The Art of Directing Voice Talent

Even if you’re good at directing voice talent – a producer in particular, I’m sure you’ll be able to glean some interesting information from this article I wrote a few years ago on the subject of directing voice talent.

It’s a great view from the voice talent’s perspective inside a voice booth. If you like this article and have your own thoughts on directing voice talent, please feel free to drop me a line.

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This article is written for the benefit of producers and engineers who direct or are going to be directing voice talent in a professional recording environment.

Directing Voice Talent – Mood

It’s the first on the list because it likely has the most overall impact on how a VO will sound in the final product.

The talent’s overall mood ultimately dictates how the VO session is going to go. It’s important to note here that a “Professional voice talent” will not bring their personal life into the sound booth with them, with the exception of a cold or other illness.

That being said, it really comes down to elements surrounding and within the recording session that affect the Mood of the Talent.

Directing Voice Talent – Atmosphere

The environment where the VO is recorded effects mood, which therefore affects the talent and final product.

Dark, dingy, low-key environments and small recording booths (often the case) tend to have a claustrophobic effect on talent – the environment is tantamount to being stuffed in a closet.

Studios that have natural light, a larger room and “stand up” microphones lend to not only a more comfortable atmosphere, but also encourage physical adaptation to the spoken word – the talent can stand and move around a bit.

This is an aspect often overlooked by designers and engineers, who tend to concentrate more on the technical aspect of recording, rather than on the atmosphere that can affect the performance of the talent being recorded.

Directing Voice Talent – Engineers

Talent will often refer to the audio engineer as their “Best Friend” in any given recording session.

Why?

It’s the engineer that normally has the most amount of experience directing talent, “feeling out” a talent’s vibe prior to and during recording. Producers/Clients come and go out of the studio; the engineer is static.

He/She sits in on every single session and has likely recorded many types of voices and thus has worked with many different personalities.

Producers and Clients can sometimes “over think” their direction, or simply be undecided as to what sounds good and what does not.

The engineer (I like to think) is the “deal breaker.” At some point during every recording session, the engineer will sense that the talent is about to “blow up” and will say:

“I liked that take….what do you think?”

Thus, the talent’s “Best Friend.”

Alternatively, engineers can have a huge, negative impact on the recording process as well.

They run the session from a technical standpoint and therefore have a great deal of communication with the talent.

Just as the producers need to be polite and respectful to the talent, so do engineers – they play as big a role (if not the biggest) in encouraging a positive, fun and creative environment.

Directing Voice Talent – Producers

These people have the rather unenviable task of keeping a whole bunch of people happy….the first being their client.

Others can include the writer, the recording facility & staff, film crew if it’s a TV ad, the accounting department and of course, talent.

For the producer, voiceover is usually the final stage; I like to call it the final coat of paint.

Normally, there’s a great deal of work behind the scenes that goes into any particular advertising or educational piece prior to voice-over; this puts all the more pressure onto the producer (and VO talent) to deliver that final coat of paint.

That said, there’s a lot on the line in any given VO session; it’s not uncommon to see almost the entire staff involved, laptops all over the place, catered food…..the gamut.

Keep in mind, they’re normally paying a pretty penny for a seemingly innocuous aspect of a project that has taken much, much longer than a single hour or two of studio time.

In the middle of it all….is the producer.

Good producers know that the better the mood of the talent (and everyone) – the more “fun” they have and the better their chances are of getting a good performance out of the voice talent.

They also know that a pro voice talent will save them money in respect to the “time” it takes to record the session. After all, they’re paying for the recording facility, catering, etc….on top of the cost for the talent and subsequent usage of the recorded product that day.

Then, there’s the unprofessional producer – stressed out from having to deal with so many people and so much garbage over the last few weeks, they can’t wait to get the voice talent into a small confined space and beat the verbal crap out of them in front of all their peers…!

While you may think I’m kidding here, I’m not. I’ve personally been strapped to that whipping post more than a few times and it’s not fun.

Needless to say, this can have a huge negative affect on a talent’s mood…..I’ve seen talent reduced to tears.

Unprofessional producers – knowing full well what the talent is being paid – can and will keep the talent stuffed in that booth for as long as they see fit, thank you very much.

Control freaks who will have the talent voice something 15-20 times “because they can” regardless of whether or not the voice talent nailed the script on the first take.

On the subject of “because they can” , a word about recording studio “time.”

As we all know, time is money. Professional recording studios charge by the hour at a fixed rate for a studio and engineer.

Pro talent who walk into a session and nail the script on the first take….? Well, they aren’t making that recording studio any money.

In some cases, the producer has a vested interest in extending the session time to keep the recording studio happy from a “billable hours” standpoint.

The aforementioned situation can lead to a scenario where a producer chooses to waste time (bill more hours) by employing a variety of tactics.

