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Last updated 6/21/07

The Actor’s Vocal Gift and the Voiceover Industry

An Actor's Mouth

Naturally, the voice is vital to acting. And it stands on its own as a ubiquitous field of endeavor with regard to voice-over acting. But there is also the task for the cultivation of vocal techniques (especially to eliminate, neutralize, or develop accents) that aids an actor in the role of a character, and there is the knowledge, care and training of the vocal instrument, not unlike what a well trained singer experiences, that also becomes part of any complete actor’s regimen of activity to master the craft. This triumvirate of the voice as a resource: exercise and care; the crafting of pronunciation to bring to life an actor’s character; using the voice in its own right to secure work opportunities, intertwined though they may be, is what will be the focus of this section.

Speaking With Distinction

In many countries voice and speech can be taught together by the same acting teacher. In the United States, the two are often taught separately and by different specialists. For young actors that are confused by the differences between voice and speech work, voice training primarily deals with the production of vocal tone -- the range, openness, expressiveness, and flexibility of the actor’s voice. Speech training concentrates on articulation, dialect and scansion. Stemming from a general field where there are many schools of thought put forth by varied instructors, expect overlap. Both often incorporate breathing, physical relaxation, and emotional work. And both kinds of training are equally important to the actor.

Terms To Know

Balls. A deep and resonant vocal tone.

DAT. Digital Audio Tape.

Dub. An audio or video copy. Also called a "dupe" (short for duplicate).

Hook. A phrase or melody line that repeats itself in a song; the catchy part to a song.

Hot Mike. A microphone that is turned on.

Master. The original recording. The tape from which dubs are made. Also, a finished recording of the song from which records are pressed and distributed to radio stations and record stores.

Mix. The final audio product combining all the elements into one composite soundtrack. "Mix" also applies to the act of creating the mix. This is sometimes referred to as the "mixdown."

Mouth Noise. Also known as "clicks and pops." A dry mouth produces much more mouth noise than a damp one. Cigarette smoking also contributes to a dry mouth. The less mouth noise you have, the less editing has to be done later.

Off-Camera. A part for which you supply your voice to a TV spot or video presentation.

On-Camera. A part in a TV spot or video production where you actually appear on screen. It pays more than off-camera voice-over, but often requires more work, as well as applying make-up.

Protection. You may be asked to "do another take for protection." This means that you have given the director a take she likes but she wants you to do it again to make sure it was the best. Also referred to as "insurance."

SFX. Abbreviation for sound effects. Sometimes also written as EFX. or FX.

Voice Over. The act of providing one’s voice to a media project. Called voice-over because the voice is usually mixed over the top of music and sound effects.

For a full glossary listing click here

Knowing Your PVRs

In The Art of Voice Acting, James Alburger describes PVRs as the fundamental elements of vocal variety that create the dynamics of a performance. When you understand and apply pacing, volume, and range, you will be able to make any vocal presentation captivating. Pacing is the speed of your delivery. It is closely related to the rhythm and timing of the copy and to the tempo of your delivery. Pacing is how fast or how slow you are speaking at any given moment. Volume refers to how loud or soft you speak at any given point in time. Range refers to the performer’s ability to put variety into the performance by adjusting the pitch of the voice -- and its ability to scale high and scale low -- to maintain interest. Voice actors, in the field of animation, have developed a wide range from which to create many characters.

PVRs referring to the degree of variety in a performance are achieved by adjusting pacing (rhythm, timing, and phrasing), volume (loudness), and pitch. Excitement, enthusiasm, awe, sarcasm, pity, wonder, sorrow, cynicism, and sadness are all expressive modes in which a person (or an actor), makes use of a vocal range to bring out these feelings. Other areas that the prospective voice-over actor must be concerned with include articulation, the clarity with which words are spoken; diction, the clarity of your delivery through the correct pronunciation of words; rhythm, the flow of words and the placement of emphasis on certain words; timing, the space between which one character pauses, and another chimes in; phrasing, which encompasses the flow of your deliver, the variations in tempo as you speak, and the subtle nuances of your tone of voice.

