Male vs. female voiceovers: ‘Sorry, we’ve decided to go with a man’

old fashioned guy 2

Listen to vintage voiceovers – radio commercials from the 1930s, film trailers from the 1940s, those Driver’s Ed flicks they used to play at schools in the 1970s and 1980s – and you’ll hear a pretty standard approach.

It’s called the Voice of God, and it’s always a male voice.  Usually a baritone.  Powerful, authoritative.  Fearless and strong. Commands attention.

Before 1975 or so, the Voice of God – often shortened to ‘VOG’ – was generally identifiable as a Caucasian man. These days, in English-speaking markets, African-Americans like Morgan Freeman seem to be favoured for the role.

(As a matter of fact, when I Googled ‘Voice of God’, I got this guy –

Image

– whom I’ve never heard of before.  Fantastic SEO, there, buddy.)

At any rate, VOG is serious and trustworthy.  It’s comforting.  It’s the easy, default voiceover.

And even in 2014, it’s still done by a man.

A female VOG?

There is no female equivalent to a VOG.  Occasionally you get the kindly Mother-Nature type, but in the advertising world, she only sells menstrual remedies and spaghetti sauce.

The default for voiceovers – corporate as well as advertising – is still a male voiceover. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bid on a job, done an audition, and gotten the sad news back…‘Sorry, but we’re going to go with a man.

Too bad, because an unexpected voiceover is a good way to freshen up a production, make it sound fresh and new.

Celebrity female voiceovers

A few companies have figured that out – and they’re often companies that sell traditionally ‘masculine’ products like cars, insurance and airline flights.

The voices of celebrated actresses like the Oscar winner Helen Hunt, West Wing’s Allison Janney, and Glenn Close are being used to sell these big-ticket products.

That makes sense: women are increasingly the ones buying them. And if your customer is a woman, shouldn’t your voiceover be too?

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My life with a home voiceover studio

cat_microphone2It never occurred to me that I might someday have a home studio.  I live in an apartment, for one thing, a small one-bedroom that I share with an eight-year-old and a cat.  I’m also not anybody’s idea of a sound technician.  I can do edit out flubs and sneezes with GarageBand, and I know the difference between mono and stereo, but as soon as we get into visual EQ and master echo, I’m a lost cause.

But I have one now, to my surprise.  It all started when I got involved with Librivox, a nonprofit that is working on producing audio versions of all books within the public domain.  I noticed that one of the classic books still looking for readers was one of my favorites, Stendhal’s The Red and The Black.  I signed up to read a couple of chapters – and was rejected.

Apparently the small button microphone I used with my iPhone wasn’t up to Librivox’s exacting standards. (I say that with light sarcasm, as Librivox’s website looks like it was designed as a junior high class project in 1997, and many of its unpaid readers are worth every penny.)  Anyway, Librivox monitor complained about white noise, my bit rate, and other technical aspects.  These were unlikely to be resolved with my little clip-on mike.

I went online looking for slightly better equipment, and was surprised to find I could get an entire “podcasting kit” – professional-quality condenser Microphone, stand and popguard – for around US$100.  I was shocked that good equipment could be so cheap.

Of course, the lack of sound insulation is still a problem:  I’ve set all the fine electronic stuff in the highly-professional corner between my sofa and the wall.  But it seems to work OK, particularly for recording in the very early morning or very late evening.

Is it as good as my local sound studio?  Absolutely not, and now that I’ve begun to use it, I miss having a sound technician to kick ideas back and forth with.  Now that I’ve begun sending mp3s to clients, sometimes we find that the tone or pace I provided was not what they had in mind, and then the job has to be entirely re-done, at my expense.  Had we all been in a sound studio together, the results would have been quicker and happier.

But there’s a lot of upside to having the equipment right there at home.  You can bid on more jobs, for example – some clients won’t even talk to a voiceover who doesn’t have a home studio – and you can do private projects, as well.  I’ve started my own Podcast series, which I’m happy to announce is already available on iTunes.

