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When Voice-Over Professionals Aren't an Option

Low budget film shoot

"Got to tighten the budget" is something we hear a lot these days. Unfortunately, it's true. People are trying to do more with less. We all would like to have Donald James narrate our next commercial, PR piece, or documentary, but often the budget won't allow it.

If you can't afford a top-name voice-over, or even a local voice professional, what else can you do? As audio professionals, we don't advocate the use of non-professionals, but it's the real world and sometimes the money just isn't there. As an audio engineer, I'm not in the habit of recommending this, but if this is the situation, then I'm still an advocate of the best audio possible.

Voice-over Illustration

To create a good audio project without a pro voice over is quite a task. There's a reason good professionals can demand a high price. They have good recording technique, take direction, and sound the way you'd imagine they'll sound. Recording a pro is uncomplicated.

Many clients don't understand the value of using professional voice talent. Professionals are expensive, and a good speaking voice when reading is often viewed as a common commodity. Clients often want to do the voice-over themselves because they have a personal enthusiasm for the project which needs to come across in the recording. They know what they want to say. In personal advocacy messages, such as political campaigns, viewers/listeners want to hear from the client themselves, not a paid spokesperson. Don't take a client's first request as gospel, however, without questioning and making recommendations. Projects improve with input from others with different experiences and viewpoints, and a client who tries to do everything will not get the best results without help. Also, some people overestimate their capabilities and may need to hear they don't have the best voice, dialect, accent, etc. for the message they want to deliver. It's your job to coach them if you feel this applies to your client.

If a client agrees they aren't the best person to do a narration but don't want to pay a professional, help them think about the kind of person and voice they should use. The person should have a good speaking voice, i.e., someone people like listening to just because of the sound of their voice and the way they say things. The voice should match the product or the script -- serious, caring and concerned for a funeral home; sincere, trustworthy and friendly for a social service agency; energetic, young and fit for a documentary about a sporting activity. The speaker should have good projection -- you usually don't want a thin, mousy voice. They should be easy to work with and should take direction easily.

Once you have the project, the message and a person to deliver it, the work has just begun. Below are tips and techniques to help get the best finished product:

  1. Speak from a formal script. If the client writes the script themselves, suggest they have a critical friend make suggestions and even edit it. Keep it to the point and avoid being wordy or with too much jargon.
  2. This next rule is very important and has been learned from years of commercial recording. What works fine as printed material doesn't always work as a voice-over read. The reader should read the script aloud a number of times and tweak the wording until they feel comfortable with it. The voice-over read should be smooth and engaging. It should be easy to read and flow smoothly from the mouth. Consonants that cause mouth noises, such as P, B, S and TH should be avoided as much as possible. Help the client understand the importance of encouraging the reader to tweak the wording.
  3. Print out the script double-spaced in large or even really large type. I've learned not to be proud in my middle 50's. My eyesight is really sucking these days and I like something comparative to billboard size when I have to engage in a critical read. You'll find you won't have to strain to read it. That feels a lot better than it sounds. Don't allow a paragraph to continue from one page to the next -- put a page break in between. Make sure the script is well-lit. Again, no pride here -- use two lights if needed -- and they usually are.
  4. Don't try to do the recording, produce and read the script. You'll have a better product if different people concentrate on different aspects -- there is too much going on to do it all yourself and do it well. If possible, hire a professional engineer. If this isn't possible, at minimum have someone whose only job is recording the sound and make sure they are wearing good-quality headphones. A lagniappe here: as a musician/audio engineer, I frequently have to write the score, play the parts, edit and mix the recording and finally master the piece. I do these tasks because the budget forces me to and I don't have anything that resembles a trust fund. But, on a bigger album project where I'm called in to play, I do only that. If I engineer, I try not to play and if I master, I pass along the mix engineer's job. I can do all four jobs, and well ... but the project comes out sounding the best when I pick one and hire pros for the other tasks. You have to learn that there are other pros out there as good and/or better than you, and trust their work. You'll be more than happy on this one.
  5. If you can't record in an acoustically-treated studio, spend time to get the best possible recording location. The location should be quiet without echos or sounds bouncing around -- draperies, carpet, furniture, bookshelves etc. will help if professionally design acoustics aren't available. In general, smaller rooms are better and square rooms are to be avoided. Use the best microphones and recorders available, but don't get too hung up on the details. The quality of the narration and the recording environment will make a much bigger difference in the end result than an extra $10,000 in equipment.
  6. The quality of a voice-over will reflect the reader's physical well-being. They shouldn't eat a big meal before the session -- this will cause them to sound lackadaisical. They should avoid sugar and food an hour before, which will tighten up the membranes and can cause their energy to crash midway through the session. They should avoid hot foods that will cause their nose and sinuses to drain. Ideally, they shouldn't be a smoker, which will tend to cause shortness of breath.
  7. Try to get the reader relaxed, not jittery. It's just a voice-over read -- not open-heart surgery. They can always do it again. Make sure they have a cup of water, preferably with lemon or lime. Talk to them, tell a joke, get them to laugh, talk about something totally non-relevant to the read to take their mind off of it. Take frequent breaks.
  8. Compliment the reader. Even if they have lots of problems, find something to praise. They'll sound better as their confidence increases. "It sounds like you've done this before. I know you're not a pro, but this sounds really good." The ego is there to be used, so use it. Plenty of positive feedback will vastly improve the recording.
  9. The reader should stand if possible during the read. This opens the diaphram and increases energy and authority. If they need to sit part of the time, they should sit for the full recording. The difference between sitting and standing will be noticeable.
  10. The reader should take off all jewelry. Watches, rings, necklaces and earrings make noise. Avoid anything that could possibly make a sound in the microphone. They many not be aware of these sounds, but the microphone will pick them up, and the audience will dislike or at least be distracted by these sounds. Coach them to keep their hands off the pages of the script and to do one paragraph or at least one page at a time.
  11. Most voice-over reads are too fast. Encourage your reader to slow down and take a few words out, if necessary, to keep to the available timing.
  12. When reading the script, the reader needs to keep their mouth a fixed distance from and at the same angle to the microphone the whole time. Changing position and distance will change the volume and even alter the frequency of the recording. This will be noticeable on the finished recording. With an inexpensive dynamic mic, they'll need to be closer to the mic to get better results -- typically 3-4" is best. With a more expensive condenser mic, they should be 18-24" to let the mic breathe, have a more open, relaxed sound, and minimize mouth artifacts.
  13. Encourage the reader to:
    • Speak distinctly and clearly, but not to the point of sounding goofy or artificial.
    • Avoid popping "p"s and other mouth noises.
    • Keep the pacing of the read smooth and pause briefly between sentences so they don't run together.
    • Vary the pacing, emphasis, and inflection to keep the read interesting and emphasize important points.
    • Avoid monotone reading or using the same inflection with every sentence.
    • Read the paragraph as many times as they need to feel good about it. Once they think they're done, read it again one more time, so there's a backup/safety, just in case there's something wrong with that perfect read.
  14. When working from a teleprompter, take the time to make sure it's adjusted correctly. Allow the reader to practice reading from it. Listen to the read and make sure it sounds good before going on. Make sure the teleprompter doesn't show up in the video in any way.

Follow as much of this advice as possible and don't sweat it if you're not perfect. Nothing ever is. If you study this and take the suggestions to heart, I guarantee your recording will be better.

Kraig Greff, author