The following is a whole slew of information based on my personal experience about how to get started in the world of voice over. I get questions like, “How do I go about getting into voice over?” a lot, and specific questions pertaining to different parts of what’s included below from time to time, as well. I’ve written some version of the following block of text more times than I can remember in response to these questions, so I thought I’d compile it all into one web page that’s easily accessible the next time someone asks. Before I get started, though, I’d like to state, for the record, that I’m still learning. I’d caution against taking advice in anything from someone who claims they’re not still learning about it. But I’d like to think I have at least some idea of what I’m talking about.
As I’m reviewing this page long after initially typing it up, I’m noticing it seems to be speaking to actors interested in voice over. If you do not have a background in acting, I strongly recommend your first step, even before what’s referred to as “first” in the following paragraph, be to take an acting class. Not a voice-over class, but an acting class. Voice acting is acting. If you don’t know how to bring truth to the character or commercial copy or whatever words you’re speaking, you’re dead in the water.
The first thing you want to do once you feel comfortable calling yourself an “actor” is take a class somewhere from someone who knows the voice over industry. If you’re not in a major market, you can look for online instruction, but you’re likely going to need to move to one of the major markets at some point if you intend to make voice over your career. For LA residents, here are a couple of recommendations. I took my first class from Cheryllynn Carter at the Actors Creative Workshop, which was nice, because she knows her stuff, and she’s easy on your wallet, too. I’ve also heard fantastic things about Bob Bergen‘s classes and workshops, and traded some emails with him a couple times to get some free advice, so I can definitely vouch for his value and credibility. David H Lawrence XVII offers both in-person and online instruction at VO2GoGo.com, as well as free nuggets of wisdom by way of a blog/newsletter (to which I have been a subscriber for years), and he’s an excellent resource. If you’re interested in jumping into the anime waters, Tony Oliver teaches classes pertaining to that at Bang Zoom under the Adventures in Voice Acting banner. The Voice Actors Network, Voices Voicecasting, and Garden of Sound all have workshops with a lot of big casting directors, and the Voice Registry at Voicebank.net has an insanely cheap Weekly Workout program with agents and casting directors which I strongly recommend, but these are things you’ll not likely want to do until you’ve got your reel and are better acclimated with the industry. You want your first impression with the big wigs to be a good one.
These are by no means the only classes available in the LA area, but they’re the ones I know to be reputable. When it comes to shopping for a class, do your research and make sure they’re worth your time and money ahead of time. I wouldn’t sign up for a class with someone who offers a package deal where they’ll produce your reel at the end of the class, because they have no way of knowing ahead of time if you’ll be ready for that by the time the class is over, and neither do you. I’d also avoid anyone who seems like they’re trying to sell you on producing your reel while they’re teaching you. If they offer both services, fine, but their primary objective should be to teach, not up-sell. I’ve also heard of “coaches” who offer a package deal that includes your own home studio equipment, and I’d avoid that at ALL costs. Your coach should be able to help you choose equipment, but they shouldn’t be selling it to you themselves. That’s just asking for them to mark-up prices on you.
After you take a class, or classes, you’ll get a feel for what your plan for breaking in to the business is going to be. If you don’t have that feeling, you need to take another class. And don’t hesitate to keep taking classes even after you’ve got your reel. More education never hurt anybody. I myself still go to workouts, workshops, and check out online seminars all the time. (LA residents: in addition to the workshops listed above, there’s a pretty great little workout group at The Voicecaster I go to sometimes you might think about checking out.) Once you’re ready, and you’ll know when you are, then you hire somebody to make your first reel. Everybody in VO knows Chuck Duran is the guy to go to for top-notch demo production. He produced both of my current commercial and animation demos. He’s not cheap, and he’s very busy, but he’s very much worth it. My advice: hire him. But if you want to go for another producer, here are some tips on how you want the end result to sound, which should help you narrow your options down.
First and foremost, a voice over reel must be compartmentalized. You don’t want a generic reel demonstrating all your voice over abilities. You want a reel dedicated exclusively to commercial voice over, and/or one dedicated to animation, and/or one for narration, and/or one for promos, et cetera. Ask anybody who’s been in this business for a little while and they’ll all tell you to start with the commercial demo. I started with animation, but if you want to make a living in voice over, you’ve gotta be able to do commercials, so it really is the best place to start.