An Emphasis on Accents

Any actor willing to do the work of learning accents can find the possibilities for employment widened. The amount of work requiring accents in recording books and commercials, and in the theater, television, and cinema, both on camera and in dubbing, is considerable. Work on accents consists of memorizing a new pattern of sounds and drilling them as they become easy and habitual. In order to study accents you must learn not only to hear, but also to analyze what you hear. You must then learn to reproduce or imitate, the sounds which are different from your own way of speaking, and to do that you must constantly drill. This includes recording yourself and listening for accurate reproduction of the sounds. You also need to listen to tapes of foreign languages, and do the exercises accompanying them. Aiding the effort to gain a concise analyses of the sound systems of languages, the International Phonetic Association (IPA) makes a good starting point. The aim of the IPA is to promote the scientific study of phonetics and the various practical applications of that science. The Association has edited the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, published by Cambridge University Press (1999), and also publishes a chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Care, Cultivation and Training of the Voice

Training of the voice is done through persistent exercises to enhance vocal technique. Vocal exercises accomplishes two important goals for the actor. They develop the vocal instrument, and they enable the actor to learn how to use the voice to express his or her emotions for that role. Actors seeking the widest possible opportunities to work in their craft must be able to use their voices in a wide variety of situations: in small theaters, huge barn-like spaces with minimal amplification, in television studios, on feature film sound stages, and on-location film sites. Actors may work in situations where electronic amplification blows their voice out of human proportion, and in situations where there is no sound enhancement at all. They may record their lines in a studio completely unrelated to the actual scene in which their filmed images appears.

Speech on the theatrical stage requires speaking (or projecting) to large numbers of dispersed listeners so that every word carries clearly and with reality. In the craft of acting, it is felt that the actor’s voice is developed in much the same way that one learns to play a musical instrument, using the same study, practice and application to master it. In considering a course of study or a plan of action to improve one’s vocal quality, there are four aspects to be primarily concerned with:

Although the above four aspects pertain solely to vocal production, building blocks for an efficient vocal instrument that need to be taken into account include:


According to Webster’s Dictionary, a voice-over is "the voice commenting or narrating off camera, as for a television commercial." James Alburger in The Art of Voice Acting defines voice-over as any recording or performance of one or more unseen voices for the purpose of communicating a message. The main union and guild covering voice-over artists, AFTRA, defines a voice-over performer as someone who reads copy and is not seen on-camera. Voice-overs on radio and television commercials are considered to be anything up to three minutes in length. Anything over three minutes is considered voice-over narration.

The Types of Voice-Over Sessions

There are varied types of voice-over projects for which you could be hired. They include:

Getting Started Quickly in Voice-Over Work

To get up and running in this field consider the virtues of how to Jump-Start A Career With Non-Paying Acting Opportunities , and find any outlet that gives you the opportunity to read aloud. Possibly there are oral interpretation classes available in your area. Maybe you can find reading groups for poetry or Shakespeare. Get into community theater or try "open mike" stand-up comedy. Your city may need volunteer radio readers for the blind or storytellers for schools and daycare. If all else fails, get yourself a tape recorder and read anything into it. Practice using your vocal instrument. Also, get used to hearing yourself played back. You are accustomed to hearing yourself not only through your own ears. You usually sound warmer and more resonant to yourself than to others, or to a microphone. Start learning your own voice and how to manipulate it.

The primary areas to search for work in voice-over acting include:

On television shows, it’s the voice that you hear while watching action going on. If you hear the person speaking while on-camera, that is not a voice-over. Don’t confuse voice-overs with "dubbing." Dubbing is putting your voice in place of another person’s

Voice-overs are suited for people with personality, flexible voices and acting skills. And like any other part of acting requires hard work and persistent marketing and networking to keep working steadily. This career is cyclical: some months are better than others. Things may go smoothly in a given year, then taper off the next. Agencies and the companies they book talent for go with different sounds all the time. They may want to change in order to bring in a different type of audience.

Regardless of the level of audition performance you put in you still may not book a particular job. Knowing how to interpret the copy and read according to direction is what clients and casting directors look for. If you don’t book the job after doing what was your best audition in the world, you may never know why. More than likely, the client wanted another style of voice, and you don’t know what any other voice-over artist did in their read. Don’t spend too much time worrying about why you didn’t get the last job. Move on to the next one.

Assessing the Start-up Costs

Your main start up costs include classes to learn basic skills. Having a great voice isn’t enough. Learning what to do with that voice and how to showcase key skills and talents the industry requires is the key to success. If you make a demo tape without training, you are taking a chance of having your work not seen in a great light. Hold off making that tape (homemade or produced) until you have taken classes, and begin to receive favorable assurances from your instructors. If you’ve already got a demo tape, bring it to the class. Let the teacher listen to it, before you continue sending it out.

