Studio Techniques for Voice Over Actors

Technical Stuff Voice Over Actors Need To Know!

I’ve talked and blogged many times about how to work in the studio to create great reads. 

The voice over topics I’ve talked about include:

  • How to approach a script,
  • What to look for in the script – the ‘important’ or ‘key’ words and phrases,
  • How to work out what the message is,
  • Who you’re talking to, and
  • How to make decisions about style, tone, rhythm and pace.

Now I want to give you some tips on how you use the three most important technical aspects of recording; headphones, microphone and volume, to create great reads.  Here we go!

1. Hand me the Cans!

It can feel very strange to wear headphones (cans) for the first time in the studio.

I love them!  When I work, I want to be able to hear every tiny nuance, every mouth click, every variation in volume and intensity, and, of course, the way I said, what I just said…and for me, wearing headphones is how I can hear, and therefore control, all those elements.

When you first use headphones you need to make sure the volume feels right. 

We all hear at vastly different levels, so headphone level will be unique to you.  It needs to feel comfortable. By that I mean:

It can’t be too soft or you’ll raise your voice automatically. 

Conversely, it can’t be too loud…or you’ll feel the need to talk at a lower volume to compensate for the fact that it hurts if you talk any louder.

If you’re just starting out and have never used headphones before, a good technique to use, to start to get a feel for what just the right level should feel like, is to cup your hands behind your ears to create a ‘sound shell’.

Your thumb and forefinger go behind the ear and you just cup your hands around your ears. Basically you’re creating a very big pair of ears.  Practice doing this now! 

Now read something and listen for what will sound like a slightly echoey voice.

If you can’t hear any difference adjust your hands until you can.  I give this exercise to those I’m coaching and ask them to try it when they’re working on scripts at home.

This “sound shell” method will allow you to focus more on what the words sound like off the page.

As a voice artist, you need to become very aware of how, what you just said, sounds.  You need to have noticed where you placed emphasis, or not.   

This skill is one of the most important a voice artist can have.  You need to know, at any given time:

what you just said, and what you’re saying now, so you can work out how to say what you have to say next.  My that was long-winded!  But did you get it?

You really need to be able to listen to your own voice. Reason being, you need to become adept at taking direction.

When agents and producers hear someone’s demo for the first time and they like what they hear, but don’t know the person, they’ll often want to get a critique from someone reputable that the person has worked with.

If what someone says about you is that you take direction well, that’s a huge plus. Never underestimate this!

If you can’t take direction, you may not be booked again.


2. The Microphone:  Assume the Position!

Positioning yourself when you’re in front of the microphone is crucial.

Mic’s are extremely sensitive and there’ll be a range in which you are close enough to be ‘on-mic’ and sounding great.

Working outside that field is called working ‘off mic’.  The sound will be roomy and distant.

When you’re in front of the mic with headphones on just speak and move around the range listening for how your voice sounds.

What you’re listening for and trying to find is called the ‘sweet spot’.  It’s that position in front of the mic, where your voice sounds gorgeous.

If you’re recording at a sound  studio, when you go into the booth, the engineer will usually follow you, to make sure the mic is set to the correct height for you. 

Usually the set up is; a mic on a stand, with a pop shield in front of it and a music stand for your script.

I rarely sit down when I work.

I may do, if I’m reading something long-form and it’s going to take more than an hour, but I find I have more control over my energy level and performance if I’m standing.

It’s preferable that you work slightly ‘across’ the mic, rather than straight into it – there are two reasons for that.  

One, you’re more likely to have trouble with ‘popping’, which usually occurs on b’s and p’s; even with a pop shield.

And the other reason is, that it’s so important that you can see the script clearly.  You can’t be looking through the pop shield at the script.

If you need to, you can move the music stand, so that you’re close enough to the mic to have your voice captured effectively but can see the script clearly.  To do that you’ll be working slightly across the mic.

Make sure you’re not looking down on the script.  Some music stands are short.  Some people are tall. You can clip it to the top of the music stand.  There’s often a clip in the studio for this reason, or you can simply fold the top of the page over the top of the stand.

Try to avoid holding the script.  Your body needs to be energetically engaged in creating a performance, not holding a script still enough, so that we don’t hear paper noise.


3. Crikey!  Stop Yelling!  The Volume Question!

You may have heard this before but it’s so true. The digital medium doesn’t like loud voices!

You can never underestimate the value of finding the right volume level in creating a great read.

Often the first thing beginner voice over actor’s do in the studio is speak too loudly.  As soon as they get loud, their voice becomes harsh, strident and hard to listen to.

It actually takes a lot of energy to speak at volume.

Lowering volume will allow you to finesse words and use your energy to get the right meaning emotional feel into the read.

Often, when I give someone the direction to drop their volume level…and they take the direction, the difference can be astounding!

Some can go from being a voice that’s hard to listen to, to one that’s deeply engaging, even beautiful.

The fact is, for each of us, there’ll be a volume level at which our own resonant voice is its most beautiful.

Many voice actors have a very broad range in which their voice sounds really charged, engaging and connected.  It’s that skill that leads to a great career. 

Interestingly, if you listened to the work of these skilled voice artists, you may notice one thing.  Their volume level is ‘contained’. 

The volume level is certainly consistent throughout the read.  If you were to look at the wave-form on the recording program, you’d see that volume was maintained within a certain band.

Voice over is a ‘less is more’ kind of thing, so practice by trying to imagine you’re talking just to one person sitting across from you.

If it’s a more intimate read, you can get really close to the mic and use hardly any volume at all.

You hear many things out there in broadcast land that are recorded like this but they sound ‘huge’, because of the digital treatment they’ve received.

However, be careful if you are doing close mic, low volume work, that it doesn’t become a whisper.

*   Especially be careful not to replace low volume with low energy, because the voice still needs to have power, even though it’s not loud.

And don’t forget that for radio and television reads, you need to be a little heightened energy wise to traverse the cool aspect of the digital medium.

That’s all for now.  Happy Voiceovering!