These days, voice actors are everywhere—you can hear their voiceover work in video games, audiobooks, Saturday morning cartoons, even as virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa. But how do you break into this audio-only world? In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to become a voice actor: everything from finding voice acting jobs and casting calls to creating your first voiceover demo reel.
- What is voice acting?
- What are the different types of voice acting?
- What voiceover terms should I know?
- Do I need voiceover training to become a voice actor?
- What voiceover equipment do I need to get started?
- Do I need a voice acting demo reel?
- How do I find voice acting jobs and auditions?
- What should I expect at voice acting auditions?
- How do I get a voiceover agent?
- What are good voice acting warmups?
- What is a day in the voiceover studio like?
Voice acting is a type of acting where only the voice is used to represent characters or provide narration. Voice actors work for a range of projects, including animated television series, audiobooks, movies, documentary television and film, commercials, video games, and more.
You’ve probably heard the word “voiceover” mentioned in the same breath as “voice acting.” So: what is voiceover? Voiceover is to the technique of using an unseen speaker to narrate or explain things—most often in film and television, although it’s also employed in other mediums. Voice actors are the ones who record voiceovers.
Most people associate voice acting with animated movies and TV shows, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Different types of voice acting include audiobooks, documentaries, commercials, video games, and even virtual reality.
Animated TV: The most common form of voiceover acting is likely animated TV. Think of children’s programming series on networks like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and PBS—there’s a voiceover actor behind each and every one of those lovable, colorful characters. And that’s not to mention adult offerings like “BoJack Horseman,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and “Family Guy.”
Audiobooks: Thanks to digital platforms like Audible, audiobooks have seen a recent boom. Although some books are read by their author, other productions employ voiceover actors to play various characters and enliven the drama and action.
Movies: Voiceover talent is often tapped for major animated releases like Pixar’s “Finding Dory” or Disney’s “Moana.” And, with astounding advances in CGI and green screen technology in film, it’s also become commonplace for voice actors like Andy Serkis to be cast as CGI characters, as seen in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
Documentary TV and film: We get it—Sir David Attenborough of “Planet Earth” is your favorite documentary narrator. But what about the hundreds of other documentary films and series out there? From the prestige to the pulpy (as if Investigation Discovery’s melodramatic gotcha narrations aren’t a delight!), it takes an expert voice actor with a measured cadence, exquisite pronunciation, and dramatic chops to really sell a documentary as it’s laid out on screen.
Commercials: When was the last time you saw a commercial without a voiceover? In selling a product or service, one of the most effective ways to get a message across is by layering information about a product over an image—and guess who provides those voiceovers? That’s right! Professional voice actors.
Video games: In certain circles, the biggest video game releases in a given year are just as buzzy and eagerly anticipated as the year’s biggest blockbusters––and the voice talent behind these gamers’ beloved characters is just as revered.
Multimedia: And that brings us to perhaps the most exciting frontier in voice acting: multimedia entertainment. We live in a time where VO and VR are colliding; as virtual reality capabilities are expanding their influence on the gaming industry, so, too, do the opportunities for voiceover actors everywhere. While VR is just one frame of the ever-expanding multimedia entertainment umbrella, it’s the one to keep an eye on with regards to VO.
Like most industries, voice acting has its own vocabulary—and you should be familiar with the most common voiceover terms before you step into the studio. Voiceover experts Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins put together a glossary of key words and phrases that every voice actor should know. We’ve listed a few of the most important terms below:
- Button: A word, phrase, or sentence that wraps up a commercial without introducing additional talking points. Can be scripted or improvised.
- Copy: The text of the commercial (or “spot”) that will be read by the voice actor. Also known as the script.
- Level: As in, “Let’s get a level”—meaning that the voice actor should read the copy into the microphone at the volume they plan to use during the performance. This allows the engineer to calibrate their equipment prior to recording.
