What is a Voiceover Artist?

Voice Actor

Traditionally, voiceover is any speech, recorded or live, to accompany other media or activity. Examples might be the “Voice of God” introductions over the PA systems at live events, a radio continuity announcer informing listeners of the schedule or a narrator on a nature documentary.

Voiceover has evolved massively over the last 10 years for various reasons but the fundamentals still, as the song says, apply.

The Basics

A professional Voiceover Artist in a studio recording environment is required to have excellent vocal clarity with an ability to read accurately with directed pace and intonation.

Until comparatively recently, high quality recording took place in costly, specialised studios staffed by editors, sound engineers and directors. The primary concern was the cost per hour, so recording sessions had to be completed successfully in the allotted time. Hence the need to deliver the required performance as quickly as possible.

This isn’t easy. Give it a try! Take a page of text – a news item or book or even this text, and record it in fewer than three takes, with no stutters, mispronunciations or incorrect intonation.

Today, these environments are still important, but many other branches to the industry have grown. It is now cost effective to set up professional quality recording studios from home. There are a plethora of channels where the human voice adds value to the text and the reduced cost of professional home based studios opens the possibilities up to a much wider market.

Voiceover is more than just reading aloud

However, the skills of the Voiceover Artist are not limited to the vocals. The performance is delivered to a microphone and the performance characteristics vary with the microphone and technology behind it.

Dynamic Range

The human voice has a very wide variation in volume, called the dynamic range. Think of the difference between the quietest whisper that can be heard in a room and then the loudest booming voice.

This range is too much for most recording equipment. If the sounds coming in are louder than the limits set on the equipment, the recording will sound like a Dalek convention.

At the risk of over-simplifying, it might help to think of the dynamic range as a very wide goal, with the recording equipment settings as the goalkeeper and the artist playing a back-pass. A poorly skilled artist could potentially kick the ball anywhere toward the goal and the goalkeeper can only cover a small fraction of the goal. If the ball misses the keeper, it’s an own goal; the recording fails.

Sound Engineers must calibrate their settings (place the Keeper) to the expected Voiceover Artist’s delivery and the artist is responsible for helping with this. Once set, the artist must deliver to stay within those settings.

The artist must be acutely aware of their volume and other things that affect the recording, such as the distance to the microphone and the point on the microphone the vocals deliver to.

Microphone Characteristics

The characteristics of the microphone used and the relationship to the artist play a huge part in the sound of the recording. For example, with one type of microphone, delivering from six to eight inches away at a 20-degree angle to the centre of the microphone is “ideal”. Move too far and the recording gets quiet and picks up too much background noise. Too close and the volume causes distortion. Move off 20 degrees or deliver to a different point on the microphone and the volume and sound quality changes.

However, move in closer, change the delivery point and the sound can become much warmer. This technique has the downside that the microphone will pick up more mouth noise (more on this below), so the Voiceover Artist must be aware of this and adjust accordingly. Lots to think about!

Human Factors

Being human, Voiceover Artists can create their own sounds that the high-quality microphones will detect. The rustle of clothing, movement of feet, breathing and mouth smacks.

Mouth smacks? Ah, yes. Horrible things. Try reciting the vowels silently. Just mouth them. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the sounds your mouth makes. The less hydrated you are, the more noise your mouth will make, and the microphone will pick every sound up. At worst, it can sound like someone opening a bag of crisps while speaking. So just drink, right? Absolutely. But it’ll take 2 hours before that takes effect. Remember that limited recording studio time? Mouth clicks can destroy the recording so the professional Voiceover Artist will know to have prepared and hydrated well in advance.

As with an Actor, the Voiceover Artist is skilled in the use of the very many muscles that produce and control sound, and these need to be warmed up and prepared before recording. Failing to do this properly leads to mispronounciations, lack of vocal clarity and means the recording sound will change as the session progresses, so early takes sound different if played alongside later takes.

Intonation

How much time do you think a Voiceover Artist has to prepare a text delivery? Often it’s less than an hour. Sometimes last minute changes happen just before the recording starts. Yet the recording needs to be accurate. Intonation needs to be right. So the Voiceover Artist must be able to read ahead. That is, read several words ahead of those being spoken so the correct intonation can be used.

Try reading this line “John answered his phone and was”. Now, how did it sound? Was it right? Well let’s see. The rest of the line could be either “delighted to hear from his best friend!” or it could be “devastated to hear that his best friend had been in an accident”. The first part could be delivered in completely different ways, depending on the second part. Try reading ahead and recording at the same time. It takes practice!

Current Trends

So all of the above applied to Voiceover Artists in the past and it still applies today but it’s got a bit more complex.

The requirements for delivery style have changed, with the current emphasis being on naturalism, something the acting profession has been working at for some years but is not, well, natural to those who have not worked at it. Home recording has opened a multitude of possibilities, but home recording requires technical knowledge, self-directing, editing and mastering skills in addition to voiceover skills.

Good Voice

So I hope by now it’s clear that being a Voiceover Artist is far more than reading aloud or just having a good voice. Voiceover Artists require mastery over their vocal instrument and a good understanding of the technical medium to which it is applied. That takes training and technical knowledge applied to an artistic imagination.