflow so you can send professional auditions and finished projects within hours of receiving scripts.
Less and less work is localised. Voice over work is worldwide, and it’s needed by ad agencies, game developers, animation studios, audiobook publishers and production companies of all sizes. In order to serve these global needs, you need a home studio. And a home studio means being comfortable with tech.
This is not to say that we need to spend thousands of hours on our technical processes. In fact, the interesting thing about audio quality, is that once you reach a certain critical threshold of “good enough”, additional spend gives very limited incremental benefit. You need to have an echoless space. You need to have a quiet space. You need to have a decent XLR mic. After that, most of it is extra.
Having top of the line headphones or Rokit monitors or a Neumann u87 is going to be the final 5-10% difference. That’s not to say it isn’t worth it. I love all my gear and it’s useful, particularly for higher production value jobs, but it’s the cherry on top. The meat and potatoes is having a quiet and echo free space with a decent mic and audio interface.
And when the client wants to dial in, you’ll probably be the engineer in most sessions. Whether you opt for source connect or ipdtl or just skype/zoom, you need to operate a studio environment like it’s second nature. What if they want playback of that last line? What if they want each take slated visibly on the waveform? This requires a solid foundation in modern audio technology.
The final part of being a great voice over artist is being able to operate like a business. Depending on who you ask, you’ll sometimes be told that the whole job of a voice over artist is marketing. Many successful voice over artists attack VO from a business and marketing perspective, and the artistry is a less important, albeit still sturdy, element.
In any case, you have to create the work. Whether you opt for pay to plays, direct marketing, working with agencies, or most likely a combination of all three, managing your pipeline of work is crucial to stay afloat. Particularly in the early days, this involves a lot of hunter-gathering.
Also – voice over artists operate in the interesting arena of being very freelance and very short term/gig based. Whilst a software developer can work full time at a company, or even freelance on a 3-6 month contract with a business, a voice over artist cannot. You can’t be a company’s full time VO artist (rare network VO and celebrity brand jobs notwithstanding).
What if they want a female talent? What if they want someone younger? What if they want a native Swede? Businesses may only want you for a series of videos or a commercial campaign, or maybe just 1-2 jobs, especially with how fast audio-visual creative style moves these days. There’s nothing stopping a proficient developer or a copywriter from writing all the code or copy for a client, but you can’t do this as a voice talent because of your genetic constraints.
And when you’re bootstrapping early on, you play every role in the business. Want to get better at audio editing? Well, you’re the training and development department. Need to think about new invoicing and payments software because you’re spending too long manually writing invoices rather than recording? Well you’re the finance department. Have you got no work because you haven’t pushed hard on email marketing or social or anything else? Well go complain to the marketing department.
That’s you, by the way.
Over time, you can delegate some of these things, either to software or people, but you still need to lead the charge on what needs doing or delegating in the first place, which is essentially a management role.
Summing it all up, a great modern voice over artist brings together:
- The performer
- The technician
- The entrepreneur
It is the crossroad effect of all these things working in harmony that allows a voice over artist to find opportunities and deliver on them when it counts, offering a ton of value to clients. It’s a little bit more than just a nice voice 😉.
If you found this helpful or would like to give me any of your thoughts, please comment below or drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.