- Popping: A plosive speech sound caused by a sudden burst of air into the microphone, most notably on words beginning with P but frequently occurring with T, K, D, G and B.
- Punch: To highlight a word or phrase with a notably sharp and emphatic tone.
- Safety: A backup performance, recorded after the director feels they have captured everything required to complete the session.
- Slate: To introduce yourself at the beginning of a voiceover demo reel or audition tape.
- Three-in-a-row: Performing a line or phrase three times, purposely varying the attitude and intonation to create alternate versions. Also, reading the same line at different speeds but otherwise maintaining the same intonation throughout.
- VO: Shorthand for voiceover. In a script, VO is used to indicate the parts to be read by the voice actor.
No formal training is required for voiceover. Unlike stage or film acting, it’s rare for aspiring voice actors to pursue a university degree exclusively to learn more about voiceover. However, many successful voice actors work with both an acting coach and voice coach to hone their craft.
So how do you go about finding the right coach for you? It’s worth reaching out to fellow actors for a recommendation or referral, but do your own research as well. “Two fundamental qualities to look for in a coach are experience, and someone who understands the current and potential state of the voiceover industry,” says voice actor Jamie Muffett. Most coaches offer consultation sessions—meet with more than one and compare their assessments. Be cautious of anyone who seems overly complimentary. “Don’t choose a coach who tells you what you want to hear,” Muffett advises. “This is an immediate red flag. An honest coach will tell you things you absolutely do not want to hear. This could be anything from pointing out areas in your voice or delivery that you need to improve, or explaining the realities of the industry. It might even be as major as adjusting your imagined timeline or roadmap to success.”
The right coach will teach you how to properly deliver your lines, how to emote effectively, how to create characters, and how to maintain your vocal health. They may also be able to guide you through the process of creating a quality demo reel—but be wary of a coach who tries to push their demo reel production services too early in your training.
Finally, while in-person sessions are preferable, it’s more important to work with a quality teacher rather than a convenient one. Many coaches are willing to work with clients remotely through Zoom or Skype—so don’t limit your search geographically, especially if you live outside of major markets like NYC or L.A.
To become a voice actor, you’ll need a home voiceover studio where you can make recordings for both auditions and gigs. You’ll need three main pieces of voiceover equipment: a laptop or tablet, a professional-grade microphone, and editing software.
Unlike other mediums, voice actors are often able to work from home. Auditioning for a role is often as straightforward as recording lines (known as “sides”) provided by the project’s casting director and sending those back in for consideration. But that also means you need some equipment very specific to voiceover acting:
- Laptop or tablet: This is pretty self-explanatory, but you need a tool to store and edit your audio files.
- Professional-grade microphone: Look for a microphone with USB capabilities. You may also need a mic stand and a pop screen.
- Editing software: Audacity is a simple (and free) program that works for Macs, PCs, and tablets, says Backstage contributor KC Wright. “If you’re ready to invest in the highest end software, professionals swear by the all-encompassing (and complex) Pro Tools and Adobe Audition.”
- Good acoustics: Don’t overlook this final element of a home studio. “The acoustics in your recording space,” voiceover technician George Whittam explains, “have more to do with the recording quality than the mic you use.” The cheapest solution is to record in a closet full of clothes, he says, but you can also invest in soundproofing to create a more professional recording booth.
For a more in-depth look at this process, check out Backstage’s guide to setting up a home voiceover studio.
To start auditioning, you’ll need a voice acting demo reel—a roughly one minute-long compilation of audio clips that showcases your voiceover chops. (It’s the same concept as a traditional acting demo reel, except in audio form rather than video.) Making a reel should be a top priority if you’re looking to break into the voice acting industry, since most casting calls require one as part of your submission.
Your reel will differ depending on the kind of projects you’re going out for. For instance, an animation and video game demo reel should highlight your skills in creating characters and comedic timing, while a commercial demo reel should demonstrate that you can persuasively sell a product. It’s not uncommon for voice actors to have multiple reels that they use for different types of auditions.
