The sultry voice of Kathleen Turner tempting Roger Rabbit…The mellow, resonant tone of James Earl Jones stating “This is CNN”…The grandfatherly voice of Hal Riney gracing commercials for Perrier and “the wines of Ernest and Julio Gallo.”
These are not voices that just happen; they are trained voices, deliberate voices, voices finely tuned to impact the listener.
Video productions use trained voices such as these to narrate commercials, documentaries, sports, how-tos, training tapes and fundraising tapes. The new medium of interactive CD-ROM opens additional avenues for the use of voice-over talent. In fact, for many informational videotapes, the voice is what gets the message across to the viewer.
A professional voice can actually make a videotape “look” professional. A great narrator can enliven the most mediocre videotape, and lend an air of professionalism even to tapes shot and edited with basic home video gear.
On the other hand, a video shot with the sharpest camera and fanciest special effects can’t make a poorly narrated tape sound any better.
And that’s the problem with all too many video productions: all the money and attention goes to capturing sharp images, while little or no consideration is given to sound–especially narration.
In this article, you’ll learn how to find that perfect voice for your narration, how to direct talent to give you the performance you want and how you can become a voice-over (VO) actor yourself.
That Special Voice
There are loads of people with trained voices aching to narrate your video. Radio station deejays, community theater performers, acting schools–these are all places to look for that professional voice. If there is a local publication for actors, see if any advertise themselves, or place an ad yourself. Voice-over work is so popular, there’s even a forum specifically for voice-over performers on America Online (AOL).
Some people categorize narrators into two groups–broadcast announcers and actors.
Radio announcers or deejays may sound good on the radio, but getting them to read structured scripts in a style other than their own may not work. On the other hand, a deejay would be good for less structured scientific or technical scripts, providing that extra inflection needed to enliven the material. Deejays and announcers also excel at reading scenes well on the first take.
Actors usually want to try several takes, perhaps with different interpretations. That variety could bring a freshness to your script. However, if you have a technical script, their dramatized inflections just might prove too much.
Most professional VO performers have demo tapes of their work–and they’re eager to send them to you. So start collecting demo tapes today, before you have any pressing need for VO talent. Then when clients ask for videotapes with narration, you can let them select the voices they like from your demo library.
In addition to listening to a demo tape, look at the actor’s resume for experience. Ask for references and contact them. You don’t want to get into a situation where the studio clock is ticking away while you struggle in vain to get your actor to do the voice you have in mind.
If you have the budget to hire a union actor, contact your local talent agencies. They offer libraries of audition tapes, know the capabilities of their people and can offer guidance when you need an unusual voice. Besides, they’ve already checked references.
Few professional actors make a living exclusively from voice-over work; the ones you contact through a talent agency usually have a wide range of acting experience and should take direction well.
Auditioning and Directing Talent
When you listen to demo tapes, you’ll hear rehearsed and polished delivery designed to get the VO performer work. You might also hear character voices or vocal styles not in keeping with your video production.
Regardless, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask a prospective voice-over performer to read some lines from your script. Tape this audition and play the tape for your client. You should tell the voice-over performer which vocal style you want used.
Unfortunately most producers and directors cast men for VO roles. Do this, and you can miss out on a large pool of talented female narrators, usually actresses. Women narrators must work doubly hard to get hired: not only do they have to compete for the job, they have to convince the producer that a woman’s voice can add life to an otherwise dull production, and do it tactfully.
Using that same male voice style on every production becomes predictable, if not downright boring. So don’t overlook female narrators when searching for talent.
Once you select your talent, send them a copy of the script with your style notes. Do you want a hard sell or a soft sell; a motherly style or a sexy reading; a warm and fuzzy voice or an authoritarian one? Must the talent read the script within a given time? The script and your direction will help your talent prepare for the recording session.
If time permits, read the script to the talent as you interpret it. A good actor will listen carefully to your delivery, determining how you want the script read.
The Recording Session
You’ll need at least three additional copies of the script. One for the actor, one for your client and one for the recording engineer. Have a stopwatch handy if you need to time scenes.
Some voice-over studios do not have a video monitor for viewing scenes as narrated. If you have a script, you really don’t need a monitor; besides, it’s difficult for the narrator to look at both the script and the monitor.
If you’re producing a show without a script and the narrator is simply ad libbing while watching the video, you’ll need a monitor. For best results, place it outside the narration booth; this way, you won’t pick up hum or other noises from the monitor.
Use a log sheet or notebook to log the scenes and takes; note time codes for each take as well as descriptions (good, bad or maybe). Perhaps the first part of take one is good and the second part of take two is good; note that on the log sheet, too.
