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Voice Actor: What's In YOUR
Tool Box? Let's Share It ...
By Ed Victor
Voice Actor
& Working Voice Actor Group
Note: The author leads a vibrant discussion group: the Working Voice Actor Group, and with his permission we reprint excerpts from a recent thread in which voice actors share their voice acting techniques. The discussion starts with Ed and flows into excepts of comments from group members. For more about this group, please click on the group name above, or on the link at the end of this article ...
I'd like to get a discussion going about the techniques you use in the booth ....
For instance, inevitably, in any given day, I will fortunately have multiple sessions. Promos, movie, commercial, character, network - which means a lot of shifting gears to give my clients the desired results!
And that, my friends, is when I delve into my voice over tool box.

To be sure, some tools are tried and true for me, while others just don't cut it.

My tried and true are as follows ...

Movie Trailer Tension (MTT): Squeezing or pinching the area between my thumb and forefinger till in hurts. Leaves a mark, sure. But the desired results are there.

Disinterested Bland Hip MTV Read: Clear my head of any thought and keep my lips closer together. Move one hand across an imaginary plane to keep my read dead and even.

Bold Commercial Reads or Super Hero Characters (I get a lot of that): Legs spread - hands on hips - chin up.

Smokey/Sexy Reads (perfect for reading wine commercials): Put all my weight on one leg.
Audition With Multiple Takes: Talk with my right arm, then switch to my left arm. The variation is uncanny.

Now, what are some of yours?
Note: Below are excerpts from the many comments sparked by Ed Victor's lead ...
Denny Delk: Mental Tools
Two physical techniques:

When I want to sound as though I am hanging upside down from my heels, I put my right hand around my throat and push upwards. It absolutely makes you sound like gravity is affecting your chords. Discovered this when I was playing the voice of a salami. Don't ask.

When I want what Ed calls the "Disinterested Bland Hip MTV" read (which I call the "Why can't he sound as though he might like the product?" read), I wear chiffon and make it a point not to move.

The mental tools are many, but restricted to use by those already seeking therapy.

J. Christopher Dunn: Multiple Takes
You mention an audition technique that uses multiple takes to create variety from read to read. I do something similar.
I start with both hands in my pockets for the first take, one hand out for the second, and both out for the third. You're right, it's uncanny.

When I hit lists in copy, I imagine pointing to each one, from top to bottom. I don't have to think about varying inflection with this tool, it happens automatically.

And I always have a pencil in the booth with me. It's a great prop for pointing to imaginary list items, making a point, emphasis of key brand words - and of course, marking up copy.
Just make sure to use an old fashioned wooden pencil.
During one session, I heard what I thought were mouth clicks during my read. After a number of frustrating takes and doing everything I could think of to eliminate mouth noises, I realized that what was causing the clicking was the eversharp pencil I was using.
Every time I emphasized a point with my pencil, the lead in the barrel rattled and made a clicking sound. Ugh!

James R. Alburger: Soooooo Many 
As a VO coach, producer, talent, and author of The Art of Voice Acting, I'm constantly working on getting to just the "right" sound for an attitude, emotion or delivery.
The essence of what Ed and Denny have mentioned comes down to physicalization - finding a way to move or adjust the face or body to arrive at the desired vocal sound.
In fact, I believe this is the essence of a believable and compelling performance.

There are soooo many possibilities, but here are a few of my favorites:

To achieve the sound of talking with dental instruments in the mouth: place your index finger between your teeth and over-articulate as you speak.

To create a more intimate and conversational tone: simply take off your headphones, drop the volume of your voice and speak slower.

If you're having trouble with copy that needs to be delivered conversationally, but is poorly written: find a photo of one person who can be the eyes of the person you're talking to, and put it on the copy stand next to the script. Simply creating some "eye contact" - even with a photo - can help create a conversational or more casual delivery.