Prepare fresh copy for the recording of the reel; don’t pull stuff from the producer’s catalog, because you don’t know how many other people have used it before you. They should be willing to help you find material that works for you, though. A great place to start looking for commercial copy is magazine ads. And if you go through Chuck, he’s got a copy writer who writes real-sounding spots just for you.
Copyright laws have no influence on a voice over reel, and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply being paranoid. You’re not making money from your reel (at least not directly), so it’s all covered by fair use. That means any copy that comes from an existing commercial, copywritten music, or sound effect you want to use is fair game in the eyes of the law. You still want to avoid anything that’s really recognizable, though, simply because people know you’re not the “Can you hear me now?” guy or the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” dog (and both of those campaigns are far too out of date to be useful anyway), and imitations (except for a celebrity impersonations demo) are of no use to you. Agents want to know you can create your own stuff, not imitate someone else’s. That especially applies to animation reels: create your own characters, don’t imitate Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin. Things like that scream “amateur.”
If, when you go looking to hire a producer, you listen to sample reels that do include full :30 spots, find a different producer. A reel should include just enough of each spot to get the gist, then move on to the next one. No reel should be longer than 1:30 (except an audiobook reel), and anything longer than a minute is pushing it (the listener’s usually made up their mind about you within the first 5 to 10 seconds.) So you don’t have a lot of time to cover all the ground you’ll want to cover, which means if you include full spots, you’re drastically limiting how much you can use.
For animation reels, it may seem clever to try to piece together a one minute story, but it doesn’t work, and it’s not worth the effort. The purpose of the animation reel is to show your ability to bring life to a character, not your writing capabilities. Yes, you’ll likely come up with what the characters on your first animation reel say (with the help of your producer), but keep them all separate, not part of the same story. That helps show your versatility better, anyway. It’s okay to have a couple of conversations between two or three characters in an animation reel if you want, but don’t be afraid of one-liners and monologues. If you need help developing characters, the producer will likely be able to do that, and if they’re not, you can always hire a coach. The producer can pick which characters are worth featuring in the reel, and how much of each to show, but you can always help make those decisions, too.
The best reels sound like each piece was recorded in a different space on a different microphone. More than likely, you’re not going to find a producer that does this with the material you record specifically for the reel. But as you start booking work, you keep updating your reel with stuff you were actually paid to do instead of “spec” pieces, and while many of those things will likely be recorded in your own home studio, some will be recorded in other studios around town, and those variations from spot to spot will come through to make your reel shine even more. However, don’t rush to include that non-union commercial you did for Jorge’s Tacos in Albuquerque, New Mexico; a good commercial demo consists entirely of brands that are nationally recognizable. You’re sending your demo to agents and clients across the country (maybe even internationally). You want them to be familiar with what it is you’re showcasing your ability to sell. With an animation reel, it shouldn’t be recognizable characters that somebody else created, anyway, though, so using non-union work on that is absolutely fine.
Since you’re likely courting agency representation with your reels, a great place to look for ideas on what reels work is Voicebank.net. Pull up the agency/agencies you’re targeting and see what their actors are using.
When it comes to hiring a professional producer for your first reel, there are two major things to remember. First, they know the industry better than you do (and if they don’t, you need to hire a better one). Value the producer’s opinions. Second, somewhat contradictory to the first point, you’re the customer, and the reel holds far more importance to you than it does to them. If there’s anything about the reel that you’re not happy with, tell them to fix it. When it comes down to it, that reel is simply a paycheck for your producer. For you, it’s your business card, your resume, your portfolio. Basically, the reel is something you put together in collaboration with the producer, not something you hire them to take care of for you, and they’re not your slave for you to order however you wish. If you treat it as a collaborative process, the end result will benefit greatly.
As far as price goes, the reel is the biggest individual investment you’ll ever make in your career. If you’re not spending at least $800, you’re probably not getting a very good reel. On Bob Bergen’s website, he says they average between $1500 and $2500. Chuck charges near the upper end of that range. Obviously, spending more money does not necessarily mean you’re getting a better reel. But, in all honesty, when it comes to the reel, money should be no object. Be prepared to spend what you need to in order to get the best reel possible.
