My Voice-Over Life

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved to read stories to her brother. She liked to put on funny voices for all the different characters and found that she was rather good at mimicking accents and odd vocal characteristics. Sometimes her brother would beg her to stop reading as he had had enough; sometimes she listened.

The little girl also liked listening to the radio programmes that her Mummy had on in the kitchen while she was making supper for Daddy who came in hungry and tired from the office (it was the 1960’s after all). Although she didn’t understand any of the so-called jokes, she loved a man called Kenneth Williams, whose strangulated vocal gymnastics she tried to imitate, and another one called Derek Nimmo, who you could tell was rather vague and very posh just by the tone of his voice.

There were also some precious LPs for the record player. Johnny Morris read Thomas the Tank Engine stories and made up different distinctive voices for all the engines that sounded somehow just as she’d imagined they’d speak. She and her brother practically wore out a series of brightly coloured Magic Roundabout 45’s, learning every word to replicate the stories as Florence, Brian the snail, and Dougal the dog, for the delight of Auntie Flo (who smoked 60 a day, had fascinating nicotine stained fingers and a raspy laugh) and Uncle Nigel (who wore a three-piece suit and a gold watch on a chain) when they came for Christmas sherry.

Later, there was a wonderful tweed besuited teacher called Miss Kemp, who wrote Take Part books—adaptations into plays of classic tales such as Hiawatha and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There were sound effects to make and (had anyone known the term in those days) differentiated parts for the assorted reading abilities of the class. Sophie—for that, of course, was the name of the little girl—delighted in the main parts and read them with great gusto into the large grey reel to reel tape recorder upon which Miss Kemp tried out new scripts and sent them to the publisher to show how they worked.

We moved house, just to the other side of Blackheath, and in the next street lived a real live actor with a very plummy posh voice who had actually been in a Doctor Who story called “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” She loved voices like his, little thinking as she practiced and imitated, that she would meet Trevor Baxter properly one day in the Big Finish studio and be able to tell him the tale.

And that, dear reader, is how it all started. Voice over training complete by the age of eight, bar a bit of vocal work in singing lessons.

I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me over the years “Oh, I’d love to be a voice over artist… Everyone tells me I have a great voice. What do I have to do to get into it?”

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, usually the real answer is, don’t even start. Of course I don’t usually say that, as being a sensitive actor type, I want people to like me, and I was well brought up and don’t like being rude. Truth is, it’s very difficult to make any kind of living from voice overs. But if you want to chance your arm, here are some of the things you’ll need.

There are a wide variety of voice over jobs, often requiring different skills and you have to be good at all of them.These include:

  • Animation
  • ELT (English language courses for foreign students)
  • Commercials, radio, and TV
  • Promos
  • In-house training films
  • Documentaries
  • Audiobooks
  • ADR (dubbing)
  • Radio and audio drama
  • Video games

If you wish to have a go at any of these, then you’ll have to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you really good at sight reading? I mean really good? Depending on the type of job, you will be arriving at the studio and will usually receive your script then and there. There are rarely read throughs or rehearsals.
  • Are you good at accents and different types of voices? You will be required to play lots of different characters. For example, in an average day working on ELT, I could be asked to be a nine-year-old boy from the North of England, a Scottish receptionist, an Australian Mum, an 80-year-old Indian Granny, and a 12-year-old Kenyan girl.
  • Are you ready to perform a not particularly well-written book out loud for six hours, playing all the characters, doing all the narration, and making it sound exciting and brilliant? I have had times when I have become sick of the sound of my voice, when the words have started swimming round the page, and once I actually fell asleep for a few seconds, woke up, and found I was still speaking. I find audiobooks the hardest work I do. There is no-one else to rely on and nothing to relieve the relentless tedium of my voice. Children’s books are the best to read—they are invariably well-written and have lots of interesting characters with great opportunities for accents and different voices. Doctor Who books and short stories are tricky. I’m sure Mike Tucker and Robert Perry won’t mind me saying that I found the audio recording of their excellent novel, Illegal Alien, very difficult indeed: Sylvester’s accent when analysed is a fiendish mixture of Scottish, Irish, and je ne sais quoi—it’s hard enough for a woman to do a man’s voice. Added to that, one of the main characters is an Irish policeman. I found the only thing to do was before every line of dialogue to mumble to myself “Scoootish, Scoooootish” (in a cod Scottish accent) followed by “Cup of tea cup of tea cup of tea” a la Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted. I’ve never dared listen, but let’s hope the poor editor managed to clip them all out.
  • Are you thick-skinned? Advertising clients often say things about your line readings for which, in normal circumstances, you might be forgiven for punching them. They forget you are a real person in the next room and the sound engineer sometimes forgets to mute their mike so you can be faced with “She didn’t do that very well that time. It sounded a bit pathetic/over the top/cartoony/unrealistic.” Then you hear the director cough, shuffle, gather thoughts, and say, “Sophie, would it be ok for you to do that again only this time a bit more… er…” (“better” is what they mean of course).
  • Are you great at timing? Commercials and promos usually have to fit into a strict time frame: 60 seconds, 30 seconds, sometimes 10. Sometimes there will be so much copy that you have to speed your way through it whilst sounding clear, excited, and hugely enrolling. Sometimes there will be very few words and you have to stretch them out without sounding boring.