I love observing how other people talk and move when they are in conversation.
Many times, simply mimicking the facial expressions or body language of someone expressing a certain attitude can be a tremendous help for you to deliver that "sound."
Finally, one of the points we emphasize in our workshops is to take the risk to experiment with anything and everything you can think of that might help you get to the "sound" that is right for a script or a character.
This is the only way you'll ever be able to truly discover what works for you.

Maggie Phillips: Use Your Body 
As a coach, I'm loving hearing that you folks are using your bodies.

It is all connected. And for me, speech starts at the bottom of the feet.

J.S. Gilbert: Understand Motivation
I find it interesting to see a very different "camp" from the one that existed when I was coming up in the ranks.
The tendency was to learn traditional acting technique via stage acting and improvisational acting, and how to apply it to working on microphone.
I particularly liked improvisational acting because it taught us how to work with space props and imaginary actors, which helps when it's just you and the microphone.

Thus, preparing for auditions/jobs became very immersive;
  • Who am I?
  • What is my relationship to the product/service?
  • Who am I talking to and why?
  • What is my agenda?
  • Do I have a hidden agenda?
  • What is my emotional stance?
  • How and where does that change?
  • What's the back-story?
  • What do I think will happen immediately afterward?
This tends to contrast strongly to much of the coaching I hear today, which deals with what I can only refer to as a less organic approach, and is discussed a bit by Ed here.
One can certainly see it acting as a shortcut to being able to pump out a product, and I do know that I advocate - and am a big employer of - using one's whole body to do the read.
Although, I wonder if simply gesticulating without the "deeper" motivation behind the gesture will produce the same effect.

One can understand the mechanics of puckering their lips as if having eaten a lemon. But unless one has actually eaten a lemon, they won't truly "feel" it.
Thus, do we simply say pucker your lips, and teach the mechanics - or do we teach the "you're sucking on a lemon, what do you feel - how is that effecting you"?

One trick I learned long ago, that I do not consider a trick per se, is that to alter one's overall read, you simply change the person you are speaking to.
James' idea of putting a photo on the microphone is simply a strong way of creating a truer dynamic between the reader and the listener, which is done by imagining as clearly as possible a real person you know that you might say this to.
By having a number of photographs of perhaps your daughter, husband, boss, best friend, your pet, etc., you can allter your read specifically.
This works well even when you are being directed and asked to warm it up. Simply switch the person you are talking to and make it someone you are more intimate with.
Your feelings for this person should automatically cause some distinguishable changes within your read.

DC Goode: Get Psyched 
Interesting stuff by all. I'm stealing it all.

Denny. may I say, you are lovely in chiffon. I'm a taffeta guy myself.

JS' take on the character, their inner life, the scene ... all that acting stuff is monumental.

The physicality implemented is also a big deal and/or deal breaker.

Personally, I have a big challenge in that my current recording space is so small that I really have to "psyche" myself into a lot of that physicality because I can't actually move that much. Which may be why some of my booking ratios leave me wanting. '-)

I can vouch for the fact that photos do help.

Years ago, when I studied with Dave Sebastian Williams, he used to hand out a sheet full of "emotions'' and or "feelings" that a character might need. I still refer to it sometimes - especially since "feelings" are something that men (in general) tend to have a hard time connecting with. '-)
Easy does it girls - we know. We know.
Now if I could just get my "sexy" reads to stop sounding so smarmy/preditor-ish. '-) 

Matt Forrest: Body & Mind
It's definitely a combination of motivation, as JS put it, and physicality.
If I need an extremely animated delivery, I tend to move my hands and arms and actually BE animated.
If I'm a geek - scratch that, if I'm VOICING a geek - I often drop my tongue down into my throat and keep my lips open a bit, to get almost a Pee-Wee Herman kind of sound.
I try to picture the character, picture myself as that character, and do what I can to BE that character - whether it's a character in the traditional sense, or as an announcer.

