It’s a question I get asked all the time. How did I get started as a VO artist? And, how can others do the same? Well, let’s get you started, shall we…
The voice-over industry. It’s one of those catch-22 vibes, where the more work you’ve done, the more work you tend to get. Which can make things tricky for those trying to start at square one. But, if you tilt your head and look at it just right, there’s also an opportunity right there… See, everyone that ever made it – big or small – has one thing in common: they all actually started. Most people want to, but never really do.
I’ve explained these basics to at least a dozen people since I got professionally going, about 12 years ago. And I’ve been asked by at least a dozen more who never followed up on the promised chat about it “when we have some time”. Only two or three I can think of ever actually did the thing…
This article serves as a resource for anyone, past or future, who really wants to know how to give it a go. And, you know, so I can cop out of explaining the entire schpiel to the next homie who asks.
1. Have, you know… a good voice.
This one should seem obvious. But then, so should many things in life, and yet we all (myself included) get basic stuff wrong all the time. Not everyone who is articulate and likes to chat up a storm actually has a particularly good-sounding voice, even though they themselves might love the sound of it. Similarly, some people who are quiet in their day-to-day lives, have beautiful voices with glorious cadence.
You’ll need to get very used to the sound of your recorded voice. To the point where you actually start knowing how you really sound (a thought that horrifies some people – even to the extent of not being able to playback their own voice notes) without needing to hear it played back to you. This is to do with a number of things – most notably the reverberation of your voice through your skull, into your eardrum. Eventually, your brain normalises hearing your voice as it really is. Which is kinda cool actually.
Point is, we sound different in our own heads to how other people hear us outside of them. As mentioned, this can normalise with time. Start listening to recordings of yourself speaking as cleanly as you can. At first, it will always sound “wrong”, but that shouldn’t be confused with “bad”. If you really believe you have a special voice, then go for it!
2. Understand the basic/standard industry voices.
The Ad Industry is your main bread and butter. I work on both sides of the recording booth; in that I’ve written and directed almost as many ads (usually using other voices than my own) as I’ve voiced for others. I have voiced some excellent – and some truly terrible – for other people. I take pleasure in it either way, because it helps me “measure” my own creative work when I’m on the other side of the glass. And, if you just embrace it, turning the cheese up to maximum can be a lot of fun. The majority of ads – even if they also include some character (i.e accent/impression) voices, will use some combination of what I call “Industry Standard” voices. These range from the “read in a sickly sweet voice with a big cheesy grin” ones (think of an explainer video for a mommy-brand toothpaste), to the “sad-face/emploring-with-tears-in-the-eyes” vibe (think of an ad with a plea to donate to a meaningful cause)… and everything in-between.
The usual Industry Standard suspects include “Hardsell“, “Softsell“, “Corporate“, “Bright“, “Conversational“, “Dramatic“, and “Announcer“. There are more, but these are the main ones, pretty much. You can have any infinite number of character voices up your sleeve – some of which can become your “thing” that you’re known for (I do a great deal of “movie trailer guy” and “boet/boytjie” voices, and quite a lot of Aussie vibes) – but if even if you’re just good at these basic ones, you’ll go far, kid. Especially if you land an long-term brand campaign, and become “the voice” of a brand, ongoing. Remember the raspy-voiced “Cell-C for yourself” lady? Or the MTN “Ayoba” guy? Ja. That’s the golden ticket right there.
Head over to my awesome agents, Owen S Management to see loads of examples on their artists’ profiles. Notice both the similarities in these types of deliveries, and how each artist differs. You can also check out my “standard” voices, and see how you think I measure up.
3. Understand which voices you have in you.
A great deal of people have good speaking voices. Many also like to goof around with funny voices, impressions, and accents; usually to amuse themselves or their friends. This is all well and good, and is where most of us start out. But, when put on the spot and asked which voices or impressions they can can do, it’s a bit like being asked to tell someone a joke. Suddenly you draw a complete blank and it’s like you don’t know any at all (usually until two minutes after you part company, when suddenly you remember thousands).
Maybe you do cutesy voices when you talk to your pet, and think, “I could totally voice cartoons”. Or, maybe when you’re at a braai, you have your friends in stitches riffing on a politician or a celebrity, or being able to bust out a passable Scottish or Aussie accent. But, ask yourself: how well defined are these characters? How tight do you really have them? When there aren’t a few beers (or the comfort of solitude) involved, how well could you perform these characters with a straight face. In other words, neither as a function of a joke, nor with the “spirit of kak-praat” to carry you through?