The downside is, of course, the cat, who finds the sound equipment exciting.  And the motorcycles driving by, and the S-train shaking the building at 10-minute intervals, and my eight-year-old calling with a request to leave school early.  A home is not a sound studio.  But it can come pretty close.

What happened when I tried hiring a voiceover online

Ordering a voiceover online Knowing your competition is important in any business. As an in-studio voiceover, online voiceovers are my main competition.  (There are, of course, other English voiceovers in Copenhagen, but we’re a relatively small group, and most of the others have British accents.)  But it’s no secret that it’s quick and easy to hire a voiceover online.

And it can be inexpensive.  I’ve seen online voiceovers on sale for $5, or DK30.  At that price, anyone can afford them – even me.  I thought it would be interesting to experience what it was like to order an online voiceover, and that maybe it would give me some insight as to how I could provide higher-quality service to my in-studio, in-person customers.

Burtman

Burtman

My first hire was Burtman, a friendly-looking guy who spoke English with an Afro-Carribbean accent. In his online profile, he said he had worked as a news reporter, photographer, TV presenter, radio news presenter/anchor, programme director, news editor, a magazine editor and in advertising and public relations.  I wrote a brief script for Burtman advertising my own business, as my own clients hire me to do.

This was the script:

Hello. I’m a voiceover Kay booked on the Internet. Booking voices online can be inexpensive, but you don’t get the face-to-face sparring partner that can come to your studio in Copenhagen. Kay will work with you to improve your English text and get the tone and pace that you want. Og Kay taler flydende dansk. Book Kay at 26 83 64 88, or at k-a-y-x at americanvoice-dot-dee-koh .

Burtman sent back a voiceover in about three days.  It had a kind of buzzing sound in the background that made me suspect he’d recorded it on an iPhone. He did have a very nice voice.  He didn’t read my script at the pace I would have chosen, or emphasize what I would have emphasized, but I couldn’t argue that he hadn’t read the script I had given him.

It was kind of like putting a coin into a vending machine: there was no interaction, no feedback, until the finished product was dispensed. I certainly got what I had paid for, but it was slightly dry and tasteless.

I thought it might be more fair for me to experience hiring another American female voiceover similar to myself. There were plenty available online, and I scrolled through their profiles.  One had purple hair.  Another promised “near-perfect, non-dialectical pronunciation”.  I wondered if she could pronounce “non-dialectical.”

I took some time to listen to a variety of my online competitors’ sound samples.  A few were very nice, if a little unpracticed.  One lady was audibly drunk.  One spoke in a squeaky tone that could scrape the paint off of metal, making her choice of a voiceover career questionable.

Anyway, It ended up taking me the better part of an hour, another downside to online voiceovers: amid the many serious professionals lie plenty of amateurs, so a fair amount of sorting is required, a bit like a garage sale.

I was tiring of my project, so I did what male casting agents have done for decades: I just chose the prettiest girl.  That was Jennifer.

Monique

Jennifer

Jennifer read my ad in a crisp, clear voice, with a pleasant Southern accent. With one difference: Southern U.S. accents are usually slow, relaxed and lilting, but Jennifer spoke at an incredibly quick pace, as if she were rushing to get a bus. Or, given the amount I was paying her, perhaps she was just rushing to get to the next voiceover so she could make a decent living.

At any rate, the voiceover was not useable, and Jennifer did not really seem like a pro.  For my final choice, I went with a voiceover who could at least offer a professional education in performance: Jeremy has a Master in Fine Arts in musical theater, making it clear he knew how to stand on a stage and belt out lines in “Phantom of the Opera” or “Grease” or other great classics. I figured I could count on him to read my script with a lot of enthusiasm.

Jeremy

Jeremy advertised himself as having an “energetic, confident radio voice” and he was very flexible as to content. “I am happy to provide a 60 second recorded voiceover of whatever you would like me to say,” he said in his profile, “the only exception being that I will not speak any curse words or take God’s name in vain.”