All that said, while the reel is an important piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t really get used as often as you might think. Yes, you want a reel for every niche of voice over you want to participate in (commercials, animation, narration, etc), but their primary use will be to market yourself to agents. (Sidenote, courtesy of Bob Bergen: Never send an agent the same reel they passed on last time. Make sure you update them regularly). Every once in a while, you’ll have a job that doesn’t require a custom audition, and you’ll submit a reel instead. You
may should decide to do some self-marketing for casting directors, ad agencies, indie animators, et cetera, for whom you don’t have any audition copy to record, so you’ll use your reels then, as well. But 99% of the time, auditions require you to record something from the project itself. And many of the jobs you’ll be booking, particularly in the early stages of your career, if your path’s anything like mine, will expect you to supply the recording space at no additional cost.
So, you’ll need a home studio. This is the step that comes after the reel. It doesn’t have to be terribly expensive, but you’ll want to get a decent studio condenser microphone. Preferably, this microphone will have a low-end roll-off switch. If it doesn’t, the stuff you record will sound a little too bass-y and too much like a radio DJ, so you’ll have some more tweaking to do in post-production with the EQ. (Sidenote: if you want to sound bass-y from time to time, you can turn off the roll-off switch and/or get closer to the microphone to capture more of the low end of your voice.) You can get a decent microphone for under $150. There’s no reason to invest money in one of the top mics in the industry, because any client who wants you to use a Neumann U87 is either delusional, or they have the money to book you at a major studio that already has six of them. Even then, a $150 or less microphone is enough to show them what your voice sounds like during the audition you record at home.
I use an Audio Technica AT4033a, which is a little more expensive (I think it cost me $300), but I’ve been using it since 2006 and it sounds pristine to my ears. I’ve heard lots of good things about Blue’s mid and upper-range microphones like the Bluebird, but they’re not exactly cheap, either. I’ve been told to avoid Blue’s Snowball and Yeti USB microphones simply because the analog-digital converter used to convert the audio to data your computer can understand isn’t very good. If you want to use a USB microphone, so you won’t need to go through a preamp or mixer or any other piece of hardware between the mic and the computer, I’ve heard good things about Audio-Technica’s AT2020. I also have an MXL V63M, which is going for about $80 right now, and is at least a halfway decent microphone, as well as a few MXL 990s, which is like a $60 microphone that’s probably equivalent to the V63M. Don’t get a microphone that’s intended for “podcasts;” they use the same cheap analog-digital converter that Blue’s USB mics use, and you want something a little better than that. Your coach/teacher will be able to help you with picking a good one that doesn’t break the bank.
Many condenser microphones require a “phantom power” source, which means you need a preamp. Don’t cheap out on this. There are preamps (or sometimes just “phantom power supplies”) available for under $50, but those cheap ones add a terrible hiss to your signal. The preamp used in my home studio at the moment is a Behringer Ultragain Pro MIC2200, but you probably only need one channel. You can also get a mixer with a built-in preamp, which will give you the added bonus of some EQ control during recording. Your best bet is to get either a preamp or mixer/preamp combo that has either USB or Firewire output to plug it into your computer. These convert the analog signal from your microphone to a digital signal your computer can understand, and do so without losing audio quality or generating unwanted noise. The alternative method of getting the signal to your computer is to go in through a 3.5mm microphone jack, but the quality of that depends on the quality of your computer’s sound card, which isn’t something most laptop and desktop PC manufacturers usually spend a lot of money on. So if you didn’t build your computer yourself and don’t know how to upgrade the sound card, you’re safer using something with USB or Firewire. The preamp I mentioned used in my studio is outputting via XLR to a Samson S-Com 4 for its compressor/expander, which is then outputting via XLR to an eight-channel mixer, and finally goes via USB to the PC, which is probably overkill for the average VO, especially when you’re just getting started. The MBox gets a lot of positive feedback in the VO world, and my experience with it has been positive, but they can be a tiny bit pricey. Another one that David H. Lawrence XVII recommends is the Edirol UA-25. I just recently picked up a Behringer U-Phoria UM2 XLR to USB preamp to use on the road (and for streaming PS4 gameplay), and my limited experience with it has been great so far. Again, your coach can help you with this, but when you’re practicing your Google-Fu, I’d recommend using terms like “USB preamp,” “USB audio interface,” or “USB audio bridge.”