Costs for these classes can run anywhere from $100 to $500. Find out the best prices for the kind of class that you are looking for. Ask around. Ask agents, teachers, and fellow actors. Usually casting directors, producers and even other very successful voice-over actors offer classes and even produce tapes.

Don’t spend your money to have a tape professionally produced unless you are ready, although it certainly possible to engineer a homemade tape for feedback and constructive criticism. Among other things, this can mean that you can use a microphone and give a natural sounding read. Furthermore, you should be comfortable with your read and not feel the need to re-do each read several times. You must learn characters and interpretations of reads and know how to read and how to act on the microphone. When preparing your tapes, keep each kind of voice-over on a separate tape. Commercials on your commercial tape, promo/narration on our narration tape, animation on your animation tape, etc. A produced demo tape can cost from $300 to $700 depending on if you’ve hired a director/producer to work with you. You will also have to pay the studio where you produce your tape.

The Demo Tape

Demo tapes are an essential tool of the voice-over trade. They are calling cards and are used to make an introduction to casting directors or agents. Because demo tapes can be expensive to make, calling various studios to compare recording rates and tape duplication costs is part of the leg work Studios might be willing to cut you a good deal if you can guarantee the booking of several people who are willing to record their tapes during one long session. Remember, heading into a recording session, you will need a script which you have prepared and practiced, just the way you plan to record it in the studio.

The ideal length of a demo tape embraces brevity as its main consideration. Generally, demo tapes should run no longer than two and one-half to three minutes. Characters should appear for no longer than the time it takes to establish them. This can range from the few words of a tag to a complete fifteen- or twenty-second commercial.

It is your decision whether to use existing copy or create original material for the demo tape. There are pros and cons to both approaches. In general, it is okay to use material that has been written and recorded by someone else for a real product or company, as long as your use of the material is for talent demonstration purposes only. If you write your own copy (or have someone do it) you can use fresh material to create a surprise element for your auditors. Normally, voice-over artists will use a mixture of prerecorded material and original copy to showcase their talents. There is disagreement in the industry, however, as to whether or not you should include a double on your tape. Some professionals feel that a double is needed to show that you can work well with another person.

Useful Books

An Actor’s Guide: Making It in New York City
by Glenn Alterman
288 pages; (February 2002)
Allworth Press; ISBN: 1581152132
The Art of Voice Acting: The Craft and Business of Performing for Voice-Over
by James R. Alburger
232 pages; (December 2002)
Focal Press; ISBN: 0240804791
Complete Handbook of Voice Training
by Richard Alderson
264 pages; (June 1979)
Publisher: Prentice Hall Trade; ISBN: 0131613073
Voice and the Actor
by Cicely Berry, Peter Brook
160 pages; (July 1991)
Hungry Minds, Inc; ISBN: 0020415559
Word of Mouth: A Guide to Commercial Voice-Over Excellence
by Susan Blu, Molly Ann Mullin
182 pages; (1996)
Pomegranate Press; ISBN: 0938817329
Accents: A Manual for Actors With CD
by Robert Blumenfeld, Robert H. Blumenfield
448 pages Book & CD edition; (January 2002)
Limelight Editions; ISBN: 087910967X
The Joy of Phonetics and Accents
by Louis Colaianni, Patrick Gagliano (Introduction)
184 pages; (December 1994)
Lightning Source; ISBN: 0972745009
How to Talk American: A Guide to Our Native Tongues
by Jim Crotty
419 pages; (August 1997)
Mariner Books; ISBN: 0395780322
The Singing and Acting Handbook: Games and Exercises for the Performer
by Thomas De Mallet Burgess, Nicholas Skilbeck
224 pages; (December 1999)
Routledge; ISBN: 0415166586
Voiceovers: Putting Your Mouth Where The Money Is
by Chris Douthitt, Tom Wiecks
299 pages; (April 1997)
Grey Heron Books; ISBN: 093556621X
American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers
by Lewis Herman, Marguerite Herman (Contributor)
320 pages; (January 1997)
Routledge; ISBN: 087830049X
Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers
by Lewis Herman, Marguerite Herman (Contributor)
376 pages; (January 1997)
Routledge; ISBN: 0878300201
Handbook of the International Phoenetic Association, A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet
by International Phonetic Association Staff
214 pages; (July 1999)
Cambridge Univ Press; ISBN: 0521637511
Speech for the Stage
by Evangeline Machlin
248 pages; (March 1992)
Routledge; ISBN: 0878300155
The Voice Book
by Michael McCallion, Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Nakagawa
304 pages; (December 1998)
Theatre Arts Books; ISBN: 0878300929
Speak With Distinction
by Edith Skinner, Timothy Monich (Editor), Lilene Mansell
416 pages; (December 1991)
Applause Theatre Book; ISBN: 1557830479
You Can Bank on Your Voice: Your Guide to a Successful Career in Voice-Overs
by Rodney Saulsberry
200 pages; (April 2004)
Biblio Distribution; ISBN 0974767808
Vocal Direction for the Theatre: From Script Analysis to Opening Night
by Nan Withers-Wilson
192 pages; (December 1994)
Drama Publishers; ISBN: 0896761223

