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A Booth Director’s Love Letter to Voice-Over

Brad Braithwaite is a Booth Director & Engineer with the Innovative Artists Commercial and Voice-Over Department (Los Angeles). He obviously has way too much spare time on his hands between recording sessions and tends to indulge his aspiring writer proclivity to overstate a simple essay on the generalities of voice-over. Ironically, he keeps thinking brevity might be the key to everything.

This may end up being a bit of a love letter to voice-over and voice-over artists – sort of a mélange a deux of why I feel smitten when you kiss me, and also that there are some things about yourself I wish you would change.  Okay, maybe not change, but at least pretend to work on.

As a Voice-Over Director & Engineer, I remember with crystal clarity the first time someone (hereon known impartially as ‘the talent’) booked a voice-over spot out of my very own booth, a palpable sensation that in any good booth director translates to a love of words and sound and how they miraculously work together to sell make-up and frozen peas.

On paper, it may not seem all that complicated.  As an in-house booth director & engineer for a respected talent agency, I am responsible for the second half of the voice-over casting process.

After the agents have solicited copy to audition from any number of sources (Videovoicebank, Breakdown Services, direct communication from advertising agencies themselves), for any type of need (commercials, video games, network promos, movie trailers, edutainment narration and even the ‘on-hold’ voice or two), they compose a list of audition candidates based on – often vague and overcomplicated – specs from the copywriters: age, gender, texture (toilet paper-soft versus cigarettes-and-whiskey-gravel), delivery (announcer versus conversational), even volume and tone (loud and strong and straightforward versus whispery and wry and sensual.)  It is my job to translate those specs into direction and apply that direction to each individual talent as they come in to audition the copy at our in-house studios.  On any given day I may be working on five to ten different pieces of copy and working with forty or fifty different voices.

In a perfect world, the talent and I merge their unique vocal abilities with the nuances of the written commercial word in such a way that products will fly off Ralphs or Target shelves! I record it as digital files (this being the digital age and all, long live the reel-to reel!), edit it all into a few perfect takes, and forward it on to the decision-makers for that very elusive stamp of approval.  So, of course, quite a bit of it involves pushing buttons and turning knobs, adjusting the mic and having fundamental and intimate knowledge of the recording software’s cut & paste function.  But, more than that, it does take an effective (and hopefully creative) ear.

Although most copywriters would be loath to admit to it, there is often no poetry in advertising.  It is not Shakespeare, their run-on sentences about what makes a good fabric softener or whether HP represents a good printer or a fast car.  What is poetry, what is Shakespearean, is taking those words and hurdling a contrary assortment of uninspired phraseology, misspellings, bad grammar, alliterations and misconstrued emphasis, and presenting them in an intelligible, cohesive, fluid stream of consciousness – interested, sensible, even almost musical, if necessary.  It is all about that magical moment when you finally summit the Kilimanjaro of copy and find the very right way to say something with the perfect synthesis of feeling and authority.

There are those that will say that the digital age has slowly marked the death of the in-house booth, as easy and inexpensive as it is now to set up a recording arrangement at home and give the daily commute the middle finger, but – and not just for the sake of my own present and future employment – I would say that couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be further from the case.  The director/talent relationship is a thing of value and beauty.  If you both understand each other, you know what to do and what to look for.

As a booth director, I am invested in your future, so I will only ever ask that you treat me with the respect that I afford you. I am the person you will see the first time you step up to the microphone, and our rapport will hopefully outlast several presidents.  I make you sound even better than you already are, and even pretty good when you aren’t, when you can’t get two words in a row out to save your life.  I listen to everything you say, sometimes seventeen times in a row, and sometimes every day, five days a week.  I digest it and remember it and regurgitate your highlights when you are struggling to find a point of view, when you have no idea how to tackle a particular phrase in whatever pitch and tone it requires, let alone arrange it to suit the ears of the intended listener.

Despite the prognosticators that have long-signaled the also-death of traditional network and advertising relationships, this dangerous liaison has been around since the dawn of radio and television, is not going away any time soon, and will simply roll merrily along into the Internet-driven future.  Which will likely result in even more interesting possibilities for reward.  Advertising is, after all, a mad rush to solicit: the more windows that are open (no pun intended), the more that advertisers will try to find unique and motivating ways to fill them with eye candy.  It may not be with the thirty-second pitches to which we have become accustomed, but to pay for our free entertainment, there must always be advertising in one form or another, and advertising will always need a voice.  And the voice will always need a guide.

So, once you have been placed in the precarious position of being solicited with those almost-magic words, “You have a great voice, you really should be working in voice-over!” (if I had a nickel…), it is best to simply resign yourself to the inevitable mysteries of the craft and put your most optimistic foot forward.

HAVE A VOICE.  Make a choice.  Have YOUR voice.  Find it and polish it.  But it ALWAYS must be YOUR voice.  There will always be direction that tries to force you to be one way or the other: announcer/not “announcery”, textured/crisp, interested/flat, warm and fuzzy/dry and wry.  But, in end, you must have YOUR voice to start with, and it all branches out to the particulars from there.  It’s all about YOUR voice.

