'Voice over', 'voice-over' or 'voiceover' – whichever you prefer to call it, and all forms are in common use – refers to a recording of speech where a voice that is not part of the on-screen or on-stage action (or audio-only equivalent) is used in a radio or television production, filmmaking, theatre, or other presentation.
There is a lot of money to be made in voice work, both for voice artists (also called voice over artists) and studios that specialize in the field. Consider TV advertising for instance, which is enormously expensive due to the intense competition for slots from top brands. Everything about TV commercial production is expensive. It would make no sense not to use the very best voice talent, or the very best voice over studio. And getting the the best people on your team costs money – a lot of it.
Suppose however that you have a good speaking voice and you think that you can match the voice talent you hear on TV. Why not just buy a decent microphone and do it at home? Let's suppose that you really do have the talent, and the quality of your recording is the only potential issue standing between you and huge fees for your work.
Well firstly, you shouldn't be recording at home. If you have the talent then you should be looking for an agent to take you on and promote you to people who are hiring. You'll need to move to a location where voice work is plentiful, which would normally be close to where the big-time advertising agencies are sited. But maybe you live in Kansas (or Oxfordshire) and don't want to move. Recording yourself at home will be the only option.
Real life test
Let me skip forward to my recent experience with voice work. In my time as a writer on all things audio I was able to visit some of the top voice studios in London, so I know well how seriously they take things, how much they cost, and the quality of work they produce.
However for my recent voice project I couldn't justify the kind of budget that would entail. I needed good quality work, but at a fairly low cost. The natural place to look of course is on the Internet, and there are several sites where voice talents can demo their abilities and offer themselves for work.
I chose a site and posted my project. Just 200 words, which I wanted cleanly recorded by a female with a North American accent. I supplied a few sentences that would serve as an audition piece, and awaited responses.
The responses came in very quickly, twenty-three of them to be precise. I thought it would be a tough job to plough through them all. In actual fact it proved quite easy, because there were only two candidates with the kind of delivery I liked. This kind of thing is very subjective and it doesn't mean the other twenty-one were bad. Just that two of the auditionees had the delivery that I felt was suitable for my project. None of them could have been described as unprofessional in any way concerning their voice.
But the audio quality… now that was another issue entirely! I have to say that the audio quality varied from just about acceptable to totally dreadful.
The main problem was noise. Noise in a voice recording should be inaudible when the recording is played at a normal level. Pro voice studios work to that standard, so that is the standard. The noise in most of the examples sounded like computer fan noise. This can be dealt with by using a quiet computer, or by placing the computer outside of the recording room, controlled by someone else, or via a KVM extender.
Another common problem was excessive ambience. In voice work, ambience should be barely perceptible, aiming at a completely dry quality.
Popping and blasting
Less common than I might have expected were popping and blasting, but even some of the best recordings had spots that verged on pops or blasts. Clearly, the closer you get to the microphone, the less noise and ambience there will be. But if this is at the expense of popping and blasting then the result will not be satisfactory.
Now… level. This is one of my regular bugbears. Let me explain it like this -¦ Suppose a client receives twenty audition recordings. Nineteen are at a good healthy level and one is at a low level. Will he pay special attention to the low-level recording? Will he heck. He'll just move on to the next. Submitting low-level work to a client is a surefire way of getting rejected. No, not rejected – not even considered.
I'm all in favor of allowing plenty of headroom when recording. But the level of a finished piece of work should not be low. As a guideline, there should be a peak above -2 dBFS somewhere in the piece.
One of the recordings was very sibilant, but otherwise I didn't feel that this was too much of a problem. You can quite often hear sibilance even in very high-level professional work, so I think it's something that we have become accustomed to, in the same way as we accept the bass boost from a directional microphone used close-to, even if it isn't really natural.
The last in my list of problems is a little subjective, but it's what I think of as 'a good sound for radio'. If you compare the sound of a well-recorded audio book with that of a prime-time radio presenter, you will see what I mean. An audio book needs a natural sound for comfortable, attentive listening over a long period of time. A radio station needs a sound that gets the audience excited. I'm happy with a natural sound or a good sound for radio, but there is to my mind an 'excessively good sound for radio', if you see what I mean, and that's not what I want.
In conclusion, my feeling is that all twenty-three of my auditionees potentially have the vocal ability to work at a very high level. However, many of them are letting themselves down through audio problems. At the end of the day, it's the person who can deliver the best work in all respects who will please the client most. Clients don't want problems, they want easy solutions.