Jeremy was indeed a pro: he delivered 6 takes of my little ad. I had slipped a small amount of Danish into my script to show potential Copenhagen voiceover customers that I could chat in the local lingo while external providers could not.  But Jeremy went the extra step and found an online pronunciation service to guide him, and although he seems to have confused Danish with Swedish, I was impressed by his initiative.  Jeremy is a top-of-the-line online voiceover, and it only took me 2 or 3 hours and a couple of missteps to find him.

And yet…there was not a lot of feeling to Jeremy’s reading of my text.  He hadn’t met me, he knew nothing about my product, and even though he was putting his all into his performance, there wasn’t much depth to it.  I suppose that if your product or project is not particularly special, a good inexpensive online voiceover like Jeremy is good enough.  But if you’ve put a lot of passion into your project and want the voiceover for it to be the best it can be, let me help you. Jeremy will tell you how to contact me, or you can just do it directly, at http://www.americanvoice.dk.

American voiceover or British voiceover?


You’ve storyboarded, shot, and edited a corporate video, ad, or e-learning project for international distribution, and now it’s time to finish it off with an English voiceover. You could always, of course, do it yourself, but as a Dane you run the risk of sounding like Villy Søvndal on a bad day.

Better to hire a native speaker. Now the question is, should you hire a speaker with a British or American accent?

As an American voiceover in Copenhagen I may not be entirely impartial, and fortunately there are several excellent and experienced British voiceovers in town.

But I’ve found that Danes don’t always know what type of effect accents have on their finished product. So I’ve put together a few easy rules.

If you’ve got a luxury product, get a Brit.
There’s no doubt about it: a British accent adds a touch of class. It makes your project a little bit more suave, a little bit more mysterious, a little bit more distant. And the sparkle of dry humor that only a Brit can deliver will rub off on whatever you’re trying to communicate. It’s sexy, in an aspirational, fantastical, James Bond kind of way.

If you’re looking for enthusiasm, get an American.
Americans have a tendency to live life with an exclamation point, to be enthusiastic about absolutely everything. This works to your advantage if your project is designed to get people excited about something. The ability to be entirely thrilled about whatever we are involved with – which in my voice career, has included things like online banking, computer equipment and medical devices – makes American voices ideal for projects that need energy and enthusiasm.

On the other hand, that wonderful dry British humor also means that Brits don’t do excitement well, and when they try it often comes off with a cynical or insincere undertone, as if they are secretly making fun of whatever it is they are supposedly promoting.

For don’t-question-me-authority, get a Brit.
The clipped tones of a British accent make it clear that this statement is not a suggestion, it’s an order. British accents work best when the text is one-way communication from an authoritative source. “Failure to do so may compromise safety on board your flight.” Need I say more?

If it involves technology, get an American
The hegemony of Apple, Facebook and Google means that cutting-edge technology today speaks with an American accent, even if it’s hard to find a computer that’s not produced in China. An American accent gives your tech project a laid back, unpretentious, multi-cultural kind of cool.

Brits and high technology are not a common association: having a Brit voice a high tech spot reminds the listener that the last time the British lead the world in technology was when Winston Churchill was pushing tiny wooden planes across a map of Europe.

Of course, Brits and Americans are not the world’s only native English speakers. Australian accents are great for sports videos, anything with an action-adventure angle. Singapore/Malaysian and Indian accents are not yet widely used in international voiceovers, although given the growing economic power of those countries, they probably will be. And while Canadians will hate me for saying so, their accents are largely interchangeable with American ones, except for their well-known pronunciation of ‘about’ as ‘a-boot.’ (Many famous ‘American’ actors – Pamela Anderson, Kiefer Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey – are actually Canadian)

So your choice will probably boil down to British vs. American.

The bottom line is: for many international listeners, a British accent is about distance. It puts the listener in his place, which is usually below the speaker.

An American accent brings the listener into the speaker’s world as an equal, and often warmly, as a buddy.

If the dream voiceover for your project would be Sean Connery or Helen Mirren, get a Brit.

If your project would work better with a voiceover by Jennifer Aniston, Natalie Portman or Ashton Kutcher, hire an American.

