Listen for What? What to Look for in a Voiceover Actor

You’re so excited…you’ve made a fantastic video. Great job!  You want your client to be as excited as you are when you present it, and a silent film is probably not what they had in mind. So how do you match your creativity with the ideal voice talent when there is a sea of potential candidates? Let’s delve into what specifically to seek so that you can cast someone who is sure to dazzle all involved with the project.

First, when writing your spec sheet, or description of the job to the voice actors posted online, be as specific as possible. When you had a voice in mind when creating a video, you should look for that voice. If you were looking for a happy, young adult female do not request senior serious females. If you want a male with an announcer read, ask for that.  Lack of specificity as to the voice sought will get you too many applicants and you will be spending time sifting through bunches of auditions that can’t help your project.

If you aren’t quite sure which voice type you want, you should consider your target audience. Are you trying to reach baby boomers or millennials, and who will draw them in the best? Look for the voice that your audience needs to hear.

Next, your spec sheet is written with the description of the job and the voice that you are seeking. Your auditions will start pouring in. You need to listen to them carefully and decide what really matters. You may have asked for a specific naming convention and for the talent to slate, which is the industry term for stating your name at the beginning of the recording. Other companies do not want slating.   In either case, some people seeking talent put a lot weight on the actor’s ability to follow these details. If you are running the show, you should consider how important these details are to you because you will be the one ultimately working with the actor.

Now you are ready to listen to the auditions.  You hit play. What are you listening to the auditions on? Are you listening on, dare I say it, your computer? IPhone headphones? Beats? Regardless of the quality, all of these devices alter the way the voiceover actor’s voice actually sounds.   The unique components of some of these devices provide added bass or filters that don’t always reflect the voiceover actor’s actual sound.

If you are going to be casting a lot of voiceover actors, consider investing in a pair of solid Harlan Hogan or Senheiser head phones.  These head phones, also known as “cans” in the industry, are the best at reflecting the true sound of a voice so that you can hear it the way it will actually sound on your finished product. Once you are really listening, you can hear the voiceover actor and consider several factors. Does the voice fit the spot? Will the voice resonate with your target audience? How is the tone, pace, and overall delivery of the voiceover actor? Hopefully you will be able to narrow down your selection to a final few.

So now that you have some hi-tech equipment, it is time to consider what your voiceover actor is recording on. First, there is a difference between audition quality and broadcast ready samples.  If you know what kind of equipment the talent is recording on and what kind of software they use in their studio, you can make better choices in casting. For example, did they submit an audition recorded on a travel USB mic but at home they have a higher end microphone with interfacing? Maybe you can get lucky and the audition quality was actually recoded on what they would give you for a final product.

Because this is so important to the process, let’s break this down a little bit more. In the most simple basic terms, a USB mic plugs directly into the computer. There are some that sound okay but the top of the line microphones are never, ever USB mics. Then there are microphones.  There are many many different microphones that vary in quality, that plug into interfacing, which, in turn, plugs into the computer. The interface is converting the analog signal of the microphone to the digital signal for the computer. There are all levels of interfacing. 

The more professional the voiceover actor is, the more expensive his or her equipment is likely to be. He or she will also likely have backup equipment and travel rigs when on the road. Typically there is a section on every voice actor’s website where he or she lists what equipment is available in studio and you can factor that into your choice.

Voiceover work can be done on both Macs and PCs. Some editing softwares, like TwistedWave, are exclusive to Mac, but this does not effect the quality of what you get. Some commonly used software programs include Audacity, Adobe Audition, and Protools. The list goes on and on.

What really matters, though, is how proficient your actor of choice is at editing. All of these programs allow us to edit the raw file and make them sound perfect, but you want to pick the talent who has had enough technical training to send you a file that is pristine.

