R.A.P. Interview: Piers Gibbon

Piers Gibbon, TV Presenter/Host, Conference Host/Moderator, Voiceover Artist, London, England

Piers-Gibbon-webBy Jerry Vigil

If you’re a fan of National Geographic TV, you are probably very familiar with Piers Gibbon’s work in front of the camera, but you may not know about his work behind the microphone. When he’s not hanging out with cannibals and witch doctors, Piers is working steadily in voiceover and has a knack for the technical side of the biz as well. Piers appeared on our radar when he joined RAP’s new Facebook Group (facebook.com/groups/radioprodgroup), and a quick visit to his site left no doubt he’d be an interesting chap to talk to. Indeed, he was. We talk VO, codecs, mics, chicken hearts and more in this month’s interview. Check out the RAP CD for a couple of demos from Piers.

JV: You mentioned in an email that voiceover came before your television work. When and how did you get into VO?
Piers: A girlfriend of mine was working at the BBC 20-odd years ago, and she needed a voiceover for a very brief bit of a documentary. I really enjoyed it, and I did it quite well. The main thing was that I kept a copy of it. This was in the days of cassettes, and that dates it. I think it’s very important, as you start in voiceover, to keep copies of everything you do because those copies will be things you can refer back to and learn from and make your demo tape out of.

JV: You’ve also done some radio presenting?
Piers: Yes, radio and television presenting. I enjoy documentary making in all forms. I guess we have an equivalent over here called Resonance FM, which is like a London version of your NPR, and they make weird and wild documentary radio. I’ve really enjoyed working for them. I’ve also done lots and lots of radio interviews as publicity for the television work I’ve done.

JV: You have a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford as well. What made you decide to go for that?
Piers: At the time when I had to decide, I was very much intending to be an actor. So the traditional thing would’ve been to apply to read English literature and study Shakespeare for three years. I came across this degree and realized that actually, this sounds much more fun. It was all about genetics and animal behavior and human ecology and all sorts of really extraordinary, interesting subjects. And the nice thing was that you only studied anything for one term, so even my butterfly brain thought, “Yes, that I can handle.”

JV: On the television material, you’re probably best known for your Headshrinkers of the Amazon, Dining with Cannibals, and The Witch Doctor Will See You Now. These television shows have been showing on National Geographic. How long have you been doing shows of this type?
Piers: I think the first show I ever did on television was in the year 2000, and that was Jungle Trip, which was for Channel 4 in the UK. That now has another life online whereby it’s on YouTube, it’s on Google Videos, it’s a bit torrent. It’s a kind of cult success, I guess, in that nobody makes any money out of it because it’s being shared on file sharing websites, but it’s nice to know that people are still watching it and still enjoying it, although I made the mistake of reading the YouTube comments and found out just what an awful person I am, repeatedly again and again. Never read YouTube comments is my best advice.

JV: Are you still doing any of these shows?
Piers: Yes, there’s something in the pipeline at the moment, but television is a strange and fickle mistress and she will come back to me when she chooses.

JV: So voiceover is probably keeping you busier than the television presenting now.
Piers: Exactly, and voiceover is a wonderful thing for that because it satisfies my need for performing, and it satisfies my needs for interesting subject matter. I’m always doing the voiceover for documentaries, which are on extraordinary stories and extraordinary scientific or historical subjects. Voiceover can be not too hard, but it also can be extremely hard, and it can be really good to get to the end of a session and know that you got it done as fast as possible, as accurately as possible, telling the story as well as possible. Those three things are really great to get right, and get right again and again. And it’s nice to get paid for them.

JV: I take it you’ve done some acting, which has probably helped you along in the voiceover career as well as the television stuff.
Piers: Yes, absolutely, very much so. The acting I did every term at Oxford. I did two plays, which is why my academic work possibly suffered, but I enjoyed it. I got a lot of acting experience under my belt and then went around the world with the English Shakespeare Company a couple of times and with the Nottingham Playhouse. I toured with a Romanian director who produced The Tempest and went around the world doing that as Ariel, and it was an extraordinary time. And I played an opium-smoking transvestite artist in a BBC drama, where I didn’t kill the model, but looked like I might have. My mum was very proud.

