Monday, 7 April 2014

Going the Distance

Some of my fellow Voiceover Artists utter shock, surprise or a degree of awe at my switch to encompassing Audiobooks into my repertoire. To me, this always seems strange, since I have fallen head over heels in love with the art form. It is an endurance test, it is a personal challenge, and it is a solitary experience. It offers performance challenges I never knew existed. Nevertheless, the rewards to be had are enormous just because of the gruelling demands on ones time, attention and concentration, and the potential for strain on the voice. Nothing good ever came with ease did it? Getting to the end of
an Audiobook project can feel like I have won the marathon!

In 1980's Britain we had a popular kids programme called Pigeon Street. I was always fascinated by the female trucker character who would pop into the village en route to whichever far flung destination she was going to for her work. 'Long Distance Clara' even had her own catchy theme tune. I didn't get it. Why do a job that takes so long to get from A to B? Now I understand a little better. By the time I have read, annotated, researched, recorded, corrected, edited, mastered and finally uploaded an audiobook I feel like I have been on an incredible journey. This of course is all the better if the book was well written in the first place, and I am fortunate that I am getting some very interesting projects thrown my way, especially since establishing my niche as a Young Adult British female narrator, I've been working back to back on fantastic stories.

Working as an Audiobook Narrator, I feel as thought I have truly created something that has not only been an endurance, but that may well be enduring. I read a quote somewhere, by someone (I'm a little hazy) saying that they loved narrating audiobooks because potentially they were creating material for people to listen to for the next 50 years. And I think that just about sums it up. When I work on producing and narrating a book, I never know who is going to be entertained by it, where in the world it is going to reach someone's ears, to whom my voice and my reading ability is going to give immense
amounts of pleasure. It isn't like theatre where the performance is over at the curtain call. My audience could be anywhere, doing anything, at any time now or in the future. There is something gratifying about that.

It isn't easy. I have been on a rollercoaster learning this side of the Voice industry, and I know others who are at the start of that journey, wondering if they have the stamina or inclination to continue. It isn't for everyone. Adapting to new methods of recording, perhaps even different mic techniques, and using alternative software. For some people accustomed to commercial work, this seems like an awful lot of hard slog. But for me, having worked on some corking characters in some gripping novels of late, I find it hard to get so much of a thrill out of a thirty second commercial. But my background is in theatre, performing, creating characters, and audiobooks give me an opportunity to do all of that.

So in short, it really isn't for everybody this Audiobook Narration malarkey. But it is for me. Now, if only there could be rapturous, spontaneous applause when I reach the last sentence of the final chapter in a ten hour novel, then that would be even better.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Relax and Keep it Real.

To make a great sound, you’ve got to look after yourself. A great voice is about more than lubricated vocal cords, it’s about more than using a natural gift. If you intend to work as a Voice actor you need to ensure that you keep your instrument in tip top condition. If you're stressed, tense or overly emotional those things are going to show up loud and clear in the tone and quality of your voice.

Vocal performance is more than technical production of sound. The sound of our voice connects us to the core of our being, in not only a physical sense, but an emotional one too. The slightest utterance can give away our true feelings, and sensitive ears can pick up on subtle nuances- after all, we spend a lifetime listening subconsciously to the finer details of speech to understand the underlying thoughts and feelings within a communication.
Phsyiologically, great posture can make a huge difference in the sound you make when you speak. When we laugh, it is from the belly, when we howl in pain it is from the depths of our being. It is what actors strive for on stage every night: to connect, to make it ‘real’. It is no less important in front of the microphone. We’ve all heard the false sing-song voice in ‘happy’ commercials. Do we believe them? No. They sound artificial, they sound put on. So how to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of throat-led, unconnected performances (which long-term can lead to vocal damage)?

Try some of these simple tricks. Allow your shoulders to relax, stand up straight without overstraining and overcompensating for usual bad posture, and stand with both legs planted firmly on the floor, weight distributed evenly. These easy adjustments enable your breath to flow to your belly, allow your diaphragm to expand and contract the way it is supposed to, and thereby allow the best possible sound to resonate through your body.  Try it. See if you can notice a difference on mic. The British Voice Association provides some excellent resources if you want more info on proper and correct use of Voice.

