"So you do voice overs? Like 'what's his face' does?"
Yeah, sure do. "What's his face" gets around enough that people know his voice, even though his name escapes them. He (or she) is the voice that sounds strangely familiar, but you just .... can't ... place it, though you know you've heard it somewhere plenty of times before. Rather similar to the guy (or gal) who shows up regularly in movies or TV shows as a supporting character, but whose name eludes you. Though you recognize them when you see them.
As Harry Chapin sings, we're "the bright good-morning voice who's heard but never seen." It's true! Most of our work calls for an upbeat, if not cheerful voice, at whatever time of day we're working. We're usually not seen, unless the client wants a directed session with video. And our faces certainly don't accompany the finished spots; otherwise, they wouldn't be called voice overs at all, but on-camera commercials. And we'd probably be paid a bit more.
We voice actors pretty much also labor in obscurity. Well, most of us do; there's always a few well-known superstars. But unlike Harry's woebegone DJ at W.O.L.D., many of us are quite happy in our work, which we perform from our home studios, with family just beyond our not-quite-soundproofed booths. Working when we wish to as freelancers. It's a great career.
A lot of people aren't too familiar with what exactly a voice over IS, though. Sure, once they get the idea (the voice heard over a TV commercial or on a radio commercial, narrating a documentary or short video), it makes sense. Then they think of memorable, and familiar voices like those of James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman who voice a lot of things. Terrific actors, both of them.
Others "of a certain age" have additional touchpoints when it comes to voice over: Don Pardo, the ubiquitous announcer for "The Price is Right" and "Jeopardy!" Gary Owens of Laugh-In fame. Casey Kasem, the American Top 40 countdown DJ and the voice of Shaggy from "Scooby Doo." Mel Blanc, man of a thousand iconic cartoon voices.
Once people get the idea of what a voice over is and that yes, they hear it all the time, they start thinking of all the famous animated commercial characters in pop culture: the Geico Gekko. the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Tony the Tiger. Charlie the Tuna. Smokey Bear. Mr. Peanut. Even the talking M&Ms.
People tend also to think in stereotypes, like the derogatory old saw that an actor who does voice overs has "a face for radio." Or that men voice commercials for "manly" products like beer, cigarettes, and fast cars, while women primarily do spots for retail, fashion, and beauty. Or that VO artists are anti-social or extremely shy; after all, they shut themselves away in a small insulated space, usually without windows, all day. Maybe they're agoraphobic, too?
Well, surprise surprise, a professional voice actor may be nearer than you think.
News flash: "What's his face" may in fact be your next door neighbor.
Everyday people doing voice overs
Yes, people from all walks of life are making their way into voice over. True, not all of them should be doing it, but technology significantly lowered the bar to entry and it's up to agents or the clients themselves to sort it all out.
In the past, most work came through agents who vetted the talent on their rosters, and recordings took place at their clients' preferred studio locations. Today, many voice actors find work on their own or through online casting sites, auditioning and recording jobs in home studios. And very few casting sites vet their talent.
As a result, not everyone who calls themselves a voice talent is a well-trained professional who has invested a considerable amount of time and money into their voiceover career. So, if you're a client vetting freelancer credentials, be sure to do your due diligence: check out their voiceover websites and demos and ask them to record a sample from your script. You'll want to make sure that the quality you'll receive matches or exceeds your expectations. That includes the ability to delivery broadcast-quality audio files to your specs within a short turnaround time.
There are, however, several big advantages to the opening up of the industry. You, the client, have much more choice than ever before. Many different types of voices, representing just about every ethnicity, age, or gender possibility on the planet. You'll also find voice actors with experience relevant to your line of work. Many have come from (or are still working in) professions like IT, education, finance, and medical or legal services, or have years of military experience. This means that your project can have a true voice of experience that understands and knows how to best relate your message.
You also have the removal of middle men for many jobs. While agents are still best equipped to provide auditions from top-tiered talent for large, national commercial campaigns and other high profile work, you can manage your costs by contracting directly with the talent themselves. This may be done through the talents' websites, social media, the talents' own outreach, industry referrals, and casting sites (OK, that's a small middle man).
You'll find that talent is available at more affordable price points. There IS an industry standard (see the GVAA rate guide for standard non-union rates in the US), but there are many more non-union jobs than ever before. (SAG/AFTRA is the union and has its own pre-negotiated rates for each type of job.) Just remember that you often get what you pay for. A fair rate will bring you auditions from many excellent voice actors. Offering bargain-basement payment will draw the newer, less trained and less experienced people, and you may not be satisfied with the final quality.
Celebrities have jumped with both feet into the fray
If you have the deep pockets, you can also get a bona fide A-lister celebrity to narrate your commercial or video. They can help sell your product, film, or cartoon by the power of their names alone. That and the powerful imagery they bring to the table is why you'll hear so many as the voice of a commercial brand or as a memorable character in an animated film.
If you like the imagery that these celebrity voices evoke, but lack the budget to afford them, you can hire a celebrity soundalike. Similar to stage or screen actors who can impersonate a popular or well-known figure, there are those who can sound very much like them.
More often than not, though, I've found that clients prefer to use celebrities as a reference for the qualities that they want to evoke in a voice over. For example, voice actors are hired that bring the authority and confidence of Allison Janney or Robin Wright to a script. Or Morgan Freeman's wisdom. Or any number of other signature voices that represent the type of person that the client audiences would be drawn to. It's all about the credibility of the voice and how the actor connects to the message, so that it resonates with the audience.
"Just remember that you often get what you pay for. A fair rate will bring you auditions from many excellent voice actors. Offering bargain-basement payment will draw the newer, less trained and less experienced people, and you may not be satisfied with the final quality."
Good-bye, stereotypes. Don't let the door hit you on your way out.
Gone are the days when men voiced men's products and women only pitched those for other women. Women entered previously male-dominated domains because - hey, it was effective! The guys listening to these commercials preferred hearing a woman's voice over another man's. Especially if it had a compelling, sultry quality to it. Or an approachable, friendly tone.
Gone, too, are the stereotypes of the announcer or DJ voice pitching products. Why? Generational change. Millennials and Gen Zers especially balk at being told and sold to, preferring "real" conversational voices that share experiences without the authoritarian overtones.
And buh-bye to the notion that all working American voice actors live in LA or New York. Not at all! Plenty of talent work in small or regional markets, doing quite well, thank you very much. And with home studios and connectivity software like Source Connect and ipDTL (and Zoom and Microsoft Teams and FaceTime, etc.), voice artists can live and work just about anywhere they have an internet connection. What technology began, Covid hastened, and now it's hard to find a professional voice actor worth his or her salt who does NOT have a broadcast-quality home studio.
Laura's Quick Tips
Technology has given us a more even playing field: more and better available talent, more opportunities to book VO work
You can find talent at every price point, from A-lister celebrities to professionals in your industry who are also accomplished voice actors
Most audiences prefer to listen to the voice of a friend or caring professional sharing experience vs. the voice of authority telling them what to do
Oh, one more thing...
Remember when I said that the familiar, but can't-put-a-finger-on-who-that-is voice you hear in a commercial could be your next door neighbor? They - or should I say we - are somewhat easy to spot. We're the ones looking on in dismay when you decide to mow your grass or cut down a tree while we're in or about to start a recording session. We probably won't say anything, but the forlorn look will give us away. Hey, our recording booths may be good, but it's very hard if not impossible to block out high-powered noises.
On the other hand, you'll know who to call the next time your neighborhood or club is putting on a live auction and is looking for a a dynamic pro to give your event some sizzle and fun. 😏