You may want to record alternate readings: fast and slow; emotional and straightforward. Note everything on your log so that your editing will go quickly and smoothly.
Remember, your actor is a human being with feelings and needs. So make the talent comfortable. Some soundproofed studios can get hot and stuffy; schedule frequent breaks and provide water or juice. Avoid coffee and avoid ice-cold drinks; they can close off the throat.
Don’t overwork your actors, and don’t rush them. Encourage them; compliment good takes and go easy on the bad ones. Don’t be too quick to correct their mistakes; they may want to finish reading the whole scene before doing a retake.
Some actors are nervous about performing and may be very sensitive to any anxiety you display, so keep cool and keep up the encouragement.
If possible, have a selection of mikes available; every mikes has its own distinctive “character,” and you want to find just the right tone to complement your talent’s voice. Actors usually like to stand while they read, so you’ll need a floor stand with an adjustable boom. A music stand for the script is a inexpensive necessity. Some technicians cover the stand with carpeting to avoid sound reflections.
One popular microphone placement: on a boom above and in front of the talent, aimed at the nose. This allows talent to read the script below the mike, avoiding popping “Ps.” Try placing a standard foam windscreen over the microphone. Windscreens made of stretched nylon that mount between the microphone and the vocalist are popular for singers and more expressive narrators. You can fashion your own screen by stretching a section of pantyhose over a wire coat hanger.
Automatic Dialogue Replacement
Another application of voice-over work involves re-recording poor audio picked up during location video recording. For example: if you record a dialogue while the actors stroll down a noisy sidewalk, the background noise may obscure the dialogue.
With Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR) you re-record all questionable dialogue in the studio. Your actors watch the scene, speaking their lines in sync with the videotape. Here’s how it works: the equipment plays back a selected number of sentences over and over until the actors get it right. The new audio records as the old scene plays back.
Also called looping, this technique is used in virtually every movie or TV scene shot outside. In fact, some actors spend more time in the ADR studio than they do on the shooting set. The engineers mix the original sound along with the background ambience onto the new track so it sounds live.
After recording your voice-over, you can mix it onto your edited master videotape. One simple technique with professional equipment: put narration on channel 1 and music or effects on channel 2. Bring up the music when the narration stops, and bring it down just before the narration resumes. You can also choose music under, keeping the music at a lower level during the narration.
Determine these levels with your VU meter. Narration should be at 0dB (100% mark on the scale). The background is usually about -8dB (about 40% on the scale). If your VU meter has no scale, keep the background at one/fourth to one/third of the range of the meter.
If you have an audio mixing board, you can feed narration from one source machine, background ambience from another and music from still another source. A few rehearsals or previews will help you set your levels to achieve a great mix.
If you have a multitrack audio recorder or a digital audio workstation (DAW), its flexibility will allow you to experiment with different mixes.
If you mix music and effects with narration, you must remember to lower the music an instant before the narrator resumes speaking.
With a DAW, you can program this level change, but for the rest of us it involves making a brief audio EDL.
Simply record the narration on your edit master. Then make a list of time codes for the start and stop of each narrated scene.
After you record your narration, add the music to your second track. At the in point of narration, the music should be at the lower level. At the out point of narration, bring the music up. An audio EDL is a simple list that helps you create a good mix of narration and background.
Train Your Own Voice
As a professional videomaker, you know what a mistake it is to let Uncle Charlie shoot video–instead of a pro. So you can understand the importance of professional voice talent.
Professional voice-over actors know how to vary the tone and pacing of a script to avoid a monotone read. They know how to articulate words without creating mouth clicks or pops. They know how to control their breathing, how to work with mikes and how to use pauses and inflections to convince listeners. In short, professional actors know how to sound “real.”
Too often videomakers with strong voices think they can save their clients a few dollars and provide the voice-over narration themselves. They can do this, but developing a professional voice takes study and practice.
The best way to develop your voice is by taking classes or private instruction from a professional. Workshops are available in some larger cities; or you can contact a professional voice-over actor for private instruction. Trade magazines such as Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter list classes and private instructors.
You need not have any acting experience. A voice-over teacher can tell you if your voice is trainable. Look for a class held at a sound studio; the more time you spend on mike the better.
When checking out VO classes, find out: 1) how many people are in the class; 2) the experience level of the students; and 3) the instructor’s background, including current work and representation.
Exercise Your Voice
You need to relax and breathe naturally and plentifully to derive the full benefit of your voice. Most VO actors prefer to stand during their delivery, so try standing up. In addition, expressive hand movements and facial gestures may help you achieve the needed inflection. Watch your pacing; too fast a delivery not only exhausts listeners, it raises the pitch of your voice.