The first sign of tension in my own body is in my shoulders. Too much stress, and I know that this can affect my performance. I’ve taken to having a regular back neck and shoulder massage from a qualified masseuse, especially when I have know I have some intensive audiobook sessions to record. I also highly recommend Alexander Technique, to learn how to readjust and realign your posture naturally, to unlearn habitual posture errors. It is advocated and practiced in Drama Schools up and down the country. See if there is a practitioner near you.

Do the best you can to let your performance really reflect who you are, and let your performance come from your core being. Anyone can produce a sing-song effect. But only you have the power to engage the unique you.

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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Cracking the Accent Code

How often have you encountered a job where an accent other than your own native dulcet tones is required? Well, this has been quite a month for me. I've been working on projects which require Welsh, Russian, Cornish, Dublin, Chicago-esque (not sure of the right word to describe this accent!) and Mancunian dialects. No mean feat, I can tell you! And they were all for projects with tight turnarounds. Accent work often then has to be layered with male or female colourings and intonation, plus allow for differences in characterisation, including age, class and personality. So getting the basics right, and cracking the code, is really important.

So when this occurs in your work, where do you go? Where can you find the 'way in' learning an accent?  The quickest answer, and the one most readily at our fingertips is, of course, You Tube, and many gems of accent examples can be found there. However, sometimes the video searches contain the most random of information, and irritatingly when you are in a hurry, they are by people trying to imitate the accent of a particular region, rather than by the native speakers themselves. There is, it seems, a trend amongst Eastern European teenagers to try to copy accents of the British Isles (and often very badly!) - not helpful when I have a chapter or two to narrate, and really need to get to grips with the correct mouth placements and sounds.

Videojug contains a few diamonds though. Gareth Jamieson, British Vocal Coach, and Actor, puts his thoughts and expertise into producing short Videos on a few main accents, such as this American one. He isn't always perfect, but he can give you an idea of where to begin, and makes you stop and think about your lip and tongue movements as you formulate vowel sounds.

I've also enjoyed fellow UK Voiceover Artist Jay Britton's Raise Your Voice Accent videos on YouTube. You can find one of them (his Australian version) here.

My favourite method though, if it is available for a particular accent is, Accent Help. Although it comes at a (reasonable) price rather than as a free resource, the work is thorough, and well worth it. You download the resource materials onto your PC or Mac, and can follow a series of tutorials in combination with numerous audio recordings of natives speaking set pieces. It has been designed especially for actors who need to conquer a new accent, and fast.

Where else do you look? Am I missing a vital piece of the Accent pie?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Branding for a brand New Year.

As we welcome in 2014, it's an opportunity to consider what this year will mean for your business branding.

Have you considered using a Brand Voice for your business? A brand voice is a specific person that speaks for a company. All major companies use a brand voice but a lot of times you will only hear them on the radio or in a TV advertisement. A brand voice can and should be expanded to be used on customer support lines when a customer is put on hold, employee voice mails, presentations and other communication channels where a voice actor is needed. The voice in which a company uses to speak with its customers is important and carries business implications too. Studies have shown that using the right voice in an ad can increase memorability of an ad by 26%. By using a brand voice consistently across all mediums, the impact can be more consistent and even greater.

One thing to remember is that your phone system is your first point of contact with customers – you need to present a professional image. Using an employee who 'has a nice voice' is a cheap option, but a Professional Voiceover who understands the importance of pitch, rhythm and intonation, and has broadcast quality recording sound is invaluable, and in the long run a much better marketing choice for your business.

So, make sure you take the time to invest in a professional voice actor for all of your business activities. It’ll save you money
and headaches in the long run and will help you build a stronger brand that can withstand the test of time.

For many people being put on hold is just a fact of life. Do we really need to suffer through mediocre music and poor vocal quality sound?

Capitalize on your brands uniqueness by investing in a Professional Voiceover to integrate your Audio Output. How can you implement simple and cost-effective changes to your voice branding that will make you stand out from the crowd?