Like recalling jokes, being able to recall which accents you can do – and then sort them into the ones you can do well – is trickier than it sounds. Start making a list. And start practicing these voices (even if they may be completely silly) as if you’re being serious about it. Name the characters if need be (that’s how “Hard Eddy” – lead character in actual video-game I co-create, Boet Fighter, came about) and start to give them personalities. That’s what can really separate a passable impression from a real character with soul and feeling.
I have a character acting showcase on my agents’ site (it’s the second last one) and more on my Soundcloud. And loads more I never got samples of because I’m a bit of an idiot. More on that later…
4. Get some scripts together and practice.
Once you have a solid idea of the basic types of “standard” voices, and a proper grasp of your own best characters and accents, it’s time to start practicing doing them as if you were properly recording ads, and not just wishing you could. As with any skill, practice is critical. And – while you might have certain characters you can freestyle/adlib off the cuff – generally speaking, practicing proper pro-level VOs starts with scripts.
If you check out artists on my agents’ website, you’ll see that most of us have recorded demos using the same mock-scripts for made-up products, so potential clients can compare different voices reading the same copy. These scripts are clearly written to mimmic the most common types of language and structures of everyday ads.
You can write your own, copy someone else’s, or even keep an ear out for ads on TV or radio that make you go, “I could totally do that kinda voice!” and recreate them verbatim. Record or write it down, and start practicing it until you have that particular delivery down pat. As I’ve mentioned before, being able to arse about with funny voices when you’re bored or making friends laugh is one thing. Being comfortable delivering a real script in the right style, without needing a million practice goes, is quite another.
Either write scripts that bring out the best in your existing voices, or copy ones that sound very similar to what you can do well.
PRO TIP: DO THE FACE.
My homie Craig Hawkins from Audio Militia taught me this years ago, and it’s one of the best tips I ever got… Even though you’ll feel like an absolute dumbass at first (this also ties into Point 5: “Learn to Take Direction” below), you need to get used to doing the facial expressions and even hand gestures that go with the delivery you’re looking for. If it’s ultra-happy and upbeat, grin until your face hurts. If it’s sad, look devastated (I literally get teary when I push this hard enough) and if it’s serious, put on your I’m-not-messing-around-do-you-hear-me-young-man/lady stern face. It really helps, and you can absolutely hear the difference it makes to the end product.
5. Record some proper samples.
Once you’ve identified your five to ten best voices and/or characters (more is fine, if you have the range, but rather stick to your tightest ones at first), sorted out some good scripts, and practiced them thoroughly, it’s time get them recorded. If you have a half decent mic, a quiet room and some basic audio skills, you can even do it yourself. As long as the quality is not total garbage and you can clearly hear your voice (and the quality of it), and your delivery… you’re okay. It doesn’t have to be a pro production…
…although, that definitely doesn’t hurt. If you have a friend who is good with this kinda thing, call in a favour. Or, contact a sound studio. Most of the smaller ones will do you an hour session for ZAR1000 or less. The bigger ones, maybe a little more. Both will also be able to offer some good direction, as they’ve almost certainly dealt with many voice artists – both good and crap – and will have pointers to share.
However you do it, in the end, you’ll have a selection of quality examples of your voice, where you sound legit and come across as a professional. Now you’re really getting somewhere!
6. Learn to take direction (Aka “be okay with looking and sounding like a dumbass”).
We’ve come pretty a long way by now. And you should be polished enough to start recording actual voice-overs for clients! But, now we also come to a real moment of truth… Can you – and if not, can you learn to – stand in a glass box, while a group of strangers ask you to perform a (potentially ridiculous, or genuinely artistically challenging) script numerous different ways (some of them very awkward, ultra-cheesy, or just plain dumb) while they actively discuss what they do and don’t like about your various takes, as if you’re not even there?
If you suffer from stage fright – or take it personally when people don’t like the way you did a thing – and you can’t get past it, this may not be the career/side hustle for you.
Don’t lose heart though. This is definitely a thing you get more used to over time. I mean, if you are terrified of performing in front of a room full of strangers, then you might be in trouble. But, even I got nervous the first few times, because the experience was new and I didn’t want to screw it up (and I really don’t get nervous, like, almost ever – whether it’s announcing live events, doing live radio or TV, performing live vocals over Drum n’ Bass, or even doing weddings), but then it quickly completely wore off and now I don’t feel a single butterfly, ever. So, if you can get through the first two or three, it will only get easier from there.
6.2. Keep your opinions to yourself
This started as a “Pro Tip” in Point 6 above, but then it got kinda long, and I think it’s pretty important…
I voice a lot of ads, but I’m also a creative director and copywriter who writes and directs a lot of ads. And, with them, a lot of voice artists. So, on the one hand, I know that there’s nothing more annoying than a voice artist who wants to suggest copy changes, expresses that they don’t like things in the script or direction, or tries to have a vote when the team on the other side of the glass is trying to decide how to do stuff.
