Q It Up: Working with Inexperienced Voice Talent - Part 1

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95microphoneQ It Up: What things do you do to improve the read you get from inexperienced voice talent such as children, interns, salespeople that happen to be handy, and those wonderful clients who want to be on their commercials?

Donnie Marion, 104 KRBE, Houston, Texas: My daughter, who is seven, wants to become an actress. Once she realized it was me voicing the commercials, she started asking when she could be on commercials. So I finally wrote a spot for a kid and took a MiniDisc home to record her. After a couple of full read tries I began to give her line reads (have the person repeat the line after me as close as possible to the way I want it delivered. I realized early on some people are tone deaf even to talking), and it worked out great and didn’t take long to piece together.

With older talent, I use repetition, repetition, repetition. After a while it gets about as natural as the particular individual can get. And then I resort to line reads.

If the client comes in to record a spot for their own business, we’ll try the script a few times. If they’re stiff as a board I’ll just roll tape (disc space) and interview them, then edit that together for a commercial. It’s rare that I have to go back to use the copy from the script. When you talk to a person about their business and why they started the business or the customers they serve, the person becomes passionate, and that helps to keep them from sounding like they are reading about their business.

Jim Thomas: Wow! You mean apart from trying to avoid these situations? Seriously, we do a LOT of local client recording, though most of it seems to come from the “ego sell” by our sales staff. I have taken to suggesting that these people, whether children or adults, animate their hands and arms while speaking, to “pull the sound” out of their throats. Another tip that works for us is to encourage people to over-exaggerate their delivery, up to and including scrunching up their face, forcing a smile, etc. And of course, though our recording studio is a “sit-down” affair, I try, especially with clients, to get them to stand up. And I always remind the people I record that it’s my job to make sure they sound the best they can.

A side note on recording children: some of our sales staff who try to write their own copy like to include “kid #1”, “kid #2”, etc. I simply tell them, If you want children in an ad, you supply the children.”

Jeff Berlin, Kiss108, Boston, MA: I try to bring the studio to them: a portable recorder and microphone. I find the studio environment makes newbies nervous, but they’re more relaxed at their desks or other familiar environment. This works especially well; it’s supposed to sound like a field recording of a “real” person.

Rich VanSlyke, Rich VanSlyke Productions, LLC, Suwanee, GA: The best technique I’ve ever used to make great recordings of inexperienced people is to voice the line and have them mimic me. As long as you have someone with enough talent to hear your inflection, and mirror it, you’ll be fine.

Craig Jackman: Actually, I might do nothing. Kids are supposed to sound like kids and not pre-puberty announcers. Likewise, clients shouldn’t be peanut butter smooth. I’m trying to create realism with the clients, so they sound as they do in their stores. That way when the listener walks in they can put a face to the voice on the radio.

If I so wind up coaching a voice virgin through a read, the best way I’ve found is to get them to put the script down and mimic me reading the line into their headphones. We’ll go through the script line by line, until it’s right, then edit it all together. That means more mouse work (it was worse with tape), but it’s faster and the results more consistent. As they become more proficient at reads, the less they have to mimic me. Then it’s back to coaching on inflection, pronunciation, and reaching the listener with what’s important to the listener.

Dave Foxx: It’s always amazing to me that the most glib talker gets totally tongue-tied when you plop a microphone down in front of them, and I still haven’t figured out why. They either sound like they’re reading (at a third-grade level) in front of the class, or they try to sound like what they think you want them to sound like. (puke-o-rama.)

I’ve found the best thing to do is help them forget where they are and what they’re doing. I set the microphone aside and sit and talk with them. They’re no longer talking into a mic or to the imagined “millions” of listeners. They’re talking to me. They’re telling me the story of their business or service. All of a sudden, they become really animated and excited about their message. If they are someone I pulled in for a different voice and have no connection to the business we’re talking about, I try to come up with a similar topic that they can really relate to. For example, on a slightly different slant, there is nothing worse than trying to get someone (anyone) to say something nice about one of the jocks on the station, so I ask them about someone they know on a much more intimate level... a movie star. Say you have a wacky night-time DJ who needs some “street” image. I’ll ask the talker about Michael Jackson. They’ll inevitably say something like, “What a nut-job!” That guy is crazy!” When it airs, the listeners don’t have a clue that the speaker wasn’t talking about your jock. They just nod their heads and say, “That’s him!” Need something about your mid-day woman? Ask about Jennifer Garner (beautiful, sexy, yummy) or Julia Roberts (SO talented, amazing, classy.) The best part is, they’re not shy about it. They’ll shout it out, and the useable percentage jumps from 3% to 97% instantly.

The key is getting them to express a real emotion. If they own a car dealership and you can tell that they’re passionate about it, make sure you create an opportunity for them to express their feelings. Emotion is what sells any product or service.

Sakis Korovessis: Hah! Just my thing! Well, in the case of children (there are always many of them round the neighborhood), and a premier league player such as myself (LOL), I get to play some football (soccer) every now and then, so my relationship with them is always tops! Kids always want to do what’s best for their friends and always trust guidelines given.

