R.A.P. Interview: Harvey Atkin

R.A.P.: Do you attend any of the voice-over workshops?
Harvey: Nah, they'll ruin me. All my training has been hands on, on the job. Some ten or fifteen years ago, I very dearly submitted a voice tape of character voices and animals and sounds and stuff, to Mel Blanc in Los Angeles. At the time, he was running a place called "Bugs Bunny U." This was a workshop type of atmosphere, actually a school, where he taught people, but only people with credentials, how to do animation and voices and characters for cartoons, etc.. I sent him my tape, and I was hoping and praying that I would get a form in the mail that said, "You've been accepted." Instead, I got a phone call from Mel Blanc, who said to me, "I've listened to your tape. And if you come here, I'll ruin whatever you've got." He said, "You'll be okay. Just keep practicing."

It's not that I'm against the workshops, but who gives the workshops? Is it the top guys, or is it some casting director or voice director that's going to say, "Here's what I think you should do?" If you said to me there was going to be a workshop in New York done by Mason Adams, I'd be signed up tomorrow.

R.A.P.: Do you wear headphones when doing voice work?
Harvey: Yeah, always. I like to be able to hear what I sound like coming through a speaker. When you are not listening to headphones, the physiology of your listening is through the bones and everything else in your head. What you hear, without headphones on, is not what the public hears. It's a different voice. How many times have you put somebody on tape for the first time and heard them say, "Oh, I don't sound like that! Oh, gee, I didn't know that was me!"

R.A.P.: Do you have a favorite microphone you like to work with?
Harvey: It depends on the type of read you want. Some microphones, like the Sharp or the Japanese ones are a lot crisper, a lot sharper than a lot of the other ones. The old Neumanns are a lot more mellow, and they're a pretty good microphone.

Incidentally, one of the other things about being a good voice person is that you have to know how to use the microphone. You have to be able to say the word "perhaps" or "performance" or "purchase price" without popping the microphone. Understand the physiology of what that does and how it's working, that it's a puff of air coming against the diaphragm. Learn not to breath it but to say it. Getting back to the headphones again, by listening to the takes in the headphones, you're hearing what they're hearing in the control room, and you're hearing those pops.

R.A.P.: Is "voice acting" easy?
Harvey: It's a lot tougher, a lot more complicated than people really think it is. I was doing a spot for Chrysler a couple weeks ago, and they had a little bit of a crowd scene where somebody comes out and says "Oh, I like the color." The producer said, "Oh, you don't need another voice. I'll come in the booth with you." He did the line about five times, left the booth and said, "I don't know how the hell you do this." And this is the guy that's been hiring me for about four years now! He said there's no way in the world you'd catch him in the booth. He said now he understands why I get paid what I get paid.

R.A.P.: Why is the new softer, intimate delivery so popular now?
Harvey: I think it's because the audience has become more sophisticated, and you can't treat them as masses and lead them around like you used to be able to. If you do, people will sit there on the other end of a radio and say, "C'mon dude, you don't really expect me to believe that, do you?"

Years ago, when I was doing some spots for a herbicide, one of the first things that was nailed into my head was to sound country, but not stupid. These people who use this product are not stupid. So we did a two hander, two guys over a back fence, just talking. It was a conversation, two real people talking, and you just overheard them. There was nobody being pitched at. There's a whole subtly to it.

If you're interesting enough, have an interesting enough voice, do an interesting enough read, and if you've got the ability to attract the attention, you don't have to be yelling and screaming all over the marketplace. As a matter of fact, the quieter you talk, the more attention they're going to pay.

R.A.P.: Is it tough getting into the voice-over business?
Harvey: The voice over business is a very tight club. Actors and actresses are on camera, and as they get older, they change their appearance. They become different types and take on different roles. On the other hand, if you're an established voice person, you just go on and on and on. And it's very hard for new guys to break in because the established guys are known to be able to get in and out of the studio in a half hour. They can read. "Why should we try somebody new? We know what this guy is going to do." So, in order to break into that club, you do anything you can to get yourself known.

I think the first thing I ever did was probably a background third voice on something where I made some smart ass comment and they said, "Oh, let's put that on tape." Then, one job led to two. It begins very slowly. Then you start to get some credentials in the industry. In order to really get yourself established in the voice business you've got to be out there plugging constantly and be on the air for a good three or four years before people tend to recognize you because that's how long it takes for stuff to rollover, for people to come back and say, "Oh, you were the guy who did that!" That's the tough part of it because there are a lot of very talented people out there driving cabs and pumping gas. Also, it's a little bit of luck, too. You've got to be at the right place at the right time.

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