JV: You recently wrote a review on AudioTX, another voiceover internet protocol codec being used, and you’re familiar with some of the others in use out there, including SourceConnect and ipDTL, which we reviewed recently as well. What’s your take on the ones you’ve tried, and which one you like best.
Piers: In this studio that I run, we basically have all of the above. We have ipDTL. We have Source-Connect, the plug-in in Pro Tools, and we have Source-Connect Now, which runs via the Chrome browser. Source-Connect, as a plug-in, I’ve used a lot and I’m very grateful to it. It’s given me lots of work and it works very well. Source-Connect Now and ipDTL I’ve had less work through, but have worked using them, so I have some experience with them both.

They’ve worked okay and I think when you first come across the ability to transmit voice over the internet, and it actually works at all, it is a very exciting moment, and that’s great. “It works. Oh, my good Lord. I’m not paying for ISDN calls and it’s actually working and I’m earning money.” That’s all brilliant and I’m very grateful to Source-Connect, and Source-Connect Now, and ipDTL.

However, recently I tried AudioTX, the new version, which is version 1.7 at the moment, and it’s the first update they’ve done for a long time, as far as I can work out. As well as being a rock solid ISDN codec, for me it’s actually a replacement for my Prima LT. But as well as that, they’ve also done something very clever under the hood with their voice abilities. I’ve talked to people about what they’ve done, and I can’t work it out, but I do know that the result is that if you’ve got a good internet connection, decently fast up and down, then you can – and I’ve done this – you can actually be swapping broadcast quality WAV files over the internet with pretty much no delay.

Now, I’m sure there is a delay there that you could measure if you have golden ears or clever equipment, but my test is this. If I can have a chat with a colleague in another studio and the technology gets out of the way and the chat just becomes a full and frank sharing of views, then I know that that is something that really, really works. And this, for me, I think is the excitement about actually coming across something that really is doing something different. So, as far as I know, I think this is the leader of the pack at the moment. I think it is working for sure for me and for sure for all of the people I’ve connected with using the new version of AudioTX, 1.7.

Now, I think the other interesting thing is that AudioTX works as a standalone program. You buy it, you get a dongle, you use that, and then you never have to pay for anything again. I think the interesting issue with ipDTL and Source-Connect Now -- not Source-Connect, but Source-Connect Now -- is that they work via the Chrome browser and are working via, I think, someone else’s codec system. So, there is a slight concern. As I believe has happened, codecs have changed and the browser Chrome has changed, and that has temporarily messed up the ability of those programs to connect via it.

Now, I wish them well and I’m very grateful to them for the work they’ve brought me, but if I could wave a magic wand, I guess I would be delighted if more people adopted AudioTX because I think the quality is there, and I’m happy either way because I’ve got all of the above. But if it’s a question of connecting in the best way possible, AudioTX, at the moment, seems to be ahead of the pack. And as a voiceover, I think the real key issue is this: When you’re doing a long session with Germany or Dubai, if you’re doing a long, long session and you’re not only talking to the remote studio, you’re also talking to the client that the remote studio is talking to -- so there is a slightly worried producer on the end of the Skype line from that remote studio -- then any extra delay down the line means that it’s very difficult for them to direct you. I think therefore, the minimal delay and the maximum quality means that you get more done better faster, and I think that is worth listening to.

JV: What is a good upload and download speed to carry on these real time conversations?
Piers: I think the people at AudioTX would be better to answer that, but I’ve got a very fast connection because I pay for it. I’m on BT Infinity fiber optic in London. But interestingly, I connected to a colleague in Wales, and she doesn’t have fiber optic at all. She just has normal broadband in the UK, and that works perfectly. And I connected with someone down in the countryside in Hertfordshire and that worked perfectly. So, I think it’s definitely worth getting in touch with support at AudioTX.com and asking them what are the parameters of this, but my download speed is 70 MB/sec and my upload speed is 17 MB/sec -- the joys of living in Central London.

JV: Tell us what mics and pre-amps you favor.
Piers: What I use is a Neumann TLM-103, and part of me is always thinking, “Ah, this works beautifully, but maybe the Neumann U-87 would be even better,” and maybe it would be, but I’ve got a lot of use out of this microphone and I’ve had it in my home studio for nine years now, so I know it very well. And I think for a voiceover artist, your microphone is like your personal Stradivarius violin. You need to get to know the microphone really well, and therefore, while I could probably get the money together to buy a Neumann U-87, part of me goes, “No, shut up. You know that’s not going to be any better. You’re just lusting after gear again.”

So I have a Neumann TLM-103 and that goes into the Avalon 737SP. That was the biggest chunk of cash I ever paid out for a piece of kit in the studio. I have to admit, when I bought it, I thought I was buying it as a bit of PR, a bit of showing off to show that I’m a real serious voiceover artist because I’ve got a real serious kit. That changed when I connected it up and actually started to get used to it – again, I think you need to get used to all new equipment and all new microphones. You can’t judge them in a couple of hours of use. I think you need to really check it out.