There are probably hundreds of different audio recording/editing software suites available out there, and they pretty much all offer the same thing in a different package as far as a voice over actor is concerned. Choosing one is mostly about finding an interface you’re most comfortable with, and something cost-effective. GarageBand is an obvious choice for Mac users, because it’s included in the operating system, though it’s not as robust as something expensive like ProTools or Adobe Audition. If you’re a PC, or a Mac who doesn’t like GarageBand, and you don’t want to spend a lot of money on software, Audacity is free software that’s really easy to use, even if it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the big guns. I, personally, use Adobe Audition most of the time. It has almost all the features you could ever imagine needing and then some, which is why you’re probably better off starting with something like Audacity. Audition has a bit of a learning curve if you don’t have experience with audio editing software, but that goes for any software you’re using for more than the basic record, cut, and save functions. I record my audiobooks with Reaper because the one feature Audition doesn’t support is punch-and-roll recording, and once I tried it, I discovered just how useful that method is. ProTools and PreSonus Studio One also support it, but ProTools is expensive, and Studio One simply wasn’t to my liking. If you’re struggling with the software you choose, you might try something different, and if none of it’s making sense to you, find some tutorials online.
By far, the trickiest part about the home studio is controlling the reflections in the recording space and keeping out unwanted noise. Ideally, you want to record in a completely “dead” space, but you won’t be able to do that when you’re first starting out. I built my own sound booth a couple years ago and it cost me $500 as well as a week of my life doing manual labor I wasn’t trained to do, and I’m a little surprised at how well it turned out. Still, it ended up kind of falling to pieces in less than a year, and I later upgraded to my basement with about $2500 worth of ATS Acoustics panels on the walls (plus another $1500 worth of home remodeling to get the water heater on the other side of a wall). We’ve now moved into a new house, but those panels are still very much in use. When I got started, though, I recorded in a closet full of clothes, and also used a home made “Porta-Booth” to help deaden things further. At the link I just gave, you can find the website of Harlan Hogan (also repped by dB Talent), who manufactures and sells pre-fab Porta-Booths for a somewhat ludicrous amount of money, as well as gives free instructions on building one for yourself for about 20 bucks, as long as you can find a place to buy studio foam in small quantities.
The question I get asked the most (next to, “How do I get into voice over?”) is, “Where do you find your work?” especially before I signed with my agents. Obviously, you want to try to get an agent. They have access to the big jobs that nobody else does. Finding an agent is extremely difficult, though, and if you want to make a living in voice over in the modern market, you can’t rely on any one agent exclusively, anyway. Unless you’ve got a really good agent who’s booking you national commercials and shows on Cartoon Network and Disney, but those jobs are hard to come by. I used to use the “pay-to-play” websites Voices.com and Voice123 religiously, but the amount of work you have to put into them in order to find meaningful jobs isn’t the best ratio, especially once you’re booking through other avenues. These sites have plenty of other downfalls, too, but they also make the voice over industry accessible to any and all newcomers. You pay an annual subscription to use their website, where probably twenty to thirty jobs matching your profile will be posted every day, then select which jobs you want to audition for. Some of these jobs will be grossly underpaid, but most pay something that resembles a worthwhile rate, particularly to somebody who’s new to the business. Of course, everything is relative in that regard.
Almost all of the work there is non-union. If you’re a member of SAG-AFTRA, pay-to-play sites are not the place to start. I’d advise against it if you can help it, but you might think about looking in to going Fi-Core with the union, which will allow you to accept non-union work, as well as union stuff, at the expense of a few of the benefits of your membership. There’s a bit of a stigma against it, but at least when it comes to voice over, most casting directors are pretty understanding of Fi-Core members. Also, you don’t have to tell anyone you’re Fi-Core; if someone asks, you can simply answer with, “I am eligible to work on union projects,” and leave it at that.
