By Emily Shea, Executive Creative Director
November 11, 2014
I still remember the first time I ever recorded a voiceover. I wasn’t sure what to expect (beyond a free lunch) and like most things, I figured I’d just wing it. Little did I know at the time of the many nuances and details needed to get a stellar VO.
It probably goes without saying that any number of factors can affect your voiceover, but here goes anyway:
The talent. They’re either amazing at what they do (and by “do,” I mean interpreting both content and context)—or have an amazing voice. Or both. They could also be overly opinionated, uninterested or a complete diva. Or they could, for whatever reason, just have a tickle in their throat that day or suddenly forget how to pronounce simple words like literature. You never know.
The project. We’ve all written scripts that would lull even the fussiest baby to sleep. But that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to somebody out there.
Other. The speakers could blow out. The A/C in the studio could be broken. Your client might be sitting in on the session and making the talent nervous. You might very well be nervous. But there’s really no need to be, as long as you know what you want.
Below, a short list of tips and such I’ve collected over the years for how to record a damn good voiceover.
Before the voiceover session:
Find a great audio engineer partner. The best engineers can literally make something out of nothing and are extremely adept at manipulating all the pieces. They’ve also got a great ear and can pick out nuances you may not have considered.
Send the script ahead of time to give the talent a chance to review prior to the session, as well as any additional pieces that may help set his/her frame of mind, like a poster or print ad from the same campaign. Really good voiceover talent will think visually as much as they think aurally.
Speaking of good talent, duh. Select the right voice. And sell it to your client. If it’s the right voice, coming up with a few indisputable bullet points to support your recommendation should be cake.
Some characteristics to consider when listening to voiceover audition reels include:
Do they enunciate clearly? Can they pronounce all of the words? This is especially relevant if they happen to be reading your script as part of their audition. For instance, if the talent consistently stumbles over, say, your client’s name (and didn’t have the decency to fix it before submitting their audition) …well, that’s not a good sign.
Does their reel show a wide variety of emotion and ability (e.g., they can easily switch from dramatic to funny to scared to authoritative, etc.)? Not only does this show range, but it can also be an indication that they are easily “directable.”
Do they fit the specs you had in mind? Yes, Virginia, a voice can sound “young” or “hipster” or “like someone with just a high school diploma.” Don’t worry about being too politically correct here. After all, a great movie depends on how well the actors are cast—and if the part calls for a dude who could pass for a deranged serial killer, well, you cast the guy who best fits that description. Simple as that.
At the voiceover session:
Be confident. You wrote it, after all, and only you know how it ought to sound.
Emphasizing different syllables or words does make a difference—sometimes, it can change the entire meaning of a sentence. So don’t let anyone tell you you’re being nit picky.
Don’t be afraid to ask the talent to do several takes. Or as many takes as needed. They’re there to deliver a product. They consider this a craft. And they’re being paid handsomely.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to do a “line read” for them—especially if they’re just not getting it. But don’t do it right off the bat. You always want to give the talent an opportunity to offer his or her own interpretation, first—especially if it’s a celebrity.
If your talent is delivering a low-energy read, ask them to smile as they’re reading it—you’d be surprised at how much you can hear the difference.
If you’re not sure what you’re looking for (or you’re having trouble expressing it), have the voiceover read one line or section three times in a row, three different ways. Sometimes, you can dictate what you want (e.g., “Give me A, B and C: happy, ecstatic and psychotic”), while sometimes, it’s okay to just give them the vague: “Just give it to me three different ways.” This gives them the opportunity to stretch their acting muscles, and might just end up giving you something you didn’t know you wanted.
What’s the matter? Got too much to say and not enough time to say it in? (Gee, that’s a new one). Don’t try to have the talent “read super fast.” It’ll sound much better if they read it at a pace that’s comfortable for them, and then let the compression technology do all the work.
Edit as you go. If this means keeping the voice talent around (and letting them out of the booth to stretch their legs a little), do so. You never know when you need to re-do a line, and once the talent’s gone, you’re SOL.
A word about editing
In film, a whole sequence can rely on the editor’s ability to find just the right takes and splice them together with inanely perfect timing. The same goes for editing voiceover. Mix and match pieces from different takes. Add beats between sentences or words for dramatic effect. Shorten unnatural pauses. No one in the history of recording VOs ever got it all in the first and only uninterrupted take. No one.
Other finishing touches
Music is key. It can impact overall mood, tone and pace. It can complement or completely fight the voiceover. It can sometimes be the sole reason why someone remembers your spot. If you’re the type of person who can easily run off a list of the best movie soundtracks of all time, then finding the right style of music should be easy. If not, try searching for music options by emotions (e.g., inspiration, playful, dark), instrumentation (acoustic, keyboard, electronic) or key words that strike a real or immediate visual, like chaos, frolicking or chocolate sundae.
Once you’ve got a few contenders, play them in the background while you literally read aloud the dialogue in your script. You’ll know when you’ve got the right track.
With sound effects, less is always more. A good sound engineer will know when to dial it up and when to keep it subtle. Sometimes, you don’t really want the listener to hear a particular sound effect, but rather, think they heard it. And besides, too many sfx in your spot (unless the concept is driven by it) will, more often than not, come off as cheesy.
A great VO is all about the details. But keep in mind you’ve been picking apart every unnatural detail of this dialogue for the last two hours—most of which will go unnoticed. The only thing left to do now is to take your free lunch and go.