Be expressive, but not too expressive. Susan McCullom of Susan and Friends VO Workshops in San Francisco suggests developing your own voice style.
“Try to use spontaniety to put feeling into the script you are reading,” advises McCullom.
In her book Word of Mouth, author Susan Blu recommends videotaping some commercials and then dubbing in your own voice for each character. This helps you practice capturing various qualities and moods.
Just before you start recording, get some fresh air. Do some breathing exercises, and some stretching to loosen your neck and shoulders. Shake your whole body from the shoulders down.
To exercise your vocal chords, hum. Gradually increase and decrease the pitch of your voice. Some actors recite each vowel, slowly raising and lowering the pitch. You can loosen your lips by gently closing them and quickly expelling air from them making a racing car sound. Similarly flex your lips, tongue and jaw to fully relax your mouth. You may need to take breaks from the narration to repeat some of these exercises.
There’s nothing more boring than a monotone voice over. By pronouncing certain words more loudly, you can better convey a particular feeling.
Different emphasis can create different moods and feelings. For example: say “I love you.” Now increase your volume on the word “I.” Next try it with a louder “love.” Finally, say the phrase with “you” as the loudest word. Notice how the different readings convey different feelings.
Next try raising or lowering the pitch of words. Say “I’m sad.” Say it a second time, but lower the pitch of the word “sad.” Notice how much sadder you sound with lowered pitch on that word.
Lengthening or shortening the duration of a syllable or a word creates emphasis and draws attention to that word. Try the phrase “I’m hungry.” Now prolong the first syllable of the word hungry. See how much hungrier you feel? Try the phrase “I’m scared;” now prolong the word “scared” and feel how scared you sound.
Effective use of a pause between syllables, words and phrases can be dramatic; it’ll perk up the ears of your listeners. Try that phrase “I love you” again, and insert a pause before you say “love”. See how easy it is to create emotion with a simple pause?
Once you practice with these techniques, you can start combining volume, pitch, duration and pauses to really add life to scripts. (For more exercises, see Susan Blu’s Word of Mouth.)
Marking the Script
You can’t always rely on guidance from the producer or director when performing voice-overs. Video directors are visually oriented and handle on-camera talent well. They know how to direct movements, gestures and expressions. But voice-over narration requires the manipulation of words; generally narrators must interpret scripts on their own.
If you can get the script in advance–even if only a few minutes prior to the recording session–get out your pen and indicate how you want to manipulate volume, pitch and pauses.
Underline the words you want to say louder. Draw an arrow pointing up or down over those words to indicate the raising or lowering of pitch. Put a slash mark between words or phrases to indicate pauses.
Forget about the scriptwriter’s punctuation. Add exclamation points (one or more) and question marks. Use parentheses to indicate word groupings, and phonetic spelling for words that are hard to pronounce.
You can also mark the script with director’s notes (or your own) for particular emphasis or feelings for particular words. For example: if your character should be hesitant and unsure of himself when he says “I love you,” write “hesitant and unsure” there on the script so you won’t read the line with too much passion.
Scripts are not always obvious. If you can’t review scenes with the director, try to do your best to interpret the script with gusto and pizzazz. The element of surprise can add color and freshness to your performance.
Narrate It Right
Whether you become a voice-over actor yourself, or simply direct the pros to perform for your video productions, it pays to know some of the fundamental techniques.
You may be the only one who can read the script you wrote with the inflection and tone you have in mind. On the other hand, a voice-over pro can take a fresh look at your script and draw from a repertoire of styles and techniques to create a sparkling and lively soundtrack that captivates your viewer and far exceeds your expectations.
The choice is yours.
Video instructor Stuart Sweetow owns and operates a video production facility.
Keep That Voice Golden
In order to keep your voice in its best performance mode, you need to take care of it.
Here are some tips Videomaker picked up from the Voice-over Message Board in America Online (AOL):
- Don’t smoke at all.
- Don’t drink the night before.
- Have a beverage with you in the studio that’s not too cold, not carbonated and not milk. Some people recommend lemon-mint herb tea.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Try Ricola or Listerine cough drops, to help lubricate the mouth, especially if you have a long script to read.
Practice Makes Perfect
Get a book of plays or film scripts from your local library, set up a mike and a tape recorder and start recording your voice. Try different readings with different inflections. Play the tape back frequently, and note on the script where you need to add a pause or add emphasis to a particular word.
A good way to develop your voice and to perform a good deed at the same time is to volunteer to make recordings of books and journals for the visually impaired. Two sources looking for volunteers are:
American Foundation for the Blind
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
National Library Service for the Blind
Library of Congress
Washington, D.C. 20542