Peter Drew shares his expertise about how to get started in the voiceover business. Peter covers voiceover training and coaching, setting up a studio, finding voiceover work and more. [22 min.]
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in the voiceover business.
Well, I was in radio, as many people who end up in voiceovers start in radio. Because of the business radio is – it’s a business where you move around a lot – sometimes the pay is not so great, and with consolidation of all the radio stations in the country, such as Cox and all these different large corporations, a lot of production positions were eliminated. You have four or five stations in the market that have been put under one roof, and you don’t need five production directors, you need one and a bunch of part-timers, so a lot of people were let go, and they decided to try and stay in the business in some way, shape, or form. Voiceovers is a way to do that. I’d been doing voiceovers freelance even when I was in radio. I was in radio for 25 years, and I had been doing freelance even way back in college, before I got into commercial radio. I’ve been doing it a long time, then I went full-time freelance in 2001.
Can you give us an overview of how this voiceover business works?
Well, nowadays is has very much changed from when I first started. In the old days you had reel-to-reel tapes and you sent your reel around to local production houses, and hopefully if you lived in a market that had enough production houses that were doing local radio, regional and maybe even national, you could get some work. And of course the major media centers like New York, LA, Chicago, that’s where all the majority of the national work was done. And most of that was union, I mean there’s non-union work, but the really good work has always been union, and so basically you sent your demo around and then they call you and you go in and audition, or they just hire you off your demo. You have the sound we’re looking for, here’s the copy, go in the booth, read it, then you go home. Nowadays that’s all changed. Now you can sit in your own little home studio, you can do those home studios very reasonably now, and make it sound pretty professional, and do everything by MP3 or ISDN.
If you have a good voice, how hard is it to learn how to do voiceovers?
Well, it’s not the voice, it’s not the voice. It’s voice acting. If you look at a lot of actors, movie actors, stage actors, they don’t have the greatest voices, you know, they don’t have that Don LaFontaine, a fellow who everybody knows about, the guy who does “In a world…,” you know, all the movie trailers, and he does the promos for Survivor, on CBS. He’s one of the most famous voiceover people. He’s gotten a lot of exposure lately. He did a GEICO commercial on television. You may have seen the the one where he is standing behind the microphone in the woman’s kitchen, and she’s sitting there talking about her story of how she needed to use GEICO and he’s announcing in the background, and he’s a got a niche if you will, where he’s doing that big voice promo stuff, and, that’s a specialized area of voiceover. If you want to be your average voiceover person making a living at it, you have to have more variety in your repertoire, and again, it’s not the voice so much as what you do with it.
So you’re not necessarily born with great voice talent, or it’s not necessarily something you learn?
Some people are naturals, are natural hams and they’re very vocal and they’re very verbal and able to articulate themselves well. They’re able to articulate ideas well. But, you can be trained, I mean actors need to have training. Some people are natural actors but they still get training, because there are certain things that you can do through the training to make your performance even more believable than just the natural, raw talent. And it’s best to get some kind of instruction if you’re first starting out. I’ve had some training, not a whole lot, and I plan on getting more, I’ve been checking into some of the voiceover coaches, and I eventually want to hook up with a coach and get some training and take my business to the next level. So that’s something that if you’re starting out, and that’s what this podcast is all about, starting a voiceover business, you want to make sure you get some training before you spend the money on the business.
Talk a little bit about training and voice coaching.
Theres a simple way to do it to see if you have any affinity for this cause you can have the greatest voice or be quite animated and …with a speech. but once you put a script into your hand you turn into a wooden toy so to speak, a very wooden read, is to go to a local college or community college, maybe an adult education course, and a lot of colleges have that kind of a program, continuing ed, and very often there is a course on intro to acting, intro to improvisation, and if you can take one of those courses and get a feel for it, actually do some performance in class, you know, stand up and perform, and you do improv, they put you in those goofy situations and you have to improvise, and get some feedback from a professional coach or actor, then that sort of tells you, should I proceed or not. Should I take it a step further? And if an acting coach or actor that’s teaching the course is encouraging or if you ask them, they say “Yeah, you seem to have some innate talent that can be trained”, you find yourself a coach, and you don’t have to be in a market where there are actually coaches where you go and visit them in their studio or their home, you can do it by telephone now, and telecoaching, and there are a whole bunch of different coaches out there, who do the telecoaching. There’s Nancy Wolfson, there’s Susan Berkley, James Alburger, Penny Abshire, and they have The Art of Voice Acting workshops, in San Diego, and many many many more. Peter Rofe out of New York, in Manhattan. A lot of New York voice talent go to him. But a lot of them, most of them, train over the phone. So, that’s not an impediment anymore to get voice coaching.