Regardless of genre, you should assemble your voice acting demo reel in a specific order. Start with your highest-profile clips, if possible. That means the most recognizable brand, if you’re making a commercial reel, or the most famous author or publishing house, if you’re trying for an audiobook gig. Then, put your best material second—assuming it’s for smaller projects, like a local bank commercial or PBS pilot. Use the rest of your time to demonstrate your range. Demo reels should last between 55-70 seconds, and each clip should run about 10-20 seconds.
But what if you don’t have any professional clips? Many voiceover casting directors offer classes—they’ll work with you on recording a sample that can be used to build out your reel. For a less expensive option, you can also go the DIY route by selecting three to four commercials with different tones and energy levels. Transcribe the copy and practice it, then rent a sound booth for an hour or two and record your clips straight onto your laptop. You’ll want to replace those clips with professional ones after you’ve booked a few gigs, but it’s one way to get started.
But keep in mind that “you don’t necessarily need a demo reel to break into the business,” according to voice actor Linnea Sage. “If you’re not experienced, trained, and ready to create one, it’s not worth the cost. Take a class or get some coaching, then talk to your instructor about creating a reel.”
To find voice acting auditions—especially in the early stages of your career—an online casting platform like Backstage can be an invaluable resource. It’s more difficult to land high-profile work without an agent, of course. But for those early credits that will give you experience in the recording studio (and, ultimately, increase your chances of eventually landing an agent), Backstage can help. Our database of talent agencies helps you narrow down your options for representation, while the Community Forum makes it easy to connect with other aspiring or established voice actors for advice.
But, most importantly, subscribing to Backstage gives you access to our voiceover casting notices. Each one is broken down by type of production, compensation, location, the age range for talent sought, etc. Search results can also be filtered based on your preferences. Once you find a project that interests you and fits your type, check the notice for information on how to submit—or, if in-person auditions are being held, timing for the open call or additional information on how to schedule a time with casting will also be available.
Backstage has several subscription options available, including annual and six-month subscriptions to our web content and weekly print magazine, and six-month and monthly web-only subscriptions. Visit backstage.com/accounts/subscribe to see which option best suits you.
Networking is also essential to move your career forward in most creative industries, and voice acting is no different. One way to do this is to connect with other voiceover actors and industry pros at conferences around the country. Some of the most well-known include:
Voice acting auditions can be in-person or remote—but either way, you’ll start by slating. A slate is an actor’s recorded introduction at the beginning of the audition: your name followed by Take 1, Take 2, Take 3, etc. Even if your name is embedded in the title of the audio file, many casting directors want to hear from the start who they’re talking to. Casting director Jen Rudin says your slate should “feel and sound breezy and conversational.”
After your name and take is established, that’s when you take a breath and then go into the side’s copy provided by the project’s casting team. Because you’re often recording yourself and submitting an audio file remotely, you want to warm up before an audition, drink a lot of water, practice your diction while reading the sides. Same, however, goes for in-person voiceover auditions. Being prepared and present are the keys to success here. Another thing to keep in mind for those in-person auditions? Come early. “You should do everything in your power to come early to every single audition you get,” Rudin says. “When you arrive, sign in and check to see if the copy is out and available to read before you go into the room. Grab the copy and find a seat. Now is your time to read the lines to yourself and get familiar with the script. What is the product? What are the most important words to emphasize in your reads? Ask yourself those basic questions. Remember, this time in the waiting room is not the time to do your vocal warm-ups or practice reading out loud.”
To get a voiceover agent, you’ll need to research and compile a list of voice acting agencies, then submit your demo reel according to their instructions. Make sure you’re not getting ahead of yourself, however—especially if you’re just starting out, it may be too soon to look for representation. Agents want clients who have experience, after all!
