What's the reality of becoming a professional voice actor today?
This in-depth interview with Kenneth Bryant is crammed with critical insights about becoming a voice-over talent.
Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of people that work in the worldwide voice-over industry. For some, it represents a full-time career. For others, it means an additional income stream ranging from occasional to consistent part-time hours.
Of course, we live in a world where not all things are equal. Some voice-over talents work exceptionally hard to get commissioned for only a handful of jobs per year. Others are consistently sought-after and earn 6 figure incomes.
Virtually everyone who works in the voice-over industry operates on a freelance, self-employed or sole proprietorship basis. Based on conversations we've had with many hundreds of voices, we know it takes 5-10 years for voice-over jobs to become a consistent revenue stream. Despite the many hurdles and challenges, thousands of newcomers embark on their voice-over journey for the first time every year.
There is no single rulebook or defining a set of principles that will guarantee any degree of success in the world of performing arts. For many, working in the creative industry is a pilgrimage of self-exploration. What's familiar to almost everyone are the “home truths” – the undeniable facts and realities that anyone must face to break into the voice acting world.
As the co-founder of Voquent, I know a few things about the business of the voice-over industry, but I've never worked as a voice actor myself. I wanted to learn from the best, so I sat down with veteran American voice actor Kenneth Bryant who was kind enough to share his experience and advice. His candid insights are refreshing to hear in a world where people are sold the idea that they can be anything they want if only they think hard, believe in themselves and pay a monthly subscription.
Miles: Thanks for taking the time out to speak with me, Kenneth!
Kenneth: Absolutely, It's my pleasure.
Miles: Everyone who’s found success in the voice acting industry has a unique story to tell, no single journey is the same. How did you get into the world of voice-overs?
Kenneth: Well, first off, I can tell you that I am the extreme exception, not the rule.
It's critical to understand that today's voice-over industry had evolved far beyond when I first got into the business, and my case is singular and quite lucky.
You see, truthfully, I had never considered it at all when I was younger. Over my life, I've worked in many different career fields. Like anyone. All of that was great, but through it all, I've always enjoyed performing.
In my life, I've been in dozens of stage shows and other dramatic presentations. It was hard work without a doubt, but the rush I got when I was on stage was like nothing else. Along with all these live productions, I fell into doing voice over work when I worked for AAFES (the Army/Air Force Exchange Service) – at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I was working at Central Checkout at the Post Exchange on a military base. A combination of all retail outlets because service members constantly move in and need to set up their households. I was ringing up groceries, sporting goods, housewares, furniture, TV's/Stereos, etc.
This was back when scanners were first introduced too!
The Clock tower at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
I was Constantly calling over the PA for price checks, and about a month into working there, the Front End Manager told me that Mr Hodge, the Exchange manager, wanted to see me. It turns out he liked how I sounded voicing the price check announcements, and he wanted me to take over the Exchange spot promos from him.
He asked me if I thought I could take the daily and weekly ad flyers, make up the promos, and record them. It was new to me. He led me to this little room that had an old Dictaphone type recorder in it. I remember it had a tiny mic, and the device itself recorded up to 20 separate 30-second tracks. He showed me how to use it, handed me the flyer, and stepped out.
I spent many hours recording spot promos for the Exchange. I remember getting very creative with them and having a lot of fun doing it. I wanted to stay with it too, but life happens, you know?
I ended up drifting away from my stage work, finished college, got other jobs, got married and raised a family. What led me back into voice-over started with a tragic event. My Father had a heart attack in the hospital when he went in for a stent replacement in May of 2016. I remember rushing there to be at his side while he recovered. It was great to be there for him.
During those weeks, we watched those World War II documentaries on TV. I remember mentioning to Dad how it would be something to be the narrator on those documentary shows. I remember his response was so simple, “Why don't you? You could do that. You always loved that stuff.”
I remember snapping to that, thinking, “I can do that”. I had just retired from my law enforcement career and looked toward what to do next in my life. Returning to VO work felt so right at that moment that it lit a fire in me, a burning, unstoppable motivation to pursue it. When I got home, I started researching it online and gathering the materials to make it happen. I knew it would be a difficult and long road, but I was determined to succeed.
Since then, by working every day of the week, I've produced audio for radio and TV commercials, numerous other business/commercial endeavours, animations, video games, podcasts, and many audiobooks. I've recorded for major worldwide corporations like Mars, Unitron Discover, Dassault Systemes, Swiffer, Sartorius, Mariott Renaissance Hotels, and a veritable host of smaller businesses!