Talk a little bit about the demo. What is it, what should be in it, and your general thoughts on the subject?
Oh, the demo. Well, the first thing of course is to get the training, and then the demo is down the road. Beware of the two day seminar that’s says “Oh, we’ll teach you how to do voiceovers and do a demo for you.” Be wary of those, it can be costly and as I said before, you can’t become a shoemaker with two lessons. You need to be an apprentice and make shoes, until you get it right. It’s the same with voiceover. Before you make the demo you need the training. So be wary of those. They’ll promise you things and you’ll have a demo, but it probably won’t get you much work.
What kind of equipment is usually required to get started?
It can be pretty simple and pretty inexpensive nowadays, starting with the thing everybody thinks about when you’re recording: the microphone. You can get a good condenser mic, the mics you see on stage, let’s say, or the ones you may have used in high school in the audiovisual department, or something like that. A little mic with a little ball on top, that’s a dynamic microphone. There are some good dynamics that you can use for voiceover, but most people get a condenser. If you’re going to be doing promo work, imaging work, trailers, the standard mic is the Sennheiser 416 which is called a shotgun mic. It’s that long, thin mic that you may have seen on TV, sporting events, TV shows when the mic drops down into the frame when it’s not supposed to. When it’s long and skinny and has little holes on the side, that’s called a shotgun mic, and it’s very directional. That’s what all those little holes are for. What it does is cancels the sound coming from the side, really the only sound that’s going in is right at the very tip of it, a little element that senses the sound is at the tip of it, and that’s very popular for doing voiceovers for imaging and trailers, those kinds of things. And then there are condenser mics, and most voiceover people get a condenser mic. I have a Shure KSM32, and they always list prices which are never anywhere near what you’d pay for street if you go to an actual store. My microphone lists for a thousand dollars, well, you can buy it for about $500 in a store or online. And it’s a condenser mic, its cardioid pattern, what that means is really only one side of the microphone records your voice, it picks up your voice, the other side is what they call a null. If you went to the back of the mic and talked it would sound really fuzzy and muddy and not very good at all, but that’s the idea, you’re trying to keep any sound from the other side from getting into the microphone. It’s called a cardioid pattern. And you can get these condenser mics, a good one, a good enough one if you will, for $200-$300. So you get your mic, your condenser mic, and you’ll need a stand, and what they call a suspension mount, it’s like little elastic bands that you put your microphone in, and that isolates it from shock. If you stomp on the floor, the vibration goes up the stand and hits those little rubber bands and dissipates the thump so it doesn’t get into your microphone as loud. You’ll still hear it a little bit, but it isolates it. So you’ll need that, and then you’ll need a cable to run from the microphone to what you’re going to plug it into. So that’s the microphone part. And nowadays, a lot of it is done with what’s called a digital input, an input/output device, digital I/O, these are USB or FireWire devices, little boxes, and you plug your mic into it, and you plug the little box into a USB port on your computer. There’s software in the computer, a recorder of some kind, recording software, and the signal just goes into that box, an analog signal that’s been digitized and made into a digital signal and that goes into your computer. Your record it in that computer and then you edit it up and make it nice and clean, it doesn’t take much, you don’t have to be an editing genius to do it, you can learn it in an afternoon, and make your MP3s, and then you e-mail them off. It’s really pretty simple.
What software do you use to mix and edit your voiceovers?
I’m using Sony Vegas. It used to be Sonic Foundry. Sonic Foundry was purchased by Sony, and Sony is marketing Vegas. It’s a good program, it’s both video and audio. It was originally an audio only program, and then it became a video and audio program, and it’s quite good, if you’re going to be doing more sophisticated stuff. I do some audio production as well and some work with video and slides and things, so it’s nice to have the video aspect, too, in the software. So that’s what I use for recording and editing.
Tell us a little bit about your thoughts on home studio design.