Some may attempt to make the talent look foolish; making it appear to the client that the talent is unable to deliver the performance they want.

Others call for a brainstorming session, make the engineer perform a variety of meaningless tasks….I’ve even seen a guy feign illness.

This, does nothing for the talent waiting in the booth, except breed an environment of frustration and anxiety.

Producers (and engineers) who waste time to make money by prolonging the voiceover recording session (especially those who attempt to make the talent look stupid) are not only undermining their own mandate, they also don’t have their client’s best interests in mind and can therefore be considered not only unprofessional, but also unscrupulous.

Directing Voice Talent and your Script

The mark of a truly great voice talent is one who can make the worst script sound good; they can take a piece of grammatical and contextual garbage….and make it sound like perfect sense.

That being said, coming in with garbage for a script is not the best way to go if you want your talent to perform well and your product to sound good.

The best scripts are:

1) Not written too long for the time frame.

2) Have been “read aloud” by the Writer and the Producer. Yes, I mean “aloud” which doesn’t mean “whispering” to yourself. Read it ALOUD as your voice talent would, for timing and flow.

3) Address “people speak” issues – “there is” becomes “there’s” ect.

4) Direction on the script has been given, either as a side note:

Please read with a sense of urgency, but natural – not too firm. Like a Father trying to be emphatic with his Son, but not angry…”
….or as punctuation:

“If you really want to go get that thing, then you should take the time to go and get the thing, regardless of whether or not the thing is worthwhile…”

5) Caps should be avoided….IE:

“THE TALENT AND THE WRITER SHOULD HAVE A GOOD RELATIONSHIP”

Versus:

“The talent and the writer should have a good relationship….”

It just reads better and easier….and gives you more options for textual direction & talent interpretation.

6) The writer understands that numbers (digits) are a threat to time IE: “4650” translates to “Four thousand six hundred and fifty.”

Finally, words left out of a script and written in, having your talent jump all over the page to read all your changes or tags awkwardly shouldn’t be happening during a recording session – it’s a clear indication the producer/writer hasn’t done their job properly.

Yet another reason for you to read your script aloud prior to the session to avoid multiple changes and weed out your mistakes.

Script mistakes = Multiple Takes = Frustration = Crappy VO.

Directing Voice Talent and the Importance of Music

More often that not, music is used on a VO.

I cannot express enough how important this aspect is to the voice talent getting the “mood” or “feel” of the overall script.

Music sets the tone; the script gives the information and the talent puts it all together to deliver the message. The three elements work in concert.

Every single recording session I attend in a professional studio has the music on hand and it’s fed to my headphones during the read.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard my voice on a product where the music wasn’t provided at time of session or was changed afterwards. 9 times out of 10, it sounds horrible…..and it makes the Talent look bad each and every time.

If you are using music, then make sure the talent hears it. If you can’t get the music into your talent’s headphones, then make your direction specific:

“This will be over classical music, soft and warm violins. Please read accordingly……”

Directing Voice Talent – Context

Context is everything.

Give the talent the context of your vision – and the talent will give you the VO you want every time. Saying “Again” or “No” does not give the talent context, it’s merely a single word with which to interpret your entire vision.

How would you feel if you asked someone:

“How are you feeling today..?”

And they answered:

“No.”

A one-word answer to a question has the same effect as one-word direction or a generic phrase like “you’re getting there….” when you’re giving direction to the talent who, most of the time, can’t even see your face.

Directing Voice Talent – Consensus

While the producer has the “vision” – it is but a single person’s perspective.

The work we all do is normally heard by many – even thousands of people. Does it not make sense then, that everyone in the session have input to facilitate your “vision?”

“I know what I want!”

If you’re a producer, I’m talking to you here. You obviously noticed the word “I” in the previous sentence. I ‘ve got news for you. There’s no “I” in team.

It’s not about a single person (you). It’s about getting the message to the listener or viewer and their subsequent demographic.

And look at all the tools at your disposal to get the message across….! The voice talent is a pro, the engineer is a pro……and hopefully, the producer.

Yes, you’ve got the vision, but everyone else is there to help you with it – don’t discount their input, talent and professionalism.

Coming into the session, it’s important for the Producer/Director/Engineer to understand that in order to get the most out of the talent they should strive to reach a consensus by ensuring:

1) Everyone is in a good mood, doing their best to contribute to a creative environment that’s positive in nature.

2) They know their script. Whoever is directing has read the script aloud and reviewed it for mistakes, grammatical errors and run-on sentences.

3) They know their vision. Whoever is directing voice talent knows where they want to take the VO and how to explain themselves accordingly.

4) They all work together and share each others’ thoughts and opinions to get the best possible product out there.

Directing Voice Talent – Cold copy

Your talent is going to get their best reads of the copy in the first three takes– max.