Then I got some help with specifically setting up the Avalon with how to use it. I thought I was going to end up using all sorts of clever compression and all kinds of low-mid, high-mid, treble, boosty, bassy, da, da, da, and actually, I’ve got the very simplest settings on it. All I’m setting it to do is add to the cleanliness of the beautiful Neumann digital sound, just a little bit of warmth to it, and that seems to work for me because I’ve worked with it a lot. I know how to sound, to make it sound really well, and I’ve learned how to set it so that it makes me sound really great. It’s a great combination. I think also -- and I’ve spoken to a couple of studio owners about this -- I think there is a little bit of magic between the TLM-103 and the Avalon VT-737SP. It seems to work really well on voiceover.

JV: If you could go back to the beginning of your VO career, would you do anything differently?
Piers: I would do more marketing more quickly and better, and I’d get over that very English thing of feeling that it’s somehow rude to connect to new people and say, “I’d like to work for you.”

JV: What have been some of the key things you’ve done that have really helped your voiceover career?
Piers: I think doing about 300 TV documentaries, and I think that figure is fairly accurate because I had to pull together a proper CV, a resume, in order to apply to join BAFTA, the organization here for film and television. They ask you to prove that you’re a real TV professional, so I had to write down all of the things I’ve done. It was a really good exercise to do. I’m 48 now, and it’s good to recognize that I’ve done a lot and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as well, but it’s good to feel the weight of a good resume.

JV: I read somewhere that you were a comedian as well. Is that correct?
Piers: Yes, I do standup comedy, and again, that’s my love of being on a stage and my love of showing off in the simplest sense. There is nothing more scary than standing up on stage with basically a big sign saying, “If I am not making you laugh, I am failing.” So it’s a huge adrenaline kick, and my particular skill is in being the MC. What I found was the most terrifying thing was knowing that I had this regular MC gig on a Sunday night, and therefore, my whole week became all about what was I going to say on stage on Sunday night. I actually had to give it up for a while because everything else became less important. Nothing is more scary, nothing is more important than being up on stage and not having good material. Because I was doing the MC in a regular club, I found myself unable to do the same material twice. I had to come up with new stuff every week. So I had a bit of comedy burnout, but I’ll be coming back to that quite soon.

JV: You are a conference host as well, and you’ve hosted conferences for quite a few major companies. How did you get started in that?
Piers: The first job I got was because someone saw me give a speech at a conference and then introduce the next speaker. I really enjoy the role of master of ceremonies, of being the host and moderator. I know when I’m sitting in the audience of a conference and people are going on too long, questions are too long, answers are too long and we’re missing tea breaks, we’re missing lunch… Usually what happens is the speakers go on so long that we don’t have much time for the Q&A, which is often the most powerful and most useful bit of any conference.

So when I started hosting conferences, I really enjoyed the fact that as the conference host, you are the only person in the room who has the right and the responsibility to ask people to hurry along now, come to a conclusion because we need to get onto the next question. I feel that I’m doing the most useful job on the planet that I could do when I’m hosting a conference well.

JV: That sounds like a lot of fun.
Piers: It is a lot of fun, and I always end up drenched with sweat, so I only wear white shirts to avoid visible sweat patches.

JV: Are you doing much VO work outside of the UK?
Piers: Yes, I have a lot of clients around the world, and I think I’m blessed in that my voice is very much BBC English. I think it works very well for people for whom English is not their first language. So if I’m doing an instructional bit of eLearning or a video explaining something, I think people find my voice easy to follow, and I’d like to think that’s not just because of my accent, but because I really take the care to understand what I’m saying. I think that’s crucial to totally understand what you’re getting across to the listener.

I got a job recently doing eLearning for an aviation company that’s explaining to trainee pilots how to fly the planes. They sent me an example of previous work, and the previous voiceover artist had read everything like a robot, and that was the style that I think they wanted, except it wasn’t the style they wanted. This guy had read it in that way because that was the easiest way of getting through the damn paragraph without having to actually understand what he was saying. I listened to it, and I thought, “Well, I hope I’m never in a jet plane piloted by anyone who was trained by the robot guy.” Actually, that’s not our job. Our job as a voiceover artist is to understand it and then communicate it. I like the fact that every day I’m trying to understand bits and things about a cow milking system in Dubai, and then an aviation pilot’s complex system the next hour. I like it. It keeps me on my toes.

