Directing voices: a beginners guide to the suite stuff

Directing voices: a beginners guide to the suite stuff

When you’re playing with a layout, a shot or a sound effect, life’s pretty straightforward. Reduce the opacity by 25%, you’re 25% less opaque. Zoom in to cut out the tree; no tree. Add a quack; you’ve got a duck.

But when you’re dealing with a voice, your artist’s clay is human material, with all its magic, its foibles, its ego, insecurities, emotion and inspiration.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you may end up with an embarrassing .wav where your Orca should be. But get it right (get it right, my friends) and you may just end up with an inspired voice artist, an impressed Creative Director, a happy client and a very good time along the way.

So what do you say and do to get your voice artist to deliver the performance you have in your head? How do you get them to perform beyond the brief and bring their own magic to your work? And finally, how do you do this while being respectful to your voice talent, so you all leave feeling good?

To help you handle your first voice bookings like a pro, we’ve spoken with six of Auckland’s busiest voice artists – three new to the market and three of the top brass – and asked them what helps them deliver their best. We’re keeping them anonymous to protect the innocent.

1) Do you like to receive the script before the session, in reception, or in the session?

Both old and new voice artists alike agree that in most cases, they like to receive scripts either in the session or in reception immediately beforehand. Fresh is best.

The exceptions to this are if you’re after an accent or something particularly character-driven – then try to get the script to them a day or two ahead of time.

2) Do you prefer to give a read or two before receiving direction, or get direction straight off?

Our voices are pretty relaxed about this, but note that their first reads may offer you something unexpected and worthwhile. Unless you’re very committed to a certain style of read, consider hearing where their instincts naturally take them before feeding in your own direction.

Your engineer will want to “set levels”, and will ask the voice to read a few lines so they can do this. This is a great chance to hear your voice artist’s first impulses.

Once you’ve heard that first read and levels are set, it’s a good time to say a few words to indicate the feel of the piece and the character you’d like (even for a straight read), if this differs from what they’ve given you.

3) Any worries about receiving direction from multiple people within the session?

Although the newbies say they’re pretty happy hearing from a lot of people in the booking, the old hands point out that this can cause some problems. Multiple visions can lead to a dull and diluted end product, and direction from multiple people can be contradictory. Try to have one person lead the session. “In the rare case of contradictory direction, a voice wants to know who is ultimately calling the shots”.

4) What helps make direction clear and easy to follow?

Start by giving an overview of the feel of the piece, and let your voice artist give you a read. Then deliver up to around three pieces of specific direction each time you want to change the performance.

Specific direction could be to do with the mood, such as “Less energy, more dreamy” or “imagine you’re telling your best friend a secret”, or it could be to do with finer points of the read, such as “can you emphasise the price points more”, “can we get a micropause after that question” or “can you go up at the end of that line”.

Up to around three pieces of new direction each time is easily doable for our voices; too much more and it can get difficult to remember. You can give a little more if your feedback is easy to note – for example if you want a word emphasised, the voice artist can underline the word. The more experienced your voice, the more direction they’re likely to be able to handle at a time.

Be respectful, but make sure you are honest and clear. Beating around the bush won’t help anyone.

If you’re struggling to identify in words what it is you want, you can ask your engineer to play back a previous take to show the artist something you’d like them to change or bring back into their read.

5) Is it good for creatives to perform the script for you to mimic?

No. For three reasons:

If you’re a not a voice artist, chances are you don’t sound the way you think you sound. Oft is the time a creative has read their script in a monotone and told a voice to “say it like that”.

Secondly, it shackles the voice artist, and removes the opportunity for them to bring their own natural rhythm and magic to the read.

And thirdly, it can be insulting. You’ve hired a professional who can interpret a script for him or herself. Let them do what they do.

If things are going belly up and you can’t find another way to communicate how you would like the read (and it’s the apocalypse, and the zombies are coming,) then act out how you would like the read. But if fewer than two of these things are happening, try to find another way to direct your voice.

6) What are the best ways to get you to add your own creative value to the process?

Make your vision clear to your voice artist. Once you’ve entered a shared imaginary world where your voice artist has a growing sense of the character they’re playing, the world they’re in and the feel of the piece, then they have the freedom to play around within this. For most voices, this is a great pleasure and it’s where the magic happens.

More than anything, create a relaxed and positive environment where it’s okay for your voice to take a risk, and where their input is welcome.

And finally, feel free to ask “is there anything else you’d like to try?”

7) What makes for the best sessions, where you feel you are able to give the most?

Our voice artists love a relaxed session with laughs, freedom to play and improvise, a confident director, a great script, and a bunch of people who enjoy the work and want to make it the best it can be.

8) Are there any blunders people make that make it harder for you to give your best performance?

Leaving Talkback (the thing that lets your voice artist hear what you’re saying in the suite) off between takes can make a voice feel self-conscious – and it can be uncomfortable waiting alone in a dead-silent room. As much as possible, avoid doing this.

Try not to come in with an over-written script. If you want to squeeze 45” worth of script into a 30” commercial, it will cost you in the performance. Read your script aloud in a performance voice and time how long it takes. Remember, emphasis and performance usually make a script longer, so read it like you mean it.

Give feedback. Silence after a read, or too many “okay lets go again” requests without saying what you want to be different can make voices uncomfortable, and kill energy and creative momentum.

But by and large, relax. The voices couldn’t think of many major blunders they encounter.

9) If you think you can do it better, do you speak up?

Yes, our voices will speak up. They’re there to do the best job they can.

10) If you have an idea for another way you could perform the script, do you speak up?

Not always. If the politics in the suite are heated or time doesn’t allow, our voices are less likely to suggest alternative directions. But if it seems appropriate, most voices (especially the more experienced ones) will offer another option for performance, if they think this could add value.

11) Any difference in how you want to be directed for straight reads vs. character reads?

The old voices say no, same thing. For both, they want to hear a general direction on the character of the piece and the character you want them to deliver, and then drill down to any specifics.

But the new voices say “yes”. They’re open to receiving more technical direction for straight reads (“pitch it higher”, “emphasise the product name”), and want to receive “acting” style direction for a character read (“you’re trying to suppress a giggle”, “you’re an exhausted, frustrated mother”)

In summary, direct both straight reads and character reads the same way, and feel free to give technical direction as and when it’s needed.

12) Any other tips?

A tip from one of our experienced voices: “Voice work is mostly about good casting. If you’ve got the right person in the booth and the script is well written, the job does itself without too much direction at all. Have fun!”

And one more bonus tip from our newer voices:
13) How important to your performance is it that you feel confident/relaxed? Is there anything people can do to help you feel this way?
The answer is, it’s really important. If a voice feels relaxed and confident, they’re usually able to deliver a far better performance. They remember direction better, they’re able to give a more focused, accurate, nuanced, full and free performance, and if improvisation or ad lib can contribute to your piece, they’re in a much better position to give you this, too.

So how do you help your voice artist feel confident and relaxed? Normal human stuff. Be glad to meet them, treat them with respect, and understand you are collaborating with a skilled and talented creative colleague who can bring a lot to your project. This will all go a long way to getting you the best performance possible.

Now go forth and record with gusto, confidence and joy! We look forward to working with you.

Many thanks to the voice artists who helped us with this piece.

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