What It’s Like to do a Voiceover

In Short: Attention to detail.

A microphone and pop filter
Photo: Jonathan Velasquez, Unsplash.

Voice actors are everywhere: radio and television, audio books, video games, animation, documentaries, you name it. You get a limited time to paint a picture with words, and in the case of radio you get just 30 seconds.

It starts with an audition. I get the lines they want me to read, known as “sides,” and I submit an audio file of my best “read.”

Once I get the gig I’m invited to the recording studio, assuming all physical distancing protocols are followed. There’s an audio engineer who does the recording, editing and mixing, and a director. The client may also be in the room, but they usually listen in remotely.

Like all acting gigs, the director is the boss. If the client has a request for me, they go through the director.

I am a member of a union called ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), so there are rules they must follow. The session cannot exceed a certain number of hours, I must be given refreshments as needed (water is your friend), and I must be paid fairly. The rules are there to protect my voice so that I don’t destroy it and can’t work for three days afterwards (a real problem with video game actors).

Once I’m in the booth, I put on headphones so I can hear the director (and myself), and stand a certain distance behind the microphone and pop filter. I might ask them to adjust the volume as needed. The microphone is extremely sensitive, so clothing choice is important. I put the script in front of me on a lectern so I can read it. I am expected to mark up the script beforehand with pen or pencil to guide my performance, and add notes from the director as needed.

When the recording starts, all I can hear is my voice. This takes some getting used to. It’s also extremely useful for matching pitch and cadence if I’m “punching in” (revising a small section of the script). A take might be the whole script or just a portion of it. I never nail the first take, but some actors do. You don’t want to waste time but you also don’t want to rush it and make mistakes.

Between takes I sit on a stool while they listen to the playback. I’ll be asked to redo sections in different ways, with different cadence, emphasis, pronunciation, sometimes even accent. I was born in South Africa so I might struggle with saying certain words in “general American.”

At the end of the session, the engineer will play back the entire recording so I can hear it. If I’m matching lip flaps in animation, or voicing a video, they’ll play back the picture as well.

I’ve voiced video games, radio ads, documentaries, and corporate videos. An average recording session takes about two hours, and at the end of it I need a throat lozenge, but I love it. I plan to do an audio book sometime soon.

Randolph West is an actor, author, and independent filmmaker from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who moonlights as an IT consultant to pay the bills. Randolph’s web site is randolphwest.ca (and is on IMDB).

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