While you could hire some talent to record the piece, deadlines and budgets may dictate a quicker and more economical approach. That's right; you're doing this one by yourself. But don't panic, you won't need a degree in broadcasting or a studio full of equipment to record a nice voiceover. In fact, everything you need is probably on your desktop and in your camera bag. The final piece will be an exercise in leveraging your hardware, software, microphone technique and vocal delivery. So grab a cough drop and let's get started
Big Voice? What Big Voice?
Most of my life has been spent working with media technology — first with sound and recording and now as a video producer. But in between, I was a disc jockey. This was a valuable experience that taught me to write effective copy, work a microphone and deliver the goods consistently on time. Don't misunderstand; I was never a radio prodigy. In fact, at one station, my boss said I didn't have the best voice he'd ever heard, but he liked the conversational quality of my delivery. That's what got me hired.
This brings up an interesting point. Have you listened to very much national advertising lately? Back in the old days, announcers used the "Voice of God" or the hyperactive DJ persona (aka: The Gagger). Those days are gone. With few exceptions, most professional voiceovers sound like they could be your next door neighbor. A very well rehearsed next door neighbor, but an average citizen nonetheless. If the big boys can do it, so can you. You really don't need to have a big voice to do a voiceover.
What you do need is effective delivery and the ability to interpret the copy in a conversational, yet persuasive way. Rather than try to explain all the nuances of voiceover technique, I'll simply refer you to the radio. Talk or Rock, Country or Pop, most local radio stations have commercials. And while radio ads are different from TV ads, it's easier to pick out the good ones without visual distractions. The simplest comparison is between national and local ads.
National ads are for brands you recognize — soft drinks, fast food, vitamins, beds and insurance. These ads tend to have a professional, yet comfortable style with excellent pacing. Everything is easy to understand and the message is clear. While there are many good local commercials, some are a little too, well, local. Typical problems begin with poorly written copy that clearly sounds like someone is reading. Pacing is also a casualty, with important information delivered so quickly, it's almost impossible to write down the address or phone number. Find two or three commercials you like and dissect the content for clarity and pacing. Listen closely to the announcers and their delivery, and then rehearse your piece using those qualities.
We'll worry about some equipment details in a moment, but first let's set up your microphone and give it a shot. Don't worry about mistakes for the first few takes. Just work on delivery and clarity. When you're comfortable with one of them, play it back. If you're new at this, know that most people freak out when they hear their recorded voice the first time. The standard reaction is "that doesn't sound anything like me." Ah, but it does sound like you. The recorder doesn't lie. This is the voice that other people hear. What you hear is a combination of the sound from your mouth and resonance in your chest and head. But don't panic; with some rehearsal, we can create a bigger, better you.
Listen closely to one of your better takes and study the pronunciation of every word — this is easy to do with your audio editing software. Highlight each section and play it several times. Are some words slurred together? Are certain words indistinct? How well do you pronounce numbers? There is a national radio commercial playing right now that features the founder of the company pronouncing the 800 number as "eight-hunnert." Yours truly has trouble with the word "for." It always seems to come out "frrr." If the piece is 30 or 60 seconds, it's easy to dismiss one or two little mistakes. But if you're recording the narration for a lengthy training video, pronunciation must be consistent from beginning to end. Of course, don't let this new attention to detail push you into over articulating each word either. Record, critique and repeat as necessary.
There is also the issue of vocal quality. Some people have smooth, deep voices while others are nasal and grating. Other qualities can be described as raspy, dry, deliberate and strident. One famous comedian has one of the most irritating voices you'll ever hear, yet he gets voiceover work all the time. The point is there are no good or bad voices, just voices that are better suited to certain projects. And don't forget, when recording a voiceover, you are essentially an actor portraying a type of character in the video. Acting with your voice takes some getting used to, so practice as often as possible.
Nuts and Bolts
We've spent some time with the character and quality of a voiceover, but the right equipment, used the right way, is important too. For instance, microphone choice can make or break your recording. If the piece calls for a full, rich tone, the $20 mic you bought at the electronics retailer won't cut it. Learning to work the mic is also critical. The closer you get to a microphone, the deeper and fuller it sounds. Moving away has the opposite effect. Using your headphones as a guide, try different positions — speaking directly at the mic (on axis), at an angle to the mic (off axis), close, distant — to find the perfect recording spot for your project.
Don't forget to include your trusty friend, the windscreen. While foam windscreens are better than nothing, a hoop windscreen, or pop filter, is more effective and won't dull your recording. If you can't find the $30 for a professional model, the October 2001 issue of Videomaker has instructions for building one yourself — total cost: $2. Check it out online or watch Episode #20 of the Videomaker Presents vidcast for do-it-yourself instructions.
Finally, here are three quick tips that all professional voice actors use that will make your copy sound its best:
- Smile. When you smile your mouth forms a different shape that make the copy sound friendly.
- Don't "pop your P's". Even with a windscreen, by turning your head quickly off axis the instant you pronounce a "p" or "t", you reduce the amount of air hitting the mic and the resultant popping sound, the signature of a novice narrator.
- Relax. Really! Breathing from your diaphragm, instead of from your chest, gives you the full range of your natural vocal qualities.
Whatever the project, you should try your hand at recording a voiceover. You'll save time and money and you may even discover a new talent for your production services. If not, you'll better understand the art of the voiceover and gain a new respect for those that do it every day.
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.