JV: Well I know I’m getting tired of the guy that sounds like he’s 18 years old selling me stuff.
Harlan: I know. Me too. We had an audition a while back at the agency that just cracked me up. It said, “We’re looking for an older gentleman around 55. Some examples of the voice quality we seek are Charleston Heston and Jason Robards." So to this young copywriter, a guy 55 sounds like he’s 80! It’s okay. You just roll along.
I did a workshop in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. I called it “The Long Haul,” and that’s really what it takes – just staying in the game, plugging away, and rolling with it. You can do it.
JV: So you're doing some teaching and coaching as well?
Harlan: I have always stayed away from actual on-mic kind of coaching and teaching. I don’t really have any desire to do that. There are people that do that very well. I wrote the books thinking that was a good way to kind of give back and pass along some information. What I did enjoy doing was a workshop for working voice-overs, and not necessarily with on-mic time, but dealing with marketing, promotion, computer skills, home recording. This home recording is a big, hot thing now with all the voiceover people, and I’ve been blessed to have come out of radio, because when the home recording thing started to happen a few years ago, I at least felt comfortable doing it. There are a lot of other voice actors that have come out of theater or some place else, and they’re going, “Uhh… XLR? Is that a station in Juarez? What’s an XLR? Phantom power? Wasn’t that an old radio show back in the ‘40s?” They are absolutely flummoxed by this technology. So I’ve enjoyed doing that, working with other professionals saying, “Okay, here’s how to keep the fire going.”
JV: A typical day for you is long, short, just right?
Harlan: It depends. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. If I did a sign wave drawing, I’m sure there would be ups and downs and the busy days and everything. There’s just no commonality. I’ve never been able to predict anything. There have been mind numbingly busy Christmas seasons, and times when I just sat around thinking, okay, everybody has figured out that I’m not any good at this anymore. It’s really hard to predict.
But what has happened, which is great, is our delivery system now — being able to deliver tracks literally from your home, either MP3 or FTP, and of course I have my ISDN here. I spend so much less time being in the car driving, parking and frankly wasting time. That’s been great. The only thing I miss – and this is one of the reasons I wrote a lot of the stories in the first book — is the camaraderie and the funny things that happen when you get five or six egos in a room behind microphones. Nowadays — and this happens quite a bit even doing dialogue stuff — I’ll be in my WhisperRoom here with the ISDN box, and the woman I’m working for is in New York, and the Verizon guy is out in LA, and the client’s in Dallas. Nobody flies anywhere. We all get along well, we have a good time, we’re done in about ten minutes, but we never go out for coffee.
I can’t tell you the hours I’ve spent for years driving, driving, driving downtown, parking the car — which is now $20/$25 to park – just so you can wait an hour to go in the booth where you get just one shot at it because there are thirty other actors sitting there. I don’t miss that. I really much prefer to do it at home and be able to think about it and send the take that I think is best. I prefer to have coffee with my wife instead of waiting three hours with another actor.
JV: How much of the major VO business is done by mp3 and ftp these days? I mean, is ISDN being used less and less?
Harlan: Well, I don’t think ISDN is a boat anchor yet. I think at some point the voiceover Internet protocol will be worked out and we’ll probably be able to do air quality work right over the Internet, but that’s a ways off yet. Plus, ISDN is pretty well established in broadcast and studios. You can certainly audition without it. But one area where it is absolutely critical is if you’re going to do station imaging and promo kind of work. Then you’ve just got to have an ISDN connection. But I don’t know how many years that will be true.
Most of my narration people, my corporate clients, don’t have ISDN. They just sit at their desk and do a traditional phone patch and I send the files up on the Internet. They download the files along with the bill and we’re done, saving them time and money and saving me time and money. It’s a real win/win thing.
The agents across the country now generally are pretty much all on board because they send the files out as MP3s to the ad agencies. They seem to be quite content, and many agents have just flat out told the performers, “Put in a home studio. We don’t really need to see you in here.” It’s a terrible waste of their time. My wife was an agent for many years. That’s how met. But it’s a terrible waste of their time to be auditioning actors all day. They should be on the phone looking for business, negotiating. So now, basically they move files around. That’s what I was doing this morning. You send your little file off to Georgia, and he puts it together with the other guys auditioning for the announcer, and then MP3s it over to the ad agency who MP3s it over to the end client who says, “Yeah, I like that Jerry guy,” and the phone call is made and the session is set up. I don’t know what percentage is ISDN vs. just using the Internet, but it certainly has made inroads, and of course, it’s a lot less expensive. You don’t have to plunk down $3,500 or $4,000 for an ISDN box.
JV: So you still need that live connection for direction and such. People aren’t saying, “Heck, I know you can do it, just read it, and MP3 to me.”
Harlan: Well I have some of those. I love clients like that. And of course a phone patch is easy enough to do, and you can do that simply and inexpensively. It’s good enough for many people. I like the ISDN mainly because when you’re done, when they say, “Yeah, Harlan that’s it. We’ve got it,” they are taking the responsibility for the recording. They’re hearing air quality and are recording it wherever they happen to be. Whereas, when you record it at home yourself and do a phone patch — and phones are notoriously noisy and sometime words are missed — you then as the performer are also really taking responsibility as the engineer. So it’s just a little more responsibility on you to say, “Okay, I’ve listened to these and they’re air quality. I’m going to send them off to you now.”
And of course if you do station imaging, or news- what they call, “windows,” if you’re doing that sort of thing, you’ve just got to have ISDN because they want to record you at eight o’clock for the 9:30 news. They don’t want to record it any sooner, and they don’t want to wait for an MP3 file to come. They want it right now.
JV: I’ll guess you have a Zephyr in the home studio.
Harlan: I do. I have a Telos Zephyr, and I’ve had it for five or six years. It’s one of those leaps of faith you make. If I don’t buy this I won’t get any of that work, but I don’t have any of that work because I don’t have one. Interestingly enough, I got it and was in a studio downtown in Chicago and mentioned in passing to the engineer that I had one — not threateningly; you never want to say, “Hey I’ve got a home studio. I’m in competition with you.” That’s not the idea. I simply said, “Say, I’ve got an ISDN box if you ever have an emergency or things come up or whatever.” “Oh, that’s good to know.” Sure enough, two days later, 11 o’clock at night I get a phone call from the guy. “Harlan, can you do something for us real quick ISDN?” I said, “Sure.” And he was honest, he said, “Well, we were going to hire Pete,” – who’s a competitor – “but we can’t call Pete to do this at midnight. He’s got to drive down here and everything… so let’s do it.” So we did it. They had forgotten to do a mandatory recording for McDonald’s, which said, “McDonald's is as an equal opportunity employer.” They had cut that out of about seven or eight radio spots. That gig more than paid for my ISDN box just two days later. That was a good investment.