Click the titles of the above books for their availability, or enter the title of a book not shown in the above listing in the search box below.


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Relevant Associations & Organizations

American Dialect Homepage
c/o Arx Publishing, LLC
10 Canal Street, Suite, 231
Bristol PA 19007-3900
Phone: 215-781-8600
Fax: 215-781-8602
Endeavors to bridge the gap between the scholarly and literary worlds of dialectology.
Email: info@arxpub.com

British Voice Association
The Royal College of Surgeons
35-43, Lincoln Inn Fields
London, WC2 A 3 PN
Phone: 020-7831-1060
Fax: 020-8288-5934
Devoted to people with voice problems, ranging from severe pathology and cancer to subtle difficulties of artistic performance, all of whom are entitled to the best care available.
Email: bva@dircon.co.uk

Feldenkrais Guild UK
P.O. Box 370
London, W10 3 XA
Phone: 07000-785506
Fax : 0122-861530
The Feldenkrais Guild UK is a non-profit professional organisation of practitioners and teachers of The Feldenkrais Method®. The Feldenkrais Method® teaches how to improve movement, flexibility and posture, reduce pain, stiffness and stress.
Email: enquiries@feldenkrais.co.uk

International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA)
The Department of Theatre and Film
University of Kansas
356 Murphy Hall
Lawrence, Kansas 66045
Phone: 913-864-3511
Created in 1998 as a repository of primary source recordings for actors and other artists in the performing arts. All recordings are in English, are of native speakers, and you will find both English language dialects and English spoken in the accents of other languages. The recordings are downloadable and playable for both PC and Macintosh computers.
Email: pmeier@ku.edu or shawnmuller@earthlink.net
National Center for Voice and Speech (NCVS)
Conceived as a "center without walls," was formally organized in 1990 with the assistance of a grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The NCVS is an intellectual hub of scientists, clinicians and educators. Physically, they are spread about the country, but they share a common website and hold regular meetings. The NCVS consortium is composed of four highly-respected institutions of education and research: Denver Center for the Performing Arts, The University of Iowa, The University of Utah, and The University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Email: julie-ostrem@uiowa.edu
The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
1st floor, Linton House
39-51 Highgate Road
London, NW5 1RS
Phone: +44-020-7284-3338
Fax: +44-020-7482-5435
The Technique is taught in music and drama colleges worldwide and, due to its positive influence on coordination, is seen as an essential element in a performer’s training.
Email: info@stat.org.uk
University of Pittsburgh Voice Center
The Eye & Ear Institute Building, Suite 214
200 Lothrop Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-2582
Phone: 412-647-SING (7464)
Fax: 412-647-8450
Dedicated to the evaluation and care of voice disorders, the Voice Center is a resource for both the general public and those who use their voices professionally.
Email: voicecenter@msx.upmc.edu
VoiceCare Network
Department of Music
Saint John’s University
Collegeville, MN 56321
Phone: 320-363-3374
The VoiceCare Network is a nonprofit educational organization providing lifespan voice education for choral conductors, music educators, church musicians, singing teachers, singers and speech pathologists.
Email: vcn@csbsju.edu
Voice & Speech Trainers Association (VASTA)
P. O. Box 524
Laie, HI 96762
Phone: 808-293-3903
Fax: 808-293-3900
To advance the cause of voice and speech training through promotion of better training programs and development of more highly trained voice and speech teachers. The organization and its chief officers are situated among various universities across the U.S. Visit the website for more information.
Email: earmstro@roosevelt.edu

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