You also might consider what professional memberships and accreditations the voiceover actor has to his or her name. Someone bidding on one of your jobs will not be a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild because, once in SAG, bidding on non-union jobs threatens their union status. You might, however, find non-union voice talents who are members of WoVo, which stands for best practices in the professional voiceover world.  So, any one who has been vetted by other professionals and is a member is a good start for you. Further, they may likely have a stamp on their website with an approval number that shows that his or her studio has been approved by WoVo. This means that the voiceover actor has gone through a lengthy approval process and multiple engineers have tested his or her files and certified the quality of the studio. Casting a voiceover actor with such a certification is a guaranty of a high level of quality for you.

What other certifications might you look for? You can look for Small Business Association certification. A voiceover actor who has taken the time to do this has likely met with a local PTAC officer or has spent a lot of time on registering the business with SAM, providing it with a certification from the federal government. A talent who has gone through these steps is likely to be reliable and someone you can depend on longterm. Talents are often members of local Chambers of Commerce, the E-learning Guild, and other professional organizations that require different certifications. These memberships not only give you a glimpse into the voiceover actors values and interests, but also give legitimacy to the voiceover actor as a small business owner who you can trust for your booking.

Another consideration when working with a voiceover actor is whether or not they offer guided sessions or phone patch. Particularly if you have not worked with this talent before, a guided session or patching in for several minutes can be extremely helpful. Essentially, these interactions are the same as if you are live and in the booth directing the session. The voiceover talent can hear you in his or her head phones but your voice is not picked up on the microphone.

Typical methods of phone patch include but are not limited to Skype, ipDTL, Source Connect, and ISDN. Skype is the most basic and often international clients choose this as they are not familiar with ipDTL or Source Connect which offer much clearer sound. When a talent has either ipDTL, Source Connect, or ISDN, you can assume that they are professional and working with a certain level of sophistication. IpDTL and Source Connect are quite similar and are both in a race to replace, ISDN, the original method of phone patch requiring copper phone wires. For you, though, as long as the talent that you hire has any of these options, you can ask for a guided session.

Some voiceover actors have a minimum session fee to have a guided session, others do not.   Consider how much direction you feel the talent needs before committing to additional cost. The other important thing to understand is that, in voiceover, a live session equates to final delivery so there are usually no revisions or script changes after that point and there will be an extra charge.

Next, it is time to review the voiceover actor’s proposal. You can learn a lot by a talent by looking at the proposal. Just from the proposal you will get a sense of how pleasant and accommodating the voiceover actor will be. Some proposals are thorough and it  seems like he or she will move heaven and earth to make you happy and includes revisions in the quote.  Other proposals are very brief and it is difficult to tell what they include.  You can always dig deeper but you have already gotten a glimpse into attitudes toward customer service.  You also should be considering turnaround time. Some people offer rush service and others simply do not. If you need your project right away it is important to know a talent’s availability.

Even if you have thoroughly looked at the proposal, there is still so more to consider. Before I hire a talent, I would go to his or her website to do some due diligence. Here, as mentioned above, in addition to checking out what equipment is in each studio, you can learn who the client list includes, and view testimonials from past clients. You should factor all of this into your final choice. After all, you are making an investment into this person. You want to enjoy working with him or her, you want your client to be happy, and, in the end, you want to find someone that you can book again and avoid this entire search process.

Once you pick your final choice, you will give the good news to the happy voice actor.  At this time, let him or her know if there was something on the audition that you were really pleased with or if there was a spot on the demo that you want your read to match that. It makes it easy for both of you if you communicate clearly.  Making a spreadsheet to compare these details, including key deadlines, can be helpful putting everyone on the same page.

  Imagine, just by listening carefully to both the auditions and the proposals, you can find the ideal voiceover actor. And from that, your video will soon have the perfect narrator voicing it. And then… do you know what comes next? That email from your client telling you what an amazing job you did!

Are you curious about studio equipment that voiceover actors should have or what their policy on pickups and revisions should be? Look out for the next blog post!

Further Reading:

Home Studio Monitors are Much Better Than Headphones to Catch Noise

Selecting V.O. Home Studio Headphones

“VO Proposal Basics

WoVo Approved Studio

Help for Government Contracting

Certificates of Competency