An introductory voice-over class will buy you your first toolbox.  There is no one teacher or methodology that is better than any other, every one has its salient and resonant points and applicable techniques.  Okay, full disclosure, maybe there are some bad teachers and methodologies floating around out there, especially if the old adage that “those who can’t do, teach” holds true…  Probably any Professor of Vocal Achievement that posits a complex and intricate scientific approach to voice-over success is one to straight-up ignore.  Charlatans exist in every corner of the entertainment universe.  Do some research, follow the advice of your peers. 

The Internet and the Voice-Over Resource Guide are invaluable devices for finding the right classes to fit your initial needs and financial situation.  But in that regard, it’s an important first step, not only to help you to discover and harness your voice, but to help you decide just how important the pursuit really is.  Classes are justifiably expensive and, ergo, they a great weeder out – you will know just how much you care to proceed when confronted by the high price tag.  And given the state of the industry, very few agents will be willing to take you on without some formal training.  Even a professional referral will only get you so far through the door.

LOVE YOUR VOICE.  Take care of it and love what you do with it – service it.  Enjoy the process.  Take more classes, participate in workshops, join work-out groups and then, at some point, once you have found your voice and learned to love it, you must jump into the deep end of the pool and make a demo – the ubiquitous 60-second common denominator of voice-over talent that both streamlines and contrasts your VOICE.

The demo in daily use is probably going the way of the dinosaur.  In this digital age it is just so easy for voice-over producers to turn over auditions in a matter of hours, instead of listening to samples of what “might” work for them.  Not even five years ago, it required several phone calls or faxes back and forth, a day or two to produce auditions, and the ubiquitous FedEx office to rocket our audition DAT across the country. 

Now a simple email to an agent with a new set of specs or rewritten copy can be on my desk and in front of talent in a matter of minutes and MP3’s can be emailed to an overextended producer before our distinguished competition is back from their three-martini lunch.  But, a demo is your calling card and it is still one of the only concrete ways of getting an agent.  In that one minute, you can capture your own personal lightning in the bottle, your styles and paces, your textures and ranges, your signature energy or lethargy (thank you, Carl’s Jr.)

I don’t pretend to have any idea what makes the “best” demo, but I know what I like as a booth director: don’t over-produce it, simple, straightforward is so much nicer in my ears than convoluted, inconsistent or unrestrained.  I NEED to hear more than three-second snippets – anyone can manage to make three seconds of copy sound good, and any decent engineer can engineer those three seconds of copy to sound good.  Personally, I want to hear a full sentence, a thought, a point of view.  Or, in this case, about five or six of them.

Sidebar: I recently advised some students in a voice-over class to not only send their demos to the agents – again, the Voice-Over Resource Guide will be a valuable who’s who of applicable agents – but ALSO to fire one off to the booth director too.  Hey, we get bored in the booth, we like to get mail too!  And we have that trained ear and more time to listen than the agents do, so its possible, POSSIBLE that we might pass your demo along to the agent a lot faster than it will meet their ears sitting in a pile under the desk with the other forty-nine.

LOVE VOICE-OVER.  To truly understand voice-over, you have to be intimately aware of it, married it.  Listen to everything – watch TV, listen to the radio, play videogames, listen to books-on-tape.  Observe every single way voice-over is used.  I am completely astonished when talent actually admits to never watching TV or listening to the radio, let alone not even owning one.  Is this not the business we are in?  How can you understand what kind of voices they choose if you don’t even pay attention?  Damn the TiVo and watch the commercials, see what they are producing day-in and day-out, season by season, and what kind of voices they typically hire.

And, most importantly, COME IN to the booth.  Too often a raw talent ends up being a flash in the pan, mesmerized by the idea, the utopia, the dollar signs, and three months later, when it hasn’t yet materialized, they miss an audition here, miss one there, and then like a misbegotten salmon, they are swimming back upstream. 

Continuity, just like in the film world, is king – the more you come in, the better your shot, and the more you just plainly and purely enjoy the process, the better the chances that someone on the other side listening to the sometimes several thousand voices say: “Save Money.  Live Better.  Wal*Mart.” will actually hear the joy in YOUR voice, they will hear the smile, that you believe in their product, they will hear the truth in advertising and that truth is that you know exactly what you are saying and how it should be said.  Even if it’s the twenty-second Wal*Mart spot you’ve read this week, relish it.  They can hear it.  Or not hear it.

You know that little frown you carry around in your pocket and slip into a read sometimes? I can see it, I can hear it with my eyes closed, and they can hear it too.  And they won’t like it.

What I like, when you do it and I hear it, the “kiss” that makes me smitten with you and makes me love believe in voice-over, is that delicate dance YOUR voice does with THEIR words.

Because, again, in the end, in that booth for seven minutes or so, all we really have are our voices.  And I mean that both as literally and deeply as it sounds.

  1. Lisa Renee on Tuesday 20, 2009

    Thanks for such a great article, Brad. I’ve worked with directors in so many different contexts in voice work- from someone in the booth, to animation directors, or even someone directing an entire loop group at once. From the viewpoint of the voice over actor, I highly appreciate the input and craft shared by the director. The fact that you obviously love what you do just makes it that much more powerful- it’s a very positive influence. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  2. Nick O'Rourke on Tuesday 20, 2009

    Thanks for the great article Brad.
    You’re spot on. Combine the right voice actor with a great director, and you’ll surpass a clients expectations every time. All the best.