There are very few educational institutions offering voice over training. Some schools (such as the Actor’s Centre in London) offer short courses, but in general it is necessary for the individual voice actor to train themselves through constant practise. A formal vocal training (at one of the Conference of Drama Schools) is certainly an advantage, but not in any way essential. It is possible for the individual to hone their skills and learn how to do voice overs without a formal voice over training. It’s essential to invest time in this before spending money to record a demo reel.
How to do voice overs
Listen and learn
As part of your practise it’s important to start listening to all sorts of material. To begin with, log on to any one of the voice over agency websites and listen to some voice reel samples. It may be useful to concentrate on listening to voice actors who fall into a similar bracket to yourself; if you are a middle-aged man from Birmingham, it will be of little value listening to a teenage cockney girl as you will very rarely be suitable for the same sort of work. You can also record ads from the TV and radio – sometimes these are of even greater use as they are real examples of working voice actors and provide a great way of finding free sample voice over scripts.
Next, transcribe the ones that appeal to you from the selections you’ve listened to and make notes about the style of delivery. Listen for pauses, inflections and emphasis. Make notes on your transcription; I like to use an upward pointing arrow for upward inflections and the opposite for downward inflections, a slash to indicate a pause and I underline a word to give it emphasis. You are by no means locked into the same interpretation as the artist you are listening to, but it will give you a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
It’s also important to time the original recordings of the commercials. Awareness of timing is an essential skill for any voice over artist; companies pay for a precise amount of airtime and they expect it filled to the second. If a client has paid for 30 seconds of advertising time, you will be expected to come in at 29.5 seconds; no more and no less. If you run longer with your reading, the recording will be unusable and if you run shorter, the company will be left thinking they should have squeezed 6 more words in there!
The next stage is to listen to yourself. You will need to get hold of a Dictaphone of some sort. Many smart phones now have them included as standard, but I like to use a gadget that is specifically designed for recording the human voice as it tends to produce a more genuine recreation of what you will sound like when you are recorded in a professional voice over studio.
Record yourself performing the same scripts you’ve transcribed so you can compare your interpretation with the original. The more you listen to your own voice, the more you’ll start to get an idea of where you fit in to the industry. Are you more suited to a soft-sell or a hard-sell? Is your vocal tone right for documentaries or cartoons? Versatility is great but it won’t necessarily make you commercially successful. It’s far more useful to potential employers and agents if you fill a gap in the market; what is your niche?
For guidance on what your voice might be suitable for, click here for a list of the different types of voice over jobs.
Having discovered what your strengths are, it’s time to refine your skills and take your voice over training on to the next level.
To breathe or not to breathe
That is not really the question. If you don’t breathe, you die. In terms of how to do voice overs, it’s all about how and when you breathe. As you listen to yourself, you are bound to become aware of the sound and pattern of your own breathing.
I know when I was just starting out, I sounded like I was running a marathon; my breathing was shallow and extremely frequent. Over time, it’s essential for the voice actor to learn to breathe deeply and slowly, using the diaphragm. A great way of doing this is through doing yoga or singing lesson.
Before launching into a speech, stand calmly and take three or four very deep breaths, expanding the diaphragm and keeping the shoulders down and relaxed. In his book Voice-Overs: A Practical Guide, Bernard Graham Shaw advises holding the last breath for 2 seconds before starting to speak. This works well for me as it prevents me from taking a panicky snatched breath, which inevitably sounds awful and out-of-control.
Sip water in between takes to avoid a dry mouth, which can cause a clicky sound between words.
Keep your tools sharp
Perhaps the most critical part of your voice over training and one that should be kept up throughout your career, is the conditioning of your face, tongue, mouth and even your body. These are your tools. Recording studios are often under pressure from clients for a quick turn around once the artist gets in the booth. The best way to avoid stutters and stumbles is to keep your tools in great shape.
Prima-ballerinas practise at the barre every day and keep their muscles toned and flexible. Similarly, the voice over artist should read aloud as much as possible. Give your voice flexibility by doing tongue twisters and vocal exercises. Always warm up before a session by humming and practising articulation. This will allow you to play with pitch, tone, intonation and tempo far more freely.
Avoid dairy products for a day or so before recording, as they can have an adverse effect on your voice, making it claggy and producing excess mucus. Caffeine from tea and coffee can have a similar impact. Keep the vocal chords lubricated by drinking plenty of water.
Dance like nobody’s watching
The voice is produced in the body. Therefore, it’s important to keep the body alive and active in the recording booth or in front of your Dictaphone; being physically fit and having an awareness of your physicality will make this possible. When confronted with a microphone, some people’s voices can sound under-energised and unexciting. The tone is flat and downward inflections of important words are abundant. None of this works for the purpose of voice acting. The listener must be engaged with what they are hearing, and seduced and manipulated to continue listening until the commercial or narration ends.
The easiest way to achieve this is through active use of body language. In everyday life, we very rarely speak without physical engagement. Having a firm, rooted stance (never sitting down) and gesticulating with energy and commitment give the voice a natural, yet exciting quality.
The best advice that anyone ever gave me was to smile whilst recording a voice over, use facial expressions and to not be afraid of using my body behind the microphone; this transformed the end product. Because I’m so active in the booth, I’m often asked by sound engineers and clients if I’ve had any dance training.
Of course, in the course of your voice over training you will need to learn how to connect with and interpret various types of dialogue. If you’re interested in this, here’s a link to an article I wrote about the method I use when faced with a commercial voice over script for the first time.
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