Voice over: everything you need to know

Voice-overs are simple, right? Place the mic, speak the words, you’re done. Well, I have two phrases for you; “time is money” and “you get what you pay for.” You can do it, or you can do it right, and if you need it to be a regular part of your business, or want it to drive part of your income, then you should learn the latter.

To host a successful voice-over session, you need to remember that it should be treated like any other production, meaning you must pay attention to preparation, operation, and follow-up. Your client and the talent are there for business, so things need to run smoothly technically. But, don’t forget the luxuries. Just like anything else involved in recording audio for video, a little attention to detail and convenience will go a long way. A quality product will satisfy, but a good experience is what will bring your client back time and again. Let’s look at some things we can do to run a successful voice-over session.

Suite stuff

First off, have the right equipment. You need a decent microphone. You need a quiet, sound-absorbing room to record in. Obviously, you’ll require some method for routing (a mixer) and recording sound, and if you don’t have them already, a decent set of speakers. A system for communicating with your talent is also helpful. They work best when they can hear their own voice through the circuit as they read, so you’ll probably want headphones for them. If you’re really serious about hosting voice-over sessions, try to have a way to play video into the recording booth as well. A client may want to show video to a narrator so they can better understand the mood of the scene for which they are reading. All these things must work without hum or glitch.

Engineering speak

There are three key positions in a recording session: the engineer, the producer and the talent. At any given time, you may find yourself fulfilling one or more of these roles. As the engineer, you need to anticipate what’s coming and plan for every possible issue. Find out from your client what they need in advance. Set up early, test your equipment before anyone arrives, and be ready to go at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start time. You should also have standard amenities ready to go.

Now before we go any further, you need to know that there is a wide variety of voice talent out there. You’ll have to adjust to everything from, “this guy I know who has a good voice” to the full-time professional who does it as their sole income. The former will need guidance from you, will undoubtedly be a little nervous, and take longer to get a good read. True professionals on the other hand are some of the most laid back people around, but they can also be rather picky. They know what works in achieving their best reading voice, and most will have set patterns they will want to follow. Planning for these needs will go far towards bringing you recommendations for future use. That said the standard amenities will be a little non-standard.

Have a variety of drinks available. Bottles of water (both cold and room temperature), hot water or tea, and perhaps apple or orange juice are common. It’s all about conditioning the vocal cords. Most won’t drink coffee or soda before reading, but it’s not a bad idea to have some on hand for the client. Snacks, if you decide to have them should be relatively neutral. Bagels or a small assortment of fruit is all you need. Avoid things like crackers and lemonade.

The VO booth should have a music stand or equivalent to hold the script. Place an assortment of pencils pens and highlighters in the booth as well. Paper clips (both wire and clamp types) can also be useful. One other piece of equipment you should consider is a pop filter. This is simply a mesh screen that sits between the microphone and the speaker to help prevent any hard-pronounced P’s from sounding like someone blowing into the mic. Some talent will want to stand but have a stool or stiff chair available for them as well.

Once you start, you should limit your interaction with the talent. However, always let the producer and talent know when you’re recording and when you stop. Audio takes up a trivial amount of drive space, so it’s best to keep recording at all times. It’s a good idea to always record to two channels. Set one at your nominal recording level, and the other two to 4dB less. That way if the primary channel has peaked and become distorted, you have a backup that should be clear. Record (and export) in an uncompressed or lossless format, and at 44.1 or 48kHz, whatever your footage is in.

Have your talent do a test read for setting levels. Most of the time you’ll barely touch the controls once set, but try not to change them too drastically when you do. Monitor levels, cue tapes, and take notes for your client. Note the starting time of each take. Mark the good takes, and try to say what was bad about the others. Keep your notes to one or two keywords, as things will probably be moving faster than you can write at this point. Be sure to spot-check your recordings before declaring you’re done.

When the session is over, the fun doesn’t stop. As soon as possible (preferably before the talent leaves), make a backup copy on another hard drive. Eventually, you should make some type of hard copy as well. If you can record to tape and hard drive at the same time, you’re golden. Next, copy your script notes and hand them to the client. Keep your copies for as long as possible. You’ll get bonus points galore for saving the day when the client calls you and says they’ve lost something.

It’s also a good idea to have some sort of Internet location where the client can grab a copy of the files remotely if they need to. Whenever possible, have the files up before the client gets back to the office. Nothing speaks more to a smooth operation than leaving your V/O session only to arrive back in your edit room to find your editor already working on the clips.