Recently when I read a couple lines for a documentary, I was portraying a pre-American Revolution soldier on horseback, who had just arrived at a village after witnessing a terrible massacre.
He was a bit out of breath, but not too much. He was energetic but worn, and he had a British accent (because at that point in American history, we ALL did).
So after practicing the lines with the accent, I jumped up and down a few times to get a little breathy, put my mind in the soldier's predicament, and read the lines - and the client loved 'em.

So there's a good deal of Meisner going on ... although Meisner doesn't always translate well non-visually.
As a voice actor, you need to know your limits and work with and around them.

Andy Curtis: Cork Trick
I'm sure it's all very old-hat, but I've found for narration prep that doing 10 minutes of warm-up with a cork every second paragraph works WONDERS for actually warming up and keeping diction on-track ;)

Ed Victor: Gotta Be Quick
On the one hand, I can say that when you have the luxury of time to develop a read, or a character, or a motivation (old school) or a thought process - God bless.
But the reality of this business is such that most times that is a sheer impossibility in order to stay competitive.
Method acting is great! Living in the total submersion of a character - there's nothing better. There is no question.
But I've got to tell you, when you're competing against the best in the business and your LA agent is giving you 20 minutes to turn it around or your out ... all the method in the world is often times meaningless.

Lets face it, between the screaming dealer work ... the :80 seconds of copy that has to be read in 59.9, the "make it louder" on the carpet retail ads, the "your voice isn't deep enough" on the motorcycle retailer spots ... all the things we've got to do to make ends meet, the methodology, the years of acting classes and the money spent ... is a mute point.

I have an audition to do right now for a national car account. I've got till the morning to submit my read. I've been reading and thinking and imagining how this non-announcer needs to sound. I have time.
Get this, the agent actually sent a follow-up message to me and to whoever else got the nod to read for the audition, stating: " If this isn't for you, or even remotely for you, or you can't act to the specs - please don't audition!!!!"

Apparently, she doesn't want to be embarrassed by submitting the wrong picks. Huh.
But the point I'm trying to make is that sometimes we don't have the luxury of "ACTING" the part.
We have to have the experience to do the right thing. Whether it's pinching our hand or screaming or whatever works to stay competitive and get paid.
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Matt Forrest: Crazy Expectations
Ed, while I'm not at the LA agent-level yet, I have done some national as well as international work, and I totally understand what you mean about the crazy expectations clients have.
I've had all the :80 copy, 'make it louder,' 'make it faster' issues you've had, albeit on a smaller scale.
In fact, today I was given a script and told to read in a casual NPR-style delivery - and the only way I could fit it into the time they wanted was to race through it faster than the Fed Ex commercial guy!

So I understand about quick turnaround and that sort of thing. But I don't think acting necessarily needs to take up that much time.
When I read for an audition - whether it's a high-energy concert spot, an unusual animated character, or the Revolutionary soldier I mentioned - I often don't have much time to think about how I'm going to do it.
When I get the audition, I try to send it in as soon as I can. In the case of the soldier audition, for example, I turned it around in probably 15 minutes; I didn't spend forever trying to understand 'motivation' and all that. I just put myself in the place of the soldier and read it as if I was him.
It's thinking on your feet. Same thing with a concert spot - I try to determine what type of music the artist plays, what type of audience it's targeting, what type of delivery is appropriate for that audience ... and then hope I get it right!

Andy Curtis: Sound More Fun ...?? 

But when a client says "make it sound more fun" ... what the heck are they saying??? I seem to have been able to "get" all the other instructions.. But I'm having real problems with this "make it sound more fun" line.

Have fun! At least may it sound like you're having fun!.

J.S. Gilbert: Audition Prep
Not to contradict you Ed, but you have posted on numerous occasions that you tend not to book much work from auditioning. Maybe it would be better for you to not try and cram the auditions in, but to use tried and true acting techniques to make each audition count.

Personally, I wish my marketing skills were on par with yours and I could just dial for dollars. But in fact, I have almost always gotten the bulk of my acting income from auditioning.
I deal with the same agents, crazy directions, overwritten copy and in addition, physical limitations that slow me down a bit.