Still want to have a go?

Then try this little experiment:

  • Invite a friend round, one who you can trust to be honest with you.
  • Ask this friend to select a book at random from the shelf.
  • Sit them down in a comfy chair and ask them to close their eyes.
  • Open the book and read out loud to them for an hour.
  • Then ask your friend to give you feedback. Did you make many mistakes? Were all the characters believable and were their voices distinctive? Was your friend still interested at the end or did they doze off? Above all, did you tell the story?
  • Well that’s a good start then!
  • Now ask your patient friend to find a magazine and look for some advertising copy. Then they can time you on their device of choice as you read an advertisement to fit into 60 seconds, 30 seconds, and 10 seconds, which are the usual lengths required for TV and radio commercials.

Now you are going to make yourself a voice reel. This consists of short (and I mean short) clips of various voices in different styles, for example commercial, narrative, documentary, animation. Listen to the reels you can find on voice over agents’ websites to get an idea of what is required. Jazz yours up with some suitable music and/or sound effects.

Then you’re ready to send your reel to the voice over agents. It’s worth doing some research on their websites to see whether there are already artistes with your type of voice on their books. Find where you could fill a gap for them.

And above all, follow the instructions for sending your reel as the agents simply won’t listen to anything that hasn’t been submitted properly.

There used to be a time when many actors wouldn’t touch voice overs with a barge pole—which come to think of it is a very silly image, but you get the picture. Now, it’s a very acceptable part of the business, taught in drama schools and courses and sought after to supplement the meagre income gleaned from theatre jobs these days.

I LOVE doing voice over work. It’s varied, different every day (though that implies I get work every day which is definitely not the case!), and I get to meet and work with the most amazing talented group of people both in front of and behind the microphone. You have to be good at it, otherwise no one will employ you after a first attempt.

Even in the amazing world of animation, the jobs can be enormously varied. For example, for Tree Fu Tom for CBeebies, we worked as an ensemble, standing together in front of our script-laden music stands in front of our individual microphones, working off each other’s performances, and having a jolly good laugh in between. Whereas for other work like Bob the Builder, Peter Rabbit and Bananas in Pyjamas, I was on my own in front of the screen, headphones on and voices at the ready. The engineer scrolled through the clips for which I needed to provide the voice and I dubbed the words to match the lips—or in the case of Bob the Builder, the radiator grill. For Morgan the Bear in Bananas in Pyjamas, I had to listen to the Australian actor and then match his timing as exactly as I could while adding my own characterisation.

And then of course, there is recording Big Finish audio dramas. You arrive at the inconspicuous Moat studio in a once seedy and now up-and-coming area of London; you are buzzed into concrete corridors lined with rat traps down which the great and good of British acting talent have walked, the eco ceiling lights clicking on as you pass to light your way to last door on the right. In you go, never quite knowing who will be there this time—who have they cast?—but knowing that you are in for a treat of a day, punctuated by the very best of gossip, the biggest of laughs and… THE LUNCH. The legendary Big Finish highlight, created by engineer, studio owner, and all round good egg Toby in a tiny little kitchen not 10-foot by 5-foot and revered by all actors who are lucky enough to have graced a Big Finish CD cover. For the record, my favourite is the curry lunch.

The recording part of the studio is unique. It has to be, as there are not many plays and dramas that require such a variety of alien monster voices created by Toby on the spot in the sound booth rather than in post-production. This requires each actor to be in a separate booth so that the sound of the monster, or screams of dying men women and aliens, do not bleed into the next actor’s performance. Each sound booth is shaped like the cheese section on a Trivial Pursuit board with windows on three sides and a wooden door rather like a sauna. In summer this becomes the reality as it gets HOT in there. In winter it’s like being in a fridge. The corridor where all the photos are taken for Doctor Who Magazine and The Vortex is possibly the coldest place in the world, which is why the smiles sometimes look a bit rictus and most people are wearing scarves and hats and why I’m always cuddling up to Sylvester… actually no, that’s not the only reason, he is MY Doctor and no one else gets too close or else!!

Flashback to the little girl watching Doctor Who on Saturday evening through a crack in the living room door, ready to close the door if things get too scary. She has made her little brother sit on the sofa so if she misses anything he can tell her. She is particularly frightened of the Cybermen of the late 60s with their funny clicky mouths and monotonous voices. Let’s just take a moment to whisper reassuringly in her ear that she will not only get the chance to get her own back on them in about 20 years’ time using a sling shot and a bag of gold coins, but that her future career will be inextricably linked with this wandering hobo and his blue box of magic.

Sophie Aldred

Sophie Aldred has been working as a professional actress, singer, and director for the last 35 years in theatre, TV, film and audio. She is perhaps best known as the 7th Doctor Who’s companion, Ace, who beat up a Dalek with a baseball bat. She has also presented a huge variety of programmes on TV and radio, and provides many voices for dramas, audiobooks, and animations including the highly acclaimed Tree Fu Tom for CBeebies, Peter Rabbit, the US version on Bob the Builder, and Dennis the Menace.
Sophie lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two sons.

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