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Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting Voiceover

Pass me the time machine, please.

Working in voiceover sounds like a dream job to a lot of people. Or maybe a fake job. I still remember the first time I told one of my aunts that I was a voiceover artist, she asked me what my real job was (haha, ouch). It IS actually a fun job, but it’s also still a job, and so there are still boring bits and (potential) frustrations.

Here are a few things that I wish I could go back and let myself know about before I started, and that people just getting into VO might not know. Voiceover tips for new and aspiring talent!

1. Starting is hard… so just start!

It looks a lot harder than it is, I promise. If you want to do VO, then just do VO. Go for it! Get your feet wet. Play. Focus on what you can do right now (or with a very small investment) and not on what the established voice actors are doing.

It gets easier to steer your ship once you’re actually in the water; from the shore, it can look a whole lot more intimidating. Go, get out there. Don’t let fear paralyze you. Honestly, there are so many resources available that there’s no excuse for not going for it.

If you want to get started narrating something, go be a reader for Librivox and narrate works in the public domain for the world to enjoy. They are friendly and helpful. You can take on a whole book if you want, or you can start out with chapters or short stories. If you want to try character voices, you can record a character in one of the full cast dramatic works. Go!

If you want to learn how to be a proof-listener, join LearningAlly and volunteer with them (it’s for a really good cause, too!) There are massive benefits — you’ll get hands-on experience with a lot of different narrators!

2. There’s not One Perfect Way To Do It.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure everything out. Way too much time, in fact, because I was convinced that there was one “right” way to do every single thing, and if I hunted around long enough, it would appear.

If you ask 20 actors and sound engineers, you probably won’t get back 20 completely different answers, but you certainly won’t get just one! So if you’re searching for a magical cheat sheet about which mic to get, or how to read commercial copy, or what compression to use on all of your files, you can relax.

It’s silly to think there a one-size-fits-all way to do things that will be specific enough to be really useful. It’s like looking for the perfect exercise plan. It all depends on the goals, the person, the age, the situation, and a bunch of factors.

So experiment! Ask questions and talk to experienced people, learn what you can, take all advice with a grain of salt, and always keep an open mind. (A secret tip about audio, though: If it sounds good, then it is good.)

3. Increase your exercise plan.

There really are physical limits, and you need to exercise your voice and make a point to exercise your body. Is this surprising?

I remember the first time I discovered how long I could talk. It was in the first season of a cartoon show, and I was part of the dubbing team. The show had already been sold to another country so the whole team was working long hours to get everything finished. I was voicing one main character and two supporting characters for hours and hours every day. By the 3rd day, I was really struggling. I didn’t know at the time how to maintain vocal health beyond what casual singers do. I didn’t know what exercises to do to strengthen my voice so that doing tough character voices wouldn’t hurt.

There are several ways to warm up the voice, and exercises to do to work on different kinds of voiceover. What I’ve found helpful is singing, making a point to work on good control in the higher range, stretching that range upward, and smoothing out the bridge. Whenever I stop singing for a while, I pay for it in flexibility with character voices.

Physical exercise is also a big issue. This job is done sitting or standing in one place. Editing is done sitting or standing in one place, too. It’s the most sedentary work I’ve ever done, in fact! I gained weight when I went full time. Losing is always harder than just not gaining, so increase your exercise plan if you start doing voiceover.

4. It’s still service.

If you’re sick of smiling and Yes Sir!-ing and want to get into VO to get away from people… I’m so sorry. It’s still very much service. Sometimes, directors will be just awful and hard to work with, and you have to be professional. If you are freelancing, you’ve got to work with clients, and that involves talking with them about their projects and reassuring them that they are in good hands with you.

If you want people to recommend you, you need to do good work and be pleasant. Do I know jerks in the industry? Oh yes, absolutely. Do I work with them? If I have to, of course, and I’ll be pleasant and professional. Do I ever seek them out to join me on cool projects, or recommend them to clients or agents? Hell no.

5. It’s also marketing.

Yep, a lot of what lets you shut yourself in a room and do voices is good marketing and good networking. I had no idea, and was happy to take work from clients and agents and not worry about social networks, email lists, websites, or any kind of digital marketing… but as I’ve moved from working as a part-time freelancer to working as a full-time voice talent, I’ve come to realize how flawed this approach is.

If you want to be an audiobook narrator, you’ll want people who like to listen to you, right? And if you want to work with more studios, you’ll need to connect with them. Even more than that, you’ll want to be top of mind to them, so that when it’s time to cast their new project, they remember you and know exactly which part they want you to audition for. It’s smart to get started on this early, and figure it out as you grow.

6. It’s good if it’s what the client wants.

It doesn’t matter much what you think, because what is important is what the client or the director thinks. What that actually means is that your goal is to figure out exactly what they want, and then to exceed it. It also means that you might end up doing voices that you think are terrible because that is what they want. And you know what? It’s really important to suck it up, and find a way to do that voice and put some joy into it. Sell it. Sell it so well that you yourself believe it’s great. Even if you think your way of reading that copy is brilliant and what they are asking you to do is a mistake.

It’s kind of like choosing a car — YOU might think it’s perfect, but what matters most is what the CAR OWNER thinks (because otherwise, he won’t buy!)

7. Git Gud (at something specific).

Figure out a niche, and don’t worry that you’ll be stuck in it! Put some extra time into trying out a whole bunch of different genres, just to figure out what you’re already good at doing. What are you naturally best at?

Then, to begin, focus on making just that part AMAZING. If you do this in the beginning then you can go audition for that kind of work and you should have much better chances of landing the auditions. You can grow your little niche. You can turn down auditions for work you know you can’t do very well. Later, you can expand into other niches and genres!

Who would you hire, one guy who can do lots of things just okay, or one guy who is going to nail exactly what you need? Being the go-to guy for something in the beginning can help you get in.

I think of it as being a little ivy plant. If VO is a giant field of fruit protected by high stone walls, you could throw lots of things at the wall and hope to find a weak spot. Or you could take a big battering ram to it, if you have the resources to build one. Or you could be a little plant, growing in a little spot, with tendrils that creep into all the cracks. Or a chisel! Yes, that’s a better metaphor.

8. Figure out taxes and accounting early.

For Americans, it seems like everything is taxed. Earning money at a job? Your income is taxed. Self-employed? Pay extra taxes for the privilege of not working for someone else. Did you think about making money? They haven’t figured out how to tax thoughts yet, but stay tuned. I’ve heard scary stories of people who were suddenly told by the IRS that they owed a lot of money. Definitely incentive to figure it all out early!

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