Oh, home studio design. The first thing you need to find is a quiet space, and that’s the hard part. It depends on the neighborhood you’re living in, what room you’re deciding to use. “Oh, I want to use a front bedroom.” Well, that’s on the street, and you have trucks rumbling by. Or maybe a bus or the kids are loading up the school bus out front and lawnmowers, those kinds of things. So you have to find a quiet spot or create one. And if you can find that in your home, good, and then you want to acoustically treat it, to make sure it doesn’t sound like you’re in a big box and have that hollow sound. When you walk into a bedroom that’s empty and you clap your hands or you talk it sounds really echoey and has lots of reverb, and when you clap your hands, almost a twang kind of a sound. You don’t want to have that on your voiceovers, so you have to acoustically treat the room, or you have to create a booth of some kind that is quiet and a lot of people use their closet. They’ll have their equipment outside, and they’ll have their microphone in the closet, actually using the clothes in the closet as a way to dampen the sound, dampen the reverb and the noise, and they put their mic right in there. You just walk into your closet and read. And it’s a simple way to do it, and a lot of people do it that way. Some people go whole hog, and they build a real studio, actually a wall-within-a-wall studio, with a full booth, and a little control room, and it depends on how committed you are, and how far into the business. If you’ve been in the business for awhile and you want to step up your studio to the next level, you invest in that. So, you can buy a VocalBooth, a WhisperRoom, I’m trying to think of some of the other companies. GK acoustics, they have vocal booths you can buy. They’re modular and you can bring the parts into your basement or your bedroom or whatever.
Assuming you have a reasonable degree of talent, how much can you expect to earn doing voiceover work?
Well, it depends on your marketing, because it’s like any business, it’s 80% marketing and 20% actually doing the voiceovers. People think, oh, I’ll just get an agent. Well, no, it doesn’t work that way. An agent is not going to get you all the work. You have to sell yourself. And that’s the other component to this. You may have a lot of talent, and a fellow called me about two months ago, and he wanted to get into voiceovers, and do it, and I said well, you have to realize that you have to sell yourself. “Oh, I’m not good at that, I don’t like to do that.” I said, “Well, maybe voiceovers are not for you.” “I want to try it anyway.” “OK, be my guest, go ahead and beat your head against the wall, that’s OK by me.” But you’ve got to market your business, and that includes sending demos to production houses, advertising agencies, casting directors. And, of course, try to get talent agents. You want an agent nowadays if you’re going to be working out of your studio, and you’re not going there, they’re coming to you, you’ve got to have more than one agent, you’ve got to have an agent in every major city or market that you’re targeting. I have three of them and I’m working on getting more. There are certain parts of the country that are hot for voiceovers in advertising at certain points, and if you can sort of keep tabs on when markets are hot, you want to target that market with your demo, and market with postcards, letters, a direct mail campaign if you will. Calling up and reminding the casting people, the producers, that you’re there. That’s where the real work lies. You can make six figures. But if you’re self employed and say you’re single, and you’re not working another job or you’re only working a part time job, you’re going to have to pay for your own insurance. Insurance ain’t cheap. Medical insurance and maybe property insurance to protect your investment. That’s another cost that’s involved.
Who are your customers in this business? Are they mostly radio stations?
I do have some radio stations. Again, because I was in radio, I was in creative services for 25 years, I did a lot of imaging for radio stations, and voiced a lot of it myself. Later in my career a lot of that actually went out of house as far as the voice work, to voice talent, so they didn’t have me 24 hours a day on the radio station. I still put the production together, but I wasn’t voicing them. That happens a lot in radio now. The production director isn’t the voice of the promo or isn’t the voice of the station anymore. So I do have some of those clients, I have some radio, but I have more TV stations than I have radio stations actually, and I do the imaging for TV stations in Orlando and a bunch of other markets around the country. And that’s part of the business and that’s a nice thing to have because that’s on a retainer basis, and you’re guaranteed a check every month.
You talked a little bit about ISDN, or integrated services digital network line. They’ve been a tremendous asset for the home studios, giving them the ability to transmit very high quality audio for a long time. With almost ubiquitous high speed DSL and cable connections, do you think that ISDN lines are on the way out, or do you think it’s still necessary for someone to be seen as a professional in this business?
Well, at this point ISDN is still the major way to go, as far as that kind of voiceover production is concerned. There is Digidesign that makes ProTools which is a digital recording and editing software suite. They have created a program called Source-Connect to use the Internet to do the same thing with the same kind of quality as an ISDN.
Some websites that seem to be popping up like Voices.com and Voice123.com work to bring buyers together with voiceover talent. Do you have experience using these services, and what’s your impression of them?
Yeah, I am a member of each, and several others, and frankly I get a lot of leads. The leads come in, and I have to have time during the day to audition, and the problem is you need to be able to audition immediately to be able to take advantage of the leads because it’s almost first-in.
There are other websites like RadioDaddy.com and VoiceDaddy.com that offer free voiceovers.
Yeah, I know. And people do that just to get experience. You can do it and do a few of them, but don’t waste your time doing too many of them, because you’re just giving away your services for free.
To read some great articles Peter has written about getting into the voiceover business, visit his website at www.peterdrewvo.com.