Putting Your Voice to the Test

Photo Source: Michael Gordon
It's probably accurate to say that I have "decided" to make a voiceover demo at least six times in the past ten years..

I've had V.O. pros I respect tell me I have a good voice for the work. And the idea intrigued me: You mean I could play a financial adviser, then a clear-faced teen, then a mom taking care of her sick kid, all using only my voice while wearing a baseball cap and no makeup? Sign me up!

But I never actually did it. Two things stopped me: my lack of knowledge about the craft, and what I imagined to be the insurmountable expense of getting started. Then fate, in the guise of my friend Ed Cunningham, stepped in. Ed makes his living doing voiceover; he's the new narrator of VH1's Behind the Music and has booked countless TV and radio campaigns, including Michelob and KFC. He recently opened Ed's ChopShop, a one-stop voice-demo production and consulting business with the goal of making the process professional, fun, and affordable. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse: He'd take me through all the steps of getting started in voiceover, and in return he'd have an example of what he can do for actors brand-new to the craft of voice acting. Stripped of all excuses, I said yes and decided to share my experience with readers of Back Stage, in the hopes of helping others off the fence and into the game.

Money Talks

"A commercial demo can run anywhere from $200 to $2,500," Ed told me. "I've seen actors spend at the top of that range and come out with a horrible demo; I've seen them spend well less than a thousand and land an agent. I charge $500 for a demo. Keep in mind there are many things other than your commercial demo that you'll need to purchase in order to start your voiceover career: a website, professional memberships, classes, recording equipment for a home studio, software, demos for all the other types of voiceover—animation, announcing, video game—etc. Blowing the majority of your budget on the demo can actually stop a good idea in its tracks. On the other hand, you can go on Craigslist and find all sorts of people who say they'll make your demo for $200 to $300, but I'd be careful. You need someone who not only knows the technical and artistic aspects of recording voiceover but the business side as well—someone who has daily interaction with the marketplace."

Getting Started

In our first meeting, Ed and I met at his home studio and talked about where I fit in the market. "I love showing actors potential they never knew they had," he said. "Many times actors don't realize they have a voice that is particularly marketable for one reason or another. My wife is a great example: She's just now understanding that the deadpan delivery she does so well on camera actually translates to voiceover. A huge part of making the demo is showing the actor where they fit in the marketplace and then having them demonstrate that ability."

To that end, prior to our meeting, he had emailed me demos of five actors I'd likely be "up against" at auditions. I'd listened to each of the actors repeatedly, getting a sense of how they used their voices differently depending on what they were reading. Just by listening carefully to a spot, I could identify where the actor was placing her voice. In a spot for acne cream, for instance, one actor went higher in her register while pushing the nasality of the tone. She ended up sounding younger in that spot—clearly something the client was looking for—than in a spot for, say, diapers, where the voice was more "soothing mom." I could use that.

The Class Menagerie

"Depending on your previous entertainment industry experience, I wouldn't say classes are absolutely necessary before making the first demo, as long as you're making your demo with someone currently working in commercial V.O. in some capacity," Ed offered when I asked about training. "If an experienced actor is coming to me for their first demo without having taken a class, I'm not concerned. I'll be holding their hand through the process either way, and if instruction is needed at any given point, I'll naturally offer it. My main goal, after all, is to get each cut to sound like it was an actual spot that aired on TV or radio."

But, as in any aspect of acting, he said, classes should eventually be part of the picture, even for working voiceover pros. "I take privates myself, one-on-one instruction with people who are working in television," he added. "You have to think of voiceover classes as something you'll be doing your entire career. Will you magically become a voiceover pro simply by taking a class? No. It takes years to sharpen your skills. This doesn't mean you can't book lots of work along the way."

As for choosing a class or teacher, he suggested, "In L.A., Huck Liggett at the Voicecaster is fantastic, as are Gary Giambo and Martha Mayakis at Talkshop. And the Voice Over Resource Guide covers many different markets across the country, and the best instructors are all in there. They have a website, www.voiceoverresourceguide.com, and also a quarterly printed edition."

Love and Ease

When the time came to read through the spots "off mike," Ed coached me on "romancing" the product you're selling—you've got to love that product when it comes out of your mouth, and make sure the listener can hear the love—and "billboarding" the name of the company, which is just like it sounds: You have to say the name so people hear it like they're seeing it on a billboard. He also gave me a couple of questions to think about for each spot—some literal, like "Who was I talking to?," and others more visceral, like "How does being on the beach in Bermuda make you feel?" (Pretty good, as it turns out.) Once we'd gone through all the spots, Ed instructed me to become familiar with the copy but absolutely not to memorize it.