But then, I also know that there are many occasions where you know that your suggested approach (or even just your basic grasp of grammar) would solve a problem or really improve the ad. Resist the urge to chime in. Embrace their cheese. Listeners don’t know it’s you voicing the ad at the end of the day, and someone has to badly read the bad ads of the world, right? It might as well be you. If you must make a suggestion, position it more as a request. Like, “Hey, do you guys mind if I just try something quick? It might not work, but I think it’s worth a quick try, if that’s okay?” And, do that maybe once in a session, if at all. Twice, max, if you know the people.
With all that said, though, in time you’ll develop relationships with certain agencies, producers, and sound engineers, and they’ll invite you to collaborate, and welcome your opinion. Just don’t try take over, unsolicited. It’s awkward and not very professional, even if your intentions are good and/or you’re just really into it and excited.
7. Build a portfolio…
This kind of follows on from Point 5 above, but it’s a separate point, in that recording your initial samples will help you to start getting proper work. Then, having actually done proper work for real clients and brands will indicate that you have experience and range, and help you get more work (remember the whole “catch-22” in the opening paragraph?) and even eventually get you an agent (more on that in Point 9 below).
Make a habit of taking someone’s details (on the agency side, or the sound engineer’s, or both) so you can follow up and get a copy of the final audio when it’s done. Be sure to check with the agency when they’re happy for you to make it public. Usually once the work is broadcast or flighted, they won’t mind, but if you “leak” it, they definitely will.
For the record, I am terrible at this, and maybe remember to get back one one in ten things I record. I have literally forgotten more ads entirely than gotten samples. In some cases, your agents may have a limit as to how much they will let you have on your profile, or insist on their own sample scripts only, but generally, they’ll welcome a few examples of your best work.
The rest? Well, I recommend making a Soundcloud page (or similar platform) like mine over here, to collect and showcase all your (non-crap) work. And, you know, just so it all has somewhere to live, without withering away into forgotten nothingness and being gone forever. I have collected enough to represent a good showcase of my experience and range. But, I know there would be much better examples on there if I wasn’t so crap at following up and getting sample clips.
8. …and get it on all the voice banks.
NOTE: While editing, I realised that this shoulda probably followed after Point 5, but it’s too damn late/I’m too damn lazy to change it now. No biggie though…
There are a lot of online platforms that allow voice artists to get their work into the public domain so potential clients can find them. As you’ll soon discover in Point 9 below, getting an agent is not always a straight-forward process. But you gotta start somewhere, right? Plus, you’ve got all those shiny samples you’ve now recorded, and a few real portfolio pieces out there too. Might as let them hit the streets and start hustling you some work.
In South Africa, Voice Bank and HeyLu! are the two good ones that I know to be worthwhile. Although, there are lots out there, some of which I’ve probably never heard of. Just don’t sign up for anything exploitative, where you work for peanuts to make some intermediary rich. Unless – and this is a big caveat – you’re happy to do that for a short while, strictly to gain experience and grow your portfolio. As I’ll explain soon, being cheap not only hurts you, but the whole industry.
9. Earn yourself a good agent
We’re back to that catch-22 vibe I started with. Having an agent – especially a good one – is your biggest asset, once you get through all of the steps above. But, they’re few and far between… especially the good ones. And the better they are, the more selective they tend to be about who they’ll take on. I was damn lucky to get signed by Owen S. Management. They typically take proper big-name celebrities and top-tier VO artists only. Thankfully, I had a friend help make a connection, a solid porti to back up me up, and it was just a good meeting. They’re the best agents I’ve ever had. (Thanks guys).
Unless you’re dealing with total scheisters though, any agent is better than none. I’ve had three in my time, and realised that they’re not all created equal. When I first started out, after landing a big, awesome KFC campaign thanks to my beloved homie Shane Forbes, I signed with a bigger agency in JHB. They brought in a good amount of work, I can’t deny, but I found them hard to work with. Then, when I lived in Cape Town from 2014 to 2017, I was with Tongue Twisters. Wonderful people (RIP, Raph “Nate” Kossew), but the industry there is small and the amount of work is a lot less. Still, I was very happy with them and we did some cool work. On my return to JHB, I needed new representation, and as of the time of writing, I am very happy with the best of both worlds at Owen S.
