It would be fair to say that this article has been many years in the making and probably long overdue in the sharing.  The goal of it is to facilitate an even better understanding between two communities: the artists who ply their trade in the booth, and those of us who must write, produce and/or edit those 30 second messages that keep us all employed.

All three of the engineers here at Babble-On can attest to a few sessions over the years where, for whatever reason, a writer/producer could not stay in sync with a voice-over talent regarding direction, timing, phrasing, etc.  The resulting frustration and  fallout was palpable. Unintended miscommunication got in the way of everyone’s ultimate goal – creating a really great radio or TV spot.

“Y’know, what gives? I thought I was being clear” is what is usually said to any one of us once the talent has departed and we’re ready to start editing and shaping the sound-design. Maybe you were. Maybe you weren’t. Hard to know. We’re not Voice-Talent. It may just be that the glass between us and the booth isn’t as transparent as we’d like to believe – more Blood-Brain Barrier than Open Window.

So, ok, what’s it like to be a VO talent inside that terrarium of gauze, glass, cords and gear which, at first blush, seems like an illicit construct: A Padded Cell cum Spanish Inquisition Chamber covered in soothing earth tones? What happens in there?

In order to know, the question had to be asked – “What would you like directors and writers to know about what you do that would be helpful in getting the best performance?”  For awhile now, we’ve been culling the responses and the following info is an aggregated snapshot that may shed some light –

For 90 minutes a talent’s headphones are mostly filled with just the sound of their own voices – interrupted by scattered flits and bits of talkback banter, direction, shots of indecipherable noise, criticism and encouragement.  There is an element of trying to connect with outer-space to it – the long pauses, bursts of communication, the uncertainty; it can even feel a little cold at times.  As you might imagine, this isn’t completely ideal.

Well, it would appear that the best way to keep things from falling into a culvert is to maintain a rhythm – have the session move along – keep them involved and in the loop.  From the start, as a director, be as clear and succinct as you can as to what you’d like to hear. An example might be, “I need a bright and positive tone, a quick pace, and the sense that you’re very familiar with this product – and I need it to come in at :18 seconds”.  It’s a starting point, and the talent know that this may well get altered. Allow several takes to come together before offering up too much insight – they are learning the steps to this dance, the steps of which (at first blush) are familiar only to you and the client.

While it seems logical to use celebrities as a reference, this can be more problematic than helpful. Better to say, “I need a smokier tone” than offer “sound like Carol Channing”. Celebrities can be generational (witness the deliberate example given), and a lack of familiarity with a particularly popular character can cause a talent to “go to that weird place in their head” as one put it.

Allow for “happy accidents” if at all possible – giving the talent some leeway to steer phrases one way or another within the context of your direction.  The steam can completely fall out of a performance when a talent is simply trying to mimic a line read. It becomes aiming rather than pitching and the believability can sag quickly.  Sometimes, a line-reading is the only way, but  a simple “go up at the end of that phrase” seems to be a quicker way to achieve the same result.

“Sound natural” can actually be a confusing and difficult direction to pursue. As one talent said, “It isn’t natural to speak casually with scripted words about shoe inserts” .  Better to say, “do what you can to make this seem as one-to-one as possible”. This direction gives a more workable space to an actor and will get you where you want to go more quickly.

If you loved the audition, try and have it on hand.  Many things have happened since that initial record and it can be difficult to remember what was originally done.

Give playbacks – it can help talent see where they can pick things up, slow things down, where they can improve, etc. Feeling involved in the process can “get me there much more quickly” quote, unquote.

Offering to do “three-in-a-row” of a particularly problematic phrase is more helpful than you can know.

If the performance requires a lot of strain – offer up breaks for water and understand that, like any muscle, a voice can fatigue more quickly than imagined.

“Ok, let’s just do that one more time”, “Ok, great. Let’s just do that one more time”, “Perfect. Let’s just do that one more time”.  Great things to say, but it would be helpful to know if this “one more time” were for safety, or if there was actually something missing. As actors, they want to be certain they are communicating your ideas well, not just reading aloud and, yet – “still missing it”.

It might seem obvious, but maintaining a sense of humor and being positive works wonders at keeping a talent involved and on track. Talent were quick to point out that this doesn’t mean “don’t criticize”,  – their livelihood is filled with rejection.  But to any extent possible let them know what’s working along with what needs to change. This combination seems to be best at keeping them “on script” with what you’re looking to achieve.

To close this off, thanks to all the talent (local, national and international) who offered their wisdom and insight for this Babble-Blog entry. It will certainly help us to do our job at the studio with greater insight. In the coming weeks, we’ll see if we can’t get the Writer/Producer perspective on such things as well.

If you’d like to offer a comment, we’d love to hear from you. We currently have our Comments button disabled here due to spam issues, but you’re more than welcome to use the Contact Us button above and send us an e-mail through the link there. We’ll try and post a few of them as we get time.