Why not take the next audition and simply say that you will spend enough time prepping it to turn it into the best audition job you've ever done? 


And Andy, "Make it sound more fun" generally means it was a really funny spot until the client and the legal department sucked all of the life out of it and now we need John Cleese on steroids.
Well, maybe not John Cleese on steroids, but someone who can breathe the life back into it. Not necessarily funny, but fun.

Kevin Readdean: Inner Channels
Here’s a technique I used on my latest audiobook project:
The text included drawing out a variety of contrasts (on one hand / on the other) and consequences (do this / this will happen).
To pull this off, I channeled my inner Karate Kid and did the “wax on / wax off” hand movements.
Who knew that one day Mr. Miyagi’s sage advice: “Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe, very important ...” would be applicable in the vocal booth?!

Ed Victor: Different For Everyone
JS, you're not contradicting me at all. I don't book from audtions, I really don't. It's likely because I'm in Palm Beach and not in LA or NY or CHI, but it doesn't mean I don't try. But I don't rely on it. I can't.

My guy in LA is specifically a trailer agent, and breaking through with the heavy hitters he handles is akin to winning the lottery.
The same guys book over and over and over again. You hear them on every single trailer. If it's not one, it's the other. I'm hopeful that one day I will break the cycle.
Twenty minutes is all you get from the time the audition is received. And the direction is this: "Comedy - hook it up." Or, "Drama - do it!" That's it. It's up to you or me to understand what that means in that world of movie trailers.

Thanks for the nod on the marketing. I am fortunate that my "day job" has been in the ad world for the past 25 years. As far as "dialing for dollars," if you mean because of my marketing skills, guilty as charged and thanks.
But as far as picking up a phone and calling a prospect, I never have. In fact, many of my clients I've never even spoken to on the phone.

Again, it could very well be the difference in our physical locations and our own agent relationships. It's different for everyone, and that's what makes this group and the perspectives discussed so great.

Ed Victor is a busy full-time voice actor who serves a roster of national and international clients worldwide from his Whisper Room in West Palm Beach, FL. During a successful advertising career spanning more than 20 years, he worked with top voice over and on-camera talent, and now uses the writing, production and directing experiences from that career in voice overs. Voicing in a variety of genres, his past and current clients include American Airlines, Audi, AARP, AC Delco, Buick, Bosch, Chevrolet, Colgate, Carharrt Clothing, DHL International, Florida Lottery, Florida Hospital, Henry Ford Health Systems, Jaguar, Lear Seating, Michelin Tires, Sheering-Plough Pharmaceuticals, Onstar, Xerox, SM Satellite Radio and more.
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Comments (4)
George Taurus
6/5/2012 at 3:10 AM
The best tool I found to aid in recording and editing lengthy copy such as audiobooks is the Silver Pedal. You can order one at Silver I've used it extensively and it allows me to stay in charahter when I struggle with multiple takes.... a must have !!
Paul J. Warwick
10/17/2010 at 11:11 AM
Fantastic advice!
I will try pinching my thumb while standing on my left foot in a pink tutu for my next movie trailer read ... no ... wait ... I misread something, somewhere ...
Josh Martin
10/15/2010 at 12:25 PM
FANTASTIC article on real-life tips! I plan on trying a bunch, especially the cork trick in between reads. As recently as yesterday, I think this would have helped me push through a spot that needed to be fast without sounding fast!

Would love more tips on reading fast (without sounding out of breath) and clearing nasal passages when you have a cold - the two things I've been dealing with this week!

Please keep the great articles coming.
Josh Martin
BP Smyth, Narrator
10/15/2010 at 8:16 AM
Hello Ed,

You and I share a couple of Agent websites out there (National and International) and I have listened to your work. It's very good. It's great to hear that you have this "forum" on Linkedin. I was unaware of this until today. I'll definitely be visiting your site for informative discourse regarding this wacky world of voice-over. Thanks for offering your experiences along with experiences of others, it helps all involved to understand what's going on out there.
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