How to hire a voiceover


Hiring a voice artist is tricky.  Yesterday, you were an ordinary project manager whose biggest challenge was getting the C++ programmer to show up for work before 2pm.  

Today you are thrust into the role of casting director.  And unless you’re working for a company which can afford to hire movie stars to promote its products, you are casting with entirely unknown set of variables.

First of all, think outside the box.  A man voicing a diaper commercial is fresh and fun; a woman voicing a construction safety video is more likely to be listened to than the usual male authority figure.  But assuming you’ve decided what type of person you’re looking for – male/female, young/old, trendy/corporate, sexy/serious  – here are my tips on how to proceed.

Decide if you want to work through an agency

Voiceover agencies are run by smart and hard-working people, and they offer variety that I as an independent voice artist simply can’t match.  

Want a Pashtun speaker, an 8-year-old Swedish boy, a grandmother with a lisp? An agency is your go-to partner.  (Although they are not above a bit of trickery – a local agency recently asked me, a 30ish American, if I could imitate an Asian woman in her 50s for a job.  I gave it a go, with unimpressive results, I must admit).

The drawback: if you book through an agency, your relationship is with the agency, not the talent.  

That means if you have an ongoing project or campaign, you will need to go through the agency every time you want to work with the talent – and cross your fingers that the business relationship between those two parties is healthy.  

Updates 6 months later

This can become crucial if you have a project that needs additions or updates 6 or 12 or 18 months after it is finished.  If the agency is no longer working with the voice talent, you will need to do the vocal track all over again, with all the production expenses that entails. 

When you have a personal relationship with the voiceover, you never pay an agency commission – which means lower costs all the way down the line – and you can usually get updates without a fuss. 

I have one longtime client with its own studio in downtown Copenhagen, and I generally do minor updates for them for free.  I stop by the studio, spend half an hour laying laying down some quick tracks, and then check out the sales at Magasin.   They’re very happy and I really don’t mind – it’s all part of our ongoing business relationship. 

And no, you cannot use an voice agency as a dating agency, finding your perfect long-term voice talent and then dealing directly with that person going forward.  There are contracts to prevent this kind of thing.  If you fall in love with a voice you get through an agency, you will be paying commissions for a very, very long time. 

Finding an independent voiceover

How you you find an independent voiceover in your city?  It can be intimidating to deal with an individual instead of a company, so try LinkedIn.  Do a search for voiceovers in your area, and you can be sure that someone in your network is linked to him or her, and can testify to their reliability.  

Most professional voicevoers have their own website with voice samples.  And if the local voiceover you can find doesn’t fit the gender or accent you are looking for, ask him for if he knows someone who does. In Copenhagen, all the voiceovers know each other, and I happily refer clients who are looking for a British accent or a Canadian man to one of them.  (I also maintain a list of English voiceovers in Denmark. )

One last comment on agencies:  they usually promote a few selected voices who have signed exclusive or beneficial contracts with the agency.  That means that they may not always send you the person who is best for you, but the person who is best for them. 

Decide if you want to work locally or via the Internet

In a wired world, you voice talent does not necessarily have to be local.  Although there are some excellent English voice artists in Copenhagen, there are many more spread around the world.  Many have home studios and can quickly turn around your script and upload it in any format you choose.  You can pay them via PayPal.

Here the advantage is price.  I charge DK1250 for the first hour of voice work, plus DK700 or so for a studio if you don’t have your own. You can probably get the whole package for DK1000 online – maybe even less, if you find a hungry or inexperienced talent.  

But like all thrift shopping, the trade-off is your time, the amount of time you will spend sorting through and listening to the thousands of voices available online.  Trying to find the right voice on a mass-audition site like Voices123.com is like trying to find the one good raisin in a 10 liter carton of moldy raisins.  How valuable is your time?

If you work locally, you have the advantage of being able to meet your talent and coach them about the effect you’re looking for.  You can be with your voice artist in the studio as the voiceover is made, make sure you’re getting exactly the effect you’re looking for, and walk out of there with your finished voice track on a USB stick. 

Drop it off with the production folks, and then you can go back to thinking about what’s really important.  Where in the world is that C++ programmer? 