Some words on producing

As the producer, your primary job is to ensure each line is read, and read properly. You must provide the materials to make that happen. In prepping the scripts, make the talent’s copy double-spaced, so they can write notes above or below each line. Print out at least the paragraphs before and after the lines to be recorded. That way the actor can get the mood of the content. Have the entire script available, but not for the talent, excessive pages will only get in the way. Highlight, resize, or otherwise clearly emphasize every line to be recorded on every copy. If you’re taping narration for a pre-edited show, write down the time codes of each insert location, and the duration of the space it needs to be dropped into. Bring a stopwatch if you have one, or ask the engineer for assistance.

When the talent arrives, give them the script and leave them alone to get familiar with the material. Be nearby, though, to answer any questions. It might be tempting to skip this extra prep time if you’re running late but don’t. Familiarity is a great asset in quickly achieving successful reads. Also, never try to rush through a recording session. At best you’ll get reads that sound rushed. More likely the anxiety in the air will grind the whole process to a halt.

Listen to your talent closely for correct pronunciation as well as inflection. Exotic names or complex words should be phonetically spelled out on the script in parenthesis. If you’re unsure, have the talent pronounce it every way you can think of because you might be able to piece together the correct phrasing later. However, do your research – you need to know this going in. Many a commercial has had to be taken down due to a mispronounced regional name.

Keep in mind that your voice talent is akin to an actor on the radio. Try not to “act” the line for them when describing how you would like it to read. Let them bring their personality to the production. Describe the mood of the line or scene. During one of my edit sessions, a gentleman was reading the narration. In reality, his speech was rather proper. When he had been presented with the line, “I don’t know why I broke the microscope, I just did,” his ‘properness’ came through. He kept reading it as if to say, “It was me that did it”. We finally got what we wanted by explaining that the narration was written with “kid speak” in mind and that the line was really implying, “I just felt like doing it, so that’s what happened”. The next read was much closer to what we needed.

Eventually, you’ll wonder if you should take a break. For the most part, let the talent decide. If they are consistently stumbling, their reads sound tired, or their voice is faltering or clogging, you’ll be better off letting them rest and come back fresh in a few minutes. On the other hand, if they are on a roll, they probably won’t want to stop. Let them keep at it for as long as they see fit.

Towards the end of the session, the talent might be feeling a little more relaxed, and their reads might sound a little more upbeat. Don’t be afraid to ask them to go back and read the first few lines at the beginning over with this new tone. It’s for this reason that I’ve seen some producers actually start recording in the middle of the script.

At the end of the day running a voice-over, the operation is pretty standard fare. However, to be successful, it does require a certain amount of technical knowledge and a lot of personal management. Customer service and consistency are the keys to satisfaction. Even if your facility is not the top of the line, when a client walks away with a satisfactory product, and both the talent and client were treated with a touch of class, they’ll give you their business every time.

Sidebar: The Proper Equipment

A mic and mixer are the two elements you need to consider when getting your gear together. Look for a good cardioid mic with decent frequency response. The mixer is your central hub. Any studio model will do, however, budget models may introduce more electrical noise. It’s been my experience that slide potentiometers are less likely to cause static than knobs.

Your headphones and speakers should be good enough to produce a nice rich sound. The talent might be wearing them for quite a long time. Comfortable “cans” keep your head from hurting and prevent leakage into the VO booth. A music stand with a clip light rounds out a great package. It’s a good idea to cover it with fabric, as the metal is noisy. Covering it will also reduce the parabolic reflector effect it can give if angled the wrong way. Finally, remember to make sure everything from your audio cables to your outlets is properly wired and grounded.

Sidebar: Make Your Own Sound Booth

If you can afford sound-dampening material, by all means, go for it. However, let’s assume you have neither the room nor the funds to build a proper recording booth. What can you do?

A medium-sized or walk-in closet makes a great makeshift booth. Leaving a few coats in will dampen the echo nicely. It will get hot quick though, so you’ll need to take more breaks. Another alternative is to box off a corner with a mattress. Place the back of the mic to the mattress so the speaker is talking “into” the soft wall. If nothing else, face the speaker so that they are speaking off-axis, not into a corner, yet not into a wall. You don’t want them speaking towards a hard surface. Or get a heavily padded blanket from a moving company, and some spring clamps from the local hardware store and hang the blanket about 1-2 inches from the walls. Use a thin piece of loose-mesh foam or two layers of stockings for a pop filter. Microphone rigging is surprisingly more expensive than one might think. But other than the clips themselves, there are several adequate replacements. Any pole can be adapted. You’ll still have to spring for a microphone though. Some cameras have a removable mini-shotgun mic that might be just passable, but the computer mic just isn’t going to cut it.