Sidebar: In all honesty, it’s in your best interests, as well as the best interests of your peers in the industry, to work exclusively on jobs that adhere to union standards, if it’s at all possible. If you’re not a union member yet, you’ll be eligible to join once you work your first union job. I would recommend holding off on joining at that point until you’re ready–meaning ready to pay the hefty initiation fee, ready to give up any non-union work you’re doing, ready to move to a major market (if you haven’t already), and hopefully ready to sign with a major agency (more on that later). You’ll be required to join if you book another union job more than 30 days after the first one’s finished, so think very hard about the readiness aspect before you accept that one. Joining the union when you’re not getting auditions for union gigs won’t do you any good. Obviously, joining is a milestone you want to strive for, but again, don’t make the leap too early; I’ve seen lots of actors hamstring themselves by having to adhere to Rule One when they only get the chance to read for a union gig once every few months. That’s my opinion, as someone who built the early stages of a career on lots of non-union work. You may get different advice from others, depending on who you ask. Sidebar over.
In addition to the pay-to-play sites, there are other ways to get work for yourself. If you’re interested in audiobooks, the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) is a free service for narrators to find books to narrate, and publishers to find narrators. Most of these projects do not pay up front, but offer royalty share payments instead. Personally, my rule is that I don’t accept royalty-share-only projects, but it’s completely feasible that you could find them far more lucractive in the long run than anything I’ve ever booked. The alternative on ACX are the projects that pay a per-finished-hour rate, and almost all of those on the site fall somewhere in the $100 – $400 range. Most in the industry would call the acceptable minimum for full-production around $235 (some publishers have reached agreements with the union in the past couple of years to pay a little less, but they get away with it by handling QC/proofing for you). ACX is also union friendly, but you have to make at least the aforementioned $235 per finished hour upon project completion or, if you’re doing a royalty-share, receive at least $100 per finished hour as a stipend. Something you may not know about that, though, even if you are a union member: Rule One does not currently apply to audiobooks. Because of the fact that the union does not have the same minimum rate with every publisher they have an agreement with, they cannot hold you to any specific standard. Thus, if you’re a union member, you can do non-union audiobook work without fear of retribution, at least for now. My suspicion is that the union will try to renegotiate their current contracts with the audiobook publishers once they all come up for renewal to get everybody on the same page, and if that happens, Rule One will be enforceable.
Self-marketing is another great way to find work. Obviously, once you’ve got your reel, you’re going to be contacting agents in search of representation. Email them whenever you’ve got something meaningful to say about your career, and keep your reels fresh for them so they don’t listen to them and go, “Yeah, I passed on this the last 10 times I heard it.” Christmas cards can be good, too. Basically, keep reminding them about yourself every now and again, but don’t call the office every day and expect anything other than a restraining order. I managed to secure both of my agents from cold emails. But it’s really helpful if you can get an industry referral, either from a casting director you’ve worked with, or a friend or colleague who’s got a good relationship with their agent.
Agents aren’t the only ones to cold-call or cold-email, though. Once you’ve got your reel, you can research casting directors, small ad firms, groups that produce web promos and “explainer” videos, indie animation and game studios, basically anybody you can think of that might hire voice overs on a regular basis, and send them emails letting them know you’re there. This is a practice you should continue to use on a regular basis throughout your career (and one I regularly allow to fall by the wayside when I get busy with work, which might be part of the reason my career’s not more prolific than it is at this point). After you’ve started booking work frequently, don’t forget to reach out to your past clients every few months and remind them how much you enjoyed working with them last time. But again, don’t be annoying about it.
Also, workshops. I reinvest a good chunk of my earnings going to workshops, meeting with any casting director I can find hosting one that I don’t already have a working relationship with at least once every four or five years. I met Mami Okada, the casting director at Bang Zoom Entertainment, at one of these workshops, and the work I’ve booked from her since has paid for all the others I attend and then some. I also got myself a general audition with DisneyToon Studios because of a workshop with one of their directors. Your mileage may vary, and some workshops are more valuable than others, but they do work.
Hopefully, at least some of the above information will be of use to you. If all it tells you is you’re not interested in doing voice over work, I certainly don’t blame you; it is a lot of work! But, if you’re passionate about it like I am, you can’t imagine yourself finding the same kind of fulfillment doing anything else. If you’re looking for more info, check out Dee Bradley Baker‘s IWantToBeAVoiceActor.com for a veritable treasure trove of useful tips. And if you’ve ever got any questions I might be able to answer feel free to drop me a line, and good luck to you in your new career!