“Three Takes??!”

Yes, 3 takes…any more than that and you’re basically beating a dead horse, or you’ve got yourself a rookie of a voice talent.

First of all, if the Talent can’t read the copy “cold” then they shouldn’t be in the business. Voice talent that has to read and review copy several times before a recording session will tell you two things:

1) Rookie.

2) Talent will be coming into the session with a pre-conceived notion of your “vision.”

The latter being the most important point. When the voice talent walks into the booth, he/she steps up to the mic and begins to read the copy.

While most people think that this is merely for the benefit of the engineer, they are mistaken.

It is at this point that the talent is (should be) giving the Producer his/her interpretation of the copy as they envision it.

A good talent gives a producer a number of choices, a “palette” if you will from which the Director can choose which “color” (voice and style) they wish.

And yes, the engineer also gets his/her recording level and time to set headphones, EQ, processing, etc.

The best sessions, say, for a :30 second commercial (80 words), are finished in less than 10 minutes.

The script is good, the music provided, every one is ready for those first three takes with the talent reading the script “cold.”

The director has instructed the talent to perform a number of different styles that they can pick from at a later time and the Engineer has had a chance to make an edit or two for the client to listen to a “rough cut.”
10 minutes. Tops.

The worst sessions can go on forever. For example, because nobody read the script aloud, it’s full of run-on sentences and sounds awkward, leading to script changes and subsequent approval by client….blah, blah, blah.

Alternatively, the Producer/Director doesn’t have a clue as to how to communicate their “vision” and frustrates both the talent and the engineer, resulting in what is sometimes called the “Mad Read” by the talent – the talent has lost all motivation and respect for the producer….not to mention the script.

Directing Voice Talent – Respect

People can be very disrespectful of voice talent without even knowing it.

There is nothing worse than having a VO talent “wait” in the sound booth while other tasks are being done like script or technical changes and adjustments.

Picture a burger coming straight off the grill onto a warm plate versus one that has been sitting under the heat lamp for ½ an hour.

A voice talent gets into a “groove” with voicing. If there’s a bunch of material to voice, it should be done all at once. Editing, EQ’ing, reviewing, adjusting….all this stuff can be done after the talent is done recording. If you find yourself saying to the talent in the booth…..

“Just hang on a minute while I…”

…..more than once in a recording session? Well……the burger is getting cold, if you know what I mean.

Respect the voiceover talent by observing these facts:

1) Get your read while the getting is good….get the talent warmed up and keep going until it’s all done – no stopping or starting. “Post” means exactly that – and has nothing to do with recording voice talent.

2) You have a person who has to perform for you while inside in a small, padded, poorly ventilated room. This person should not have to wait in this environment because you (or others) weren’t prepared in the first place or are doing work not related to recording their voice.

3) Taking out your bad day or bad mood on a talent will only serve to affect your recording session in a negative way – and it’s disrespectful. Remember, You Get What You Give.

Always….always keep in mind what it’s like for that person in the tiny, stuffy room. Consider these points:

1) In most cases, they can’t see you or your expressions.

2) They only hear your voice, so mind your vocal tone.

3) When they can’t hear you, they don’t know what’s going on. Use the talkback and keep them informed.

4) They can’t wait to leave this room – it’s stuffy and uncomfortable. Keep them entertained with your positive, witty comments…. :-)!

Factoid: It’s a proven fact that verbal (oral) communication makes up less than 30% of all the elements we use to communicate with each other.

Knowing when directing voice talent is required

I went into a recording session at Louder Music, an upscale recording studio in downtown Toronto. The scripts were well written, I was voicing 4 tags for a Western Canadian radio campaign for a fertilizer company.

The Producer was there, along with 5 other people from the Ad Agency and the clients, etc.

I walked in, voiced the first 3 tags in one take, all perfect to time, choosing the correct mood and style given the music and direction provided.

On the 4th tag, I went ½ second too long.

Instead of having me simply voice the tag over again, the Producer decided to make a mockery of me by getting all flustered and upset…..insisting that the only way he could “fix” it was by cutting and pasting material from the first three tags to shave off a half a second.

The resulting tag sounded just terrible….and the engineer looked like he was about to explode.

The guy wouldn’t let me do my job…..and further, because I did my job very well from the moment I walked into the studio – he had to find something “wrong” with my read to justify his presence that day in the studio.

My point?

Many directors and producers think that because they are there to direct voice talent…….they have to.

What is often overlooked, is the fact that the voice talent is there to do about 90% of their job for them….take the risks, get the timing right, give some choices, bring the energy up or down, etc.

Nothing is more frustrating than to voice a commercial perfectly….only to watch as the director fixates on something like a single word because they “feel” they have to do something.

