JV: Has your voiceover style changed over the years?
Harlan: Yeah, I’ve aged over the years. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Not as much as one might think, but styles change just as they did when I was coming in. One of the big deep voice guys, a wonderful talent, said to me, “Well kid,” — he had done Dragnet and all the old radio shows, I mean a very talented guy — he said, “You do something I can’t do. You just sound like a guy next door. I can’t do that.”
But as we just talked about, styles do change. Young and bright and happy was the style in the ‘80s, and then you started to see more of the flat readings, and then the young guy with an attitude was big for a while. I think you need to pay attention to what’s going on, but don’t get trapped into trying to imitate what’s hot because by the time you get the imitation down, it won’t be hot anymore. I have a friend in Chicago who really got into doing what was the hot sound for a while, and he made some money doing the really hot sound, but it trapped him to this day because people don’t really realize how flexible and good the guy is. They only think of him for that one read that now is very passé.
One thing you do need to do is just watch TV — even though that can be tough — and see a lot of movies, because the people that you work for, their shorthand is celebrity. Their shorthand is, “I want Donald Sutherland.” Well they don’t want Donald Sutherland; they can’t afford Donald Sutherland. But we know what Donald Sutherland’s read is like, and it’s actually pretty good direction. They frequently will say, well I want Joey from Friends or I want so and so from some TV show that frankly I might not normally watch, but it’s critical that you can say, “Oh yeah, I know what that sounds like.” You find that in auditions more than other descriptions. They frequently refer to celebrities. So it’s pretty important to see most of the movies and watch the hot TV shows so you know, so you have some clue. When they say, “I want David Hyde Pierce,” you really need to know what David Hyde Pierce sounds like.
JV: What about those who just can’t get rid of that radio voice, is there any hope for them in the land of VO?
Harlan: I have worked with people and met people who can’t lose it. It doesn’t mean there isn’t work. There are a lot of different styles that work. There are people that do hard sell and they do it so well. But a guy like me finds that just very, very difficult to do. It’s not me. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not making a living too.
JV: You’re most recent book is The Voice Actor’s Guide to Home Recording. Tell us a little about this book.
Harlan: In the first book I had a chapter called “Studio of Your Own,” and as I was writing it I realized, wow, this needs more amplification and clarification. At that time I was still kind of an early adapter to having a home studio, and agents out of town were kind of willing to send you something. For a while my New York agent would do auditions on the ISDN box. Now they just let me MP3 it to them. But they were starting to realize, as we were, that you could work more than just your own little immediate market. In the old days you really couldn’t because you’d have to fly. I flew out to New York one time and did a Ford audition, which was a biggie, and got the very excited phone call from my agent at 5:30 that evening as I was touching down at O’Hare field in Chicago. He’s saying, “Harlan, you’re on the call back! You’re on at 11 o’clock tomorrow.” Well, shit! So you get on a plane and fly back, which I did by the way, but I didn’t get it.
So, it was almost impossible to branch out. But the Internet was opening up, and when I wrote that chapter I thought, you know, we may have to do more. So I teamed up with an engineer. His name is Jeffrey Fisher, and Jeffrey is a wonderful audio engineer and even better writer. There are not many of those guys around. He’s got about fourteen books. We get along great, we write well together, and we kept it very non-technical. We look at everything out there like modern recording and all these things. The average voice actor who wants to do voice work has very little computer skills usually, and no recording skills. I mean, they absolutely have no idea what this is about, and don’t realize it’s actually really simple to do and fun. So we realized we needed to do a specific book, the Voice Actors Guide to Home Recording. It’s specifically for voice actors. We keep it very, very simple. We do explain a few of the more arcane things like compression and EQ, but that’s under the heading: “Caution, the following information is not necessary and will not make you popular at parties.” We had a lot of fun with it. Believe it or not, it’s a “how to” book, but we had a lot of fun doing it.
We should be getting a box of the books today. They’re coming out at the perfect time because across the country, from William Morris in Los Angeles on down, they have told their performers, “Get a home studio. Don’t come in. Send your stuff in.” So that’s the new paradigm, and the home studio is just a necessity. Of course it’s also a great convenience. If you happen to be on a motorcycle trip, or happen to be on location somewhere or on vacation, you don’t have to miss the audition. If you have a laptop and a microphone and an A to D converter, you’re in business.