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A Pause for Thought: Reflection on my business in 2013

I began the year with a post that proved itself very popular, and still attracts many readers. It details some of my efforts for focus and success in my VO career, and indeed my life, for what was then the coming new year of 2013. I'm going to end it by sharing some of the valuable lessons I have learned, the highs, the lows, the exciting and the mundane.

Firstly, no matter how hard I try, I lose my focus, and waiver from time to time. This makes it ultra-essential that I ensure  I have  my goals and aspirations written down somewhere, and displayed in a prominent place, so that when life settles down after a period of craziness, I can quickly reaffirm or reassess my targets. Along the way this year I have certainly taken time to  re-visit my values for my business, and my life in general.

A major success for me this year was establishing a new social forum for Voiceover Artists in the UK. Rather discouragingly though, as a result of that creation,  I became bullied both online and off.  Much soul searching and  confidence re-building was required. Now as I reflect upon that messiness, I can see that it was an excellent opportunity for me to connect with people who count.  Many, many kind and good people came to my aide and offered support privately, both professional VO's, and some very highly respected producers, whom I had not worked with or encountered directly before. Another kind soul, in an effort to cheer me up, sent me a link to a video of an interview with US talent Lisa Biggs. Her positive attitude and sunny outlook seemed like the perfect antidote to my current predicament, and the long and the short of it is, that after being asked to contribute as a guest blogger to the, I was invited by Lisa to become a part of the unique boutique of formidable female VO talent that is the Voxy Ladies. They really are an incredible, uplifting, talented and dedicated bunch of women, and I am thrilled to be a member (you can enter our fabulous Christmas competition here.)

Another major shift for me has been my encounters with Audiobook Narration. It is hard to believe as I work towards completing my tenth book, that I hadn't even started this time last year: audiobook narration was merely a potential conquest on the horizon. Fiction, non-fiction, romance, children's, Young Adult, paranormal, thrillers; you name it, I feel like I have done it! I love that I am constantly learning: technology, pacing, technique and accents. And it feels great that I am now officially reach the criteria to be a member go the APA (Audiobook Publishers Association), and AudioFile.

Other developments: I am a Sound Woman; I attended the inaugural annual event for Sound Women at the BBC earlier this year. I have learnt to use new software, conquered Punch and roll, developed my editing skills and knowledge. I have streamlined my business accounts by using Quickbooks online system, as recommended at VOX 2013, of which I was a proud sponsor this year to boot. I have mentored several fledgling Voiceover artists, encouraging them to broaden their horizons, and I have more VO buddies than ever before. I have changed from a PC to Mac, and I have upgraded my booth. I have changed my travel set-up, and invested in a new mic. I trained in Gaming Voice work & ADR for film and television. I have new representation in the States, and I continue to work on pleasing my regular clients by providing top-notch audio with and without ISDN. I've worked on some projects which have quite literally made my spine-tingle when I've seen and heard them.

My goals have helped me achieve all of this, and given me something to focus on during the harder times.You never know where a Journey will take you, and sometimes just over the horizon of a rocky bit of the path where you wonder if you can be bothered to go on at all, will be a gleaming reward. Or so it seems to me.

I'm already making plans for the what, when and how's of my work for 2014. Do you know where you are planning to head?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Software Shenanigans

I did it. I swapped from a PC to a Mac! Yay! Go me!

Please don't think this was on a whim. No. I have procrastinated over this for a very, very long time, and decided I would wait until my PC finally, utterly and devastatingly let me down.

I hate change. One of the main things that had held me back from changing previously was the all-consuming fear of having to change my preferred recording software. Until now, Audacity, the freebie DAW (that is Digital Audio Workstation, or for those of you less well-aquainted with technical terms, the place on the screen where the squiggles appear when you talk into the
microphone, which you can then cut and paste to get improved results) had done me proud. Audacity was simple. There was nothing fancy, it did what I needed, it recorded my voice, and I could edit, I could compress, and normalise and all the basic tools were there for shorter jobs.

And then I tried Twisted Wave on my iPad. It is so quick, easy and intuitive, I began to wonder how awesome it must be on the Mac...I read comment after comment on Twitter about fellow VO's being pleased with it, and I grew curious, and ready to make a change. Having done so, I can confirm that it works very well: it is a clever, easy to understand piece of software that is the ultimate in simplicity, and for day to day work, it is currently my preferred tool.