Grown ups just tend to be more scared towards the idea of getting on air, so you just offer a drink, play dumb yourself and get them more relaxed when you say “Hey, we should pay you more. You sound much better than the pros! There’s always the case of salespersons in which you get to be more aggressive: “Now, remember this hour’s session next time you ask us to replace a spot within 5 minutes, you f^%#!!! YOU’ll be voicing it!” Hahahaha!

Clients? We don’t use clients in our spots. Our St. Salesperson somehow persuades them that there couldn’t ever be a chance of them getting anywhere near the studio, under no circumstances.

We’ve only done an exception last week when promoting a local band. We got about 10 friends drunk and asked them to sing along with the band’s current hit. Then asked a friend of the singer to drop by suddenly just to have the initial reaction recorded. The whole idea was to localize the spot and make it sound friendlier, make it sound like a real life party. Results were very good but I don’t think we’ll get to do it again, ‘coz the boss was left alone in the end, cleaning up the whole mess!

Johnny George, Susquehanna, Indianapolis, IN: I’m not the expert in this case. Both my Production Director and Asst. Production Director seem to be able to get a better read from some of our staff and clients. However, whenever I do want to get some real responses, I roll Pro Tools prior to them beginning and tell them to run through it a couple of times for practice “before I record.” I seem to get a more honest delivery and not that staged sound. With kids, unless they just have that natural spice of theatrics, I often will toss them the setup line and have them respond naturally. If I don’t get what I want, I put the words into their mouth and keep delivering it over and over until they hit the perfect take. You have to be able to read your talent to see what will work best for them. Not what works best for you. Bottom line is what their final take sounds like. Not what it takes to get it. Whatever works.

Johnny Milford Productions: Considering that learning how to read copy well can take years of experience and is not something that can be taught in one session, I’ve found the easiest way to get the read I want from inexperienced voice talent is for me to read each line one-at-a-time, the way I’d like it delivered, and have the talent parrot each line back to me. It may take a little more editing time, but it saves hours of frustration in the long run.

Jay Rose: First decide what your goal is: to keep the client-announcer happy, to get it done in a hurry, or to create a good spot. If it’s either of the first two, it’s obvious what to do. But if it’s the third, you’ll have to be flexible about getting there.

I’ve found it best to start gradually. Have them read the spot to you, without the mic, both so you can see what the challenges will be and so they can get comfortable reading it aloud. Talk about the spot as well, and what you’re looking for in the read. Very few amateurs can respond to the kind of notes about attitude and emotion you’d give a good voice actor, but it’s always worth a shot: if they can work that way, you’ll get the best performance.

When I first set up the mic, I’ll have them read the copy with me standing there. It’s partially to see how they stand, so I can get the mic in the best position, and partially to get them in the groove. Ask if they want phones; many don’t.

Some amateurs can mimic line reads; with others, it’s a waste of time. (This is true for professionals as well.) If the only way to get what the spot needs is with a line read and they don’t have that chop, it may be that they don’t have good sound memory. Try chopping the line into shorter phrases that can be edited together. Some people relate to visual cues better than auditory ones: if they’re not getting a line read, try “conducting” yourself — while you read to them, raise your hand when the pitch goes up and lower it when the pitch goes down.

An alternative way to get the right stress patterns is to ask questions that can be answered by the copy. If they’re consistently reading “This is great tasting tuna,” ask “is the tuna just fair-tasting?” to get “This is great tasting tuna.” Or “do you think this isn’t great tuna” to get “This is great tasting tuna.”

I’ve worked with amateur kids for national and local spots, for PBS, and for the USIA (in Japanese, yet), and could write pages about the techniques. In fact, I have: go to DV.com and do a search on the word “children.”

Dave Spiker, Imagination Media: Thanks for the opportunity to address the issue of getting the best read from an inexperienced individual. Here are my suggestions:

First, don’t expect miracles. If the client is voicing his own spot and sounds as smooth as on-air talent, it probably lessens his credibility as an average, hard-working businessman who wants the listener’s attention.

Second, be friendly. You don’t have to invite him over to dinner but let him know you’re on his team. If you’ve used his product or service, tell him.

Third, be encouraging no matter how poorly he reads the copy. Confidence is fragile. Tell him how well he did and then make one or two suggestions for his next delivery. Keep telling him how much better he’s doing with each take. Hopefully, after three or forty takes, you’ll have what you need! It may be bits and pieces of various attempts but you can sew them into a patchwork quilt.

At some point though, most people reach “the wall” where they just get worse. At this point, take his script away. Then approach it as a dialog. Ask him some questions that would naturally lead him to cover some of the copy points and keep the recorder rolling. Don’t worry about being on mic yourself. Be sure to act genuinely interested in what he’s saying but don’t speak over his words. The more enthused you are, the more excited his delivery will be. Then later, cut his comments into sound bites and rearrange the copy to sound more like a dialog or a news story by an announcer with cut-ins of the client’s voice.

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