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Union and non-union jobs have always been two separate markets. Non-union work is more visible and attractive today when compared to years ago, due to online casting. The availability of professional talent for non-union work has led to a reshaping of the voice over industry. An open market means that each professional voice actor sets their own rate based on what they need to cover.
As the engineer, your key job is to select and set up the recording space, choose and position the microphone, set levels and make sure you're recording a good, clean signal at a healthy level. Like music, the louder the signal you want to record, the less audible the noise floor, but you don't want to have to speak louder than sounds natural, and you don't want to overcook things when tracking: any distortion will be very noticeable on an exposed voice part, and an otherwise great take with digital clipping won't be acceptable. If you notice clipping only when you start editing, software clip restoration tools might help to make the take usable, but it's not going to be perfect. Remember that although you may have needed to record 'hot' on analogue tape and older 16‑bit digital recording systems, modern 24‑bit A‑D converters can accommodate a much wider dynamic range, so you no longer have to track so loud: you can leave much more headroom.
Before you get down to the nitty-gritty, though, I recommend doing a test recording to ensure your equipment works properly and your audio levels are strong. You don’t need to record the entire script, but a few paragraphs will give you enough to ensure that the audio is clear, at an appropriate level, and doesn’t include any stray or ambient noises.
It's a good idea to record with one ear free from your headphones, as this helps you to deliver a more natural performance.When recording solo, I find the role of director the hardest to play. How can you lose yourself in the moment if you're on the lookout for mistakes? If you stop each time you mispronounce a word or use the wrong intonation, your spoken‑word recording will sound choppy and unnatural. It's for this reason that I like to record each job twice. The first time, I push the director out of the room and focus on the message. If possible, I even let the soundtrack of the video I'm narrating play quietly in my headphones, and I don't stop for mistakes any more than I would if I were telling a story to a friend. During the second take, I let the director back into the room, to make sure I pronounce everything correctly and emphasise the correct information — though I still try to keep the performance honest and natural.
"We recorded two or three takes of each story, and within those takes there were some pick‑ups [overdubs] for certain lines. When I was editing, I used takes that gave the best delivery, had the least movement or other noise, and provided the most provoking images. In some cases [we used] the first take. Sometimes, after saying a line over and over, one starts to lose the meaning of the line. Pick‑ups should go back to the top of the sentence, making editing much easier.”
Recording voice overs like a pro isn’t that difficult when you know how to do it. You may have noticed that the actual recording part plays little part when compared to the preparation. Taking the proper steps before you hit the record button and then taking the time to edit your audio appropriately will go a long way to ensuring your voice overs sound professional and engaging.
One of the most important rules is to ensure you value yourself as a professional. If you undervalue your own service it can be hard to later charge for the correct rates. A professional voice-over should cost a minimum amount, even if you’re new. If you allow clients to low-ball your work from the outset it will continue to set the expectation that they can get a voiceover from you on the cheap. This can then mean the difference between making a living and paying bills or not.
This is the number-one issue most people bring up when they discover they have to do voice over work for their video. Let’s face it. Most of us rarely have to hear our own voices in audio recordings. We’re used to the rich, warm sound of our own voices in our own ears. There’s no way around the fact that you sound different on recording that you do to yourself.
A demo recording of you doing voice-over work is your CV and your business card combined. If you're applying for a voice-over job, you can send the potential customer your demo via the Internet. Ideally you have multiple demos for different types of gigs. For commercials, clients want to hear 60 to 90 seconds of voice work. If you're auditioning as an audiobook reader, five minutes of demo proves that you can stay in character over a longer stretch of time.
Working with a top voiceover agency can bring you a steady stream of well paid work. The top voiceover agencies, like Hobsons in London or Abrams in NY and LA, have an elite set of voice actors as well as recognised visual actors who do voiceover. These top agencies are hard to get into though. They only take the very best established voice talent.
Always keep it professional. A client may not have a budget that works within your rates presently, but one day they may have a project with a much larger budget and think of you as the talent to circle back to! It never hurts to politely decline when a project has too low of a rate and exclaim, “I would love to work with you in the future when our rates align!”
At this point — unless you're tracking for broadcast applications (where they don't work to peak levels) — consider 'normalising' your recording to an optimal level. Normalisation can be used to push the loudest peak to around ‑1dB and increase the volume of the entire recording by the same ratio. Of course, you can also tighten up dynamic range (the difference between the softest and loudest parts of your recording) by manually reducing the loudest sections of the recording before you apply normalisation. On a final note, if you do plan to use a compressor, then you might as well add gain at that stage instead of normalising.