Recording voiceover audio from home is about more than just speaking into a microphone. Aspiring VO actors also need the proper equipment and recording space; they also need to do plenty of vocal prep. What’s more, according to voiceover casting director Terry Berland, “You need to know how to direct yourself for all your home reads.”
Here, we break down what you need to have in order to start recording and the fundamentals of voice acting, plus tips for refining your technique.
What do your favorite animated movies, immersive video games, and narrative podcasts have in common? Each relies on the value of the voiceover to wow viewers, players, and listeners. This audio heard during a video, video game, or scripted audio shows is considered a voiceover. Recordings are produced non-diegetically, or off camera, and added into the project later.
The most common mediums that require voiceover actors include:
Voiceover performers across the board (animation, video games, promos, trailers, commercials, documentaries, audiobooks, and more) are covered under multiple SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreements for guaranteed minimum rates.
For example, the SAG-AFTRA Upfront Use Package rates for off-camera principal actors (like VO actors) in commercials are:
- Class A, Cable, and Wild: $588.90
- Class B, including New York City: $1,059.77
- Class B, not including New York City: $839.45
- Class C: $480.19
According to ZipRecruiter, the average voiceover salary is $76,297/year.
You probably want to know how to be better at voice acting before you start recording. Since voiceovers range from silly to instructional and everything in between, voice acting advice that applies to one might not work for another. However, certain elements are necessary for any VO project, no matter the subject. These include:
Clear audio: Your audio should be as clear and unmuffled as possible. According to a study from TechSmith, audio quality has a major impact on video viewership; more than 25% of viewers watched a video all the way through primarily because they enjoyed the audio. Conversely, many viewers stop watching when the audio quality is poor.
A compelling voice: Few people want to listen to a voice that grates at their nerves. Harmonious voices that are pleasant to the human ear and have the right rhythm, tone, and style for the project are more likely to succeed.
The right diction: The style of diction, or the accent, inflection, and intonation of the spoken word, will vary depending on the type of work you’re doing. For instance, an educational project aimed at English language learners might require a flat, clear dialect, while a sweet tea commercial might ask for a conversational Southern drawl. And when it comes to voicing an animated character, the desired diction can get very particular, like Mickey Mouse’s iconic falsetto or Bart Simpson’s nasal, gravelly tone. You may end up creating a persona that you use for all of your work, or you may be more versatile in your voice acting. It all depends on what feels right for you and your listeners.
Proper pronunciation and enunciation: Pronunciation (the way that you emphasize certain syllables and sounds) and enunciation (how clear and distinct your words are) both impact voice quality. You want your consonants to be clear—think of saying klear rather than glear. Also, pay attention to whether or not the ends of your words or phrases are dropping off. Do they maintain the same clarity and volume, or do they trail off and disappear? Try to keep the same pronunciation and enunciation throughout unless you’re purposely changing them for emphasis.
Smooth tempo and pacing: Different projects will require different types of pacing and tempo. If you’re recording a skit about President Barack Obama, you might try to match his deliberate, oratorial pacing. If you’re voicing an auctioneer, you’ll probably speak very quickly.
Tempo, or the rate at which words are spoken, tends to follow the natural rhythm of a spoken conversation. It’s unlikely that any real-life exchange has an even-paced tempo, since that would sound robotic. Instead of trying to keep your speaking rhythm perfectly even, voice acting experts advise that you take your time and vary the tempo every so often. Even if you’re asked to speak at a high tempo, make sure that every word is audible. It can also be helpful to take a breath at punctuation points in order to divide the text into digestible pieces. Pacing also helps highlight key information in a script, such as a company’s name in a commercial script. Don’t forget to pause for dramatic effect, like Frank-N-Furter’s (Tim Curry’s) “I see you shiver with antici… pation” in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” or the dramatic pauses William Shatner employs throughout his work.
1. Prepare your space and equipment: As tempting as it might be to just start speaking into your laptop microphone, you need to lay down essential groundwork first.
The room in which you record is the most important factor to consider,” says professional voice actor Jamie Muffett. If you have a professional studio to record in, great! If not, preparing your studio for sound isolation should be your first priority.
Avoid large open rooms where sound can bounce around and feed back into your microphone. Instead, find the least noisy small enclosed space in your home, like a garage, shed, or even a closet. Your space should allow you to record natural, clean, clear audio. It shouldn’t sound like you’re in a bathroom or like your microphone is muffled.
Consider investing in acoustic foam or wall panels to absorb and distribute sound waves. For a more budget-friendly option, set up a space using thick blankets and clothes that can absorb sound.
Next, you'll have to think carefully about your voiceover equipment, including:
- Professional XLR condenser microphone: Invest in an external microphone since the built-in mic on your laptop will not provide the sound quality you need. Audio-Technica, Rode, and Neumann are all great options.
- Audio interface: This tool connects your mic and other audio equipment to your computer by converting analog into digital signals. Although your computer has its own built-in sound card, it has limited sound quality. Interfaces with strong input and output configurations include Universal Audio, Audient, and Persons.
- Studio headphones: You need headphones to properly listen to and edit your recording. Look for studio headphones that are comfortable, use neutral tuning, and help attenuate background noise, such as those made by Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic.
- Audio software: Look for intuitive software that offers voice balancing and background noise and is compatible with your system and hardware, like Audacity, Pro Tools, and even GarageBand if you lean old-school.
You don’t have to buy the most expensive equipment to succeed, but getting started with the right tools is important. Lower-quality equipment results in lower-quality audio.