Agents will take 10% to 20% of what they book for you. 15% or so is about average. And, they’ll handle most or all of your admin and billing for you. They’ll also have a broad, existing client base (producers, ad agencies, media houses, sound engineers etc) who will come to them directly and describe the voices they’re after, rather than trawl the endless voice banks. If you’re right for it, your agents will put you forward. They’ll also make sure that you get the right amount of usage rights and the right price in general for what it is you’re doing. It’s much better to get 85% of a lot – with the admin sorted for you – than 100% of little to nothing.
9.2 So, how much money are we talking, dammit?!
You’ve been dying to ask how much money is in voice-overs, haven’t you? I know you have. I can feel it… Well, that’s a tricky and complicated one. Basically, it all boils down to Usage Fees. I made these a proper noun and everything because they’re that important. Typically, the performance fee you get paid to show up and record for an hour or part thereof (plus the 15 extra minutes we tend to turn a blind eye to before we leave or charge again) per script, remains the same, no matter what it’s being used for. About R900 or so. Minus your agents’ cut, and usually minus tax too. Sometimes you go in to record demos of ads and that’s all you get out of the deal. So it’s not always glamorous money at all. But… That’s where Usage Rights come in!
After your performance fee, the rest depends on where your voice is going to be used (TV, radio, cinema, online, or a combination of these), for how long, and across how many territories. If your little sentence you ended up getting about R600 for performing (as explained in previous paragraph) only gets played for two weeks on a single, regional radio station, you’ll get another six or seven hundred bucks out of it, after deductions. And that’s that.
But, if that exact same little sentence you recorded is going to be on a TV ad, used on multiple channels, and in cinema, and online, for a year or more? You could be making upwards of R30k for the exact same amount of “work”. Possibly more, even. Then, if an overseas territory wants to pick it up, it can be even more again. Like the one KFC TV ad I did which got used in New Zealand, and then years later, in the UK. And, finally, there’s renewals, which is literally money for nothing. That’s when the paid-for usage time period runs out, they want to keep using the ad, and they have to pay your Usage Fees again… in full. It’s rare – but not unthinkable – for a campaign to get close to, or even over R100k. Don’t bank on it though. You’ll do a lot more basic radio ads than TV ads, so have realistic expectations. Still, it’s nice to dream, and with VOs, anything is possible. Good agents will take care of things like rights renewals for you, and hunt down the sketchy guys who will keep using your voice and just hope no one notices. Or worse, just ignore you when you confront them about it.
Once you have a good agent, treat them right and appreciate them. Run everything by them, and let them handle the billing on those little bits and pieces that come to you without their involvement. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s still good value, just for the billing admin you avoid, alone.
PRO TIP: DON’T BE CHEAP
If you want to help a mate out, or do some pro-bono stuff, or a passion project or whatever, you can do it for free… but never for cheap. If there’s a special-circumstance or package deal to be made, talk to your agents first. Voice Industry rates are standardised and agreed upon by all the legit agencies and artists. The official Rate Card is usually available on request from all the legit voice and ad agencies (I managed to find the 2017/18 card online, which will give you a basic idea of the vibe), and it applies equally to all ad agencies, agents, and professional voice artists. Which is what you’re working to become, right? A professional.
If you don’t have representation, and you’re asked to quote, get ahold of the Rate Card, send it on, and say your hands are tied. If everyone undercut the Rate Card, there would be a bidding war, prices would be driven lower and lower, and eventually all work would go to the lowest bidder, and everyone would be screwed. Don’t be that guy/gal… For realzies.
10. Most importantly, get started, dammit!
If you’re still reading, you’re obviously serious about this whole thing. Or – I dunno – just very easily entertained. Either way, you have taken the first step in the process, and now know exactly what to do to get moving. And that’s the ticket. Just start. Today. Now. Make yourself a little homework list, start meditating on your best accents, and start looking for ads you can copy or existing scripts you can use (or base your own new ones off).
Just get going. At first, it’ll just be a fun and exciting hobby that might make you a little extra pocket money now and then. Then, it’ll slowly start adding up and adding to your bottom line. Next, you’ll have regular clients contacting you (ideally via your agents) when they need something, cos they know you can deliver.
Before you know it, five, ten or even twenty years will have passed, and hey! You’re that guy (or gal, or whatever works for you)! The one people recognise from all the ads. The one everyone uses for everything… You’ll know them when you hear them.
There are a small handful of these people rolling in dough doing VOs almost every day. I estimate about 20 people probably get 70% of all the jobs. And the other 30% is split among hundreds of us. More maybe.
We all have at least one thing in common though… We all had a day when the decided to flippin’ do it, and we just started. Just like you are going to do, right now! Mazel.
Good luck, friend. See you in the booth!