It's been a fantastic journey.
Miles: There are frequent debates about how much 'natural talent' is required to carve out a career in voice-overs. What would you say are the most common misconceptions about the baseline aptitude necessary to build a career as a voice actor?
Kenneth: I'd say the most common misconception is that having a great voice is all it takes to succeed in VO.
Speaking well is critical to VO work, but that is only the most basic starting point. The fact is a voice-over is a form of performance work and dramatic presentation. Acting skills are, and the ability to perform in a studio environment is required. This may seem overstated, but, truthfully, it isn't.
Being able to sit in front of a microphone and perform a host of different vocal styles and accents with a sound engineer, director, and clients watching you is not as easy as it sounds. This holds true for personal recording booths as well because directed sessions are typical in VO work. Many clients want to listen to you in real-time as you record their scripts to offer direction. The experience is akin to being on camera or stage. It can be daunting!
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A certain temperament is required as well—a high degree of patience and the ability to be brutally honest with yourself over your performances. Many takes are often needed to get what the client wants, and revisions of scripts or your previous variations are standard.
It's part of doing the job. I always suggest aspiring talents seek some initial coaching and sit in a studio to gauge if they have the aptitude.
And I always advise them all to be honest with themselves and listen to their coaches feedback.
Running a VO business is expensive – start-up costs included. Aspiring talents need to be sure they have the temperament and performance talent before investing their money.
The next most common misconception is that success is virtually guaranteed if you have the talent. That in a short time, they'll be the new “Voice of GEICO” by just recording on their iPhones! And as incredible as that sounds, it isn't true at all, I'm afraid.
It can take years of work to win your first audition for a job worth a few hundred dollars.
Miles: Many hopefuls are told that they have a “nice voice” or even a “great voice' but don't realize that access to professional studio equipment plays a vital role in getting the best jobs. What advice would you give to someone who needs to prepare some professionally recorded audio for the first time?
Kenneth: The role of proper equipment and recording environment is vital to voice-over work. Creating a quiet, carefully soundproofed space to record is job number one! A good condenser microphone with a pop filter, a mic stand with a boom arm, good headphones, a good audio interface, and a computer with recording software loaded is the next step. A quick note here, condenser microphones are what you need for VO work, and there are many options.
To specifically answer your question, there are two ways. Both require work and money and will take time to put together, one more so than the other.
The first way, getting some coaching, as I mentioned earlier, to determine your aptitude. Constructing and equipping a quality recording booth can be done for around $1,000 if you do it yourself. You'll need to spend time learning how to edit and master your audio files with your recording software once you get it all set up. Don't skip this.
The second way? Again, get some coaching! Then go to a recording studio near you and pay to use their studio and an audio engineer to edit and master your recording. This way can be faster, but it can be costly – studio rates, engineer's rates, etc.
So, the real takeaway for either option is to be prepared to spend money and time to create your first professional quality audio files.
Miles: How long did it take you to get established and to consider voiceover work as a consistent source of revenue?
Kenneth: Fortunately, because of my theatre background and my experience doing VO work for AAFES, I was able to hit the ground running when I started my business back in 2016. I've achieved great strides in the past four years, and I'm very proud of my work. But, I've had to make tremendous sacrifices to make it happen. I've had to work every single day since then to achieve my success. Many days I'm in my booth all day long. It's taken me four years to get where I am today, working every day of the week. It's exhausting sometimes, but the rewards are amazing!
Miles: What budget advice would you give to someone who wants to set up a professional home studio recording environment?
Kenneth: Save your money. Good VO equipment is expensive. Few people can immediately pay upfront for everything. Research your recording set-up well. You'll need the quietest possible environment and then soundproof it even further. You'll need money for the materials. Now there are many different options and brands for setting up a home studio, and some are less expensive than others. You'll have to do your research to find what fits your budget.
You don't necessarily need to invest in a pro home studio like Kenneth's straight away.
Miles: Creating a sustainable freelance career takes discipline and determination. If you were to suggest a legitimate daily routine for a voice acting professional, what would that be?
Kenneth: Most aspiring talents already have jobs while pursuing a career in voice acting work, and what is required is setting aside time before and after your day job to follow it. Discipline yourself to get up earlier and stay awake later. It means staying frosty and alert when you sit down in front of your microphone because you'll need to be able to affect many vocal characteristics for different projects. Additionally, you'll need to take good care of yourself because this new regimen can be stressful.