Make your CEO sound good in English – use an audio guidance track

Make your CEO look good

Your CEO is happier when he looks his best

CEOs usually get to the top of their companies due to a combination of drive, industry knowledge, and people skills. While most Danish CEOs speak workable English that’s fine for everyday meetings, those small pronunciation mistakes common to a non-native speaker are a lot more problematic when they’re committed to video, or when they take place in a speech in front of hundreds of people.

That’s why I suggest making an audio guidance MP3 for CEOs and other executives in advance of a big presentation in English. Any qualified ‘engelsk stemme‘ can make them – including me. The English voiceover simply records your CEO’s text as an MP3, which she or he can then listen to while jogging or at the gym. Having heard the text properly pronounced allows your CEO to tackle her speech or his video appearance with full confidence about sounding good.

An audio guidance MP3 can usually be produced within 24 hours, probably less, and can cost as little as DK750 plus MOMS, depending on the length of your text. Considering all the other money you spend to make your CEO look good, isn’t that investment worthwhile?

How to save money on a voiceover (And why a green apple can save you DK200)

Saving moneyThe cheapest possible voiceover is, of course, yourself. You can easily use the recording applications on almost any laptop to create a voiceover.

You’d think this option would be used mostly for films of family reunions and childrens’ birthday parties, but I’ve actually seen digital agencies working for some of Denmark’s top companies use themselves or ”that guy around the office” to voice expensive videos.

I recently watched a visually excellent video for a multi-million kroner, multi-year project – voiced by an English speaker who sounded like a Valium addict reading a phone book. It ruined the effect.

A better route is to get a good local voiceover and get the most value out of his or her services. As an English voice actor in Denmark, here are my tips:

  • Send me the final script. Like most professional voiceovers, I mark up my script before I get to the studio, checking for tricky pronunciations, and putting in emphasis points and pauses. I do this all on my own time, since I want to make I’m sure ready to go as soon as I arrive. But if you greet me at the door with an entirely new script, we’ll have to start that process all over again, as the studio time clock runs. It doesn’t have to be long before – even an hour before the assignment is fine, since I can mark it in the bus or taxi on the way there.
  • Use the time you’ve paid for. Since I bill by the hour, feel free to use the whole hour. I will honestly not be offended if you ask me to “try it one more time,” because you’d like to try a different effect, even if we’re already on the 6th or 16th take. I recently did a voiceover for a beverage product directed at women, and we tried the voiceover as several different women – the sensual lady, the high-earning professional, the best friend. The client was able to pick and choose between them once she’d returned to her team.
  • Let me recommend a studio. It’s important that I have eye contact with you, the customer: I recently had an awful experience in a place where the recording took place in a windowless box was down the hall from the engineer. I had no eye contact with the client, which means I’d read all the way to the end of the script before she could tell me I had mispronounced a medical term in the first line. I know most of the studios in town, so I can easily suggest one that will work for both of us.
  • Think about the voiceover character in advance. If you know who your audience is and what you’re trying to accomplish, you’ll be better able to communicate it to me. And if I know what kind of effect you want to achieve, I can make sure to give you what you want.
  • Have refreshments for your voiceover. Water and tea are good for someone who will be doing a lot of talking. Soda and junk food can create unattractive ”pops” in the voice track. (If your voiceover is eating potato chips before a job, you do not have a professional voiceover.) An apple contains pectin, which helps smooth the voice and remove vocal ”clicks” so a sound engineer doesn’t have to remove them later.  This can easily save you 15 minutes of studio time, worth a minimum of DK200.
  • Pay me. Although there are a lot of starving voice artists out there, I’m not one of them. One week about a month ago I did four different voice jobs – I know that, because today I’m going to have to call up 3 of the companies and “remind” them their bill is due. The next time there is a rush job – and almost all voiceovers seem to be rush jobs – who will I take first? I love doing voiceover work, but it is a job, not a hobby. I’ll invoice you as soon as you let me know you’re happy with my work, and 30-day payment terms are fair for both of us.