If it sounds good to you (even on the first take) – then it is good…..learn to be comfortable with that concept. Have the courage to know a good take when you hear one and also know when direction is appropriate.

Further, if you are going to say something – then say something valid and relevant.

Examples of Bad Direction:

Keep in mind that the following statements represent ALL the direction that was given before another take was recorded…..

1) “You’re boring me.”

2) “That was flat.”

3) “No, try it again.”

4) “Yuck…!”

5) “No, that’s not what I want to hear….”

You’ll notice that in each statement, not so much of a hint of context was given – the direction in each case is tantamount to an insult.

The point here is, if you’ve got nothing relevant or motivational to say to direct voice talent, then don’t say anything at all.

Examples of Good Direction:

1) “That was great! I’d like a touch more smile please, and bring up the energy a bit….thanks.”

Here, we have positive re-enforcement from the start followed by a general (albeit generic) idea where to go, ending with a polite “thanks.” This director may not be too specific, but is polite, positive and respectful while giving valid, relevant direction.

2) “Ah….that was good, but not what I’m looking for, way too much energy. This is a really low-key spot – soft and warm – more sincerity please, we’re not selling cars, OK? (laughs)…”

This is an example of the Talent taking a risk with the copy, making a terrible choice and the producers reaction. The producer doesn’t “diss” the talent, but rather politely indicates that the talent went the wrong way – backing up their statement with relevant direction and making the talent feel better about the mistake by laughing at the end.

3) “Excellent! That was great, let’s have a listen and let me know what you think…..”

Here, the producer has heard something they like, but is encouraging the talent’s input – perhaps the producer heard something they might want to change and is looking to the talent to possibly pick it out. This is a good example of team work. Asking talent for input is not only positive; it’s respectful.

4) “Great. Let’s try something else…do you have any suggestions…..?”

The producer doesn’t know what he/she wants. In lieu of getting frustrated or upset, they are now opening the door for creative ideas. This is an excellent way to go if you’ve gone past your “first 3 takes” and you want to keep the talent fresh, motivated and interested.

5) “We’re getting close…..I need 20% more energy, inflect on the word “ointment” take your time with “ease the pain” and throw away the line J.D. Power and associates at the end…that’s not the client…thanks….take 3…”

This is an example of a producer knowing exactly what they want from the talent. They have their “vision” clearly top of mind. They are astute and relevant in their direction, respectful and polite. Also, notice the use of “percentage” when describing energy – this is the mark of a professional, experienced voice director.

There are many scenarios not indicated here, but the general rules of thumb are:

1) Be respectful, positive and polite.

2) Encourage teamwork.

3) Ensure that your direction is well thought out and relevant, before you hit the talkback switch. If you need time to think it through, let the talent know that’s what you are doing.

Directing Voice Talent – Technical Direction

This will be brief. If you find yourself saying:

“Yeah…and we were 3 seconds long on that…”

Then (as a producer) you are not directing your “vision” – you are pointing out a technical matter that the engineer and the talent are usually both aware of.

Leave the technical direction and details to the talent and the engineer. If the talent walks all over a post or sound up (SOT), both the talent and engineer heard it too – there’s no need for the producer to point that out.

The engineer will let the talent know if the spot is long or short, indicate a plosive (popping a “p”) has occurred, etc. The only time you would give technical direction is when the spot calls for it:

“OK, I’d like you to take your time at the top with the client’s name, speed it up slightly through the body…and then just blast through the tag…..”

This is as close as you should get to “technical” direction.

Directing Voice Talent – Summary

You get what you give.

If you’re in a bad mood and bring it with you to the studio, regardless of your role in the process, it will affect the final product and/or performance by the talent. The same can be said for the atmosphere you create in which the talent is going to perform.

Many tools are at your disposal to get the read you want. Remember that your opinion is but a single voice in the entire process – always endeavor to use all the relevant people involved to reach a consensus.

It’s not what you want, it’s what they (your target audience) need to hear.

Come prepared to the session.

Read your script aloud prior to recording the talent. Know your “vision” and how you are going to relay the context of your vision via verbal direction to the talent.

Respect the talent. Understand that you have a person waiting in an enclosed, uncomfortable environment…..and their only contact is your voice in their headphones. What you say, how you say it and how long you keep them in that environment has a huge impact on that person and your final product.

Finally, know a good take when you hear one and have the courage to trust your instincts. If a read made you and the engineer laugh out loud – then it’s likely others will laugh too.

The best directors are ones who know that:

1) Treating talent with respect and kindness = good performance.

2) The first few takes are the best.

3) The script is the best it can be.

4) Consensus is always the best approach.

Again if you have any thoughts regarding directing voice talent or you would like to share an experience you had with respect to directing voice talent, please don’t hesitate to contact me with your thoughts.

Directing Voice Talent - the view from the booth

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