But if you’ve already put together a solid demo reel and acting résumé, then getting signed is a good way to take your voiceover career to the next level. Here’s how to find (and land) a voice acting agent, according to voice actor Marc Cashman:
- Compile a list of potential voiceover agents and agencies. Cast your net wide: ask your local SAG-AFTRA office for a list of franchised agents, refer to the Voice Over Resource Guide and Backstage’s Call Sheet, and ask for recommendations from anyone you know in the industry.
- Ask your friends for a referral. If you have any friends who are also voiceover artists, ask if they’d be willing to listen to your demo. “If they think it’s strong, ask if they might ‘walk you into’ their agency and have their agent listen to your demo,” advises Cashman.
- Submit your demo reel and cover letter. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of agencies, check their submission protocol. If they’re accepting demos, send yours in; check back after 2-3 weeks.
- Ask the right questions at your agent meeting. Landing a meeting with a voiceover agent is good news—but don’t relax just yet. Look and act professional; ask informed questions (How do they promote current talent? Are they franchised by SAG-AFTRA?); be confident, but not cocky.
For more insight into the world of talent agencies—everything from the difference between agents and managers to how much you can expect to pay in commissions—check out our in-depth guide to getting an acting agent.
To prepare for a voiceover recording session, you should incorporate voice acting warmups into your routine. “Because speaking is such an everyday activity, voice actors assume that they are ready to perform at the drop of a hat with little or no preparation,” voiceover experts Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker note. “[M]any actors can render an adequate cold-reading of a script, but rarely can they get beyond adequate.”
But warming up for a voiceover audition calls for more than just tongue-twisters. Many vocal warmups for singers work for voice actors, as well. If you’re preparing in public, voice teacher Andrew Byrne recommends mouthing your lines, which activates your articulators (jaw, tongue, lips). “Additionally, several postural muscles of your larynx will be moving and getting warm, even though your vocal cords will still not be touching,” he explains.
Another warm-up you may not think of? Practicing through a straw. This creates a “semi-occluded vocal tract”—a “fancy way of saying that the tube of your throat is partially/mostly narrowed and lengthened,” Byrne says. “In addition to making the sound quieter, this technique helps your vocal cords meet more efficiently. Regularly practicing your songs [or monologues] through a straw can reduce vocal fatigue, and improve clarity and lower pressure.”
In the voiceover studio, actors will be directed to enter a glass-enclosed booth and, through headphones, you will be directed by the creatives or engineer on the other side. The session will usually only last a few hours.
Just like auditioning, a lot of commercial voiceover work can be done at the professional level remotely through the tools and at-home techniques listed above, but that’s often not the case for animated series and video games. Directors want you in the recording studio (sometimes with other actors) to really perfect the vision of whatever talking animal or ninja warrior you happen to playing onscreen.
Casting director Terry Berland breaks down everything you need to know about voiceover recording sessions, explaining for first-timers that they “will be directed to enter a glass-enclosed room (the booth) equipped with a mic, script stand, and headphones. The creatives directing you will be on the other side of the glass with an engineer. They’ll be speaking to you through a speaker system.” It’s a bit of a foreign experience for any actors who are used to on-camera filming sessions, huh? Sometimes, the creative team is even working remotely, in which case “you will be at a studio with an engineer and the creatives will be at a studio in their city, communicating with you and recording you through an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line.”
It’s important to remember, too, that just because you were the voice deemed fit for the job––whether it be an animated series or a commercial for a particular client––you should expect some direction while in the booth. To help in that direction, actors will often be told the emotional state of their characters, or they will be told what’s onscreen. Sometimes, they’ll even be shown a rough cut of the animation they’re speaking for.
Berland also reveals that one of the nicest things about a day in the studio is that it’s very rarely a full day! Usually, they only last a couple hours, and “if your audition was true to your ability and not overly edited, and you were easily able to step into the booth and follow their direction, your session mostly likely went very well."
Want to break into voiceover? Check out our voiceover audition listings!