However, recently my work has taken me further and further into the world of Audiobooks. With long form narration, comes the absolute necessity to cut down on editing time. Every minute, every second of your time counts when you have 14 to 16 hours of finished material to lay down and then edit.

I had heard of the legendary Punch-and-Roll system available on Pro-Tools, but I have to date felt that whilst I am proficient at editing, it is not my field of expertise or passion. Me, I'm all about the Voice work.  When necessary, I would rather outsource extensive production to an engineer gifted in that area, and as a result I have felt reluctant to tie myself in to a monthly fee with Pro-Tools (I could be wrong, but I believe it is a piece of software that you pay for monthly to lease, and there is no option to own it). Little did I know that there were much cheaper options out there. And then I stumbled upon a solution that is free!

Pro Sonus Studio One is a popular choice with Audiobook Narrators, since you can use what they term 'Pre-roll' to playback and then 'drop-in' and record over the top of previous error (i.e. you hear a brief portion of the correct sentence you last spoke before you flubbed, immediately before you can re-record a new version of the next sentence) . Meaning that when you get to the end of your long narration, since you have taken the time to record immediately over your mistakes, you are left with a seamless recording of the entire chapter you have been working on, and no unwanted extras. I can't tell you the hours this saves in editing. Ofcourse, you still need to listen through for pops and clicks and breath and movement noise, but you know that  all the right words are there, in the right order. You can have faith that you have managed to achieve the same tone and pacing that you used first time around, because you have created it all 'in the moment'. Pro Sonus offer various levels of their software, but the Studio One Free version does absolutely fine for getting you started, in a cost-conscious way.

Which software do you love, and why?

Right, enough studio-avoidance. That book series won't narrate itself. Off to the glorified cupboard I go.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Mouth noise - the bane of a Voice Actor's life.

My last post was all about how great it was to take some time out this summer, and boy, am I glad I did! Since the day after that post, until now, I have been flying by the seat of my narrator's chair to get project after project completed.  Lots of lovely IVR for a major high street retail, some fabulous corporate videos for new clients in Europe, and four separate Audiobooks, some self-produced, some recorded elsewhere, on top of my usual client list for ISDN work. I completed all my long-form work two days ago, and my corrections and pick-ups. Phew. I'm done!
(Here's a little pic of me hard at work.)

One of the things that strikes me about the longer narration pieces, is the responsibility the VO or Narrator has to keen their mouth clean, in order to provide as clear and concise a read as possible. And it is not a simple as it seems. There is definitely far more discipline and awareness required than on shorter commercial pieces.

Some people swear by eating an apple between recording segments. For me, this just ends with apple skin irritatingly stuck in my teeth. Some like to drink apple juice. That works ok, but I find I can only drink so much, and needing the ladies room an awful lot. And of course, there is water. Obviously keeping yourself hydrated means that your mouth won't sound dry and sticky, but personally I find that water is better as a something to drink during the days leading up to mammoth recording sessions to ensure my body is about as hydrated as it can be. If I drink too much whilst 'on the job', my mouth noise takes on a different quality. Finding a balance is all important, if you want to save hours of editing on the other side.

I've recently seen people blogging about a quirt of lemon juice, and have yet to give that a go. Already my taste buds are popping at the very thought of the sharp tang. I have been trying out different juices and foods, and I think I've found my very own recipe for success. I like to use a chewing gum as a quick fix (this is far easier to do when recording solo, as it would be a little bit
gross to remove gum in an outside studio!),. My preference is Wrigley's Extra Peppermint Sugar Free Gum. And then recently I found what has become my golden elixir for Voiceover work: Tropicana Orange and Mango Juice. For some reason it seems to soothe the throat when it begins to tire, and cleans my palate, ready for lots more clean talking (or not so clean, depending on how raunchy the bedroom scene in the novel I'm narrating is!)

What do you use? Are you aware of your mouth noise, or trusting an engineer to pick it up and clean up the mess you made? I'd love to hear other people's special recipes for success.