Not memorize copy? Hallelujah, right? Well, yes, and there's a good reason for it. Though it might not be true for every actor, the prevailing wisdom says over-preparation leads to a reading that sounds like a reading. The challenge is to give a spontaneous, conversational read with each take, often with copy that can be challenging to those accustomed to speaking the words of the world's greatest playwrights. Commercial voiceover copy has one purpose, and that is to sell something. Though many spots can be a joy to read, others can be challenging for their lack of finesse. And you've got to learn to be supremely comfortable with it all if you're going to work. I asked Ed how long it took for the process to feel natural.

"I still have my days where it feels completely unnatural," he admitted. "And the first thing I do on those days is take my headphones off. Then I might try any number of little tricks that I've learned over the years for working through certain tough spots. Sometimes it's just a matter of understanding the physiological mechanics of articulation when you're having difficulty with certain sounds or combinations of words." Ed, who said he "fell into" the field of voiceover, did his MFA training at Northern Illinois University and studied Arthur Lessac's voice technique with Michael Kachingwe. That training, Ed remarked, has served him well in the world of voiceover, particularly with respect to idiosyncratic speech difficulties."

So, armed with my copy, I said goodbye to Ed, determined not to over-prepare. We would meet in a couple of days to start recording.

The Fun Part

Two days later I went back to the ChopShop, where Ed set me up in the booth with headphones and a mike. I felt like a rock star. I was raring to go. I was going to put all this newfound information into clear, exciting reads that would make everyone want to run to Target to buy more Charmin.

We worked on seven spots, going for a variety of moods and tempos. I would read through one, and he would give me adjustments. This was my favorite part of the process, because it was remarkably collaborative. For one spot, my read was missing a certain energy, and he directed me to deliver the copy as if I was trying to get the attention of my son's kindergarten classroom after recess. Bingo!

After numerous directed takes, Ed would play back the one or two he thought worked best. We'd listen to them, and then re-record all or part of the spot, incorporating any slight adjustments we felt necessary.

I had a blast; acting without regard to how the performance "looked" was incredibly freeing. And believe me, the one or two times I finished a spot to hear Ed say, "That was money," I grinned like an idiot.

We spent more than two hours on that first session, and a few days later he sent me a rough cut of the demo, complete with music and sound effects. We identified a few details that needed tweaking and scheduled a cleanup session. A week later, I had my finished demo ready to be posted to websites and submitted for work.

Now What?

Though a good agent is eventually what any V.O. actor needs—and something Ed's working on with me—there are plenty of jobs to be had for actors who self-submit through various channels. I asked him how and why he'd put together his own studio, an ingenious mix of pro equipment and common-sense, low-cost touches that allows him to produce state-of-the-art recordings.

He replied, "While most of my auditions take place at William Morris each morning, I have agents in other cities that require me to audition by recording at home and then sending that audition to them as an MP3 file via email attachment. I used to do this by paying '10 bucks for 10 minutes' at various casting offices and recording studios around town, but the cost started adding up. So I consulted with Steve Nafshun, a great audio engineer over at Davis Glick Entertainment in Hollywood—they record all the movie trailers—and he told me what I needed to buy and how to set it up."

But to start, you don't need the thousands of dollars worth of equipment Ed uses. I gave him my budget, and he told me what to buy, then set it up for me. He taught me where to post my demo and how to record and submit auditions. It took all of two hours.

He recommended inexpensive ways to get started recording auditions at home. "Blue Microphones makes a great little mike called the Snowball that's going for, like, 85 bucks now," he said. "I used to use one of these. It comes with a little desktop tripod and hooks into a USB port on your computer. I would sit at my desk and drape a large beach towel over my head, so it was just me, the Snowball, and my copy under there, trying to sound like a perfectly normal person. The towel deadens the echo in the room. It also helps if you're close to and facing one corner of the room. Sound gets trapped in corners, thereby preventing it from bouncing around the room and creating echoes and other vibrations. Closets make great recording booths."

Demo: check. Snowball: check. Towel: check. I can feel that first booking right around the corner of the closet into which I now say my audition copy every morning. Without makeup. Life is good.

Deborah Puette lives in Los Angeles, where her work has received Back Stage Garland, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, and LA Weekly awards. She can currently be seen in the motion picture Crossing Over with Harrison Ford, and you can hear her brand-spanking-new demo at www.edschopshop.com.