2. Prepare your script: Preparing your script ahead of time prevents filler words, pauses, and other such mistakes that can sour an otherwise stellar recording. If you’re hired to do VO, you’ll likely be given a script; but if you’re just testing out your equipment or trying to tape demos, writing out your own script is the way to go. Read through it a time or two to test how the words feel coming out of your mouth, and then revise accordingly. Your script should be:
- Thorough: Even if you’re just using an outline, make sure that it includes all the necessary information.
- Conversational: Even for educational non-narration pieces, scripts should be dialogue-oriented. If you have difficulty writing conversationally, try taping a conversation between you and a friend. Take note of how you relate to one another, natural pauses in the conversation, and use of colloquialisms (as opposed to industry or overly academic jargon), and see if you can incorporate those elements into your script. Be sure to always define terms that your audience might not be familiar with.
- Audience-oriented: And speaking of audience, always write scripts directed at your target audience. While a conservative older audience might not appreciate curse words or slang, a Gen Z audience probably will. Consider audience demographics, interests, and relationship to your topic when making linguistic and tonal choices.
- Topic-oriented: A mismatch between topic and tone can be hilarious (as anyone familiar with the bizarre world of comedy traffic school can attest to), but you want it to match up somehow—even if the connection is doing something new and different. Consider the true crime comedy podcast “My Favorite Murder.” The hosts never make jokes at the expense of murder victims, which would be a huge tonal mismatch. Instead, they use personal experiences and anecdotes to relate to darker topics through a humorous therapeutic lens, which is a novel approach, but not totally disparate from the topic.
3. Prepare your voice: You want your voice to resonate with your audience, not frustrate them with how scratchy or tense it sounds. To ready your voice:
- Warm up: VO work requires both your voice and body to be flexible and ready. Taking the time to stretch and warm up will help prevent injuries and make you sound more natural. Tension traps the voice, so do some neck and shoulder rolls, body folds, and jumping around to shake everything loose. Do vocal warmups like face stretches, blowing raspberries, and elocution exercises, and keep in mind that certain genres of VO may require more extensive warmups than others. For instance, recordings for animation might fall outside the normal speaking range in order to achieve a comedic or cartoonish effect. Watch celebrity sessions to see how much physicality goes into the work.
- Drink water: Hydration is key to having loose, lubricated vocal cords. Since cold water can cause them to contract, make sure that you’re drinking room-temperature water. While you should always hydrate in advance, it’s a good idea to bring water into the studio as well (just be careful not to spill it on your precious equipment).
- Protect your vocal cords: As a voiceover actor, your career depends on the health of your voice. To keep voice-stealers (Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” we’re looking at you) at bay, avoid dehydrating liquids such as coffee and alcohol; spicy and acidic foods; yelling; and smoking, all which can damage vocal cords (also try to avoid sea witches whenever possible).
4. Test it out: Conducting a test will allow you to resolve any remaining issues. When you do your trial run, tape a good length of silence (a minute or two) before speaking. This allows you to check whether your equipment is working properly and detect any hidden background noise. A set of studio headphones is essential here, since consumer-grade headphones won’t allow you to hear all the auditory nuances.
You’ll be able to see the sound waves of the recorded audio with your audio interface. During the silence, if there’s a hum or fan running, it may show up as being recorded at low levels. If there is a significant amount of ambient noise in your environment and you can’t relocate your setup, you may have to turn down the gain on your microphone or audio interface. But be sure not to sacrifice so much gain that your voice becomes inaudible.
This may seem like a lot of preliminary work, but it’s necessary. There’s no sense in finishing a session only to realize afterward that you don’t have the right tools or that it’s filled with unwanted background noise.
5. Record: Finally, the big moment: it’s time to record your full length project. Remember to:
- Place the microphone correctly: Place the microphone approximately half a foot away from your mouth, just below the chin. This will ensure it won’t pick up every weird mouth noise you make, but also that you won’t sound like you’re speaking while spelunking.
- Use proper volume: The ideal audio level setting is usually between -10 decibels to -20 decibels; the highest you go should be around -6 decibels. Any higher, and audio will become distorted; any lower, and the audience won’t be able to understand you.
- Visualize the story: If clarity, diction, pronunciation, tempo, and pacing are the building blocks of voiceover work, imagination is the blueprint. Visualizing your character’s age, location, emotional state, intelligence level, hopes, dreams, and desires will help you think of them as a real person. The more you lose yourself in a role, the more genuine you will sound. For example, in a commercial read, you may be playing a young adult who just learned how to save with a new bank. You might imagine you’re speaking to a friend who’s dropped by to see your new house that you were able to buy with your savings. This exercise can encourage you to sound relatable and energetic. In an animated project, you might be playing a hero who’s about to leap out of a helicopter to land on the villain’s car. You can imagine the wind blowing past you and the impact of landing on the vehicle. The script will usually tell you if and when to include exclamatory or effortful noises, which require a great deal of imagination to sound authentic.
- Begin recording: Finally, hit record! Remember to enunciate, speak clearly and slowly, and use a friendly but not overzealous tone.
6. Edit: Once you’re confident in your work, you can start editing using your editing software of choice. Although many software programs have automation options, try simply listening and taking notes for the first round, marking the time stamp for any unwanted background noises, elocution errors, awkward silences, and tripped-up words. After these are notated, edit by clipping the parts you don’t want and stitching together the parts you do. Take a short break, then listen to your edited recording to see if it requires a second round of revisions.
7. Export: Send the audio to your video editor. to export an audio file, click the Export menu>Export Audio Only. Enter the file name, location, and type, and click Export.
Most importantly, remember to have fun! Since smiles have a sound—and a contagious one at that—if you’re having a good time doing a voiceover, your audience will have a great time listening to it.
Check out casting calls and auditions on our comprehensive database to land your next voiceover acting gig.