Stay hydrated always as well. Being dehydrated is bad for your vocal performance. Make time before and after your job to record and submit auditions and to learn about the industry. Section out tasks so it isn't overwhelming. Posting about your work on social media, learning new techniques, pursuing alternative sources of employment, reading your current professional VO trends, keeping your books, etc.
I get up early in the morning and immediately check my email about my website activity and auditions, and I jump on them asap.
I work on active jobs in between auditions and respond to emails and messages from potential clients and colleagues. I also write posts or articles or make time for video promotions. Scheduling directed sessions, networking events or meetings with clients, looking over my website and updating files, working on blog post drafts, etc.
Phew! I do these daily in a rotating fashion. Some duties will require more attention than others. For instance, weekends slow up on the audition postings, so instead,, I'll focus on awarded work or advertising or any of the above administrative tasks I listed.
The business requires daily attention. The key is to be diligent in your approach and flexible to whatever opportunities present themselves. For instance, there are times when I get awarded big jobs like an audiobook or high paying jobs in the business/commercial realm with a quick turnaround time. So, I set everything aside to begin rehearsing, preparing, and recording that job immediately.
Miles: We all deal with quiet periods from time to time. What methods or inspirations do you draw upon to stay productive during those times?
Kenneth: I keep my eyes on the long term goal. I want to be successful in this industry to leave behind a good legacy for my family, and if I leave behind a significant body of work, then that's icing on the cake.
I think everyone wants to be successful, and there are many ways to achieve it. The key is to remember your personal reasons for the efforts you make.
Miles: Everyone who’s achieved success in the entertainment industry has a formula for dealing with regular rejection. What’s yours?
Kenneth: I do the best job I can at every audition. I submit it, then I forget about it and move on to the next one.
The simple fact is this the voice-over industry is FIERCELY competitive. For the 500 or so jobs (sometimes more, sometimes less) posted every day, there are over 10.000+ serious professional voice talents competing for them.
So, this reality is the bitter pill to swallow that is simply a part of this industry. I know that I'm not going to get hired for every job.
Worse, I'll never know why clients rejected my audition. There is rarely feedback. I just didn't get the job.
I audition over and over again every day. Every day, I put in as many Broadcast Ready auditions for as many posted jobs as possible with the “Submit it and forget it” mentality firmly in place.
And it isn’t easy, especially when I have existing (awarded) work to record, but it still has to be done. It’s just part of the job for many reasons. Mostly, they don’t have the time to send an email to the 100+ voice actors who didn’t get the gig. They only have time to email the 101st voice actor who did get the job, and most likely, he submitted his audition before the majority arrived.
Casting directors can’t listen to every audition, so submitting mine quickly or even first is critical.
Casting, marketing, creative directors, recording studio reps, and their clients are professional people, and they all have their jobs to do.
They might not contact me until months after they posted the job if I won the audition. All the more reason to submit as many as I can every day to build up a consistent return on my effort.
Being a success in anything (including VO) requires dedication.
Miles: It can be challenging to get feedback as a voice actor. What do you do to perfect your craft?
Kenneth: I listen to my competitors work, watch videos they've posted, and read up constantly on developments in the industry. I've learned many new recording techniques this way.
I also listen very carefully to what my clients have to say about my work and make adjustments as needed. I read the reviews on my various audiobooks as well. I've gotten solid feedback on my performances from these.
Above all, I am very self-critical of my work. Every VO job has its way to be read, and if a take doesn't sound right, has plosives, excessive sibilance, or a mouth click that I can't edit out, I record it over again.
Sometimes I do this many times until I get the performance that resonates with me.
Miles: What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of being a professional voice actor?
Kenneth: Being able to fulfil my creative potential. There's nothing else like it. It's tremendously satisfying to work with other creatives/artists/authors/clients to be a small part of their project.
Being privy to the proprietary work before its widespread release and being periodically asked my thoughts on it overall is even better when they listen and implement my feedback into the project. Wonderful.
I love playing various characters in an audiobook, especially the villains. It's like being on stage again! I'm doing what I love to do. It's amazing.
Miles: Lastly, if you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Kenneth: Ahh, if only we all had the benefit of hindsight, right? I would've ordered my younger self to stay with AAFES and continue working on my voice-over career. I know it would've led to bigger and better things in the voice-over industry, and I would be so much further along now.
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