Working With Voiceover Artists as a Producer

By Ashley Bard

Voiceover Artists are arguably one of the most important parts of the radio industry. If they’re the station voice, they’re your brand. And more importantly, if they’re voicing an advert, they pay your wages. However, the art of working with them is an often overlooked area of expertise.

Is it because we think they have it easy? Many Producers believe Voiceover Artists wake up when they want, check their emails in bed to confirm a job and then proceed to sit at home all day in their pajamas, talking into their microphone. And if that isn’t enough, they’re sometimes able to earn a week’s salary in an afternoon!

However, after living with a very successful international voiceover for two years, I’ve seen first-hand that all is not as it seems. Job security is a massive issue, as many voiceover artists are continuously auditioning and vying for attention in a crowded industry. Even a ‘permanent’ position as a station/brand voice can backfire after your contract ends, leaving you typecast or considered ‘overused’ by future employers. Another obvious issue is income, with most voiceover artists struggling to confirm regular work, much like many other freelance industries. Add to that the fact that the work is often very lonely and isolated, with mainly ISDN sessions or audio sent over the web, and the life of these artists begins to look a little less appealing.

The first ever voiceover session I attended was whilst working at Gemini FM in Exeter, with the commercial producer Tim Fortune. He had complete control, effortlessly commanding the session and ensuring the reads were delivered just as he wanted. And this wasn’t by accident. This was clearly a skill he had honed and developed over time and from working with many people, to the point where it seemed as if he had the artist hypnotized! Over a decade later, I’m now a producer based at Global Radio’s Capital & Capital XTRA, taking voice sessions every day, and I’m still developing my own skills working with voiceover artists.

So with all that in mind... as producers, how do we build a good working relationship to get the best from them?

Firstly, let’s consider that relationship. You’re the producer and are the face of the employer, who is buying a service. As such, consider the session like you would any transaction of goods - if you’re not happy, don’t be afraid or hesitant when it comes to voicing your concerns. Ultimately, they should be looking for top quality performances every time, if nothing more than to build a strong audio portfolio to secure future projects.

Voiceover artists should be willing to offer you alternative reads or audio if their first takes weren’t up to scratch, but you have to be able to communicate exactly how you want it, or what’s missing from their previous attempts. Howard Ritchie is the voiceover artist for Global’s Capital FM. He understands this relationship very well after years working with various producers:

“They [the producers] control how the end result will sound. The voice is only ever as good as the direction, period. The more superior the direction, the better the result. It is the producer who makes or breaks anything, and that includes a performer’s confidence.”

This sort of direction has been slightly lost with some producers, as it’s becoming more and more popular to just send off a script on email and wait for the audio to be returned. Building a familiar relationship, even for 60 seconds before you get to work, can dramatically impact upon the result of your session, as you could be the first person they’ve spoken to all day!

Also, it seems so simple but it’s still worth noting, that if you’re directing the voiceover artist, you’re more likely to get exactly what you need for the production. Howard Ritchie prefers a relaxed environment and thinks the outcome benefits from the producer engaging in conversation with the voiceover artist, for both parties:

“What makes it comfortable is the banter. If a producer were in the middle of a bad day, I would rather spend a few minutes talking about it before we get onto business. Some producers often make me howl with laughter with their creative outlandish antics; from experience this is often the most productive creative platform.”

When it comes to directing, everyone has their preferred method, but from my experience, giving the voiceover artist ‘free flow’ is the perfect starting point. This gives the producer time to hear the lines, noting what he/she likes or what needs changes. Most of the time, I can get through a lot of the lines with minimal changes in that ‘free flow’ period without demanding a lot from my voiceover artist, right at the start. I personally prefer the school of ‘read and repeat’ as I can communicate the exact tone/inflection/pitch I require, as opposed to simply describing what I need. If a voiceover artist can hear what they need to produce, they’re more likely to be able to succeed first time - even if it is a bit embarrassing for the producer sometimes!

David Wartnaby, Imaging Voice of Heart (the UK’s biggest commercial radio brand) agrees that ‘read and repeat’ is a great tool but highlights that “some pro voiceover artists find mimic-direction annoying, but imaging producers know what they’re looking for and often this method is the fastest way to get the message across”.

David also adds that sometimes context is really important to share with your voiceover artist, especially if you can’t direct the session yourself. Even with audio like imaging, which on the surface can seem pretty straight in its delivery, context can really aid the voiceover artist, even if you feel like its unimportant:

“Any script can be delivered so many ways that often I end up repeating the same line in a bunch of energies, most of which go to waste. Knowing the context of the voiceover, with associated clips and music, means the multiple ‘guesstimate’ energy takes can be replaced with more focused reads with only nuance changes”.

Without making it sound over-simplified: put them at ease, tell them the context, let them feel it out for themselves and then go back and let them hear your preferred version, if you didn’t quite get what you needed. If you make a few friends in the process, that’s ideal.

Ashley Bard is an imaging producer in the UK based at Capital & Capital XTRA. He welcomes your correspondence at ashley@ashleybard.co.uk.

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