JV: Are you doing more of the long form work like narration than you are shorter commercial stuff?
Piers: I’m doing a good mix. I really enjoy long form -- eLearning, and audio books. It really plays to my strengths. I like the mental discipline of trying to do it without making too many mistakes. It’s an interesting Zen state to get into, whereby you don’t want to beat yourself up about mistakes, which is the natural stage. So if you make a mistake, the temptation is to go, “Oh, God. You’re rubbish,” but actually, you have to accept that nobody can read any script perfectly and also accept that the little impulse to call yourself rubbish is actually going to make you more rubbish in the next paragraph.

JV: Most of the voiceover people we interview are doing commercials, and they kind of dabble in the long form stuff and narration. You seem to be doing quite a bit of the long form material. What advice would you give someone that wanted to venture into that aspect of voiceover and not so much into the commercial end or the radio imaging side?
Piers: Well, to turn the question on its head, I think the radio commercials and the short material are excellent training for doing the longer stuff because they’re a tiny little poem that you have to get right. You really have to know the threads all the way through and you have to get it right and you have to get it to time. I’ve done loads of commercials and loads of tiny little things, and that has given me the confidence to do the long form ones.

I like the mixture. I do both and I like the mixture of getting embedded in a real long eLearning or an audio book, and then my agent will ring me up and say, “Hey, turn on the ISDN. We’ve got a quickie for you,” and suddenly, I’m shouting about elephants. It’s a great mix. It keeps me on my toes.

JV: You must get a lot of questions from people that want to know how to get started in VO. What advice do you give them?
Piers: Get the job by hook or by crook, and keep everything. As I said earlier, keep everything that you do so that you’ve got examples to learn from. Then you can learn and put together an excellent demo tape. Also, I do a lot of teaching of voiceover. I work at a place called Halo Post Productions, halopost.tv, and when we run these courses, we work a lot with those tiny little radio adverts because if you can get a radio ad perfect, well there’s not much you can’t do, to be honest. Radio ads are the best training.

I have a standard reply that I send to people, which is, yes, go for it. It’s not as easy as people make out. There is a lot of competition, more and more competition out there every day, but if you think you can make it, then the thing to do is to record a load of commercial breaks on commercial radio, listen to those commercial breaks a thousand times, type out the advert on your computer, and work out where the sound effects come in. Then try and record it yourself and see if you can do it in the same way and get it into the same length of time. If you still like doing it after all that, then is the time to pay for courses and demo tapes and all the rest of it.

But I very much advise people not to just walk in off the streets as it were and go straight to making a commercial demo reel. That just seems to me like a big waste of money. Don’t get a demo reel done until you’ve done lots and lots of hard, tedious work. Don’t spend loads of money until you’ve tried stuff out. You can get a cheap USB microphone and you can get Audacity on all platforms, so download Audacity for free. Spend £40.00 on a microphone, £50.00 if you must, and stick your head under a duvet and try things out and see what it sounds like.

And do lots of editing as well because you need to be a jack-of-all-trades now as a voiceover. There are very few voiceovers who just work in the studios in the center of town. Most of us now have our own studios, and you need to know how to use that.

JV: Well, I can’t let you go without asking for some story about The Witch Doctor, or as you have on your website, “…drinking hallucinogenic juices, eating a still beating heart, and sharing dinner with cannibals”. What’s one of your most memorable, crazy experiences out there with the Witch Doctor?
Piers: I think it would have to be eating the still beating heart of a chicken in Cameroon. It was basically all because it’s a magical way of thinking. We were working with a patient who suffered from fear and worried about herself going out into the outside world. So the medicine man, the shaman, the witch doctor wanted to help her by giving her courage, and in this kind of magical way of thinking, you can get courage by absorbing courage from another animal. It’s still strange to me that he chose a chicken for this. In our culture, a chicken is not known for its courageous behavior, but I guess it’s all about the fact that it’s the beating heart of a chicken.

So he sacrificed the chicken and pulled out its heart and held it in the palm of his hand, and you could see it still throbbing away. He held it out to the patient and said, “Swallow this.” She was having none of it. She was basically saying, “I am not going to swallow that at all.” I thought, “You know what? I really want to go to lunch and I really want to finish this scene, so I will swallow the chicken heart and see if it works.” I did it with an open mind and an open heart, and I did feel quite brave afterwards because everyone said, “That was a really stupid thing to do, but how do you feel?” I felt slightly less hungry and slightly braver. 

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